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Review: Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (2015)

I sometimes wonder what life is like at the Abercrombie household. I’m sure they’re a perfectly happy family and that Joe’s a (reasonably) well-adjusted guy, but my imagination gets away with me. I unspool cartoonish scenarios. I picture a great deal of snarling, and spitting, and nose-breaking, and bone-crunching. Dinnertime would be the worst. “Death comes for us all,” Joe snarled as he speared the last chicken leg with his fork. The little Abercrombies puffed their cheeks and eyed Joe sullenly.

There’s a great deal of cheek-puffing in Half a War, the third (and presumably final) entry in Joe Ambercrombie’s Shattered Sea series. And with good reason: As the events begun in Half a King and continued in Half the World come to fruition, Abercrombie’s characters are pushed to their limits. The story opens with Princess Skara fleeing Throvenland, having just evaded the clutches of Bright Yilling (fantasy authors love names like this), murder of her grandfather, who was the king, and his advisor. As Throvenland burns, Kings Uthil of Gettland and Grom-gil-Gorm (seriously, these names) of Vansterland are close to breaking their unsteady alliance–and thus exposing themselves to the advances of the High King. The cunning Father Yarvi, first introduced in Half a King, strives to keep the two kings working together, all in service to his oath to bring down the High King, of course.

half a war joe abercrombie

Half a War, Joe Abercrombie

The main complaint I can muster about Half a War is that there’s nothing really new here. There is a great deal of violence, although far less than in Abercrombie’s First Law world, presumably since Shattered Sea is aimed at the YA audience. There is conniving and backstabbing, characteristic of Abercrombie’s cynical view of politics and power. And, as there must be, there are a few twists–which I can’t discuss here, of course. If you liked Abercrombie’s other books, you’re likely to enjoy Half a War, too. It’s comforting, in its prickly way. You can count on his characters to be bastards even as they half-heartedly struggle to do the right thing.

The most overtly interesting thing about Half a War is the attention Abercrombie gives the (previously) scarcely-mentioned “elf relics,” artifacts of a lost advanced civilization which sounds remarkably like our own. Indeed, the so-called elf relics play an important role in Half a War, to the point of being a bit of a deus ex machina. But Abercrombie handles it wisely, parsing out only bits of information; he knows that spelling out what happened to the “elves” would ruin the magic. (Although, based on the clues Abercrombie gives, it’s not hard to guess.)

I was impressed, too, by Abercrombie’s (typical) refusal to give his characters tidy resolution. Some characters lose people important to them and are denied the vengeance they seek; others discover that fulfilling a long-planned-for goal can be disappointing. But there are happy endings, too: Some loves are requited, and some characters redeemed–although in a way that’s less satisfactory than they may have hoped. Abercrombie’s characters have to make choices (even if their decisions are often predictable).

half a war job abercrombie

Haven’t actually seen this cover anywhere.

Putting predictability aside, the major weakness of Half a War, indeed, of the trilogy, is Abercrombie’s decision to shift his focus to new characters with each book. Half a King was Yarvi’s story, while Half the World was about Thorn and Brand. In Half a War, Abercrombie moves Princess Skara, the warrior Raith, and Yarvi’s apprentice, Koll, to the fore. Previous characters–the ones still alive, anyway–are still present, but in the background. Ultimately, the feeling is disjointed; characters you became attached to in a previous entry are still enticingly there, but far removed. Thorn, for instance, who was perfectly aggravating in Half the World, is barely present in Half a War.

Half a War is weaker than its predecessors, but still quite fun. Although hampered a bit by a predictable plot and its uneven treatment of characters, Half a King makes up for it with Abercrombie’s earthy prose and the compelling Shattered Sea world. I’ve said before that I thought writing for young adults softened Abercrombie’s harder edges, making him more pleasant to read. Although still quite cynical, I far prefer the moral world of the Shattered Sea to that of the grim (and, I suspect, deliberately contrarian) First Law universe. Stalwart Abercrombie fans will most enjoy Half a War; readers new to Abercrombie might want to start with the Shattered Sea.

