Clash of Iron | Angus Watson | 2015 | Orbit | 533p | Review copy | Buy the book
Clash of Iron follows hot on the heels of its fabulous predecessor Age of Iron and so, if you haven’t read the first, then I would suggest you rush off and do so before you read the second. Clash of Iron isn’t especially spoilery for what went before but it would definitely improve the reading experience if you already know Dug, Lowa, Spring and Ragnall, characters who make a triumphant return in this new adventure and have to face a whole new challenge in the rather merciless and empire-hungry shape of Julius Caesar. Spoilers for Age of Iron (review here) may lurk in the review below.
Lowa is queen, ruler of Maidun Castle, a warrior who leads an army of tens of thousands. She keeps one eye on the surrounding tribes, any of whom could field an army bigger than her own, while the other is fixed southwards to Gaul through which Julius Caesar is battling his way to Britain. Lowa has her hands full and would not be pleased to hear that her so-called allies plot with others to combine their armies against her. And none of these rival kings and queens would win a beauty contest. These are vicious, bloodthirsty men and women who like only one thing more than torturing and maiming and that is torturing and maiming a queen they’ve trodden underfoot. While Lowa trains her army, the hammer-wielding warrior Dug lives a quiet life on his newly acquired farm. His feelings for Lowa are complicated. He thinks it better to keep his distance. Meanwhile, Spring, the powerful girl-Druid, moves between the homes of Lowa and Dug, coming into her own as a beautiful young woman, learning (and often failing) to understand her magic.
But the action here isn’t all in Britain. Ragnall, the apprentice Druid, is in Rome, officially to get to know Caesar and his plans but unofficially falling in love with the place, with its underground heating, its clean non-fur clothes, its fine dining, its cheeky ladies and the frequent parties. And perhaps he becomes more than a little inspired by its callous greed and general nastiness to non-Romans. Clearly, Ragnall didn’t work out as a spy and so Lowa has to send two more, this time from among her closest friends. Their mission is to travel through Gaul, helping their resistance to Rome, giving Lowa time to build her army.
This is a time when everyone seems to be on the move – armies are invading left right and centre, Caesar’s march is causing mass migrations across northern Europe, slaves are ending up all over the place, and yet Briton and Roman can still meet over the dinner table just as they can across a battlefield.
Clash of Iron is a glorious, violent, energetic, humorous, unapologetically anti-Caesar, bloody romp through late Iron Age Britain. Its tribes have unfamiliar names – because the Romans misnamed them – and places seem familiar but slightly strange (Maiden Castle is Maidun Castle and so on) – because the Romans couldn’t get their facts straight – but it feels strongly rooted in the British past at a time when most would have been aware of the storm gathering across the channel. These tribal figures from Britain and Gaul are larger than life – in some cases quite literally – and mind boggling. Many stick in the brain and I’ll leave you to marvel at them for yourself but I’ll mention one of them, King Hari the Fister (known to the Romans as Ariovistus). What a shocker this outrageous mass-killing man is in some kind of strange grotesque Henry VIII kind of way. You’d have thought no king could be worse but then there’s Manfrax and his blood shake. There is no end to the array of tortures on display in this late Iron Age world. It’s quite an eye opener. And that’s before we even get to the Druids.
Talking of Druids, Caesar is not against using their power and rumours that he has some kind of Druid legion march ahead of his army. Caesar is both horrifying and hilarious. This is a man who only speaks in the third person, who kills two boys before narrating to his scribe how he took two boys into his tent, fed them and treated them as if they were his own sons. The rewriting of history takes place before our eyes.
There are differences from Age of Iron. Dug and Spring have less of a role than they did before, especially Spring, although I sense that she will come into her own in Reign of Iron, the final book in the trilogy. I missed Dug, despite the novel’s many distractions. There is much more magic here, some of it dramatic. It did fit into the mood of the novel, though. There is a strong sense that this is a world out of control, abandoned by all caring gods, and so Druid magic and superstition is bound to be on the rise, although not all of it is black. I preferred Age of Iron slightly (it was one of my top books of 2014 after all) but I think that’s because a) Age of Iron seemed less fantastical to me and b) Age of Iron is an incredibly strong target to beat. I really appreciated the length of Clash of Iron at well over 500 pages – there is a lot to get into.
Clash of Iron is a bloodthirsty novel. I did screw up my eyes in squeamish shock at quite a few of its more imaginatively gory moments but it doesn’t once stop being a thoroughly entertaining and fun read, packed full of battles, tribal politics and all out mayhem and war. I loved the scenes in Rome, looking at the city through the eyes of a Briton so far from home. I enjoyed getting to know Lowa better as she struggles to hang on to her throne in the face of unimaginable opposition, pain and cruelty. Caesar is an absolute delight! Although not in a good way. Moments of sadness and tragedy lie in store for many but overall Clash of Iron, like its predecessor, is an exuberant whirlwind of a read that never stops rewarding its happy reader. I cannot wait for Reign of Iron published later this year.
Age of Iron