As Joe Abercrombie's Half the World begins, Thorn has the strength, speed, and love for fighting to be the most promising of the boys training to fight in Gettland's capital Thorlby. But there's a problem: she's not a boy. Gettland's men are happy to sing songs about legendary women fighting in battle, but when confronted with a real, live fighting woman they consider her not a hero worth celebrating but an insult to their masculinity. Thorn's answer to adversity is to get angry and fight harder, struggling through increasingly unfair tests. When she accidentally kills one of the other boys set against her, she finds herself sentenced to death for murder.
Brand is a boy about Thorn's age who thinks he wants to become a famous warrior. He's big and strong, but he doesn't like hurting people and wants to do the right thing. He speaks up on Thorn's behalf, and in retribution his training master prevents him from going to war with the rest of the men. Brand's answer to adversity is alcohol, as much of it as possible.
Both Thorn and Brand are saved, from death row and the gutter respectively, by Yarvi, the protagonist of Joe Abercrombie's earlier novel Half a King. While it told a fairly complete story about Yarvi's sudden ascension to the throne, his betrayal into slavery, and his quest for revenge, Half a King was also the first of a trilogy that continues with Half the World. Where Half a King is entirely narrated in first person by Yarvi, Half the World reduces him to an important but nevertheless supporting role and tells its story in third person from Thorn and Brand's perspectives.
The trilogy's overall plot concerns the tumultuous geopolitical situation around a body of water called the Shattered Sea. Gettland, the home nation to most of the characters, is a small Viking state that is exceptional only in the number of its enemies. Close at hand are its traditional foes, another Viking people called the Vanstermen, while to the south Gettland is menaced by a mighty confederation led by a High King. Although Gettland is nominally part of the High King's empire, it fights to control its destiny first with subterfuge and eventually in open warfare.
Initially the world of the Shattered Sea, Abercrombie's first new setting since his debut First Law trilogy, seems like a fantasy veneer across the Baltic Sea of the Viking Age. However, it is soon evident that this really is the Baltic Sea, but in a fallen future rather than the past, and that when people speak of elves whose runaway magic caused the breaking of God, they are speaking of our civilization's demise in a vaguely nuclear catastrophe. In Half a King, this just added some color to the otherwise ninth-century setting, but as Gettland's situation becomes more dire Yarvi increasingly resorts to forbidden magic in the form of "elvish artifacts." In Half the World, he and the relic hunter Skifr lead Thorn, Brand, and a small band of adventurers on an epic journey along the traditional Viking trade route to Constantinople (here called the "First of Cities") in hopes of forming an alliance with the "Empire of the South."
As with Yarvi from the first novel, Thorn and Brand are relegated to supporting roles in the trilogy's concluding volume Half a War to make room for no less than three new protagonists. Skara is a princess of Throvenland, a neighbor and ally of Gettland that has just met with crushing defeat at the hands of the High King's armies. Skara escapes the devastation and goes to Thorlby in hopes of mustering a force to free her nation. Koll was the youngest member of Yarvi's expedition in Half the World, a cheerful and talented woodcarver who wants to marry Brand's sister Rin and become a minister like Yarvi, but cannot do both. And Raith is a Vansterman soldier who has for years served as sword-bearer for their king. When the king on a whim assigns Raith to serve Skara, Raith realizes he's tired of being little more than a killer and begins to want something more for himself.
From the above summaries alone, the attentive reader might guess that, unlike Abercrombie's previous novels, this trilogy is being marketed to young adults. Each novel depicts young people coming of age, separated from their families and forced to make their own way in the wide world. Additionally, all six protagonists have been assigned roles by their societies they are reluctant to play. Their resistance varies in origin and intensity, but all want something different for themselves, and all entertain the notion they can buck expectations and make their own way.
Of course, the stereotypical YA protagonist not only feels oppressed but eventually comes to overthrow the previous generation's dystopian world system and promises to create a new, more benevolent age. While these books are set in a different world than his adult fantasy, they partake in the same world view, and Abercrombie doesn't allow his characters to fix the world. Some eventually accommodate themselves to it, giving up on some of their dreams so they can find some niche where they can live the way they want. Others don't compromise and do in fact triumph over their enemies and achieve victory, but in the process they are co-opted by the system they sought to overthrow.
