Half a War: Memorable grimdark saturated with Abercrombiean plot twists

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHalf a War by Joe Abercrombie fantasy book reviewsHalf a War by Joe Abercrombie

Warning: Will contain mild spoilers for Half a King and Half a World

One of the worst aspects of Joe Abercrombie’s Half a War, book three of his SHATTERED SEA trilogy, is the cover art — a depiction of assorted medieval weaponry formed by tongues of flame lapping at the darkness. Needless to say, the cover art is pretty freakin’ awesome, so Abercrombie must have put an extraordinary amount of work into the substance of Half a War to make it even better than the attention-grabbing visual that serves as its housing. With the return of Brand, Thorn, Yarvi, and the cast from books one and two, the conclusion to Abercrombie’s YA series picks up with the painstaking combat against the High King. The odds aren’t looking too good for Yarvi and his crew as their alliance begins to fracture and the High King’s full might is brought to bear upon them. What’s more, Bright Yilling has ignominiously slain King Fynn while the Princess Skara looks on. Skara vows revenge and justice, and her wits and charm might just be enough to bring her the fruits of victory. Half a War pulls the series to a thrilling climax as two opposing forces and ideologies clash. In short, there are so many things that Abercrombie simply does right in this novel, from tying together loose ends to foreshadowing to crafting a plot with a level of complexity that borders on the epic.

Ever since Half a King, each additional installment to the SHATTERED SEA trilogy has witnessed a dramatic increase in scope and intricacy, and Half a War is no different. After Princess Skara escapes to the safety of Queen Laithlin’s household, the gears of her mind begin to spin as she seizes a meaningful role in the alliance against the High King. From there on out, Abercrombie’s work really digs its claws in, and each and every chapter seemingly has new surprises in wait. It’s not every writer who can realize such a complicated storyline with any margin of success, but Abercrombie achieves it with such flow and grace that he appears to be doing it with ease.

I touched briefly on Abercrombie’s plot twists in my review of Half a World, and Half a War takes that to a whole new level. Not only do these turning points contribute to a sense of quick and exciting pacing and make Half a War a real page turner, but the best part is that Abercrombie accomplishes this feat while staying true to all his characters. It might even be more accurate to say that everything he’s done with this work is because of his devotion to realistic and understandable characters — behind each and every plot twist lies a path of clues and hints originating from certain aspects of a character’s personality.

In particular, Yarvi’s machinations were intriguing because of the shift in the way he was portrayed throughout the series. From the young boy depicted in Half a King, Father Yarvi’s evolution has culminated with the emergence of his dark side. Though his slightly megalomanic tendencies manifested in book two, the lengths to which he would go to achieve victory and control were only truly revealed in Half a World. In many ways, Yarvi is reminiscent of Mark Lawrence’s Jorg Ancrath from Prince of Thorns: cold, deadly, calculating, and somewhat unprincipled. Abercrombie’s introduction of elf-relics to the mix drew even more parallels between the two works. In any case, Yarvi’s designs have far-reaching implications, and the unraveling of his secrets leads to a unique and uniquely Abercrombiean conclusion to the SHATTERED SEA trilogy.

All in all, Half a King is an excellent contribution to the burgeoning canon of grimdark; an element of the brutally realistic amalgamated with the fantastically unexpected births a must-read for any fan of the subgenre. Oh, and Yarvi? It might be worth your time to visit a psychologist. Make sure to bring Jorg with you.


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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science. You can find him at: www.kevinwei.me

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7 comments

  1. Since all three of these are out, I’m going to have to read them. They sound wonderful.

  2. I like the idea that the worst thing about a book is its fantastic cover. Great review, Kevin. :)

  3. I have the first two in audio format. I’m looking forward to reading them!

    • They’re all good, but in my opinion book three is the best :)

      • I guess I just want a little more sunshine and rainbows in my reading. :) I finished this third book yesterday, and rate it a little lower than the first two. Grimdark is not my thing, and this is dark and very violent for what I thought was supposed to be a YA book. That aside, I thought it was very well plotted and written.

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