The Age of Madness by Joe Abercrombie

Werthead

Lemming of Discord
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Book 1: A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

The fires of industry are smouldering. The Union, the great federation of kingdoms centred on the island of Midderland and the city of Adua, is industrialising and modernising at a frightening rate. Great factory districts, squealing with machinery, now sprawl for miles as they pump out vast quantities of goods. It's a brave new world, one in which the little person is at risk of being crushed. Seething discontent at joblessness and the new order threatens to erupt into outright rebellion. As the Union tries to strangle the nascent revolution in its crib, another crisis erupts in the North when the armies of Scale Ironhand invade the Protectorate, controlled by the Union's allies.

As war and revolution threaten the Union on every front, the fate of the Circle of the World falls upon a handful of unlikely figures: Savine dan Glokta, the daughter of the royal inquisitor and a shrewd investor; Crown Prince Orso, a wastrel and drunkard; Vick, a young woman in the Breakers, the would-be working class revolutionaries; Gunnar Broad, a military veteran trying to get his life back; Stour Nightfall, a Northern warrior with a ridiculous name and evil ambition; Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, blessed (or cursed) with the magic of foresight; and Leo dan Brock, the Young Lion, a brave and reckless warrior who cannot see the big picture.

It's been - somewhat startlingly - seven years since Joe Abercrombie last visited the world of his First Law saga with Red Country. Since then he's been moonlighting in YA (with the Shattered Sea trilogy in 2014-15) and short fiction (with the Sharp Ends collection in 2016), but his return to the First Law world with not just a novel, but a full trilogy (entitled The Age of Madness) is welcome news.

A Little Hatred is very much just what most readers are expecting from an Abercrombie novel. It's fast-paced, violent, lusty and intelligent. Not keen on resting on his laurels, the novel also sees Abercrombie moving into new territory with a lot of socio-economic musings. A Little Hatred is a novel about a world in turmoil, not just from war or religious schisms but from its own Industrial Revolution. This isn't totally new ground for fantasy, with Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and China Mieville's Bas-Lag series both delving into industrial chaos, revolutions and modernisation, but it's still an under-explored idea for the genre.

The book is also concerned with the next generation, the children of great characters growing up in the shadow of their famed parents, whilst those parents face the truth that the great exploits of their youth haven't led to long-lasting peace and happiness. The North and the Union are still at each other's throats over the North's conquest of Angland and the Protectorate, whilst (in the wake of the events of Best Served Cold) the Union and Styria have fought three bloody wars to no satisfactory outcome. Even the collapse of the Gurkish Empire, removing a key threat to the Union's southern flank, has caused its own problems as hordes of refugees flee to Midderland, sparking a wave of racist xenophobia. A Little Hatred is about a world in change, not from the typical epic fantasy stand-bys of ravening monsters and evil sorcerers, but from the changing page of history itself.

Characterisation is a key strength of Abercrombie's and he gets to exercise that skill with aplomb here. Most of the protagonists are complicated people, with admirable and detestable traits, and it's to Abercrombie's credit that he makes them all interesting and compelling, even when you want to smack them for making dumb decisions. Focusing on new characters is a good idea, as it makes the book an easier entry point for new readers. The book is certainly improved if you've read the seven previous First Law books (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country and Sharp Ends), but they are not strictly necessary given that the novel does a good job of establishing the situation and characters.

The book is excellently paced. Abercrombie's never written huge doorstoppers, but some of his previous books have been quite big. At just over 400 pages in hardcover, A Little Hatred is focused, fast-paced and furious, taking in revolutions, battles, betrayals, stabbings, flights through the countryside and political intrigue at the highest levels, with a reasonably large cast. The pace never flags and leaves the reader eager for more.

If there are weaknesses, they are minor. The Union's industrial revolution is impressively vivid and impeccably-researched, but some may feel that it's also hugely unrealistic, given that in the First Law series the world was more like a 15th century late medieval/early renaissance setting. It jumping forwards about 300 years of technological development in less than 30 years feels a little like a contrivance so the author can have fan-favourite characters still showing up rather than dealing with a whole new generation. However, this bug is also something of a feature: as the novel ends, it becomes clear that this massive, rapid progress may be explained by other means, which opens more questions for the sequels.

