Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review - Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Words are weapons

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Oh Joe... words escape me! Where do I even begin when reviewing this title? 

Perhaps an opening statement?

I LOVED IT! (although I had some minor issues with characterisation... more on that soon). 

Half a War is a fitting finale to what has arguably been one of the most interesting and unique set of books I've read in recent times. In true Joe Abercrombie fashion he kicks in the door from the opening pages, dazzles us with a smile, and proceeds to render wholesale death, vengeance, and destruction on levels that are best left whispered about behind closed doors!

In Half a War the Shattered Seas are in chaos. King Uthil and Grom-gil-Gorm are in open rebellion against the High King, and Grandmother Wexen has gathered a huge army to wage war with. It is in this environment that Abercrombie thrusts a raft of new characters, as they attempt to survive and influence (alongside some old favourites in the background) events as they spiral out of control around them. 

And therein lies my issue with this book. I may as well get it out of the way early so I can talk about what I loved. 

New major characters... in the final book of a trilogy... huh? 

Don't get me wrong, Skara, Raith, and Koll (who we know already) all end being fascinating protagonists, but none of them had the massive emotional pull on me that Yarvi, Thorn, and Brand  had had in the previous instalments of this series. The problem, I think, is caused by two things in Half a War.  Firstly, none of the protagonists seem to wield much power in this book. Major decisions are seemingly made by others (such as Yarvi) in the background, and almost all of the outcomes of the story are shaped by people other then our protagonists. This left me feeling a little underwhelmed, despite the fact that characters such as Skara were incredibly well crafted (she would have been AMAZING if she had had some more agency prior to the ending). 

Secondly, Abercrombie didn't leave me enough time to develop any major emotional attachment to these new characters. The secret of Abercrombie's past success has, in my opinion, been his ability to mould characters that we not only love but also secretly hate. Yarvi is the perfect example of this in Half a War. Sometimes he does things that are incredibly harsh and cruel without any iota of remorse or explanation. We collectively gnash out teeth in response, and shake our fists at the sky for five minutes. Inevitably, however, we are swept up again into the tragedy that is playing out before us as. This sort of emotional involvement in a character however takes time to set up, and even a writer as talented as Abercrombie cannot do it properly over the space of one book (especially the final book of a trilogy). As such, Skara, Raith, and Koll were all solid without being amazingly all consuming like Father Yarvi (who kinda sat in the background again in this book) was to me throughout this series. 

Now that I've gotten that minor bit of displeasure out of the way I can wax lyrical about what I loved!

The action and and adventure in Half a War was (like in all Abercrombie' stories) awesome and bloody. The war to end all wars is depicted brutally, and death and mayhem reigns supreme all throughout this book. Sacrifices are made for the greater good (although good and bad are very subjective terms), and vengeance is taken many times over. I would argue that Abercrombie has reached new heights in Half a War in terms of weaving intricate and fascinating fights and battles. This is high praise when you consider the quality of writing that Abercrombie wielded in books such as The Blade Itself. The stakes were ever present in Half a War, and they got higher and higher as the plot unfolded. I also adored how within these parts of the book Abercrombie incorporated an examination of what it meant to be a hero or villain, and how the idea of the greater good is used to justify evil acts of violence and murder. It was these scenes that kept me enthralled when I found myself not engaging with the protagonists as much as I would have liked. 

The world of the Shattered Seas is also revealed more in Half a War. We learn more about the past events that led to the downfall of previous civilisation, as Yarvi delves more and more into the world of Elf Magic (long lost technology). Some people have expressed displeasure with how Abercrombie handled Elf Magic throughout this book, but I found it to be in line with how I imagined a medieval pseudo-Viking society would react to and use technology that they didn't full comprehend. I adored the inclusion of their weapons in the final battles, and the creepy scenes involving the forbidden city were magnificently described. The pacing itself was also fast and efficient, with no significant moments of inaction or boredom. All of the plot threads that Abercrombie started in the first book of this trilogy are sewn up nicely, and he leaves us with an outstanding twist at the end that left me a little stunned in all honesty. 

All in all Half a War, when considered as a part of a series, is a magnificent book that finishes what has been a scintillating post apocalyptic pseudo-Viking adventure of the highest order. Is it as strong as Half a King (the first book in this trilogy)? No. It has its weaknesses (which I have expressed above) when compared to that brilliant debut, but damn it is still a cracking read that is well worth checking out. 

I loved it, despite its flaws. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

A review copy was provided. 

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