Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
I’ve been wanting to get around to this one for a while; I loved Abercrombie’s First Law books, so I held out until his new trilogy was finished before diving In. It was worth the wait. There are some fundamental differences to his earlier books, but the sardonic, cynical soul at the core of Abercrombies’s books remain in Half a King.
Prince Yarvi of Gettland does not belong; expected to be a brave and ruthless warrior, he has a crippled hand and is instead training to join the ‘Ministery’, an organisation of learned men and women who advise the great and powerful. The death of his father and brother sees Yarvi thrust into power, but lacking the respect of his people. Betrayal sees Yarvi brought as low as possible and unable to fight the traditional way, Yarvi must use his intellect and the support of unlikely allies to regain his throne and take revenge on the killers of his father.
Some fantasy books succeed through bombarding you with huge and original ideas (e.g The Malazan Books of the Fallen), but some succeed through simple compelling storytelling and engaging prose. Half a King is the latter; little took me by surprise, but it didn’t matter because I was just having so much fun reading it. I was on holiday as I read this one and found myself looking forward to the train journeys more than the destinations because then I could read Half a King! Although it is the first in a trilogy, Half a King tells a complete story with a satisfying beginning, middle and end, something many fantasy authors forget to do.
Abercrombie is as darkly funny as ever, but being targeted at a slightly younger age range the sex, violence and language are a bit reigned in. That’s not to say that anything is sanitised, it’s simply that Abercrombie spends a bit less time wallowing in the nasty details. This results in Half a King seeming to actually be a slightly more mature book. This is still a brutal world and Abercrombie doesn’t shy away from it. There’s a little bit of cliché in the writing which has crept in, but it’s never too egregious and easy to forgive.
Yarvi is a sympathetic protagonist who develops in interesting and unpredictable ways as the story progresses, learning to manipulate and sacrifice to achieve his goals. The supporting cast are particularly outstanding; with the shorter length Abercrombie doesn’t attempt to make them psychologically deep, but he does a great job of making them vivid and memorable. Highlights included the mysterious slave known as ‘Nothing’ and the pirate with mercantile pretentions known as Shadikshirram. There’s also a welcome stab made at a more diverse cast, which is something which is always nice to see.
Half a King is the kind of book you consume in days, but unlike a lot of books like that it doesn’t leave you immediately after. Half a King is relatively uncomplicated; just go read it and have a bloody good time.