HALF A WAR by Joe Abercrombie

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Half a War
(Shattered Sea #3)
By Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey – July 2015
ISBN 9780804178457 – 362 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


The conclusion to Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy, Half a War follows a story begun in Half a King (which I reviewed here) and continued in Half the World. The first book introduced Yarvi, a prince born with a crippled hand, who events pull unwillingly onto the throne amid a storm of interstate intrigue that leads to his removal from royal obligations and into literal captivity.
If you haven’t yet read the previous books in this series I recommend that you do. Half a War is an excellent conclusion to an impressive and deceptively simple series. Starting as something classifiable as YA fiction, and filled with a sense of some brightness and hope, the series progresses into greater complexity. Characters increasingly, and more easily make moral compromises for ‘the greater good’, or prove incapable of the heroism that their world – and perhaps the reader – expects of them. By this third book the series approaches closer to fitting Abercrombie’s Twitter handle, LordGrimdark. Not as extreme as some epic fantasy may get, Shattered Sea does pass beyond what I would consider a tone for YA. The sense of hope for a better world, of pursuing any pureness of character falls into decay, leaving settlements with options that are less bad, and acceptance of personal imperfections within a broken, harsh world.
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The series thus has a gritty realism that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to the politics of 2016, in the United States, Britain, or beyond. The strengths of this series of fantasy novels from Abercrombie is the detached, authentic way he deals with characters, allowing them to make immense sacrifices in this story of their lives (particularly Yarvi’s in the full scope). There is little complexity to the plots or the overall goals of the characters. But how are they going to get from A to B? How they are going to rationalize the best path? And what must they allow, or do to themselves and one another, for the betterment of the people they are responsible for? What does success look like? What does failure? And does something lie in between those two outcomes? These are the questions that the Shattered Sea series is concerned with.
In wrapping up the series Half a War focuses fairly equally between the different protagonists: Yarvi who was the focus of the first book, Thorn who was the focus (with Brand) of the second book, and Princess Skara now added as a major component of this third book. Although the series as a whole is clearly Yarvi’s story – and oh what development he goes through! – introductions of each other protagonist never felt disappointing for long to this reader. I didn’t mind pulling away from direct points of view through Yarvi because those providing the new points of view were just as compelling. Secondary characters were equally brilliant, despite their faults, compromises, or failures.
For any fans of fantasy with a ‘classical’ feel, but modern sensibilities, or those looking for complexity and tones of realistic darkness/despair without fully going down a ‘Red Wedding’ sort of route, this series should appeal. If you’ve already read Half a King, but not the others, you really should discover where Yarvi’s journey, his service to his kingdom and its people, take him and those he uses.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via the First-Reads program from Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

THE GALAXY GAME, by Karen Lord

18142342The Galaxy Game
(Sequel, in setting, to The Best of All Possible Worlds)
By Karen Lord
Del Rey – 6th January 2015
ISBN 0345534077  – 336 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


