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Joe Abercrombie - Half A WarAuthor: Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A War

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Trade Paperback: 497 pages

ISBN: 978-0-00-813832-5

Price: £12.99

Publication Date: 16/07/2015


Buying books at the airport is always a risky decision. And when done whilst rushing through the terminal on the way to catch a flight to a wedding, those dangers are raised exponentially. But when I saw that Joe Abercrombie had a new book in his Shattered Sea series out, I had to read it (especially as I read the first book in the series – Half a King – whilst on holiday this time last year).

So when I settled into my seat and the plane soared into the sky, I was able to finally open the book…and realise to my embarrassment and chagrin that I had picked up the third book, rather than the second in the series! However, as a fan of Abercrombie’s work, I decided to forge ahead rather than wait to read the second book (also because the only other book that I had with me was a weighty tome on the legal workings of the capital markets – not exactly fun reading).

This undoubtedly affected my reading of the novel, as it meant that there were a number of characters who were doubtless introduced in the second book who I did not know – and a number of world developments that made my initial re-introduction into the series a little fraught.

Father Yarvi, who underpinned Half a King, returns – although here he is less central protagonist and more manipulator in the shadows. Instead we have Princess Skara, who has watched her family and kingdom destroyed and vowed revenge, and bitter and scarred killer Raith (it wouldn’t be an Abercrombie novel without a character covered in external wounds) as the central figures in a swirling war of words and skulduggery.

As with other Abercrombie books there is plenty of action and twist enough to keep the reader enthralled. And yet, despite a really engrossing first three-quarters of the book, something about the end of the novel didn’t have quite the vigour and crackling tension that has, for me, become a hallmark of Abercrombie’s work. That is not to say that Half A War is a bad book – because it certainly isn’t.

Much of this feeling came at the conclusion of the book. Watching Skara develop over the pages was really well drawn – as she went from frightened seventeen year old to iron-willed queen. Strong, central female characters are rare to see in fantasy. But, like Monzcarro Murcatto from Best Served ColdSkara develops a steely edge as she plots her revenge. What makes them work is that these women not only have courage, character and ability, but that they are also painted as human – through their mixture of strengths and weaknesses. And therefore I really like Skara as a character, and felt that she was probably my favourite element of the book.

The problem, as such, that I had with Half A War was that, for all of the action and excitement of the first three-quarters of the book, the conclusion was ultimately a little unsatisfying. The world of the Shattered Sea, having been hinted at in the first book, is finally explored here. Without giving away too much, it is revealed to have been thousands of years after the fall of our civilisation – but the manner in which it is used to resolve an almost impossible battle at the end of the novel is just a little too convenient.

Furthermore, the relationship between Skara and Raith, she the higher born to his killer, was very reminiscent of the relationship between Monza and Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold. So I began to suspect quite early on into the book how there relationship would end up. And when it turned out as I had expected I have to admit that I felt a little disappointed.

The reason for this turn of events is given an explanation. And yet, something about that reason just didn’t ring completely true here – unlike the far more compelling reason in Best Served Cold. Maybe it is the hopeless romantic in me. Or the fact that I was reading the book the day before a wedding, and the slightly grim (and probably quite realistic) manner in which people take and rationalise their decisions in Abercrombie’s world just didn’t chime with my emotions at the time.

Part of the problem for me is that I am used to Abercrombie’s adult novels being weighty tomes – and the fact that this gives him ample room to develop characters and plot lines within them. And whilst I understand that a YA fantasy novel is necessarily more condensed and concise, I think that Half A War slightly suffered in terms of plot jumps and overly neat developments, in a manner that I am not used to.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed reading Half A War, and the open ended nature of the final pages (despite the claim that this was the final book in a trilogy) makes me interested to see whether the story of Skara (and Raith) may be continued in a manner that has never occurred before in an Abercrombie novel (which would certainly make for a new direction in his oeuvre). But I have come to have such high expectations of his work that it is often too high a standard to meet with every book. But for compelling writing and world building, even something slightly beneath that peak remains better than most of the fantasy on the market today.
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