Book Review: Half a War (Joe Abercrombie)

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Half a War
by Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey (July 28, 2015)

Abercrombie is a rare beast of a writer. Having penned half a dozen massive, rather unapologetically adult fantasy novels, his latest endeavour has swerved across to the young-adult genre, aiming for a much tighter, less jagged, and more accessible experience. He essentially performed a complete pivot, swivelling around to the total opposite of what made him famous. And he’s done it with that supreme style we’ve come to expect from his work.

The last two books in the Shattered Seas trilogy have been excellent; Half the World (2015) in particular being quite possibly my favorite young-adult book of all time. While Half a War (2015) is still excellent, it doesn’t quite match up to the lofty work of its predecessors. It differs quite vastly from the previous two novels, since they’ve been building up the momentum, stacking the stakes higher and higher until this point. Now it’s all-out war with no holds barred and no limits. Catching up on where the last novel abandoned us, the Shattered Seas are in a state of war, Grandmother Wexen seeking to burn all the traitors to ashes and raising a large enough army to do it. And spearheading this campaign is Bright Yilling, a man worshipping only Death.

Here we have a whole, fresh cast of point-of-view characters. The princess Skara, the soon-to-be minister Koll, and the harsh warrior Raith. The first novel had Yarvi as the only point-of-view, and the second one hopped between Brand and Thorn. While all of these characters show up in future installments, we never see through their perspectives again. I’d grown attached to Brand and Thorn throughout Half the World, so severing my strings from them was a disappointment, albeit a necessary one. Abercrombie didn’t have much time to sculpt these characters to a fine hone, but he does it well in the limited space he has. The characters, most notably Princess Skara—having lost her home and family to the ferocious warrior Bright Yilling and Raith, who is assigned to protect her, grow and adapt to the conditions throughout the course of the novel.

Seeing as this is the ultimate endgame, a good slice of the novel involves battle sequences, or at least raids and storm operations. And much to no one’s surprise, they are nothing short of phenomenal. The actions scenes are fluid and rip-roaring, sharpened to a cutting-edge. It’s easy to get caught up in a repetition with fight scenes, and although the phrase “they were close enough to kiss” popped up more than twice, every battle scene is a new experience, teetering on the edge of a knife point.

A diverse range of weapons are employed here, and Abercrombie always uses the terrain to his advantage, be it in a bucketing storm or on the edge of the crumbling battlements, chopping away at those who inch their way upward in the midst of a tempest. Motion is always in play, and your heart’s racing away alongside the characters without fail, with every swoop, slash, and tumble.

There’s no overwrought, pseudo-complicated language to bog down the pace—just the raw heat of the battle. If there’s one thing Abercrombie knows how to do, it’s ratchet up the tension to eleven and beyond. The momentum is constantly at breaking point, and the numerous brutal fight scenes never become boring or blunted. Metal clashes and splinters fly, arms are sheared off and taut flatbows groan, and a hail of arrows fills the air to bolt out the sun.

Abercrombie has absolutely blown his competitors out of the water here—you won’t find better actions sequences anywhere else, not by a mile. Whatever Abercrombie touches turns to action-packed gold, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee from his work, it’ll be unparalleled action sequences and blood-pumping battles.

Of course, it’s not all pointy swords and roaring curses. There are also numerous scenes where diplomacy and political machinations come into play, as Princess Skara learns to adapt to the court and grow accustomed to sitting on the throne. The dialogue is sharp and crisp, filled with double entendre and thinly-veiled threats. Occasionally it does come across as slightly flowery, but never unrealistically so. These conversations are packed with tension and have impact both on characters and the plot.

As with the last two books in the series, space is somewhat limited. Gone is the sprawling quarter of a million word epic that Abercrombie is accustomed to churning out, otherwise known as the BFF (big fat fantasy), jostling the smaller books out of the way and dominating the shelves. Half a War sits smugly at 130,000 or so, and it shows.

So while the significance of these aforementioned political scenarios is indisputable, they do take up a rather large part of the novel, and considering Abercrombie’s limited playing field, their presence isn’t always as welcome as it should be. Not that they must be replaced with action sequences, but I found myself itching to get out and explore the world and the castle grounds, not cooped up in a single room.

In general the novel is much more concentrated this time, grounded to a smattering of key areas, where the previous installments, particularly the aptly named Half the World saw us travelling (would you have guessed it?) across half of the known world and back. It was a much more traditional, yet reinvigorated adventure, putting on a fresh spin without reinventing the wheel. And although we visit entirely new locations, a large part of the world is still shrouded in mystery. I’d never want to read a book where every nook and cranny of the universe is explored and fleshed out, but I did wish to venture out a little more into the unknown and see the sights.

Speaking of which, attention must be given to the rather nuanced and minimalist world-building that Abercrombie employs. Theories have been floating around since Half the World’s release about the world of the Shattered Seas and the origin of the elves, and it comes as a surprise to discover that our kingdom actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, and these elves were in fact humans. It’s never explicitly stated and the exact details are only ever hinted at, but this slow drip of a genre-bending reveal builds up to have a colossal impact on the kinetic ending. It’s also invigorating to see Abercrombie work outside of straight-forward secondary world fantasy and add a dash of science-fiction to his repertoire. In addition, this feat is performed with nuance and subtlety with lots of questions still remaining unanswered.

The series maintains a strong sense of moral ambiguity, even more so than the previous two books, and while Abercrombie always manages to portray the multi-faceted dimensions of war, conflict, morality and people, he never stoops down to being didactic or judgemental in doing so. He just displays the raw conflict—both within the human heart and on the battlefield—in an open and honest way. A lesser writer would avoid this level of complexity, or even worse, fall into the trap of talking down to their readers and forcing a certain standpoint. Abercrombie avoids these pitfalls with grace, leaving the readers to mull over the events and their impact at their own space.

Bringing the trilogy to a close, Abercrombie has painted a rich, detailed kingdom packed full of compelling characters inhabiting a morally-ambiguous world and struggling to navigate the dangerous waters of both the seas and the battlefield. Sometimes they don’t always make it, and sometimes they don’t escape unscathed. The slightly less compelling cast of characters and extra time spent discussing politics causes the final installment to miss the mark by a hair. Half the World set the bar so high that topping it would have been a tremendous feat, and it just manages to not pass that mark.

Nevertheless, Half a War is a rip-roaring, jaw-dropping rollercoaster of a novel, brimming with heart-thumping action, witty dialogue and a climax that flips the genre on its head. Abercrombie is a priceless asset for both young adult and adult fantasy, bridging the gap between the two genres and managing to look damn good while he does it. The Shattered Seas, and Half a War, is utterly unmissable. Pick up your bearded blade and raise your shield and get ready for an adventure you won’t soon forget. That is, if you manage to live through it.

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Jeremy Szal

About Jeremy Szal

Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared multiple times in Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Fantasy Scroll.