Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Before They Are Hanged

by Joe Abercrombie


"Back to the mud" is the way Joe Abercrombie's rugged Northmen describe death. There's certainly plenty of mud in Before They Are Hanged. Battlefields are places of filth and sudden death, and the armies beside them are plagued by disease, cold and hunger. Honour and glory are little more than distant delusions, like the stories people tell their children to get them to sleep.

This book follows four groups of people, each with a different set of battles to fight. In the north the band led by Threetrees is busy avoiding Bethod's armies. Their best hope seems to be to join the Union in order to wage war against their common enemy. But they get short shrift from the army they are trying to help.

Meanwhile Major West is facing bickering and clueless superiors who are in charge of drafted soldiers who in some cases barely have the strength to stand, much less to fight. The Crown Prince Ladisla is a fop, interested in clothes and fine food, and obsessed with boasting about leading a glorious charge. Ladisla's incompetence and inexperience is likely to cost the lives of his men, and West can see it coming but do nothing to prevent a disaster.

Sand dan Glokta is in the southern city of Dagoska, facing an equally inevitable defeat. Enemies are all around him, but he can't seem to get any of them to talk. The torturer is in charge of rooting out treachery, discovering who killed the previous inquisitor, and defending the city against Gurkish invaders. His view of the hot, stinking city and his precarious position in it makes for colourful reading. It's hard to imagine a more cynical character, and his observations add a fabulously dark and humorous vein to Before They Are Hanged.

Bayaz, the Magus, is leading an expedition to the far reaches of the known world. His companions don't even know exactly what they're looking for or why he's chosen them, and they don't trust each other at all. As they travel over rough terrain and through the ruins of once great civilisations the disparate group are forced to work together if they want to survive.

This story features one of the most unlikely love affairs, which makes for some hilarious interludes amongst all of the grim warfare and suffering the characters endure. The author doesn't give his characters a break: misery, hard choices, ignominious defeat and of course plenty of mud are par for the course. Indeed Abercrombie seems to be doing his best to dismantle the concept of honour and ideals of heroism that so many epic fantasies carefully build up. Yet he does it so well. Before They Are Hanged is full of delightful black humour, it's scarred anti-heroes so down to earth and likeable that it's impossible not to warm to them, no matter what they do.

This isn't a series for the easily shocked. It's brutal, gory and horrific. In spite of the fantasy elements the depictions of war and torture are realistic and unflinching, and the author doesn't use magic to disguise or mitigate the uglier aspects of human nature. It would be a harrowing read if it weren't for Abercrombie's sharp wit and brilliant characters.

Book Details

Year: 2007

Categories: Books


  Not For The Squeamish  

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Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Joe Abercrombie