Title: Half A King
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Hardback: 373 pages
Publication Date: 03/07/2014
When it was first announced that Joe Abercrombie was to write a YA novel, I have to admit that my reaction was one of surprise. His previous novels have all been what would be best described as ‘very adult’ in tone, theme and style. But, when I thought about it, I began to wonder whether my initial reaction was borne out from the categorisations that the publishing industry has imposed on fantasy over the last decade and a half, which has attempted to delineate between children’s, YA and adult books.
Because, when I was first truly exploring the breadth of fantasy – as a pre-teenager almost two decades ago – I was reading David Gemmell, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin (amongst many others). All of whom often had fairly young protagonists – either as the main focus of the works, or, as with someone like Martin, in very major roles. And these writers all wrote books that were often filled with fairly adult content – yet, as a young reader, they felt like books that I wanted to read entirely because they presented very murky, unsterilised worlds. Which, for me, on the cusp of teenagerdom, was both exciting and liberating.
So I approached Half A King with an interested fascination. I knew that Abercrombie was likely to have to temper some of the more excessive elements to his ‘adult’ fantasy, but was equally keen to see whether he would bring his gritty edge to a coming-of-age, ‘YA’ novel.
A tale of betrayal and a quest for revenge, this novel shares similarities in plot to my favourite of Abercrombie’s oeuvre, Best Served Cold. Set in a pseudo-Viking-age fantasy world, Half A King focusses on Prince Yarvi, the youngest son of the King of Gettland. Having been born with a twisted and maimed hand on one side – which makes him unfit to fight, a pre-requisite in this warrior society – Yarvi is seen as only half a man. Physical impositions on his characters is a long-running theme in Abercrombie’s books, and Yarvi is forced to rely on his mental acuity to compensate for the fact that, unlike Monza Murcatto in Best Served Cold, he cannot take his revenge personally at the point of a blade.
Instead, having seen his father and brother murdered, and having been betrayed himself and presumed dead, Yarvi finds himself enslaved upon a merchant ship and far from home. There he must try to plot his escape and a way in which to gain his revenge and reclaim the throne.
Much of the book therefore revolves around Yarvi’s attempts to escape his chained collar and draw together a band of friends and allies who will help him traverse the Shattered Sea to return to Gettland. Now, it is in this aspect that this novel feels most dissimilar with Abercrombie’s previous novels. For the journey back, and the incidents that break up that journey, happen in a manner that comes across as quite plotted. By which I mean that elements that are required to advance the flow of the plot often happen very close together, in a very neat manner. The problem here is that Abercrombie is obviously under constraints to make the novel fit within the parameters of what a younger reader would be able to read in terms of novel length.
And this is a double-edged sword. Because Abercrombie’s adult novels are usually huge, almost sprawling books. So, whilst the length of Half A King in one sense means that it avoids falling into the trap of being too big, there are a few times when the brevity between major sequences means that it almost feels a little watered down. Nevertheless, this is really my only slight gripe about the book.
Because the writing is fantastic and Yarvi’s development as a character, from naive innocent to a more ruthless and focussed individual is achieved with skill and believability. And, whilst there were elements of the plot that I could predict quite easily, the main twist at the conclusion was expertly handled – so much so that I really didn’t see it coming.
And, whilst much of the language and violence that one would associate with Abercrombie is here toned down, the underlying themes of the cynicism of the world and the morally ambiguous nature of humankind are still very much present – along with some healthy doses of dark humour for good measure. So, whilst there is undoubtedly an element of Abercrombie holding back in this novel, with his younger audience in mind, it never detracts from the central plot and the characters are as realistically ambiguous and realistically flawed as you would expect. To be honest, within a few pages of starting this novel I was already chastising myself for ever questioning Abercrombie’s abilities to weave his themes into a YA novel, because this is a hugely enjoyable read. One that has a satisfying enough resolution for it to work as a standalone novel. Thankfully it is only the first in a trilogy of books set in the world of the Shattered Sea – and I cannot wait for the next instalment.