A start of a new series! Exciting! But not totally new. Set in the First Law world, A Little Hatred takes us a few decades into the future, to a world of late Middle Ages and the rising chimneys of industrialisation. It wasn’t like that in the previous books, but I appreciate that Abercrombie is reinventing the setting. He also throws a whole bucket of new characters in our faces and it feels a bit much at first, but when you discover that these are the offspring of the First Law characters then you can see the old ones reflected in their personalities.
Would this be a good place to start for a reader new to the First Law series? I suppose it is possible, but you’ll have to work a little to get all the factions straight and the references to legendary characters like the Bloody-Nine, the Dogman and Inquisitor Glokta will go over your head. You won’t immediately see how Savine has a tongue as sharp as her father Sand and Orso an ineffectual dandy like Jezal used to be. Actually, I would recommend to read The Heroes (2011) first. Or read A Little Hatred and then read the previous books for the exploits of all the old people in this one.
This series is all about how humans can be pretty brutal to each other when it comes to chasing ambitions. It gets interesting when those ambitions are thwarted, when the struggles change a person or when success turns out to be a new trap. Abercrombie’s best characters are tragic, failed characters who learned wisdom with the years. That’s where the humanity and dark humor flourishes in his writing. Every generation has to learn this anew and the beginnings of industrialisation are simply another sandbox for Abercrombie to play this all out in.
So, in this sense the book offers more of the same. At times it feels like he is telling the same stories all over again using the same techniques. There’s war brewing in the North (again) and desperate journeys through the cold dirt and muck, there’s infighting at court (as always) and young people wanting to make a name for themselves, there’s devious entrepreneurs and poor people scraping by. Some of it feels regurgitated, but Abercrombie dives in enthusiastically; there’s real craftsmanship on display here and I feel totally safe as a reader that I’m getting a story well-told.
The new characters have large boots to fill, but for Abercrombie, characterisation is his main strength as a writer and the new ones leap from the page just as much as those in the First Law trilogy. Rikke, Savine, Orso and Leo are all well-developed foolish young men and women who learn harsh lessons. Character is the essence from which the rest of his writing flows. The tone of the writing, the descriptions, dialects, the rhythms and length of the sentences, the hopefulness or crassness, are always tailored to support the mentality of a character in a very natural way. And the voices he gives them are very distinct. He can make you root for anyone.
The centrepiece of the novel is a bloody worker’s revolution. We’ve seen this before in fantasy like Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch and China Mieville’s Iron Council. Abercrombie treats it like the madness of a battlefield, where people stumble about through murky air with eruptions of violence all around them, and not too heavy on politics. Humanity’s inner beastliness comes out on all sides. This is where the grimdark subgenre slides into postmodern relativism where there are no quick answers and evil and suffering are everywhere like some doomsday vision. That makes me think of Steven Erikson who found a way out of this by pointing towards compassion. But where Erikson leans heavily on themes and history to make his point, Abercrombie puts his energy in characterisation and tone and leaves the rest a bit fuzzy.
A Little Hatred is a strong start of a new trilogy and a good showcase for Abercombie’s talents. My main criticisms are that he floods the story with an overabundance of POVs and seems to write the same stories again and again. But everything else – the character arcs, the prose and tone, the battles – is superb.