The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

September 13, 2021

Please note, The Wisdom of Crowds is a direct sequel to The Trouble With Peace and the final book in The Ages of Madness trilogy. I would strongly recommend reading books one and two in this series before proceeding any further. There are minor spoilers ahead and I’d hate to ruin the experience for anyone. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Chaos. Fury. Destruction.

The Great Change is upon us…

Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds.

With nothing left to lose, Citizen Brock is determined to become a new hero for the new age, while Citizeness Savine must turn her talents from profit to survival before she can claw her way to redemption. Orso will find that when the world is turned upside down, no one is lower than a monarch. And in the bloody North, Rikke and her fragile Protectorate are running out of allies… while Black Calder gathers his forces and plots his vengeance.

The banks have fallen, the sun of the Union has been torn down, and in the darkness behind the scenes, the threads of the Weaver’s ruthless plan are slowly being drawn together…

Another classic Jo Abercombie trilogy draws to a close, and as we’ve come to expect, the final pages in this chapter of the First Law universe end in a truly epic fashion. Revolution has finally made its way to the streets of Adua. Prepare yourselves citizens, the barricades have been raised, the downtrodden underclasses will make themselves known. In the words of a particularly appropriate musical, do you hear the people sing?*

Abercrombie always peppers his novels with a host of fascinating characters. Over the course of this trilogy, I have been particularly engrossed with Gunnar Broad. His evolution from traumatised war veteran to conflicted muscle for the Burners is a study of a man falling apart. There is so much going on here, but it is all done very subtly. Pained expressions, monosyllabic responses and staring off into the middle-distance longingly become the norm in Broad’s tortured existence. I do feel for the poor chump, and this may sound horrible, but it is genuinely fascinating watching him break apart. Broad is losing his sense of self in tiny increments. Crawling inside a bottle seeking comfort, but only ever finding more pain is no way to live.

Meanwhile, in the North Rikke, Caul Shivers and Isern-i-Phail face off against Black Calder. There is something wonderfully reassuring that the war chiefs are always at one another’s throats. All the players in The Union might faff around with plots within plots. Playing politics as a game. Not so in the North. Everything is kept simple, a short preamble, lots of swearing and then the blood begins to flow. Rikke’s baptism of fire when it comes to leadership is a sight to behold.

Don’t worry Orso, Savine, Vick and Leo also get the opportunity to shine. Abercrombie tugs at the old heartstrings so effortlessly even I felt sorry for some of them. Impressive when they are such a shower of self-absorbed misanthropes.

As an aside, I was suitably impressed by the author’s thoughtful consideration regarding the appropriate width of sliced cheese. It’s important little details like this that really raises The Wisdom of Crowds to the next level.

I’m not particularly interested in the technicalities of writing, but I have noticed this neat little thing that Joe Abercrombie does in his novels. There tends to be a chapter, usually right in the middle of all the action, where perspective shifts from one character to another almost constantly. It’s like the written equivalent of a continuous single shot in a movie**. The characters often tend to be entirely irrelevant to the main narrative, but we get flashes of their view of events. It perfectly captures the frenetic pace of the story.

I’ve always felt there has been a rich vein of dark humour that runs through the core of these novels. Individually people can be quite clever, intelligent even, but collectively we’re idiots. Humanity looks towards their leaders for guidance, working on the assumption that they will do the right thing. Often when the dust settles, the right thing turns out to be the opposite. The insightful writing in this series deftly shines a light on our failings, on precisely how egotistical and self-righteous we all tend to be. Patriotism seems at first glance to be terribly noble, but it amounts to nationalistic chest-beating at the end of the day. It’s just an excuse to take down someone who might be a little be different from you. Once an idea like that takes hold and gather momentum terrible things will be done in the name of good. Hmm, the wisdom of crowds indeed. It’s really the ultimate joke, isn’t it?

You’ll not be surprised when I tell you I’ve loved every word of this book. If I’m 100% honest, high fantasy has always felt a little too sanitised for my taste. I want to revel in the mud. Blood and death have a brutal honesty that is difficult to ignore. I know grimdark isn’t for everyone, but if you are a fan then Joe Abercrombie is always going to be your go-to guy for stories where terrible people do terrible things to one another. It probably shouldn’t, but reading one of his novels always makes me feel a little better about myself. Turns out I might not be such a bad human being after all. In the world of the First Law, there is always someone far worse than I could ever be.

The Wisdom of Crowds is published by Gollancz and is available from 14th September. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany The Wisdom of Crowds is the soundtrack to Ripper Street by Dominik Scherrer. There is something about it that evokes the city streets of Adua perfectly.

*I’ve written reviews for each book in The Age of Madness trilogy did you really think I was going to stop putting references to Les Miserables now for goodness sake? It’s the best frame of reference for a revolution I’ve got.

**The exception being The Heroes. That entire novel almost reads like one continuous shot.


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