Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

Author’s Note: This is hopefully the first of several book review essays that I intend to publish this month. We’ll see if I keep to that.

Joe Abercrombie is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting voices working in the fantasy genre today. He doesn’t have the name value of Brandon Sanderson, or George RR Martin and he doesn’t have the awards bona fides of someone like N.K Jemisin. But his books combine a razor sharp wit, visceral imagery and incredibly well realized themes to create something wholly unique in the genre right now. His most recent novel, The Wisdom of Crowns, caps off the much anticipated Age of Madness sequel trilogy. It follows on from The First Law, the original trio of books that first made him a recognizable value in modern fantasy. And I want to talk about it, both as a a stand alone novel and as the capstone to Abercrombie’s work in The Circle of the World thus far.

But first, it might be best to have a quick Primer on our esteemed author before we continue. Well to start, say this about Joe Abercrombie, say he knows exactly what he’s all about. His Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark, so it’s safe to assume that he has found his niche as a writer. For the uninitiated, Grimdark is a term originally coined to sell Warhammer figurines, but which now refers to an aesthetic that emphasizes cynical themes, dark imagery and often violent storytelling. I love it, and not because I’m an edgy, nihilistic teenager like many critics of the subgenre would accuse me of being. Grimdark stories are always a lot of fun to me because firstly, they are inherently satirical. By ramping up the cynicism in a story or setting, these tales hold up a mirror and call attention the similarities in our own world. Secondly, there’s a certain sense of freedom in nihilism. That said, grimdark storytelling can be hard. It’s a fine line between insightfully satirical cynicism and solipsistic doom and gloom. And right now, Joe Abercrombie is the best in the business at grimdark storytelling.

A lot of that has to do with how Abercrombie writes characters. He reserves no special love for archetypal fantasy characters. What’s more, he tends to hold “heroes” in a particular type of contempt. If you’re a character in a Joe Abercrombie book and you think you’re “the good guy” you’re probably sorely mistaken. Even worse, there’s a good chance that you might actually be the villain of the story. That is, you might be the villain, but only if you aren’t being compared to the deranged monster that you perceive as being the bad guy. So who does Joe Abercrombie actually like? Well, to put it simply, he seems to like his honest characters the most. Whether they are monsters, cowards, jerks, schemers or some combination of all of the above, once a character in Abercrombie’s world comes to terms with what they are, their lives are much easier. Well, easier might not be the best world, but they certainly see and feel things with a lot more clarity. It’s a funny kind of character apotheosis, to have an ostensible hero or protagonist realize just how much of a scumbag they really are. But remember what I said about there being a sort of freedom in nihilism. This is that but on a character level. Once a character understand themselves, they’re usually free to achieve their goals unburdened by pesky things like morality or the like. Plus, these revelations often stretch out over several books, and only happen after the characters have crashed into the plot, adversity and each other in spectacular fashion.

So with all that being said, how is The Wisdom of Crowds? Well, I stayed up until approximately 1:45 finishing it on a school night, so it must’ve been doing something right. The Age of Madness (which has consisted of this and prior entries A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace) has been a really fascinating series in its own right. While it’s a sequel to the more traditionally fantastical First Law series, The Age of Madness has almost seemed as though Abercrombie challenged himself to divest his world and stories from as many fantastical elements as possible. They’re still there, for example one of our new heroes has the power to infrequently see the future in the form of visions. But the magic and myth has largely been replaced with interpersonal drama, pointed social commentary and powdered wigs.

Despite his excellent character writing, Abercrombie’s setting, the Circle of the World, and in particular, its primary locations of The Union in Adua and The North, are one of the major draws. This is not a setting that is inflicted with the same kind of social and technological stasis that so many fantasy worlds suffer from. It’s been approximately 30 years since the last trilogy and in that time, technology and progress have come to the Circle of the World. That means factories, corporations, massive profits and all of the social inequalities that come with them. Aesthetically, the trilogy could best be described as a “Bourbon Fantasy.” That is, the royal house of France, not the drink that’s usually distilled in Kentucky. Plus, the name gets to pull double duty. In addition to the powder wigs, dashing soldiers, and fancy balls there’s an undercurrent of rising tensions throughout the series. Even during excursions to the more traditionally fantastical setting of The North (aka what if The Viking Age hadn’t ended in England, while mainland Europe was in the 1600s), there’s a growing sense of unease, and of people wanting to claim what they believe to be rightfully theirs. For the first two books these wants and ambitions are channeled through particular characters, heroes and villains alike, but as The Wisdom of Crowds opens, our heroes are faced with a new threat: social upheaval and popular revolution.

