It’s an objectively good fantasy series, and this is a great installment. You feel for the characters and you get wrapped up in the DBZ-style power escalation that happens whenever the worldbuilding includes a magic system.
But I’ve seen what Mark Lawrence is capable of. Each book in the Broken Empire series are some of the best I have ever read, especially the Prince of Thorns. I’ve reread them so many times I’ve lost count and they only get better. I couldn’t do that with these. The Book of the Ancestor is good, but it’s also Lawrence punching way below his weight class.
If I’d never read Prince of Thorns, I’d probably have given this book 4 or 5 stars. It really did have everything a good fantasy novel needs, but unfortunately, I know what the man is capable of.
I’d been chewing holes in the walls since quarantine was first announced, and by the second year of the two-week curve flattening, my increasingly feral mindstate had only marginally improved. The plague still sweeps through our land, slipping through cracks and into our homes in the dead of night, blighting our crops and killing our fats and olds, both of which are cornerstones of this great nation. Bill Gates is filling our blood with liquid 5G, offering a stay of execution and increasing our personal bandwidth so long as we upload our RNA straight into the Bing Matrix.
For a year I’ve been crouched in the blasted ruins of The City of Brotherly Crackheads Screaming at 3 AM, shooting arrows in the basement and slowly trading away all my worldly possessions for mid-range guitars and houseplants.
This is no way for a bastard to live.
Luckily, a witch offered me reprieve from the monotony of the broken glass pile that is Philadelphia.
“I’ve got to go to Vermont,” she said. “Come with?”
I’ve had many, many what you would call encounters with witches over the years, and they often end in hexing. That’s just the dice you throw. When the only tool you have is True Polymorph, everything looks like a newt.
You can imagine my leeriness, especially having waited out the statute of limitations on curses so many times before. There was even one who would convince her thralls (we call these simps now) to do “blood pacts”, and cut their hands, then reopen the same wound in her finger to blend their blood.
Imagine playing it that fast and loose with your essence. That’s unrepentant necromancy. She never got my blood. To this day, I won’t even touch a goddamned crystal.
But this witch, the witch offering me an out of the city, she maintains that she is of a different stripe. She says she’s a green witch. I’m a simple man, and a melee build, so I don’t know all the subclassifications, but I imagine they all have access to the same skill tree. But I am eco-friendly, and I did miss silence.
“Let’s go,” says I.
And so I loaded the same pack that got me across Yurp with the same essentials – a few changes of clothes and a glowing rectangle with a library in it – then clambered up into her broom-drawn carriage. We were joined by my attorney, Beefton Duke.
It barely occured to me to ask why Vermont, bit-champing as I was to get free of the 215. The 5-hour haul allowed plenty of time to correct that.
“Matters to attend to,” she said cryptically. “Business.”
Components, I reckoned. Bones and rocks and herbs and whatnot. Something big brewing. Big and allegedly green. That’s okay. I would be looking down the right side of the barrel this time.
We screeched past a collection of cop cars, all with their flashers on, but only flashing in blue.
“Looks like trouble,” Beefton whispered to me.
“I know you can’t tell, but it’s all just one color,” I told him.
“What?” the witch asked.
“The flashers. They’re only one color.”
“I can tell!” she said.
“Maybe it’s not a stop, then,” I suggested. “Maybe it’s a sale. Blue Light Special.”
“What the hell is blue?” Beefton asked. “Ridiculous. You can’t afford the heat right now.”
“I don’t think we have to be worried about it.”
“As your legal counsel,” he continued, “here’s my suggestion. Pull off up ahead in this next plaza with all the wooden sasquatch lawn ornaments. Go into that grocery store. Buy a whole big bag of pepperoni.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.”
“The big bag. Economy pack. None of that 2 oz shit.”
And so began the Dream-Quest of Unknown Clarendon, into the most desolate reaches of New England.
Presumably, the titular trouble with peace is its long-term untenability, and how goddamn treacherous everyone is.
A surprising number of loose ends got wrapped up in this one, which sets the stage of the third book in the trilogy focusing more on the labor disputes and the rise of the first real challengers to Bayaz’s power, the unwashed masses and their predilection for smashing the hell out of everything. As appealing as the Judge subplot is, and as entertaining as are the attempts at stick-and-poke anarchy made by all the dislocated skilled workers made irrelevant by the shiny new deathtrap machines, they don’t have anything that can challenge Bayaz’ pet demigod. No amount of rabble, no matter how roused, can overwhelm an Eater. They’ll just get ate.
On one hand, I can recognize the point of the allegory. Unmaking the foundation of society is supposed to seem like a pipe dream, no matter how broken the society might be. Bayaz is an institution unto himself, an immortal watchmaker who set the clockwork of the empire to spinning centuries ago and stops in every now and then to tune it up and sneer at the little people so they know just how superior he is. He has failsafes upon failsafes. It’s supposed to be impossible for young, morally upright idealists to try to effect change. You don’t need to be a poli sci professor to see the parallels.
