I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Lord Grimdark did it again: with The Age of Madness he gave us a new, immersive trilogy set in the world of the First Law, and while he kept us all glued to the story with the two previous installment, he literally ended this narrative cycle with much, much more than a proverbial “bang” (or rather, a whole lot of them…).
The widespread turmoil on which the first two books in this series were focused, reaches here its bloody peak: previously, in Adua King Orso’s popularity was at its all-time low and the conspiracy mounted against him – led by his former friend and ally Leo dan Brock, together with Leo’s wife Savine dan Glokta – failed only thanks to a timely warning. What should have been the rebels’ decisive battle ended with Orso as the winner, Leo losing the gamble and some body parts, and he and a heavily pregnant Savine as prisoners in the city they hoped to rule. In the North, Rikke was sitting on her father’s chair, but still faced the encroaching armies of Black Calder and his brutal son Stour Nightfall, while trying to consolidate her power, forge new alliances and avoid constant betrayals.
As the final book opens, Orso has little time to enjoy his victory: after decades of bad, myopic management from the ruling council, the city of Adua is now a powder keg ready to explode, and explode it does in the throes of the Great Change – think of it as a bloodier, far scarier version of the French Revolution, complete with its own reign of Terror and mass executions carried out through worse means than the guillotine. Angry mobs sweep the city, destroying everything in their path, killing indiscriminately and taking the king prisoner, while Leo and Savine find themselves hailed as heroes. And in the North, Rikke seems on the verge of losing it all, as her allies dwindle and Black Calder keeps amassing a force capable of sweeping the land and crowning him as its sole ruler…
The above gives just the bare bones of the complex interweaving of narrative threads and character journeys that turn this novel into a compulsive – if often horrifying – read: there are many more POVs than the main ones I mentioned, and each one moves the story forward without overshadowing the others, reinforcing instead the perception of a building avalanche that moves inexorably toward its intended destination. Not that it’s easy to see what exactly this destination is, particularly once readers are faced with some massive revelations – like the big one toward the end – and a constant barrage of betrayals and treachery that is guaranteed to have your head spinning wildly.
The Wisdom of Crowds is mainly a study of the effects of long-suppressed rage at widespread injustice, and of what happens when exasperation’s fires are fed beyond their conflagration point: the wisdom in the title is used in a darkly sarcastic way, of course, because what we witness in the course of the Great Change is the total obliteration of any civilized rule and a plunge into the kind of collective madness that occurs when the baser animalistic instincts take the place of the oh-so-thin veneer of civilization draped over them.
As usual, Joe Abercrombie manages to seamlessly blend his peculiar brand of humor into the most appalling situations, managing to elicit a smile – or even a laugh – when least you expect it, while pointing out how far easier it is to destroy what does not work anymore than to find the means to build something better. We are treated to several scenes in which the new government spends inordinate amounts of time foolishly debating the wording of those changes without actually implementing any, while nearby the madwoman named Judge sends hundreds of people – guilty and innocents alike – to their death.
Such upheavals are of course bound to impart profound changes on the characters we have come to know, and it’s hardly surprising that some of them end up being quite different from the people they were at the beginning of the story. Savine is certainly a case in point: while she retains some of her former drive for power and self-preservation, her harrowing encounters with danger and death, and her recent motherhood, seem to have awakened her conscience, slightly tempering her ambition and making her more human. It’s not a complete turnover, of course, not given her established personality and the teachings imparted by her father Sand dan Glokta, but it’s a definite improvement over the ruthless socialite bent on profit at any cost that she was at the beginning.
King Orso and Leo dan Brock seem to exchange their respective roles here: the former was a reluctant ruler who preferred drinking and womanizing over learning the rules of kinghood, the latter was the highly praised warrior and hero with a bright destiny in his future. Events transform them profoundly, and where Orso becomes a true king in his captivity, submitting to it with humorous gallantry and ultimately showing a kind of subdued bravery that moved me deeply, Leo turns into an embittered, violence-prone individual more focused on the lost glories of the past than on the needs of the present.
A truly tragic figure is that of Gunnar Broad, the former soldier who keeps promising – to himself and his family – that he’s through with bloody violence: events keep proving him wrong and he finds himself constantly enmeshed in situations that force him to rely on his darker instincts. In a way he reminds me of the Bloody Nine, who strove to be a better man without ever managing to fulfill this vow.
I’ve left my favorite character for last: Rikke. As the daughter of the Dogman, all her life she’s been weighted down by her father’s legend and the need to prove herself, a girl, in the world of these Northern hard warriors – and by the heavy toll of her unpredictable precognitive ability. Here she comes into her own, successfully managing to balance the ruthless strength necessary to rule (“make your heart a stone”) with the desire to act for the best of her people. You will encounter many surprises along Rikke’s journey, together with the heartwarming relationships with her two closest advisors, the cunningly uncouth hill woman Isern-i-Phail and the grizzled Caul Shivers, who seems to have found some inner balance here, if confronted with the man I came to know in Best Served Cold.
Joe Abercrombie’s novels always prove such an immersive experience that it’s hard to move out of his world and return to reality: my only solace is represented by the standalone First Law books I have still to read and the implied promise of this one that the story is not over, that there are some still-hanging threads that might, one day, turn into other equally engrossing books. Time will tell…