Half a King is everything you would expect from a master of the craft – Joe Abercrombie, sitting pretty on that throne of Lord Grim Dark – having bulldozed through pretty much all different genres (standard Epic Fantasy tropes were taken apart and butchered in the First Law Trilogy, the military fantasy tale was dragged through muck and dirt in the “Heroes” and tossed aside, the revenge-saga dipped and baptized in dark black blood and left to fend for itself in “best served cold” and the western saga given a new twist and meaning with “red country”) – now turns his eye towards the burgeoning YA Fantasy genre.
Frankly – with Half A King, if you discount the age of the protagonist and the lack of sex or too much of the Abercrombiesque-incessant-swearing you really cannot make out whether the book is YA or not. You pretty much expect the blood and gore, the backstabbing and treachery, the plot-twists and the dark somber tone alternating between grey and black spattered with spots of ruby-luminous blood. Vintage Joe Abercrombie? Ahem, Not quite.
It’s a coming of age tale, sure – and in Yarvi, the Half-King – a crippled young man destined to rule the throne in a cold dark world that only recognizes the merciless strong arm and cold brutal heart as master – we have a worthy protagonist who carries the weight of this whole opening saga for the Shattered Sea trilogy set in a land closely mirroring the Vikings. A wonderful character arc that sees completion and sees Yarvi start out as an under-confident, cringing cripple set out for failure in this harsh world go through a long journey that sees him get back to where he started but as a whole new person – hardened and toughened by the brutal treacherous life-experiences that shapes his destiny and having gained a whole new retinue of friends, enemies and allies in this process.
So the story begins with the cold wind from the Shattered Sea bringing in the news of the death of Prince Yarvi’s brother and father, the King of Gettland – and young Yarvi, studying to be a Minister – content to learn the names of poisons like the dream-root and control the message-bearing doves, apprenticing with Mother Gundring, the current Minister to the Kingdom – is forced to take up the mantle of King. Born a cripple with an injured hand, Yarvi suffers ridicule and loathing all his life and the last thing he wants is Half a King on the Black Throne. Nevertheless – left without a choice, he takes the Black Throne and swears a full oath – to revenge the deaths of his father and brother.
The initial one-fifths of the novel reads like a restrained Joe Abercrombie, slowly unfurling the pieces of this new world around Shattered Sea, the beliefs, the Gods, the Kingdom, the practices and the harsh life of these men who believe in violence and war – thus taking his time setting up the pieces - To explode. And explode it does right from Chapter Eight where the backstabbing and treachery that you’ve come to expect in an Abercrombie novel kicks you in the guts and leaves you gasping- the narrative then takes the wind. (Literally so with Yarvi being cast out to the sea!)
Another Abercrombie staple is the presence of richly detailed well fleshed out side characters who steal the show. There are many here who would remind of you his previous favorites. The forever drunk captain Shadikshirram is probably a nod to my favorite gold-digger soldier, Nicomo Cosca – with her tendency to brag about herself (“largeness of my heart”) while Sumael, the other female protagonist who could have flourished into something interesting gets dropped by the side. Aside from them, there is Nothing (pun intended!!).
The dark wit is fully on display throughout the book and takes the edge off from the dismal settings in the book. Heavy and brooding it never gets – with Yarvi proving himself to be a deep-cunning man with wits sharpened and a tongue of silver that gets him through the worse of the situations. World Building is deftly done – with back stories and yarns of yore thrown in between casual conversations never weighing down the prose. Seriously there is no wasted word. The book is slim and engrossing. You go from “uninterested” to “Ah! Predictable” to “Oh! Didn’t see that one!” to “Oh my-fucking-god-this is unbelievable” engrossing by the last one-thirds of the book.
So without wasting breath on whether this is YA or not – the verdict is that Joe Abercrombie delivers yet another sucker-punch with this knock-out tale of a young man finding his groove in the land of Vikings. Shattered Sea # 1, Half A King doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but mostly has all threads closed out satisfactorily. But Joe has built out this enthralling world with this book that offers yet many more adventures set in it. If this book isn’t on your Best Of 2014 list, then you should offer yourself up as sacrifice to Mother War. For while Father Peace is perhaps the best solution to all, sometimes you just have to go the way of Mother War. And Half A King shows you how. Negotiations, backstabbing, courage and of course the way of steel – making your heart swell with pride even as you cringe for the Last Door standing wide open for all.
It comes out in July. Book your fucking place in that queue.