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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
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Book Name: Half a King
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher(s): Del Rey
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: July 15, 2014

Half a King isn’t the book that proves Joe Abercrombie’s skill. Those credentials were long established with the First Law trilogy, which turned our expectations on their heads and introduced a new way to explore fantasy storytelling. What Half a King does is remind us that it’s not the violence or occasional profanity that has made Abercrombie such a tour de force – it’s his perceptive ability to craft characters, and to tell stories that show us all the nooks and crannies that make them more than just characters on a page.

Abercrombie’s exploration of the fantasy genre is nothing new. With his debut trilogy under his belt, Abercrombie began blending his fantasy tales with other genres – Best Served Cold is a revenge novel that just happens to be set in the same world as his First Law trilogy. The Heroes is Abercrombie’s take on a war novel; Red Country is a fantasy western. But as the first book in a young adult trilogy, Half a King faced a different challenge than its predecessors. Take the violence, complexity and world-weariness from Abercrombie’s adult fare and what do you get? It’s impossible to say, as Half a King keeps all the traits that make Abercrombie so special, earning its place beside his previous works.

After reading Half a King, it’s clear that too much was made of the book’s “young adult” description. The general tone isn’t quite as bleak as Abercrombie’s previous tomes, but make no mistake – this isn’t a watered-down version of his previous novels. Much like Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country, it’s merely a tweak in the formula.

Rather than telling the story from a variety of viewpoints, the story is told entirely from the perspective of Yarvi, a young prince who was born with a disfigured hand, a weakness that doesn’t sit well with the rest of the warrior society he lives in. Trained to become a minister (a sort of royal advisor/healer), Yarvi’s plans are drastically altered when his father and brother are killed, leaving Yarvi to serve as the new king and avenge his father and brother. But treachery soon strikes, and he’s left to rely upon a cast of misfits in his quest to regain a throne he’d never wanted in the first place.

What makes Half a King so successful is that Abercrombie doesn’t pull his punches just because it’s a young adult novel. Like all of Abercrombie’s books, bad things happen and violence ensues. It’s a hard world, filled with hard people, and Abercrombie doesn’t shy away from it, using much the same gallows humor that allows his work to transcend constant tragedy. Yarvi’s mysterious friend Nothing is a perfect conduit for Abercrombie’s voice, providing either world-weary exhaustion:

“Pick your enemies more carefully than your friends,” Nothing was muttering at the flames. “They will be with you longer.”

Or the grim humor that makes Abercrombie’s work so readable:

“What is the world coming to when an honest man cannot burn corpses without suspicion?” asked Nothing.

The villainous Shadikshirram provides an interesting antagonist, reminding me just a bit of one of my favorite recurring Abercrombie characters, Nicomo Cosca, and Sumael provides yet another example of Abercrombie’s ability to create strong female characters. Yarvi himself is an interesting protagonist who is likeable but clearly flawed, and not just because he was born with a deformed hand.

When we first meet Yarvi, he’s living in fear of everyone, including his father, his brother, his mother and the warriors sworn to defend him and his family. As the story progresses, we get to see the cleverness (and the occasional sarcasm) that make him reminiscent of Tyrion Lannister, relying on wit to get him out of the jams he hasn’t the physical capacity to overcome with a blade. His cunning and courage make him likeable, even if he often must be manipulative to achieve his ends. Despite the young adult label, Abercrombie doesn’t go easy on his protagonist. When Yarvi makes decisions that get people killed, he doesn’t flinch away from it – he forces our hero to take account and accept responsibility. In this way, Half a King is very much like every other story Abercrombie has written – it’s an adventure yarn that also happens to be a character study.

Abercrombie’s ability to create characters such as Yarvi who leap off the page is the key to his success, and that’s not likely to change, regardless of whether he’s writing for adults, young adults or children. I enjoyed reading Half a King, and I’m looking forward to Half the World (due for release in February 2015) and Half a War (Fall 2015). But the more I think about the book, the more I like that it simply reveals a truth about Abercrombie and all the other elite writers of fantasy fiction working today: it’s not the blood or the violence or the adult themes that make these tales so special – it’s their ability to draw us into their fantasy world with engaging characters and a touch of wordplay.

Half a King isn’t the book that proves Joe Abercrombie’s skill. It just reminds us which of his skills we truly ought to treasure.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Ben says:

    I couldn’t help to compare this book to Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire with the young protagonist and his band of Ne’er-do-wells. And I found that Half A King was a million times better. Yarvi was more believable as a 13-14 year old teenager thrust into this situation and depended much more on the adults around him and through that I found Half a King much more entertaining.

  2. Avatar Johnnyboy says:

    I dunno Honourous Jorg Ancrath is a lot more cunning and unpredictable. Yarvi just goes with the flow for a lot of this novel whereas Jorg makes his own plans and does anything to make them work, so I found him more entertaining. It would have been interesting to see what Yarvi could have done with more resources. You never see him really manipulate events and twist people to his will on a grand scale. Both excellent books though.

  3. Great review! I don’t normally go for YA but I couldn’t help reviewing this book on my blog as well, because I enjoyed it so much. It’s got a gripping plot, EXCELLENT characters (Shadikshirram was my faaaavourite), and clever world-building. I haven’t read the First Law trilogy yet, but I’d planned to buy them and get them signed at FANTASY FACTION’S GRIM GATHERING TODAY WHOOOOO!! Can’t wait.

    I agree with the above ^ comment, I do think Jorg in general is more cunning than Yarvi, but the only reason is because Jorg’s childhood trauma has made him verge on psychopath, and for him everything is Win Or Die so the stakes are much higher. Yarvi, however, is struggling simply to fit in with normal society, so the scope of his cleverness is only to allow him to be viewed as equal, not necessary above all others like Jorg. But when the alternative IS death, Yarvi really came into his own.

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