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Before They Are Hanged review

Sex, violence and surprises in part two of swords-and-secrets saga

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Gollancz

448 pages • £9.99

ISBN: 978-0-575-07787-4

Rating:

The first book in this series introduced us to a mob of characters that departed from conventional stereotypes – the populace of Fantasy Land wryly twisted. You may forget the details of The Contest (a fencing competition), but the characters of Jezal (spoilt aristo dueller), Glotka (grotesque inquisitor crippled by torture) and Major West (trusted career soldier with a wicked temper) remain lodged in your skull.

The second leg delivers more of the same. This follow-up is crammed with unexpected betrayals, murders and liaisons, often catching us off guard. Our heroes, mostly witnessed at home last year, are flung way out of their comfort zones into near-impossibly hard situations. Now they struggle and change with circumstance, in some cases evolving into very different individuals from those we knew before.

It’s a three-stranded story: Glotka – still the most enjoyable read – defends a southern city against an overwhelming force; meanwhile West is fighting in the north; and Jezal and Ninefingers traipse across lifeless plains on a quest with magus Bayaz.

We’re right there in the heads of these dudes, thanks to the author’s style of showcasing their thoughts. His knowing turn of phrase means that situations often appear ironic, with peripheral characters verging on the Dickensian – the Union soldiers in particular are close to parody (“If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed”).

Being the middle book in a saga results in a transitional feel, and some questions remain unanswered. There are only a few genuine nail-biting set-piece scenes, but this remains marvellously self-aware character-driven stuff. Those of a sensitive nature might baulk at the bad language or the disembowelings, but it’s all part of the flow of the story. Fingers crossed for a cracking resolution in next year’s third and final instalment.

Dave Bradley

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