Reviewed by Kathleen Holly Marsh
Age of Iron by Angus Watson is the first book in a trilogy giving an entertaining but gripping account of what happened when Julius Caesar tried to invade Great Britain between 55 and 54 BC. A helpful little blurb at the beginning of the book sets the historical scene for those of us who aren’t quite so knowledgeable on the aspects of Celtic life in Southern Britain during that age, and the Historical Note at the end of the book explains how very little evidence exists from that particular era due to the fact that none of British Celts could write and once the Romans invaded Britain their culture swarmed into the country with them, obliterating nearly all traces of Celtic life. Consequently this novel is primarily fantasy, making the people, tribes and places in it are all figments of Watson’s imagination.
Easily my favourite figment of imagination in this story is the first protagonist we’re introduced to: a cynical, battle-hardened Warrior named Dug Sealskinner. Having a grumpy, middle-aged man as the main character for the first few chapters of the book is so much more enjoyable than I know you’re already thinking and Watson’s concise descriptions can conjure up some flawless mental images that’ll will have any reader giggling into their mug of tea. This book isn’t all fun and games though by any means as the story open on the verge of a massacre that kicks off the rest of the plot.
England is split roughly into three large chunks at this point in time: you have the tribesmen to the north where Dug comes from, the Dumnonians in the south west foot and the rest of the south belongs to a king called Zadar who is famous for being a supreme git. An example of his unattractive personality can be found in how he dealt with an identical request to that given to Solomon in the bible: two women approach their leader with a baby with both claiming to be the mother and that the other woman had stolen the baby. They request that Solomon resolve the conflict and he decrees that the baby should be cut in half so that the women may have half each. Upon hearing this the true mother begs Solomon to give the baby to the other woman just so it can live. Solomon can now see that she is the true mother and gives her the baby instead. Zadar, on the other hand, cuts out the false mother’s tongue for being a liar and actually does cut the baby in half.
Once Zadar has razed the small village that Dug was paid to protect in the beginning of the book, he wakes up after being left for dead in a ditch and – after some initial murder and colourful language – meets the hyper-intelligent waif: Spring. They quickly form an odd travelling couple and it isn’t long before Dug works out that she doesn’t have an off-switch and there’s no filter between her brain and her mouth.
Lowa is the last member of what quickly turns into a little rebel gang: once Zadar’s best archer, she escapes his men and flees from her captors when the king decides to murder her and the rest of her company for reasons seemingly unknown to everyone.
A tired cliché in books like this is to have the badass female fighter walk around in skimpy clothing and make silly remarks about her own capabilities, Lowa swiftly squashes that cliché into the ground and stomps on it. She is a smart, resourceful woman who isn’t afraid to take what she wants, she wears situation-appropriate clothing at all times, has a sharp tongue and a dry sense of humour. She’s also pretty much the original ninja which makes her fight scenes an adrenaline-fueled read.
For me, the third best thing about this book is the fact that Watson doesn’t shy away from any graphic details and happily paints a filthy, gory, and sometimes pretty sexy picture of Celtic life that all feels very frank and believable and sometimes quite contemporary. The contemporary theme links into to the second best thing: there are a boatload of issues portrayed in Age of Iron that are still very relevant issues in the world today. Some spoiler-free examples would be: satisfyingly frequent acts of feminism from the Celtic women in order to distinguish themselves from the more obedient Roman women, and consistent prejudice shown towards anyone that displays the possibility of being different to the bulk of the population.
The best thing about this book however, is definitely the awe-inspiringly imaginative swearing. I never want to use the run of the mill swear words again.
There are fights, there are evil dictators, there are badass warriors, there are hidden villages, there are plot twists that make you want to break something, there are running jokes, and there is an awful lot of gore.
For readers after a slightly shorter, less serious version of Game of Thrones or just a reliably good, hard to put down fantasy novel that will have your eyeballs superglued to the page, this book is exactly what you’re looking for.
Angus Watson, Age of Iron (Orbit 2014) ISBN: 978-0356502618, 560 pages, paperback.
Read our interview with Shiny New Author Angus Watson too – click here.