ARC provided by the publisher—Gollancz—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover illustration by: Tomas Almeida
The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Age of Madness (Book #3 of 3), First Law World (Book, #10 of 10)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Grimdark fantasy
Pages: 529 pages (UK Hardback)
Published: 14th September 2021 by Gollancz (UK) & Orbit (US)
Joe Abercrombie is a genius storyteller. The Wisdom of Crowds is one of the best books of the year, a masterfully crafted conclusion to The Age of Madness trilogy.
“What is the point of gathering knowledge if one does not pass it on? What is the point of growing old if one does not try to shape the future?”
For years I’ve mentioned the Last Argument of Kings as Joe Abercrombie’s best book; it is a masterwork in grimdark fantasy, in my opinion. For years I’ve said Abercrombie probably won’t be able to come up with a novel that matched—or topped—the Last Argument of Kings. Today, that unbending situation changed; I’m gratified to say that Abercrombie has done it. The Wisdom of Crowds, the last book in The Age of Madness trilogy, is up there with the Last Argument of Kings as the best book in The First Law World and his career. And I dare say it’s indeed his most well-written book so far. Last week, I did an interview with Joe Abercrombie on my YouTube channel, and it is one of my most treasured experiences as a book reviewer. I hope to have the chance to do that again in the future because The Wisdom of Crowds is one of the best books I’ve read, and I have some burning questions regarding the revelations unveiled in this novel. Anyway, that’s for the future, now let’s begin with the review.
“Sometimes, the only way to improve something is to destroy it, so it can be rebuilt better… Sometimes, to change the world, we must first burn it down.”
Chaos, fury, and destruction; this is how The Wisdom of Crowds starts, and it’s also how the narrative progresses. The Great Change is here, and our beloved main characters—voluntarily or not—are all caught in its sweeping madness. Abercrombie didn’t waste time shifting the story and characters into their crimson path. Right from their respective first chapter, everyone’s plunged into this uncontrollable vicious frenzy. If you’ve read A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace, then you’ll know what the chapter “Little People” signifies. Unlike the previous books, the first out of two “Little People” in The Wisdom of Crowds happened in chapter 3; it is that soon.
“How could one man keep his oath when everyone else was breaking theirs, after all? An army very much relied on unity of purpose.”
From the beginning to the end, not a single page in this novel ever felt dull to me. I know that every author writes differently, but I do wish more authors write and structure their series the way Abercrombie or Michael Sullivan did with their trilogy. For those of you who don’t know, Abercrombie finished writing the entire The First Law trilogy first before he focused on polishing one book at a time. This method was reimplemented for The Age of Madness trilogy, and same with the Last Argument of Kings, this kind of storytelling planning and structure allow Abercrombie to fill the pages of his concluding volume with an incredibly engaging—and believable—revelations and narrative. The Wisdom of Crowds proved that The Age of Madness trilogy has some of his most meticulous plotting so far; revelations are done in abundance, and they never felt out of place. This is a novel—or trilogy—that successfully captured a myriad of relatable themes and character’s actions such as freedom, betrayals, loyalties, conspiracies, leadership, responsibilities, survival, politics, war, ambitions, and the price of progress.
“Have you been outside lately? Wisdom is not at a premium, madness is the fashion, the balance sheets are all torn up and the friends that were assets have become liabilities… Threats for tomorrow don’t cut very deep when today is so damn threatening.”
I won’t lie; as a long-time and diehard fan of The First Law World, there’s always a part of me that feels gleeful when characters or backgrounds attained from reading the previous six novels plus one collection of short stories appeared. This isn’t to say that I didn’t love or care about the new main characters of this trilogy; if that were the case, I doubt I’ll be giving each book in this trilogy a 5 stars rating. However, prior to reading The Wisdom of Crowds, I never felt like the new main characters could compete with Abercrombie’s previous main characters. Again, I was gladly proven wrong. I’m being truthful when I say there are no characters in The First Law World that I love more than Logen Ninefingers or Sand dan Glokta; they’re too iconic and unforgettable for me. But I’ll be lying if I say that I didn’t immensely enjoy reading the journey of Rikke, Orso, Leo, Savine, Broad, Vick, and Clover. They’re not Logen Ninefingers, and they’re not Sand dan Glokta; they’re never meant to be, and that’s completely okay. By this concluding installment, I personally think these new main characters—especially Rikke, Orso, Leo, and Savine—have earned their spot as some of the most well-written characters in fantasy. I mean, Rikke and Savine have both became some of my favorite characters, too. Say one thing for Abercrombie, say that his level of characterizations is unmatched in grimdark fantasy.
“The past has never interested me. For better or worse it is done, and set, and littered with disappointments as a battlefield is littered with the dead. But the future is a ploughed field, full of potential. The future we can twist into wonderful shapes.”
I never thought I would end up caring for all the characters in this trilogy this much, but now that I finished it, I felt like there’s a gap inside of me that won’t be filled until Abercrombie write more characters for me to feel invested in. The main characters underwent tremendous character development in The Wisdom of Crowds. The lawless chaos and savage circumstances they’re in have pushed all of them towards becoming a better or cruel version of the person they were. Almost all the main characters realistically changed from their first appearance in A Little Hatred. Wishes buy nothing, and good luck is always in limited supply. Alliances constantly shifted, betrayals and tough decisions have to be unflinchingly executed in order to survive. I loved reading the character’s developments and the conclusion to their story; some made me surprisingly happy and satisfied, and some depressed me. This is an entry in The First Law World, after all, and you have to be realistic about these things.
