The Wisdom of Crowds concludes the Age of Madness trilogy, Joe Abercrombie's latest work in his First Law world. This trilogy has been a remarkable success, Abercrombie doing what he does best - cynical humour, bone-crunching action and enjoyably knotty plotting - and adding a dash of satirical intrigue.
The Wisdom of Crowds goes full revolution on us, and anyone who's never studied the history of the French and Russian revolutions will be aware of how difficult it is to comprehend why a superficially well-ordered, law-abiding society will suddenly collapse into anarchy. Abercrombie used the first two novels in the series to lay the groundwork for the civil strife within the Union, which the victories in the first two novels only vaguely papered over, and here it explodes with full force. We get to see kangaroo courts, horrific crimes being justified by "the will of the people," and the walking-through-broken-glass maneuverings required by those who worked with the old order but are too useful for the new one to throw away. It's an unusual place for fantasy to go, but it mostly works well, even if the misery inflicted on specific characters and the Union in general feels like it might be a bit over-egged in the mid-running of the book.
The situation in the Union is broken up by a major subplot in the North, where Rikke has taken the throne in Carleon but her rule is shaky. Enemies are marching on the city, and Rikke's inability to charm and win people over sees her losing her allies just when she needs them. The North may feel like the most cyclical part of the First Law world - we've seen battles and conflicts up there repeatedly in the original trilogy, The Heroes and in this new trilogy - but Abercrombie is still able to make the politics and conflicts interesting, even if certain plot twists can be seen from a mile off.
As usual, Abercrombie's work is rooted in characterisation. The Age of Madness has probably his most complex and nuanced cast of characters to date, with it being possible to both hate and admire the likes of Savine, Leo and Orso, often in the same chapter. They are desperately flawed people who are trying to do what they feel is right, sometimes getting it right and sometimes making an apocalyptic excrement-sandwich of it, and are never less than interesting. This works better for some characters than others: the big three and Vic are very-well handled, but Broad's character development feels a bit limited and even somewhat contrived, as if he's a plot point a little too obviously being set up to do one particular thing in the finale. In addition, the character of Judge altogether lacks the rich depth we expect of Abercrombie antagonists, and comes across as just a psycho for the sake of it, which is disappointing.
The ending of the book is outstanding, though, being as gloriously messy as ever, with winners and losers and those winners and losers not necessarily being the ones you expect. There are some terrific reveals and terrifying reversals, and a lot of plot guns that have been set up over not just this trilogy but the preceding stand-alone novels being fired in a satisfying manner. The only big downside from the ending is that there is a bit too much setup work being down for more books in the First Law world (and, indeed, Abercrombie has indicated another trilogy is likely, possibly with more stand-alones first). We even get a last-chapter prophecy which feels like a trailer for what comes next. With Abercrombie off to a fresh world for his next project, The Devils, it may be a while before we get back to this world.