Back in the summer, I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s new Shattered Sea trilogy entirely by accident, in the very week that the second installment, Half the World was published in paperback, which means that I devoured the first two books almost in one sitting. A week or two later, Half A War was published – but in hardback, and I have so many mismatched sets of books that I was adamant, no matter how desperate I was to read the third book, I was more desperate to have it match the other two. For that, I had to wait until March.
I’ve finally read it. It’s not a disappointment. It’s far from a disappointment. However, taking into account that I did enjoy Half A War, I still recognise Half the World as a better book. In trilogies, the middle book is generally the weakest, the one that’s mostly just plodding from the brilliant beginning to the climactic ending. Joe Abercrombie is odd because in both his trilogies, The First Law (which I loved so much that I ordered the third book from a terrible motel on the outskirts of Paris in the hope that it would be waiting for me when I got home) and now the Shattered Sea, the middle book is the best. The first book in both trilogies has a bit of a feeling of having to set the scene and introduce the characters and give some exposition and do the general admin for furthering enjoyment of the trilogy – but not in quite such an appallingly unreadable way as I’ve just made them sound. Both are very good, very solid books. Why would you go onto books two and three if they weren’t? And the last book, of course, has to have the big finale and tie up the loose ends, it’s got plenty it needs to achieve. But the middle book, that one gets to have the fun and provide the meat of the story and Joe Abercrombie has done that pretty well in both trilogies.
But let’s get down to Half A War. So, so many spoilers lurk beneath.
I suppose the real purpose of the books is to further the story of Yarvi, who started out as a boy who didn’t want to be king, and who no one wanted to be king, but who seemed trapped in the role of becoming king. And by the end of Half A War, although he’s not a king of any kind, he’s manoeuvred himself into the position of being the most powerful person in the land. The High King is dead – killed disappointingly easily and off-page, actually. Uthil, king of Gettland, is dead – in single combat against the High King’s champion. Grom-gil-Gorn, king of Vansterland, was to marry Queen Skara of Throvenland and form an alliance that would make them High King and Queen of the entire Shattered Sea region – only Grom was murdered by Raith, his former cup-filler, who was given to Skara as her bodyguard and who took exception to the idea of his girl marrying the king who’d humiliated him. And in the end, Skara left Raith anyway. So now there’s civil war about to break out in Vansterland because there is no king and all the warriors want to grab the crown. The king of Gettland isn’t yet three years old and Yarvi, who’s helped himself to the Tower of the Ministry, has made himself the most powerful person around. Not bad for someone who didn’t even want to be king of Gettland three books ago. We see him planning and plotting, setting up this here and there, betraying his home – oh yes, Yarvi is the traitor who tells Bright Yilling to burn Thorlby. But it’s for the greater good, the better to stir up public feeling and build a better army for the real victory later on. Don’t go trusting Yarvi for a minute.
There’s a sad lack of Thorn Bathu in this book. She’s in it, oh yes, but not nearly enough. Half the World was her story. In a way, she’s your archetypal fantasy girl – she’s not like other girls, she wants to fight with a sword like the boys, the entire world is set up to tell her she’s wrong. Or you can look at her from the point of view of almost everyone who likes these books – Thorn Bathu is glorious, if terrifying. I wish there had been more Thorn in Half A War. More Thorn, less Koll. Koll is apparently a returning character from Half the World but… I don’t really remember him. He sort of wants to become a minster – like Yarvi, part scholar, part priest, part doctor – but he also sorts of wants to carve wood and marry Rin, Brand’s sister and as his storyline consists entirely of him dithering about which way to go, it would have been more fun to have Thorn instead.
But instead we have Skara – princess and last survivor of Throvenland, who knew she’d be queen one day but thought she’d have a bit more time to prepare for it and wasn’t expecting to be thrown into the role of queen in the middle of a war. Skara’s power is words and courage, although she doesn’t realise the latter. But in her place, how many eighteen-year-old girls are going to interrupt two warrior kings and make demands on them in a war council? Skara should be a puppet of a princess and instead, she steps right up, makes her voice heard, demands respect, makes all the right decisions for her land and her people – including marrying Grom-gil-Gorm, who isn’t a dream husband for a girl her age – and manages to outwit Yarvi, all the while acknowledging that she’s scared to death. I can sort of see why people compare her arc to Yarvi’s but she’s so different to him.
These books, on first glance, have a sort of Viking-like setting, with names like Gettland and Throvenland and Thorn and Brand and Thorlby and Stokom and Skekenhouse and so on, with swords and shields and tales of the elves. But if you look more closely (or stumble across it online, because I was cheerfully oblivious), the Shattered Sea equates roughly to the Baltic, give or take some altered coastlines, and the “elf-relics” are very obviously guns – even I picked up on that. So this isn’t fantasy set in vaguely European Viking era times. This is post-apocalypse, most likely due to nuclear war, since radiation sickness kills anyone who enters Stokom – which again, even I managed to identify as Stockholm. There’s modern architecture, wires, advertising posters, fluorescent tube lights, an electronic keypad, racks of rifles, seen by the characters as relics from a race of almost preternatural beings that pre-dated humans. No one can quite work out what Thorn’s “elf-bangle” is – some kind of Apple Watch that hasn’t been invented quite yet? – but generally you can see the remains of what we know today as ancient history in the world of the Shattered Sea.
And in the end, it’s guns and grenades rudely introduced into this world that otherwise resembles the eleventh century that win the day. Which I suppose says something about the real world.