Half A King by Joe Abercrombie
|Book Name:||Half A King|
|Formatt:||Hardback / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Young Adult Fantasy|
|Release Date:||July 2014 (Out Now!)|
Fantasy is a genre often slated for being stale by those with reading interests outside of it. Popular authors are pointed at and told they just repeat the same kind of book over and over. However, as the majority of you will know, when genre authors do break away from the formula that has seen them rise to popularity, the first question fans throw at them is ‘when are you returning to [insert name of World here]?’ Brent Weeks, Trudi Canavan, Garth Nix, J.K. Rowling being just a few recent examples…
Joe Abercrombie has found a very good way around this problem. The Sunday Times bestselling author has been able to pursue his creative needs – to write novels within a variety of different genres – and yet kept his loyal fan-base happy by ensuring that the varying locations, characters and plots have shared common lore across each of his six novels.
To break this down: The First Law Trilogy was your Tolkien-inspired fantasy trilogy; an epic tale that features a long journey where the characters all grow and change massively. Best Served Cold was a revenge thriller where you follow someone wronged with the questions of ‘will she find them?’ and, if she does, ‘just how bad is she gonna mess them up?’ keeping you turning pages. The Heroes was a military novel that got deep down into the trenches with those fighting a war. And, most recently, (A) Red Country was your classic Western; full of action, chases and yet isolation; with swords/knifes instead of guns.
All that said, when the world was told Joe Abercrombie would be writing a Young Adult novel it gave many of us pause. Yes, Joe has successfully written in four different genres to date, but it is the brutal characters, the gritty action and the devastatingly cold hard truth that not every life has a happy ending that have been the common themes across Joe’s novels and kept readers returning. Yes, there is lightheartedness, wit and charm weaved into the prose of Abercrombie’s writing, but this is adult humour that surely requires life experience to appreciate, for example: “Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments” or “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged”. So, you will forgive us for wondering whether Lord Grimdark had taken things a step too far by taking on the hugely competitive YA genre; something we thought could isolate him from his current fans and see him avoided by any potential new ones…
Onto the book: Half A King‘s eye-catching title is derived from the protagonist, Yarvi, who was born with half a hand. This disability has meant that although he is a Prince, young Yarvi isn’t taken seriously by anyone.
A man swings the scythe and the axe, his father had said. A man pulls the oar and makes fast the knot. Most of all a man holds the shield. A man holds the line. A man stands by his shoulder-man. What kind of man can do none of these things?
Whilst his father, uncle and brother live for war, Yarvi’s place is alongside Mother Gundring who is teaching Yarvi the ways of a Minister – a monk-like advisor who must learn everything from multiple languages, the world’s geography, the key players in the neighbouring lands who jostle for power, through to what antidote is best used for which poison.
Now, you may be expecting that a 15 year old boy would feel this an injustice, that he is dying to be included in all the adventure… well, not so much! Yarvi is quite content with the idea of being a Minister and is actually studying hard for his rapidly-approaching exams when ‘it’ happens. Yarvi is told his father and brother are dead. At 15 years old he is to become king. Worst of all, his kin were killed on their way to talk with the High King, Grom-gil-Gorm, a man renowned for his savagery and everyone, even Yarvi’s mother, expects their new King to seek swift vengeance.
The back of the novel reads that ‘the betrayed will become the betrayer’, so I think I’m safe in revealing to you that Yarvi is betrayed on his way to seek this vengeance. Quickly he falls from the position of King to that of a slave on a ship full of the kind of characters you’d expect to find in an Abercrombie novel: foul, messed up, discontent/angry with life and seemingly irredeemable. Being a King wasn’t for Yarvi, but neither is being an oar slave chained to a merchant vessel. Yarvi knows he will not survive on this boat pulling an oar and this realisation takes his thoughts to other places: such as how the throne is rightfully his and how those sitting on it don’t deserve it. The problem is he won’t be able to plan an escape or take back the kingdom alone, so now he must choose who to trust from the ship’s cast full of drunks, thieves and murderers.
