Review of “Half a War” by Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie is such an excellent writer, but one sometimes wishes he were less realistic; of course, then I wouldn’t appreciate him so much, but my inner child wishing for fairy tale endings would be a bit happier.

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This fantasy, the third of a trilogy that began with Half A King and continued with Half The World, features the inevitable showdown among the various contending powers living around the Shattered Sea. We hear the tale from the point of view of three characters: 17-year-old Princess Skara of Throvenland; Raith, the sword-bearer of Grom-Gil-Gorm, the fearsome King of Vansterland – “Breaker of Swords and Maker of Orphans”; and Koll, whom we previously met as the son of the couple Yarvi had promised to protect, after freeing the mother and son from slavery. All are part of the coalition opposing the High King and his minster, Grandmother Wexler.

This is a book full of fortune cookie pronouncements and their realizations. (Unfortunately, one of the fortunes is not “all’s well that ends well.”) They include the adage that only half a war is fought with swords; the other is fought with the mind, or in another version, with skill and courage. Words, too, are weapons. In addition, the inevitable fantasy book truism that you can only conquer your fears by facing them (a.k.a., “fear is the mind killer, from Dune) makes a couple of appearances. There is also the observation that “Freedom’s worth nothing to the dead. Pride’s worth little even to the living.” And there are many variations of “life sucks and then you die,” some of which add a “carpe diem” sentiment, such as this admonition by the nose-picking character of Skifr:

“‘Seize life with both hands!’ … ‘Rejoice in what you have. Power, wealth, fame, they are ghosts! They are like the breeze, impossible to hold. There is not grand destination. Every path ends at the Last Door. Revel in the sparks one person strikes from another. . . . They are the only light in the darkness of time.”

Another version by Koll:

“…death waits for us all. Life’s about making the best of what you find along the way. A man who’s not content with what he’s got, well, more than likely he won’t be content with what he hasn’t.”

Intermixed with these sentiments are occasional passages of beauty that are all the more striking for being part of scenes of battle and death:

“The land was a black mystery when the ships began to plow ashore, the sky a dark blue cloth slashed with cloud and stabbed with stars.”

“They sat, cold and silent, as Father Moon rose and his children the stars showed themselves, and the flames of the burning ship, and the burning goods, and the burning king lit up the faces of the hundred hundred mourners. . . . They sat until the flames sank to a flickering, and the keel sagged into whirling embers, and the first muddy smear of dawn touched the clouds, glittering on the restless sea…. “

But the occasional homage to beauty doesn’t gainsay the ever-present face of death, pain, ill consequences of greed, the corruption of power, and the sacrifice of means for ends of dubious worth. Yarvi says to Koll – now his apprentice, at one point, “A blade in the right hands can be a righteous tool.” And Koll responds, “Who decides whose hands are right?”

Skifr comes to join the group fighting the High King after Grandmother Wexen arranged to burn Skifr’s house and kill her family, and, critically, she brings the coalition “elf-weapons” or guns, “forged before the breaking of God.”

The series ends with at least temporary peace on The Shattered Sea. But as for who the winners and losers are, that is something the reader will have to decide.

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Discussion: There are so many memorable passages in this book, as when Brand is expressing his feelings for Thorn:

“‘She surely can cook a fight from the most peaceful ingredients. But nothing worth doing is easy. I love her in spite of it. I love her because of it. I love her.”

Brand and Thorn’s relationship is echoed in that of Brand’s sister Rin and Koll, who, whenever he reflects about a characteristic of Rin, thinks, “He loved that about her.” Koll tells Rin:

“‘What makes a woman beautiful to me isn’t her blood or her clothes but what she can do. I like a woman with strong hands who isn’t afraid of sweat or hard work or anything else. I like a woman with pride, and ambition, and quick wit, and high skill.’ Just words, maybe, but he meant them. Or half-meant them, anyway.”

In fact, Koll is much like Brand – too much so, it seems, just as his relationship with Rin is a bit too reminiscent of that of Brand and Thorn. But the four characters are very likable, and their inherent goodness, and relationships based on honesty are a welcome contrast to the duplicity of most of the other relationships in the story.

Skara says to her minister:

“I used to think the world had heroes in it. But the world is full of monsters. . . . Perhaps the best we can hope for is to have the most terrible of them on our side.”

Indeed, overarching all other themes is that of the nature of morality, and good versus evil. Yarvi has sworn vengeance. Skara has sworn vengeance. Skifr wants vengeance. …whatever means to an end. But will it end? And where and how will it end?

Were the elves like us, Koll asks Skifr?

“Terribly like and terribly unlike,” said Skifr. . . . They were far wiser, more numerous, more powerful than us. But, just like us, the more powerful they became the more powerful they wished to become. Like men, the elves had holes in them that could never be filled. All of this . . . ‘ And Skifr spread her arms wide to the mighty ruins, her cloak of rags billowing in the restless breeze. ‘All of this could not satisfy them. They were just as envious, ruthless and ambitious as us. Just as greedy.” She raised one long arm, one long hand, one long finger to point . . . ‘It is their greed that destroyed them. . . .”

Evaluation: This is a gritty, realistic cautionary tale as well as a sweeping fantasy saga that, in spite of some quibbles, I am terribly sad to see ended. (There is, one might note, plenty of opportunity for a continuation of the story should Abercrombie choose to do so.) For those dismayed by the corrupting effects of war and/or power, this story won’t make you feel any better. It contains echoes of both “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” with characters as memorable. The behavior of my favorite character disappointed me, but life isn’t perfect, nor are people – even in fantasies, or maybe especially in fantasies.

I would not rate this third book as highly as the other two, but in combination, the series is outstanding.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This is not a standalone.

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015

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4 Responses to Review of “Half a War” by Joe Abercrombie

  1. Nish says:

    Sounds really good. I’ve only read one of his short stories, and I didn’t care for it too much (it was a western, not my genre), but sounds like this fantasy is really good.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    He must be an outstanding writer if his fantasy books feel real to you.

  3. Rachel says:

    I’m not a fantasy fan but your review makes this book sound really good. Why must everything be a trilogy?? Lol

  4. Beth F says:

    I’ve not read this one yet … I have so many trilogies and series going, I really need to finish what I’ve started before picking up more.

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