A New Age of Epic Fantasy Dawns in Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred

About a decade ago, a then-fresh faced Joe Abercrombie arrived on the fantasy scene with The First Law, a bold, daring, and merciless trilogy that was at once familiar and utterly unlike anything else on the market. Though the books never broke out beyond the genre’s core market of readers, they set the tone for the next decade, and helped coin a new subgenre: grimdark, a corrective to the wave of idealistic epic fantasy that peaked in the ’90s. The Blade Itself and the books that followed it spun and subverted familiar tropes—a barbarian with heart, a foppish soldier, a cunning politician, a wizard playing marionette master—with gleeful skill, keeping readers on their toes and culminating in one of the most satisfying concluding volumes ever penned.

In the following years, Abercrombie returned to the setting with three stand alone novels (Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country) and a book of short stories (Sharp Endsbut fans have clamored ever since for a true sequel. Finally, he returns to The Circle of the World in A Little Hatred, the first volume in The Age of Madness, a new trilogy set a generation after The First Law.

“We are entering a new age, Your Highness.”

Returning readers will note that the world of The First Law has greatly changed in the span between books: the smog of industry blackens the once clear skies; smoke stacks tower above the city of Adua, scraping the sky and signaling humanity’s ambition to break God’s shackles; unemployment soars as machines replace human workers. Industry has come to Abercrombie’s world, but its presence is no mere window dressing; the tremors set off by the changing times will shake its very foundation—and form the framework of the narrative: the growing civil unrest a building block, and new-found capitalism, the mortar.

The cast is expansive, with characters who fall on many points along the spectrum, from those leveraging the changing world for their own personal gain to those caught in the avalanche of progress; from ambivalent princes wrapped in blinders of privilege, to those who simply cannot give up the old ways. With a twist of his trademark subversion, Abercrombie employs one of the book’s oldest characters—the Arch Lector returning readers will recognize—to lecture Prince Orso, playboy royal, about the inevitable arrival of the new age. 

“My daughter recently helped finance the building of a large mill near Keln.” And His Eminence pointed with one pale, knobbly finger across the map of the Union carved into the tabletop between them, towards what looked like nothing so much as an old stained nail mark. “In that mill is a machine, operated by one man and powered by a waterwheel, that can card as much wool in a day as nine men could the old way.”

“I suppose that’s a fine thing for the wool trade?” offered Orso, baffled.

“It is. A fine thing for my daughter and her partners, too. But it is not so fine a thing for those other eight men, who used to card wool and are now looking for new ways to feed their families.”

A new age has indeed come to The Circle of the World, bringing a new reality with it. And with change comes a new type of story.

The First Law introduced unforgettable, invariably flawed characters, and Abercrombie sets himself a difficult task by skipping forward a generation to offer readers to a whole new cast, most of whom are the children of reader favorites (and not-so-favorites) from the original trilogy. Though the novel is perfectly welcoming to new readers, it adds a bit of extra tension for those returning to the saga: Can these newcomers live up to the feats of their parents? Will they carve a new place in the hearts of Abercrombie’s fans? 

For the most part, the newcomers live up to their forebears. Some might be related to the old cast by blood, but the author has made a point of ensuring their stories are not retreads. Like her father, swordsman-turned-torturer and Keng’s Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, Savine shows readers how to win battles and influence the world with your mind; unlike him, she does so with charisma and charm. Prince Orso and fellow noble Leo dan Brock are like two sides of a coin. Young and naive, both born to privilege, desiring desperately to prove themselves, they see a light on a far away mountain top but have no idea how to get there. Orso wears a crown he doesn’t want, while Leo dan Brock fights every day to keep the mantle of “The Young Lion” attached to his tired shoulders. Born with “the Long Eye,” a magical power of foresight, Rikke survives in the brutal north, keeping a few steps ahead of the bloodthirsty Stour Nightfall that razed her city—but can she see far enough ahead to stay alive? Like the characters in The First Law, these characters are compelling in isolation, and though their stories intertwine, each holds a unique place in the overall narrative, contributing to its larger themes while exploring far-flug facets of its world. 

At a macro level, A Little Hatred is a book about how society adapts and reacts, sometimes violently, to change. As industry rises in Adua, it’s impossible to escape Abercrombie’s thorough consideration of labour issues and the rise of capitalism. Savine is a bloodthirsty financier whose money winds throughout the city. As unrest grows among the commoners, who are rapidly losing their livelihood to the advent of more efficient machinery, she becomes caught up is labyrinthine plots involving actors from every corner of the socio-economic spectrum. 

At one point, a character named Sarlby is catching up with an old friend, Broad. Former soldiers in a kingdom that can’t afford a war, they’re both searching for a new urban life in the city of Valbeck.

“What do you make of Valbeck?”

“It’s all right, I guess.”

“It’s a fucking slag heap. It’s a fucking meat grinder. It’s a fucking pit.”

“Aye.” Broad puffed out his cheeks. “It’s a pit.”

“Fine for the rich folks up on the hill but what do we get? We who fought for our country? Open sewers. Three families to a room. Filth in the streets. The weak preyed on by the strong. There was a time folk cared about doing the right thing, wasn’t there?”

“Was there?”

But Sarlby didn’t hear. “Now all a man’s worth is how much work can be squeezed from him. We’re husks to be scraped out and tossed away. We’re cogs in the big machine. But there’s those who are trying to make it better.”

There, in a conversation between world-weary former soldiers, friends formed of blood and circumstance, we find the novel’s most pertinent question: How does one change the world from the bottom of the pile?

A Little Hatred also considers how younger generations must live in the world built by their parents and grandparents. Some, like Savine, use their family’s prestige and position to shore up great influence and wealth; others, like Orso, squander their gifts; and yet others, like Rikke, find that even being the child of a hero doesn’t change all that much.

Few fantasy series have used the scope of time so effectively to examine how society’s progress affects their characters and world. The setting is a character unto itself, experiencing its own process of growth and change, trauma, and uncertainty. Abercrombie returns to the tropes and character archetypes we saw in The First Law, but as the world changes around them, so to do the roles they play within it: charismatic princeling Orso must grapple with the royal family’s fading power in the face of industry and hawkish financiers; Savine’s sharp mind allows her to move through society with an authority that would have been impossible a generation earlier. These are fascinating examinations, and they tell readers as much about our our world as they do about Abercrombie’s fictional one.

In all the ways that matter, Abercrombie delivers fans exactly what they’ve always expected from the Lord of Grimdark: a critical, compelling epic fantasy loaded with wonderfully drawn characters, the bloodletting tempered with sharp social commentary and a touch of satire. (Also: bad sex scenes.) It also welcomes newcomers by focusing on a new generation of (anti-)heroes facing new challenges in a world their parents hardly recognize. It’s doesn’t feel like a stretch to say Abercrombie’s on his way to writing another masterpiece of epic fantasy—though one vastly different than his first.

A Little Hatred is out now, and a limited number of signed copies are still available from Barnes & Noble.

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