Read-a-long for Joe Abercrombie’s THE AGE OF MADNESS Trilogy
Earlier in the year, Will from Gollancz invited me to take part in a read-a-long for A Little Hatred, the first book in Joe Abercrombie’s Age of Madness Trilogy, to build up to the release of the final part of the trilogy, The Wisdom of Crowds, this month.
At the time, I was mad-busy, apologised and declined, sulked for a bit…
But then Will invited me to take part in the second part of the read-a-along – for The Trouble with Peace – and this time I knew I had to take part. There is so much love out there for Abercrombie’s books, so not only was I looking forward to diving into his new trilogy and returning to Midderland; but I couldn’t wait to chat about Trouble with the other blogs taking part.
You can find the read-a-long so far here:
I’ll be covering chapters 37 – 45.
Shout out to Abercrombie you mad fucking bastard for not numbering your damn chapters.
Took me ages to work out which ones were mine fucks sake.
Anyway, let’s dive in shall we?
Chapter 37 – Questions
‘Oh, don’t be too hard on yourself,’ said Vick. ‘Your blow didn’t miss everyone. It killed dozens of honest folk who’d come to watch an engine toddle across some fields on a summer morning! What about those poor bastards, eh? What about their wives and husbands and fathers and children?…’
The chapter opens on a cell in the Inquisition where Vick is questioning a man regarding the Burners’ attack at Curnsbick’s demonstration. It’s clear Vick isn’t the first Practical he’s come into contact with, but he’s not particularly forth-coming, and sings a sorry story to Vick. Obviously, the wrong person to try and have a sympathy-pissing contest with, and we see Vick’s own situation mirrored in this prisoner’s – the downtrodden and abused clawing their way high enough to turn around and stamp on the fingers of those below them. As Vick points out in the above quote, there’s no right side, there’s no just cause; just more and more victims.
Vick is pulled out of the questioning by a Practical hissing that Glokta has summoned her, and she’s surprised to find the King present also. There’s a great moment where she “slipped into the smooth, aristocratic, slightly constipated tone her mother might have used to greet the king” and she describes deference as being “baked in“. It made me smile and think of Dawn French in an interview with Graham Norton where she describes her horror when, having decided she wasn’t going to grovel like all the other sycophants, her knees betrayed her and she curtseyed at the Queen. It was lovely to see that moment with Vick where her apparent absolute control of her image and persona slipped just a little.
But back to the plot! Also present at this meeting is Yoru Sulfur, and Vick’s alarm bells are sent ringing when he name-drops his boss, Bayaz. Orso shows Vick an anonymous letter he’s been sent, from “a friend“, warning him that the Open Council are planning to steal his throne using their allies in the North, and that he has a traitor on the Closed Council. The group discuss possible suspects, and a plan of action, but Vick is very much distracted by the warnings from Shylo regarding Valint and Balk. The prisoner told her an Eater had attacked them at the demonstration, and she suspects (correctly of course) that it must have been Sulfur.
The note hints the rebels are looking for allies in Styria, so Vick heads off to the address Shylo gave her. She enters an establishment contrived of “gloomy cellars and low vaults“, and there’s a fantastic comparison as she’s put in mind of the mines in Angland. It’s yet another reminder that her past is never far from her mind, that it colours and shades all she sees and does in her present. As I’ve been reading Trouble, I can’t help but pair certain characters together in the similarity of their situations or roles, and for me, Vick and Savine are one such pair. Here particularly I was reminded of Savine’s PTSD flashbacks of Valbeck, and I really feel the way Abercrombie has portrayed the way people are shaped by their experiences, and continue to be, is so utterly relatable and poignant. The past’s influence is inescapable, and I certainly felt that for Vick here. After some Fun Bantz with an Unusual Barkeep, Vick throws down the gauntlet and arranges a meeting for King Orso with King Jappo of Styria.
Chapter 38 – Tomorrow Came
Sad thing was he’d picked the most threadbare clothes he could find. Maybe because he didn’t want to stand out. Maybe because he was shamed about why he did. Even so, he looked like a rich man among these ghosts and beggars. He’s forgotten how bad it could get. Strange, how quick you forget.
Can we just, for second, appreciate Abercrombie’s writing style? He’s a ruthless economist when it comes to the use of language, his sentence structure is like some kind of fencing duel, pared down to precise exacting cuts, with the occasional flourish of repetition that gives the flow of poetry to the writing. It’s just such a joy to read. I mean, for the most part obviously (deaths and gore and grunting and pissing selves aside).
