Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
Shattered Sea Book 1
Publisher: Del Rey
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 8th July 2014
I’ve been fortunate to have a recent run of phenomenal books. Like several of the novels I last read, Half a King took me a moment to get into. With a new fantasy story there is always a period of getting used to the universe and its style within the spectrum of the genre. This was also my introduction to Abercrombie and his style, so I had no expectations or baseline measurement entering in. For the first chapters the tone set in and I worried a bit. Half a King is a high fantasy, told in a universe of Western Medievalesque culture/political systems that are the traditional standard of the field. Though elves and magic are mentioned, these amount to legends of the distant past (with hints that this may in fact be technology – perhaps of our civilization). The story at this point is set realistically, and is set up in a straight-forward manner.
Prince Yarvi is studying to be a minister, a career of academics and serving as advisor to those who rule. With a nod to some classic fantasy series, Yarvi is a cripple, born with a half-hand. Physically deformed and weak, intellectually-inclined, and lacking a personality of confidence or leadership, Yarvi has no ambitions or plans to ever rule. However, the sudden death of his elder brother and their father the king suddenly forces the ill-prepared Yarvi into the role of ruling.
This set up had me fearing that the novel would proceed rather predictably, down a simple path of Yarvi gaining confidence in ruling, and showing how his shrewd mind was more important than battle prowess and physical intimidation. The relatively short length of the book also left me wondering just how much could be accomplished on any epic scale.
After these first chapters, however, a curve is thrown to Yarvi and the plot, sending our protagonist down a different path. Still one of personal growth, of finding his confidence and an ability to lead, the story quickly became far more captivating than I first expected. I fell in love with this world and with the character of Yarvi, despite the familiarity of his situation.
Abercrombie succeeds in making Yarvi’s story compelling through a couple of aspects. The first is by making this feel like an epic fantasy despite being short. (Originally thought to be a stand-alone novel, it is now clearly to be expanded into a series.) The plot is focused on Yarvi and the friends and adversaries he meets directly. But Yarvi’s personal and political struggles are set within a richly formed universe. Abercrombie puts in many details of the world-at-large and its culture, including religion and the afore-mentioned elven relics of a previous age. At first the many details inserted into the narrative seemed to be a way of making Half a King ‘sound’ like a fantasy, akin to inserting lots of foreign-sounding technical words into a SF novel. Abercrombie’s skill quickly became clear though, that this is setting up a sense of epic within the confines of this single small story. The history and characters of the offscreen larger world become clearer as the novel draws to a close and ties into what has occurred to Yarvi, giving the reader the sense of something epic and well constructed. Along these same lines, Yarvi’s story extends through a significant period of time and drastically-changing circumstances, but Abercrombie makes this flow realistically and naturally across the pages.
The second aspect to Half a King‘s success is Abercrombie’s tone. The book is written with a voice that fits Yarvi to a tee, with shades of being archaic and Medievalesque fitting to the universe, but not overtly or comically so as some genre books can get. There is a lyrical quality to the writing, helping this story to go by with fantastic pacing and being engrossing all the way. The novel is marketed under the Young Adult umbrella. As is often the case, this is largely due to the protagonist being a young adult. However, it is also the tone and content. Though featuring violence and talks of a sex, they are treated quite tamely, making this a PG sort of adventure story. The work is also pervaded with a sense of optimism, a resilience to survive, and a joy for the beautiful moments in life. This makes it a fine counter to the more pessimistic fantasy of something like A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet, despite the optimism, the novel continues to be believable and relatable, peppered with loss, disaster, and cruelty. With themes such as honor, promises, confidence, and loss, Half a King is ideal for a young fantasy reader, but shouldn’t be limited to that audience.
Half a King has been featured on “Best of” lists for summer reading and garnered significant advance praise. Whether fantasy is your thing or not, the novel stands well as a coming-of-age story that should captivate you and whet your appetite to learn more about this world in which Yarvi lives.