The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review
Synopsis: Conspiracy. Betrayal. Rebellion.
Peace is just another kind of battlefield…
Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way.
For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her.
The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply.
The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace, lasts forever.
Series: The Age of Madness (#2)
Published by: Gollancz
Purchased Copy: From my local bookstore, which had stacks of the damn thing over a week before release – go figure.
Fuck me, that was a lot.
Joe Abercrombie’s Trouble With Peace juggles cut-throat politics, interpersonal drama, and bloodcurdling action with the proficiency of an experienced acrobat. No element touched upon in A Little Hatred is forgotten – what’s more, every conversation, every character experience is rendered more meaningful. Abercrombie uses them as his Industrial Revolution uses the lives of the poor and underprivileged – without the slightest scruple.
In short, The Trouble With Peace is the work of a virtuoso at the height of his creative prowess. Few authors write prose as cutting, as sharp as Abercrombie’s. Add to that immediacy and biting wit, and you have one of the distinct voices writing in fantasy today. The language he uses (here as elsewhere) is far from lyrical; often jarring and dynamic, it continues to strike a note of gritty realism that’s second to none.
The new generations of heroes is as flawed as the old, and then some. As I looked to my review of what is very likely my favourite fantasy title of the year, I was drawn to the treatment Abercrombie gives his six PoV characters. I’ll attempt to draw them in pairs – the characters within each pair foil each other in so intriguing a way, I can’t but investigate further. If you haven’t read the novel, I would respectfully advise you to take your leave now: here be spoilers. (I’ll mark with bold where they end, if you’d like some more non-spoilery thoughts.)
Ambition is a disease that eats away at our first pair – both Leo and Savine are desperate to feed theirs. Each has something to prove, a shadow to step out of – the former, that of his mother; the latter, that of the horrors she experienced at Valbeck.
The match between them is at once perfection and utter madness. Leo dan Brock is a naïve idealist easy to manipulate. That’s true to a point but incomplete and oversimplified. Charming as he is, Brock is bigoted. Add to that the fact he’s very obviously bisexual (or perhaps gay), and supressing his attraction to men through rampant homophobia. So you see, “naïve idealist” takes into account only the charming part he projects outwards. But let’s get back on track: Leo is a “character confused by romantic assumptions about reality” (I’ve borrow this from critic Northrop Frye), in this case, the reality of war. It goes further than idealism and a love for battle – his mistaking the rules of reality with those of romance leads to tragedy, both private and public.
Savine, the most cut-throat investor in the Union, leads him by the chain. Once she catches wind of his misguided commitment to a revolt led by a powerful political operator within the Open Council, what does Savine do? Does she attempt to extricate her new husband from his foolishness, as he secretly hoped she would? Nothing of the sort. Savine uses ambition as one would a poultice, to scrub away at the twin infections of her knowledge about the incest she’s unwittingly committed, and the trauma during the Valbeck uprising. Unlike Leo, she is firmly rooted in reality – that of the parlours of high society, veiled in Victorian-like gentility. The reality of war is different, worse than even Valbeck:
But then getting warriors to fight has always been easy. It’s stopping the bastards that’s the tougher trick.
By book’s end, this ambition has consumed them and burned their lives clean; in the face of the destruction they’re in part to blame for, both flinch. Both are broken. What follows next for Savine, I could only guess at – but the abrupt ending for both characters has left me reeling, damn near desperate for more.
Orso and Rikke, both treated as oddities and fuck-ups in A Little Hatred, are forced by circumstance to grow up and take charge; the stakes are nothing less than survival for themselves and what they represent. Orso is made the fool more than once before he hardens enough to his new position as High King; lucky for the former prince, playing the fool comes as second nature. But as his enemies find out, to their great expense, playing the part and being a fool are completely different things.
If anyone shines through the latter two-thirds of this sequel, that’s Rikke. Forced to sacrifice an eye to reclaim control over the maddening magic of the Long Eye, the Dogman’s little girl proves herself a more talented schemer than her old man by far. By the end of The Trouble With Peace, hers is far and away the most concrete position of all our leads — which likely means she’ll get shafted by Bayaz or Black Calder or whatever fresh nightmare the North will offer up, come the conclusion to the trilogy.
Then we have Vick and Broad, as unlikely a pair as any, at a first glance, yet…The pasts of both are drenched with violence. Vick grew up in the penal colonies in Angland and got out at great personal cost. Broad has survived siege after siege, despite being a Ladderman, the first wave of mad bastards who charge into the melee. Both are made of what Steven Erikson’s Malazan veterans would no doubt call “cold iron”.
At her core, Vick does terrible things out of loyalty, while Broad uses loyalty as an excuse to do terrible things. By book’s end, neither entertains any illusions of personal morality. Come to think of it, that’s a unifying theme between all six of our major characters; not a one of them has much of virtue on their mind – far more regret and the need for survival, regardless of the cost. It’s a bitter world.
Here end the spoilers.
As for the cast of supporting characters, they run from the usual gamut of hilarious to downright insane, with plenty of memorable new and returning faces making an appearance. A personal of mine is Zuri, Savine’s assistant, for whom I’ve drawn the wildest conjectures. I do hope Abercrombie will explore this bond yet further in The Wisdom of Crowds.
A short but key chapter of the novel introduces us to Jappo Murcatto, king of Styria – and offers as hard an evidence about his paternal parentage as anything we’re going to get. More importantly, it does a wonderful job of securing Jappo an enduring place in my gallery of beloved Abercrombie characters who deserve a great deal more space to shine. I can only hope he will receive similar treatment to his mother in a standalone – though, perhaps Abercrombie could spare him the fall from on high in quite the same manner his mother, Monza, experienced it.
In this chapter, I also discovered one of my favourite new Abercrombie quotes (if you’re a puritan, you might want to look away, now – but then again, what’re you doing reading a review of an Abercrombie book?!):
‘If it helps, I don’t only fuck men. … Sometimes, I’m fucked by them. Look at it this way – if you needed advice on horses, you wouldn’t go to someone who never rode a horse.’
‘How could someone who never had a cock really know what’s best to do with a cock? I’ve debated scholars the world over and no one’s been able to give me a satisfactory answer on that point.’
Difficult to argue with this logic, innit?
There’s the usual pair of chapters during which Abercrombie plays around with multiple PoVs – I love the use of that technique, how it sketches a 360-degree panoramic view of a single key event in the narrative. The prose is as gut-wrenching as ever. Better – racing towards the finish line, I couldn’t look away, not for over three hours. If the house came down around me, I don’t think I’d have noticed. Gripping is too weak a word.
A final point I would like to bring up – the scope of this novel should serve as a masterclass and guiding post to any aspiring fantasy writer. The number of events that transpire within the first two-thirds of the novel is staggering; like with A Little Hatred, there’s enough here to persuade a more inexperienced writer to commit to a far larger body of text. Under Abercrombie’s pen, not so much as a chapter comes across as rushed.
With the Trouble With Peace now finished and on my shelf, I am bone-tired, exhausted beyond what most other books have put me through. Yet, I am eager to read on, and to return to this work and reread it and its predecessors, and re-examine what it is they do so well. I read somewhere that some of the very finest novels can be described as “beautiful work made out of ugly things”; such is the case with Abercrombie’s novels, which, far beyond the visceral power of their action sequences and the lives of their charismatic, flawed protagonists, draw you towards deeper reflection on our shared human values, and how easy it is to lose track of them.