The sorry and confused figure above is of course Broad. Savine has sent him back to Valback to winkle out the Breakers and cut a deal with them. Despite the changes the uprising had on Broad (and his family. And unforgettably on Savine herself. And to some extent Vick. Maybe even Orso. Certainly to the way in which the Closed Council responded to Angland’s call for aid), Valbeck is unchanged. The situation of those most needing a change is unchanged. Broad wanders through the streets asking for Sarlby and catalogues the differences that aren’t differences at all; the taller chimneys, the more-professionally-constructed barricades, the longer queues of “the broken and needy” waiting for work. It’s a very different return than Savine’s PR stunt. There, we had a woman displaying a callous self-awareness that she would never see herself returned to that situation, and she didn’t care who she trod on to keep on top. On the face of things, Broad has a great deal more sympathy for the people living in this abject poverty. And yet, he has a similar self-awareness; he knows what he is and what he’s doing, he knows the only reason his chin is above the water is because he’s stood on the back of others. So despite the assurances of guilt, despite the giving away of coins expecting nothing in return, it’s difficult to pity this man who is able to exact the same remorselessness in his actions as Savine. In order to keep his wife and daughter happy and safe. Or so he tells himself, at any rate. Repeatedly.
He eventually finds Sarlby, who sees through him and his situation quickly enough, and warns him that although he can take Broad to the Breakers, what follows after would be out of his control. It’s an ominous end to what has been a short but sobering chapter. Coming from a socialist working class (coal mining) background myself, from an area of Wales famous not just for mining but for it’s tin industry, I felt an affinity for the emerging working class of Valback and Adua. I found myself raging at the people claiming so much in their names when hiding far more personal agendas. There’s certainly no mystery as to where Abercrombie has found his inspiration, it’s far too familiar a story – still, unfortunately. Change only comes about if it’s advantageous to those capable of bringing it about – if there’s a profit to be made from it.
Chapter 39 – Grown Up
He’d done nothing wrong, but he felt he’d let Jurand down somehow. Broken some unspoken promise between them. He looked at Leo now, that earnest, open look that always seemed to catch him right in the heart.
Ok, after feeling a little morose after that last chapter, provoking a smidge too many thoughts on social injustices, let’s skip to Sipani where Leo and his entourage are preparing for a night out (where Leo will be meeting up with King Jappo and attempting to enlist him as an ally in his treason. Cheers!)
Personally, Leo cuts an increasingly frustrating figure throughout Trouble. A figure whose actions tend to demonstrate the hypocrisy of his words; for example in the opening of this chapter, where he spurns the luxurious trappings around him and waxes lyrical on his soldierly simplicity. I’ll get my tiny violin out whilst you overthrow the king and steal his seat, shall I Leo?
Escaping the revels of the others, Jurand and Leo share a moment on the balcony. And this is where Leo’s blind naivety further gets on my tits (who’s writing this Rikke, me or you?) as he just can’t see what lies between himself and Jurand. How much he’s hurting Jurand. They talk about Leo’s upcoming meeting, and his fears for it along with his concerns for their scheme in general; the air between them is positively throbbing with tension, and just when you think Leo’s going to give in to his impulses, Antaup the Twerp barges between them. Realistically speaking, we know Leo’s not going to saunter into a sexual awakening any time soon, and evidently Jurand comes to the same realisation as he bitterly exclaims “Time comes we all have to grow up… Put our silly dreams aside.”
Chapter 40 – Grown Up
‘Being king suits me.’
She saw right through him, as always. ‘It never suited father. It ground all the fun out of him.’
‘Well, I’m not him.’ Though he feared in fact he might be. ‘It’s brought out the responsible servant of the people in me.’
‘Who would have thought you were hiding one of those?’
Surprise! Guess who else is in Sipani?
From a character sinking in my estimation, we join one rising in them. From one leader overshadowed by a powerful mother and floundering in his mistakes, to another – Orso is also in Sipani to visit Jappo, under the guise of a family visit with his sister.
It’s another short chapter with some very basic plot points, but, as the (numberless. tsch) chapter title implies, another moment of growth for a character. Orso is reunited with his sister Carlot, who can tell there must be trouble a-foot for Orso to have travelled out to Sipani, but he’s not about to burden her with the extent of it. Instead, he burdens her with their mother. Who is furious to find Orso thinks she won’t be returning to Adua with him, but backs down in the face of Orso’s uncharacteristically reasonable and well-sounded arguments as to why she shouldn’t.
