I know, right? Humiliation? But I have been hunting for the right word as I try to explain to my husband what these books are like, and, really…the thing that is making them feel like something new is the way Joe Abercrombie humiliates his heroes. Or, if I’m looking at it from more of a craft perspective, the way he uses humiliation to force his characters to change and grow.
I’m only halfway through Book 2 of the trilogy–Half the World. But Abercrombie used the technique in Book 1, Half a King, and I don’t see any reason to expect he’ll stop using it in Book 3, Half a War (which is on my nightstand, next in line to be read). So far, the protagonists have changed with each book, although Yarvi–the half a king from Book 1–has a major role in Book 2. While still young, barely a couple of years older than Book 2’s heroes, Thorn and Brand, he spent Book 1 growing comfortable with the person he is and learning to move, as that person, with power and impact on the world. So far, Thorn and Brand seem to be working their way along that same character path.
In Half the World, Thorn is the only girl to practice on the battle field, determined to be so good that she is sent to war with the boys. Brand is one of the three boys assigned to fight her together and to contribute not only to her being ousted from the army, but being thrown into jail for murder. Brand, trying to be the person who stands in the light, tells the truth about what happened. He, too, has his dreams of glory and wealth taken from him, as well as his determination to stay in the light. He takes to drinking and ends up, all too often, vomiting in back alleys. Yarvi steps in and pulls both out of what seems to be the lowest moments of their lives….only to make them consider whether they were wrong about that, too. Their journey with him to seek allies for their king slams them down, then down again, then down AGAIN.
Skifr has been hired to train Thorn into the fighter she already believes she is. A training session:
…Thorn dodged, wove, sprang, rolled, then she stumbled, lurched, slipped, floundered. To begin with she hoped to get around the oar and bring Skifr down, but she soon found just staying out of its way took every grain of wit and energy. The oar darted at her from everywhere, cracked her on the head, on the shoulders, poked her in the ribs, in the stomach, made her grunt, and whoop as it swept her feet away and sent her tumbling.
And it keeps getting worse. Brand, too, is embarrassed by Skifr, but he manages to stay firm to his dreams of glory until he has his first actual battle. He continues to have nightmares about the man he kills and, between that and the misery of the journey itself, his dreams are scrubbed clean.
…There was nothing in the songs about regrets.
The songs were silent on the boredom too. The oar, the oar, and the buckled shoreline grinding by, week after week. The homesickness, the worry for his sister, the weepy nostalgia for things he’d always thought he hated….The chafing, the sickness, the sunburn, the heat, the flies, the thirst, the stinking bodies, the worn-through seat of his trousers, Safrit’s rationing, Dosduvoi’s toothache, the thousand ways Fror got his scar, the bad food and the running arses, the endless petty arguments, the constant fear of every person they saw and, worst of all, the certain knowledge that, to get home, they’d have to suffer through every mile of it again the other way.
But here’s the thing. For both Thorn and Brand, and for Yavri in Book 1, humiliation acts as a crucible. It burns all away all the things they thought they were and all the things other people thought they should be, leaving only the reality of who they truly are. And, most importantly, who they want to be. And at that point, Abercrombie builds them back up. He takes the strengths they already have and make them stronger. He shows them their flaws in full clarity until they come to accept them instead of fighting or hiding them. He hones them like one of Skifr’s swords–so sharp and so fast that she could, if she wanted, slice you open without your seeing or–for a second–feeling it. And from that new place, they become critical contributors to their team, dangerous threats to their enemies, and true friends to their companions.
For the first half of Book 1, I was merely intrigued. I’m used to flawed characters who get trashed because of their flaws, then have to meet and beat obstacles so that they can grow. But I’m not used to the flaw being a self-perception that, on the one hand borders on cockiness and, on the other has a core of self-anger and self-doubt. I’m not used to an author taking their egos down a notch at a time and managing to do that with both humor and empathy. And I am so much more than intrigued. I am fully immersed, cheering on Brand and Thorn, and welcoming the solid and true character that Yavri built himself into in Book 1.