Before they are Hanged is the second volume of The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. The First Law Trilogy along with a handful of other volumes are considered "must reads" by anyone who claims to be a grimdark fan. Whether or not this is the case is a matter of opinion but they are gritty, visceral, down-to-Earth fantasy with a lot of moral ambiguity as well as lack of pretension.
They are the warm beer of fantasy and not the horribly watered down stuff we Americans produce, Samuel Adams exempted, but the good European stuff. The First Law Trilogy is a earthy lager with a rich working man's taste and...okay, I've wandered off topic.
I also want a beer.
In the previous volume of the series, archwizard Bayaz collected a ragtag collection of misfits to retrieve magical Maguffin which seemed deliberately designed to deconstruct as many of these fantasy road-trips as possible. This book picks up their journey where the previous one left off and allows us to reach a startling conclusion. It's a conclusion I only once before encountered in these kinds of stories, Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock's Eye, which felt out of place there but worked here.
I've claimed elsewhere The First Law Trilogy works well as the "spiritual antithesis" of The Lord of the Rings and that's never more apparent in the Bayaz portion of the plot. It's the equivalent of Gandalf leading Conan, Red Sonja, the most obnoxious shining knight in the world, a complete idiot for a navigator, and his apprentice on a quest for the One Ring to use against an Arabic Sauron.
While this is happening, Colonel West is leading an invasion of the North which is criminally under-supplied as well as poorly trained. Very few fantasy novels show invading armies crippled by disease, desertion, starvation, and poor training but these were daily parts of life in Medieval warfare.
Likewise, Inquisitor Glotka, my favorite character, is given the unenviable task of attempting to hold a poorly-defended city-state against the infinite hordes of the Gurka army. We also have Dogman and his gang which is a group of Northmen hard to describe but basically would make a wonderful television series to follow. They don't do much but damn if they're not always entertaining while they're doing it.
Much of the book's appeal is, essentially, how ruthlessly unsentimental the storytelling is about the fantasy genre. While never approaching parody, just about everyone has it made clear how awful war is and how utterly pointless the concept of causes in most of them are. Glokta is holding a city he can't hold but which he's doing so solely because it's a point of pride to the Union to hold it, no matter how many people are killed.
Logen Ninefingers tries to explain how he regrets the path which lead him to become a famous warrior but might as well be speaking Greek to young Luthar. Ferro, who has known nothing but violence, wants to make a human connection with Logen but finds neither of them is capable of doing so easily.
I enjoyed the world-building for The First Law world a great deal. We get the backstory of the wizards, ancient empires, as well as some personal insight into the characters not detailed in the first book. Part of what I like about the book is Joe Abercrombie leave hints the stories we hear from Bayaz and other characters aren't the whole truth. Another thing which makes this series so memorable is there's very few objectively true perspectives.
The Gurkish Empire is portrayed as a horrific threat led by a False Prophet and his cannibal wizards but this view of them is as ignorant as the view they are no worse than any other ruler. Peace-makers and warmongers are equally ignorant with distrustworthy characters manipulating events from behind the scenes. Ignorant and stupid leadership is also more dangerous than outright evil.
You know, just like in real-life.
The moral ambiguity of the series is one of its best features with heroes, anti-heroes, villains, and everything in-between existing. The heroes can't automatically make the world a better place, though, and the villains may be better for society in the long run. Hell, the heroes may actually be working at cross purposes (what a novel concept). Astute readers will appreciate the opportunity to judge for themselves about the characters' actions.
For example, Inquisitor Glokta is a torturer and supporter of a corrupt regime who doesn't even believe in his superiors but does horrible deeds in their name. Despite this, I find him one of the most fascinating antiheroes in grimdark. After all, if every way is dark, why not walk boldly in the path which appeals to you most?
Don't answer that.
In conclusion, Before they are Hanged is an excellent book. It's mostly set up for the conclusion in the next volume but resolves several outstanding plots. I suggest everyone who has an interest in dark, gritty, and morally ambiguous fantasy fiction would find the First Law Trilogy a good read. It's a story not afraid to have the heroes set out to do something epic, sacrifice everything to get it accomplished, and still fail due to circumstances beyond their control.