At his standing up to her and his firm insistence that she will, in fact, do as her king orders, his mother considers that he has grown up. But it’s so much more than having the courage to put his foot down with her. It’s the knowledge that he is not going to be able to be lead from in her shadow. It’s the acceptance that her safety far outweighs his selfish need for her strength. And it’s the understanding of the sacrifices to her own happiness she makes to be by his side, which is why he surprises her with a guest – her lover the Countess Shalere.
There are plenty of deep and important moments in Orso’s character development throughout Trouble, but this small chapter is most definitely my favourite of them.
Chapter 41 – All Tastes, No Judgement
‘But being an arsehole is crime and punishment both.’
Strap in readers, as Abercrombie is about to go positively Shakespearean on us. Our two opposing houses are about to don masks and enter Cardotti’s House of Leisure (yep, that one, it’s ok, they rebuilt it) to both meet with King Jappo…
First up, we join the Young Lion, a super uncomfortable Young Lion. He has a less than favourable opinion of the establishment he finds himself in, not to mention the people frequenting it (and just how much of those people he is able to see). His discomfort, which makes him even more moody and irritable than usual, arises from confusion over his conflicting emotions. He expresses disgust for the gaudy trappings of the venue, for the deceit and danger that clogs the air; and yet it excites him too. Despite their greeter assuaging that they “cater for all tastes and make no judgements“, Leo is clearly very much in denial about his tastes and has no qualms over making judgements. After something of a pep talk from Jurand, Leo’s first impulse is to kiss Jurand on the forehead, but catches himself at the thought of their “odd moment” earlier, and instead responds in a more typically “macho” way. It’s clear then that he’s not completely clueless regarding his feelings towards Jurand, which makes his battle against them all the more heart-breaking. You just desperately want him to break through this, but I suspect there’s going to be a great deal more pain involved first.
Enter, stage left, King Orso, sporting a golden sun mask. As with all good masquerades, the players are wearing masks that hint towards their characters – a sun for Orso, a lion for Leo – and with all good fictional representations of masquerades, you wonder how the hell do they not realise who everyone is. But where would be the fun in that?
The greeter rolls out her act for Orso and his entourage, who is much more… appraising of the locale. He is under no pretence of what he is facing, and so is in a position where his environment doesn’t shock him onto a back foot as it has Leo. He may be more at home in a brothel, but it’s clear he’s also more experienced with the other kinds of games played here. Of subtlety and subterfuge and power plays. Orso soon finds himself at the same dice table as Leo, where they make the kind of small talk found in these situations (strangers sharing a dice table, not… gestures vaguely at the king and his lord governor behind their masks all this), and they chat briefly about wives, the acquiring of talented new ones, the loss of others. It’s a beautiful moment of irony for the reader that we know they’re of course talking about the same woman and what larks if only they knew! But there’s far more tension and danger here than you’d find on any tempestuous midsummer night’s dream.
Leo is called away to his meeting with the much-titled Jappo, and isn’t particularly pleased with what he finds. The meeting is already off to a tense start when a servant lad asks innocently enough whether he can get anything for Leo, who snaps a “no” at him and descends briefly into an internal spiral of self-assuring denial. Already under a great deal of pressure from his self-doubt at his ability to politically charm, well, anything, Leo blunders his way through his sales pitch. He’s left increasingly dizzy from Jappo’s linguistic twists, accidentally offends him a handful of times, and is left so frustrated with himself, and the barely-dressed oily man before him, that he makes the snap decision to only offer Jappo Sipani if he allies with Leo, and not Westport as previously agreed (and Jappo keeps hinting at). All in all, neither leader is clearly impressed with the other, and there’s the sense that there are some battles Leo obviously is just not equipped for. I’m sure there are readers out there who love Leo, and would pity him at this point, but I rather share Orso’s opinion that he’s an arrogant prick.
And so we come to Orso’s meeting with Jappo. As opposed to Leo, this is the kind of warfare Orso excels at. I found this chapter as a whole so fantastically narratively clever; Abercrombie does this play by play side by side comparison for his battle scenes, and it’s fitting he does the same here. Up until this point, as readers we’re encouraged to compare Leo and Orso, and pitted against each other Leo has been coming up on top. He’s the hero of Angland, the people love him, and he got the girl. But the world operates in shades of grey, and Leo can’t seem to get past the black-and-white simplicity he’s used to. This chapter tells us that this rebellion is not the given thing we’ve been led to believe it is. That Leo is not in fact guaranteed success; that Orso has a different way of fighting which he is very good at. Orso and Jappo are able to recognise each other for what they are, and cut through the game Leo so struggled with. Suffice to say, Orso came out on top this round.