As it stands, A Little Hatred (****½) is vintage Abercrombie, being smart, funny, brutal and compelling reading. It is available now in the UK and USA. The second book in the series, The Trouble with Peace, will be released in 2020.
 

Werthead

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Book 2: The Trouble with Peace

Trilogies can be a tricky structure to pull off. All too often they consist of a great opening volume and a solid conclusion, but where the middle book exists mainly to pad out the wordcount. In the case of The Age of Madness, the second trilogy set in Joe Abercrombie's First Law world, the work justifies the length. A Little Hatred set up the characters and reintroduced us to the world some thirty years on from the events of the original trilogy and three stand-alone follow-ups, and focused on a series of somewhat self-contained storylines to introduce us to the new core cast of characters. It did its job splendidly.

The Trouble with Peace builds on those foundations with a surprisingly epic novel. If A Little Hatred was a bit more small-scale than what we are used to from Abercrombie, focusing mainly on politics in Adua, civil discontent in Valbeck and yet more violence in the North (well-handled, but it feels like that plot well has been visited quite a few times already), The Trouble with Peace expands the scope considerably. In just under 500 pages, Abercrombie delivers us a tense election in Westport, political machinations in Styria, fuming discontent over refugees in Midderland, yet more political chaos in Adua, a quest by a brave band of Northmen (and two women) to find a sorceress, more economic and technological advancements in the Union crushing the little people underfoot, and whispered conspiracies in dark corners that eventually lead to a huge conflagration. A Little Hatred was the prelude to a much bigger story, which not only begins in The Trouble with Peace but feels like it climaxes, with a surprising amount of closure before the last chapter blows open the story again for the grand conclusion.

The result is one of Abercrombie's strongest novels to date, a story of politics and war and the individuals swept up in events. One of the most remarkable things about it is that it opens a yawning chasm between the characters who were (more or less) on the same side of things in the first volume. Characters choose sides for logical reasons and the reader's sympathies may be tested because it's hard to say who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Those who want to overthrow the old order because it is bloated and corrupt and backed by Bayaz, whom we know through seven previous novels is not a particularly trustworthy guy, have some excellent points, but those who want a continuation of peace, not sticking swords through people and undertaking more gradual reforms also have a point (and Bayaz may be a ruthless and untrustworthy git, but he also did kind of save the Union from a far greater evil in the original trilogy, from a certain point of view), and seeing the two sides come to blows is decidedly painful.

As the novel unfolds there are traditional shocks and surprises, abrupt reversals of fortune, dramatic falls from grace and sudden elevations to grace. There's also moments of friendship and mercy, but moments when even sensible and solid characters fall prey to bigotry and are easily manipulated by outside forces. There's also moments when those blessed with intelligence and cunning find themselves laid low by their own overconfidence.

There's also a feeling of topicality swirling through the novel. Abercrombie started planning this trilogy way back before he even finished the stand-alone successors to The First Law in 2012, so the underlying plot presumably was not based on contemporary politics, but it's hard not to consider the topicality of a city's referendum on the wisdom of leaving the Union, or the simmering and unreasoning rage being stoked in a rich and prosperous kingdom by an influx of immigrants contributing to that prosperity but who have the temerity to have differently-coloured skin. This is also firmly inspired by more distant historical events of course - the Industrial Revolution and the protest movements it sparked, like the Redressers and the Luddites - but watching contemporary events being reflected in a work of epic fantasy (not normally the most politically sophisticated genre of fiction) is unusual and refreshing.

The Trouble with Peace (*****) is Abercrombie delivering what he usually does - a story packed with memorable characters, action and dark humour - but with also more attention to worldbuilding and pace. A lot happens in a constrained page count (by the standards of the genre) and the pages fly by. There's also an increasing, Pratchett-esque attention to fantasy's oft-unfulfilled potential to reflect the world we live in, making for a smarter and more intelligent book. The novel will be released on 15 September in the UK and USA.
 

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