Similar books:

  • Back when I was a Young Turk of book blogging, and actually blogged semi-regularly, I helpfully reviewed Half a King. Now with more adverbs!
  • Earlier this year I took a look at Abercrombie’s latest entry in the First Law world, Red Country.
  • What’s grimmer than Lord Grimdark? Andy Remic’s The Iron Wolves.
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Review: Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

It left a bad taste in my mouth, like toothpaste and orange juice, when I learned that Joe Abercrombie was writing a series for young adults. Lord Grimdark is pandering to the kiddies? Gross. I needn’t have worried. From the moment I got my clammy, fanboy hands on Abercrombie’s latest book, I was hooked. Abercrombie and YA is like peanut butter and chocolate. Come, fantasy fans and Abercrombie aficionados, and gorge upon the bounty that is Half a King (Del Rey, July 3 2014).

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, Joe Abercrombie

The story opens when Prince Yarvi of Gettland, intended for the ministry (in this case, a brotherhood of advisers and diplomats who work toward peace) learns that his father, King Uthrik, is dead, killed by the Gettlanders’ neighbors and foes, the Vanstermen. Yarvi was not meant to be a king: His left hand is deformed, rendering him unsuitable for the throne. But with his older brother dead, too, Yarvi is the only heir, and he swears an oath to avenge his father. Yarvi leads a raid against Vansterland, only to be betrayed. Armed with only one good hand, years of resentment, and the cunning he learned as an initiate of the ministry, Yarvi sets out to fulfill his oath.

The world of Half a King is separate of that from Abercrombie’s previous fiction. Although still within the vaguely medieval consensus that defines traditional fantasy settings, there is a definite Norse, particularly Icelandic, flavor here. Gettland, Vansterland, among other kingdoms unified under the “High King” border the Shattered Sea, a roiling, storm battered mass traversed by longboat. Much of the middle of the book is set in northern ice fields and, subsequently, land rent by hot springs. And then there are the elves. Not to worry: Abercrombie’s focus is decidedly human, and his elves are long extinct. Only their ruins and artifacts remain, hinting at a curious back story. For instance, the woman who wears around her neck “an elf-tablet, the green card studded with black jewels, scrawled with incomprehensible markings, riddled with intricate golden lines.” The millennium-old ruins, untouched by time, are reminiscent of the Eldren constructions of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, haunting the scenery with an implicit threat.

Is this an "elf-tablet"?

Is this an “elf-tablet”?

If the setting is different, the tone is the same. This is a broken world: Yarvi has a “crippled” hand; the characters sail on the Shattered Sea; and even the gods are broken, the elves having waged war on the One God, shattering her into many. Perhaps writing for young adults has mellowed Abercrombie. Half a King may not be upbeat, but neither is it the cynical Ouroboros that characterizes Abercrombie’s previous novels: Here the backstabbing has an end. The camaraderie of Yarvi and his fellows is refreshingly authentic, free of the edges apparent in The First Law trilogy and its successors.

That’s not to say that violence is absent from Half a King. I lost count of noses broken with a “crunch” after a half a dozen. Abercrombie continues his fascination with the grotesque; he knows that, however much violence sickens us, it draws us in, too. We cannot look away. Abercrombie has always been sophisticated in his attitude toward violence: He portrays it with gusto, knowing that we’re attracted to it despite our denials (and thus making us complicit). But he has always portrayed its consequences, too, perhaps to greater effect in Yarvi, who is no warrior: “And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.”

If Half a King has a weakness, it is the plot, which is predictable. Perhaps that’s because I’m older than the intended audience, or maybe, having read Abercrombie’s other novels, I am able to intuit when he’s preparing to spring a trap on his readers. That the twists and turns of the story are unsurprising in no way diminish the reader’s pleasure, a testament to Abercrombie’s storytelling skills. Indeed, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, impatient to see what travails would next befall Yarvi.

Abercrombie, if not the anti-Tolkien, is a contrarian, turning on its head the tropes of high fantasy. He lays aside that ideological jihad in Half a King, instead telling the story of one character’s quest, and a very grounded one at that, motivated by revenge and gold. The only magic here is the depth of the world and the propulsive story, all of which Abercrombie manages in less than 300 pages. The only disappointing thing about Half a King is how soon it ends, and how long we have to wait for the sequel. Highly recommended.