The wind is harsh in Thorlby, capital of Gettland on the western shore of the Shattered Sea, and the news carried on the wings of the messenger birds is most often bad. Younger son of King Uthrik, Yarvi has never sought power nor the glory of battle: born with a deformed hand, his family have never forgiven him his infirmity which is why he was trained to enter the Ministry where his only friend is his ancient teacher Mother Gundring.
Yarvi’s eldest uncle Uthil, heir to the throne, died at sea years before, so Yarvi’s father in time became king, but now word comes that both he and his eldest son, Yarvi’s brother, are dead through the treachery of the warlord Grom-gil-Gorm of Vansterland, and staring at their funeral pyre Yarvi realises that he is now king of Gettland “until he was burned himself,” thrown into the royal court and betrothed to his cousin Isriun, daughter of his youngest uncle Odem.
Betrayed and miraculously surviving an assassination attempt, Yarvi finds himself in the hands of his enemies who fortunately fail to recognise him and sell him into slavery. On the high seas, as the lowest of the low, strapped to an oar on a merchant ship one step away from being a pirate vessel, Yarvi is able to become himself and for the first time in his life outside the chambers of Mother Gundring sees himself to be valuable, and even as the whitecapped waves take him further from his birthright he discovers the determination to reclaim what is rightfully his.
The first volume in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy to be followed next February with Half a World then conclude later in 2015 with Half a War, it is a departure from the realms of The First Lawin that it is aimed at a younger readership, but while it may be less graphically bloody and feature a younger protagonist in Yarvi, Abercrombie has not changed his style nor lost his wit or knack with plot and character.
With no pretension other than to entertain, it does this hugely well, though from Abercrombie nothing less would be expected as a breathless race across bitter, unforgiving wilderness reveals to Yarvi that he has not only associates but friends, a realisation whose corollary is that their closeness is defined by how likely they are to die together, but every time he is beaten down, Yarvi shows the cunning he learned watching his family from the shadows: “There are better things one can do with enemies than kill them.”
The prose is fast, the descriptions fleeting images of stone passages lit by torchlight flickering in the ever blowing wind, the characters are bold and vivid. While some events follow the standard fantasy quest template there are twists and surprises right until the final pages, and while entirely self-contained and with a satisfying conclusion, there are wider questions raised which will keep Yarvi and Abercrombie busy, of the uneasy border with Vansterland to the north, of the High King in Skekenhouse to the south and his interests in Yarvi’s family and inheritance, to say nothing of the legacy of the elves.
Like Richard Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes or Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, there are hints that the society who previously held the lands around the Shattered Sea may have been considerably more advanced than those who inhabit them now, their centuries old architecture still beyond comprehension, the description of their few extant artefacts, the elf-tablets, bearing a strange resemblance to circuit boards.