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Half a War
by Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey, Hardcover, $26, 384 pp
Published: July 2015

Only half a war is fought with swords

With that epigram Abercrombie brings his “Shattered Sea” trilogy to a bloody conclusion. Mysteries are revealed, questions are answered and lies are exposed as Father Yarvi, the deformed king from the series kick-off Half a King gets his revenge, but at a bloody price.

But Yarvi has faded to the background in Half a War, which instead follows the young Queen Skara as she attempts to rebuild her kingdom of Throvenland while seeking revenge on the raiders from the High King and Grandmother Wexen who destroyed her keep and killed her parents.

Abercrombie continues to expand his POV in Half a War. While Half a King was solely from Yarvi’s point-of-view, and the second entry, Half the World introduced two new POVs, the would-be warriors Brand and Thorn, Half a War expands to three characters— Skara, her bodyguard Raith and Father Yarvi’s apprentice Koll.

The story focuses on Skara’s attempts to recapture her ancestral keep, and then hold it from the encroaching forces of the High King lead by the brutal, ruthless Bright Yilling.  She is also attempting to hold a fragile alliance between Yarvi’s uncle, the Gettland King Uthil, and his mortal enemy, the Vansterman king Grom-Gil-Gorm.

From the names you can tell the story has a Viking flavor to it. When I began the series it seemed to be a simple second-world analog, but throughout Half the World, Abercrombie dropped hints that there may be more to the Shattered Sea than first appears, as he spoke of mysterious, deadly “elf ruins” and their forbidden “elf magic”.

Half a War lays out exactly what elf magic is, and why the elf ruins are deadly. If you are concerned about spoilers, stop here.

Turns out that the Shattered Sea is a post-apocalyptic version of the Eastern Baltic Sea, and the various kingdoms correspond to areas of Sweden. The elf ruins are the radioactive city of Stockholm and the elf magic is modern weaponry.

Father Yarvi leads an expedition to recover these weapons to defeat the High King’s armies. It’s bloody, kind of clever, but also a bit done to death. I groaned when I saw where it was going, with Yarvi’s mystical walking stick turning out to be a rifle, and his allies wielding chain guns against the High King’s encroaching forces.

Perhaps if the upcoming Shannara TV series hadn’t played that trope up I wouldn’t have been so disappointed, as it was I found that twist to be a letdown.

What I did like about Half a War, however, was the complete transformation of Father Yarvi. The abused boy, who struggled to rule his kingdom despite his lack of warrior prowess, has transformed into a ruthless, cunning schemer. Hints of his transformation began at the end of Half a King, and he committed some morally questionable acts in Half the World, but he is almost equally as villainous as the High King or Bright Yilling in Half a War. Driven completely by revenge on the High King and Grandmother Wexen, he sacrifices his morals, his honor, his allies and his closest friends to fulfill his goal.

But his descent only makes Queen Skara shine brighter. Possessing every bit as much steel and cleverness as the other leaders, she manages to hold them all at bay, liberating her people and ushering in the time of Father Peace to the Shattered Sea.

But probably not for long. As Skara says in the closing pages:

In the ashes of every war the seeds of the next take root.” ~~ Michael Senft

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