Half the World: Joe Abercrombie

★★★★

The Shattered Sea: Book II

Yarvi may have found his way home to Gettland, but his trials are far from over. With his uncle Uthil installed on the throne, and in Queen Laithlin’s bed, Yarvi has finally been able to join the Ministry as he always dreamed. And yet dreams have a horrible habit of turning out to be rather different from how one imagines. The Ministry may claim to be interested in peace, but the powerful Grandmother Wexen pulls strings across the nations of the Shattered Sea and beyond, while Yarvi must engage all his wits to prevent Gettland being sucked into a war against the High King.

This second volume in Abercrombie’s criminally readable series isn’t told from Yarvi’s perspective, however. Instead we spend much of the novel with Thorn Bathu, an angry young woman, sharp as a blade and short-tempered as a lion, who has always dreamed of being a warrior. No one has ever taken her seriously, until she falls under the perceptive and thoughtful eyes of Father Yarvi: a man who knows only too well how valuable misfits can be.

Thorn has passed every test in the book, standing up against boys taller and stronger than she, but this isn’t enough for the weaponmaster Hunnan. Hoping to crush Thorn’s unnatural ambitions once and for all, he orchestrates an unfair contest for her against three of her male classmates – a contest which ends in tragedy, with an accidental death, and with Thorn herself accused of murder. Dragged into the Godshall to stand trial, she finds an unexpected ally in the cunning Father Yarvi, who offers her an alternative to being crushed with stones. If she will swear herself to his service, she can live.

And so Thorn finds herself joining a crew of outcasts under the direction of this man who is more subtle, cleverer and more dangerous than any other she has met. To make matters worse, the crew includes her former classmate Brand. Their mission? To row north east and, by navigating the treacherous reaches of river and overland rollers, to take their ship down into the bleak lands of Kalyiv and even further, to the First of Cities, where Father Yarvi hopes that a gift of unprecedented value might turn the Empress in their favour. It is a risky gamble, but it’s all they have.

If the first book resonated with Game of Thrones, this second volume gave me plenty of flashbacks to Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blood Feud, in which a Viking crew sails down the Volga to Kiev, rolls their boat overland, and heads on to Constantinople. Abercrombie doesn’t bother to hide the historical parallels: the map in the front of the novel can, with a bit of squinting, be fitted into the vague shapes of Scandinavia, Russia and Constaninople, while his Empress is named Theofora. The ruler of Kalyiv is even pressing passing crews into service, as happened in Kiev in the early medieval period. Yet it doesn’t feel lazy at all. Abercrombie simply doesn’t want us to spend too much time struggling to place the story onto a map: the point of the tale isn’t its geographical originality, but the drama that arises between its nations and its characters. Yarvi continues to grow as a character, gaining a delicious deep grasp of politics, and in this novel he’s surrounded by just as engaging a cast of travelling companions as we saw in Half a King.

Someone told me – forgive me, I can’t remember who – that this series is aimed at a young adult readership. I didn’t see that at all in the first book, but I picked up hints of it here: the feisty young heroine; her stalwart, brooding companion, who believes that she dislikes him (and vice versa) even as the lingering looks prove otherwise; the definite bubbling of potential romance under the surface. But Thorn is a gloriously rounded character despite this: argumentative, pugnacious, emotionally incompetent, hot-headed and constitutionally unable to be diplomatic. She and Yarvi play off one another magnificently. I was very pleased to meet a fictional heroine who genuinely does feel as if she can take care of herself – and yet also feels like a real woman, in that she suffers the natural inconveniences of being female (you don’t get many fantasy heroines clambering out of bed in the night, swearing, because their period’s just started and they need to find a clean rag. Good for Abercrombie for bringing in a bit of real life).

Things have been set up for a truly epic clash in the final volume of the trilogy, which I’m now trying to track down with all speed. I’m still not finding this either as grim or as dark as I feared, but a friend tells me that the First Law trilogy will live up to my expectations in that regard. For now, I’m simply caught up in this good, old-fashioned adventure story, and I’m hoping that Yarvi’s wits and Thorn’s sword will prove equal to the challenges awaiting them in the last book.

Buy the book

Last in the series – Half a King

3 thoughts on “Half the World: Joe Abercrombie

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Funny you should say that, Edoardo. There were moments where I thought the same: for example, the elf-ruins through which they sail in this book are described as being of twisted metal and there’s an ancient tower which sounds very much like an electricity pylon. But I couldn’t square that with the fact that the map at the beginning shows a geography that is similar only in its broadest sense – the actual layout is rather different, though of course we could explain that away by continental drift. And if it is our own world in the future, why are the events mappable into those of our medical period? I concluded in the end that it may be an alternative universe, but I think you’re right in seeing it as being essentially post apocalyptic.

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