Sometimes, a book comes along that makes you laugh or cry or throw it at the goddamn wall. If we're really lucky, a string of such books will gang up to form a series, kick the shit out of you, and leave you feeling hollowed out and badly needing a proverbial cigarette. Joe Abercrombie's Age of Madness trilogy - his newest addition to the First Law world - is one such experience.
If you're familiar with Abercrombie's work, then this won't surprise you in the least. For those who haven't had their world rocked by the lord of grim-dark, buckle up.
The Non-Spoilery Stuff
This trilogy represents books 6-9 of Abercrombie's First Law storyline, and although the story would be enjoyable on it's own, I would highly recommend investing the time in reading the build up. Name drops, old feuds, and the suspense of foreknowledge are the chocolate sauce on the sundae when it comes to these books.
With his usual flair for violence, misery, and intrigue Abercrombie takes readers into the city of Adua to experience the industrial revolution. A wave of progress that the people are being dragged into kicking and screaming. Factories belch smoke, eat workers, and steal jobs with reckless abandon while the rich get richer and the poor scrape for any opportunity. A stark and eerie look at the real-world wage gap, put in relief and blown up in proportion for all the world to see.
The characters in this series are what really pull it together. From the love-sick King, pining after the woman he can't have and striving to do better for his people (only to be thwarted at every turn), to the brave (but not bright) soldier leading his men into what he believes is a better world, to the cocaine-snorting businesswoman dealing ruthless blows with every tap and swipe of her lace-lined fan - each character owns their roles and, let's face it, my heart.
If you like darker fantasies and don't mind some sex and violence, I can't recommend these books (or any of Abercrombie's works) highly enough. For this series, I went with the audiobooks and I was not disappointed. Steven Pacey narrates all three books and WOW. Awesome voice acting. I always knew who was talking, just by the sound of 'their' voice. Really brilliant work.
I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU KILLED ORSO YOU FANTASY-GENIUS-BASTARD!
Sorry, I've been holding that one in.
I finished this trilogy four days ago and I am still reeling. King Orso's death, Rikke's final vision, and Zuri's big reveal left me howling with poorly contained rage, sorrow, shock, and a deep need to keep reading. Alas, I'm stuck waiting for the next books just like everyone else.
Outside of my undying love for the late King Orso, the thing that struck me the most about this series was Leo Brock's story arc. While it isn't the first conversion from hero to villain I've seen, it is easily the best written and most believable. Including his perspective so the readers could see the change happening, and having the change build and build before suddenly snapping, were both strokes of genius.
The thing that made the transition real for me was the use of multiple pressure points to drive change. Too many stories have one motivation or one trauma that turns the hero dark, but Abercrombie combined sexual frustration, chronic pain, defeat, and the counsel of those in Leo's life to steer him a bit at a time, nudging him from dull but beloved champion to iron-handed villain over the latter two books.
Likewise, Savine Brock's character went through drastic changes over a long period. Her transition contrasted Leo's nicely, because while he was being influenced by many different sources, Savine was pushed by the same few (usually mortal peril) over and over again. After her ordeal in Valbeck she swears to be better, only to fall back to her old habits as soon as she returns to her creature comforts. It takes being attacked again, and again, and again, before some of her promises start to become real. Even then, the book ends with a hint of the old, calculating, ruthless Savine, leaving me unsure of how sustainable the Mother of the Nation's good side really was.
Gunner Broad - Savine's savior/bodyguard/jailor - complimented her character arc like cheese to a fine wine. The way he grew wilder and more violent as the world around him grew savage mirrored Savine's need for control in the same circumstances. That they both struggled with keeping promises, each failing spectacularly to uphold their word until Savine stepped into her role as Darling of the Slums in earnest. It made sense then, that Savine, who was able fulfill her geas, won out over Gunner using emotional manipulation, tricking him back onto her side.
Then there's poor King Orso. The worse it got for him, the more sure I was that A) his survival was guaranteed, and B) the Union would see it's first lasting peace and an era of prosperity if he were in charge. Imagine my absolute horror when they hung him. There were tears. He only wanted everyone to be happy and safe, but no one would let him make things better. Every right move he made, or intended to make, was manipulated and stomped on by those around him and I am still livid. This is not Abercrombie's first example of 'bad things happen to good people' but it's the one that has cut me deepest.
Wrap Up for the Age of Madness Trilogy
As I'm sure you can tell by now, I loved these books dearly. I spent every day thinking about the characters, or worrying over their fates. Each evening, my long-suffering partner listened to me rattle off the day's chapter(s) with the patience of a saint.
I did find that I could predict the plot in a lot of places, which isn't necessarily bad but I was a smidge disappointed to be proved right a few times. There were still plenty of twists and turns to keep me happily devouring it though.
*(Mum and Dad, if you're reading this, skip the next 2 paragraphs.)*
Something I love and hate about Abercrombie is the way he does sex scenes. Many of his books have them, but he is a master at describing just how damn awkward and unsexy the human form can be. Don't get me wrong - the man CAN write a scene to get anyone hot and bothered - but (imho) he chooses to use sex as a literary tool more often than a porn-substitute (which I appreciate.)
It does mean that you don't always get a lady-boner when you want one though.
*(Parents may resume)*
Lastly, while there are jokes, I wouldn't recommend this series if you're looking for a light, funny read. As always the Northmen have some delightful turns of phrase and Orso's banter is always hilarious, BUT the juxtaposition with the horror of the situation took the laughter out of it for me.
EMOTIONAL BACKLASH ★★★★★
SAUCY SCENES ★★★☆☆
Read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!