A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie (Age of Madness # 1)
A new Joe Abercrombie novel is always a phenomenon to be celebrated. This time even more so. A Little Hatred, the first part of a new trilogy aptly named the Age of Madness, is Joe’s new book that has come out after a long interval. Two years, I think.
A Little Hatred is set in the same Circle of World, that was introduced way back in 2006 with his debut, A Blade Itself that introduced the world to a new form of fantasy – veering away from heroic quests and destiny’s child or even multi-layered political intrigue, to give us real flawed grey characters, whose frustrations, angst and pain was etched in unerring detail and presented in a shining evocative prose, unapologetic, grim and dark. Can a new reader jump into this world, starting with this book? Err. Technically yes, but I would strongly advise anybody worth their salt to get their hands dirty with at least his First Law trilogy: Namely, the Blade Itself. Before they are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings. Joe has done an absolutely fabulous job in painting this world up in his First Law trilogy, followed that up with some stunning standalone novels that feature far-lengths of this world giving full satisfactory closures to some of the most memorable fantasy characters ever to have graced printed page. There are numerous mentions of the names and deeds of these fallen heroes that form the basis for a lot of the character and world building in this story as well.
The events in A Little Hatred are set roughly three decades post the First Law trilogy.
The first theme is the age-old incursion into the Union-held territories by the relentless Northerners. Under the banners of the Stour “Great Wolf” Nightfall, son of Black Calder (One of my favorite characters from Heroes! Now you know, you have to finish those previous six books!) who is thirsting for glory just like the old Named Men of the North (Bloody Nine is often touted to be greatest warriors of the North, the one to have won multiple duels in the Circle!) Lined up against him is Leo Dan Brock, the heir/Governor to Angland, popular among his friends and soldiers as the “Young Lion” – Leo has the exact same ambitions as his enemy Stour; namely to win glory and honor for himself. Having grown up in the North with their allies, led by the Dogman. Possibly one of the most ‘honorable’ Northerner, a quiet unassuming man whose courage and loyalty are never in doubt, throughout the last few books set in this world. Completing the trio is Rikke – one of the first people we meet in the frozen North, daughter of the Dogman, apparently blessed by the Long Eye, a magical ability to discern the future. She’s a scared and frustrated soul looking only to escape the clutches of Nightfall’s soldiers out to grab her to get back at the Dogman. She is guided by a mad Hillwoman Isern-i-Phail who is possibly one of the worst teachers, as judged by the hapless Rikke. Bringing us the viewpoint of the ‘enemies’ is Clover, an old warrior who has learned life the hard way and now prefers to watch the fight from under the shade of a tree, choosing to train the youngsters in the North camp.
Back in Adua, the center of the world, the City of White Towers – the towers are no longer white, smudged by smoke and dust. Industrialization is slowly creeping into the world and as is ordained, there are vultures looking to “profit” from this age of machines. Savine Dan Glokta, daughter of …. yeah you guessed it! San Dan Glokta, Glokta the cripple, Old Sticks, now the Arch Lector to the King. Savine is a viciously cunning woman, having learned the art of business and investing wisely. Her ambitions know no bounds and she is ruthless in her pursuit of profit and money in this age. She also has a crippling fear of appearing weak in the face of her “detractors” – and being a successful woman in this trade, she has many. Then there is the rebel section of workers, who protest the deplorable conditions of the victims toiling in inhuman conditions, different factions with different ideologies to oppose those “capitalists” in power. Peaceful protests or burning riots, both aim for the “Great Change”. Vick is one of the rebels, a survivor of the battle camps of Styria who wants to affect the ‘Great Change’ and has sided with a dangerous faction calling themselves the Breakers. Into this midst comes Sergeant Gunnar Broad, war weary who has sworn off violence but violence has taken a deep-rooted affection to the man, who is built and bred for war.
