While I was reading Half a King by Joe Abercrombie I kept having flashbacks (non acid related) to other fantasy novels and literary works. At first the book reminded me of a young adult version of Katherine Addison’s Hugo and Nebula nominated novel Goblin Emperor, what with Yarvi suddenly finding himself the reluctant king of Gettland after the sudden death (AKA murder) of his father and brother. (I’m sure Goblin Emperor isn’t the only fantasy novel to deal with the reluctant ruler trope, but given I’d just read it it was the first book to come to mind).
And then as I got to know Yarvi, especially after he’s betrayed by his Uncle, sold into slavery only to be purchased as an oarsmen on a galley (which is a tad humorous given Yarvi was born with only one functioning hand), that I started muttering Miles Vorkosigan under my breath. Like Miles, Yarvi is underestimated, and like Miles Yarvi takes advantage of how others quickly dismiss him by relying on being the smartest person in the room…. or boat. By the time Yarvi escapes his bondage he has a small group of loyal followers joining him – just like Miles and his mercenaries.
And then as I reached the last third of the novel my flashbacks took on a literary hue as I couldn’t help but view Yarvi as a certain Prince of Denmark who also wanted to take revenge on his Uncle. I have a feeling that that particular Shakespearean resonance was deliberate move on the part of Abercrombie.
While Half a King‘s story and main character might have been familiar, the novel never bred any contempt. For one the book is bloody entertaining. Abercrombie knows how to pace a story and he has that rare gift of writing witty dialogue that isn’t smug or annoyingly self-aware. And for two, there’s this whopping huge revelation toward the end of the novel that I didn’t see coming (no spoilers) and which cut across all my assumptions and second guessing in relation to Yarvi’s eventual fate.
I’m one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t read Abercrombie’s adult work and so I can’t say with any confidence how Half A King compares with those allegedly grim and dark novels. There’s definitely plenty of violence on show – people’s heads are regularly separated from their bodies – but if Abercrombie has made a concession to his Young Adult audience it’s that he doesn’t dwell on the violence or the gore. There’s also very little, if any, swearing and not a hint of sexual violence.
And while Yarvi does give off a Miles Vorkosigan vibe, he doesn’t have Mile’s overwhelming and almost arrogant belief in his own ability. Yarvi is far more aware of his limitations, appreciative that one mistake and he’s dead. Yes, he’s able to obtain respect from his fellow oarsmen, Jaud and Rulf, and the ship’s navigator, Sumael, but it takes time and a good deal of work. Yarvi’s disability plays a significant role in how he views himself, but also allows him to take advantage of how people underestimate him. And what I liked is how Yarvi subtlety grows more of a backbone through the course of the novel. Not that he’s a coward to begin with – it’s made clear quite early that Yarvi inherited his father’s anger and fury – but he’s clearly not a warrior. And yet Abercrombie doesn’t give us a scene or movie-like montage where Yarvi suddenly becomes a sword wielding berserker. Rather, within his own limitations and relying on his strengths he does what’s needed to ensure victory. And the final chapter – a fantastic, intelligent piece of writing – is a capstone to Yarvi’s journey.
Half A King may not be the most original fantasy novels penned in recent years, but is a great deal of fun to read.