All this happens in the process of adventures punctuated with Abercrombie's trademark brutal fight scenes. Blood flows freely as noses are broken, limbs are severed, and people are killed. Young adult or not, these aren't books for the squeamish, but unlike some novels of this ilk they don't glory in the violence . . . not much, anyway. The narrative occasionally gets a little caught up in exulting in the swordsmanship of Gettland's King Uthil or the power of the Vansterman king Grom-gil-gorm, but it never forgets that these kings are really thugs, just the thugs who happen to be in charge. For every glorious victory (and there are fewer of these than might be expected) the narrative makes sure to pause and spend some time with whoever is paying the price.
Everything is related in lean prose that is light on description and focuses mostly on action and dialogue. These are not the sort of fantasy novels that exult in details and insist on drowning the reader in trivia. Just enough is said to set the stage and to let the reader make inferences. This leaves the dialogue doing most of the heavy lifting, and here Abercrombie gives his characters a common set of folksy proverbs that are surprisingly effective at evoking a culture. "Let Father Peace shed tears over the methods. Mother War smiles upon the results" (e.g., HtW p. 212), Father Yarvi says several times, while he and his fellow ministers often entreat warriors to "make of the fist an open hand" (e.g., HtW p. 53). These clichés suggest a culture and a religion without drenching the reader in details about the offerings made to Father Earth or the five different sacrifices by which Mother War's favor might be courted.
The downside to this approach is the occasional feeling that, while their phrases reflect their religion, the influence is only skin-deep. In a culture like this, it's reasonable that a man like Yarvi would be secretly an atheist, but however pious their proverbs none of the characters we meet seem to believe any of it. There are a few complaints about the High King's imposition of monotheism, but no one seems to think, as Roman pagans did, for example, that the monotheist insistence on sweeping away the traditional rituals and offerings will put society in grave danger of being destroyed by the wrath of the old gods. There are also appeals to patriotism and freedom that feel quite anachronistic. It's not really the ninth century, so perhaps these societies have ideas about nation-states and the philosophy of governance that are more advanced than their technology, but if so no evidence is provided in the text.
But while they have fun with longships and trade routes, ultimately these books are less than interested in life in the ninth century and focused instead on the ethics of power. Tough, uneducated warriors like Brand and even Thorn and Raith may or may not do what's right, but in their thoughtful moments they wish they did. Educated and "deep-cunning" manipulators like Yarvi have an outlook that is expressed in more complex terms but amounts to something far more simple:
"I can find a thousand truths under every autumn leaf, Brand: everyone has their own. [ . . . ] As we each have our own truth so we each have our own good [ . . . ] A man who gives all his thought to doing good, but no thought to the consequences . . . That is a dangerous man." (HtW p. 21-22)
Easy answers are not provided. Good intentions certainly prove no guarantee of good results, but for all Yarvi's consideration of consequences he is without a doubt the most dangerous man in Half the World and Half a War.
All this is very familiar ground for readers of Abercrombie's adult work, particularly his First Law trilogy, but the Shattered Sea trilogy is his most effective exploration of these ideas. The presence of genuinely likable protagonists will be a welcome change for most readers and Abercrombie's writing has improved a fair amount with experience. But most of all, the structure he uses for the trilogy proves a surprisingly effective scaffold for the sort of story he likes to tell.
We start with Yarvi and see the world from his perspective when he's a scared teenager, alone and in mortal danger. By the time we get to Half the World, Yarvi is still young but is now an important man, cunning and feared by everyone because they suspect, correctly, that he values his plans more than anyone around him. His cold manipulation of events will remind those who have read Abercrombie's earlier work of the wizard Bayaz, but where Bayaz is an inhuman figure of incalculable age and power, we know Yarvi is just an educated young man determined to defeat his enemies. And whereas narrative tension requires that Bayaz's motivations remain hidden until the very end, we know exactly what Yarvi wants right from the beginning. When Yarvi eventually muses to himself, "A hundred decisions made, and every time the greater good, the lesser evil . . . how could they lead me here?" (HaW p. 346), we've watched most of those decisions and know how it happened.
A transformation similar in scope if not in detail happens with Thorn, who plays a heroic role in Half the World as the plucky female warrior. When we see her through the eyes of Half a War's protagonists, however, she's a glowering killer who knows only how to destroy. In her fearsome competence, dark reputation, and inability to find peace she recalls Logen Ninefingers in the First Law, but where his character was formed long before the first book began, we see and understand the pressures that made Thorn who she is.
If there is a weakness to this ingenious structure, it is that it doesn't seem likely there will be another book to give a similar perspective on Half a War's three protagonists. We watch as Princess Skara, for example, takes her first steps down Yarvi's path but don't get to see the results. It is left to the reader's imagination whether she can chart a more moderate path and become something unique in her world and certainly rare enough in ours: a genuinely benevolent ruler. We probably shouldn't hold our breath.