Trying to review the middle book of a trilogy mirrors, I suspect, writing that second book. Before They Are Hanged, the second book in Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series, attempts to perform a delicate balancing act between the trope-busting first book and what is to follow—developing the story and characters constructively without appearing to have a middle book just to milk sales. Often, the middle book is awkward, not being the beginning or the end, especially when the overall plan is to have essentially a novel in three parts instead of a series that grows organically (like, for instance, the Foundation series). Fortunately, Before They Are Hanged does not suffer overly from Jan Brady syndrome.
To recap where we are at the end of the first novel: The Union is at war with its northern neighbors, its southernmost city appears to be on the verge of attack from its southern neighbors, and a quest has been put together by a magician to find the epic item that will save The Union from certain doom. Note that I'm synopsizing with tongue in cheek, in part to keep from revealing spoilers about the lovely first novel and to set up what I am going to say about the second novel; nonetheless, that one-sentence review is accurate. In that first novel, The Blade Itself, Abercrombie spends a great deal of time developing characters and apparently not worrying so much about the plot of the book. The second novel reveals that appearances can be deceiving, and that the fairly formulaic plot of the first book just lays the groundwork for some unexpected twists later on.
Before They Are Hanged still relies heavily on characterization, as the chapters' point of view alternates among a number of the main characters in the novel. Abercrombie gives each of them an individual voice, an individual way of seeing their world. As a result, the readers' view of that world is probably much clearer than it would be otherwise. We know that the Union is not a good place, merely a better place than the alternatives being offered by its neighbors. Similarly, we note that the characters are well-rounded, having both handsome and ugly traits—none of the perfect specimens from classic epic fantasy need apply: these are people with good and bad traits all about them. There is still the upward movement of some of the characters that can be found from epic fantasy—generally speaking, some of the characters seem to be on the path to becoming more likable and heroic, but it is not a startling change, happening slowly as a response to their environments rather than as a life-changing epiphany. Jezal begins this second book just as much a pompous ass as he was in The Blade Itself, but events and other characters act on him to make him realize his life is not a good one despite its trappings. Sometimes Abercrombie is a bit heavy-handed with this conversion—explicitly stating that it is happening rather than letting the novel show it—but it is far more delicately handled than in the usual epic fantasy. In fact, that there is any movement at all is something of an irregularity, and Abercrombie is downright delicate in comparison to most other novels that make an attempt.
Similarly, the relatively minor character Ferro makes some progress in her ability to have dealings with other people, almost against her will. When the novel uses her as its point of view, she seems nearly split in half, trying to figure out why her body is acting in a way that is completely different from the way she thinks about the people around her. She still thinks of them in horrible terms, but she acts more like a companion with them, betraying her thoughts…or perhaps belying them. And that equivocation is a balancing point, one of the many in the novel, from which my delight in this novel hangs. Similarly, Glokta finds himself doing things for all the right reasons and constantly upbraiding himself for being so stupid as to think he should care what anyone thinks, as though he is becoming a better person despite himself.
In the long run, this movement is a little troublesome—seeming to indicate to me that the book will end up with everyone being in a happy place and better than they were when the series started. And that would be disappointing, given how well the bad characters are drawn. There seems to be, if I may be so generic, four ways a character is developed in the course of a novel. A good character remains good, a good character goes bad, a bad character goes good, and a bad character remains bad. Usually, the bad character remaining bad is the province of the antagonists of the epic fantasy and has come to be expected. But it is rare to see bad characters being protagonists that I fervently hope Abercrombie chooses the least likely path for a protagonist, that we don't like him and by the end of the series, we still wouldn't care to meet him. Making—and keeping—your protagonists unlikeable is a neat trick.
But it's the movement of the plot that really set Before They Are Hanged apart from the standard tropes. I'm struggling hard not to reveal spoilers, so I apologize for the generic statement to follow: it simply does not go anywhere I have seen a fantasy novel go. I was blown away by the climax of a major plotline. All the plotlines maintain my interest and make me think about the novel and genre in delightful ways, but one of the three main ones…just wow. I'm already tearing up the third book to find out the repercussions of that twist.
And therein lies the best recommendation I can give: Before They Are Hanged made me desperately want to read the next book. Second best: it also makes me want to take time off from work to finish it.