Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea Trilogy

Shattered Sea Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, published in 2015 by Del Rey.

I've been quiet lately, but I just finished Half a War, the third book in Joe Abercrombie's YA The Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up the first novel in this series, Half a King. I really enjoyed his First Law Trilogy when I read it a couple of years back, in spite of finding a few bits and pieces problematic. I loved the way the author gave each pov character a distinct voice, narrative style, and personality and made me care about people I wouldn't like at all in real life.

I wasn't sure if his YA titles were going to be the same exact thing with teen protagonists, or if they were going to copy the style that dominates YA fantasy nowadays (nothing against it, but it's very different from Abercrombie's writing in some ways).

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The story is very different, but the world building is, if anything, deeper and more internally consistent than what appears in The First Law books and their sequels. The writing style is smoother and a little more consistent across characters, but each character still has their own voice and personality. Unlike a lot of YA fiction these days, the stories are written in limited third (and in past tense), but the narrative is so immersive that it feels as if the story is unfolding as it's read.

As for tone and style, there are fewer "f" bombs than in Abercrombie's adult fiction, but the characters still talk the way you'd expect warriors and sailors to talk. There's no dumbing down or sugarcoating anything just because the story is written with teens in mind. The protagonists have adult responsibilities thrust upon them (as one would expect in a war-torn, pre-industrial society), and they rise to the occasion convincingly without coming off as adults in teenagers' bodies.

One constraint placed on YA fantasy is the need to keep the story within a limited scope or time frame so the protagonists don't "age out" of the demographic as an epic tale or series unfolds. Abercrombie deals with this issue by changing viewpoint (pov) characters with each book. Half the World, takes place a few years later and follows two different viewpoint protagonists (not Yarvi, who was the protagonist in Half a King). Book three took place three years (more or less) after book two, and has three new and different pov characters.

This may be a bit frustrating to readers who prefer to stick with the same pov character/characters for an entire series, but in each case, the protagonists from the previous book appears as important secondary characters in the subsequent ones. The development of Yarvi's character across the series, as seen through the eyes of new povs, was particularly intriguing.

One thing that Abercrombie received some criticism for in his First Law trilogy was his treatment of women and the prevalence of rape and female victimhood as a plot element. Out of six pov characters in First Law, only one was female, and she was possibly the least developed of the bunch in terms of motivations and backstory. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, but it did bother me in a couple of places.

This was far less of an issue in the Shattered Sea Trilogy. While book one was more male-centric (only one character, who was male, had pov time), books two and three had well-developed female pov characters. The fantasy world portrayed wasn't a feminist utopia by any stretch, but women played an important role in the culture and society and all the female characters, viewpoint and secondary, had well-developed personalities, goals, and agency.

Another characteristic of this trilogy is that I found each book better than the one before it. I liked Half a King, really liked Half the World, and couldn't put Half a War down. The ending was satisfying and stand alone, but there's enough going on in this world that I'd be happy to read another book or series set in it if the author decided to write one. I'd love to learn more about who those "Elves" really were, though the narrative provided enough hints about their cities and artifacts for me to formulate some hypotheses of my own.

I recommend it to anyone who likes gritty, sword-and-sorcery style fantasy set in a low-magic world, centered around a culture that feels vaguely Norse. The writing is tight but full of voice, the pacing fast, the emotions intense, and the characters are flawed human beings who are nonetheless endearing.

Don't read below here if you don't want mild, non-specific spoilers/content warnings.

Things that may be issues for some readers: the stories contain a fair amount of gore, battle scenes with descriptions of injuries and death, slavery, some swearing, consensual sex that is less graphic than in the First Law trilogy (and endearingly awkward enough to remind us that the characters are teens), death of major characters, references to torture and mistreatment of prisoners. I don't remember rape being depicted or mentioned overtly in the story.

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