Unfortunately, the night (or the chapter) isn’t quite done with Leo just yet. Having discovered that Glaward and Jurand have left, and Jin is nowhere to be found, Leo returns to his lodgings supporting a heavily inebriated Antaup. On getting back to their rooms, it seems things aren’t quite right, and whereas Antaup promptly falls asleep, Leo is on guard for what he suspects are assassins in the dark. What he discovers instead is Jurand in… a compromising position with Glaward. He promptly stumbles away and ignores Jurand’s calls, and it feels like things may be irrevocably shattered there. Again, I found it hard to feel sorry for Leo, and instead sympathised for Jurand, who obviously loves Leo and is finding comfort with Glaward believing he can’t have the life he wants with Leo.
Chapter 42 – No Philosopher
‘The Closed Council drafts a set of rules that make the rich richer and drive the poor to starve and call it an equality law. You know what they named the most low-lying, smog-choking, shit-stinking alley of rotten cellars in all of Valbeck?’ She leaned in a little closer to whisper it. ‘Primrose Heights. Calling a thing a different thing don’t make it a different thing, now does it?’
Phew! That was quite the chapter!
But things aren’t about to let up as we return to Broad, who’s just about to have his own difficult and… emotionally confusing? meeting. Broad has been brought before Judge, and she’s as mad (in both senses of the word) as ever. Broad battles with his inner turmoil of attraction to both Judge and danger (maybe one and the same thing there) whilst at the same time attempting to strike a deal with the Burners and keep his life. On the last day of summer, when Leo and the Open Council will be making their move from the north, Savine would like the Burners to rise up and start some fires to distract the King’s Own and prevent them from coming to Orso’s aid. It worked so well the first time, after all, when Leo needed aid against the North.
Trust is, unsurprisingly, in short supply however. Down on the docks, Broad has a good-will gesture for Judge and the Burners; weapons, armour, and even a cannon – all fresh from the Ostenhorm Armoury, with the promise of more to come if a deal can be made. Although exciting, it’s not quite enough for Judge to trust Broad, and so she enlists him to help them in an upcoming organised ambush to rescue some prisoners.
Things just continue to escalate for Broad, don’t they? I sympathise for him, as he does seem to be between a rock and a hard place, and I can’t necessarily see how he can get himself out of these situations. And yet, to a certain degree, and despite what he says, there’s plenty that points to the fact he doesn’t want this ball to stop rolling anyway. As Judge says in the quote above, calling a thing a different thing don’t make it a different thing, and no matter what Broad tries to call himself – a husband, a father, a farmer, a worker – he’s a killer. Judge can see the truth of the matter, and so can Broad; I think it’ll just be a waiting game now until he faces that.
Chapter 43 – Changes At The Top
And as simply as that, it was done. No ceremony, no medals, no grand speech and no cheering crowds. From the pinnacle of power to a toothless old cripple in one brief conversation. The chair squeaked from the room and the doors were shut upon Sand dan Glokta. The era of Old Sticks was at an end.
Orso returns to Glokta with confirmation of everything that was in the letter, and news that Glokta’s son in law is a traitor. Glokta immediately resigns and… what follows is a quieter, more dignified exit than I ever expected Glokta might get. Although having said that, I’m not really sure what I expected for the grand finale of Sand dan Glokta. Not a body found floating in the docks, as he always did. There was something so very sad in simply passing his ring of office over to Pike, and squeaking from the room. Something so… understated and anticlimactic. And at the end of the day, the best fans could hope for this character, I believe. A dignified exit, despite Savine’s best efforts via association, and a lifetime of indignities.
But yes, ok, back to the plot. Before we leave Orso and Pike, Orso asks to speak to Inquisitor Tuefel as, ominously, he has some ideas. We’re not yet privy to those ideas, however, as we move on to Orso joining Forest and Tunny and discussing their troop numbers, before he promotes Forest to General. Then before we know it, we find ourselves in a Closed Council meeting. Feathers have already been ruffled, as the councillors have been summoned to this meeting first thing in the morning, and find themselves overshadowed in their chairs by a Knight of the Body. It’s already a foreboding atmosphere, and we know that one of these arseholes is the traitor. Orso soon wakes the council up with the announcement that Glokta has stepped down as his son in law Leo dan Brock plans to rebel against the crown, and this has been confirmed by King Jappo, whom Orso has met in Sipani. It’s all rather a lot for the councillors to take in, and as Orso reveals more of what he knows, we’re treated to shocked reactions from various members of the council. Orso has set a cat amongst these particularly fat pigeons, but not enough is yet given away to work out who the guilty party might be…
Chapter 44 – Into The Light
Vick gave a snort. ‘You should tell the folk I saw die in the camps how right things used to be. You’re going to shed a sea of blood, and the best you’ll manage is to swap one set of bastards for another. Principles? I’d laugh id I had the stomach.’
