Ah, grimdark. The nihilistic fantasy genre filled with bleak lands scarred by endless war; nonstop death, torture and rape; despicable antiheroes and other morally ambiguous characters. Oh, and blood. Lots of blood.
Joe Abercrombie is a pioneer in grimdark with his acclaimed “First Law” trilogy, so much that he is known as “Lord Grimdark” online. His writing, along with George R.R. Martin and other authors like Mark Lawrence and Richard K. Morgan have transformed fantasy from the sunny optimism of Tolkien, Eddings and Brooks into a grittier style that seems to mirror the troubles the world faces today.
Which makes Half the World (and its predecessor, Half a King) surprising. The book is almost a refutation of grimdark.
Or at least a serious lightening of the mood.
Yeah, it is set in a bleak land scarred by war, in this case between Gettland and its neighbor Vansterland. And there’s plenty of death, starting with an accident during a training sequence with young, would-be warriors (this is YA, so the rape is gone, but there is some implied torture, or at least ill treatment). Ambiguous antiheroes? They’re here too, from the bureaucrats that pull the invisible strings of leadership to the grizzled veterans and warrior kings.
But unlike most grimdark, Half the World has something important hope. Once Ned Stark’s head exited his body in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the reader knew that things were going to get pretty bleak and stay that way. But in Half the World, things are looking pretty good, or at least hopeful. Despite all the political machinations and death (and there is lots of death) it never feels like the books protagonists will do anything but succeed.
Half the World is the second entry in his Viking-themed YA trilogy, “The Shattered Sea”, following last year’s bestseller, Half a King. And while it shares similar themes and some characters, the book is not an immediate sequel.
While Half a King followed deposed, deformed king Yarvi on his quest for vengeance and to reclaim his throne in Gettland, Half the World picks up several years later. Yarvi is now a minister to his uncle, the rightful king, and is busy playing politics against the ministers of the High King, the absolute ruler of the Shattered Sea. Gettland is a small nation, plagued by external threats from its neighbors, but due to Yarvi’s mother’s economic prowess, the nation is also the wealthiest in the Shattered Sea.
And the High King and his ministers want that wealth, and are working behind the scenes to take it, by force if necessary.
But that is all background. The focus of the story is on Thorn, a girl who, inspired by the heroic deeds and death of her father, wants to become a warrior. After accidentally slaying a fellow trainee during her final test to become a warrior, she is condemned as a murderer. Rescuing her from execution, Yarvi takes her under his wing and grooms her as the instrument of his machinations, and offers her the opportunity to avenge her father’s death, accompanying Yarvi on a series of critical and dangerous diplomatic missions. Throw in another would-be warrior named Brand, who wants desperately to be a hero but is plagued by a conscience, and Abercrombie has a thrilling page-turner with plenty of action, revenge and, unlike most grimdark, heart.
Abercrombie effectively subverts the genre with this novel everyone emerges bloodied, but not unbowed, romance blossoms in the most unlikely places, as well as the meet-cute obvious places, and even as the forces surrounding Gettland mass to drag the nation into massive war, there is never the feeling of hopelessness that is probably the biggest defining characteristic of grimdark.
That’s not to say the book doesn’t have flaws. Thorn and Brand’s relationship is choreographed from the first page, and Thorn’s prophetic battle with her father’s killer is blatantly lifted from The Return of the King.
But Half the World is still a thrilling read and, hopefully, the beginning of a trend that strikes a middle ground between grimdark’s realistic pessimism and the joy of fantasy adventures of old.
Half the World hits stores on Tuesday, Feb. 17. ~~ Michael Senft