Review of “Half the World” by Joe Abercrombie

Note: There will be spoilers for Book One, Half A King, but none for this book, Book Two.

Half the World continues the fantasy saga that began with Half A King. I re-read the first book before reading this one even though I really didn’t need to, but Half A King is so good – and even better the second time around!

In Half A King, we met Yarvi, the youngest prince of Gettland, who was training to become a Minister (a celibate advisor and healer in service to the King). But when both the King and Yarvi’s older brother were ambushed and killed, Yarvi was required to step up the plate and serve as King. He was an unpopular choice however, because he had a hand with only one finger (considered anathema for a would-be warrior/king). Yarvi’s Uncle Odem led him away from the palace and tried to have him murdered, but Yarvi escaped. Unrecognized, he was captured and made a galley slave on a merchant ship. There, he met those who would become his most faithful friends when they managed to escape. At the end of Book One, the small group makes their way back to Gettland, and together with Yarvi’s mother, Queen Laithlin, they wreak vengeance on Odem who was now King.

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Book Two begins with a focus on two new characters: Thorn Bathu, a 16-year-old girl who wants to be a warrior to avenge the death of her father who died in battle, and her training mate Brand, who is after the riches of raiding to help support himself and his sister Rin. After Thorn defeats Brand and others on the training ground, Master-at-Arms Hunnan set Thorn against three others at once. It was not only unfair to do that to Thorn, but in a tragic accident, Thorn killed one of the boys with her wooden training sword which had splintered and become needle-sharp. Hunnan accused her of murder, and it was decreed she would be crushed with stones. After the sentencing, Brand went to Father Yarvi and pleaded for Thorn’s life, explaining what happened. Yarvi rescued Thorn from the prison and told her she was now in his service. He took her with him on the ship “South Wind” on a mission to win allies for Gettland’s battle against the High King, who aspired to have hegemony over all the kingdoms around the Shattered Sea. Brand, despondent after being thrown out by Hunnan for talking to Yarvi about Thorn, was also recruited for the voyage.

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Both Thorn and Brand were put together at the oars of the ship, but Thorn had other duties as well. When she wasn’t rowing, Yarvi insisted she train with a mysterious old woman on board named Skifr to be a better fighter. Skifr may have been a grandmother, but she had extraordinary skills, and worked Thorn hard until no one on board could best her. Brand, too, proved his battle worthiness when the crew had to fight natives of other lands during their quest.

Discussion: Abercrombie is just excellent at creating characters, especially those who need to prove worthy of inclusion in an “epic” saga. Yarvi has grown in many ways since the first book, but still retains humility and humanity in addition to his universally acclaimed “deep cunning.” His old friend and ally Rulf is also a great character, and Brand proves himself a staunch defender of right and wrong that transcends political advantage.

It is the women, however, that stand out in this series. In Book One, we met very powerful women – Yarvi’s mother; the Captain of the ship on which Yarvi had been taken captive; and the navigator, Sumael; not to mention the ministers to the Kings, all of whom were female except Yarvi. In this book, we encounter women no less powerful but in different ways. Safrit, a wonderful surprise character, serves as the storekeeper and cook on the South Wind. Skifr, who trains Thorn, is like no grandmother you ever knew. And Thorn, with her perfectly appropriate name recalling the blustery sensitive rose from The Little Prince, will win your admiration and your heart as well. And OMG! A female character who actually has to deal with her period! When has this happened before – in this male-dominated genre, at any rate? Queen Laithlin appears again, taking over with commanding grace when her King is ailing, and even Brand’s sister Rin is a force to be reckoned with, and stands out along with Thorn in one of the most memorable scenes of the book.

Abercrombie employs common enough themes from epic fantasy sagas, such as the voyage that tests the characters and brings them to new worlds – both physically and mentally; the heart-stopping battle scenes in which the heroes fight against seemingly insuperable odds; the quest for power; romance; the inevitability of loss and grieving. Yet he adds such richness to his characters, and heart to their actions, that he elevates his stories far above the run of the genre.

If you have avoided fantasy for whatever reasons but are considering trying it, I think Abercrombie is an excellent way to start. I recommend beginning with the first book, even though this one, like the first, can be read as a standalone. But it would be a shame to miss the first, although the series has absolutely no diminution in quality with the second book. Abercrombie’s characters are unforgettable, as are the stories they tell.

Evaluation: Half The World is the second book in the Shattered Sea Trilogy, and all I can say, is What! There will be only THREE?!!!! Nooooooooo!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, 2015

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4 Responses to Review of “Half the World” by Joe Abercrombie

  1. JSM says:

    I’ve read some of his other books and based on your review I think I’ll read this series too!

  2. Beth F says:

    Strong women characters, cool map end papers … epic saga/fantasy? I guess I’m adding this trilogy to my list.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    Since it’s fantasy you probably know this isn’t for me. I bet my sister would love it though.

  4. I didn’t love Half a King (it was a so-so read for me), but this one sounds like it might resolve some of the things about HaK I didn’t love. Hm. I may give it a try, at least the first few chapters, to see how I get along.

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