“It’s a comfort, telling yourself there’s some big right thing out there. That you could seek some wise old bastard in the mountains who’s got the answer. Then there’d be no need for doubts and regrets… But far as I can tell it ain’t that simple. Right things, wrong things, well… it’s all a matter of where you stand. Every choice is good for some, bad for others. And once you’re chief, you can’t just do what’s good for you, or those you love. You have to find what’s best for most. Worst for fewest.”
The action sequences in The Wisdom of Crowds, once again—I know I sound like a broken record here—established Abercrombie as one of the two best close-quarter combat scenes writers; the other author being John Gwynne. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Wisdom of Crowds started with an explosive bang, but it felt relatively small compared to the third and final act of the novel. The end of the second act was pulse-pounding, and it seamlessly transitioned into the non-stop barrage of mayhem and devastations—emotionally and physically—of the final act. It was all so relentlessly brilliant and insane; the immersion I got from reading Abercrombie’s compelling dialogues and battle scenes are vivid and rare to find in other books. Having read so many fantasy books now, it’s getting harder for me to feel like I’m inside a battle scene with the characters experiencing the glory, terrors, and brutal bloodbath. And reading The Wisdom of Crowds has all these immersion effects on me.
“The sad truth is, men love to follow a man other man fear… Makes them feel fearsome, too. We tell the odd fond story of the good men. The straight edges. Your Rudd Threetrees, your Dogmen. But it’s the butchers men love to sing of. The burners and the blood-spillers. Your Cracknut Whirruns and your Black Dows. Your Bloody-Nines. Men don’t dream of doing the right thing, but of ripping what they want from the world with their strength and their will.”
The Wisdom of Crowds is, at the moment, the peak of quality in Abercrombie’s prose. It’s unbelievable, but it’s true; Abercrombie has written more than ten novels now, and he somehow keeps getting better and better with each book he wrote. It’s so astounding to me. “Better to do it than live with the fear of it” that’s penned in The Blade Itself remains as one of the important mottos I use to motivate me in my daily life. And in this novel, I highlighted 36 passages. No kidding; there were so many well-crafted sentences and passages I wish I could share with you all, but I’ll leave those for you to find out for yourself.
“History is not the story of battles between right and wrong, but between one man’s right and another’s. Evil is not the opposite of good. It is what we call another man’s notion of good when it differs from ours.”
Lastly, before I end this review, I’ve mentioned and praise the hell out of Abercrombie’s trademark skill in writing magnificent characterizations, dialogues, battle scenes, and all the grim and dark content. But there’s one more trademark of Abercrombie’s prose to mention: humor. The Wisdom of Crowds is the darkest novel in the trilogy, but this doesn’t mean it’s deficient in its humor. I can’t believe how many times I laughed out loud reading this book; I’m pretty sure most of them were during scenes I shouldn’t laugh about, too. Seriously, there was a chapter involving Clover and Downside that made me laugh out loud. And believe me when I say that I rarely laugh when I’m reading a novel. But that’s the thing; the superb characterizations and humor are what separated and elevated Abercrombie from other grimdark fantasy authors. Amidst the character’s bloody ambitions, ruthless violence, and horrific tragedy, Abercrombie’s cunning capability to insert dark humor at the right—or inappropriate—moment and time made the pacing in his books so captivating.
“Don’t matter how savage a face you show the world, few men dare look the Great Leveller in the eye once he comes calling.”
Following a comparable contrasting fashion Abercrombie employed in The First Law trilogy, Abercrombie started and concluded The Age of Madness similarly. The first chapter in The Blade Itself is called “The End,” and the last chapter in the Last Argument of Kings is called “The Beginning.” The first chapter in A Little Hatred is titled “Blessings and Curses”, while the last chapter of The Wisdom of Crowds is titled “Curses and Blessings.” And when it comes to reading Abercrombie’s books, this title couldn’t be more apt. It’s a blessing to have read every book in The First Law World, and it’s also a curse to have read them all.
Same with the Last Argument of Kings written by the same connoisseur, The Wisdom of Crowds has joined the same esteemed rank of fantasy masterpieces. This is the end of The Age of Madness trilogy, but I doubt this will mark the end of The First Law World. The ending showed glimpses of super exciting things to come in the future of this world. But if this somehow ended up being the end, I truly don’t mind. I’m an extremely happy and satisfied reader to have read all the available nine novels and one collection of short stories in The First Law World. The entirety of The First Law World—The First Law trilogy, the standalone trilogy, and The Age of Madness trilogy—is the greatest grimdark fantasy series that I’ve read. Bravo, Joe Abercrombie; the bar for grimdark fantasy has been raised again. And you, Lord Grimdark, remain absolute as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time.
“Great folk are great ‘cause they plant new footsteps. Not ‘cause they blunder through the same mistakes some other bastards made.”
The Age of Madness: 15/15 stars
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