Essentially this is a coming of age story that we often see in the Young Adult genre. In many Young Adult novels the protagonist, a youth, must do something that the adults around him/her are unable to do. Sometimes this is because they are ignorant, but often in Young Adult Fantasy it is because the main character has been given some kind of gift or means that aren’t available to anyone else. Despite this being a YA-F novel, Yarvi doesn’t have a gift: he has a disability. Our thoughts may turn to Tyrion from A Song of Ice & Fire or Fitz Chivalry of the Farseer books when looking for examples of this in fantasy. You could argue that Yarvi is actually a combination of the two aforementioned: he has Tyrian’s disability, but Fitz Chivalry’s ability to not act as greedily and selfish as those around him. Basically, he is a character out of place in his setting.
Speaking of settings, it is important to note that this novel isn’t set in the same world of Abercrombie’s other novels. I’m not exactly sure why, although I do get the feeling it might be for a reason that is not yet apparent. A number of us were discussing this fact in Fantasy-Faction’s forum a few weeks ago and we have a feeling that the book could be set on Earth, in a way much like Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire books are – thousands of years in the future after technology has disappeared. It is just a theory, but the race referred to as ‘Elves’ by Abercrombie reminds us a lot of how Mark Lawrence writes about ‘Builders’ and not too dissimilar to how Scott Lynch talks about the long-gone ‘Elders’ too.
And now we come to the questions on most people’s lips: ‘is this a book that parents can safely give to their kids?’ and ‘will they enjoy it once it’s handed over?’
To answer the latter question first, as already discussed, this is a tale that younger readers will recognise. It is loaded with many of the tropes we’ve come to expect in the Young Adult genre: a quick pace, a sub-100k word count, a young protagonist, intense romantic emotions & feelings, a mission that sees the young protagonist become important to everyone around him (even those much older and wiser) and so on. The difference is – to the delight of this Abercrombie-fan – that the violence is still there (skulls get cracked, fingers get severed), the low fantasy elements were there too (the journey, an evil overlord), the dark and memorable characters existed in abundance and this culminated in it being just a very, very good book.
If you are anything like me and not overly experienced in YA reading, it is likely this book will force you to think hard about what Young Adult actually is. If you are anything like me you will quickly realize that your definition of Young Adult is in need of some attention – mine was wrong at best, with ‘condescending’ being more likely. Thankfully, whilst reading this book, I was in a good place to do a reevaluation: I’d just been invited to host some panels at the Young Adult Literature Convention and so was required to do a lot of research and reading into books being read by young adults. If you are not in such a good place, here’s what I found: many young adults like reading about violence (playing video games too!?), they swear (shock!), they fall in love and are, as Joe Abercrombie himself said in a very good blog, “above all, adults. Just young ones.”
What Joe has produced with Half A King is not a watered down version of a Joe Abercrombie novel, but a novel written with the young adult state of mind in mind. Young Adults are people who are beginning to shrug off those protective chains that kept them save when they couldn’t look after themselves, indeed, think about this: on a panel this weekend an author made the point that: ‘We live in a sheltered society compared to ages gone by. We’ve only just decided that 13 is too young to make life changing contributions to family, community and the world. Not too long ago 13 year olds were working, fighting as soldiers, etc.’ When I lined this fact up with my thoughts that YA was a book that should bleep out swear words, put a screen in front of violence and fade to black before the sex I realised that I was indeed being as condescending as I’d originally feared.
Our main character does not begin with any real kind moral flaw. Rather, Yarvi starts off as a pretty good guy; he is due to become a Minister and willing to sacrifice his own life to serve others. When he is thrust into a dark world full of new evils it isn’t his embracing of morality and doing the right thing that keeps him alive, indeed he is too nice and honest to survive in this world, let alone get the throne back. Yarvi’s only real way of surviving is to embrace his negative character traits, such as his rage and devious nature.
Abercrombie has been able to do what I wasn’t able to do initially: realise that the point of a Young Adult Fantasy novel is not to provide that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ message, or similar. The story reflects a young persons reality and this young person acts the way that many young people would act in the situation he finds himself in. Many of his values are positive, but many are negative too. And besides, if we do want to give young adults a message, is: “life can indeed be an absolute bitch and, at such time, nice guys don’t always finish first” not a perfectly valid one?
It all boils down to this: Abercrombie has written the book he wants to write and not made any compromises. Abercrombie and Young Adult pair up exactly how Abercrombie pairs up with every other genre he has attempted: perfectly. If the sequels are anywhere near as good, this is a series that will draw young adults into the fantasy genre and show adults that young adult books shouldn’t be written off because of where the marketing teams at publishing houses decide they should be shelved.