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 BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris 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