Joe Abercrombie- The new face of YA Fantasy?

Joe Abercrombie (aka @LordGrimdark on Twitter) is best known for his bestselling fantasy series, The First Law trilogy.

The success of his novels has shown that Abercrombie is certainly a name to remember, but his new Shattered Sea trilogy is a brave step into the YA market.

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On reading the blurb to Half A King, the first book in the series, I was instantly enthralled. On top of that, the number of positive reviews from renowned authors such as the great George R. R. Martin made me buy the hardback copy straight away. As an added bonus and an extra selling point, it was also signed.

Now, on reading Half A King, my first thought was “this is not what I expected.” I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then it hit me, it was YA fiction and, as I don’t read a lot of YA, I honestly had not expected it to be.

So, what exactly makes it YA?

  1. The content is tame compared to a lot of other Fantasy novels, including Abercrombie’s other works. Don’t get me wrong, it has glimpses of adult content- the trilogy is dotted with sex, swearing and fast-paced epic Fantasy style violence, but it is tame compared to your average Fantasy series. But this is not a bad thing as, sometimes, an implied act can be more powerful than the detailed description of one.
  2. The plot-line was not too complex, but had just enough layers to make it a well-formed and intelligent storyline. Please don’t take this the wrong way though, as this is not to say that the plot-lines of all YA novels are simple compared to works of Adult Fiction, but from my own reading experience this is often the case.
  3. Lastly, and most importantly, the writing style is younger. And yes, that does mean that it is more simple. Sorry guys, but there is no getting around it, YA is written in a more simple way than Adult Fiction. For example, here is the opening to one of the chapters in Half The World:

“Thorn pushed through a grumbling throng flooding into a temple for prayers. So many temples here, and so much crowding into them to pray.” page 263, Half The World.

While this is a fine way of introducing a scene, I can’t help but point out that, if this weren’t a YA novel, the above two sentences could have turned into a beautiful, detailed description of the hustle and the architecture. This is one of the main factors that makes this series YA and not Adult Sci-Fi Fantasy.

The romantic undertones of the books are also another way in which we can tell that it is a YA series. While you root for the characters and want them to be happy, I often felt let down at how obvious their feelings were. The way that their emotions are portrayed gives it a very high school feel, for example:

“He stood there, silent. Waiting. Looking. No bloody help at all. Just say it. How hard could it be? She’d killed men. Just say it.” page 366, Half The World.

The characters wear their hearts on their sleeves to the reader, which is both endearing one minute and frustrating the next. Throughout the series you want to be surprised by how the love stories turn out, but I’m afraid to say that I wasn’t surprised once.

The writing is furthermore simplified by Abercrombie’s use of repetitive phrases, and he is definitely a fan of repetitive phrases.

“They kept coming, battle cries a faint burble over the ringing in Raith’s ears. They kept coming, as men above stabbed with spears, flung rocks down, leant out to hack with axes. They kept coming, some kneeling with shields above their heads as steps while others clawed their way up the timbers of the makeshift wall.” page 352, Half A War.

You can definitely see what Abercrombie is trying to do here, but sadly it happens a bit too often for it to have any positive effect.

I realise that so far I’ve been quite negative about this trilogy, but the truth is that I loved it. The characters really are endearing, and the plot lines are wonderful and truly compelling, I just felt let down with the writing itself. Abercrombie created such a diverse and gripping fantasy world, similar to that of A Game of Thrones, and all I wish is that Abercrombie’s writing could have done his imagination justice, as it had the potential to be a truly epic series, on a par with A Game of Thrones itself. If only the writing had been as detailed and as complex.

What is the series similar to?

  1. Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence. If you’re a fan of this long fantasy series then definitely give the Shattered Sea a try. The characters that Abercrombie has created are similar to many of those in Lawrence’s novels and the writing style is of a similar YA vibe.
  2. Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine. If you enjoyed Caine’s The Great Library series, then the writing style of Abercrombie would certainly appeal to you. He has the same way of mixing simple sentences, which are very much YA in style, with the poetic and philosophical undertones that Caine achieves wonderfully. While the Shattered Sea books are much more of an epic fantasy style than Caine’s novels, it is the writing that is extremely similar.
  3. The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. Skara at times reminded me of Kelsea from this new series. If you liked following Kelsea coming to terms with what it takes to rule, then Abercrombie has created a very good series for you. It isn’t just Skara that bought to mind The Queen of the Tearling when I read the Shattered Sea books, but many of the characters are similar in their attitudes, traits and the way in which their thoughts are portrayed to the readers.
  4. The Rigante series, by David Gemmell. While less of a YA series in terms of content and writing style, anyone that loved the setting and plot of the Rigante books will enjoy reading about Thorn Bathu and Brand, for sure.
  5. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin. Ok, I firstly need to say that yes, I am aware that A Game of Thrones is certainly not, in any way, shape, or form, even close to a YA novel. The content in Abercrombie’s series is much, much tamer (which isn’t difficult, as practically all fantasy novels are tame in comparison to Martin’s works). The writing style is much, much more simple (again, given Martin’s reputation for extremely detailed writing and complex plots, this should not be a surprise). But overall the Shattered Sea books read as a YA version of A Game of Thrones. The world that Abercrombie is undeniably similar to that which Martin imagined up and made famous, so similar in fact that at times I often found myself confusing place names with those from A Game of Thrones itself. If you like the idea of an epic fantasy set in a world similar to that of A Game of Thrones, definitely read this and you will not be disappointed.

