From a character standpoint, the majority of this book is focused on Jalan. After the events of the previous two books, Jalan is moving into conflicted territory. He’s definitely still a man with a highly defined sense of self preservation, but there’s hints of something else underlying that. There’s metal at the core of Jalan, an unyielding strength, usually masked by his cheerful malleability in search of a good life. It’s becoming more prevalent here. There’s still a layer of cunning, and a certain moral flexibility about the man, don’t get me wrong – but also a sense that these are being harnessed into a more cohesive sense of self, driven toward a purpose, rather than as part of a general search for dissolution.
Jalan, essentially, has moved from being a man who lies, to one who lies in service of a truth. As a liar, his greatest strength has always been his ability to inform the reader about his own self awareness, and this strong performance continues. Jalan lies a lot, and often to himself, but he’s certainly more honest than one might expect, and even his lies help to shape a different kind of truth for him.
It’s great to see this kind of character growth. From spoiled, horrified manchild, to a more composed, slightly less spoiled man, trying his best to stay alive whilst being thrust into roles which try to form him into something greater. The image shapes the man, and the man in question knows this – chafing at and embracing the constraints which are gradually draped over him by the expectations of others.
In short, Jalan continues to be complicated. But he’s also wry, witty, and recognisable as the embodiment of a flawed humanity. The reader can empathise with Jalan, feel his fear and follow his decisions, whichever side of the line of heroism they happen to fall upon. Lawrence has given us a protagonist who isn’t a hero, but a man, an individual with needs and fears (quite a few fears) and desires and ambitions. It’s a masterclass in forming an endearing individual out of relatively few redeeming qualities. Like Jalan, never trust him – unless you have to. It’s great to see Jalan;s character shift over the course of the trilogy, and, in the end, to see how he chooses to behave, and why – whether the truth is what he tells himself, or what he does, or something else entirely. He’s no hardened Viking warrior, but definitely something different by the close, an alloy of fear and sense, of responsibility and laziness – in short, he’s terribly, wonderfully individually human, and continues to be a pleasure to read.
There’s also some time spent with Snorri, last seen descending into hell in search of his dead family. His journey is perhaps more heroic, in that there’s rather a lot of axe-play and blood everywhere. But it’s filled with the sort of raw emotion, the honest tenderness and pain that Lawrence always manages to make bleed off the page and into the reader’s soul. Snorri is a man looking for something, and his journey towards it will help shape who he is as much as Jalan’s. It’s a quieter trip, in some respects, a low murmur indicating the slow cataclysm of shifting emotional tectonic plates. Snorri’s always been comfortable with his own definition of who he is, but there’s changes here, and a gradual movement towards something new.
Admittedly, he’s still hitting things with an axe, but it’s Snorri. Some things will never change.
The world – ah, well, I do love the Broken Empire. We’re back in Vermillion, Jalan’s home, for a while. It’s great to see this large city, which we briefly glimpsed in the first book, brought to life. Unusually for the Broken Empire, it’s a thriving metropolis, fileld with everyday people going about their everyday lives, without the threat of brutal murder or political oppression – or at least, no more so than usual. The river sparkles, the trails alongside it sting and squelch beneath the feet – it’s a city with pride. There’s organised gangs again, and nobility with more money than sense, and even more propensity for violence. It’s a city wedded to its future, and absolutely fascinating.
That fascination continues, though wedded to the somewhat more macabre, in the work of the Builders – the long vanished instigators of the cataclysm which broke the world in the first place. The Wheel of Osheim is one of theirs, a place which we’ve seen able to turn desire – and terror – into reality. It has a greater place here, as one might expect given the book’s title. The ghoulish solemnity of it, and the slowly creeping sense of dread that just the name engenders are both spot on. The Builders may be gone, but their works are wonderful and dreadful to look upon, often both at the same time. If Vermillion is raw energy and avarice, then the Builders works are the scent of old blood and steel. That said, the explorations of their works are as fascinating as ever, and the world as a whole remains a deadly, but vivid and intriguing place.
The plot – well, as one might expect from a conclusion, there’s rather a lot going on. I won’t spoil any of it here, but it wouldn’t go too far to say that there’s rather a lot of stabbing, and more than rather a lot of axe work. Jalan and Snorri’s banter gets a serious work out, and the Builders show off a monument to their hubris. It’s all beautifully done. Where there’s action, it’s break-neck and impossible to put down. Where there’s a lull, where characters are learning more about each other and themselves, the narrative has the painful truths embedded in it which make it…impossible to put down. There’s a world painted horrifyingly and beautifully, with complex characters we’ve followed for two books, responding with emotional integrity, to a plot which, frankly, was so compulsive and compelling that at one stage I was eating dinner with one hand and unwilling to stop reading with the other.
Lawrence has pulled off a coupe-de-grace, a stunning conclusion to a trilogy which set an already high bar.If you haven’t started the series yet – go and do that. If you’re out there waiting to see if it’s worth reading – don’t hesitate. Go and get a copy right now, and thank me later.