Half A King
By: Joe Abercrombie
“Betrayed by his family and left for dead, Prince Yarvi, reluctant heir to a divided kingdom, has vowed to reclaim a throne he never wanted.
But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself – all with only one good hand. Born a weakling in the eyes of a hard, cold world, he cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he has sharpened his mind to a deadly edge.
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast, he finds they can help him more than any noble could. Even so, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, traps and tragedy…”
High fantasy series can be very hit or miss. Most series have a similar story structure with similar conflicts and similar characters. I like the familiarity of the genre and don’t mind a little repetitiveness so long as the characters are well written and the story is engaging. After the first couple of chapters of Half a King, I thought this series was going to be a dud. Abercrombie’s writing style is a little clunky and the main character was incredibly unlikable. I decided to stick with it until at least halfway through the book and was glad that I did. By chapter 10, the story did a 180, raising the stakes and thrusting the once unlikable character into a conflict that would mold him into a stronger person.
Things I Liked: Prince Yarvi was born a cripple and has spent most of his life dealing with bullies and general disgust at his condition. This cold treatment was heaviest from his family, who believed that that his inability to swing a sword or fight in a battle made him “half a man.” So it was a great shock to the people of Gettland and his mother when he is forced to take the throne upon the untimely death of his father and older brother. He is quickly disposed by a powerful uncle and is sold into slavery where he has to toughen up and bear the brunt of the world’s cruelty. I felt that this particular journey was important for Yarvi to complete because he is so depressed and self-deprecating at the start of the story. His withered hand has been a great source of sorrow and negativity in his life and his time as a slave allows him to see his life from a different perspective. Abercrombie does a fantastic job of strengthening Yarvi as a character without suspending my disbelief as a reader. In some fantasy novels, broken or disabled characters learn to “overcome” their disabilities and become masters with varying degrees of believability. Abercrombie never pretends that Yarvi is a good fighter or will ever become a good fighter. Instead, Yarvi learns to accept his hand as part of himself and hones his other skills, like his cunning intellect. It’s a different kind of empowerment.
Abercrombie also surrounds Yarvi with a cast of outcasts and rejects. While not all complex, they nicely balanced out Yarvi’s shortcomings and made for a fun and heartwarming companion story. Sumael the navigator, Jaud and Rulf, Ankran, and Nothing are all so different and yet their shared history as slaves aboard the South Wind binds them all together and makes them fast friends. I would definitely read a book just about this group wandering around the world together, drinking beer and shouting insults at each other.
Things I Didn’t Like: Like with a lot of fantasy novels, Half a King sets up the foundations for a complex world but doesn’t do anything with it. Yarvi mentions that there are several elf-made ruins throughout the world but never explains what happened to the elves or where his ancestors came from. The same can be said of the religious institutions and cultures. Abercrombie barely talks about them and how they fit into the larger world. I would understand his lack of development if he at least tried to flesh out one or two cultures but he doesn’t even do that. This doesn’t greatly detract from the story but its still a major pitfall of the fantasy genre and he fell right into the trap.
Abercrombie also has a very strange writing style that sometimes took me out of the story. He uses phrases such as “a hundred hundred boats” or ” a thousand thousand years.” It felt archaic and clunky. He could have made the same point and made his writing more precise by simply implying that “hundreds of boats” waited in the harbor or “thousands of years” had passed. His general sentence structure is strange as well. He likes to make long sentences with very few punctuation marks that often forced me to go back and reread a passage because I didn’t understand the point he was trying to make.
Despite a rough start, Half a King was fast-paced with a disabled hero with a fantastic story arc and a cast of supporting characters that complement and helped Yarvi through his quest. Even though Yarvi isn’t a major player in the sequel Half the World, I’m still going to check it out to see if Abercrombie can match the pacing of the first book.