Star Wars: Shattered Empire

Despite being perfectly positioned to offer a tantalising glimpse into the new post-ROTJ canon, Shattered Empire feels utterly insubstantial.

The erasure of the EU has reopened the vast post-ROTJ timeline to be re-populated by new stories. Details on this era have been scarce, however, and likely deliberately so, in order to keep things fresh for the new movie.

So far, only three works of Star Wars fiction have touched on this otherwise unexplored era: Aftermath, Lost Stars and Shattered Empire. 

I expected Shattered Empire to lead the way to the telling of more stories in the era. But it really is a self-contained story, or rather a compilation of self-contained stories, detailing individual missions undertaken by the victorious Rebel Alliance in the days and weeks following the Battle of Endor.

There are only a few elements that suggest that the story will have some bearing in the greater span of Star Wars history – the fact that the protagonists are the parents of TFA character Poe Dameron, the force trees that Luke rescues in volume IV, and a brief cameo of Darth Maul’s spirit in volume III.

The stories themselves, while gorgeously drawn and detailed, are short, forgettable affairs, derring-do tales with little character development, and predicated on a fundamentally silly premise – that the Emperor would be so petty as to order random planets to be attacked by Imperial forces in the event of his demise, in comic-book dastardly fashion – like creating planet-sized storms on Naboo. I thought the EU was shelved so that we could avoid such wackery in the new continuity.

As far as I’m concerned, Shattered Empire is pretty but empty filler, and doesn’t offer much that is compelling in terms of adding texture and interest to the new canon. Lost Stars is a much more rewarding (and tantalising) glimpse into the future of the franchise.

I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 Force Trees

 

River of Stars

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Funny how it took a novel by a Canadian fantasy writer to get me interested in my own cultural history once more.

River of Stars is a book that defies easy categorisation. It is at once a work of historical fiction, and at the same time, a work of fantasy. It is set in an alternate version of China, known as Kitai, during the time of its 12th dynasty, which is a shoe-in for the Song. But China is more than just the inspiration for the book’s setting. The events and characters that populate River of Stars have analogues in real history too. The central historical event in River of Stars is an dramatised and fictionalised account of the turbulent epoch of the Jin-Song wars, and the deeds of the book’s characters are essentially dramatised re-imaginings of the lives of their real-life counterparts. For example, the character arc of our protagonist, Ren Daiyan, is similar in theme and substance to the stories that propagate about Yue Fei, a contemporary Chinese folk hero.

But Kitai is not China. It is not so much an alternate history of China as it is a parallel but distinct version of China. There is a subtle fantasy element present in the book, drawn from Chinese mythology. In River of Stars, mythology melds with history in a more visceral way than in the actual folk tales from which it draws its inspiration. Unlike the folk tales, in which magical events could have been fanciful interpretations of actual events, muddled by the obfuscation of time and the superstitious beliefs of the story’s purveyors, in River of Stars there is an air of immediacy to the storytelling. This makes it more intimate and grounded.

At the same time, however, Kay, by adapting the famous folk-tale of a hero venerated by generations of Chinese, is able to leverage on the telling of a story powerful enough to have persisted in cultural memory. While the broad thematic strokes of that story are essentially unchanged from the source material, the specifics of the story – in character and plot – are the author’s own. At most, Kay makes references to the various elements of Yue Fei’s legend, but these are plot elements that he uses to underscore the ways in which stolid history can turn into fanciful legend in the telling. The authorial voice constantly reminds us of its role as a storyteller, a dramatic reteller of a series of historical moments, but fashioned into a story with thematic coherence, and with a beginning, middle and end.

The result of this effort is a novel that is both mythic and intimate. It is an adaptation an old Chinese tale that benefits from a decidedly Anglophone sensibility. There is both a sense of historical verisimilitude, as well as narrative coherence. The use of an alternate historical milieu in Kitai is an attempt to assure the viewer that Kay is not engaging in cultural appropriation, but is rather paying homage to the Chinese historical mythos, and introducing it to a Westernised audience.

Kay’s limpid, but almost musical prose complements the setting perfectly. It’s fitting that a culture that holds its poetry in such high regard should be described so elegantly.

