Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

July 8, 2014

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain his throne.

First he must survive cruelty, chains and even drowning. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

Born a weakling in the eyes of the world, Yarvi cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast, he finds they can help him more than any noble could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

Even with loyal friends at this side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy…

I have to start with an apology. After about an hour of reading Half a King, I had already re-christened this book as Game of Throne in my head. I couldn’t help it, but I’d like to stress that I do mean this as the highest form of compliment. Abercrombie’s latest has a distinct flavour of George R R Martin about it. Not only is there plenty of adventure and fighting, it also deftly explores the same sort of political power plays, skull-duggery and manoeuvrings that Martin is so found of.

Prince Yarvi appears destined to live his life in relative obscurity. Deformed since birth, missing some of the fingers on one hand, and the second son of the royal family, he was content to fade into the background. He is happy to let his father and older brother worry about the trials and tribulations of royalty. An unexpected event changes all that and Yarvi is thrust into the forefront of politics of the kingdom. Due to his disability, Yarvi is no fighter, he needs instead to rely on his keen intellect and innate cunning to solve his problems.  Watching Yarvi discover what it means to be a leader and a king is one of this book’s many highlights. The lessons he learns are often harsh and they leave a mark, both physically and psychologically. Tracking his transformation/evolution really forms the backbone of this tale, and it’s a riveting watching this all unfold.

Elsewhere, the other characters are just as much fun. The members of Yarvi’s family are a shady bunch, and the other people he meets all have the own agendas as well. Part of Yarvi’s journey is discovering just who he can actually trust.

There is a certain type of character that Abercrombie often writes about that I always enjoy.  So much so that I’m always on the lookout for them. How best to describe this particular type? Let’s call them the stoic warrior with a shadowy/unknown past™.  In Red Country it was Lamb, in Half a King the character is called Nothing. Like Lamb, Nothing is a bit of an enigma when first introduced. He has spent years as a slave and, given the chance, his first reaction to almost any situation is violence. Like he says himself, the answer to any question is always steel. Where he differs from Lamb is that Nothing isn’t running away from his old life, he is running towards it. Lamb was trying to escape the horrors of his previous life while Nothing seeks bloody revenge. Nothing, however, is a patient sort. He’s happy to wait years to get his chance, and when he does he’ll let no-one get in his way. I love characters like this. Unpredictable, and often angry, they are fascinating to follow. You never know what is going to happen next. Nothing helps to liven up an already action packed text.

The big question, certainly the one we’re all dying to know – what happens when the Grimdark is removed from @LordGrimdark? The answer is very pleasing to report. You still get an author who can craft first-rate fantasy that is so entirely engrossing all my responsibilities as an adult were put on-hold until I completed the book. Abercrombie’s writing is so damned reliable, it hurts. What with all the fast paced action, pithy dialogue, evocative descriptions and well-rounded characters. He makes it all look so easy, I hate him*

Personally, I’ve always found that preparing to dive into a new Joe Abercrombie novel requires a certain amount of mental limbering up. You have to give the old grey cells a bit of prior warning. Anyone who has read Abercrombie before knows that once the plot kicks off you are going to be on the literary equivalent of a rollercoaster until the final page. You just have to hold on and hope you survive ’till the end.

Though Half a King has been marketed towards a younger audience it’s really not massively different from any of Mr Abercombie’s previous novels. Yes, you could probably argue events are described in slightly less graphic, gut-splattering detail than in the past but the same exceptional storytelling remains. There is also still some splendidly dark gallows-esque humour. This is an author who knows exactly the story he wants to tell and makes sure that once the audience, irrespective of their age, is on board he holds their attention on every page. Ultimately Half a King is the insightful dissection of how the thirst for power corrupts. There is absolutely nothing better than when you get to enjoy a master storyteller bringing their A game.

There is a select handful of authors whose books I would happily beg, borrow or steal to read. Well done Joe, along with George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Pinborough and Mark Chadbourn, you’ve made the cut. Now Mr Abercrombie has the unenviable task of attempting to remain on this list. I shall be watching closely.

Half a King is published by Harper Collins and is available from 7th July. Half the World and Half a War will follow in winter 2014 and summer 2015 respectively. I can tell you now I know I’ll be reading them both. This is unquestionably one of my favourite books so far this year.

*I’m lying obviously. He’s lovely **

** I mean that in an entirely platonic way, just so we’re clear. I am slightly jealous of his beard mind you. Not Patrick Rothfuss or Adrian Tchaikovsky jealous, but getting there.

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