Book Review: Half The World (Joe Abercrombie)

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Half The World
by Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey (February 17, 2015)

Until Half A King (2014), we all knew what we would be getting once we popped open an Abercrombie novel. Violence. Swearing. Cynicism. Dark humor. Snarky characters. Un-heroic adventures that dragged fantasy down into the mud in the most delightful way possible. Worlds that subverted traditional fantasy tropes for a grittier, more action-packed flavor.

And then came along Half A King, somewhat less intense and sweary, but still retaining a lot of Abercrombie’s traditional tools that we’ve come to know and love. It was a fantastic start to the Shattered Seas trilogy, raising the bar for YA speculative fiction everywhere.

And Half the World (2015) just raised it again.

Thorn is one of the two main characters of the novel. Struggling to carve out her place as a warrior in a male-dominated society, she’s fought her way uphill through years of strenuous tests, only to accidently kill a student in the training grounds. She is soon sentenced to death. That’s when Brand comes in. A young warrior who hates to kill, he speaks up on her behalf, starting a chain of events that sees the two of them bound together on a ship, facing terrible dangers as they sail across half the world to seek allies against the High King.

Thorn is harsh and hot-tempered, the complete counterpart to the brooding, quiet personality of Brand. Yet their chemistry is irresistibly charming, packed with laugh-out-loud moments and passages of pure genius. There’s no soppy, drawling spurts of lukewarm romance or spoutings of pseudo-philosophies on relationships here. Abercrombie doesn’t fool himself into thinking he’s reaching new heights when it comes to teenage dialogue. He writes what’s genuine and it works. It’s fast, it’s tight, it’s real, and it’s magnificent.

The rest of the ragtag crew is also marvelous. They’re far from the dashing, handsome lot that you’d want to sail the seas with. They’re filthy, rough and shoulder a dark history of their own, many of which become unraveled through the course of the book. Yet they become close friends that we can’t bear to bid farewell. Each of them has enough plot-time to sculpt them into three-dimensional characters, but never enough that they threaten to steal the spotlight.

The strongest aspect of Thorn and Brand as characters is that they are both fundamentally flawed. They’re not trying to be heroes, they’re not trying to be the golden center of attention. Thorn dives head-first into trouble, not giving a damn whether it’s safe or not. And Brand often lets others push him around as to not cause problems, yet problems eventually find him anyway. They’re far from perfect, but we can’t help but love and cheer for them. We want to sail across half the world just to spend more time in their company. Their relationship and development as characters is the true core of Half the World. Their slow evolution through the novel is a joy to experience, and their bitter-sweet interactions span everything from heart-warming to heart-breaking. This meticulous slow-burn of a relationship is easily the greatest and most daring I’ve seen in any YA novel, ever.

If there is something negative to say, it’s Thorn’s mildly grating attitude. She harbors resentment to almost everyone who crosses her path, regardless of their intentions. Of course, this only provides a greater opportunity to see her change and develop as a character, and her deep-rooted anger is understandable, given the death of her father and her nagging mother. Her frustration with the limitations placed on her as a woman is also warranted, given that a poor treatment of women is a cruel fact of pre-modern existence, one that Abercrombie (and many other fantasy authors) are perfectly justified in portraying. Yet I personally wanted to be Brand more than I did Thorn, and found myself looking forward to his chapters more than hers. In saying that, both are fantastic characters that have taken deep root within me and made a lasting impression.

And I couldn’t justify not giving Yarvi a mention. The protagonist of the first book has become a Minister, playing his deadly game in the shadows, maneuvering and manipulating entire kingdoms without their knowledge. He’s a smart, yet devious character who straddles the lines between white and black. In a sea of grey characters, Yarvi is the greyest of them all. When you see the situations and circumstances that transpired solely because of Yarvi’s actions, your jaw will drop. He’s the master puppeteer, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

As with Half A King, the world of the Shattered Seas takes place in a Scandinavian-esque fantasy world, complete with fjords, shield walls, and bearded blades. And honestly, there’s no better place to set your world in. It’s a kingdom teeming with diverse, exotic locations that aren’t just limited to the typical snow-capped mountains. Each place feels alive and well established, complete with its own political situation that’s tied to the world at large. Abercrombie doesn’t dwell these, but nor does he brush them aside for the sake of simplification.

Just like in the previous book, not a single word, not a single paragraph, is gone to waste. The journey itself is brimming with danger and adventure. There’s a large amount of traveling involved, yet not once did I feel bored or bogged down. Like every great writer, Abercrombie has no qualms about thrusting his characters into awful situations where something terrible will happen. The battle scenes are vivid and life-like, full of intensity and bursting with dynamic energy. They simply leap off the page. You can almost hear the splintering of wood, the clatter of swords and the whistle of arrows. The last battle sequence is absolutely riveting. My eyes were glued to the page, taking in every breath, every swipe, and every slash. We don’t expect anything less than superb fight scenes from Abercrombie, but the final one absolutely blew me away. They definitely feel more heroic and glamorous as opposed to Abercrombie’s adult novels, but they are never glossed over or sweetened for easier digestion. These sequences also have a lasting impact on Thorn and Brand, shaping them into the characters that they are by the end of the novel.

I’ve been an avid fan of Abercrombie even since I first picked up The Blade Itself (2006), and I knew without a doubt that Half The World would be just as riveting. I just didn’t expect it to soar as high as it did. It dragged me down to its gritty, freezing depths and enticed me to the last page, leaving me ravenous for more. I truly didn’t want it to end. It’s even better than Half A King, and quite possibly my favorite young-adult book of all time. Abercrombie really doesn’t do anything by halves. He’s truly established himself as the new High King of young-adult fantasy.

Find below a selection of works by Joe Abercrombie:

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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.