In many ways, River of Stars reminds me that history can often be more fantastic than fantasy. Western fantasy often relies, however unknowingly, on the tropes generated by their own cultural and historical contexts. Knights, inns, Campbellian heroes, chivalry and the norms of knighthood, courtly romance – these are tropes we take for granted in fantasy.

In contrast, the social and cultural mores of the Kitai 12th dynasty seem fresh and strange. A society that values decorum, that is steadfastly bureaucratic and technocratic, disdaining and fearing its military even as it is forced to rely on it to defend it from the barbarians from the North – even as these elements describe the reality of Song Dynasty China, they also seem doubly exotic to readers habituated to the norms of Western fantasy.

River of Stars reminds me of just how rich Chinese history and culture can be, and how it can serve as a rich treasure trove for universal stories, when re-told with contemporary narrative techniques for a more universal audience.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 magic fox tattoos

Life is Strange

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***Warning: Spoilers Ahead.***

Life is Strange one of a rare breed of games that serve as portals into another person’s life, another person’s story, allowing players to vicariously share in their characters’ joys and sorrows. Life is Strange has that ineffable spark that transcends its flaws and makes it something truly special, something with real emotional impact.

In Life is Strange, the player assumes the role of Max Caulfield, a high school photography major in Oregon.Having moved back to her hometown to attend a prestigious art school, she realizes that she has the power to alter the past when she inadvertently uses it to save the life of her estranged former best friend, Chloe. The two rekindle their friendship as they struggle to make sense of Max’s powers, and try to unravel the mysteries surrounding the town.

The player’s ability to change their gameplay choices by reversing time a brilliant innovation from a gameplay perspective, as it legitimizes the (often immersion-breaking) urge to explore every narrative nook and cranny of the game. Furthermore, it’s a good example of ludo-narrative harmony, that all-too-rare case in which a gameplay mechanic makes perfect sense in the context of the world in which it takes place. Not only does it square in with the time-travel aspect of the story, but it also serves the thematic function of acting as a sort of Faustian bargain. Max’s powers are every teenager’s fantasy: the ability to go back and erase one’s mistakes, to explore the what-ifs, to grow bolder and more confident as a person, with greater certainty of the outcomes of your actions. But, as with every superpower, there is a cost, and there is regret.

As with all mechanics, there are limitations, and the times when the player meets those limitations results in some ludo-narrative dissonance. The amount of time Max can rewind feels arbitrary to suit the demands of gameplay, and often rewinding offers no new choices where it might have made sense to include such choices. Some of Max’s powers are clearly nonsensical – like being able to access locked rooms by busting the door open, walking in, reversing time and opening the door from the inside.

The game, like most narrative games, is limited in the breadth of agency that can be afforded to the player. For all the chaos that you’d expect changing time to cause, the choices available to Max are largely binary. And being in a genre where interacting with objects in the world is the main source of gameplay, the game encourages you to play fast and loose with other people’s possessions at times, rifling through their stuff just to get that next juicy bit of flavor text or snarky comment from Max, which can get immersion-breaking at times. And lastly, there are also a few frustrating gameplay sequences that could have benefited from better design, such as the quest for the five bottles and the extended stealth section in the final episode.

Yet, cognizant as I am of  the game’s limitations, my week playing Life is Strange will likely remain one of the most affecting gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

Like few others, this game makes you feel a sense of attachment to its characters. Playing as Max, you apprehend a beautifully crafted world, full of interactions and events, mysteries to unravel and friendships to develop. The player can look at and interact with objects and people to hear Max’s thoughts about them. That sense of relatability and discovery is essential to the game’s effectiveness, and is one of the best parts of the game (although the game does let you pry a little too much in situations where it would have been awkward to do so). These interactions allow the player to learn more about Max as a person, and through that process, you grow to empathise with her, and to identify with her aspirations and insecurities, guiding her through the interstices of sun-dappled Arcadia Bay.

It doesn’t hurt that Max herself has been carefully constructed to be able to relate to as wide a gaming demographic as possible. She’s somewhat androgynous, somewhat introverted, and wonderfully quirky, a lover of photography but also a big pop-culture and film nerd. These attributes create a character with a personality and a sense of history, but also a foundation upon which we can watch her grow, piecemeal, as we play as her.