Half a King Map

One of the main reasons to read this series is the fact that the characters are both diverse and truly lovable.The main characters are as follows:

Half A King:

  • Yarvi is the main character of the first installment. He is the rightful king of Gettland, but is a cripple and therefore does not fulfill what is expected of him as the leading warrior of his country. Yarvi is the character that I felt I connected with the least throughout the series as his emotions fluctuate rapidly throughout the first book, and his goals never seem that consistent (apart from his quest for revenge). I didn’t particularly like Yarvi, but instead found him petulant and tiring.

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Half The World:

  • Thorn Bathu is one of the best female protagonists that I have ever encountered. We first meet her in training on the shore, eager to become a warrior and I immediately fell in love with her. Hard-headed, stubborn and completely defiant, for want of a better phrase, she’s pretty bad-ass. But it isn’t just that which makes me love her. It’s the fact that she is an underdog, right from the start. Her peers don’t respect her and deem her unfit to be a warrior because she is a female, doing everything they can to prove that she is not their equal. On top of that (SPOILER ALERT), Thorn’s trainer, Master Hunnan, forces her to fight three fellow trainees at once, meaning almost certain death for her. When Thorn ends up accidentally killing one of the trainees, Master Hunnan proclaims her a murderer, which is punishable by death. Thankfully for the story, she isn’t put to death, and we get to see her progress.

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We watch as she joins a crew and sails halfway around the world alongside Brand, a fellow trainee who lost his place as a warrior when he stood up for Thorn, trying to save her life. We watch as she trains to fight under the guidance of the mysterious witch Skifr, and as she defends the Empress Vialine, ruler of Skekenhouse, the most powerful city known, against five attackers at once. We watch as she becomes the Chosen Shield of Queen Laithlin, husband to the King of Gettland and Yarvi’s mother. We also watch as she comes face to face with Grom-gil-Gorm, a warrior who has been told that no man can kill him.

Thorn is passionate and feisty but she also has a lot of heart, which is shown through her feelings for Brand. The Thorn-Brand relationship is at times frustrating due to the lack of imaginative writing on Abercrombie’s part. For example, these inner dialogues with herself can be particularly trying:

“What do you mean like? Like, like like?” page 265, Half The World.

“Do you…like me? Like? Like?” page 266, Half The World.

It is this type of writing that makes the series distinctively YA. I understand why Abercrombie wrote scenes this way, as it does help to show a younger, more vulnerable side to Thorn and helps you to understand her insecurities. However, it gets a bit too teen angsty at times.

  • The story is also told from the perspective of Brand, who is one of the most lovable characters throughout the entire series. Brand is fair. Brand is righteous. Most of all Brand is kind. We love him from the start of the book, which is told through his eyes. He describes how unfairly Thorn is treated in training and you know immediately that there will be a romantic story arc involving the two of them. It’s obvious, but in a tantalizing, good way. Brand was told by his mother before she died to “stand in the light”, which he interprets as doing good wherever possible. He refers to his mother and his sister, Rin, a lot throughout their journey, and we soon learn about his extremely difficult past. For this we love him even more. The best way I can put it right now is that, all in all, Brand is a hero through and through.

I also adored reading his perspective when it came to his relationship with Thorn. While Thorn is nervous and naive in the way she thought about herself and Brand, he is simply very endearing. He is more down to earth in his thoughts and more open to the reader about how he feels. He loves and admires Thorn and his inner dialogue openly admits this throughout, whereas Thorn’s inner dialogue seemed to often not trust itself.

Half A War:

