Half a War | Joe Abercrombie | 2015 | Harper Voyager | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book
With Half a War a fine trilogy comes to an end. Luckily for readers, little time has separated each of the three books. If you’ve not yet embarked on the Shattered Sea series (labelled Young Adult but to my mind ageless in its appeal), then now is the perfect time. While each of the three books tells different stories, these are elements of the whole and all come together in the conclusion, Half a War. If you’ve not read the earlier books then I would urge you to take care with the review below – it inevitably mentions events from Half a King and Half the World.
The time has come for Mother War to shake loose Father Peace once and for all. The cold and hostile, sharply beautiful lands of the Shattered Sea are ready for war. Father Yarvi’s schemes have finally come to fruition, an army is raised to destroy the ruthless High King and his monstrous minister Grandmother Wexen. One more act is required to seal Yarvi’s plan – Grandmother Wexen has despatched a great army under mighty warrior Bright Yilling to slaughter Yarvi’s ally, the King of Throvenland. His granddaughter Princess Skara survives against all odds to become a figurehead for Yarvi’s forces. Rivals unite behind this vulnerable but brave young woman who speaks the words they need to hear, her innocence and grievous cause fuelling their violence and rage as Yarvi’s plotting cannot. She is protected by Raith, the sword-bearer of Grom-gil-Gorm, a giant brute of a king who wears the swordhilts of his slain enemies around his neck in a macabre heavy chain.
While Half a War continues the story of the Shattered Sea begun with Half A King and continued in Half the World, in a sense the story is begun again because, once more, new characters form its heart. Half a War focuses predominantly on Skara, a young woman who couldn’t be placed in a more dangerous position, learning the skills of diplomacy and leadership among intimidating warriors and sinister ministers who have been having their own way for far too long. Skara wants to be far more than just a figurehead and her journey from girl to adult is every bit as important as her transition to Queen, helped along or complicated by her relationship to Raith, who has a whole set of problems of his own. Alongside the stories of Skara and Raith, there is also Koll, Father Yarvi’s woodcarving apprentice, whose presence reminds us that there could be more to the future of Shattered World than war.
As the trilogy comes to a conclusion, characters from previous novels have their say, most particularly Yarvi as well as the hugely likeable and complex warrior Thorn and her immensely brave husband Brand, whose heart is every bit as strong as his body. There is an unexpected result of having Thorn and Brand return in Half a War. It says something for the quality of their characters that their dominance of Half the World makes them an immensely hard act to follow – in my opinion, Skara, Raith and Koll cannot live up to them. Likewise, Yarvi is such a dominant figure, his character continuing to evolve in surprising ways, he too overshadows this new trio of heroes.
The Shattered Sea itself drifts closer into focus during Half a War. Throughout the trilogy we have been reminded of the gigantic structures that line the sea. These ruins were built many generations before, the product of ‘elves’, beings greater than men. The remains have given the books a post-apocalyptic feel to me – that events are taking place in our distant ruined future. This has reminded me of Saxon poems regarding mysterious Roman remains, a feeling compounded by the very strong Viking and Saxon feel to the trilogy’s language, setting and action. In this novel, the post-apocalyptic sense is strengthened by some of the discoveries that have been found in these enigmatic remains and are here used to such deadly effect. There is a little less mystery in Half a War than in the previous novels, fewer journeys across the Shattered Sea itself.
As with the previous two novels, Half a War is a thrilling, superbly-written read, mixing intense action with high drama and emotion throughout, a strange world beautifully evoked, its wisdom and ferocity brought sharply into focus. The pages fly through the fingers. While Half a War, for me, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of its two predecessors – they are an extraordinarily hard act to follow, after all – it does present a satisfying conclusion to a wonderful trilogy that I have loved very much indeed.