The affective bond the player has with Max enables them to really apprehend the emotional centerpiece of the game, Max’s relationship with Chloe, on a deeper, affective level. Chloe is a harder character to like than Max, but she’s a wonderfully complex character, one who starts out bitter and cynical at the lot she’s dealt with in life, but who grows emotionally as she continues to hang out with Max. Chloe’s welfare is what drives Max, and helping her is what Max spends much of the game doing, even sacrificing a bright future to rewind time and save her. It’s the kind of emotional bond that would frankly be very difficult to construct in another medium, and it really has to do with the fact that the player has agency, however limited, to feel like the choices that Max is making in the game are theirs, to some extent. It might be an illusion, but it is a convincing one, and that is what matters.

The earlier episodes construct that affective bond and allow the player to understand and relate to Max and Chloe. It’s an extended process of acculturation to the world of Life is Strange, in which the player explores this world, once full of the kind of hope that comes with youth (and the concomitant – and oft-criticised – teen dialogue), accentuated by the wonderful things that Max is capable of doing with her rewind powers. The player feels like a hero(ine), in that they are using their agency to help people and solve problems. These earlier episodes have a wonderfully genteel charm to their environments and interactions, one very reminiscent to a dreamy indie film. There are moments where Max can sit down, lost in her thoughts, while a gentle strum of an acoustic guitar sets the mood. This game, especially in earlier, less emotionally sapping episodes, is wonderfully atmospheric.

But in episodes 4 and 5, that sense of accomplishment is brutally and brilliantly taken away as the game finally reveals the flipside of the rewind power – that it comes with consequences; namely, in which a tornado devastates the town. Episode 5, in particular, is a nightmare of an experience, one in which the player, like Max, loses that sense of youthful optimism, that agency, that belief in one’s own invincibility, to be able to make things right. And the two endings that the player can choose from are both brutally and tragically brilliant in how they are presented, an impossible choice that the player must take.

A lot of people didn’t like the ending. And that’s perfectly natural. Both were devastating in their own ways. And people felt that being shepherded into making that binary choice was not in line with the agency that they had been given beforehand. Surely there must have been another, better way, than to force players to make a choice between two moral extremes. But, in this case, I think the endings were steadfastly logical within the rules of the gameworld. But they are incredibly depressing. In one ending, Max loses Chloe but saves the town. But not only does she lose Chloe, she loses everything she had built up with her powers – the things she – and by extension the player – accomplished in the course of the entire game. And she has to live with the knowledge that what could have been can never be. The player’s agency, their role in the game’s events, is wiped clean, like it never happened. Worst of all, in this timeline, the plot of the game resolves itself, and the villains are caught, without even requiring Max’s heroic intervention. And that’s terrible, even if it was the morally “right” choice – because Arcadia Bay was saved.

And Chloe…she died angry and terrified and resentful and alone, never having met Max in this timeline, never having experienced the things that they’d experienced together in the timeline that Max had created.

If that isn’t a gut-punch of an implication of this choice – I don’t know what is.

The other choice – sacrificing Arcadia Bay to let Chloe live – is equally devastating because it’s a selfish choice – to allow a town to die to preserve Chloe and the player’s own sense of agency. And this ending is ambiguous. If Max and Chloe survive, what do they do? Where do they go? Does Max really abandon her future, her family, to disappear with Chloe? Where is everyone else? Did they survive the storm? These questions are never answered, leaving their fate unknown. It is an uncertain ending. One without finality.And what’s even worse: the game offers us a tantalising glimpse into an alternate future for Max – one in which she saves Chloe, wins the photo contest, and is ready to embark on her future career as a photographer – but the storm, and her desire to save Chloe, lead her to irrevocably close off that path to her – by ripping up her contest entry at the moment at which she took the photo. That, in retrospect, might be the single most devastating moment of the game.

I chose to sacrifice Chloe and save the town because I thought that was the moral thing to do. But now, I’m not so sure. That a game could get me to mull over my choices even now! Not many games could leave such a deep and lasting emotional scar on my psyche.

