Glokta, the torturer working for the Union Kingdom, is sent to help the frontier city of Dagoska repel an invading force from the rival Empire of Gurkhul while the ancient wizard Bayaz leads a small band of misfits on a journey into the wild Old Empire. Before They Were Hanged is the second book in Joe Abercrombie's First Law series, and it continues to follow the main point-of-view characters established in the first book. Glokta, the torturer in service of the Union Kingdom, is sent across the sea to help fortify the besieged City of Dagoska. Bayaz, the ancient First of the Magi, leads a band consisting of Logen the barbarian, Jezal the champion swordsman and Ferro, a former slave from the Empire of Gurkhul, with monster blood flowing through her veins. In the North Country, Captain Collum West leads an army of Union soldiers against an army of rampaging Northmen barbarians.
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Just like in the first book, the three primary plot threads continue in parallel to each other, although unlike the first book they never intersect.
Glokta grudgingly follows his orders and sails south for the Union city of Dagoska. The city is under siege by the armies of the rival nation of Gurkhul and things are not going well. Glokta operates as an adviser to the city leaders and quickly discovers a spy in the Union midst. He tortures his way through the Dagoskan nobility and eventually uncovers Carlot dan Eider, a Union noblewoman, as the Gurkish spy. The victory is a pyrrhic one, as the Gurkish forces finally breach the city's defenses and sack the city. Glokta barely escapes with his life, though he is credited with managing to defend the city for much longer than expected.
In the North, Captain West suffers a series of defeats at the hands of the Northmen. The barbarian Northmen have united under the rule of a king called Bethod. Bethod apparently has managed to forge the unruly northern people into powerful fighting force. After a bruising defeat, West and Prince Ladisla of the Union are isolated from the rest of the Union army. They come across a young northern woman, whom West quickly falls for. When he catches Prince Ladisla trying to rape the girl, West tosses the prince off a cliff. With the prince dispatched, West journeys with a group of rebel Northmen fighting against Bethod and regroups with the Union army. They use the rebel Northmen's knowledge of the terrain and prowess in battle to repel Bethod's army.
West of the Union, in a broken land known as the Old Empire, Bayaz journeys with Ferro, Jezal and Logen to find a magical artifact called the Seed. They journey across the vast western wasteland, all the way to a distant shore filled with similarly shaped stones. Bayaz explains that most of the stones are decoys and that only he knows how to find the actual Seed. Since Ferro has monster blood in her veins, she is the only member of the group capable of holding the Seed on the long journey back to the Union.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story line in the Old Empire really kills the momentum of the second book. Some of Bayaz's back story is interesting, but the whole arc plays out like an extended fetch quest.
Best scene in story:
Glokta outs Carlot dan Eider as the spy in Dagoska, but in a rare noble moment decides not to torture her and allows her to escape the dying city.
Opinion about the main character:
Glokta continues to be the most interesting character in the story. The storyline in Dagoska humanizes him more than his book 1 arc.