I'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has closed, but the winners aren't announced until August, so I'm plowing on...
Age of Iron (2014) is a gory, goofy, visceral romp. It combines a historical setting with shameless anachronism, enjoyable characters with gory violence and a simple (if largely reactive) plot that's focused on causing as much destruction as possible over the course of a few hundred pages.
Dug is a warrior - he's earned his really big hammer and his very impressive mail shirt. He's also, in a now-familiar trend that can be traced back to the works of David Gemmell himself, 'too old for this shit'. Experienced enough to understand he's not immortal, Dug's looking for an easy gig - someplace where he can wave his weapon around, but avoid taking a spear to the face.
Unfortunately, his retirement gig - a sort of warrior-in-residence to a small town - comes to an abrupt and bloody end, when said town winds up in the path of a power-hungry local king, Zadar. Dug gets the hell out of dodge, but only after witnessing a massacre.
Meanwhile, on the massacring side, Lowa is the leader of a troop of immensely talented archers - several laps further along in the arms race than anyone else in proto-Britain. Unfortunately, she's wound up on Zadar's bad side, and she too needs to get the hell out of dodge.
The two make unlikely allies, all the unlikelier when their other friends get into the mix - Spring, a mysterious little girl with unnatural knowledge, and Ragnall, a square-jawed student druid in search of his lost love. This not-so-merry foursome maul, screw, drink, swear, and wreak mayhem across the land. Their original goal (stay alive!) eventually becomes a little more directed (revenge!), but, overall, the plot is peripatetic, as they're driven from place to place by Zadar's minions and their own lusty urges.
Behind the maiming and the shagging, there's a nod to a greater plot. Rome looms on the horizon, and the fractured kingdoms of Britain know that the time is rapidly running out. Zadar, as the only leader with ambition, may be the best chance for Britain to stay remotely independent - but is the rule of a murderous warlord any better than being conquered by an overseas army? There's some off-hand discussion about the difference between Roman and British ways of life, tradition versus colonisation, the advantages and disadvantages of adopting (or being adopted by) another way of life.
BUT... lest that sound, you know, heavy... Age of Iron about sex, violence and rock and roll. Dug and Lowa bounce between set-piece action scenes, from bar-fights to duels to battles to gladiatorial brawls. In the background, grotesque minor characters do terrible things to one another, in surprisingly (if darkly) comedic ways. And the sum total is, well, pulp: over the top, outlandish and immensely entertaining. One of the pleasant surprises on this year's shortlists.
Is it fantastic? Yes. There's a sort of hand-wavey druidic magic that appears. It isn't the book's strongest element. Although kept loose and mysteeerious, magic is essentially used as a short-cut in a few places, to get out of (or force) particular plot twists. Including, in one of the more disappointing moments, the climactic battle. Still, it keeps things moving, and, as far as our criteria is concerned - magic is magic.
Is it entertaining? Definitely. This book is a hoot: fun, fast and, well, furious. Age of Iron is also funny. Like, laugh out loud funny - a combination of goofiness, repartee, dark humour and excellent comedic timing. That goes a long way, especially when compared to the ponderousness that beleaguers many of the other shortlisted books.
Is it immersive? Um. Eh. Sure. There's a very specific place and time used as inspiration - I mean, down to the precise town and year. To the point where this probably qualifies more as alternate history than secondary world fantasy.1 That said, it doesn't go heavy on the world-building, and uses the threat of 'Romans' as a sort of easily identifiable, if distant, Big Bad (I suspect they will play a great part in the next few books). Plus, how utterly anachronistic the characters and their dialogue are, I suspect detailed world-building wasn't high on the agenda.
Is it emotionally engaging? Yes. And a good thing, too - Age of Iron simply wouldn't work if you couldn't connect with the characters. Certainly they're all archetypes: Dug is 'too old for this shit', Lowa is fierce, Ragnall is the naive by-the-book hero whose presence in this 'realistic' setting is played for laughs. For Age of Iron, the archetypes help. The reader connects quickly, the banter is fun and the empathy is surprisingly genuine.
It also helps to set the comedy aside and think of Age of Iron as a horror novel - and there's certainly enough over the top gore to make that comparison stick. A horror novel works when you care about the characters. The best in the genre (take the late James Herbert, for example), are great at what they do because they can use character archetypes to create instant recognition and immediate empathy. That way, two paragraphs later, when that character is having their face gnawed off by demon-baboons, the reader feels an emotional horror that magnifies the gross-out.
Age of Iron has that same knack - the characters start as archetypes. Some die or disappear quickly, or merely stay in their secondary role, and others, like Dug and Lowa, evolve into something more. But no matter what, you know where you stand with them right off the bat.
Is it embarrassing? Maybe? This is a tough one. It depends how you define the term. As noted, Age of Iron is unrepentantly, unsparingly pulpy. There's blood, sex, mud, gore, general sleaziness, silliness and machismo. But it isn't really problematic as such - in fact, compared to many of its predecessors, from Howard to Gemmell2, it is way ahead of the pack. Lowa, for example, is a fully realised character with agency and everything! It ain't going to appear on the Booker Longlist, but nor should it have to.
Is it different? Not so much, no. As noted - pulp. And that's existed for a long time. If we're parsing sub-genres, Age of Iron is probably more 'sword and sorcery' than high fantasy, and stems from the noble tradition of badly-covered paperbacks and cheap magazines.
But... Age of Iron does differ from the other DGLA finalists. It overtly - shamelessly, even - places a premium on entertainment. The only others that come close are Traitor's Blade and The Broken Eye, but even they are more, well, grounded. Age of Iron is a crowd-pleaser: it does impossible, anachronistic, don't-think-just-roll-with-it, silly, ridiculous things, and never justifies them nor suffers even a momentary twinge of guilt. There's a long tradition of Tolkienesque, quasi-literary fantasy books with transcendental aspirations and minute attention to detail. But Age of Iron ain't one of them.
It isn't fair to judge it solely on the context of the finalists, but Age of Iron was a very pleasant diversion. It is quick, silly, unpretentious and very, very fun.
1. Which, incidentally, used to be one of the DGLA criteria. Age of Iron wouldn't have been eligible in previous years. ↩
2. Gemmell's books are probably the closest comparison - at least in structure, characters, action, hand-wavey magic and (for some) historically-inspired setting. But Age of Iron differs in tone - Gemmell's books are very serious. At least, as serious books about dudes with magic axes can ever be. ↩