Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
The work of Joe Abercrombie holds a special place in my reading heart. The Blade Itself was the first book I ever picked up “blind” from the bookstore. I was new-ish to the fantasy book landscape, I had recently devoured a trilogy recommended by a friend and I was eager for new blood. I’ve been a huge Abercrombie fan ever since and have devoured each of his new adventures in the First Law setting. But you won’t find any bald magi or meddling banks here, no Eaters, no drunk, swash-buckling mercenaries. After a trilogy and three stand-alone titles Abercrombie is taking us to a new world in in a new market.
Prince Yarvi is the youngest son of the King of Gettland. Born with a disfigured hand he is seen as worthless by his father and instead has chosen to lead the life of a minister, a warrior of the mind rather than muscle. But the murder of his older brother and father puts Yarvi in the last place he thinks he should be (the throne). He eventually comes into his own group of strangers and with their help discovers his true place in life on the Shattered Sea.
Admittedly, the plots of Abercrombie’s books are typical fantasy blended with other genres (quest, western, revenge, soldier at war, for example). Half a King isn’t anything drastically new. It’s a bildungsroman/coming-of-age tale where a young protagonist rises into a role that was far beyond his reach when the book starts.
Even the setting is pretty standard Viking-fare and is exactly what you might picture. Although special mention goes to the history and religion, which are more interesting than any storm-tossed sea or Viking longboat. There is a welcome break as our prince reaches the desolate, arctic north and was forced to trudge in hip-deep snow. It’s just unfortunate that it came so late in the book.
But there is something more important than plot or setting.
Abercrombie shines in his portrayal of real, honest characters. Prince Yarvi will rightfully be taking his place amongst the expertly crafted characters of his First Law books. From the onset you feel for this young boy with a crippled hand, as he is unable to live up to the warrior-dominant culture. Each step is filled with mounting hardships as he goes on a personal journey and I couldn’t help but root for him at each turn and feel the pain of his burden along the way.
But that isn’t what Joe Abercrombie is known for, although it should be. Instead, he’s widely regarded as being a writer of “grimdark.” That is, he’s unafraid to showcase a world of “grittiness” and “realism.” Violence and sex are as common as normal dialogue in these novels (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is another example) and Abercrombie never shied away from showcasing the seedier side of his world.
Thankfully he tones it down for Half a King, a novel geared toward the Young Adult market. It’s still a brutal world and there is plenty of action to go around, it’s just not as blatant or gruesome. This played closer to my own tastes as I can only take so much doom and gloom in my entertainment before it gets ridiculous.
Half a King captures our attention with Prince Yarvi from the onset. But it is a good quarter of the book before the plot kicks into gear enough to really grab interest. Once it does, it sinks those teeth in and refuses to let go until you finish the book. It’s a breath of fresh air from an author who made his mark in a single world and I’m looking forward to venturing back onto the Shattered Sea with the next installment.
“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”
Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.
The deceived will become the deceiver.
Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.
The betrayed will become the betrayer.
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.
Will the usurped become the usurper?
But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.