Review: ‘Half a War’ by Joe Abercrombie


In the run-up to the Gemmell Awards I thought it’d be fun to jump on the virtual bandwagon and re-post my own reviews of the titles I’ve read from the Legend longlist. Starting with Abercrombie!

Up until Half a War I’d been kind of ambivalent towards the Shattered Sea trilogy. As a huge fan of Abercrombie’s six First Law novels I entered his latest series with humongous expectations . . . and ended up feeling a little underwhelmed by it. The characters in Half a King and the story in Half the World felt, to me, distinctly lukewarm: there never seemed to be any doubt as to whether the main characters would achieve their goal, and it never once felt as though they were in any real danger.

abercrombie-half-a-war

Not so in Half a War. Despite its title, this book doesn’t do things by half. Half a War is packed from cover to cover with full-on danger, full-on violence, and full-on excitement. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been: the events of the first two books have finally come to a head, and the Shattered Sea is embroiled in outright war. The High King’s army are marching, and standing against them is the small but dogged alliance of Gettland, Vansterland and Throvenland. But it’s an alliance of necessity rather than friendship, and the leaders of each nation must learn to co-exist for the greater good of their people.

I simply can’t praise Half a War highly enough. This is the Abercrombie I know and love: the Abercrombie who writes killer action scenes and breathless, adrenaline-fuelled battles; the Abercrombie who loads his pages with dark humour and gritty violence; the Abercrombie who creates flawed yet likeable characters whose witty yet realistic dialogue dances off the page and whose fates we as readers become genuinely invested in. This Abercrombie is not afraid to place his characters in dangerous situations, and to force them to make decisions in which they must weigh their own needs against the needs of others. Neither is he afraid to hurt his characters – or, by extension, his readers – and I feel like this is the first time in this trilogy that the ‘true’ Abercrombie really shines through the YA veneer.

In the same vein as the second book, Half a War has characters who previously featured as main protagonists taking something of a back seat, allowing a new set of characters to come to the fore. So, while Father Yarvi and Thorn Bathu both have their fair share of page time, the real focus here is on two new protagonists: Skara, a deposed and recently orphaned princess; and Raith, bloodthirsty swordbearer to the legendary warrior Grom-gil-Gorm. Both characters are remarkably different to one another, yet both are extremely likeable, and I personally sympathised with both of them a lot more than I did either Thorn, Brand or Yarvi. Still, each and every character has a role to play, and when the full extent of certain characters’ involvement with the ongoing conflict is revealed it makes for a delightfully outrageous surprise.

The only aspect of the series I’m still not entirely convinced by is the notion of ‘elf magic’, which to me seems kind of shoehorned into Half a War given that it was only hinted at subtly in the previous two books (rather than made an integral part of the world as in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire). However, it does allow for incredible plot opportunities; and although I feel that the storyline involving the ruins of Strokom could perhaps have been fleshed out a bit more, I can’t deny that it results in some madly incongruous and awesome imagery (one particular scene involving the elderly Mother Scaer is both hilarious and terrifying, and will likely stick in my mind for a very long time).

Half a War is fast-moving and highly entertaining. It’s a fairly intense read, full of action and twists, and is led by sympathetic yet unpredictable characters who constantly surprise us with their decisions, eventually leaving us with an optimistic yet by no means fairytale ending. All in all, a stunning finale to a really enjoyable fantasy series. I would absolutely love to see more of the Shattered Sea in the near future.

(Review originally posted at halfstrungharp.com on 25th July 2015.)


Blurb

Words are weapons.

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords.

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil.

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Review: ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ by Jeff Salyards


‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ is a book that’s been lurking amidst the dusty, long-forgotten recesses of my Amazon wishlist for over three years. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to finishing it I’m kicking myself for having waited so long.

It was social media that recently put the series back on my radar: after a few weeks of being regularly entertained by Salyards’ laugh-out-loud Facebook posts I decided it was high time I checked out his fiction.

Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I found myself immersed in a gritty, startlingly intimate fantasy; one that uses realism and detail to draw in the reader, and maintains the engaging and endearing first person voice of a rather inexperienced and anxious young man.

Our narrator is Arkamondos, an educated yet naïve small-town scribe. The main premise of ‘Scourge’ is that Arki has been hired to chronicle the day-to-day activities of a brutal warband. His new comrades hail from the shadowy Syldoon empire; led by Captain Braylar Killcoin, each man in the company comes across as hard-bitten and wholly at ease with violence and death.

What really sets Salyards’ writing apart is its charming and eloquent narrative voice, which captures perfectly the difficulties and doubts of an untested chronicler. Unlike other ‘grimdark’ protagonists, Arki is increasingly horrified by the violent deeds he comes to witness, and frequently questions his decision to join the Syldoon. We the reader get to experience his fear and shock – in complete contrast to the slurry of infallible, unshakeable antiheroes that the last few years have provided us with – and it’s refreshing to have a narrator that we can actually relate to.

