Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
Having read and enjoyed all of Joe Abercrombie’s other novels I had HUGE expectations of Half a King, the first book in the new Shattered Sea series. And, while I enjoyed it enough that I sailed through it in less than 24 hours, I have to admit to a tiny bit of disappointment.
I’ll start by saying that the beginning didn’t exactly blow me away. Oh, there was nothing wrong with it: the first 50 pages or so just felt a little flat, and a little bit generic and predictable. To be fair, though, the storyline actually gets going very quickly. Joe wastes no time throwing Yarvi and the reader into big events; and, after a somewhat lacklustre beginning, Half a King quickly twists into the kind of story we’ve come to expect from Joe: a group of mismatched people thrown together by circumstance, a struggle against the odds, a large dose of bloody action, and a main character struggling against a physical flaw which makes him an outcast and an object of scorn in the eyes of others.
Yarvi is the youngest son of the king of Thorlby. Crippled since birth, he has trained for years in preparation for joining the Ministers, but is instead forced to take the throne after the unexpected betrayal and death of his father and older brother. His reign is short-lived, as he too falls to betrayal; now he has to work his way back up from the dregs of humanity into which he has fallen, and take revenge on those who wronged his family.
As with all of Abercrombie’s novels there’s a great cast of supporting characters. In Yarvi’s little fellowship there’s Sumael the no-nonsense navigator, Rulf and Jaud the simple but loyal oarsmen, Ankran the corrupt storekeeper, and – my personal favourite – Nothing, a ragged slave with a big secret and an even bigger grudge. Though not quite as motley a group as we’re accustomed to with Joe’s stories, there’s still a nice mix of friendships and rivalries, and a fair amount of entertaining dialogue. Yarvi himself is a flawed and sympathetic protagonist, full of little nuggets of wisdom learned during his training; and I particularly enjoyed the character of Shadikshirram, the drunk merchant captain and nemesis of the group.
Being intended for a YA audience I’d expected Half a King to be a ‘toned down’ version of a ‘true’ Abercrombie novel, and I suppose it is, though not in the ways I’d expected. True, it’s missing all the sex, all the swearing and much of the bloodiness of his adult novels. However, I don’t think it suffered from this at all. I do think that the main difference with Half a King is the way that you never really feel like the characters are in any danger, and never really doubt that they’ll overcome the odds and achieve their goals. It’s true that not all the characters have a happy ending, but even at the characters’ lowest points the novel lacks any real sense of futility . . . which I suppose is a good thing in a YA novel. I imagine there’s a limit to how much ‘grimdark’ younger readers are able to take.
I think Half a King suffered partly (in my eyes) from being hailed as a revenge story. Now, Joe Abercrombie has already written the best revenge story I’ve ever read: Best Served Cold. I’m not sure whether I was expecting something similar to Monza’s story from Yarvi and co., but Half a King – although revenge is certainly a key part of the story – is more of a coming-of-age tale of survival and growth. I found the revenge aspect to be surprisingly anti-climactic and unsatisfying, since I’d expected the whole Shattered Sea trilogy to build towards its conclusion.
I think the downside of having created such brilliant works as the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes, is that everything written afterwards is going to be judged against them. It’s probably by holding Joe’s previous novels – especially Best Served Cold – on a pedestal that stopped me from enjoying Half a King as much as I wanted to. That said, it has all the hallmarks of a great Abercrombie novel: wit and irony, humour and bloody action, and characters who you feel like you know even though they’ve hardly said two words. Not only am I keen to try the next in the Shattered Sea series when it’s released, but I’ve also got a sudden appetite for a re-read of the First Law books . . .