Book Review – Joe Abercrombie – “Half a King”

In his previous six novels, starting with The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie introduced us to characters who were neither good nor evil, but morally gray. These characters exist in a grim, dark world at war, where bleak cynicism is worn on the sleeve of just about everyone the reader encounters. Were these books to be turned into a television series, here in the US they’d be rated TV L S V (for Language, Sex and Violence). They are full of adult content and themes, and they are some of my favorite pieces of fantasy fiction.

So it was with a great deal of excitement and some trepidation that I ordered Half a King from netgalley.com for the purpose of providing a review. This would be Abercrombie’s first foray into writing a young adult novel, and while he has commented on his own blog about what that means to him, it’s a departure from a style that has created a frothing fanbase ready for the next bloody adventure. Can Abercrombie refine the raw for a new audience, while keeping enough of the grimness that has brought him such success?

Let’s find out.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about influences and inspirations. While reading Half a King, I recognized several different pieces of literature that influenced or inspired Abercrombie in telling this tale. To name a few: Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series, Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, Lois McMaster Bujold’s character Miles Vorkosigan and even a nod to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.  Abercrombie deftly pulls these pieces together to tell a well-worn tale, a coming-of-age story containing oaths, revenge, bloody battles and—something also new to Abercrombie’s works—hope.

Update – Since the publication of this review, Abercrombie has commented on Twitter that of the influences I mention, he has only actually read one, and that after Half a King was written. I should not have assumed to know what the writer has read or attempted my psychic powers to determine what influenced him. I apologize for that. Perhaps the proper wording would be to suggest that readers will recognize in this story characters, themes and events from other tales in fiction. This reader did.

Prince Yarvi is handicapped, born with a maimed left hand. In a realm full of fighters—akin to Vikings—he is an outcast. He cannot hold a shield, and so he pursues the path of a Minister, adviser to kings. But before he can take the Minister’s test, his father and brother are killed. Thrust into the role of King, Yarvi vows to avenge those who killed his father. Little does he know that his oath will lead him on an adventure spanning several countries, where he will befriend those he would normally have shunned, and lead him back home a changed man.

The story itself is a common one, as many coming-of-age stories are. Getting Yarvi from point A, our weak but lovable protagonist, to point B, our clever but still lovable protagonist, is the goal. Yarvi is a new type of character for Abercrombie. In his previous novels, getting from point A to point B typically involved put an axe through someone as quickly as possible. The shortest distance between two points typically involved the edge of a sword. But Yarvi isn’t a fighter; he’s a thinker. The knowledge he has gained in training for the Ministry is extremely useful as he collects allies who become friends along the way.

This is where we start to see Abercrombie hone his craft. Some will lament that this is not “an Ambercrombie book” but I think they’re missing the point. Abercrombie’s trademarks are still here: you’re still right in the midst of the action; you’ll feel the punch that dislodges teeth; you’ll hear the whistle of the blade that just misses its target. There’s blood here. It’s PG-13 blood, but Yarvi leaves his fair share of desolation in his wake. Not to the level of the Bloody Nine, but only Death himself could equal such devastation. No, what you’re going to learn here is that Abercrombie can write compelling characters, can give us characters who do more than kill without asking questions and actually care about the welfare of others. While the rawness is toned down, there’s still an edge.

In summary, if you’re an Abercrombie fan who’s been leery about having your teen read any of his previous works, then this is a wonderful introduction for them. They are going to be entertained. If you’re an Abercrombie fan looking for just more of the same, you’ll need to come in with your eyes open. This isn’t more of the same, but it is evidence of an author growing his boundaries and improving his art. I enjoyed Half a King and look forward to the next book in the series.

I’m also one of the frothing fanbase that will eagerly anticipate Abercrombie’s return to the dark, grim, bleak worlds he imagines… but with greater expectation for the tales he’ll tell.

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