The happenings within the Capital is of course presided over by Orso, heir to the throne who has earned himself a reputation for being a lazy, indolent selfish man who has bedded over four thousand whores and enjoys his wine first thing in the morning. But as we soon realize, claims make out a man to be much worse than he actually is. Orso is actually a clever, kind-hearted young man, who recognizes that his best talent is to do nothing. Feckless at having a purpose in life. Except for one, that is. That purpose has a name – Savine. And to impress her, the Prince actually puts together an army to go fight in the North. But circumstances conspire differently and very soon, the Prince is forced to set out on a different kind of a mission. One that involves the possibly saving Savine herself. Who, in the middle of surveying one of her investments, a factory in the industrial city of Valbeck, gets sucked into the middle of an armed uprising by the worker rebels who are out to burn everything in their sights, to catalyze the ‘Great Change’.
As usual, Joe Abercrombie is absolutely on point, when it comes to his characters. Utterly compelling in their ‘humanity’ he puts them through the worst of the wringer, forcing adversity piled one atop the other to wreck their defenses, making them by turns vulnerable, wicked, ambitious, helpless and ultimately revealing that all of us, are flawed to the core. This is an established world and we wonder, what new can Abercrombie offer us? Haven’t we explored the far reaches of the Circle of the World, understood the meaninglessness of it all. A lot of new things, as Abercrombie proves in a stroke of genius by the introduction of industrialization. And yet, as the novel progress we realize and lament that despite the ‘progress’ of the machines in this world, humans alas remain an utterly selfish species hell bent on each others’ destruction.
A new cast of characters this, Joe masterfully builds each of their backstories, motivations and vicious hands, dealt by fate. And he takes conscious care to do so, without each of their tracks being a ‘retread’ of their older generation/parents. For example, Savine is as ruthless and ambitious as Glokta but her manner of achieving her goals is as far removed from Glokta’s wicked politics. Orso and Leo are two sides of a coin, both privileged youngsters trying to find their place in this shifty world, shaped by change and inimitable violence. But the manner in which they go about it marks them differently – Orso goes hammer and tongs at life, out to win glory and honor, single-minded in his vision. He doesn’t waste time and rushes headlong into life. Straightforward and honest. Orso, on the other hand, is a thinker. One of my favorite characters in this book, his arc of redemption is the most satisfying. A spoilt, utter feckless dandy ( though not as bad as Prince Ladisla from First Law!) Orso emerges out from his trials, a cautious young man, sympathetic to the tribulations of the world around him and conscious of his need, to find an anchor and purpose.
What surprised me about this book, though is also its utterly unflinching focus on romance. In Joe Abercrombie’s world though. romance isn’t about pink blooming flowers and rose wines or well-mannered dates. It’s about utterly gratuitous sex, bad morning breath, entangled trousers, nipping teeth. Some of the lead characters fall hard for each other. But there is no redemption or happy ending in this world. The violence of course is unapologetic, shocking [There’s this factory uprising scene that had me gasping in fright and disbelief!] trademark vintage Abercrombie. But as we soon realize, it isn’t just about the action. The action underlines the propulsive plot, dotted with short sharp chapters leading to cliff hangers and then exploding into new chapters, swapping points-of-views [ Remember Heroes?] to complete the whole picture from both sides of the coin.
Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he knows how to start a new series. Unputdownable once the characters are all introduced, the constant backstabbing, the vicious duels, the crazy battle scenes all of that adds up to an engaging read. It’s a world on the knife’s edge. A new generation that itches to take over from the veterans (a constant theme that runs through the book) A Little Hatred is clever, funny and horrible all at the same time. With scathing commentary on society and politics, division of class and wealth and even clever quips on xenophobia at times, A Little Hatred is definitely the book of the year for me. The wait was totally worth it. Joe spins his magic once again, giving us a hardboiled version of life inside the Circle and expanding outside of it, craftily writing his way into another classic series, that will possibly be featured as his best one yet.