Half the World is the second novel in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy. It is also a unicorn–the rare genre series novel that surpasses the first.
People who read genre fiction series are accustomed to falling in love with a world and its characters in the first novel and then slogging through two more novels to find out what finally happens, hoping for the happily after. The subsequent novels are often bogged down in explication and reminders of events from the first and hail-fellow-well-met reunions with friends and adventurers from the first, all taking space and time from the story. The story often becomes thin gruel.
Abercrombie ditches that formula, trusting his readers have a functioning memory. He goes further, though, writing this second in the series so that it could stand alone. When characters and events from the first play a role, they don’t come in and sit down over a let’s catch up on old times meal. Their reunions are viewed from outside by new characters and are organically part of the story.
Part of the reason this is such a successful novel on its own is that the focus shifts from Yarvi, who dominated the first installment to Thorn and Brand, who are the main focus of Half the World. When Thorn kills a fellow student and Brand defends her, their prospects are bleak. Yarvi employs them on a voyage to the other side of the world, seeking alliances to counter the overweening power of the High King and his ambitious adviser Grandmother Wexen.
The voyage is long, difficult and dangerous. They travel through many lands and there are adventures, battles and intrigues along the way. Meanwhile, Yarvi brings on a mysterious old woman who has been hired to train Thorn to excel in battle, to make her the best warrior possible.
Yarvi, from the first book in the series, is the puppeteer in this book, moving the pieces, seeing a strategy, making it happen. We are not party to his emotional turmoil and more. That shift in focus is, I think, the reason this second in the series succeeds so well.
This is an exciting second in the series, one that brings us forward to the inevitable confrontation with the High King that I expect will come in Half a War, the third in the series. I am looking forward to it with anticipation because Abercrombie has proved he avoids the usual tropes and traps of genre series, which bodes well for the final installment.