Review: Half A King
HALF A KING (Amazon) by Joe Abercrombie is one of the most hyped novels of the year. Check out some of the author blurbs and you’ll see what I mean. Patrick Rothfuss, Rick Riordan, Robin Hobb, and Brent Weeks are among the fantasy heavyweights heaping praise on the novel. When Abercrombie first announced HALF A KING I was anxious. He’s my second favorite author and my very reason for returning to the fantasy genre, but I couldn’t see how well his brutal wit and grim perspective would translate to a YA novel. You’ll no doubt notice that this review has been filed under “Books We Love,” but it didn’t start out that way.
HALF A KING is the story of Yarvi, the younger son of the king of Gettland. With only one good hand Yarvi has chosen to embrace the path of a minister rather than that of a warrior. The murder of his father (the king) and brother (the natural heir) sees Yarvi ascend to the throne. He is looked upon with contempt by his people for a perceived weakness, but he takes an oath to avenge his family regardless. Betrayed in his quest for vengeance Yarvi must use the greatest and only asset at his disposal (his mind) in order to defeat his enemies and reclaim what is rightfully his.
Because I read this on my Amazon Kindle I was able to track my progress through the novel in percentages. It was also in percentages that I noticed HALF A KING gradually improve. I will openly admit that I was underwhelmed by the first 20-25% of the novel. Yarvi had all the makings of a true Abercrombie hero. He was unconventional and bore a physical handicap and he had suffered as a result. Still, Yarvi had a vanilla flavor that matched the rest of the beginning of the book. The setting of HALF A KING, the Shattered Sea, is has the trappings of a “Viking saga” (as author Myke Cole points out in his blurb) but there’s little to differentiate this world from any other generic Norse-inspired fiction, save for the religion. The beginning fifth of the novel is too YA for my liking, it’s like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON without dragons. It doesn’t read like Abercrombie. It reminded me why I was reading books like THE BLADE ITSELF (EBR Review) when other kids my age were still carrying around the latest Charlie Bone book. And yet…
“What can you think about a cause,” muttered Jaud, “when all the decent folk stand on the other side?”
And yet it gets better. I continued reading because Abercrombie has never failed me before. The further I got into the novel the easier it became to forgive the bland opening. With each new conflict Yarvi encounters he became more and more compelling. It got to the point where I started thinking of him as Yarvi Sevenfingers or The Bloody-Seven (no small compliment given I consider Logen of The First Law Trilogy my all time favorite character). In Yarvi exists the literary-DNA of Abercrombie’s former protagonists, and still he manages to stand on his own merits. He may not be a great warrior but he is a formidable thinker and the lessons he learnt from his mother (the queen and treasurer) and the king’s minister (his mentor) frequently pop up over the course of the novel. Yarvi matures over the course of HALF A KING, growing from naive boy to wise man in a short amount of time. It is an extremely satisfying character arc, one of Abercrombie’s best.
“What is the world coming to when an honest man cannot burn corpses with suspicion?” asked Nothing.
The other characters come to distinguish themselves as Abercrombie characters as well, especially Sumael, Shadikshirram, and the man they call Nothing. Sumael channels two of Abercrombie’s extremely strong female characters, Ferro (The First Law Trilogy) and Shy South in RED COUNTRY (EBR Review). Shadikshirram brought to mind the fan favorite mercenary captain Nicomo Cosca in BEST SERVED COLD (EBR Review). And then Nothing… well I won’t ruin that for anyone. Yarvi forms strong bonds throughout the book, assembling quite a band of misfits on his quest. The cast is colorful and tinged with the sadness that permeates Abercrombie’s work and makes for such believable characters.
The plot is largely reactive throughout the novel but once the final third kicks HALF A KING is impossible to put down. Updating my companions as I read the novel I went from “not impressed” to “getting interested” to “not bad” to “hooked” and finally “bravo!” There are a series of twists and betrayals — the first is predictable but the rest will shock you. The violence so common in Abercrombie novels is toned down. Combat takes a backseat to cunning and negotiation, though it is by no means absent. As always the case when he writes fighting, the edges are sharp and there are no winners… only survivors. Losses present new opportunities and victories are generally Pyrrhic. There are consequences for each and every action and it is this that Abercrombie expresses so well above all other genre writers. Even his YA novel has elements of Greek tragedy and moral ambiguity, understated though they may be in the midst of his other work. This and humor. The wit on display is as dark and sharp as ever, and this is what finally won my affection.
Starting out I was not a fan of HALF A KING. I saw my worst fears for the book realized but I stuck with it and my patience paid off. I wish that the book had been written twice the length as some scenes seem to end abruptly and I would have appreciated more world building. But HALF A KING isn’t a novel about setting so much as it is about character, and character is something it has an abundance of. It is also perhaps the most film-friendly Abercrombie book to date. Given the current popularity of movie adaptations of YA books I can see this one getting the big screen treatment (and what a breath of fresh air that would be in the midst of all these yawn-inducing dystopias). I would hesitate to call HALF A KING a masterpiece (and it’s still not my favorite Abercrombie novel) but I love it anyway. It starts out like a typical YA novel but transforms into something much greater. I can see this being a gateway drug for new readers. And who knows, HALF A KING is but the first in a trilogy and the end of the novel sees some interesting developments on the horizon.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: Nothing worse than you get on prime time television
- Violence: The level of detail in the violence is on par with THE HUNGER GAMES though there is considerably less of it and the consequences are far greater
- Sex: There's some hand holding, that's about it