But on the other, it’s a little dissatisfying. (This is the closest I have to criticism, this book is a masterpiece.) You want to root for the underdog, but the underdog is too realistic. We see the looters and rioters, warts and all, and though their cause is just, they’re nothing but warts. There’s not much character development in the Breakers and Burners, which was a deliberate stylistic choice to maintain the air of mystery around the organization. Consequently, the only things we see are them acting like animals, pillaging and raping and burning their way through the cities that have been grinding them further and further beneath their heel over the past 30 years (longer if you disregard the sudden-onset Industrial Revolution and think about the lot of the smallfolk under aristocratic feudalism).
In the third-person omniscient provided by all these perspective hops, the reader can recognize that the politics of the Empire are a Machiavellian nightmare, and the North is nothing but tribalist feuding, as the North has always been. You want to root for the peasants. You want the system to be burnt down. But the peasants are just so grotesque and fairytale-goblinoid evil that you can’t sympathize with them. Brod is okay, but only because he’s surrogate Logen, and even he can’t decide whether the uprising is the move.
All of this to say the revolution is the backdrop, with the main focal point of the story being the relationships between the main characters. I don’t want to go into it and risk spoiling anything, but it’s gripping. I can’t wait until the next one.
And Abercrombie can be relied on to pump out the next one before I die of old age. Unlike certain contemporaries I could and will name: George R.R. Marten, Patty Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch, for starters. It must be real embarrassing to be those bums, watching Joe Abercrombie, the new and unrivaled king of grimdark, just churn up an entire new trilogy in the 10-year silent expanses of time between each of their individual volumes.
A tremendously entertaining book by my favorite fantasy author. I cleared the whole 20 hour audiobook in almost one sitting. I don’t even want to hear my own internal monologue for 20 consecutive hours, but everything Abercrombie writes is gold, and Steven Pacey really brings the characters to life.
A Little Hatred follows Abercrombie’s patterned precedents of graphic violence, mentally ill protagonists, a continuum of nihilist greyscale morality, and biting, acerbic wit from pretty much every involved party, dumbasses included. However, this go-around, things are much sexier, because most of the protagonists are the 20something progeny of fan favorites from the previous trilogy, rather than a collection of grizzled, belching, genre-appropriate barbarians.
A thorough explanation of the young, dumb, and full of… you know 😉 trope comes from the three male characters driving the narrative, undoubtedly due to Abercrombie’s firsthand familiarity with the idea, having been a man in his twenties. Dark days indeed, and many of us barely escaped them with our hides intact.
Leo dan Brock is a caricature of arrogant vainglory, dominated by his chessmaster mother and trying to earn his place in the world by allowing his poorly controlled emotions to steer him through straits that, quite frankly, his ship isn’t outfitted for in the first place. Despite his myriad of character flaws, women keep forgiving his pomposity, because he’s pretty, and they really do.
Orso dan Luthar leans hard in the other direction, confronting the meaninglessness through self-effacing apathy and hedonism, right up until he can’t anymore. He is utterly adrift, drinking and fucking himself into a coma and not allowing the crapsack reality to disillusion him, right up until a flicker of idealism convinces him that, well, if he doesn’t try to change the world, who’s going to?
Brock’s Jungian shadow work counterpart is the Great Wolf, Stour Nightfall. The same basic drives motivate them both, but Nightfall comes at it as conquest, less high fantasy and more sword-and-sorcery, with Nietzschean sadism and performative brutality.
These are the figureheads, the puppets that shape the play. The actual new powers coming to fruition develop in the form of the female primary characters, each in their own way.
Savine dan Glokta is the daughter of the Archlecter, the most feared man in the Union, now operating under the dismissive sobriquet “Old Sticks”, though it isn’t clear as to whether that was because of his cane or because of his withering. Savine uses her last name as leverage to catapult herself to the apex of Union high society, and weaponizes her keen intellect to get a stranglehold on all of the newly emergent business ventures that come from a civilization proceeding from the medieval to the industrial era. She doesn’t need or care about the money, but she figures it’s as good a way to keep score as any.
Rikke is the daughter of the Dogman who was, himself, a humble and goodhearted everyman. So is Rikke, although she also has the Long Eye, which allows her to see the future and makes her prone to epileptic fits and shit herself. Rikke is probably the most relatable character, operating on Northern naturalist sensibilities and the Dogman’s politesse, tempered with the advice from her friends, the mad witch Isren-i-Phail, and renown murderous spook Caul Shivers.
These five guide the flow of the future, gaining and losing influence as the events of the book unfold and banging each other like a Denny’s table full of drama club kids. (The exception being Stour, whose pathology has likely replaced sexual release with violence). In turn, they are guided by significant figures from the previous generation, though they all eventually turn from them, some more performatively than others.
I don’t want to risk spoiling it. It’s a truly incredible read. Abercrombie has a masterful command of psychology and characterization.
I profoundly hope someone kills Bayaz this go-round. I know he represents the status quo, or maybe the Illuminati conspiracy that there are unseen hands making sure everything in the world continues to suck so they can guarantee their own profit, but I think the catharsis of watching the miserable old fuck get his baldness sundered might make up for the breakdown of the analogy.