Half the World is the second in Joe Abercrombie’s “Shattered Sea” series, following “Half a King”. It’s set several years after the first book, and focuses on an entirely new protagonist, though in the same world.
That protagonist is Thorn. She’s a young woman, determined to break into the traditionally male profession of warrior, after the death of her father in a duel. Thorn is, as her name would indicate, prickly, and occasionally vicious. Abercrombie shows us that she’s also distant from her mother following the death of her father – an antagonistic relationship, fuelled by a failure of expectation on both sides. Thorn looking to her surviving parent to accept who she is, and her mother trying to show Thorn whom she would like her to be. Thorn starts the text with a confidence fuelled by anger, and backed by…well, not a lot really. Her journey is one of deciding who it is that she wants to be, and putting in the work to reach that goal.
She’s supported in this by Brand, her male alter ego. Brand begins with the same certainty as Thorn, if less rage. He’s determined to become a warrior. But he’s also an individual determined to do the right thing, even where this has an obvious personal cost. He is ever so slightly too perfect, a little judgmental, and doesn’t have Thorn’s focus or her confidence. Their relationship teeters between antagonism and friendship, by way of almost Shakespearean misunderstandings, and the odd duel.
For all that, this core duo are a lot of fun to read; complex characters, with depths that they are only uncovering themselves, slowly revealed to the reader.
They’re ably backed by a strong supporting cast with startling depth; for example Thorn’s tutor in the art of fighting is deeply strange, and deliberately dysfunctional, but their relationship feels organic, genuine, and emotionally affecting. There’s also a couple of villains on display, whose motivations are typically clear, though also reasonably valid. There’s a clear determination to show both sides of the equation, and this results in villains we can empathise with, as well as those whom we can quite happily loathe.
We get to see a bit more of the Shattered Sea this time, including the lands in the South, and the much lauded First City. Where the first book built on a tone of isolation and desperation, the environments here are more social, and in some cases, more urban. There’s the heaving morass of the First City, a bustling metropolis under the eyes of an Empress, and in contrast, the claustrophobic halls of those closer to Thorn’s home – wattle, daub, thatch and smoke replacing urbanity and assassinations. There’s also more haunting glimpses of the world that came before, of the elf ruins and the artefacts which survived their appalling destruction. Abercrombie continues to give us a vivid, fully realised world, with shades of terror and joy mixed amongst different environments.
The plot – well, it opens strongly, and despite some lulls in the middle, continues that way throughout. It kept me turning pages throughout, waiting to see where Thorn and her associated band of misfits were going to go next. There’s some wonderfully heartfelt emotional moments, complex truths sat under a sort of raw veracity, and this is mixed with high octane battles and the terrible intimacy of life and death duels.
In short, this is a great piece of fantasy, with a fantastic lead, sat in a well-drawn world, surrounded by a plot which takes hold and doesn’t let go. If you’ve read the first part of the series, this one is well worthwhile – and if you haven’t, do that first, then read this.