When it was announced that Joe Abercrombie was working on a new fantasy series, I was overjoyed! Abercrombie has become one of my favorite SFF authors and I'm always looking forward to what he'll publish next. And yet, when I learned that this would be a YA novel, I was a bit worried. After all, Abercrombie has established himself as one of grimdark's biggest draws and I was afraid that switching gears to appeal to a different market could well take away most of what made his books so enjoyable.
Interestingly enough, Half a King is marketed differently on both sides of the pond. In the UK, Abercrombie's newest is published as a YA offering, while in the USA Del Rey is marketing this one as they would any other speculative fiction work. The Advance Reading Copy I was forwarded contains absolutely no mention that Half a King is even aimed at a younger audience. When the author himself elaborated on this a few months back, it helped set my mind at ease. Then the early reviews pretty much raved about the novel, so I decided to give it a shot. And I wasn't disappointed!
Here's the blurb:
“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.” Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand. 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 finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.
Compared to Abercrombie's latest works, Half a King is a rather slim volume. Weighing in at only 273 pages (the American ARC, in any event), this probably amounts to less than half the wordcount we usually get. Which, in turn, means that although there is a much tighter focus on the narrative, there is not much in the way of worldbuilding. As is habitually the author's wont, Half a King features no map. Hence, it is quite difficult to visualize the various kingdoms of the Shattered Sea and what little worldbuilding there is does very little to flesh out the land, its people, their customs, religions, etc. So a bit more content regarding this aspect of the story would have made for an even better reading experience, methinks.
The tighter focus I have alluded to makes for a rhythm that moves the tale forward at a decidedly brisk pace. With a relatively low wordcount to work with, there is no room for info-dumps and unnecessary scenes. As a result, Yarvi's story is told in a more concise fashion than what Joe Abercrombie has accustomed us to thus far in his career. Half a King is a page turner, one that you will likely finish in just a few sittings.
The characterization was fantastic. Abercrombie did a great job introducing Yarvi and making him a three-dimensional protagonist that you can easily root for. The author also came up with an entertaining bunch of secondary characters that make up the supporting cast. The enigmatic Nothing, Sumael, Rulf, Ankran, Jaud, and the colorful Shadikshirram and the relationships between them add a lot of layers to the plotlines.
Although there are no major changes in terms of style and tone, and the majority of Abercrombie fans out there will go through this book in no time, it is different to some extent. The wit, cynicism, and dark humor that characterize the author's backlist are all present, if a little subdued. There is a lot less swearing, however, and no sex at all. The violence is not as graphic as usual, with less blood and gore. Hence, Half a King remains a Joe Abercrombie novel, but it is a more self-restrained Joe Abercrombie, one that pulls some of his punches and doesn't go all out the way he did in A Red Country and The Heroes. And hence, Half a King, though it is an enjoyable read, doesn't satisfy the way the last few Abercrombie titles did.
The author pulls a number of unexpected surprises out of his hat, capping Half a King with a nice ending that I never saw coming. The motivations of the villains are at times a little weak and things are a bit vague from time to time as to why everything was set in motion and how Yarvi found himself in such dire straits. A bit more focus on worldbuilding and a chapter or two exploring the villains motivations wouldn't have gone amiss and would have given more depth to the overall story arc.
In the end, even though it may not be Joe Abercrombie doing what he does best, Half a King remains a brutal, engaging, entertaining, and satisfying fantasy novel featuring an interesting band of misfits. Looking forward to finding out what happens next in the upcoming sequel scheduled to be released in 2015!