If you have read and enjoyed Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, then you should be eager to read her new The Galaxy Game. If you haven’t read her previous novel set in the same universe as this one, then you should go and read The Best of All Possible Worlds. I wish I had, and despite the flaws I see in The Galaxy Game, I’ll starting back at her earlier work and eventually rereading this one again with a bit more familiarity under the belt to guide/support me as a reader.
The Galaxy Game presents itself as a stand-alone novel in its plot (which it truly is), and I had every expectation to adore it as my introduction to Karen Lord’s praised writing. Indeed there is a lot here to affirm that she has exceptional writing talent, and interesting, unique things to say. Unfortunately her writing fails in easily reaching a new reader in the case of this novel, its multileveled complexities obscure its worth.
The plot of the book is rather straightforward and doesn’t really hint at the strengths of Lord’s writing that lie beneath it: her language and her universe building. The heart of the novel is a teenager with psionic powers named Rafi. For historical reasons within this universe, societies largely mistrust these powers and Rafi is effectively kept ‘prisoner’ under government watch at a special school. While he lives a normal teenage life of close friendships and hobbies, the looming responsibilities of adulthood, pressures from his family, and uncertainty over his powers all hover over his daily routines.
Most of this plot exists as a slow build, a nuanced character study that begins to reveal key aspects to Lord’s universe in these novels. Though with a teenage protagonist on a seemingly standard coming-of-age journey, this is far from a young adult book. After a tantalizing prologue, I stepped into this story eager to go along, not really minding that it proceeded so slowly. What I did mind, was that Lord seemed to assume so strongly that readers were familiar with her universe, how it is set up, what the people are like, who different players are. Very little is offered to give a reader bearing.
Alone this might not be a death toll. Complex, subtle novels can work tremendously, even rushing in without firm footing. However added to the assumptions of familiarity and the slow, meandering plot, Lord additionally writes her interesting themes into yet another layer of complexity: multiple points of view. Thankfully these are limited to mostly third person and a first person, but the similarities of third person voices (particularly early on as you are trying to get used to everything), make it hard to tell who is speaking.
Eventually, circumstances force Rafi to flee to a planet where his psionic abilities are far more common, and appreciated. Despite being in a more familiar, accepting environment, Ravi discovers this planet and society comes with its own challenges, one society amid a shifting galaxy of politics, and games.
For all the befuddlement that may befall a reader, The Galaxy Game does have some elements that make it stand out, beyond to beauty of the prose and the interesting sociopolitical commentary at play. Sports pops up in science fiction from time to time, but not too frequently. Lord combines the psyonics with a sport called Wallrunning, one aspect of her world building here that did seem evocatively described, and some of my favorite moments from the book were the parts featuring this. Another great element is simply Rafi. Perhaps it is partly the empathy the reader can sort of feel with Rafi at being out of place, lost, in this society, but parts from the point of view of Rafi (and to a lesser degree his friends) are the closest to familiarity I felt while reading this.
Other reactions to The Galaxy Game seem similar to mine. For instance Sunil Patel’s contribution to the new review section of Lightspeed Magazine echoed well many of my own frustrations with seeing so much potential here, but not coming away really fulfilled.  On the other hand, writing for NPR, Amar El-Mohtar had a much more positive reaction despite recognizing the challenging nature of this novel. Aside from differences arising from familiarity with The Best of All Possible Worlds, another factor that I realize may significantly alter one’s perception of the The Galaxy Game could be the format in which you read it. El-Mohtar speaks in her review of needing to flip back to pages previously read. I would have loved the capability to do that, but having an electronic copy alone, this wasn’t possible (well at least not very facile). So get the physical copy if at all possible if you give this one a try.
One final point: in struggling to put my thoughts over this novel into words I did also listen to this fantastic, fascinating interview that Skiffy & Fanty did with Karen Lord on The Galaxy Game. Whether you to decide to read the novel or not (or if you already have read it), I think it’s well worth a listen.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Del Rey via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
Shattered Sea Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
ASIN: B00HBQWGYO
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 8th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

I’ve been fortunate to have a recent run of phenomenal books. Like several of the novels I last read, Half a King took me a moment to get into. With a new fantasy story there is always a period of getting used to the universe and its style within the spectrum of the genre. This was also my introduction to Abercrombie and his style, so I had no expectations or baseline measurement entering in. For the first chapters the tone set in and I worried a bit. Half a King is a high fantasy, told in a universe of Western Medievalesque culture/political systems that are the traditional standard of the field. Though elves and magic are mentioned, these amount to legends of the distant past (with hints that this may in fact be technology – perhaps of our civilization). The story at this point is set realistically, and is set up in a straight-forward manner.

Prince Yarvi is studying to be a minister, a career of academics and serving as advisor to those who rule. With a nod to some classic fantasy series, Yarvi is a cripple, born with a half-hand. Physically deformed and weak, intellectually-inclined, and lacking a personality of confidence or leadership, Yarvi has no ambitions or plans to ever rule. However, the sudden death of his elder brother and their father the king suddenly forces the ill-prepared Yarvi into the role of ruling.

This set up had me fearing that the novel would proceed rather predictably, down a simple path of Yarvi gaining confidence in ruling, and showing how his shrewd mind was more important than battle prowess and physical intimidation. The relatively short length of the book also left me wondering just how much could be accomplished on any epic scale.

After these first chapters, however, a curve is thrown to Yarvi and the plot, sending our protagonist down a different path. Still one of personal growth, of finding his confidence and an ability to lead, the story quickly became far more captivating than I first expected. I fell in love with this world and with the character of Yarvi, despite the familiarity of his situation.

Abercrombie succeeds in making Yarvi’s story compelling through a couple of aspects. The first is by making this feel like an epic fantasy despite being short. (Originally thought to be a stand-alone novel, it is now clearly to be expanded into a series.) The plot is focused on Yarvi and the friends and adversaries he meets directly. But Yarvi’s personal and political struggles are set within a richly formed universe. Abercrombie puts in many details of the world-at-large and its culture, including religion and the afore-mentioned elven relics of a previous age. At first the many details inserted into the narrative seemed to be a way of making Half a King ‘sound’ like a fantasy, akin to inserting lots of foreign-sounding technical words into a SF novel. Abercrombie’s skill quickly became clear though, that this is setting up a sense of epic within the confines of this single small story. The history and characters of the offscreen larger world become clearer as the novel draws to a close and ties into what has occurred to Yarvi, giving the reader the sense of something epic and well constructed. Along these same lines, Yarvi’s story extends through a significant period of time and drastically-changing circumstances, but Abercrombie makes this flow realistically and naturally across the pages.

