The deceived will become the deceiver
Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.
The betrayed will become the betrayer
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.
Will the usurped become the usurper?
But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy…
Joe Abercrombie is one of the foremost names in gritty and grimdark fantasy. His First Law trilogy and its three standalone successors are all prime examples of this sub-genre. So, when HarperVoyager announced they’d signed Abercrombie for a YA trilogy set in a new world, different from his First Law world, my first reaction was something along the lines of “Huh, that’s unexpected. Wonder how he’ll pull it off.” In true Abercrombie style would be the answer. While Half a King is most definitely YA, Abercrombie pulls no punches and doesn’t talk down to his younger readers. This results not just in an exciting epic fantasy tale, it also grants the book major crossover appeal, even to those who feel adults shouldn’t be reading YA.
While the basic premise of Half a King – a prince is betrayed and takes his revenge aided by a band of misfits – isn’t necessarily undiscovered country, Abercrombie gives it a decidedly Abercrombian flavour by switching up some traditional elements and having a strong cast of characters. He flips the traditional divine aspects; those that are usually masculine (the sun, the sea, war) are called Mother, while traditionally feminine facets are called Father (Earth, Moon, Peace), to name the six Tall Gods. Not only that, the many gods are actually fragments of an original one (feminine) god who was shattered by the elves in the long ago. And not only the divine feminine aspects have powerful roles, several of the female characters have lots of agency, such as Yarvi’s mother, Laithlin, called the Golden Queen, as she a cunning and powerful keeper of Gettland’s Treasury, Grandmother Wexen, Minister to the High King, Captain Shadikshirram, Sumael. All of these women are powerful in their own right or decide their own fate and none of them do so at the behest of a man.
Yarvi is an interesting character. He’s not your traditional heroic prince. He’s not handsome, bold and gifted with great physical prowess. Instead, he has a withered left hand with only a thumb and a little finger and he’s been trained to become a Minister, due to his more peaceful nature. I found Abercrombie’s treatment of Jarvi’s withered hand and its consequences interesting. The hand isn’t a problem, unless Jarvi is forced to do things he isn’t suited to – there are plenty of situations where having one good hand would be a distinct disadvantage, but he still manages to power through on mental strength and in some cases it isn’t even mentioned – but Yarvi’s always conscious of people watching it and him and judging him by his hand. Yarvi’s extremely easy to like and to root for, especially as he never truly wallows in the ‘why me’-s you so often find in these sorts of narratives.
The rest of Yarvi’s band of misfits is fascinating as well. I particularly liked the relationship Yarvi develops with Ankran. They start off as adversaries, yet in the end they are each other’s family and they stick together. His oar-mates Jaud and Rulf are wonderfully solid men, not bad or good, but human and loyal. My favourite had to be Sumael though. A young female navigator, more at home on the deck of a ship than on land, she’s competent, strong and actually the only one who can lead them home through her skills at reading the way. Lastly, Nothing is both fascinating and a let-down. He’s a terror with a blade and I really liked his gruff banter with Rulf, but he was also a main character in the storyline in the book that was very entertaining yet at the same time felt somewhat predictable. All of them, however, have traits that teach Yarvi about how to be a better man and a better leader, which was an interesting process to witness.
As ever, Abercrombie’s writing is strong and the narrative fast-paced with no extra fat or adornment. I really enjoyed the Viking-esque flavour of the setting, which conveyed a sense of culture, without following the Viking-mould to a tee. The one thing in the book that was a little disappointing to me was one of the final twists that I’d figured out pretty early on. Figuring it out didn’t make the story less cool or enjoyable, it just made me go “Oh I bet that this’ll happen” and it became more of a puzzle to find the clues than a wait for the drama of the reveal.
Yarvi leaves home a boy, returns a man and the final chapters of Half a King illustrate this in a fantastic way. Especially the final chapter with its final reveal was a clear demonstration of Yarvi’s growth and provided a fantastic setup for Half the World, the second book of The Shattered Sea series. The world of the Shattered Sea is fascinating and leaves much to be explored in coming books and it’ll be a joy to join these characters on further adventures. If you’ve never read Abercrombie and where intimidated by the fact that he’s already six books into his First Law world, Half a King is a fantastic entry point to his writing and if you’ve a fantasy loving teen in your life this will make a fun book to share with them. This book is well-worth reading and I’ll be here tapping my foot until the next one is out early next year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.