Review: HALF A WAR – Joe Abercrombie
A satisfying end to the Shattered Sea trilogy, where many of the seeds sown in the previous two books come to fruition, some with very unexpected surprises.
Once more, the story depicts a coming-of-age journey for the central characters: in Half a King it was Yarvi, now firmly ensconced in his role as Minister of Gettland; in Half the World it was the turn of the young warriors-in-training Thorn and Brand, whom we find here again in secondary but important roles; here the focus is on three very different people: Skara, the teenage survivor of Throvenland’s ruling dynasty; Raith, a man with few desires or thoughts beyond fighting and killing; and Koll, the boy saved from slavery by Yarvi and destined to follow in his footsteps in the Ministry.
The drawn-out conflict between the various realms and the High King, striving to bring all rebels under his thumb by the bloodiest, cruelest means possible, has now reached the turning point: the uneasy alliance between Yarvi’s Gettlanders and the Vanstermen led by fierce Grom-gil-gorm finds a new balance – unsteady as it is – through Skara, who has to grow up very quickly to assume her role as queen and to learn the ropes of diplomacy in this highly volatile situation. I found Skara to be one of Abercrombie’s best creations: for once he does not give us a soldier, or a cold-blooded fighter, but a young woman raised to rule who finds herself thrown almost overnight into a role she’s not ready to take on. If other heroines from this author took up arms and fought alongside though men, Skara does it with words – as her mentor taught her, “half a war is fought with words” – and in the course of the story she struggles to find the correct ones that will keep the tenuous alliance alive, that will inspire her people and keep everyone fighting even against unsurmountable odds. We see Skara turn from a frightened girl on the run to queen material, making us forget she’s impossibly young: she is often confronted with heart-crushing moral dilemmas and the stark realities of leadership, and she shoulders them with an admirable inner strength, even when those decisions make her actually sick, even when she willfully has to sacrifice her young woman’s dreams and hopes. Between the losses imposed by fate and those she chooses to bear, Skara becomes as hardened as a seasoned warrior, yet still manages to maintain a tie with her humanity and her soul: a beautiful balancing act skillfully portrayed, that makes her the absolute protagonist of this story.
Raith is, in a way, Skara’s polar opposite: he has no thoughts for the future, or regrets for the past – all he cares about is the present, the mindless joy of fighting, killing, maiming and burning. His only goal is to remain Grom-gil-gorm’s sword bearer, to bask in the glory of such a bloody ruler: that is, until he’s sent to be Skara’s chosen shield, her protector. What happens to him then is a slow, painstaking (and often painful) process because he has to learn to think for himself, to consider others beside himself and his immediate needs. To see things from different points of view and to see his own actions from another perspective: to say that this causes a major upheaval in his thought processes would be an understatement, and the way Abercrombie does it – a baby step at a time – makes Raith’s whole journey totally believable, particularly because we are made to understand that it’s still an ongoing process and he still has a lot of ground to cover. What most captivated me about this character is the way my point of view about him changed with the same pace at which his transformation was underway, how I could shift from loathing to sympathy as the novel went on.
Koll, on the other hand, remained in a sort of limbo, a situation that mirrored his constant uncertainty about life choices: even when he seems headed for a definite course, there is still a sort of ambivalence in him that prevented me from trusting that this would be his future path. This young man, so ready to place his life in danger for the noblest of causes, still seems to do it with the same reckless abandon with which he scaled a ship’s mast (as he constantly did in Half the World) simply because it was there. I could not see any great depths in Koll’s character, just the desire to please those around him, constantly seeking their approval as a child would with adults – and maybe this is what Koll really is, an eternal child who refuses to grow up. The contrast with the other characters was quite strident for me, and also very interesting.
The biggest surprise, however, came from Yarvi: I prefer to avoid any spoilers here, but the final revelation was indeed a game changer – one that I started to glimpse from some point on, but still an unexpected look into his personality. If this book is about change and evolution, this is what Yarvi has evolved into, and it sheds a totally new light into his past actions as well…
What I found fascinating in this third volume of the saga was the almost poetic portrayal of skirmishes and battles: here Joe Abercrombie found a way to describe the bloody battlefields with a sort of lyrical approach that took the edge off the cruel realities of war and carnage. Here is an example:
Death lurking at both men’s shoulders, clinging to the edges of both men’s blades, the steel question asked and the steel answer given then the quick breaking apart and the slow prowling, slow circling, slow silence.
If I were to find any fault with this book it would be in the ending, that cannot avoid a somehow rushed feeling, as if the author felt the need to close all narrative threads in a hurry. Even though I like how certain events panned out in the end, I was not completely happy with the way they were portrayed, and the almost mechanical “acting” of some players: the clearest example is the final meeting between Yarvi and Skara, that’s unable to avoid a certain artificial flavor.
This detail notwithstanding, I greatly enjoyed both this book and the whole trilogy, even though it does not exactly end with the proverbial “bang”…