It’s been four years since Joe Abercrombie last published a novel, Half a War, the concluding volume of his Shattered Sea trilogy, and other than the short story collection Sharp Ends seven since he last visited the realms of the First Law with Red Country, the conclusion of the Great Leveller trilogy, a world to which he now returns, time that has not been wasted for A Little Hatred goes a very long way.
The decision made by Abercrombie with the support of his publisher that the first draft of Age of Madness trilogy should be written in its entirety before the first volume was revised for publication, ensuring the trilogy should have an unbroken release schedule and a coherent vision and structure, that investment is apparent for while his novels are usually packed with incident and character, even by those standards there is a great deal happening in A Little Hatred.
The first hints of advances in technology and the coming of industrialisation indicated in Red Country having taken hold and changed the country in the fifteen years since those events, those who worked the land and the fields have found themselves turned off their farms and forced to move to the cities to work the new factories, conditions harsh and positions poorly paid.
Were not the grip of the noble classes so strong, the network of informants so insidious, revolution might be on the tongues of the people, but fear of His Majesty’s Inquisition led by Arch Lector Sand dan Glotka keeps the sane in line, but some of those who have lost everything are far from sane; two factions have emerged, the Breakers, who wish a new and just order, and the Burners, who simply wish to destroy.
In the north, as ever, the squabbles over territory continue, the forces of the Protectorate led by the Dogman and those of Angland led by Lady Governor Finree dan Brock waiting in vain for the promised support of Jezal the First, High King of the Union while their children, Rikke, cursed with the Long Eye of foresight and “the Young Lion” Leo dan Brock are faced with the immediate challenges of the incursion by Stour Nightfall, “the Great Wolf,” son of Scale Ironhand.
Many of the characters established in his earlier novels, there is now a new generation who have inherited the tempers and bad decisions of their parents but have yet to benefit from what wisdom they may have accumulated in their years, those who were fortunate enough to grow old; there is no map to assist in navigation, Abercrombie disliking such, though the appendix is a useful guide to the numerous characters, pointedly titled “the Big People.”
Yet it is the little people upon whom the empire and the novel stands, the story pivoting around the longest chapter so titled as the inevitable uprising occurs on the streets of Valbeck of those whose lands were stolen, the soldiers who returned from war to find they had nothing but scars and angers, the narrative passed urgently from hand to hand as the flame of revolution blazes.
The expectations of the citizens contrasted with their changed circumstances, those who expected it to be better wrong, those who expected it to be terrible finding they underestimated. Few of the characters are good people and none are without flaws but most elicit a degree of sympathy, but regrettably when things are bad they tend to be at their worst, desperate and willing to do anything simply to survive.
Abercrombie painting an honest picture rather than a pretty one, he shuffles his ensemble around the playing field, putting characters in situations with new companions where allegiances and goals may not tally, testing their loyalties: will they stay true and challenge the status quo or see an opportunity to further themselves, even if it means the formerly oppressed become the tyrants they have just deposed?
When swords are drawn, all bleed the same, and for all the political shenanigans there is no shortage of action, A Little Hatred another of Abercrombie’s epic tales of blood and mud, battlefields and backstabbing in which “guilt is a luxury reserved for those still breathing” and whatever compromise or betrayal secures a place on the winning side is a sacrifice worth making, the Age of Madness only just started.