It’s not clear why the developers took such a brutal and depressing route to end off the series, but it’s certainly a choice that left me reeling for days after I finished playing the game, listening to the (brilliant) soundtrack and wondering what might have been in a better future. Are they life lessons? Do they demonstrate the implacability of destiny, the necessity of sacrifice to protect that which you care about, the stark and harsh realities of the real world? Considering these questions leaves me hollow.

Life is Strange can pull of those endings with such emotional power because of the brilliance in which the game builds up the player’s emotional investment in the characters and plot. It might be cruel for the developers to have foisted those choices upon you, but it certainly is effective from an aesthetic standpoint.

In closing, Life is Strange is an almost transcendental gaming experience. It has wonderful characters, a gripping narrative and a superb sense of atmosphere. Considered as a whole package, it, despite some flaws, just embodies that ineffable spark of storytelling that truly allows the player to inhabit its narrative space in a way that would be nigh on impossible in other mediums. That’s an achievement to be feted in the world of gaming.

But now, please excuse me while I hide in a corner and recover from the all the feels.

I give this game:  4.5 out of 5 instant cameras

 

Half A War (Shattered Sea #3)

Half A War rounds off the Shattered Sea trilogy of YA novels by Joe Abercrombie, and concludes the series in ways that upend the established tropes of the genre.

Continuing with the precedent set in the previous two novels, Abercrombie introduces a number of new point-of-view protagonists. There is the doglike, almost feral, sword bearer Raith and his charge, Skara, the Queen of a land destroyed by the forces of the High King. Characters from previous novels also return as POV characters this time around, such as Koll, a member of Yarvi’s expedition in the second book. The events of the previous novels have set the stage for the ultimate showdown with the High King, as the realms of the North must unite and strive for victory despite their differences.

What distinguishes this novel, however, is that it takes no prisoners in its grim trudge towards the inexorable end, and takes the series in an unexpectedly muted conclusion, full of moral grayness, uncertainty, and pessimism. Characters that featured in previous books, whose arcs appeared to have been finished, are re-introduced, and Abercrombie takes apart what they have learned and accomplished as characters and casts them into the wind, destroying all they have built in order to move the plot forward.

The series also sees the culmination of Yarvi’s character journey, as well as his grand designs. We have seen his slow development from a slightly tainted hero of the first books, to the more secondary mentor figure of the second, and in the third book, his full designs and manipulations are revealed. He is the architect of the High King’s destruction by the series’ end. However, his machinations, justified under the aegis of the greater good, or the lesser evil, reflect his fall from grace and his corruption by power. He is revealed to have manipulated and murdered his way to ensure Gettland’s victory and his installation as Grandfather of the Ministry, indirectly causing the deaths of friends and foes alike, destroying cities and massacring thousands – all for the goal of toppling the regime of the High King.

Yarvi attributes his deeds to the geass-like grip of the oath he swears to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, which has compels him to destroy Grandmother Wexen, the perpetrator of those designs. Ultimately, those are empty words in the face of what his own actions reveal. Yarvi’s fall is a chillingly-executed subversion of the hero’s journey. Although Abercrombie does fumble it at the end – Yarvi has a moment where he threatens Skara at the end of the series, which seems out of place with his outward gentle persona – he has, for the most part, handled this arc adroitly.

The denouement is rich in moral uncertainty. Not the least in Yarvi’s actions – covertly allowing the sack of Gettland’s capital to galvanise reprisal against the High King, assassinating Skifr’s family to get her to aid him in her quest for vengeance, promising Skekenhouse mercy if they open the gates to him, then allowing his allies to sack it as part of a bargain he made with them to secure their help. But also because the deed was only done with the aid of the infernal elf-machines (read: ballistic weaponry) that they secured from the haunted ruins of Strokom. The new order is built upon betrayal, manipulation and the use of forbidden arts, and it is uncertain how exactly it will differ from the old rule of the High King. This is no morality tale – this is a tale of hegemonies replacing each other and imposing their rule through nuclear diplomacy. While Skara, the Queen of Throvenland, does see through Yarvi and blackmails him to buy his cooperation, she realises she must work with him to consolidate her rule. She is buying into the new regime and its tarnished record, and is unable to right the injustices wrought by Yarvi in his climb to power.

