Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Half a War - Joe Abercrombie

Half a War is the conclusion to Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Shattered Sea’ series. It’s wrapping up a saga of revenge, blood, love and honour. In short, it manages to do so in a thoughtfully thrilling, compelling fashion.

There’s a new protagonist for this volume, Princess Skara. Originally a member of the elite, she becomes the victim of tragedy, forced on the run after the death of her family at the hands of the High King’s troops. Skara initially comes off as frail and terrified, a teenager with broken moorings, trying to find a feeling of sanity in a world which is now swirling out of control. Over the course of the text, though, she finds a path to becoming something else. Skara has charisma, a way with words, and moves from being fragile to near-ruthlessness. She’s become aware very quickly of the brutally final consequences of trust and failure in this world, and takes steps to armour herself against it, and to find her own revenge. Abercrombie manages this gradual transition masterfully, keeping Skara sympathetic as she slowly moves into a pragmatic ruler, her external actions not displaying the conflict in her heart, visible to the reader. She’s not got the furious energy of Thorn from the previous book, fighting with charisma and words rather than iron, but they share a lethal sense of focus.

Alongside Skara we spend time in the company of Raith. Raith begins as a sword-bearer, but becomes involved with Princess Skara. He’s a seething ball of rage, a fist looking for a face to bunch. A berserker, a killer, and also a very damaged boy, trying to become a man – though never sure what sort of man he’d like to be. Raith prevents a face to the world, as Skara does, a nice parallel between the power of words and the power of blood. He also looks to Skara, in some ways, as a means of indicating what the right thing to do is, an interesting compromise of the moral imperative, given her own internal conflicts. Raith is Skara’s mailed fist, willing, even eager, to fight and fight and maybe, one day, die. But he’s also struggling with loyalties, to his new master, and to his old – and that conflict feels like it may rip him open.

There’s some old favourites on display as well. Father Yarvi is in full on plotting-mode, spinning byzantine schemes out of thin air, to the despair of his enemies. Mother Wexen’s shadow falls across the conflict, a woman, like Yarvi, determined to do what she thinks she must. Thorn Bathu reaves and murders, and comes home to a husband standing in the light. As a supporting cast, they benefit from having been protagonists – and it’s a joy to catch up with them again as things move to a conclusion.

Narratively, that conclusion is rather well done. There’s some absolutely top class siege scenes. Abercrombie has always known how to bring out the visceral terror and ecstasy of warfare, and wrap it into the larger context. The politics here is tense, the prose a complex and taut web of words. 
There’s a sense that the right word, or the wrong one, could bring everything crashing down. We see these characters that have been our friends or enemies over the course of the series, as they reach their ends – and it’s heartwarming in some cases, heart-breaking in others. But it’s always valid and genuine, the emotion from their closings as real as a fresh wound, and as undeniable. By the end, the situation in the Shattered Sea feels settled – at least for now – and we’re left to wonder what could happen next.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. As a conclusion to a series, it ends well, with great characterisation, a plot contemplative when it needs to be, but willing to give out its fair ration of fast-paced action, in a world that’s always been a pleasure to be involved with. So yes, if you’ve come this far, then this is a conclusion that you’ll want to read.

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