Joe Abercrombie here continues his Shattered Sea trilogy. Anyone who enjoyed the first volume, Half a King (and there was much to enjoy, see my post from January 2015) will not be disappointed by this powerful follow-up.
Although the world building remains rather unoriginal, it can be regarded as traditional for such 'sword and sorcery' fantasy: a basically 'Dark Age', Vikingesque society of small, warring kingdoms. In the first book it was subtly revealed that it is actually a post-apocalyptic world, where the occasional remains of an earlier, much higher, civilisation are now considered 'elf relics' redolent with dark magic. This aspect is further interestingly developed in this volume. However this too is a concept that has been used a good many times before. The world of the 'Shattered Sea' is nevertheless graphically and convincingly presented. Joe Abercrombie's real power of imagination - and it is very considerable - lies in conjouring up for the reader the most vivid and viscerally experienced environments and events. Often these build from intense detail which brings the reader right into the heart of landscapes, climates, events. He is perhaps most effective of all in bringing to most engaging life the appearance, nature, actions, thoughts and feelings of his characters. This writer peoples his world with characters, who, whether intensely likeable (which many are), truly hateful (ditto), enigmatic, or ambiguous, are always richly drawn, and believably human. We are fully drawn into their world and live through every thrilling moment with them
This is still emphatically YA and not children's reading. As well as a focus on emergent sexual relationships, it includes often extreme and graphic violence compensating for an absence of 'sorcery' with copious amounts of 'sword'. Yet it remains superlative storytelling from a master of both narrative structure and evocative language. Blood-pounding tension courses through the veins of this book.
In this second volume Joe Abercrombie introduces two new counterpointed protagonists: Thorn, a scrawny but tough girl who lives to fight, and win, and Brand, a muscular and handsome boy who consistently wishes to do right and begins to count the cost of conflict. For all its guts and gore, of which there is a very great deal, Half the World is essentially a love story, a story of powerful love awkwardly crystallising out of an uneasy relationship between these two seeming opposites. It is a most affecting one too. In many ways it is quintessential YA material; two young people growing into themselves, who truly find each other only when they each discover who they are individually - or perhaps the reverse. However the story is far more complex than this too. Although it centres on the new characters it also moves on the development of many characters from the earlier book, albeit now in more subsidiary roles. The context is a major quest, essentially a there-and-back-again journey, the purpose of which is to set up alliances in readiness for the 'global' war that is becoming more and more inevitable. In this, Joe Abercrombie skilfully sets up the impending third volume of his trilogy, without letting this one feel that is is just a 'middle book'. It is jam packed full of viscerally exciting incident, much of course sanguinous, and quite a few of the twists and turns so typical of this master storyteller. He pulls out yet another major surprise in the wildly thrilling and magnificently written climactic scene too. Through it all, however, Brand's growing antipathy to violent conflict, and his very humane response to its resulting horrors, prevent the book as a whole from glorifying its violence.
It is also good to see, in Thorn and Brand, the mould of gender stereotypes so emphatically broken through a girl-boy relationship where yin and yang roles are essentially reversed. In the startling juxtaposition of their attitudes these two protagonists embody the complex relationship between 'Mother War' and 'Father Peace', between conflict and compassion, which this trilogy is starting more and more deeply to explore.
The first two volumes of The Shattered Sea trilogy are fine books. This third is a glorious triumph of skilful writing which brings the whole to an exciting climax, involves much thought provoking resolution, leaves other issues disturbingly unresolved and reveals the whole as far more than the sum of its parts.
Joe Abercrombie builds his tale with consummate skill. Although introducing many interesting and important characters, the first book is one boy's story, that of Yarvi, the tricked, deposed and exiled 'half king', fighting his way back towards revenge. The complex world of the 'Shattered Sea ' is revealed and explored, as it were, through his eyes. Half the World, in contrast, has two key protagonists, the fierce Thorn, and the peace seeking Brand. The narrative perspective engagingly alternates between them as the author crafts a heart thumping build towards impending war. The same rich, complex world as that of Half a King, is seen through different eyes, but Yarvi and others from the earlier book are still developed as secondary characters. This third book introduces two more new principal characters, Skara, young inheritor of the devastated Bail's Point, and born fighter Raith. It also brings to the fore woodcarver and apprentice 'mage' Koll, introduced in the previous episode. Its narration therefore now picks up three perspectives, and through them continues to follow the many strands now unravelling. The narrative structures thus become more complex as the trilogy develops, echoing the horrendous events through which the world of the Shattered Sea is now propelled. The resultant tensions are emmersively gripping. As the crowning creation of Half a War progresses we realise that what its author has created is almost a Russian doll of a tale, stories nestled within stories. Encasing all, is the story of Yarvi, with so many lives and destinies shaped by the decisions and actions he made and continues to make.
And Joe Abercrombie has a genius for twisting a tale in ways or at times we readers least expect. His narrative is often surprising, shocking, sometimes devastating, and always gripping.
In building his fantasy Joe Abercrombie's superlative imagination does not take us on flights of whimsical invention but rather into the very moment of what it is like to love, live, fight and die in his rich, if belligerent, world. His tale is horrendously violent and bloody. He describes every manoeuvre, every clash, sometimes every blow of battle as well as anyone I have encountered, putting to adrenaline pounding service his masterly command of language, his detailed knowledge and research of ancient weapons and warfare and of course his awesome power as a storyteller.*
In this third book the writer finally fully exploits his conceit that his current wold is build on the ruins of an earlier much more advanced civilisation. He gives one side in the battle of the Shattered Sea access to weapons that are literally devastating, raising many of the most profound questions about so-called progress, and what armed conflict has come to mean in our own time. At its heart this is a story of war, in all its graphic horror. However it is also much more. So very much more.
On one level Joe Abercrombie's stunning trilogy is pessimistic, cynical. There is no war to end all wars. War just begets more war. It is never glorious, Winning is never life's greatest triumph. His themes in The Shattered Sea are many and complex. It is about life lost and life discovered, both because of and despite war. It is about the lust for fighting and the longing for peace. It is about how each of these can, ironically, lead to the other. It is about the sword and the word, about when to fight and when to talk, and about when not to do either. It is about the necessity to protect one's own, but also about what more is lost when one does. It is about the corrupting nature of revenge. It is about love found and love lost, love won, love denied, love repudiated and love stolen. It is about going on when there is nothing left to go on for. It is about seeking out and building a future despite everything. It is a rich, complex, violent, gruesome, humane, tender work. It is wonderful.
I can only again express my admiration for the masterly skill in storytelling that oozes from every sentence, every page, every chapter of this trilogy, but most of all from the conception and execution of its awe inspiring whole.
*Bernard Cornwell is another such, but his books are not so directly geared to YA.