Joe Abercrombie’s Half the World is book two of his SHATTERED SEA trilogy. Although Yarvi and some of the cast from book one do make an appearance, Half the World isn’t exactly a sequel to Half a King, and I almost think you could read it without having read book one. The overarching storyline follows Father Yarvi’s quest to find allies abroad as Gettland’s enemies close in, but on a micro level, Half the World is much more than that. In book two, Abercrombie introduces us to a pair of new, young protagonists, Thorn and Brand, two fighters who have their warrior dreams crushed by not being chosen for the King’s raids on the neighboring Vansterland. While Thorn faces the death penalty after she kills a fellow trainee in an accident, Brand soothes his despair by drinking himself into oblivion. Just when things seem a bit hopeless for our protagonists, Father Yarvi enters the scene with vastly different plans for Thorn and Brand, and he brings them on a diplomatic trip to the Empire of the South, where, perhaps, the duo can make a difference …
Two aspects I’ve always loved about Abercrombie’s works are the depth of his characters and his character development; all the players in Half the World are understandable, well-crafted, and believable. What’s even better is that Abercrombie brings us both realistic and lovable characters that simultaneously challenge traditional representations of masculinity and femininity. In a dark world with a Viking-like culture and clearly demarcated gender roles, Thorn is the exact opposite of a “proper woman,” just as Brand is the antithesis of a “proper man.” Bellicose, unsteady, impulsive, and clever, Thorn is a female warrior in a patriarchal kingdom and a male-dominated profession; on the flip side, Brand is everything Thorn is not: compassionate, gentle, stable, and thoughtful. From the very beginning of Half the World, both characters face the challenges of non-conformity. Burdened with a misogynistic trainer, Thorn is discriminated against and is forced to fight three fellow trainees rather than the customary one in order to past the warriors’ test and become eligible to fight as a soldier. Ultimately, Thorn’s aggressiveness, just like Brand’s placidity, becomes a character strength rather than the originally perceived character flaw in the journey to the Empire of the South. So Abercrombie manages to convey to his readers that it’s alright to be different, that non-conformity doesn’t have to be a personal failure, while at the same time creating characters with remarkable depth and consistent, comprehensible personalities.
Along with his cast, the prose and dialogue in Half the World hooked me. It’s not Guy Gavriel Kay’s flowery style, but Abercrombie’s prose is excellent in Half the World, especially when it comes to mood shifts and emotional changes. The dialogue was impeccable, helping readers understand Abercrombie’s characters while also providing interesting food for thought. Although these aren’t the defining characteristics of this book, Abercrombie makes great use of language to pull the reader on and to create a sense of urgency throughout the novel that serves to add to the suspense of the plot.
Abercrombie’s plot and pacing really shine in Half the World as well. Abercrombie has always enjoyed throwing a few surprises to his readers, and this work is no different. Although I saw the “surprise” ending in Half a King coming from halfway through the novel, the same wasn’t true for Half the World. Abercrombie’s plot twists were pleasantly engaging in Half the World, and his pacing always kept me on my toes, waiting for the next thing to happen. In combination with Father Yarvi’s subtle manipulations throughout the novel, fascinating undertones and captivating subplots made Half the World a book that I simply couldn’t put down. Full of various fight scenes and endless intrigue, Half the World is a thrilling, action-packed read, as far from a bridge novel as you can get. I definitely recommend Half the World to any high fantasy fan, even if you haven’t read the first book.
The tidal wave of war approaches. In Half the World we focus on a new pair of main characters, Thorn, an angry and violent but martially-gifted 16 year old girl, and her counterpart Brand, a young man who’s not so enthused about fighting but really wants to do what’s right. They’re both in disgrace, and still-young Father Yarvi plucks them from prison and the bar, respectively, to assist with his plans to save their country, Gettland, from its enemies. His plans require traveling to make alliances with other countries, some of them far, far away (hence the title).
I’m still in awe that I like this book so much when the main character is a teenage girl who can be so angry and bull-headed and infuriating. Not the kind of main character I normally favor. But she’s also gritty and wounded and determined, and willing to grow and change and admit when she was wrong. Also, she’s surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast.
I love the deeper, darker Father Yarvi, weaving his plans and backup plans like a master. He’s grown up a lot since the first book. I think I have a serious thing for characters that can see the whole, and figure out what needs to be done, while everyone else around them is kind of flailing around, or so caught up in their own concerns that they can’t see the whole picture. (I think it’s related to my adoration for Scarlet Pimpernel-type characters.) And then he puts these plans into action, even when he has to hurt others to do it, for the greater good. He’s assisted in his plans by his seriously intelligent and badass mother, who only makes a limited appearance in Half the World, but to extremely good effect.
Normally I would ding this book for leaving the bigger story hanging and forcing me to wait for another volume (or two or three) to get the whole story. But this story is so huge and complex that I think it requires the multi-volume approach. Plus: awesome. What can I say?