This is the second volume of The First Law trilogy
. I read the first book The Blade Itself in early March 2012, today is 27th July 2012 so the two books were read five months apart, I wonder if I will finish the trilogy by the end of the year. In any case, even with a memory like a sieve I had no problem getting into the second book after the 5 months gap. This is not a standalone book so you need to read The Blade Itself first which should be no great hardship unless you received "Before They Are Hanged" as a present then you'd need to cough up the dough for the first book, it won't break the bank I'm sure (no, pirating is not an option).
"Before They Are Hanged" continues the adventure of three groups of characters introduced in the first book. One group is on a quest for a magical artifact, a traditional fantasy trope but with some unconventional character developments, events and eventual outcome. The second group is focused on a soldier and a group of mercenaries and their participation in a war against foreign invaders, the third is centered on the complex and fascinating Inquisitor Glokta and his effort to defend a city also under attack by invaders and the aftermath of his success / failure (don't ask).
I suspect some people will underestimate this series mistaking it for just another "gritty fantasy" with a lot of swearing, sex, and violence, certainly those elements are there in plenitude but there is also an undercurrent of some themes being subtly explored. Like how heroism - like greatness - is often thrust on reluctant people. How people sometime do despicable things just to survive and hate themselves for it. I wonder how many people are aware of the compassion and humanity in Joe Abercrombie's books? In my estimation he is a terrific writer, his prose style may not be lyrical but it is often very witty and the book is well balanced with action, violence, pathos, romance and humour. His greatest strength may well be his characterization, the main characters are complex, believable, interesting and often very funny. I have often seen his characters described as "unlikable", if this is true I must have been reading it wrong because I like all of them and find it hard to pick a favorite.
For the faint of heart I should mention that this book, like its predecessor, include a couple of torture scenes which I got through with a little flinching. My only concern about these scenes is that they will alienate readers who would otherwise love the book and Abercrombie deserves a wide readership.
I normally prefer narration from a single point of view, which I find easier to follow, and with multiple points of view some of the protagonists are so much more interesting than others that I often feel like I am wasting my time following the lesser characters. However, multiple POVs tend to be necessary for epic tales, to cover all the different events and locations. For this book I find all the POVs enjoyable and I don't really mind moving between them. The description are generally very vivid, you can really feel the cold, the hunger and the pain that the characters go through. Magic is utilized very sparingly in the story and there is no "magic system" worth mentioning because its appearance is so infrequent.
As with the first book this one is highly recommended for fans of heroic fantasy. The third and final volume of this trilogy is called Last Argument of Kings, come to think of it I don't want to wait to long before I dive into that one.