Half the World by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy is his first foray into the YA market. The first book in the series, Half a King, was a coming-of-age tale that focused on one character, crippled king-turned-slave Yarvi, as he strove to gain his freedom and revenge. Half the World is more a follow-up than a direct sequel: although it does contain some characters from the first book, including Yarvi, they all take a backseat to two new protagonists. Thorn and Brand are both young, both strong, and both aspire to be warriors; however, that’s where their similarities end, and there are plenty of personality clashes as they’re both dragged across half the world in the name of war and peace.
Half the World didn’t entirely blow me away, maybe because, just as with the first book, I never really felt a strong connection to either of the main characters right from the beginning. Thorn starts off being incredibly unsympathetic, while Brand just seems bland. However, both of them grew on me (like mould on bread), and although I never came to feel anything more than lukewarm affection for either of them I think the author does a commendable job of creating two solid and distinctive story arcs. Abercrombie also does an excellent job of twisting stereotypes, seen here in the woman who lives to fight and the man who discovers he’d actually prefer not to, leading both to be scorned by their patriarchal society. The underlying lesson that “sometimes a girl is touched by Mother War, while a boy can just as easily walk the path of Father Peace” is a simplistic yet fine one to push, particularly in a YA novel, and Abercrombie does an admirable job of pushing it.
At first I was worried Half the World would simply be a repetition of Half a King, with the characters again spending a lot of time on a boat pulling an oar. Happily, this is more of a nod to the first book rather than an attempt to imitate it, and most of the events take place on solid ground in a wide variety of locations. The plot flows quickly, following the same ‘epic journey’ format as the first book: once again this works really well, with the physical journey serving as a neat metaphor for the heroes’ mental and moral growth. And once again, Abercrombie pulls the rug out from underneath us just as we think the story has reached its inevitable conclusion. True to form, the supporting characters are solid and the dialogue is, of course, fantastic and full of life . . . even if the author does doggedly cram the words ‘half the world’ into conversation as many times as he can, which sometimes feels awkward and becomes a bit annoying. Speaking of shoe-horning, the romance sub-plot also feels kind of clumsy and unwelcome most of the time; though of course much of the awkwardness is deliberate, and in a way it’s nice to see Abercrombie’s trademark irreverent approach to romance make its first real appearance in the series.
Both instalments of The Shattered Sea feel almost like Abercrombie’s attempting to try and reverse the trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy that he himself helped popularise. Half the World still has plenty of the characteristic grit and grimness – death, swearing, blood, tears, not to mention other bodily fluids – and yet there’s also humour and hope. Not gallows humour, such as characterises his adult fiction, but genuine humour at all the right moments; and not false hope, but real hope held by characters who are actually good people, and who remain so throughout the story. Abercrombie’s grimdark First Law trilogy grabbed the concept of the ‘happily ever after’ in fantasy, set fire to it and then flushed its ashes down the toilet; his Shattered Sea trilogy is beginning to restore the notion of satisfying outcomes and justice in fantasy fiction, and it’s starting to make for some mightily enjoyable reading.