Praise from Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R. R. Martin embellishes a cover that gives a glittering impression of stark, cold winter. In just eight years and—so far—seven novels, Joe Abercrombie has come to be spoken of as standing among the most successful writers of epic fantasy in the field today. With Half a King, Abercrombie departs slightly from his usual stomping grounds towards the Young Adult demographic: a departure signalled by Half a King's hardcover price point and the inclusion of the bestselling Derek Landy among the writers whose praise features on the cover.
Even ten years ago, I suspect, Half a King wouldn't have been positioned as an entry in the Young Adult marketplace. Young Adult novels as a genre tend to be about the experience of adolescence as much as growing into adulthood: their tone tends to partake of a heightened emotionality that recalls the vivid, colorful, extravagant heights and depths of teenage feeling. Everything is more strongly felt.
Half a King isn't in conversation with this emotional palette. It draws its influences rather more directly from the coming-of-age narrative so traditional in epic fantasy that it has at times descended into cliché—and then proceeds, neatly and without undue fuss, to subvert several of our expectations for how this sort of story should go.
Yarvi is the youngest son of the King of Gettland and his queen, called the Golden Queen for the influence of her canny policies on the kingdom's economy. In a land where strength and ability with weapons are the hallmarks of a man—and especially a ruler—Yarvi is a cripple, with only one good hand and no skill in warfare. He never expected to inherit, but when his father and elder brother are slain by treachery, the throne—and the duty to avenge his dead kin—falls to him. Before he can avenge anyone, however, he's betrayed by his uncle. Left for dead, he finds himself sold into slavery. But it's at the miserable oar of a galley ruled by the whim of a drunk and vicious captain that he finds friends and companions.
When they finally escape from the galley, it's to a long cold trek in the frozen north, hounded by vengeful pursuit. An archer, a baker, a swordsman who's been a slave for twenty years and calls himself "Nothing," a steward, a navigator, and Yarvi: it's a small band with which to try to reclaim his throne. But Yarvi makes a deal with the King of Vansterland, an old enemy of Gettland: if the Vansterlander will help him, he'll swear fealty as a vassal king. "Better a king on my knees than a beggar on my feet," he says at one point. "I can stand later."
But it turns out that among his companions is a man with a better claim to Gettland's throne than even Yarvi's: for the swordsman Nothing is in truth Yarvi's uncle Uthil, his father's elder brother, thought dead for twenty years. In the end, the crippled prince might be avenged, but he stands aside to let the whole man take the throne.
As the name implies, it's the nature of a critic to criticize: but the truth of the matter is that Half a King is a gripping novel, structured to keep its tension at a constant nail-biting pitch. Apart from the unlikely coincidence of Yarvi's uncle having been his companion—and every novel gets one unlikely coincidence free—the story's progression through Yarvi's dark night of the soul in slavery, into escape, and then towards its final confrontation with his betrayer is a tidy example of how to make an old story freshly compelling.
Abercrombie has a brisk and muscular prose style and a talent for delineating characters strongly even only in passing. The world through which Yarvi moves recalls the Norse kingdoms of the early middle ages, but is sufficiently its own thing that this Scandinavian resonance is never more than an echo. Similarly, much of the novel's furniture recalls other entries in the epic fantasy genre—messenger-birds that repeat messages given to them, a High King over many warring kings, a celibate order of "ministers" who advise kings, a trek through the frozen north, and so on—but they're worked in such a way that they never feel like borrowings, but rather integral parts of a world built on solid foundations. In offhand mentions of trading licenses and counting houses, the High King's new temple and several hundred gods, Abercrombie hints at entire religious, political, and economic backgrounds.
Very interesting ones. For while the world Yarvi moves through is one that valorizes warlike prowess, one filled with manly men doing brutal manly things, Abercrombie doesn't neglect the few female characters who have their turn on stage. Some of them—like the captain of the galley where Yarvi finds himself slaving at an oar—form large and colorful presences in the narrative. Others, like Yarvi's mother Laithlin, have a much slighter presence on-page, but Abercrombie sows enough seeds for us to understand that they have a larger role in the world than Yarvi has been paying attention to. It transpires, in fact, that the political machinations which set in train Yarvi's father's death and Yarvi's own betrayal were aimed not at the king, but at the queen and her economic influence.
Such understated touches of political complexity turn Half a King from a decent coming-of-age adventure into a deeply satisfying read. It's not a novel that is doing anything shockingly new, but what Half a King does, it does well and vividly. While this novel is gratifyingly complete in itself, it forms the first volume of a trilogy—and I'm rather looking forward to seeing what Abercrombie does with the sequel.