So by the end, with character deaths, unpleasant revelations, and an uncertain payoff without the sense of catharsis at an ending, we close the book feeling a sense of exhaustion, pessimism, and a sense, almost, that Abercrombie has fought – and won – a duel against us for the right to end stories his own way – namely, one in which heroes die, and villains – once our heroes – rule.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 elf-weapons

Spectre

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***Warning:  Major spoilers ahead. ***

The new generation of Daniel Craig Bond movies was heralded as a gritty take on the Bond franchise, ditching the outlandish spy tech and diabolical supervillains for more visceral action and a dose of emotional vulnerability – a rebranding of the Bond franchise for the 21st century. The movies culminated in the excellent Skyfall, which showcased Bond at his most vulnerable. While Spectre attempts to continue that formula, it also tries to hearken back to the campier, flashier and sexier Bond films of old, but this hackneyed union of grit and camp makes the film feel like a tonally-inconsistent, illogical, and muddled mess.

In this film, Bond faces his biggest enemy yet – Spectre, a super-secret criminal organization headed by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser, one that covertly perpetuates terrorist attacks all over the world in order to nudge world leaders to agree to share surveillance information with Spectre’s vast intelligence apparatus, giving them control of much of the world’s information. To what end, the film is never clear, but we can safely assume that the serpentine machinations of such organizations assure a steady cash-flow.

But in establishing Spectre as the Big Bad, the film strains credulity. It tries to claim that the villains in the previous films were in fact components of this organization. Worse, the film makes the central conflict out to be part of an age-old personal vendetta. Spectre head honcho Oberhauser reveals that he is in fact Bond’s step-brother; resentful that the orphaned Bond had been showered in attention by his father, he has become “the author of all of Bond’s pain”, spitefully killing off all the women in Bond’s life (and yes, that includes everyone from Vesper Lind to Judi Dench’s M). This attempt to retcon the Craig Bond franchise into an overarching continuity falls flat because it feels so poorly-conceived, and trivializes Oberhauser into a vindictive brat with abandonment issues.

Oh, and by the way, Oberhauser is actually Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (the name came from his mother’s side). The reveal couldn’t have been more flat and uninteresting – with Bond in the villain’s lair and Oberhauser subjecting him to some over-complicated instrument of torture that appears to have no lasting effect on Bond’s faculties. Then a cat crawls onto Bond’s lap and Oberhauser leans close and whispers his true name into Bond’s ear. This half-baked piece of fanservice has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie, and Blofeld is ultimately taken down by the film’s end.

And Blofeld himself – where do we start? Waltz is wasted on the role. Blofeld adheres to the campy and anachronistic portrayal of a cat-stroking, dastardly plot-explainer, with an unhealthy love for over-elaborate criminal schemes. Raoul Silva was a far more chilling (and effective) antagonist for the general tone and style of the Daniel Craig era films. Blofeld revels in doing ridiculous things like kidnapping Bond’s love interest and hiding her in a building wired up for demolition – and get this – he gets his henchmen to print and paste pictures of the dead women in Bond’s life all over the walls of the building, spray-painting taunting messages to Bond on the walls. If you put as much effort into making your criminal plots more airtight as you did into thinking up of mindgames for Bond to ignore, you’d be ruling the world by now, Blofeld. I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1990s and Austin Powers. This is Dr. Evil type stuff (ironic because Dr. Evil is himself a ripoff of Blofeld). Blofeld is a terrible mastermind supervillain, and because of that, his chairmanship of Spectre seems sillier and less believable than it could’ve been. He doesn’t fit into the new, grittier Bond mythos at all.