Yes, as the name suggests, The Wisdom of Crowds is essentially Joe Abercrombie’s take on a fantasy version of the French Revolution. Which means he gets to turn his razor sharp wit and social commentary onto things like revolutionaries, bread riots, committees for public safety and, monarchist sympathies. It’s actually a pretty great fit for Abercrombie thematically. In addition to his seeming disdain for a lot of more classical fantasy archetypes, he also has a lot of sympathy for the average peasants, soldiers and otherwise common folk caught up in the grand sweeps of history. At least once in every book he’ll throw in a chapter where the reader’s point of view bounces around to several different minor characters, possibly even ones we’ve never met before, as they experience some vast, complicated event from a dozen different angles. This happens twice in The Wisdom of Crowds and the first time is in one of the opening chapters during what is essentially the Storming of the Bastille. He does an immaculate job of capturing the thrill, terror, and sheer unrelenting horror that would come with total social upheaval in that moment. Using a number of perspectives, we immediately understand why some would join the mob, why others would run from it and why a few unscrupulous souls would use the chaos to their advantage. This is followed with a story that reminded me a lot of Terry Prachett’s Night Watch, in a good way. Like in Sir Terry’s work, Abercrombie gets a lot of mileage out of eviscerating incompetent revolutionaries and those who see themselves as the vanguards of a new age. The narrative has nothing but scorn for the type of men and women who care more about revolutionary rhetoric and the business of naming various, different committees over more practical concerns like where the food comes from. But as the story continues, incompetence is replaced with nihilism and we begin to see the horror of things like summary executions and purity purges.

What keeps all of this fresh is Abercrombie’s tendency to zig where he should’ve zagged in a plot progression sense. Characters will constantly surprise you without necessarily breaking motivation. Minor characters from previous books will return as major antagonists. Plot twists will resolve themselves in painfully realistic fashion. And through it all, characters will constantly reach new lows or attain new personal highs with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, Abercrombie himself will contrive to feature not one, but two major battle sequences that would normally serve as a narrative climax to happen only roughly 2/3rds of the way through the story. This leaves the last third of the story to breathe and resolve the things that are actually at stake without all of that pesky fighting getting in the way. Don’t misunderstand, I think Joe Abercrombie’s skill at depicting mass combat is best in show, and he’s only gotten better as he keeps writing, but I love that he seems to realize that the real thrill of his stories, and the real meat is found in nonviolent character interactions. It also helps that much of this is uproariously funny. While he’s mostly focused on the more interpersonal stuff, Abercrombie mines a lot of humor out of the inherent nonsense that comes from this sort of revolution. There’re are jokes to be had about foolish intellectuals, running gags about renaming institutions that serve the exact same purpose and at least one very good slam on the Declaration of Independence.

That said, no book is perfect and I do have my criticism of both the Age of Madness and The Wisdom of Crowds. Abercrombie’s last series, The First Law ended on a very definitive note. In fact, he didn’t even continue the main storyline through The Age of Madness until after he’d published a trio of really interesting and engaging standalone novels. In contrast, the Wisdom of Crowds ends in such a way that is essentially a cliff hanger, teasing the inevitable third trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, the hints he drops are very exciting for longtime fans. After having had his fun with a more cerebral setting and story, it looks like Abercrombie might be returning to that original grimdark fantasy flavor in upcoming installments. Though since time marches ever onward, it looks as though dark magic will be clashing with technology from our own 1800s. But with the novel’s last chapter essentially acting as trailer for the next series, it serves to undercut the otherwise very satisfying ending just a bit. Also, while I realize its part of the rhythm of his storytelling, I know that a lot of readers might not appreciate Abercrombie’s tendency to backload of a lot of his plots into the last quarter of his novels. At least in The Wisdom of Crowds it gives you plenty of time to stew on specific plot beats. Like, if you happen to notice that the revolution seems to be made up exclusively of either incompetent idealists or bloodthirsty nihilists you might be catching on.

In the end, The Wisdom of Crowds is a satisfying conclusion to an already great trilogy of very unique fantasy novels. Would I recommend it? Well, if you’re new to the series I’d suggest starting with A Little Hatred since it’s at least the start of this trilogy. If you’re curious, but not yet entirely sold on Abercrombie as an author based on this review, I highly recommend picking up one of the solo adventures set in the same world. These would be Best Served Cold (a fan favorite revenge thriller), The Heroes (an hour by hour account of a fantasy battle inspired by The Killer Angels) and Red Country (a fantasy novel largely inspired by gritty Western classics like The Searchers or The Outlaw Josey Wales). Conversely, if this review really sold you on Abercrombie, you might want to start at the beginning with The Blade Itself, the first book in The First Law trilogy. No matter where you chose to start, you really can’t go wrong with getting into Abercrombie’s work. Or maybe you can… Abercrombie might not be the kind of author whose work you enjoy and his stuff might bounce right off of you. That’s okay too. After all, you’ve got to be realistic about these things…

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