The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

September 17, 2020

You know the drill. What follows is the review of the second book in a trilogy. If you’ve not read book one in this series, A Little Hatred, then it is likely there may be minor spoilers ahead. Do not tell me later that you haven’t been suitably warned.

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.

If I’m one hundred percent honest I’m not sure who I am writing this review for. If you are an existing Joe Abercrombie fan, you’ll know what to expect – death, violent mayhem, Machiavellian chicanery (you know, the usual). You’ll be looking forward to revelling in dark deeds as characters screw other characters over with barely restrained glee. My point is, you are going to read this book because Mr Abercrombie writes the sort of books you like to read. He is a known quantity and you don’t need me to tell you that. If, however, you have stumbled upon this review having never heard of Joe Abercombie, perhaps you live under a rock, then stop right now. This isn’t the book for you. Don’t get me wrong, it is all kinds of awesome. The problem is that if you haven’t read book one in this series, at a bare minimum, then you will be missing out on all manner of good stuff.

Still here?… Good. Now that all the Abercrombie newbies are off to experience The First Law trilogy and the rest of the author’s back catalogue, we can have settle down and have a bit of a natter about The Trouble with Peace.

I seem to recall I described its predecessor, A Little Hatred, as Les Misérables with more killing and significantly less singing. The Trouble with Peace ramps the tension up a notch*. The fall out from events in the city of Valbeck has left the political situation in the Union brittle at best.

Poor old King Orso, everyone’s favourite debauched hedonist, is still not happy about having absolute power thrust upon him. Rather than being in charge of everything, he now finds himself beholden to everyone one. His grasp on the kingdom becomes more and more tenuous as the days pass. Meanwhile, square-jawed well-intentioned idiot man of action, Leo dan Brock, knows something needs to be done about the state of the Union, and he could well be the man to do it. If only he knew what that ‘it’ was.

It is the female characters who really stood out for me in this novel. I don’t think you could meet a more pragmatic bunch. Each of them is more than prepared to do whatever is necessary to get a job done.

Savine dan Glokta continues to give her father, ‘Old Sticks’, a run for his money when it comes to answering the question – who is the most devious member of the dan Glokta family? Savine is a brilliant character. I get the impression that most of the time, she thinks she is the cleverest person in the room, and she is. In The Trouble with Peace, Savine’s iron will is tested to breaking point.

North of the Union, Rikke attempts to survive in the midst of another deadly political minefield. Ably, assisted by Isern-i-Phail and old grumpy one eye Caul Shivers, she engages in a battle of wits with Stour Nightfall the current king in the North. I’ll admit to a certain amount of bias here. My favourite Abercrombie characters always come from the northern territories, and this book is no exception. The evolution if Rikke’s character is a dark delight. By the end of the novel, I was ready to cheer everything she did. As an added bonus Stour Nightfall remains, putting it simply, an egotistical bastard and I kind of love him all the more for it.

Finally, we have Victarine dan Teufel. Vick exists in the grey world of spies were no-one can be trusted, and alliances constantly shift. She displays a delicate finesse when it comes to her work. That said, Vick is also more than happy to beat anyone to a bloody pulp if the situation calls for it. No spoilers, but I am insanely curious to see where the thread of her narrative goes next.

Ultimately events in the Union escalate to the point where violence ensues, this is a Joe Abercrombie novel after all. I have to hand it to the author; I don’t think there is anyone else out there that can write a battle quite like him. He places the reader square in the heart of the action. There are constantly shifting viewpoints, a tumult of visceral bloody scenes and mayhem all over the place. The best thing about an all-out Abercrombie slobberknocker is that no one is safe. A battlefield is littered with random acts of violence that can sweep a character into oblivion with the slash of a sword or the swing of an axe. Abercrombie is well aware of the fact and plays with it. I love that sense of uncertainty coupled with all the frenetic chaos.

I fully appreciate that grimdark novels are an acquired taste. Personally, I enjoy the barefaced brutal honesty. Lots of not very nice people doing lots of not very nice things to one another. I ask you, what’s not to love? Even the characters who could be described as heroic tend to become somewhat jaded as the plot rattles onward. There is a universal truth that books like this wholly embrace. None of us is entirely good but neither are we entirely bad. What motivates us changes, sometimes on a second by second basis. The pressure of traumatic events leaves its mark and how we respond to that defines us.

To my mind, the novels set in The First Law universe have always been about change; rulers and countries rise and fall. The Age of Madness trilogy has a far larger scope than that. In A Little Hatred, and now The Trouble with Peace, the birth of industrialisation heralds a fundamental change that will touch everyone. Factory workers are beginning to see the benefits of coming together to fight for their rights. Magicians see science move into the ascendancy. There is a whole lot going on here. As ever, sneaky political manoeuvring is the key to it all. You can’t help but spot the odd reference or two that sound suspiciously like biting social commentary on the state of our own current affairs. At one point there is even a cheeky little throw-away line mocking the political situation in the United States. Abercrombie is a canny old sod, right enough.

The Trouble with Peace is published by Gollancz and is available now. Part three of The Age of Madness trilogy, The Beautiful Machine, is set to follow next year. Highly recommended, but then after such a glowing review you probably expected I would say that didn’t you?

While reading The Trouble with Peace I listened to the soundtrack to The Last Kingdom by John Lunn. Any story set in The Union needs a suitably epic musically accompaniment and this is about as damn close as you are going to get.

*yes, an entire notch.

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