Book Review: Age of Iron by Angus Watson
Series: Book 1 of Iron Age
Publisher: Orbit (September 9, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Age of Iron ended up surprising me in many delightful ways, but what I didn’t expect at all was how addicting it was. It simply grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, brutal, violent and gritty, and yet I was completely immersed in its harsh, war-torn world.
We begin the story with an introduction to Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary on his way to join up with King Zadar’s grand army at Maidun Castle, hoping for a way to earn some steady coin. But then he is waylaid at Barton, a town that gets attacked and annihilated by the very same people Dug had wished to join. In the aftermath, he meets up with a strange young girl named Spring, and together they encounter Lowa Flynn, formerly one of Zadar’s favored fighters who now finds herself on the run and seeking revenge on the king for her murdered band of warrior women.
King Zadar is a tyrant like no other with his twisted sense of how the world should be. His betrayal of Lowa and failure to capture her has earned him a dangerous enemy, but his killing and pillaging across the country has also made him the target of a young druid named Ragnall, who too seeks to make his way to Maidun to rescue his kidnapped fiancée. Ragnall and his mentor Drustan end up joining with our trio, and together the five make up a rather motley party of unlikely adventurers, all with a common foe.
Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain; that the book began with this fact and a “this is what really happened” kind of statement in its foreword made me wonder what I’ll be in for. Large swaths of the book filled with history lessons, perhaps? But no, while we do indeed get a torrent of rich, scintillating details about the world, all of it no doubt painstakingly researched and cross checked and checked again by the author, none of it felt blatant or overtly shoved down my throat.
In fact, Watson placed storytelling and characters first, which is what I think made the book’s pacing so successful. He gave backstories to even the more minor characters, in a way that didn’t bog down the story but instead enhanced it, as every detail seems purposely placed to provide insight into the people and life at the time. The plot is also constantly driving forward, and there aren’t many places where it loses steam. History clearly has a role in this book, but the ultimate goal here is epic adventure, and we certainly don’t sacrifice storytelling or momentum.
It also wouldn’t feel complete without a bit of magic, which brings us to the druids. I admit I was very much drawn to the mention of them in the book’s description, as I’ve always been interested in the subject. And the druids of Age of Iron are fascinating indeed. There are all kinds of druids – healers, soothsayers, magicians, some who are benevolent and others who are bloodthirsty and depraved. This latter sort of druid seems to get the most attention, in the form of Felix, the druid who serves King Zadar. As cruel and wicked Zadar is, Felix makes him look like a snuffling choir boy. Some of the druid’s deeds are hard to read about, described in all its gruesome, gory details, and Watson doesn’t spare his readers one bit in this area.
I guess here’s where I should mention that no one is safe in this book – men, women, children and animals are all subjected to some horrific, violent fates, and it can get quite graphic – disturbingly so. If you’re squeamish or turned off about that kind of stuff, here’s a caveat: you might want to stay far away.
And yet, Age of Iron isn’t all doom and gloom, and blood and guts. There is humor, and there are inherently good people in this book. However, none of them are so black-and-white as that either. Characters like Dug, Lowa, Spring, and Ragnall serve as good counterpoints to the depravity and viciousness of people like Zadar and Felix, but our so-called heroes aren’t without their weaknesses. They may endear themselves to you, make you laugh or make you root for them, but be prepared to despise them sometimes too, because in the end they are also flawed people and simply trying to survive a world trying to do them in. I was all the more impressed by the well-roundedness of these characters, and whether you love them or hate them, I thought they were all very developed and well written.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next book. Age of Iron is one hell of a novel. The polish and skill in the writing makes it hard to believe it’s his fictional debut, but you can bet Angus Watson’s got my full attention. I’ll definitely be watching for his future works as well as the progress of this series with great interest.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Orbit Books!