In trying to capture a more conventional James Bond tone, the film also strains the bounds of believability in its plotting. In the film, the James Bond that was so carefully built up in the preceding films has somehow vanished, replaced by a suaver, overly self-assured superspy without the emotional depth displayed in the previous films. This newly confident Bond isn’t wracked by self-doubt or uncertainty, allowing him to commit all manner of ill-thought out stunts that would almost certainly have ended in disaster for him if it were not for prodigious application of plot armor: visiting the widow of a Spectre operative he assassinated in full view of all her guards. Wearing said operative’s ring to waltz into a Spectre meeting, and barely escaping with his life after leading his pursuers on a wild car chase through Rome, and not even bothering to check his car’s various functionalities before using them. Carelessly leading Spectre operatives to the location of Mr White’s daughter, who has information about the organization. Strolling into Blofeld’s secret base with said daughter, now Bond girl.

This last sequence is doubly ridiculous. Bond walks into Blofeld’s lair, is captured and tortured, and only wins the day because Blofeld lacked the foresight to perhaps strip Bond of all his possessions while he was unconscious. Someone should tell Bond that plans that work because of your enemies’ incompetence are not good plans. And when Bond makes his escape? He mows like half a dozen people down without any apparent effort, shoots a conveniently placed gas pipeline, and escapes in a helicopter while the entire facility inexplicably blows up. Sequences like these are the glory days of the old Bond, but they don’t fit into the new continuity of these films.

Speaking of Bond girls, Bond’s dalliance with Dr Swann also seems like rote lip-service to Bond tradition. Their romance is formulaic Bond-girl type stuff, and Swann’s declaration of love for him makes little logical sense (they literally hook up after working together to kill a Spectre henchman). Later, Blofeld kidnaps Swann and makes her into a damsel-in-distress to create a moral dilemma for Bond. Swann could have been a great character, but the inexorable requirement for Bond girls to be a certain way around James Bond is uncreative, regressive and almost insulting in its campy simplicity, after the complexities of Skyfall.

Ultimately, with this film I feel like I’m seeing contradictory impulses – the effort to keep the Daniel Craig franchise grounded in the grittier portrayal of Bond, but also an effort to take the franchise closer to its traditional tropes and tone. In trying to do both, it fails to deliver a cohesive whole, creating a film that is dour in trying to inject camp into the Bond formula. Spectre is a disappointing step down from Skyfall. If Spectre is indeed Craig’s last Bond film, it will be an unfulfilling capstone in his Bond legacy.

I give this film: 2.5 out of 5 watch bombs

Half the World (Shattered Sea #2)

This is a formulaic but well-written bridge novel, that builds up the narrative to its final denouement while providing compelling character stories to provide meaning and context to the narrative.

Half the World is the bridge novel between the events that start the series’ main conflict, as well as the events that resolve it. It’s another riff on the itinerant journey to find yourself formula, but in a somewhat more uplifting fashion than Yarvi’s own travails in the first book.

The book features two point of view protagonists this time: Thorn Bathu and Brand. Both are depicted as misfits, unable to conform to the well-defined roles demanded of them by society. Thorn, a girl, desires to be a warrior like her father, but when she accidentally kills another trainee in an accident indirectly caused by her training instructor, she is unjustly sentenced to death by stoning. Only Brand’s intervention saves her from this fate, but he sacrifices his chance to become a warrior in doing so. Misfits in a society that has cast them out, they eventually join Yarvi in a journey to seek allies against the High King in Skekenhouse.

As you’d expect, both protagonists grow and come of age in the course of the story, performing heroic deeds and gaining strength until their names and deeds are feted across the Shattered Sea. Thorn becomes a master swordsman at the hands of an enigmatic teacher, while Brand  discovers his strength and becomes an implacable pillar for the journey. They visit many fascinating places on their journey to the First of Cities (a future-medieval version of Istanbul) to seek aid from the Empress of the South. There’s some awkward teen romance, peppered by a series of misunderstandings that prevent Thorn and Brand from acknowledging their feelings to each other. Then finally, they return to Gettland to finally achieve the impossible. By facing down the implacable Vansterlander King Grom-gil-Gorm in single combat, Thorn wins an alliance between the two ancient enemies, in alliance against the High King. (There’s an amusing parodic reference there: it was prophesied of Grom-gil-Gorm that no man would kill him, so Yarvi set Thorn up to face the King in single combat so that he would lose confidence. He still won, though. Good thing you dodged that trope, Abercrombie).

