With Half the World Joe Abercrombie returns us to the Shattered Sea, a place of fantasy but which to me feels embedded in the Viking world. A cold, beautiful place of ice, mountains and forests, populated by small warring kingdoms, each empowered by their chief god – Mother War, herself in an uneasy alliance with Father Peace. Half the World is the followup to the glorious Half a King but it is not a straightforward sequel. Time has moved on. Half the World features familiar figures, notably Yarvi, our Half a King, but now he is joined by a fresh set of characters, new young warriors learning to know their place and how to fight for their King, Queen and gods. So, while you don’t need to have read Half a King to enjoy Half the World, I would suggest that you do so anyway.
Thorn is our hero. A young girl mourning the loss of her father, slain in single combat by Grom-Gil-Gorm, the Breaker of Swords, who wants nothing less than to be a warrior, to claim an oar on a ship, to wreak vengeance. But when she accidentally kills a boy during weapon practice, she is named a murderer. Her only escape from being crushed by rocks is to serve the now powerful Yarvi. And Yarvi has grand schemes of his own. They involve a sea- and river-borne journey to the south, to find new allies in old enemies, to bring to an end the wars that divide the Shattered Sea. Thorn is part of his plan, so too is Brand, a young man with the strongest of backs and most questioning of minds, who looks at Thorn, her filthy half-shorn hair, her snarl and the bag of father’s bones around her neck, and sees someone very special indeed. Half the World continues the story of Yarvi and his crew but most of all it tells the tale of Thorn and Brand.
Thorn is a fabulous young heroine. Battered and scarred, she has a formidable time growing into her destiny. Her warrior training is relentless and brutal, her endurance is tested to the extreme. Despite her stubbornness and dedication, Thorn remains hugely likeable. There are tears but only we are allowed to see them. This is a society in which many children have no parents and there are reminders of that constantly. There are some lonely souls here just as there are others who are deeply loved. Brand is another one in need of some love and he’s even easier to like than Thorn. Neither wants romance, or so they think, but it’s clear from the beginning that they’re not going to have much choice.
Half the World is a beautifully written half-Viking, half-fantasy adventure. Its landscapes are huge and rich, the ruins and the relics of the long gone Elfish kingdoms both strikingly eerie and reminiscent of Roman memories to Saxon and Viking societies. It’s hugely evocative. The sea and river journeys are wonderfully described, most particularly life at the oar and the scenes when the crew must carry their ship across a mountain. These are such cinematic passages and were the highlight to me. This is when we learn most about our crew. It was also very good indeed to spend time with Yarvi again. Although he is now a secondary character he still has a strong role and he has a page-stealing presence.
Half the World is action-packed and thrilling, especially during the second half, but the battles and fights seemed to me to take second place here to character development, in contrast to Half a King. There are few surprises, including the romance. Abercrombie doesn’t shy from the trials faced by a very young woman trying to live – even dominate – in a masculine world, such as periods and a changing body, and I liked how that was done. While I think I loved Half a King slightly more, overall Half the World‘s lasting impression to me is of a fun and enjoyable saga with a heroine that I loved very much indeed, fighting her path in a world of violence and wonder.
Half a King