Young adult fiction must be paying well because I notice a lot of established fantasy authors like Brandon Sanderson, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie breaking into it. I am an Abercrombie fan from way back, reading his “grimdark” First Law trilogy more than 10 years ago. I enjoyed it but like so many authors I love, I neglected him chasing the next shiny title on the shelf.
Just recently, Abercrombie released the 1st book in a sequel series set in the First Law universe (but now they are in the Industrial Age!) and I decided to get reacquainted with him—and what better way to do that than reading his Shattered Sea trilogy, his maiden attempt into YA-dom?
Shattered Sea boasts three eye-catching titles: Half a King, Half the World, and a Half a War. While they are ostensibly “YA” books in that they all feature young adult protagonists, I am happy to report that Abercrombie’s narrative voice remained intact. There are many fantasy series that received undeserved comparisons to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but in this case, I think the comparisons are justified. One of Abercrombie’s best feature is his ability to craft lifelike characters one can’t help but root for, even when they are performing morally questionable acts. Shattered Sea blends low fantasy, sea-adventure, revenge, and political intrigue into a page-turning three-part story that had me devouring them in just 3 days. One of surprising (but clever) things Abercrombie did was have different point of view characters for each book, so in subsequent books, we get to see the protagonists of previous books through the eyes of others, and this changes our view on them in interesting ways. It’s risky since we are expected to re-invest our feelings in new people for every book, but it is a credit to Abercrombie’s skill that this proved to be no impediment at all.
The first book begins with Yarvi, the crippled second son of the King of Gettland ascending the throne after his father and brother’s untimely death (hence “Half a King“), and was immediately expected to navigate the politics of his own court and the region even though he was clearly out of his depth and due to his disability, could not inspire loyalty and respect in his own people in a society that values martial strength above all else. And like all the best stories, his circumstances kept circling the drain. It’s the sort of story where an underdog relies only on his wit and cunning to win the day. Like with the First Law, Abercrombie retained his penchant for subverting fantasy tropes—there are many times in which I thought the story will go in one direction only for it to whip me into another. If you enjoyed the moral greyness of the First Law trilogy, I am happy to report that Shattered Sea wears the same hue. This oft-repeated quote in the books is a good summation of the moral through-line of this trilogy:
Let Father Peace spill tears over the methods. Mother War smiles upon results.
In spite of the cynicism, the books are also quite humourous and made me laugh out loud a few times (a disproportionate number of these instances came from Abercrombie’s imaginative use of the word “arse”). Like most YA’s these days, there are also romantic subplots, but I find them more than tolerable (even enjoyable). The story itself, both in individual books and in the trilogy, is masterfully plotted, with every twist and turn set up, and every set up paid off satisfyingly or thrillingly subverted. In recent years, I had been facing plenty of disappointment in fantasy—lots of very promising series repeatedly dropping the ball in the final book, but Half a War (Shattered Sea #3) ended on the highest note.
World-building is not the flashiest tool in Abercrombie’s toolkit. His settings, both in First Law and in Shattered Sea, are not outstanding but competently built. Shattered Sea seems to take place in an analogue of the Baltic Sea region, but there is more than meets the eye (and it even became plot-relevant in the latter parts of the story).
If you are interested in reading Joe Abercrombie’s work, Shattered Sea is a great place to begin. Half a King (Shattered Sea #1) can function as a standalone, though I’ll be surprised if you aren’t tempted to read further by its end.