I’ve just finished Half the World by Joe Abercrombie, and I loved it. I love all of Abercrombie’s books. He has a voice like no other fantasy writer around: gritty, real, bloody and laid bare. His characters sign off the page, are built in bare brushstrokes, and their fallibility and strength, quirks and oddities, are built with a realism that belies their fantastical setting. He is a master of his craft. There’s a reason he sells by the bucketload, why he is critically as well as commercially lauded, and why I will buy every one of his books within a few days of release.
But my god do I wish he’d challenge himself.
Half the World is the second book of the (ostensibly YA, but really, really not) Shattered Sea trilogy, following people from the small Norse-like nation of Gettland as they struggle against religious change and an overbearing High King. Having followed the titular half a king of the first book, Yarvi, as he travels the world a thrall, briefly sits on his father’s black throne before an all-too-obvious plot twist makes his uncle king, in this book we move on to a new generation. Yarvi is now Father Yarvi, minister to King Uthil, though only a few years have gone by. Instead we follow Brand and Thorn, a warrior with a heart of gold and a woman touched by Mother War respectively. For various reasons, they are rejected from their desires of being a warrior, and are taken up, selfishly, by Yarvi for his mission to find allies for Gettland against the High King.
Hijinks ensue. There is some sailing, deeds worthy of song, typical Abercrombian complaint that the realities of battle are much harsher than the songs say. Brand and Thorn grow as people and as warriors, and are integral to Yarvi’s mission as they travel half the world (a phrase magnificently shoehorned into the book at least five times) to the First of Cities, ruled by a new Empress. Thorn, now a supreme warrior, saves the new Empress from assassination by her uncle – and Brand helps. They come back the way they came. Brand and Thorn fall in love, but don’t know it. Then they do. Thorn saves the day by losing, Father Yarvi’s plans come to fruition and we learn not to trust him, Brand shows how much ofa good man he is, but a little late after doing a bad thing.
It’s a simple plot. It’s a physical journey from A toB and back to A, combined with an emotional journey for two character from X to Y. Its easy. Its good. Its exciting, its fun, it knows where its going, its commercial, it understands its audience and it is really fucking well written. In short, it is a brilliant book.
But Abercrombie can do so much more. As I rushed through the last 100 pages in one sitting this morning, I felt myself thinking how much the action scenes were just like The Heroes, how much the plot was as simple as Red Country’s journey, how the wisecracking and dialogue, and even the characters, were like Last Argument of Kings or Best Served Cold. Of course it makes commercial sense to do this. Abercrombie is pumping out a trilogy in 18 months. He’s written 8 books in 9 years. He’s got a family to provide for. But how long can I read well written fantasy that doesn’t challenge me?
The answer, of course, is forever. I love it. I love the style. I love the voice. But I still find myself wishing for Abercrombie to challenge himself, and challenge me. The Heroes, my favourite of his books, is my favourite because it is challenging. The story of one battle, over five days, in 500 pages. Its sublime and clever and a challenge to make the plot work. It’s lots of action, but it uses that to develop its multiple points of view. It has a world to fall back on, but it stands alone from it too. It is a great author marking his territory, pissing on his corner of the bookshop and saying ‘I am the best here at action and gritty realism in a secondary world, and now I’m going show off with some backflips and shit.’
Half the World isn’t The Heroes. It is an old dog doing an old trick – its still good fun, great fun in fact, but I’ve seen it before. Its unique, but unique to Abercrombie, and I’ve read seven others that do the same.
I’ll read Half a War, the conclusion of the Shattered Sea trilogy, when it comes out later this year, and I’ve no doubt I’ll love it just as much. By necessity, it will have to follow a similar pattern to the first two. By necessity, it will be an older dog, doing an older trick really, really well. But when its over, what do I want from my next Abercrombie? I want a clearly incredibly talented author to challenge himself. Stick within the genre, fine. Do what you do best, style wise, fine. But create a challenge for me, for you, for other readers. Add more magic, less action, more intrigue. Or hell, write a fucking romance in contemporary New York. A publisher will publish it, because you’ll write it well. I’ll read it, because it’s by you. Others will too.
It might be trash – the worst published thing you’ve written – but please, Mr. Abercrombie, just try it out, maybe? – try and fail, or try and succeed. Don’t become a Dean Koontz or a Trudi Canavan, writing solid stuff that will always sell, but essentially the same every time. Make me work for my pleasure. Piss in another corner of the bookshop.