Ah middle books of a series. Books with neither a beginning nor an end. Nothing but big honking chunks of middle.
Before They Are Hanged follows three separate stories with no overlap. Of the three stories, two of them are excellent and one doesn’t work. Two out of three isn’t bad but the weak story is, in comparison, clearly weak and it costs the book a half a star. (It’s a 3.5 stars book).
In the Union, Inquisitor Sand dan Glotka, our intrepid evil torturing hero, gets an upgrade to Superior Glotka and is sent off to the far-off exotic city of Dagoska on the edge of the Gurkhul Empire to find why Dagoska’s last Inquisitor Superior disappeared. He finds a city under siege by endless armies, some sophomore attempts at underhanded politics, a military in disarray, and a city crumbling. The strongest part of the book — and clearly Joe Abercrombie’s favorite character — Glotka demonstrates why he’s a man not to be messed with, even with his broken and crippled body.
Up in Angland, the Union forces face the implacable Northern armies of King Bethod. Colonel West witnesses the Union crumble as their overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Bethod’s willingness to reach into every kind of evil imaginable to crush his foes. West finds himself traveling through the Northern winter woods chasing down an army with Logan Ninefinger’s old crew, Rudd Threetrees and his Named Men. Excellent battle scenes riddle West’s viewpoint section as they chase through the woods to take out Bethod’s scouts and the story unfolds to some setpiece battles.
Meanwhile, Logan Ninefingers, Bayaz and friends cross an empty continent on a quest for a rock. Road trips can be interesting but this roadtrip wasn’t; the characters went through some battles but mostly they roadtripped across a vast, empty continent full of ruins. Easily the weakest part of this book, it didn’t bring anything to the table except explain some of the doings of wizards thousands of years before.
When “Before They Are Hanged” is good, it is very, very, very good. Joe Abercrombie pulls off what most fantasy authors fail to do: he writes almost Tolstoy-esque battle scenes with huge set pieces all moves through the woods. The battle scenes are great. When they’re small, they’re personal. When they’re huge, they’re immense. The wars — from the Gurkhul sieging Dagoska to the huge battles in the woods in the snow between armies — these parts shine. But when the characters have nothing to do except talk to one another, the books just sort of fall apart.
Clearly good enough to finish the trilogy. It’s a pretty decent fantasy book. It’s just a middle one. So it is what it is.