Too many warts to look past … AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson

Dug Sealskinner, is old and, truth be told, a bit down on his luck. His best days are probably behind him, his wife and daughters dead and buried years ago. He’s not much to look at, and while he carries himself like a man who’s fought in — and survived — his share of battles, he doesn’t strike instant fear in the hearts of his enemies or send ladies swooning weak-kneed to the floor. But the truth is, underneath the dirt and grime, Dug is a solid fellow who keeps making big-hearted decisions that draw him further into conflict with some very bad people.

In many ways, Dug is very similar to very book in which he serves as protagonist. AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson definitely has some warts, and while Dug’s comrades are willing to look past his flaws, I struggled to get past some of my issues with AGE OF IRON, even as I recognized that many of the pieces were there for a successful trilogy.

To be honest, as I read the book, I imagined Watson was like many authors who self-published their work, found success and were picked up by a traditional publisher who then distributed the work without going back through and giving the book a thorough scrubbing. The Kindle edition I read the book had several spots where punctuation was misplaced, extraneous words were inserted or sentences didn’t flow especially well.

Early in the book, we’re introduced to a bad guy named Ulpius who seems like he will be integral to the story — we get 4-5 pages of back story detailing Ulpius’s childhood, describing his vanity, how he committed his first murder and where he got the mirror he carries around with him. Then, in the present day, Ulpius walks up to a seemingly unconscious Dug and Dug wakes up and hits him in the head with his warhammer, crushing his skull and instantly killing him. It turns out Ulpius wasn’t important to the story at all and the pages we spent learning about his past were a total waste — something an editor should have fixed.

Some of the language used is very modern, which seems odd for a book that is marketed for being about the little-known Iron Age during the time that Julius Caesar and the Romans invaded Britain before pulling back and returning to Rome. For the most part, I don’t have any issue going with the flow and accepting it as a stylistic choice, but we also get weird bits of dialogue like this, when fighters under the evil king’s command finally find the fugitive Lowa in a tavern:

“What’s up, boss?” said one. “Oh Mother! It’s Lowa Flynn! Results! What’s the reward again?”

In another scene, one of the bad guys returns to the castle where his king and his court reside:

He’d pictured it so often, he’d dreamed about it every night, but every time he came back, the first sight of Maidun always struck him like a bucket of cold water to the face.

It was so awesome.

Watson has created interesting, human characters in Dug, Lowa and Spring, and they drive much of the story in interesting ways, especially as they make mistakes. Fans of grimdark may enjoy the book, but too often I found myself thinking, “This is what reading Joe Abercrombie would be like if Abercrombie wasn’t a good writer.” Dug reminds me in a lot of ways of Abercrombie’s Dogman — world-weary and tired of fighting, but not as insightful or quite as humorous. Whereas Abercrombie’s plots almost always defy and subvert the conventional tropes, Watson’s characters fit neatly into their well-trodden roles, and while the heroes are engaging, the bad guys often seem like pins placed in the lane for the purpose of being knocked down.

AGE OF IRON has been marketed as a book that’s unique due to its setting in Britain’s Iron Age, and there are some interesting things there, as the Roman way of life begins to intrude into British culture, even before Caesar leads his soldiers onto British soil. But outside of the talk and threat of Roman invasion, this is a standard medieval fantasy setting.

I’d had high hopes for the book after seeing it ranked 14th on Fantasy-Faction.com’s best books of 2014, so obviously others enjoyed the book far more, but I just can’t see past the warts to finish this trilogy. I enjoy a good character-driven, violent action story as much as the next reader, but I need a better effort than AGE OF IRON proved to be.

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