The following post is spoiler-free.
You’ve probably read–or at least heard of–The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie‘s highly acclaimed first three books. They compose a wide-ranging epic fantasy, driven by colorful and imaginative characters. There’s Logen Ninefingers, a notorious barbarian whose name is so well known throughout the Union and Gurkish Empire that men tremble when they learn his identity, especially as it relates to Logen’s berserker alter-ego, “The Bloody Nine.” Or there’s Sand dan Glotka, a one-time handsome officer, who is now a broken, disfigured, and hideous man, crippled after years of torture by the Gurkish. Illogically, Glotka now solicits confessions through brutal torture and coercion for the Union.
Spread across roughly 1,800 pages is a wealth of characters and each one is nearly as complex as Ninefingers and Glotka, a pair who make good examples for the entire trilogy. Glotka was once tortured, now he tortures; Ninefingers is given to bloody abandon in battle, but is just as often given to philosophical reflection when living daily life. Abercrombie’s characters are incredibly human: not always good and not always bad, which is what makes the writing so engaging and his characters real.
Besides the characters’ interactions, there is plenty of action. Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, he writes one heck of a fight scene… and there are a lot fight scenes! In between chests cleaved by battle-axes and arrows finding their targets in the most gruesome of places, there is exploration, magic, horrible beasts, alliances, and backstabbing, making The First Law a far-flung, entertaining, and unpredictable story.
And maybe that’s why I enjoyed Abercrombie’s trilogy so much. While his characters almost universally act in their best interests, like many of us, sometimes they don’t. It’s this uncertainty of actions and outcomes that makes each page more compelling than the last.
The series is grim and dark and completely bleak and still a wonderful read. Abercrombie is sure to always dangle the slight glimmer of hope to keep the reader going. Still, it’s a much bigger story than anything I could convince my kids to read at this point (not to mention it touches on some scenes I wasn’t ready for them to see), which is why I was really excited when Abercrombie announced a couple of years ago that he was going to write a young adult trilogy.
The Shattered Sea saga debuted last summer with Half a King, followed by book two, Half the World, earlier this year. The trilogy will complete at the end of this month when Half a War is made available. The main character in the first book is Yarvi, a boy disabled with one bad hand and considered “half a man” in a world where the ability to swing a sword and heft a shield defines a man’s worth. Rather, Yarvi must wield his mind in the same way others use steel to survive, as he travels the Shattered Sea, gathering allies and plotting survival.
This trilogy has the same grittiness amid a dark, unforgiving world that made The First Law series so popular. The characters are just as complex, deceitful, and unpredictable as Ninefingers or Glotka, and their motives just as hard to guess; Half a King has several twists and turns of events that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. It’s well-written and is chock-full of great lines like ”You may need two hands to fight someone, but only one to stab them in the back.”
Half the World picks right up where the first book’s page-turning prose left off. In this installment, Abercrombie writes an incredibly strong female lead, a girl whose swordplay is only surpassed by her snark. Can a woman play the part of warrior in a world of bloodthirsty men? Abercrombie thinks she can and then proves it… and exceptionally well. The developments of the first book continue as the heroes travel Half the World, building toward what seems a quite obvious conclusion, thanks to the title of late July’s release of Half a War.
The Shattered Sea has all the action and great characters of the First Law, but packaged in a more concise journey (fewer than 400 pages in each book). Abercrombie is aware of his space limitations and nary a paragraph is left to waste. It’s incredibly well-told heroic adventure and includes enough plot twists to keep readers guessing, thanks to the games played in the shadows. You will have a difficult time finding many better stories in YA today.
I believe Abercrombie’s success with Shattered Sea is due, largely, to his approach to writing YA. As he describes, “I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults. Just young ones. Many of them are extremely sophisticated in their reading. What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults [like me] want to read … So my aim was not to soften, or bowdlerize, or pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there. My aim was to write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic … Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing departments but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, the same moral complexity, the same shocks and challenges, the same visceral action, the same rich vein of dark humor that I fondly imagine my other books have offered. Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.”
So far, it’s just that. And it’s marvelous. Be sure to pick up Half a War next week to complete the story and to see if three halves do, in fact, make a whole.