Review of Half a War

Half a War illustrations by Jon McCoy.
Half a War illustrations by Jon McCoy. | Source

Pulling away from the authority of the High King and his imposition of his One God, the leaders of Throvenland, Gettland, and Vansterland forge and unlikely alliance, preparing for the largest war the Shattered Sea has ever seen since they breaking of god. The High King sends Bright Yilling—his champion, leader of his armies, and cheerful murderer—to capture and burn the capital of Throvenland. Princess Skara barely escapes with her life, and lacking any possessions or leverage, must convince Kings Uthil and Grom-gil-Gorm to unite their forces and recapture her home to take the fight to the High King. Fortunately, Father Yarvi of Gettland has been laying plans in anticipation of these events, leveraging his deep-cunning and insights into human motivation to counter the High King’s aggression. Upon seeing the extent of the High King’s army, however, Yarvi gambles everything on traveling to the forbidden Elf-ruins of Strokom to retrieve their ancient, deadly weapons to turn the tide.

Steel is the Answer

A constant of the Shatter Sea trilogy has been the tricky nature of perspective. When the actions of one army are condemned, it is pointed out that “Every hero is someone’s villain” (136). When considering her options Skara laments, “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” (171). All of this is to suggest the world does not break into an easy dichotomy where there is always a side that is right and another that is wrong. The novel also encourages distrust of people talking about the “greater good.” Yarvi slides into Michael Corleone territory as the cost of the “greater good” to himself and others rises and the lengths that he’ll go become increasingly ethically murky (336, 345-8). This development contrasts at some level with Brand and Koll; both struggle to do what is right and define what it means to be the best man that they can be. Similarly, Blue Jenner, when asked about doing the right thing, answers, “I’ve spent half my life doing the wrong thing. Most of the rest trying to work out the least wrong thing. The few times I’ve done the right thing it’s been by accident” (225). His honesty about knowing and doing what it right is refreshing given the fanatical certainty or nihilism of so many other characters. The same is true when he later explains, “All I know is there’s no changing yesterday. You can only look to do better tomorrow” (295). Blue Jenner proves himself to be no less philosophical than Skifr.

In Half a War the readers also encounter the theme of the illusion of power and prestige as illustrated by the wondrous and devastated Elf-ruins. Skifr proclaims that the Elves “thought they could remake things according to their grand design. Look upon their folly! No matter how great and glorious the making, time will unmake it [....] King Uthil says steel is the answer. I say his sight is short. Dust is the last answer to every question, now and always” (228). Her grim pronouncement is a long, frightening view of triumphant entropy or at the very least how the soft overcomes the hard. Wind and dirt grind down mountains; water destroys iron. Nothing is strong enough to endure forever. Her words are also meant as warning to Yarvi, who craves the same power that annihilated the Elves and broke the world. She makes that clear to him, cautioning him against his greed because even wisdom and cleverness cannot always guard against the temptation of power, the lie of being beyond the reach of fault or failing (230). According to Skifr there is only one thing worth valuing: “Revel in the sparks one person strikes from another [....] They are the only light in the darkness of time” (302). People and interpersonal relationships are all that really matter, and it is a lesson lost on individuals seeking wealth or power or fame or glory or even the greater good.

HarperCollins promotional material for Half a War.
HarperCollins promotional material for Half a War. | Source

Your Death Comes

While the novel is more clearly focused from the outset, Half a War falls short of Abercrombie’s other novels in some respects. Some characters choices are puzzling or disappointing. Raith, for instance, is the least interesting character and covers no ground not seen by more fully developed characters like Logan Bloody-Nine in the First Law trilogy or even Brand from the preceding novel in the Shatter Sea trilogy. Koll and Skara have more interesting arcs, and they have to find ways of overcoming their problems without the violence that Raith enjoys for large portions of the novel. Varoslaf reappears to no real effect (118-24). Brand and Thorn get sidelined after having proved to become compelling characters in Half the World. It may be that, just as in the case of the First Law trilogy, other novels involving the setting of the Shattered Sea will be forthcoming, but that hardly does justice to these characters and the reader’s interest in them.

A constant theme is the anticlimax of revenge. Besting foes does little to alleviate the pain they caused as discovered by Skara, Yarvi, Skifr, Thorn, and Raith. The antidote to suffering, it turns out, is not to cause more suffering. While this is an important lesson it also makes for some anticlimactic reading. The confrontation against Bright Yilling, the High King, and Grandmother Wexen are all a let down to the characters, leaving them unfulfilled and having to learn the emptiness of vengeance. They also leave the reader a bit unfulfilled too in part because the majority of three novels have been spent leading to these points. The audience is more than justified in questioning the worth of such an investment as the results may seem to be of as little value to the characters as they might be to the reader. The underwhelming nature of revenge is a theme Abercrombie dealt with before and to greater effect in Best Served Cold.

The Last Door

Half a War does a reasonable job of wrapping up the Shattered Sea trilogy even if the ways it goes about doing it aren’t always as satisfying as one might hope. A number of possibilities lay open for one-off sequels as Abercrombie did when writing The Heroes and Red Country. The Shattered Sea is a developed and evocative setting, and the whole trilogy is worth the time of any fantasy enthusiast.

Source

Abercrombie, Joe. Half a War. New York: Del Rey, 2015.

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