The second aspect to Half a King‘s success is Abercrombie’s tone. The book is written with a voice that fits Yarvi to a tee, with shades of being archaic and Medievalesque fitting to the universe, but not overtly or comically so as some genre books can get. There is a lyrical quality to the writing, helping this story to go by with fantastic pacing and being engrossing all the way. The novel is marketed under the Young Adult umbrella. As is often the case, this is largely due to the protagonist being a young adult. However, it is also the tone and content. Though featuring violence and talks of a sex, they are treated quite tamely, making this a PG sort of adventure story. The work is also pervaded with a sense of optimism, a resilience to survive, and a joy for the beautiful moments in life. This makes it a fine counter to the more pessimistic fantasy of something like A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, despite the optimism, the novel continues to be believable and relatable, peppered with loss, disaster, and cruelty. With themes such as honor, promises, confidence, and loss, Half a King is ideal for a young fantasy reader, but shouldn’t be limited to that audience.

Half a King has been featured on “Best of” lists for summer reading and garnered significant advance praise. Whether fantasy is your thing or not, the novel stands well as a coming-of-age story that should captivate you and whet your appetite to learn more about this world in which Yarvi lives.

Five Stars out of Five

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett
The Demon Cycle Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 0345518705
453 pages, paperback
Published March 2010
(Original Publ: 2008, as The Painted Man)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Somehow I never heard about this series or author until coming across the giveaway for this book, and I am fortunate to have won it, one of the more enjoyable fantasy novels I’ve read in some time.

With any fantasy, world-building has prime importance, as any other element of fiction will be easily ruined by a crumbling facade of suspended disbelief or grow dull in a clichéd, familiar setting. From the opening chapter, Brett’s world of pre-tech (or is it post-tech), demon-plagued night is fascinating. With characters in relative ignorance of the world they inhabit beyond the pressing immediacy of the daily struggle to survive, Brett is able to reveal the world of his series gradually, enticing the reader’s interest, supplying bits of satisfaction, and leaving the tease of deeper revelations still-to-come. Yet nowhere does one feel shortchanged or played with. Brett’s construction of this world shows that he is simply a masterful storyteller with a love and appreciation for fantasy at its simplest.

The novel’s apparent simplicity as entertaining story and comments by others regarding the black/white good/bad dichotomy made me somewhat wary when starting the novel, afraid things would be a little too simplistic. With those expectations I actually was pleasingly surprised to see that the plot did not unfold in the manner I expected, the journey of each of the series’ protagonists did not go straight from A to B without mis-step. Too often in fantasy novels the heroes are presented with challenge after challenger, yet surpass each without any actual deviation from the original intentions, from the original set-up. In meaningful ways, Brett does take the story and his characters in unexpected directions or excursions, even if their broad, ultimate destiny is clear.

Through this all, Brett makes the reader care deeply for each of the three main characters, and enjoy the presence of the various secondary characters, good and bad, who cross their path. Of the trio, Arlen (the Warded Man) is featured the most, and for all of the novel I grew increasingly concerned that he was being made into far too powerful of a hero, a cartoonish superhero that could not fail. While others were in danger, including those he cares about, one never doubts that Arlen won’t be able to face any demon coming out with no more than a mild scratch. However, this is balanced nicely by the vulnerability of the other protagonists, and the novel begins to develop (and hint for further developments) in the true weaknesses of Arlen, not physical, but spiritual, a loss of humanity.

This was a surprisingly satisfying read and I’m eager to read the remainder of the series, always the drawback to finding a fantasy novel that captures the imagination.

Five Stars out of Five

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough
(Dire Earth Cycle Book 1)
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 0345537122
472 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Darwin Elevator” is an entertaining, action-filled read that I enjoyed enough for me to want to find the follow-up volumes to see how the story continues. It has some good qualities going for it, including tight writing and memorable characters given enough complexity to draw them beyond indistinguishable cardboard people who can easily populate this kind of popcorn novel.

I was wary of a plot that sounded like it involved zombies, but was relieved that the zombie-like aspect was kept to a minimal. Nonetheless I didn’t feel like that aspect needed to be present at all, seemingly just there to take a familiar SF scenario and give it a bit of a twist. Indeed the entire novel is like that: familiar, but with a bit of a zesty twist to make things feel new.

A blurb in the press material compares it to Scalzi meets Firefly (Whedon). Sadly I have neither read Scalzi nor watched more than a few minutes of Firefly. (I know, I know…) But the characters and their interactions certainly felt Whedonesque to me, including the trait of being expendable. Yet, I was drawn to this looking for a good piece of science fiction, and I can’t really call it that. It’s a good adventure, set in a SF universe, but the SF is particularly soft and could leave some fans yearning for something deeper. Moreover I would classify it as what some mass paperback’s were labeled as “Men’s Adventures”. The book contains its strong female roles, no doubt, but too often they seem used for the sexual vagrancies of the more degenerate bad guys, described as if they were fantasies of the author.

The ending sets up the next novel perfectly, and suggests that a bit more attention might be kept to the science fiction aspects in future volumes, which at least might be worth a light read even if nothing improves from what’s found here.

Three Stars out of Five