Review of Half the World
Thorn Bathu wants to prove she can be a warrior like her father. Brand, kind-hearted by nature, also wants to be a warrior of Gettland as a means of securing a financial future for himself and his sister, both orphaned. When in a warrior’s trial Thorn accidentally kills a boy, she is sentenced to death, but Brand intercedes by confessing to Father Yarvi that the contest was rigged against her. Yarvi, seeking opportunity and talent where he can get it, enlists them both as he begins a diplomatic mission that will take him beyond the Shattered Sea to find allies against the increasing despotism of the High King and his manipulative advisor, Grandmother Wexen.
With his wits and a crew that is of questionable loyalty or experience—such as Thorn and Brand—Yarvi sails for the First of Cities where he hopes to impress the Southern Empress and gain allies among his enemies, leveraging their strength against that of that of the High King and his loyal forces. He takes a gamble on Thorn, having her train with an unorthodox mercenary named Skifr as Brand comes to learn a place of brotherhood among oarsmen and warriors is far different from the songs he heard back home. Half a world away, though, they may all find what they need if they have the courage to take a risk on what they believe to be right in a world of sudden violence and shifting alliances.
Divine and Denied
As with many of Abercrombie’s books, Half the World is thematically about characters trying to find a way to do what they believe to be right in circumstances that seem to offer nothing but evil options. Yarvi, protagonist of Half a King, works to find a way to peace, security, and freedom from the yolk of the High King for his people of Gettland. To do so, however, may mean breaking some vows and undertaking actions that even he finds morally dubious. He says, in justification of some of his choices, “Sometimes great rights must be stitched from little wrongs” (360). His consideration and thoughtfulness he won through his hardships in the previous novel, and sometimes his past is remarked upon in ways that give insight to his character (187). It is important to mention this because Yarvi is not a narrative character in this novel, and his choices and the reasons behind them may seem mysterious to the reader for long stretches at a time.
Thorn and Brand, however, are the ways in which the reader sees the events in the book, and being young and troubled persons means they don’t have a complete understanding of the events to which they are party. Thorn is all passionate anxiety to prove herself, knowing that as a girl trying to be a warrior, she’ll have to be twice as tough to get half as much respect. Brand, plagued by self-doubt, tries to do the right thing, but finds he cannot always determine what is right or wrong as the situations he encounters with Father Yarvi show him a world of grey ethical choices and outright amoral endeavors. As he works to take his place as a soldier and sailor of Gettland, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the behavior of others, including his own fellow warriors.
To Have Deep-Cunning
In some ways, the limited third person point of view is one of the strongest and most frustrating aspects of the novel. Because Thorn and Brand are young and inexperienced, Abercrombie makes their confusion and miscommunication come alive and seem real, especially regarding their uncertain loyalty and affection for one another (200-15). Their leaps in judgment, misgivings, and self-recrimination make the characters seem human, like believable young people in difficult, fantastical circumstances. Because of their faults it is easy to be on the side of Thorn and Brand as they start in hard times and seem to sink into worse. Unfortunately, their perspective also clouds the view of the long game Yarvi is playing over the course of the novel. He is often called a deep-cunning man, but even he points out to Thorn, “But you must know a deep-cunning man would never lay bare his schemes. Not even to his friends” (244). Since the reader is not given access to Yarvi’s thoughts, his intentions and motives must often be guessed at until nearly the close of the novel, which may be a difficult element for an audience that became used to him as the sole narrative voice of Half a King.
On a related note, much of what happens in Half the World reads like a set up for what must be coming in the next book, making some of the action and its resolution seem a little unsatisfactory. An antagonistic character all but confirms what the main conflict of the next book will be as the climactic duel of Half the World begins (327). While the outcome of the duel may be a surprise, what is coming in the next book is not. This development is something of a switch from many of Abercrombie’s latest books like Best Served Cold or Red Country, which share some settings and characters but are not otherwise directly linked, letting each story be mostly complete unto itself.
Mother War and Father Peace
The tightness of Abercrombie’s style and the pacing of the novel are well done. Virtually nothing goes to waste, his descriptions are concise and clear within the points of view he uses, and he knows not to dwell on minutiae that would bore a reader, which is more than can be said for some other contemporary fantasy series. While some of the secondary characters may get short-changed by limited on-page opportunities, the upshot is that everything feels tight and drawn ever onward toward tension and conflict that is internal as well as external to the characters.
While a reader interested in Abercrombie’s work can start with Half the World, it is recommended that, to get those most of the novel, one start with Half a King. In that way, the setting and the character of Yarvi are fuller and richer, which will enhance the danger and adventure faced in Half the World.
Abercrombie, Joe. Half the World. New York: Del Rey, 2015.
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© 2015 Seth Tomko