My first experience of Joe Abercrombie was when I read ‘Half A King’, the first book in ‘The Shattered Sea’ series. The publisher’s blurb lead me to expect a sort of ‘Game Of Thrones’ without the dragons or the nudity. What I got was something much better, a twisty plot, a complex, crippled main character and text that gripped from the first page. At the time I said:
‘Half A King’ is filled with violence, cruelty, death, betrayal, slavery and, above all, revenge. Yet it does not glory in these things but rather wades through them with the grim determination of someone who’s only safe path is through the midden. What it rejoices at is freedom and courage and loyalty, if only because they are so rare.
When I picked up ‘Half The World’, the second book in the series, I expected more to follow the adventures of the crippled meant-to-be-king of the first book but Joe Abercrombie gave me something else. Out hero from the previous book is still there. He is the architect of the action, bringing together people that he needs to try and keep his Land safe, but he is not the main character. This time we’re focused on the warriors that would find their place in songs and sagas.
Being Joe Abercrombie, I wasn’t really surprised to find that the warriors are not who I might have expected them to be. Our manipulative leader has selected a young woman who wants so fiercely to be a warrior, despite the opposition of the misogynistic man responsible for training warriors, that she ends up killing someone in training and is condemned for murder. She is the one who our devious leader will shape into the perfect weapon. Beside her is a large, strong, brave young man, who is clearly warrior material but whose commitment to the truth ends up disqualifying him from being selected.
We follow these two young people on a quest across the Shattered Seas to find the allies that they need so badly for the upcoming war. We see them grow up. We see them being used. We see them returning home and starting to understand what they have done, how they have been used and the depths of shadow that their own legends now cast over them.
The writing, the characterisation and the plot are all excellent but I think Joe Abercrombie’s particular talent lies in making an experience so real you feel that you are there with the warriors.
He turns an incident when a boat being portered over a mountain, slips its ropes and must be held fast by our exceptionally strong aspiring warrior at great personal cost, into something filled with tension and pain and sweat and stoic selfless bravery that bypasses analysis and hits your emotions like an injection of adrenalin to the heart.
He turns a duel between our heroine and a King twice her size into something so intense, you feel the physical effort but you also slowly learn, along with our heroine, what is really going on.
One of the things that I liked most about this book is the way it treats heroes as a construct that has nothing to do with the warriors themselves. The possibility of being a hero, of being sung about, or having your name remembered, spurs on the young to become warriors. The songs about the heroes tell those singing them that they are a people who are capable of great deeds of daring and courage, helping them to feel braver and safer. The warriors themselves know that the songs exaggerate and misassign accomplishments, omit the fear and the pain and the grief and take on a life of their own that eventually over-writes the warrior’s experience, distancing them from their own past and from their people by making them icons.
Joe Abercrombie knows that glory is a fiction used to disguise brutality, nullify grief and feed young people into the maw of the military. His description of a retaliatory raid into a neighbouring land is vivid, credible and completely lacking in glory.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Half The World’. Ben Elliot’s narration is flawless. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample