Joe Abercrombie is best known for his First Law series. If you have read those three books you will be familiar with his dark and cynical takes on standard fantasy tropes. His characters are duplicitous and as the stories progressed there was a kind of ethical regression to the mean as nasty people turned out to be nicer than they appeared (but still far from nice) and more heroic characters turned out to be far nastier and conniving. Powerful books – but not books that fill you for of love for humanity.
Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy (Half a King, Half a World, Half a War) has some of that cynicism but more tempered and more balanced. Pitched as ‘young adult’ this is still within the grimdark sub-branch of fantasy but not unremittingly so. Few characters are irredeemably bad and there are genuine heroes and at least some kinds of happy endings.
In each book Abercrombie has shifted focus on different characters. In this way he build up a world with complex people with strong back stories. At the heart is the journey of Yarvi (the ‘Half a King’ of the first book) from unlikely heir to the throne to a minister to the crown. The mastermind plotter, conspirator and manipulator behind royal intrigue is a stock figure but Yarvi is given a rich inner life and a plausible emotional journey.
The setting is a Viking like northern world of feuding thralldoms. Scattered around are the remnants of a past eleven civilization which obliterated itself in an event known as the breaking of god. The peoples are typically followers of a traditional polytheistic religion but the High King – to which the various sub-kingdoms owe allegiance – is attempting to impose a new monotheism upon them. The inherent tension in this world is played out over the three books and in the latest that tension has escalated into all out war.
In terms of modern ethnic diversity the books are limited in characters. However, the world does give a good sense that in any broad society there is a variety of ethnicity and culture. In terms of women characters the books provide multiple distinctly different characters, several of whom are key point-of-view characters who are mutli-dimensional and who are not just passive participants despite the highly masculine culture of the setting.
Half a War drifts deeper into Abercrombie’s trademark grimdark territory and the final chapters begin to take on the same feeling of despair about humanity. Yet, he still pulls off a somewhat happy ending.
A good read all round. Well recommended both for young adults and old adults.