Half the World by Joe Abercrombie
Sometimes a girl is touched by Mother War.
Thorn is such a girl. Desperate to avenge her dead father, she lives to fight. But she has been named a murderer by the very man who trained her to kill.
Sometimes a woman becomes a warrior.
She finds herself caught up in the schemes of Father Yarvi, Gettland’s deeply cunning minister. Crossing half the world to find allies against the ruthless High King, she learns harsh lessons of blood and deceit.
Sometimes a warrior becomes a weapon.
Beside her on the journey is Brand, a young warrior who hates to kill, a failure in his eyes and hers, but with one chance at redemption.
And weapons are made for one purpose.
Will Thorn forever be a pawn in the hands of the powerful, or can she carve her own path?
Half the World is the second installment of Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea Trilogy. The first, Half a King, was one of the first books I reviewed for the blog, courtesy of NetGalley. I’d only recently gotten in to Abercrombie’s work at the time, but was impressed with the structure of the book as much as the story.
And the story was excellent. It is now three years later. Yarvi, the young protagonist and point of view character of Half a King, now minister to his regal uncle, is on a mission to secure alliances. Getland is on an inevitable path toward war with the High King and the cunning Grandmother Wexen, and won’t stand a chance without help.
Yarvi grew into the character presented here in the last book. First at the mercy of his body, his elders, and even to some extent fate, he turned a bad end into an auspicious beginning. Here he’s dangerously cunning and reputed to be so throughout the world. Unlike a lot of Young Adult fiction, the protagonist has been allowed to grow and secure a place in the world.
Abercrombie’s doing something different here. While you still care about his journey and interact with him as a reader, the world has moved on. So we receive the second installment through fresh eyes.
The narrative is split between the points of view of Thorn and Brand. Where Yarvi straddled the gender gap of his society, they grate against it. Everything about them is set in opposition. You probably know where this is going, but the journey there is real.
“Never sail in a ship you can’t carry.”
Structurally, the doubled narrators increase the scope of the series. It grows as it continues. This is intentional. The final book will have three new perspectives of its own. Half a King was a look at one child’s journey into adulthood. Half the World is a critical examination of that world and the opportunities it affords. Thorn and Brand have to traverse it in order to discover themselves.
The story explores and elides binaries. Thorn is driven by masculine traits, yet tempered by feminine realities. The opposite is true of Brand. Pursuing peace, the expedition finds violence. Through violence accord is reached. Death begets hope. Life promises war. With Yarvi propelling the narrative, this “on the one hand… on the other hand” is both obvious and darkly amusing.
As before with the notion of coming full circle, this isn’t just threaded into the plot, it’s integral to the structure. There’s a sequence at the meeting of two rivers where the crew overcomes a literal barrier to complete their journey. But the narrative itself actually makes its 180° exactly halfway through the book. Fortunes change. Stakes rise. Theory becomes praxis and the courses lives, of relationships, indeed of nations are altered.
Half the World has most of what folks love about Abercrombie. He takes the reader on a journey full of the fantastic, mediated by the familiar, and rarely cliché. I can’t wait to see how this ends.
You can read the first seven chapters here.
Recommended for fans of Macbeth, Fitzcarraldo, and Prince Caspian.