Humiliation in Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea Trilogy

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.





Roshani Chokshi: In Which I Go Down the Fantasy Genre Action & Philosophy Rabbit Hole

I was griping on Facebook the other day about needing some new fantasy novels to read, and a FB friend recommended Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes. I hadn’t realized until I looked up Chokshi that she is also the author of Aru Shah and the End of Time, the first book in her middle-grade series and the first book published by Rick Riordan’s new imprint. That’s been on my to-read list for a while, and I’m bumping it up to the top as soon as I finish A Crown of Wishes.

I love fantasy novels. The Hobbit probably started me off. It was the first book I ever cried over–I remember sitting up when I was 12, after everyone else in the house had gone to bed, and whole-body sobbing as…!!SPOILER ALERT!!…Bilbo said goodbye to Thorin. (Do NOT get me started on Thorin in the movie version; what were you thinking, Peter Jackson?) And then, in high school, I discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and I was a goner. In the past decade or two…young-adult authors have been adding brilliant worlds and works to the genre. Kristin Cashore. Sarah J. Maas. Laini Taylor. Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, just to name a few. I’ll take a leap and add Joe Abercrombie, even though, so far, I’ve only read Half a King

And, now, Roshani Chokshi.

I like beautifully written, fun, fast-moving fantasy stories. Throw in some humor–even better. I love strong world-building, and if you throw in a bit of philosophy to the mix, you’ve got me.

As long as the balance is right. If you lean too far toward the philosophy, with the action as a side-note, I’m gone. Keep things moving, keep me intrigued by the character’s actions and reactions, as well as their life-view…yes!

It’s not that easy. Terry Pratchett does it brilliantly, especially in his Tiffany Aching books. (I sobbed as hard, if not harder, with The Shepherd’s Crown as I did with The Hobbit.) Kristin Cashore rocks it, especially in Bitterblue (which I talked about here.) And Roshani Chokshi has mastered it.

Chokshi has set herself an extra challenge, I think, by setting her stories in a world where magic has layers and layers and where, when you step into the magic world, the shields (or scabs) you have built up around your vulnerabilities are ripped away. Chokshi’s magic gets into your mind and plays games, it grabs onto the big thoughts–the foundation of who you are and how you see things–as well as the smaller, not-fully-developed thoughts that flutter across that foundation to both threaten and promise. There are sections, long passages and chapters, where Chokshi’s characters essentially swim in this disorientation, sometimes struggling to even stay afloat. And you swim with them.

So many books, when they reach for this place, this kind of storytelling, get lost. As a reader, you feel swamped by beautiful words that are all thoughts, all philosophy. Often they are thoughts that are true to the characters the author has created, but–in the end–they are still just thoughts. Chokshi tiptoes up to the edge, she skims over its shore, but she never once falls in.

Chokshi’s characters are, much like Cashore’s Bitterblue, characters of the mind. The core of their being is the way they think–they way they see the world around them and the way they see their place within that world. It’s why they are so at risk–if the magic gets their minds, it gets their selfs. And so they fight it. And, I think, it’s the resistance that makes them so strong and that keeps Chokshi’s books concrete, active, and powerful. They have quests that force them into the magic and, to achieve those quests, they step in. Deeply. They immerse themselves in the magic as long as they need, and then…they jump back. Or draw swords against it. Or laugh at it. They grab for the pieces of magic they need to move forward; they dispose of the pieces that don’t. The magic is the vehicle for Chokshi’s characters; the characters are not simply vehicles for the magic.

Read any or all of the books I’ve talked about in this post. Just make sure you include Chokshi’s stories on the list. And cross your fingers that she has many more coming.