The name Joe Abercrombie is not necessarily one you might associate with Young Adult fiction. But then YA has gotten considerably more adult in recent years, with violent and bleak dystopias the order of the day. While Half a King, the first volume in the Shattered Seas trilogy, is not being marketed as YA (in the States, at least), it features a young protagonist, and a much shorter, faster, tighter narrative than that of Abercrombie’s previous novels, with a greater focus on visceral action than complex world building. This results in a reading experience with less depth and fewer thematic layers than, say, the First Law trilogy or such serious epics as Best Served Cold or The Heroes. But Abercrombie compensates by giving Half a King a whole lotta punch.
Yarvi is the not-well-loved second son of King Uthrik of Gettland. Born with a malformed hand and lacking the brutish, manly qualities deemed necessary to rule, Yarvi has settled upon pursuing an academic and advisory career with the Ministry. But when Uthrik and his eldest son are waylaid and murdered in an ambush, Yarvi finds the kingship thrust upon him.
Making the best of a situation even he doesn’t believe he’s suited for, Yarvi promptly leads Gettland’s armies against the warlord responsible for the murders. But all too soon, he learns the true meaning of treachery, and he finds himself the captive of his father’s killer. Pretending to be a simple cook’s boy to save his life, Yarvi is sold as a galley slave and winds up chained to the oars of the vessel of a drunken, flamboyant trading captain. His dreams of escape do finally pan out, and he and a handful of his fellow slaves and oarsmen begin the long trek back towards the royal city, where Yarvi dreams of vengeance against his betrayers.
Half a King is no less bloody and brutal than Abercrombie’s past work. And surprisingly, there is little to none of the gallows humor that’s Abercrombie’s trademark. He spares Yarvi nothing when it comes to the cruelty and humiliations of war and slavery. Still, for much of the book’s first third, the whole affair does feel like Abercrombie Lite, and readers of his past work will find his settings very familiar (a cold, bloody and unforgiving medieval society where steel rules the day) while at the same time feeling like there just isn’t enough meat on the bones. But as the story plows doggedly forward, things improve markedly. Abercrombie plays to his strengths and drops some action set-pieces that are appropriately riveting. Likewise, while the characters aren’t exactly multidimensional, they are vivid and above all likable. The affinity Yarvi develops for his fellow escapees feels emotionally genuine, when it could all too easily have fallen into “band of brothers” cliché.
There are times when Yarvi seems like he’s grown a bit too confident and commanding too quickly. But mostly, with plenty of skull-crushing swordplay and a few bombshells dropped towards the end to keep you hooked for book two, Half a King delivers more than half the goods.
Followed by Half the World.