Joe Abercrombie makes a sweeping comeback to his magnificent series, Shattered Seas with Half The World. A middle book in a trilogy, I am happy to say this one trumps the first book in all measures and fronts – Joe is by now an accomplished writer and is sitting pretty on that grim-dark throne – being an exceptionally experienced hand at creating dark worlds full of flawed grim characters. But with this book (and so with the opening one, Half a King ) Joe really excels and outdoes his craft – in terms of pulling together a tighter plotline with little words wasted – ripping away on the pacing front, nipping in with darker delicious turns here and there, ending with a massive twist; The dialogs still spattered and dripping with his acerbic wit – as cold and dark as Father Yarvi’s eyes – the action relentless and unstoppable from get-go; This one's got pretty much all of this. But into this sizzling melee, Joe throws in a gripping story that will steal our hearts: A brilliant coming-of-age tale of two teenagers – growing up in this dark dismal Vikings world still ruled by Mother War.
Maybe this year is the year of sequels that trump a fantastic opening book. Be it Golden Son ( that was leagues better than the brilliant Red Rising ) or Provident Fire, which promises new heights to the ones scaled by The Emperor’s Blades. And then this. Half The World picks up a few years later than the events of Half a King. Yarvi is now the right hand man of the King of Gettland. A deep-cunning minister who has to protects the interests of his kingdom with all his political manoeuvres and careful ministrations. But this book features not Father Yarvi – but two teenagers finding their groove in this cruel mad world on the brink of war – under the watchful eyes of Father Yarvi.
Thorn, a girl bristling with anger and having faced rejection and ridicule all her life wants to choose the way of the sword and shield. To be a fierce warrior in the manner of her father – himself one of the esteemed ones to have crossed swords with Grom-gil-Gorn ( Breaker of Swords, remember him from Book one?) But a training accident causes her to adjudged a murderer and thus it takes an oath to Father Yarvi who sees the potential in her to get free. Yarvi folds her into his Machiavellian schemes to maintain peace with the neighbours – egged on by Grandmother Wexen, the High King has been baying for the blood of the Gettlanders. And King Uthil ( Nothing from Book One) is bristling to give him his due. The answer is steel. But Yarvi wants this done his way and undertakes a journey across Half the World to get new alliances to support his cause.
Joining Thorn and Yarvi is Brand – another teenager, a boy torn by “his need to stand in the light” and do good. An extraordinarily strong boy, Brand however really doesn’t understand the need for violence or war. Having spoken up against his Master-of-arms, Brand loses his place in the Great Raid. However along with Father Yarvi and his former training partner in the squares Thorn, Brand sets out for a grand journey across half the world. A journey that would bring out the best and worst in both Thorn and Brand – and basically make them grow up much faster.
As with book-one, the epic journey that takes this “fellowship of steel” along the river Divine down the length and breadth of the Shattered Seas is the perfect foil for Abercrombie to expand his world. And we realize how pitifully less we know of this magnificent world. Forged in the past by hands unknown (Elf-relics and a whole Forbidden ciy of the Elves– now there’s an intriguing mystery that will have me hankering for book-3 or more in this series!) or be it the modern marvels of the wonderful First of the Cities – a Mediterranean city, Abercrombie sets the stage to be much bigger than Half a King.
The political intrigue is prickly, unsettling– the growing shadow of war that looms throughout the book creates a very inclement atmosphere. And armed with a motley set of cutthroats and brutes, Father Yarvi’s improbable calculations come true. It is a pleasure watch this come true against the most impossible of situations and the end results are pretty satisfying. Yarvi is a grown man (though only a few years older than Brand or thorn themselves, his eyes are the cold dark eyes of a man shouldering the burden of a kingdom and having gone through the Last Door itself and come back.) and we delight at this transformation of our favourite runt of the litter having now grown to be its chief protector.
In terms of structure, book two is split in its narrative between Thorn and Brand. Brand is the more thoughtful and contemplative while Thorn is all angst, anger and bristling to get into a fight all the time. Their complex emotional turmoil, the unlikely friendship that grows into something more ( frankly – I loved their hesitant probing relationship blossoming. Can’t say I didn’t see it coming but I loved it all the more) – their mind and body scarred by the battle and forged by war, this book truly belongs to both of them. Though I can understand why Thorn is pitched as the major of the two – a bit like Ferro, a bit like Monza, maybe a bit of Shy – Thorn feels like an amalgam of all Joe Abercrombie heroines. Flawed, hurt, bitter and war-like. Shaped in the shadow of Mother War.
We see some older characters from Book One make their comeback – Rulf, Queen Laithlin, Isiruin (the woman scorned now joins the enemy camp) and along with some surprises that will please the readers who loved book one. But the new additions are fun as well. The sailor band: Fror with his multiple stories of how he got the scar, Skifr – the witch-thief who teaches fighting to Thorn, Brand’s sister, Safrit and Koll – all of them enjoyable and very well sketched out. The story ends with a stunning climax – a fight scene that really grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go until the last rasping retching breath is drawn out.
The story of the Shattered Seas only gets better with Half The World. Joe Abercrombie is in his peak elements here – doling out a tighter story, cleverer, more exciting than ever and waiting to explode. I absolutely loved it – and now with the scene set for a brilliant showdown between Father Yarvi and his enemies, I can’t wait. A full five stars!