Age of Iron by Angus Watson is the first book of The Iron Age series. Very few know the true and detailed history of when the Romans “took” Britain in the late 11th century. History has taken for fact the thinly detailed works of Caesar’s journals saying simply that the Romans went over to Britain, took over, and then left a century or more later simply because they felt like it and didn’t want to bother with the place any more. The Iron Age series is the real account of what happened…or so Watson tells us to believe.
Dug Sealskinner has lost his family and any real sense of home in the past years of battle and war throughout Britain. He has gained a rather cynical perspective of the world and has become a mercenary to make ends meet and to get a bit of thrill out of his life before it is ended, quite possibly on the end of a battle axe or arrow. Dug figures that his best bet would be to join the biggest and best army around, King Zadar’s, but he somehow keeps ending up on the wrong side of things. He meets up with an odd bunch of misfits, and together they are forced to defy Zadar’s armies, and battle for the greater good.
Notably missing from this series so far is any defined sort of magical system or mages. There were however, ancient druids-some of the most bloodthirsty ones I’ve ever encountered in any book: crime, fantasy, science fiction, or otherwise. From ritual disembowelments to falsely predicted futures used to the “druids” gain and the peoples’ loss, these guys are bad for the most part. They are the conmen and illusionists, and throughout the entire book and up until the very end, you aren’t at all convinced that they even possess magic at all.
Still, I’m used to wizards and mages complicating things for our heroes, and their lack of overt magic thus far is felt namely by making the story seem more historical fiction than epic fantasy. However, as the novel goes along, subtle instances of actual magic work were introduced so you do get that magic feeling eventually. It’s just barely there, tucked into the edges so that if you blink you’d miss it. Yet, not all magic users are bad. We have some healers, and though again I am not sure if their magic is magic or an extensive knowledge of the plants and animals around them, they do their best to heal or give prophesy for the greater good.
The female characters were some of my very favourite. Lowa is a jaded battle-hardened warrior woman. As the leader of a bevy of female archers, she takes great pride in them and her own abilities and prowess in Zadar’s army. When Zadar’s ever fickle desire for bloodshed turns on the archers, Lowa is helpless to save her girls, including her sister, and barely escapes with her life. Hell bent on revenge, she reluctantly joins forces with Dug and Spring.
Lowa is a character you can really get behind. She is fierce, deadly, and likes a good shag now and then. She’s down to earth in a way that makes you feel like you could know her, but also complicated, intelligent, and difficult in the most delicious of ways. This is no clichéd archer beauty and she makes choices that I may not understand or like, but she is totally, one hundred percent herself all the time.
Spring, an eight year old girl, is the other main female character. She’s an odd duck and in a way she reminded me a bit of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter. While her character wasn’t nearly as fleshed out as Lowa’s, she was a laugh every time you came across a scene with her. She was either uproariously funny in her snark and sass, or she was simply so odd you had to chuckle nervously while looking over your shoulder for a quick escape. I enjoyed her interactions with Dug quite a bit and am excited to see where her character goes along the way of this story.
Sean Barrett is an excellent narrator, bringing in light flowing cant for girlish voices and very defined voices for all characters. I was particularly impressed by his abilities with the different accents. Barrett was able to tackle the gamut of phrasing and colloquialisms from Welsh to German to Roman without a hitch. This was both very cool, and very helpful as each character had their unique personality to the voice which allowed you to understand who was speaking at every moment of the story without having to wait for a “then Dug said…” to spell it out for you.
There is one thing to note if you are of a squeamish demeanor or cannot abide much violence. There is a lot of gore in the Age of Iron audiobook. Granted, the time period it is set in was known for its bloodshed so it is technically historically accurate. However, Angus Watson pulls no punches in his portrayal of gruesome slaughter of people-warriors and innocents alike. I can’t count on both hands the number of children disembowelments, children bludgeoning, teenagers cleaved in half, or all the other various ways one can murder children and youths which occurred in this book. Even I, a seasoned veteran of the fantasy and sci-fi genres, and used to battle scenes and death, felt momentarily ill and nauseous at some of the visceral depictions of death. Still, this gluttony of gore speaks highly of Watson’s ability to invoke emotion and imagery from his texts. He can paint a picture like a famous artist, yet much of the content of his pictures is brutal, somber, and very deadly.
Age of Iron is a great story and Watson, a master storyteller. For all the doom, gloom, blood, and death, there were counterpoints of good, light, humor, and happiness. There was plenty of grit that you could sink your teeth into, but there were also carefully crafted characters and scenes that played out like dreams of color and imagery. I can’t wait to get to the next audiobook in the series and it is quite likely that this will be “keeper shelf” material for me to revisit again and again.