Though Arki as a narrator is almost painfully naïve, he doesn’t shy away from observing and recording the brutal things he witnesses. He tries to do this as impassively and professionally as possible, but naturally his own morals and personality colour everything he writes. Arki is mostly left on the outside of the group, at least at first. This means that the reader is also left out, and we begin the story knowing next to nothing about what’s going on: just like Arki, the reader feels as though they’re stumbling around, completely out of their depth. And this is actually awesome – as long as you just sit back and accept the fact that everything will make sense eventually.

Above all, Arki’s lack of worldly experience makes every page feel realistic. Armour, weapons and warcraft are described simply yet effectively; there is an undertone of quiet competence that conveys the sense that the author has done his research but chosen not to show off about it by blinding his readers with pedantic jargon and details. Better yet, Salyards doesn’t assume that every single character possesses the same amazing skillset just because it’s fantasy: not everyone knows how to load a crossbow, ride a horse, pick a lock or even load a wagon. He avoids stereotypes, and by doing so he gives us characters that actually feel like real people.

The author deals with every other aspect of the story in a similar way. Sex is exciting yet ultimately disappointing; combat is prolonged and painful; death is graceless and unexpected. Arrows miss as often as not; ambushes are more likely to fail than succeed; bloodstains actually stick around for a long time; and every fight leaves the combatants with injuries both large and small that aren’t just shaken off and forgotten about. And though Salyards avoids the more ‘traditional’ elements of fantasy – specifically with regards to the somewhat obscure weapons used by certain characters – his combat scenes are never anything less than brutal, realistic and vivid.

For instance, one of the main characters’ chosen weapons is a flail. And not just any old flail, either: this is Bloodsounder, powerful but dangerous, which grants its wielder mysterious knowledge and an advantage over his opponents. Despite this, Bloodsounder is not a whirling tornado of wanton destruction when wielded, nor is its use dramatic or over the top in any way; in fact, the first time we see the flail in extensive action it’s used to gradually bludgeon a soldier to death in a tense, protracted one-on-one fight scene lasting several pages.

I’ve seen plenty of reviews complaining that ‘Scourge’ is light on the action, and that the bulk of the story focuses heavily on the mundane either through word-for-word dialogue, or internal monologue. I’ll admit I agree with this, but only to an extent, since I feel like this is also one of the book’s main strengths. Yes, the pace is slow. Yes, there are extended monologues that could perhaps have been shorter. And yes, some segments can feel slightly repetitive. But all this does is successfully convey a sense of routine, of the daily grind of men who spend every hour of their lives in one another’s company.

The plot progresses incrementally, but steadily. The fact that events are being chronicled in ‘real time’ makes for a relatively slow pace, yes, but it also gives ‘Scourge’ a pervading sense of immediacy and danger. And just because ALL THE THINGZ aren’t happening doesn’t mean that *nothing* is happening. ‘Scourge’ represents the beginning of a journey – and a surprisingly subtle journey at that – of discovery, both for the reader discovering the story and characters, and for Arki discovering that maybe he can cope with whatever the hell he’s gotten into after all.

And besides: the prose is smooth and engaging enough that it’s ridiculously easy to forget that not much is actually happening. Salyards writes with an easy tone and a poetic flourish; in fact, his style reminds me (in different ways) of both Mark Lawrence and Pat Rothfuss. But Salyards’ voice feels more *natural*, somehow; less choreographed wittiness and more self-deprecating observation. That’s not to say it doesn’t contain its share of dark humour and gritty dialogue, though. In fact, at one point I described it to a friend as, “a bit like if ‘Prince of Thorns’ had been narrated by Father Gomst with a sense of humour”.

One last thing I appreciated about ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ is the fact that the author doesn’t fall into the trap of having Arki explain every tiny detail of a world with which he is already familiar. The setting is mostly vague, simply because it doesn’t need to be anything else but. Enough detail is conveyed for us to vividly picture the scenes taking place, yet not enough so that the world building takes over the story. Salyards takes a similar approach to history and lore: you get the sense that there’s a huge amount of it lurking just beyond reach, but he’s going to make us wait before we earn it.

I’m not saying ‘Scourge’ is perfect. It’s not. There’s nothing major to criticise, but it is kind of rough around the edges in a few minor ways. There are bits and pieces – arguably entire scenes – that could perhaps have been cut without detriment to the story; and as I already mentioned, the pacing can occasionally be an issue. But it’s a very, very good book nonetheless. And as a debut novel? It’s seriously impressive.

So yes, bend me over and call me a fangirl: I’m officially sold on Salyards. Now bring me more Bloodsounder. Now.

Dammit you horsec*nts, I said NOW.


Blurb:

Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.

 

A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire–and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man’s soul.

 


You can connect with Jeff via Facebook and Twitter, or  check out jeffsalyards.com for more (his blog on there is ridiculously entertaining).