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