Fantasy Review: ‘Half a War’ by Joe Abercrombie

Everyone remember The First Law? It was Abercrombie’s first series and I have never felt Half a War (Shattered Sea, #3)shy about yelling about how much I love it. I bring it up now, in this review of Half a War, because now that we have two complete series I feel the need to compare them. And also to make completely baseless assumptions about them.

I do this because I really don’t have much to say about Half a War on its own; it is a worthy conclusion to a series but also a rather predictable one. I think this is a rare series that peaked in its second book but if book three suffers it is not by much. New characters are still compelling; they just never take over the page quite like Yarvi or Thorn before them. There are some major twists and turns but a sharp eye should see most of them coming. There certainly were some nice touches such as meeting Wexen for the first time and having her completely defy the expectation built up for her. So please accept the four star rating I give the book with full confidence that anyone already invested in the series is going to love the book. And anyone still thinking about starting the series can know it is solid throughout.

But that is not what I want to talk about.

Despite being in separate worlds The First Law feels like a book influenced heavily by The First Law; though perhaps by someone determined to improve on some aspects and move on with the times in its portrayals. The First Law took a very standard fantasy story, full of clichéd orcs, wizards, and barbarians, and took it through the wringer. It upped the body count, made sure almost nobody did the right thing (and if they did it was for the wrong reasons) and then blew up the script. The big long quest turns into a road to nowhere, the mentor turns out to be a homicidal fascist, the hero turned king a sniveling asshole dancing to the marionette.

And now, an entire trilogy later, we see many of the same things happen again. Plot point after plot point is reused. Is it trite? Is it repetitive? For some reason…no, no it is not. In fact it feels completely different. How is it that two series that put all the major players through hell and back can end with many deaths and not a lot of happy endings yet one of them feels almost hopeful while the other is one of the standard bearers for the current GRIMDARK craze?

Well, several things make this happen. To begin with the characters in this later trilogy are much more human than their first law counterparts. Still over the top, no doubt about it, but not caricatures bound by a single personality trait. They make good decisions, bad decisions, and live with the real results of them. Yarvi has grown in power through the trilogy and I know of only one cliché the involves the word ‘power’ and what it does absolutely. A young Bayaz has been suggested several times in various venues and the parallels are getting obvious; both are manipulators with a hand in every facet of the game.   But never does Yarvi seem to move over to the evil category. Rather he appears to be a man desperately trying to keep things moving the right direction (which of course is his direction, and by whatever means necessary, but there you have it).

It isn’t just Yarvi who’s actions always seem to have a purpose. Everyone is fighting for something or someone, even those you initially hate (as evidenced by a brash young warrior introduced in Half a War). So while The First Law tricked you into growing fond of some horrible people (I have maintained for years that Logan Ninefingers is a villain) Shattered Sea gives the reader the characters worst face first before showing their very human attributes that make them a little more appealing. Not always good, just a little more understandable.

The single biggest thing that forced me to start comparing these series, and more importantly wonder if the author was doing some of this intentionally, comes from the new point of view character Skara. Skara is a princess who finds herself a pawn in the larger game. Here be a spoiler, at one point a marriage is put together for the good of her kingdom; purely political and in no way inspired by love. And it brought to mind Terez, princess in The First Law promised into a political marriage. And the difference between these two characters is absolutely extreme. Completely opposite. Because while Terez was a pawn from the second she entered the page, and her agency within the book can best be described as none, Skara is everything Terez isn’t.

Skara arranges her own marriage, makes her own decisions and doesn’t back down from them. She takes control of her own sexuality (sidestepping the very thing that made Terez’s storyline so controversial). And she is flat out likable despite a tumultuous relationship with other main characters. You see (wow, I am drifting farther from whatever point I was trying to make by the minute) I have opinions about The First Law that have not always seemed to take root in others. I think Abercrombie wrote a wonderful character in Ardee. But nobody liked her because she was always seen through the eyes of a selfish asshole we had been tricked into thinking may be the story’s hero. By allowing us to peek at Skara a character who may have been seen as an ‘ice queen’ otherwise becomes my favorite of the book (though still behind Thorn for the series).

Am I making up all this? Perhaps drawing very tenuous links to things that are not really linked? Probably. It is certainly possible that outside of a few character arcs nobody else is trying to tie these two trilogies together the way I have. But for my purposes I the two trilogies to make nice counterparts, bookends for a shelf. Rereading for more similarities while looking for distinct differences will be a pleasure. And I remain, always, firmly in the bag for the author’s books. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time thinking about these stories so much.

4 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

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