Book Review: HALF A KING by Joe Abercrombie

Half a KingJoe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy came at the cusp of when fantasy was going through a change. The eighties and nineties fantasy market was dominated with Tolkienesque fantasy. Authors like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan brought us hefty series of unlikely heroes saving the world against seemingly unstoppable evils with a clear delineation between good and evil. Then, in 1996, George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, a novel that was game-changing in the fantasy field, to say the least.

What Martin introduced (at least in popularity) was morally ambiguous characters with ethical motivations that could be seen in shades of gray instead of in black and white. Certainly he wasn’t the first to do so, but the fantasy that followed came with a sense of grittiness or realism that had not achieved blockbuster popularity in the past. Joe Abercrombie was one of the first to follow in this tradition and now several authors have followed suit, establishing a dark and bleak sub-genre that we now call Grimdark.

After writing six novels in The First Law world, Lord Grimdark himself (at least according to his Twitter handle) offers a new world in Half a King, which is being billed as a young adult novel in the UK. But don’t let the YA tag fool you — the characters and setting in Half a King are every bit as gritty and bleak as those in his “adult” novels.

The story tells of a half-handed, scholarly prince named Yarvi who is destined for the ministry until his father and brother are found slain. Next in line to the throne, Yarvi finds himself betrothed to his deceased brother’s fiancé and forced to lead a kingdom even though many see him as cowardly and weak (including his mother). He promises vengeance for the death of his kin and despite his reserved nature, his leadership potential begins to shine through.

But Yarvi’s troubles are just beginning. He is betrayed by those closest to him and he falls into bondage. With a crew of misfit slaves, Yarvi embarks on a journey of revenge to restore his rightful seat upon the throne.

At 352 pages, Half a King is a quick read. Abercrombie writes with a sense of expediency that kept me plowing through the narrative. In the hands of an experienced and talented writer, the prose flows with such ease and clarity that I hardly even noticed the words at all. His straight-forward approach to story-telling is more reminiscent of writers like Brandon Sanderson and Daniel Abraham than of the more poetic and witty prose of a Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss.

I am not sure if anything in this novel is particularly unique, but there are a few surprises and it was a ton of fun to read. Told primarily from a single viewpoint, the novel is quite approachable and the short chapters and quick pacing urge the reader on. The weighty subject matter is the only thing preventing me from calling this an easy read.

Where Abercrombie excels beyond The First Law trilogy is that this book is self-contained. Even though it is part of a trilogy, this book has a complete beginning, middle, and end. Generally speaking, this is how I believe fantasy series should be written. The plot has a rough familiarity to it, perhaps borrowing from the tradition of the Count of Monte Cristo, but it is never predictable or derivative. Where the reader expects justice to be carried out and nothing more, Abercrombie delivers a much more intriguing story.

Abercrombie fans will enjoy this latest novel and for those who haven’t read him before, I really can’t suggest a better place to start than here. The novel has a fresh world with interesting characters and a clever plot. This is definitely one of those fantasy books to put on your must-read list for the year.

peter 100x100Peter Snede – AISFP Contributor
Peter is a husband, father of twin boys, and an engineer who grew up on a steady diet of Narnia and Dragonlance books. When he’s not working, wrestling his toddlers, or writing fiction, he can be found blogging about books or on Twitter.

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