Ordinarily, bridge novels such as these could very easily become expository slogs, in which authors rush to fill in all the gory details of their complex and intricate plots before the magnificent endings that they envision. Luckily, Abercrombie manages to fill this bridge book with compelling, if somewhat by-the-numbers, depictions of character growth and progression, while adroitly setting those stories amidst the larger political and narrative context. The book also charts Father Yarvi’s slow descent into corruption, one that will emerge as a large theme in the final novel. It’s not particularly innovative, but it’s a competent and sure-handed depiction of two young adults finding themselves amidst the personal crises – both physical and psychological – that beset them.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 elf-bracelets

Half A King (Shattered Sea #1)

Delightfully subversive YA fiction. Warning, here be spoilers.

I should mention that I read and finished the entire series in the space of a week while stuck in a hostel, waiting out the rain in autumn-time Japan. As such, the reviews for each book in this series will be written with the benefit of knowing what happens at the end.

Half A King is probably the most self-contained of the trilogy. It requires no second or last book to complete the story it wants to tell. In fact, all the books are like that – they tell self-contained stories, set in the same developing chronology but featuring different story arcs and protagonists. But Half A King is the most independent of the three, probably because it doesn’t assume that the exposition takes place in a previous novel. It’s a risky but in this case successful way for Abercrombie to tell his tale from different perspectives over the course of the trilogy.

It starts out conventionally enough. Prince Yarvi, our protagonist, is made King against his will after his father and older brother are murdered, but soon loses his throne and is left for dead by his scheming uncle. So begins a quest to retake his throne. So begins what appears to be a tame coming-of-age story, featuring young love, epic journeys, and a climactic battle where the hero wins the day.

I can’t help but be reminded of a similar series to this one: Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy of books, which I read last year. The parallels are uncanny: young, ambitious and often ruthless protagonist, a fantasy world that is actually a post-apocalyptic far-future Earth, an overpowering quest for revenge. But where Mark Lawrence was bombastic and unsubtle, Half A King takes a more measured approach, but beneath its seemingly formulaic exterior lies a subversive heart. With this series, Abercrombie turns YA tropes on their head.

Yarvi’s story is not so much a hero’s journey as it a villain’s origin story (Trope subversion!) It is a story of how people can rationalise increasingly evil deeds in the name of the greater good; getting easier and easier each time they do so. Yarvi is intelligent, brave and learned, and he uses his gifts to outsmart his foes and win friends and allies. But at the end of the book, he gets his revenge by sacrificing half his country and murdering his once-mentor, the one responsible, however, indirectly, for his initial downfall. But the brilliant thing is that it’s not that obvious that Abercrombie is going for that – in this first book he walks the fine edge between making Yarvi sympathetic and showing us the consequences of his decisions. Do we cheer Yarvi because we are so invested in witnessing him claim his revenge? Do we sympathise with the hard decisions he has to make? Do we vilify them for choosing the lesser evil? The first book of the series is subtle enough for Yarvi to escape moral pigeonholing. The latter books complete his moral degeneracy, but at this point, the reader doesn’t know about that.

The other nice thing, which also parallels Broken Empire, is the emerging realization that the fantasy-Vikings are actually real Vikings – or their descendants, at least. The eponymous Shattered Sea is actually the Baltic Sea, thousands of years in the future, after some unnamed cataclysm destroys modern civilisation, leaving our ruins to these latter-day Europeans to marvel at as elf-ruins. It feels a bit like a riff at all the post-apocalyptic, anti-authority YA novels that have been all the rage in the past few years. It’s like Abercrombie decided to work it in to pay lip service to the post-apocalyptic strain in YA novels. But it’s certainly far more subtle than what goes on in Broken Empire, and tantalizing enough in its subtlety that it makes you want to find out more. But Abercrombie doesn’t really delve into it that deeply, and certainly no holo-ghosts appear to explain everything. It’s left nicely mysterious by the end of the series.

Half A King is a readable and self-contained first entry in Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series of books. If you enjoy revenge tales but are scared off by Abercrombie’s penchant for spilling blood (figuratively) on the page, this will be a great choice of fantasy novel. It’s not YA as much as it encompasses YA tropes, and subtly subverts them.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pommel-chains