Half a War (2015): Joe Abercrombie


The Shattered Sea: Book III

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s young-adult trilogy, which I’ve used as a way to ease myself into the considerably grimmer and darker world of his adult novels. This concluding instalment of the Shattered Sea trilogy already breaches some more troubling themes than its predecessors. This is a tale of blood and senseless slaughter; of moral decisions taken by the immoral. It’s a story which represents the truly brutalising force of war: not that men and women lose their lives, but that they lose their honour and their humanity in thrall to weapons more powerful than themselves. Inventive to the last, Abercrombie’s world turns established fantasy on its head and left me grinning at its impudent audacity.

If there’s one thing definably ‘young adult’ about this series, it’s the way that our point of view changes with each novel, to join a fresh intake of young people facing up to key questions about who they are and what they want from life. In the first novel it was Yarvi himself; last time round it was the fiery Thorn Bathu; and this time it’s another young woman with attitude. Skara, princess of Throvenland, learns to hate the High King the hard way. When his henchman Bright Yilling kills her grandfather and burns her hall, Skara survives only through the cunning of the wanderer Blue Jenner, who smuggles her off to her cousin Queen Laithlin in Thorlby. Here, Skara finds herself at the heart of resistance to the High King, as King Uthil and his erstwhile enemy Grom-gil-Gorm join together in an uneasy truce. As she watches the two great men jostling for preeminence, like stags tussling over territory, Skara must find a way to grow into her own responsibilities: to become the queen she has to be, to find a place for herself in this fraught alliance, and to speak up for the future of Throvenland.

While Skara struggles to do the right thing, undermined by her inner doubts and her roiling stomach (of which we hear rather too much, to be honest), she’s never quite sure who she can trust. Everyone around her seems to want the best for her, but all too often that neatly dovetails with their own ambitions. Even her court (of two people) is formed of those thrust upon her by others: her minister is the former apprentice of Grom-gil-Gorm’s fearsome Mother Scaer; and her cupbearer Raith is former sword-bearer to Grom-gil-Gorm himself. As Skara adjusts to these new followers – finding Raith more fascinating than one might expect of a cupbearer – she also makes an unexpected friend in the uncompromising, short-tempered Thorn Bathu. Their path will be a hard one, taking them into unimaginable dangers and tempting them into the realms of dark, forbidden magic; but it’s a path that Skara reclaims, more and more, for herself. While the first novel was very masculine (with a couple of honourable exceptions), this one turns things around. Most of our strongest characters are women: Skara; Thorn Bathu; Laithlin herself; and, of course, the enigmatic sorceress Skifr, who comes to the alliance in a moment when they need help more than ever, offering hidden knowledge… at a price.

The thing I loved about this book was the way Abercrombie allows your realisations to dawn very slowly, before pulling back the curtain in a dramatic sequence that allows you to fully comprehend the prehistory of Skara’s world. It’s a clever balance to maintain and, although I had some suspicions in earlier books, I hadn’t quite imagined this level of explicit clarity. I’m trying to keep it vague, so as to avoid spoilers, but fellow readers will know what I mean if I allude to the weapons of the Elves. Very clever. I was less keen on the teenage angst, which meant that characters spent a long time gazing at one another across crowded rooms or, even worse, dreaming of gazing at one another. I do accept that young adult books have to have an element of ‘coming of age’ in them, but surely the characters don’t have to feel like they’re eyeing each other up at a school disco? Thank heaven for Thorn Bathu, who stomps through the fields of young love like an avenging Fury and finds it difficult to be civil even to her own husband.

However, this series has proven to be intriguing, fun and surprising, and it’s left me very keen to move on to some of Abercrombie’s grittier stuff. Blending fantasy and sci-fi, it has filled the Viking-shaped void in my life, but done so with a knowing smile and Machiavellian sleight-of-hand. I feel there were many parts of this world that I didn’t get to see in enough detail: I would have loved, for example, to spend more time in the First of Cities, but perhaps the canvas is there for Abercrombie to return to at a later stage. For now, I’ll say this: while Half a War wasn’t my favourite of the series, it was a good, solid ending to the tale and – more importantly – one that keeps you thinking well past its close. Give The Shattered Sea a go, if you’re looking for a touch of lighter grimdark fantasy, and come back to tell me what you think.

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Last in this series – Half the World

2 thoughts on “Half a War (2015): Joe Abercrombie

  1. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    Although I enjoyed Half a King, I don’t think I enjoyed it enough to go on to the other two novels, so I’d like you to spoil away and tell the prehistory of the world of the Shattered Sea. Was it, as I suspected, our own in the far future, following some apocalyptic event, or something different?

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ah, Edoardo, sorry for the silence. I thought I’d wait a bit before answering, just in case anyone came along who didn’t want to be spoiled just yet, but then work got in the way. I’ve left it long enough, I think. 😉 Yes, essentially you’re right. I’m still not entirely sure about how the coastlines have shifted and so forth, but Abercrombie is definitely dealing with a far future in a world pretty much like ours (maybe there have been a couple of ice ages in between, to explain the moving coasts). Elf-metal is steel and iron, girders and so forth, while elf-magic turns out to be very unmagical relics from our own world: guns, electricity, tarmac and so forth.

      I think Abercrombie kept the pace of revelation right: by bringing all this out in the final book, he gave me as a reader an ‘aha!’ moment but didn’t let the novelty wear off. It was certainly a fun trilogy to read. I’m now starting out on The First Law, which is taking a little while to get into its stride, and feels like rather more conventional fantasy with rogues and wizards and so forth (and added grimness); but we’ll see how it goes.

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