We don’t have long to wait though, as Vick pulls through for us (and Orso, evidently). We join her in a bathhouse picking her way through sobbing naked men and corpses towards a steamy chamber where Lord Heugen and Lord Marshal Brint have been detained. Heugen attempts to sneer his way out of answering any of Vick’s questions, so it’s with no small amount of satisfaction that we see her slap him silly until he squeals the names of everyone involved. As contemptuous a figure as Heugen is, once he’s dragged away, Brint paints a far more sympathetic picture. The likes of Heugen and Isher may have been in this partly for revenge for their fathers, mostly for personal gain; but for Brint, the Closed Council’s inaction over the Protectorate was unforgivable. There are always victims in any Cause, as we saw in Valbeck. And we get the same sense here, too. This rebellion for the most part is being spurred by greed, and so for the most part I haven’t aligned myself with that side; but Brint is very much the one man’s freedom fighter to the other’s terrorist, and this was possibly the first moment that gave me pause to consider his point. But then of course Vick brings us crashing to the reality that few rebellions are willing to face, namely that changing the name at the top won’t change very much else at all.
We close the chapter with a parting gift from Glokta to Vick. After agreeing to meet with him, Glokta thanks Vick for her years of loyalty to him, which understandably makes her somewhat angry. Considering the circumstances under which she came to work for him, and the very many people along the way she was not loyal to. Glokta takes her back to the camps and what she did there, how she bought her freedom by betraying her brother, and tells her she must forgive herself. This moment of kindness does not necessarily come as a surprise to the reader, for we all know what Glokta is like really, but it hits home hard with Vick and, just like Broad earlier, it feels like we may be reaching a tipping point with this character. Has she gone too far past it all to ever be able to forgive herself now? Where would she start forgiving and where should she stop? Conversely, where do her loyalties now start and stop now Glokta has resigned and no longer has a hold over her? Again, like Broad, despite her insistency that a Glokta is the reason she is the way she is (the senior for her, the younger for the former), there’s an element to her that must face the truth that she has accepted this is her place.
Chapter 45 – Some Men Can’t Help Themselves
‘I don’t think you care a shit about your debts. Or even about your family. I think you know there’s a fight coming, and you can’t stand the thought o’ being left out. I think you’re like me… Only happy when you’re bloody‘
Speaking of Broad and tipping points and facing your truths…
Despite promising Liddy no more trouble, Broad is kneeling in trouble. Ok, technically he’s kneeling in dirt at the side of a road waiting to ambush a prisoner convoy but you get what I mean. When it appears, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s something a little odd about this convoy. There’s just the one, small, heavily guarded wagon that can’t possibly hold the amount of prisoners Judge claimed they’d be rescuing this evening. Following your typical Abercrombie Action Scene (yelling groaning writhing hack chop shriek screaming snarling sweat spit blood – but no fucks, we’re in Midderland), we discover that there’s just the one man in the wagon.
The new manager of the Valbeck Valint and Balk branch, with a briefcase locked to his wrist. Broad is having trouble enough on the come down from the fight, but he struggles through the thought that everything he just went through was just for money. But Judge is quick to appraise him of the situation. Judge considers them just as much the enemy as the king or the closed council, coming so very close to the truth but certainly close enough to make it matter. Whereas
Rousseau Risinau and the others hold their philosophical ideals, Judge knows what truly greases the axels of society, and that nicking the king’s purse will be a far greater furtherment for their cause than most. After a bungled attempt at cutting off the banker’s wrist, Broad steps forward and hacks off his hand before hacking into his head and, with a roar, throws his axe away. It’s Broad at one of his most violent points, it’s shocking and sudden and brutal… and yet, although he doesn’t acknowledge it, and Judge celebrates his brutality, it is something of an act of mercy for the banker who was suffering at the inept hands of the Burners. The more good Broad tries to do the further he sinks. And with that, Judge sets him free to return to Savine with the promise she’ll send word to all the Breakers of the Union. We’re under no allusion by this point that she’s a powerful, if unstable, ally to have.
A huge thank you to Gollancz for the opportunity to take part, along with copies of the trilogy.
The Wisdom of Crowds is out 14th September 2021