Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1)

I was pretty sure I’d like Half A King. My only concern was that it might be bloated in the way of epic fantasy, presenting me with a lot of words that may or may not add up to a considerable story. Not that I suspected Joe Abercrombie might deliver anything like that, but I only have one brilliant example of his work to draw from. I named Best Served Cold my favourite book of 2013, so I suppose I didn’t want to be disappointed and I wasn’t.

Half A King in fact presents a delightful economy of words. There is a lot of story packed into compact yet nuanced paragraphs. The set-up is not ponderous and the action begins quickly and excitingly, plucking the reader from the middle ground of: okay, I’ve read this before, but I’m enjoying Abercrombie’s twist, to: right, this is getting really interesting.

Abercrombie is not reinventing the wheel with Half A King. He’s relying on some tried and true tropes. I recognized the mythos as vaguely Norse only because I’ve read a lot of derivative fantasy. But this version is not so much based upon as loosely calved from a lore that’s familiar. This is an important distinction. First of all, it takes skill to build a sensible world. Second, a world must be sensible to make sense. Yes, I’ve read that over twice and I’m leaving it as written.

Abercrombie also shows wonderful restraint. At several points, his plot presented opportunities for further angst and confusion. He ignored these in favour of gifting the reader with a story that rests well on a carefully constructed journey, populated by full-fleshed characters. The book was interesting enough without the main character losing an arm or an eye or all his merry band at once. But Abercrombie did not waste the opportunity to twist his tale, throwing in an admirable flex just toward the end.

What’s the book about? It’s about a prince named Yarvi who grows up in the shadow of his more impressive brother and demanding father. Rather than be relegated to scrubbing the kitchen, however, he is given to the church and trained to be a minister to the throne. Before he can take his vows, his father and brother are killed and Yarvi ascends to the throne. All the reasons he should not be there are immediately obvious. He does not have the respect of his people, nor the stature of a warrior. In fact, with one of his arms deformed, his hand left with only two fingers, he cannot even hold a shield. Yarvi’s diminutive stature does not hide a feint heart, however. He stands tall to his challengers…until those challengers conspire to steal his throne.

Cast adrift in enemy territory, Yarvi quickly falls afoul of the man rumoured to have murdered his father and brother. He’s in no condition to fight Grom-gil-Gorm, the king of the Vansterman. Yarvi is collared and sold into slavery. From there, he is forced to use both his strength of will and wits to win free and to keep his promise to not only avenge his father and brother’s death, but reclaim his throne, the Black Chair.

This is where the merry band of misfits falls together and the epic journey begins. No fantasy novel could be complete without either and Abercrombie presents a wonderful interpretation here. As I mentioned before, he resists temptation to overdo the angst and draw out the drama, delivering instead a tight and taut tale of adventure that still allows room for character variety and development. I liked Yarvi’s character, but he wasn’t without his faults. I liked those, too. They were appropriate to his age and station, a blindness to the conditions of those below him and a conviction he has to do things for himself. Prove himself! Ultimately, he’s a good man and learns his lessons well.

Having only one other experience of the author’s work before starting Half A King, I did wonder how he would handle a book apparently aimed at a younger audience. Would I miss the cut-throat, bloodthirsty characters and plots I revelled in while reading Best Served Cold? I did not. Half A King has its share of harsh moments, but they’re not drawn out like intestines along a crank. Likewise, the language and attitudes of the characters are also toned down. Not watered down, simply less grisly, gruesome and in your face while still appropriate to the period, genre and story. I found the balance perfect, to be honest, and this only encourages me to read more of Abercrombie’s work. In short, his stories work for me. His characters speak to me. I’m as eager to continue reading the ‘Shattered Sea’ trilogy as I am to dive into his other books.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

 

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