THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by Joe Abercrombie (BOOK REVIEW)
Please note this review will contain spoilers for A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace, but it is spoiler free for The Wisdom of Crowds.
‘Wisdom is not a premium, madness is the fashion, the balance sheets are all torn up and the friends that were assets have become liabilities.’ Vic kept walking, ‘Threats for tomorrow don’t cut very deep when today is so damn threatening.’
The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie is the last book in the Age of Madness trilogy, and for now at least, marks the end of our time within the world of the First Law. Before I began this book I was apprehensive about what kind of ending these beloved characters would meet, but I needn’t have feared, say one thing for Abercrombie, say he knows how to create a show-stopping finale!
On the cover of my ARC the words Chaos, Fury and Destruction dominate, and these are apt words, civil war ravages throughout the lands and the ‘Great Change’ is fully upon the citizens of the Union, for better or worse. Much like during The French Revolution, the time of Social Revolution has finally come and the oppressors have become the oppressed. Anyone with wealth and prosperity are brought under a knife’s edge and they must either willingly denounce their status or face a long fall from grace. The Age of Madness certainly reflects all that this book stands for.
Yet there are those who find opportunities amongst the ruin. Leo Dan Brock, beloved by many, seeks to be the hero for the new age, and Savine must turn her talents for business into talents of survival, she must truly become ‘the darling of the slums’. Orso finds that being a king has landed him with the worst possible fate, and in the North, Rikke faces a battle all of her own as Black Calder plots his revenge. The time of judgement is upon all. As our characters face an uncertain future, they must also reflect, even learn from the deeds of the past, the once legends now long buried beneath the mud. The past now comes to heads with the future.
In my review for The Trouble with Peace I had said that the narrative had leaned more towards the political intrigue side, and even though that was entertaining in its own right, I did miss the action. This time around I felt the balance hit the exact right spot for me. The proud forcefully become humbled, and the poor and lowly suddenly find themselves powerful, yet they also show a capability to deliver the same cruelty that was bestowed upon them by the nobility. The ‘new leaders’ also hold little knowledge of what to do with their newfound power or even how to run the country. The ‘Great Change’ was not all it was cracked up to be; put simply, everyone was fucked. Abercrombie becomes the weaver of politics and chaotic battles, each scene expertly builds upon the tension and is doused in his trademark dark humour, repetitions and cynical view of the world. The world has literally gone to shit, and the aftermath is nothing but sheer entertaining.
‘The Great Change’ was not only symbolic of the world but of its people too, especially some of our main protagonists. The dynamics between the characters is once again fantastic, and I loved the way Abercrombie hits us with multiple twists throughout the book. Loyalty and treachery hang in balance and at every turn our main protagonists tip the scales in surprising ways.
Rikke remained my favourite character throughout the entire trilogy. From A Little Hatred we watch Rikke as she comes out from behind her father’s shadow and becomes an absolute force not to be rivalled with, yet even when she finally gains power in her own right, her fundamental caring personality wars with what is best for her people. She vies for fairness, when her people look to her to rule with a firm hand. Rikke is the most vulnerable, and heartfelt character within the book, she genuinely cares for the people who show her loyalty, no matter the deeds they’ve done. Abercrombie has always explored found families within his books, and Rikke’s relationship with Shivers and Isern-i-Phail, which goes from strength to strength in Wisdom of Crowds, made for one of the weirdest but most sincere found families within the series. Not to mention how entertaining they were too, Abercrombie absolutely hit the nail on the head with the banter between these characters.
‘Did I do the right thing, Shivers?’
‘You’re asking the wrong man, I reckon.’
‘I’m asking the only one I trust.’
‘‘Cause I done so much o’ the wrong thing?’
‘Shows you know the difference, don’t it?’
‘Not sure there is one.’
Savine was a character I had previously disliked but Abercrombie crafted her story arc so brilliantly that I couldn’t help but care for her in this last instalment. Her desire for self preservation and self profit never quite leaves her, but without giving away too much, her priorities change and her motivations, at least on some level, are for a better life all round. This sense of purpose in my opinion made her a much more likeable character.
My sympathies fell wholeheartedly with Gunnar Broad, a man with a history of warfare, always called to do the deeds no one else was willing to do, a man utterly haunted by his past. Once again Gunnar’s vow to keep out of trouble, and to ensure his family’s safety means he has to sacrifice his own morality, his own inner peace, and do what must be done. This time it seems executing nobles falls in his hands, and now driven to a constant state of drunkenness, Gunnar struggles to find a way to end this cycle before it destroys him entirely.
“He drank again, spirit burning his sore gullet. It was like taking the lenses off his mind. Make everything a blur. So he didn’t have to see Liddy’s face, or May’s. Didn’t have to think of what they’d say. Didn’t have to put ‘em next to what he was now. Didn’t have to fear what he might do to ‘em. Made it easier, being drunk. Or did it make it easier to have something to blame?”
I also felt for Orso and Vick who both seem to get the raw deal throughout Wisdom of Crowds. However, no matter what was thrown at Orso, he kept his quick witted nonchalant attitude, and I loved him all the more for it. Vick was perhaps the only character trying her utmost best to solve the disaster of the uprising she had played a part in, perhaps the only character to feel remorse for the brutality which ensued. This may be a dark book set in a brutal violent world, but even so, many of these characters still withheld their charm.
“They’re monsters,” Orso heard her whisper.
‘I almost wish they were,’ he muttered. ‘That would be easier. But they’re just people.’
‘They’re the worst people I ever saw.’
‘Of course they are. We hanged all the best ones.’
Speaking of charm, Leo Dan Brock certainly knew how to turn that on for the masses. Now disabled, bitter and in constant pain, Leo still turns his disadvantages into advantages wherever he can find them. Is he truly the kind of leader everyone needs? Does he truly care? As always Abercrombie leaves it for us to decide, but I think The Wisdom of Crowds shows us that in a world full of violence, unfairness, selfishness, brutality and plain madness, it breeds the same kind of people.
Abercrombie will always be the staple example for why I love the Grimdark genre, his stories are never one dimensional. In his world, his characters and his plot, there are no good deeds, no bad deeds, no heroes, no villains and certainly no justice. There are only people with reasons.
‘Take it far enough, freedom becomes chaos. The voice of the people… is just noise. It is the blather of the lunatics in the madhouse. It is the squeal of the pigs in the slaughterhouse. It is a choir of morons. Most of them don’t even know what they want, let alone how to get it.’
The Wisdom of Crowds is a worthy ending, one in which Abercrombie excels himself and proves to be a wizard of words. Even though the ending leaves many opportunities for further instalments, for now I am sad to say goodbye to these characters and the world of the First Law. However the ‘Great Change’ is upon us readers too, and I can’t wait to see what new stories Abercrombie will conjure up next.
ARC provided by Will at Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication. The Wisdom of Crowds is out now.