Author: Joe Abercrombie
Title: The Trouble with Peace
Series: The Age of Madness #2
The Trouble with Peace is the second installment in Abercrombie newest trilogy, The Age of Madness – playing out approximately two decades after The First Law trilogy in the Circle of the World. I’ve read the first installment, A Little Hatred, back in 2019 – but never gotten around to reviewing it. Suffice to say, it was pretty good: slicker and sharper and funnier than The First Law, with the added benefit of hosting a less likeable crew of protagonist – which, in Abercrombie’s books, is actually a real benefit, as most of them will most probably meet their gory, humiliating and depressing ends long before the trilogy’s conclusion. I rated A Little Hatred 8/10; and I’m happy to say The Trouble with Peace is even better.
The First Law trilogy was written with the ingenious leading thought of “What if Merlin was evil?” The Age of Madness continues to build up on it and I’m very encouraged by the signs of an equally pitiless Nimue in sight. But most importantly, with his Age of Madness series Joe Abercrombie seems to be stepping into Sir Terry Pratchett’s shoes – if (and that’s a big if) Pratchett were cynical to the core, ruthless, and constantly angry. Sure, at the moment these shoes are still way too big, and at times clearly uncomfortable, but I’m pretty certain Abercrombie will grow up to fit them quite well.
So, what has Abercrombie in common with the great Pratchett, I hear you ask? The answer is “surprisingly much.” But first and foremost, it is satire. Pratchett’s favorite type of satire was wise and funny and forgiving, whereas Abercrombie delights in the sharp and painful and merciless, but both writers intentionally chose to portray – and enlarge – the flaws of our own world in their imagined ones. Banks and credits, merchants and inventors, barbarians and witches and magi, even a steam engine – all’s there in the Circle of the World (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Discworld, starting with the name). Yes, Abercrombie stands on Pratchett’s shoulders, but he’s also very much his own writer, going for dark everywhere where Pratchett chose light, opting for tragedy and heavy irony where Pratchett selected comedy as his preferred writing technique, focusing on character development where Pratchett concentrated on ideas.
I’m tempted to say Abercrombie is a writer for readers with a masochistic streak; for every time you laugh while reading his books, it’s a laughter rooted in someone else’s misery: Schadenfreude. And beneath it, there is a worm of doubt, twisting in your gut, making you question not the story or the imaginary characters, but the image of our reality depicted in them. And it’s a very nasty one, indeed, built on inequality, pain and suffering, on rage and entitlement, on luxury achieved through ruthlessness and egotism and elitism. Of course it’s simplified, of course it’s distorted – it’s a satire, after all. But there is enough similarity to our own world, enough plausibility, enough relatability, to feed that worm of doubt till it makes you sick.
I won’t enter that labeling contest and consider whether it’s grimdark or something else. For me it’s just very dark fantasy filled with gallows humor and a total lack of mercy toward its protagonists. That authorial ruthlessness is coupled with a twisted sense of empathy: Abercrombie can write wonderfully complex characters, making the readers root for them – or at least understand them – in all their squalid, grasping insecurity. But at the same time, he always puts them in untenable positions, where literally every available alternative is bad. I can picture Abercrombie writing away at his keyboard with a maniacal glee as he concocts a living hell for all his characters: trapped between choices bad and worse, haunted by their own ineptitudes, flaws and lack of understanding of the bigger picture, torn between loyalties big and small, carried away by their own delusions, and always, always remaining their own worst enemies. But in the end, if we were to find the true culprit of the Circle of the World’s horrible predicament, it would not be any single one of Abercrombie’s protagonists; not even the whole host of them. It would be the social system created by people for people, propagated and maintained by its various parts throughout the centuries, which traps them all in a prison of their own making.
And yet, Abercrombie, the true son of the British Isles, still upholds the Hobbes’s desperate belief that what we’ve got is immeasurably better that what we would be left with without civilization:
„He had always thought of civilization as a machine, cast from rigid iron, everything riveted in its proper place. Now he saw it was a fabric gauzy as a bride’s veil. A tissue everyone agrees to leave in place, but one that can be ripped away in an instant. And hell lurks just beneath.” A Little Hatred, p. 216
Now that’s a cheery thought! 😉
As there’s no A Little Hatred review on our blog I won’t divulge the plot details for The Trouble with Peace; I only want to point out that because Abercrombie is following in Pratchett’s footsteps, the plot is actually not the strongest element of this book. Certain choices and outcomes seem forced, for the sake of the broader argument Abercrombie is making here: so once again, we have a war-ish thing with the North, growing restlessness and unease in the Union, and an even more pronounced conflict between the old and the young. But the character development largely makes up for the plot deficiencies. I must say I’ve grown to like Orso and Rikke quite a lot – only Ninefingers and Glokta are still higher on my personal list of Abercrombie’s favorite characters – so I shudder to think what will happen to them in the next novel.
Our evil Merlin is also still quite active – even more than in the previous book; and because with the onset of age of reason/madness/industrial revolution in the Circle of the World magic is said to be slowly leaching from the world, Bayaz has moved to richer pastures, i.e. banking system, creating a tight net of dependence around the Union and beyond. But as there are a few wonderfully nasty witches in his way this time, I’m very much looking forward to the concluding installment, The Wisdom of Crowds, set to be published in September 2021.