"Few indeed are those who get a choice. We do as we are told. We stand or fall beside those who were born near to us, who look as we do, who speak the same words, and all the while we know as little of the reasons why as does the dust we return to."
The second book in a trilogy, presuming your trilogy has in fact been originally conceived as a trilogy, has the unenviable task of progressing the narrative to an end point that sets up the third book rather than providing closure. While all the introductions and set-up have already been taken care of in book one, this leaves book two without the novelty of the original book, and at worst you get a stalling, in which the characters mark time until all the pieces are arranged for the finale in the next installment. So how does Joe Abercrombie prevent this in 'Before They Are Hanged', the second book in the First Law Trilogy? Abecrombie slyly uses the format to comment on the themes of failure, defeat and frustration, whilst developing his characters and revealing more of the history and mythology of The Circle Of The World. The main story arc of 'Before They Are Hanged' builds intentionally to an anticlimax. Bayaz's quest is thwarted, Glokta's attempt to hold the city of Dagoska from the Gurkish attacks was doomed from the start, and Colonel West's battle with the Northmen ends in defeat. But each of these defeats changes the characters who experience them, and brings their personalities into sharper relief. Thus the stakes are duly raised for the next book, and Abercrombie is able to provide a satisfying and engaging story at the same time.
'Before They Are Hanged' follows on directly from the end of 'The Blade Itself'. Glokta arrives in Dagoska, charged with finding out how its previous Superior was murdered and strengthening its defenses for the inevitable Gurkish siege. Logen Ninefingers, Ferro, Jezal dan Luther, Brother Longfoot and Malacus Quai accompany Bayaz on his quest to the Edge of the World to find Kanedias' Seed, so that Bayaz can wield it against Khalul and the Eaters in the upcoming conflict. And the newly promoted Colonel West is serving under Prince Ladisla, hoping to win popularity and glory by fighting in the war against the Northmen in Angland, and has to do his best to prevent the heir to the throne of the Union from coming to harm.
Bayaz's journey is one long subversion of quest tropes. The gang follow all the rules, passing through ancient cities and fighting dangerous enemies to get to the Edge of the World, where Logen convinces the guardian spirit to give up the Seed, only to find out that the stone the spirit hands them is just a stone. Of course Kanedias was smart enough to figure that hiding the Seed at the end of some long quest might keep it from the general population, but that he would have to take some extra care to hide it from the remaining Magi, the people who would actually know what to do with it when they found it. Bayaz's rage at being thwarted is telling; he is petulant and violently angry, for all his hard-earned wisdom not a man one would feel comfortable with wielding so much destructive power.
Frustration also manifests in the story arc of Logen and Ferro. Over the course of their shared journey together, Ferro begins to trust and respect Logen, and even start to like him as the two of them sleep together. And in turn Logen begins to feel hope for his future, that he may experience love again and become more than just a killing machine. However once Bayaz's quest fails, the two of them realise that without the common goal Bayaz provided with, they will likely drift apart, Ferro to pursue her vengeance against the Gurkish, Logen to settle his scores with Bethod. Both characters know that with their separation departs their hope of leaving behind a life of violence for something more fulfilling, leaving their relationship in the realms of the merely physical. We also get another chance to experience just how terrifying Logen is in Bloody-Nine mode, in a scene where he slaughters an entire cavern full of Shanka almost single-handedly. It plays off all those scenes in the Lord Of The Rings movies where Legolas kills ludicrous numbers of orcs and shows it up for how psychopathic is genuinely is.
Jezal dan Luthar, however, undergoes a definite change for the better. The handsome young captain always came across as someone who'd be vastly improved by a good knock to the head. On their journey sheer necessity forces him to interact with his fellow travelers, and as they repeatedly save his life and offer him comradeship he begins slowly to realise what a self-obsessed snob he's been his whole life and starts to develop a sense of empathy. Following a scarring head injury in his first actual fight, he even learns to temper his vanity a touch. The way Abercrombie handles the character's maturation is masterful; Jezal doesn't drop his jerkiness overnight, but slowly improves whilst having a series of relapses, making for a very believable transformation. Having the experience of fighting allows Jezal to come to the same realisation that Logen and Ferro have, that the honour and glory of battle are not worth very much in comparison with a quiet life with the one you love, but perhaps Jezal is young and undamaged enough to escape the life of violence Logen and Ferro are now trapped in to life happily with Ardee.
Colonel West also deals with some frustrations of his own. His character arc is a dark mirror to Jezal's, exploring how a good person can be twisted when exposed to too much stress. He is put in charge of protecting Prince Ladisla, sent to fight in Angland against the Northmen to make him more popular with the people. Unfortunately Prince Ladisla is an arrogant, clueless idiot, surrounded by his equally arrogant, clueless sycophants. His awful command, rash and impatient, gets most of his men killed. West and Ladisla escape with Treefinger's Northmen, and West does his best to protect Ladisla despite his whining and uselessness, but eventually snaps and kills him when he catches Ladisla trying to rape Cathil, the daughter of a convict who is travelling with them. The physical and emotional stresses turn Colonel West into a deeply angry and frustrated man. Again, Abercrombie's character development here is very well done. In many ways, West is a prime example of 'nice guy syndrome'. Because he is the centre of his own narrative, he expects to get to have sex with Cathil as a reward for saving her from Ladisla, and is surprised and frustrated when she falls for Dogman instead. For all his experience as a working class officer having to prove his worth in a strongly class-stratified hierarchy, his view of women is still entrenched in male privilege. His abuse of Ardee in the previous book is clarified as an enforcing of dominance and control as much as the self-perpetuating cycle of abused becoming abuser.
Sand dan Glokta's experiences with frustration show just how much of a fascinating character he is. What makes him interesting is that for all his moral doubts, he still goes ahead with all the horrific things he does. Glokta has allowed himself to become the tool of Arch Lector Sult, and over the course of the book is bought by Valint and Balk, the bank who orchestrated the Mercer's revolt in 'The Blade Itself'. He knows damn well that both parties are self-interested and untrustworthy, and both ultimately stand in the way of his deep-held desire to find the truth, yet he obeys both of them because he sees no other choice. The plot he uncovers in Dagoska would have sold the city to the Gurkish, which would have meant loss of face for the Union but would have saved scores of Union and Gurkish lives. He sees this and realises that things would have gone much better for everyone had the plot been successful, yet he follows his orders and so indirectly causes many deaths. As he says himself, "Empathy? What's that?... It's a sad fact, but pain only makes you sorry for yourself." Yet, for all his cynicism, Glokta is capable of feeling empathy. Sooner or later his ongoing moral crisis must reach breaking point. At the end of the book, Prince Reynault, the only surviving heir to the dying king, is murdered and the Gurkish ambassador for peace is framed. Suddenly the Closed Council is thrown into turmoil, as their once safe and powerful positions are thrown into doubt. For the first time in a long time, a new ruler must be decided on, those less powerful will have some influence on the decision, and so everyone's future is up in the air. This one act demonstrates how everyone in The Circle Of The World lives permanently between a rock and a hard place, even the very powerful at the mercy of plots and circumstances outside their control. No wonder everybody's so tense all the time.