Book Review: Half a King (Joe Abercrombie)

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Half a King
by Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey (July 15, 2014)

When we first heard that Mr. Abercrombie was penning a young-adult novel, the kingdom grinded to a halt. The commonfolk were in an uproar. “Off to the torture chamber with him!” they cried, “Do whatever it takes to make him write a proper fantasy novel!”

An overreaction? Perhaps. Despite its success, young-adult fiction is a term that raises some crooked eyebrows among the hardcore fantasy and science-fiction readers, automatically likening the term to the avalanche of soppy vampire novels and raunchy love-triangle stories that plague the shelves. Sadly, it’s true that fantastic works such as Michael Grant’s Gone (2008) and Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass (2012) are lost under the rubble. But this is Joe Abercrombie we’re talking about here, and no amount of genre branding is going to stop him doing what he does best; writing blood-soaked, morally ambiguous fantasy in a dark world full of revenge, adventure and a never-ending onslaught of danger.

And Half A King is just that.

Prince Yarvi has suddenly become King Yarvi, once he learns of the deaths of both his brother and father. Thrown into a world of mockery, betrayal and people as cold as the land they live on, a cruel twist of fate finds him betrayed and sold into slavery, doomed to live and die on his knees. But we all know that an Abercrombie character isn’t going to buckle so easily. And so begins his quest to escape and make his way back home to reclaim his rightful throne, the throne he never actually desired.

The book doesn’t feel like an Abercrombie story. The cynical humor that once dominated the pages is hard pressed to find. Half A King seems to go for the less subtle approach, using phrases that are almost lyrical in structure. Oddly enough, as someone whose books deliberately subvert fantasy tropes, Half A King plays out a lot more like a traditional novel. Idioms such as “the cold has killed many a man” and “I have kneeled long enough” are frequently seen on the page. This is a dangerous ledge Abercrombie walks on, for a lesser writer would topple into cringe-worthy clichés and wooden dialogue. But not Abercrombie. Much like his blood-brother George R. R. Martin, these phrases never feel out of place; nor do they seem poorly fitted by the character who speaks them. This high-risk, high-reward prose works brilliantly, and is used only when it needs to be. There are still traces of dark humor, but it’s far less frequent.

Unlike his previous books, Abercrombie has snatched away all the bloodstained shoes that we could don, gaining the ability to see through the eyes of multiple characters. All the fat is trimmed, leaving our crippled hero Yarvi as the one and only point of view character. Abercrombie is more than capable of juggling half a dozen characters, but it’s nice to see him tighten his focus to a single protagonist. Doing so comes at a hefty cost, leaving Half A King at a bite-sized morsel of 80,000 words. This is a YA book after all. For the fantasy readers who are accustomed to their novels exceeding a quarter of a million words, this may sound unacceptable. But if you do feel that way, I’m happy to say that it felt exactly the right length, finishing exactly where it needed to finish. I definitely wanted more, but quality over quantity is a rare commodity in fantasy these days, and I was glad for the opportunity to read meat that wasn’t lavishly drowned in gravy.

But not a word of the 80,000 that Abercrombie has packed in is gone to waste. Bloodshed, witty dialogue, betrayal and hair-raising adventure is stuffed into every single page. In his other novels, there are always a moment or two for a respite. Not here. There’s never a single moment to stop and catch your breath. Danger is around every corner and behind every hill. Abercrombie is a master of maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the novel; a sense of dread that holds you in an iron-like grip and doesn’t let go.

To all those wringing your blood-spattered hands, worrying that Half A King is low on grim, gritty violence; worry no longer! Although it is definitely toned down a notch from The First Law, there is plenty of ultra violence to go around. Fingers are severed, throats are slit, and bones are crushed. This isn’t particularly new to the genre, but it’s definitely a cut above the average YA novel. So while the violence is lesser than that of, say Last Arguments of Kings (2008), the horrors of war and a city under siege is never glazed over, but nor is it ever glorified.

As per usual, all this comes with a dose of moral ambiguity. Characters are difficult to categorize as good or bad, especially when later events cast them in a new light. And while we all know who we’re rooting for, Yarvi gets his fair share of blood and grime on his hands too, and no deed ever goes unpunished. This quote sums it up rather nicely: “If life has taught me one thing, it’s that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best.”

While The First Law primary took place in a very Renaissance-esque Kingdom, the Shattered Seas has a far more Viking aesthetic to it. If anything, the Shattered Seas has a far harsher landscape, packed with frozen glaciers, snow-capped mountain, icy seas and the bitter wind. It feels like the polar opposite of his previous novels in almost every regard. From the heavy emphasis on gods and religion to the political climate and the land’s unique history, no traces of his other work has managed to trickle into this new world. It’s been conjured up completely from scratch. It’s a blank canvas that Abercrombie has started working with, and it’s definitely for the best. How often have recurring author-favorite tropes been spotted popping up out of nowhere across their body of work? Far too many. But you won’t find them here.

Half A King may not be Abercrombie’s best (that crown goes to The Blade Itself (2006)), but it’s his most significant one. As mentioned at the outset, the YA genre has become a groan-inducing term, inspiring nightmarish visions of rows and rows of cookie-cutter books, stuffed with sickly sweet teenage vampires in all their milk-and-watery prose. Readers don’t imagine it to be a wealth of fantastic literature, one that appeals to younger reader, but is not exclusively devoted to them. With Half A King, Abercrombie has done a damn fine job of eroding the barrier between adult and young-adult fantasy, something that more authors would do well to attempt. It’s been a gamble, but it’s one that’s worked out magnificently for all parties. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this much fun with a YA novel, and I’m anxiously waiting for the next installment in the Shattered Seas trilogy.

With the likes of Abercrombie on the throne, it’s a fine few next years, my friends.

Find below a selection of works by Joe Abercrombie:

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Jeremy Szal

About Jeremy Szal

Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared multiple times in Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Fantasy Scroll.