  • Koll, a young boy in Half the World, is now one of the main protagonists, and is a breath of fresh air. I liked Koll, and mostly due to the fact that he was openly fickle and a little selfish. I found the fact that he seemed so worried about his future very endearing and at times very, very funny. Koll is torn between marrying Rin, whom he has been sleeping with, and becoming a Minister like Yarvi (and thus swearing off women). As you watch his relationship with Rin become more and more complicated, you can’t help but feel for the young teen and the hard choices he has to make. But it’s the way he interacts with the other characters that is extremely entertaining. He is questioned often about which choice he may make and his responses are often blunt, lovably awkward or, and we know this thanks to his inner dialogue, flat-out lies.
  • Princess Skara of Throvenland is truly the main character of the third instalment in the series, and we meet her when she flees her home after it is taken by a warrior named Bright Yilling, the most honoured warrior of the High King. I’ll admit that, at first, I greatly disliked Skara. Compared to Thorn in the previous book, she seemed too timid and too naive. But soon Skara comes into her own as she is forced to make some difficult decisions and play the political game, all the while falling for her closest warrior, Raith. As Skara learns more and more about what it takes to become a Queen, she becomes truly cunning and sly and you watch as she gains the skills to use her enemies against each other. It kills me to say it, but (again, SPOILER ALERT) I found the love story between Skara and Raith very disappointing. Throughout the book it was probably the most well written romantic story arc in the whole series, as the reader is kept guessing in a true will-they won’t-they manner, but with just enough hints at a romantic outcome to keep you completely hooked. Their feelings for each other are also the most eloquently described and their inner dialogues about one another are at times quite beautifully poetic. But it leads to an anti-climax (again, if you haven’t paid attention to my warnings already SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT). Raith and Skara do not end up together. They almost do, but the story ends with Skara firmly telling Raith that she cannot marry him as, for the good of Throvenland, she should arrange a politically convenient marriage for herself. Joe Abercrombie HOW COULD YOU. There was not a love story in this series more believable than that of Skara and Raith and you have cheated your readers by ending it there. For shame!

Keep in mind that these are just the main characters and that there is a large and dynamic cast of others as well.

While at times the series felt a little too similar to A Game of Thrones for my liking, there was one main aspect in which it truly stood out, and that was the creation of elf magic. Throughout the series we learn that many thousands of years previous to the time in which it is set, elves walked the earth. The elves were extremely advanced, physically, socially and culturally. They used magic to create the strongest machinery, to create the most beautiful buildings that could withstand any type of attack and to forge magical weapons that could destroy any enemy. The legend in the series goes that there came a time when the elves waged war on the one true god, using their advanced and magical weaponry. In this war they broke the god, forming the Tall Gods which the likes of Yarvi and Thorn come to worship. However in the breaking of god, they also broke themselves, as they were wiped out entirely in this one act of defiance.

This concept of one god being split into many is another way in which the Shattered Sea books hold similarities with A Game of Thrones, as is the description of the elf ruins at Strokom, which certainly brought Valyria from A Game of Thrones to mind.

However, Abercrombie has done something quite ingenious with his elves of legend.

(Really, very seriously, SPOILER ALERT)

You see, when a company including Father Yarvi and Koll set out to the ruins of Stokrom in Half A War, they intend to uncover the elf weapons that had been there since the breaking of god. Elf weapons, they are told, that are magic and can kill any living being within seconds. Some people think that the use of elf magic is too dangerous, and warn the crew that the elves died for their advancement, as they got too far ahead of themselves and suffered the consequences. The crew are told to heed the fact that history often repeats itself and that having an advanced knowledge of weaponry, before people have had the chance to come to terms with it and the questions of morality surrounding it, could be fatal.

When they arrive at the ruined city and begin their search, Koll is in awe of what he sees and, as Abercrombie describes it to the reader, some interesting notes begin to strike a chord. Abercrombie first mentions extremely tall buildings made almost entirely from glass, which put me in mind of the modern-day skyscraper. Little things here and there reminded me of modern sliding doors and courtyards, and then he mentions paper. Paper is strewn across the floor, still there from when the elves vanished, still showing the elf writing on them. Paper rests on and inside a table, much like a modern-day desk. That is when it starts to creep up on you, the elves were modern human beings as we, the reader, know them. It hits home when they find the elf weapons which are described as long and thin, with a segment on one end as if to hold it out by your hand in front of you, with a small rotating drum and a barrel which fire shoots out of. They are guns. The elf relics are modern guns. 

This realisation blew me away, and I hadn’t seen it coming for a single minute. It changed the way in which I viewed Abercrombie’s world entirely and made the argument that history repeats itself really strike home. Is this what Abercrombie wanted us to think about? Is this perhaps a warning that modern-day humans are becoming too advanced too quickly, before having the awareness and understanding to use our knowledge safely? Is it a critique on the way in which weaponry has advanced over the previous years?

You could view it in any or all of these ways, but I found this subtly commentary on human nature extremely moving and very profound.

I know that I’ve been a little harsh on Abercrombie’s writing style, but at times he came out with some wonderfully touching and profound words of wisdom.

As an ending note, one of my favourite quotes is from Skifr in Half a War:

“Rejoice in what you have. Power, wealth, fame, they are ghosts! They are like the breeze, impossible to hold. There is no grand destination. Every path ends at the Last Door. Revel in the sparks one person strikes from another…They are the only light in the darkness of time.”  page 416, Half A War.

To conclude, Joe Abercrombie has created a great little YA fantasy series. One which shows his prowess in the YA world, and clearly demonstrates that he could easily become a master of romantic fantasy.

Good job, Joe.

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