Fantasy Review: ‘Half a King’ by Joe Abercrombie

Just a small confession to start this off, I want everyone to know where we stand here. Joe Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1)Abercrombie is one of my top three authors, and The First Law is my favorite fantasy trilogy. Unbiased observer I am not. But sometimes expectations can kill a book, especially when a favored author changes pace. So with high hopes, and a real fear of disappointment, I finally stopped staring at Half a King and started actually reading it.

Now Young Adult is ruined for me, or at least it will be until this book fades into the background (this has happened before; everything after The Girl who Circumnavigated Dreamland fell flat for months).

Yarvi is half a man in his father’s eye. With a withered hand his ambitions are less lofty than the typical prince; but life seldom is that easy. Father and brother murdered and suddenly young Yarvi is the king. A quick betrothal follows, and just like that he finds himself leading a raid in revenge of his father’s death. A quick betrayal later and it is time for the actual story to start.

Thrown off a cliff (as others have point out this seems to be an Abercrombie specialty) and sold into slavery the young rightful king begins his Homeric Odyssey around the circular sea. As would be expected he must rely on his wits and some quick thinking as he finds new trouble after new in his fight to get back home.

Young adult it may be, but this book is Abercrombie through and through. Betrayal and a tough life for the protagonist are a given. A decent death count and a bit of grim humor are present. The ending is not as depressingly grim as say, The First Law, but happily ever after it is not. It is YA in my favorite way; the protagonist may be younger and there may be a little less blood and sex, but never does the author talk down to the audience. No adult will be calling this a guilty pleasure; it is just another great Abercrombie book that may be a bit more accessible to a slightly younger audience.

Yarvi should win people over as a main character. Basically a good man, but willing to do what it takes, he relies on his brain but isn’t completely useless physically despite his limitations. But his surrounding cast almost outshines him. A man called Nothing was perhaps a caricature more than character; a barbarian berserker, but damn it sometimes I need a character to be larger than life. Outside of him though this proved to be a very human cast. Villains had agendas beyond pure evil and friends could be trusted but were not one hundred percent reliable. All stay consistent to their personalities as well, which shouldn’t be noteworthy but was refreshing anyway. Some disappointments for Yarvi are inevitable as people refuse to change just because it would fit the story.  Oh, and Half a King includes an awesome feisty old lady who says things like ‘you will get such flattery as you deserve, and my foot in your arse the rest of the time.’ So there is that.

With its shorter page length something had to go and it wasn’t going to be the story. Instead Half a King is a little lighter on world building than readers of adult fantasy are used to. Here it is in almost it’s entirety; Yarvi’s land is one of many littered around the coast of a large, circular sea. If there is magic it is subtle. And the land is littered with ruins from ancient ‘elves’ that should set off some geography speculation as the series moves on. Outside of that little matters; this is Yarvi’s story and not an epic sweep of clashing lands.

Should this book satisfy Abercrombie’s existing fans? A resounding yes, I could hardly put the book down.

Will it appeal to people who were not big fans before? Harder to say. As an author he has expanded quite a bit. The Blade Itself didn’t have a female character show up until the book was a third over, Half a King has men and women with agency doing important things throughout. And the sex, gore, and profanity are toned down quite a bit. But as I said before, this is truly a work of the author; and lack of gore doesn’t mean lack of grimness nor violence. I would assume it will make some new converts, but not win over everyone.

Should my (insert age here) kid be reading this? Hell if I know, but I am guessing they will enjoy it. I know I would have eaten it up as soon as I could get my hands on. Take that for what you will.

It is everything I was hoping for; it sure is wonderful to have expectations met. Another winner for the Grimdark lord.

And that cover. A snowflake sword on black? Just striking. Damn good.

5 Stars

Copy for review received from NetGalley.

Fantasy Review: ‘Red Country’ by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is a standalone within an already established fantasy universe.  It MAY be possible to read without having read The First Law, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes, but there would be huge chunks of back story missing.

Abercrombie is my favorite of the new group of “gritty” fantasy authors, and has improved in each book.  To enjoy his writing a reader will need to have a dark sense of humor, tolerance of a high body count, and be OK with the knowledge bad things happen to not just good people, but all people in this world.  If this interests you, start reading The Blade Itself, then when you have caught up come back to this review.

While the First Law trilogy was a complete deconstruction of fantasy cliches, Red Country is a blend of Western trope deconstruction(as in the Wild West, Louis L’amour, and the movie Unforgiven) and a fantasy world slowly moving into the start of an industrial age.  The basics of most westerns involve an early murder, abduction, or robbery, then a posse goes out to round up the bad guys, and justice is served!  This is the blueprint the book follows, while twisting every piece of it.  The posse includes as many bad guys as good, the ‘savages’ are people doing what they can to hold onto what they have, and women do more than stand around waiting for the cowboys to do everything.  And if you know this author, you know the definition of justice being served may not be the same for every character.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the subtle way that each chapter had a theme of sorts.  Examples include a chapter that jumps between POV’s quickly, showing several minor characters thinking about what reasons they believe themselves to be the best man in the company, or a chapter in which several characters have something uniquely high stake on the line. 

The book is humorous at times, fairly quick paced, and does a TON of fan service in bringing back old characters.  While the plot is well contained, in a lot of ways it is obviously a wrap up of series-long story lines in preparation for the next trilogy. 

This author’s earlier works have been criticized for the way women or portrayed(or in the case of First Law, not portrayed at all).  I am the wrong person to discuss this in detail, but will point out that Abercrombie seems to be trying to improve on this.  Including the main character there are multiple females who advance the plot, all with different lives, motivations, and various amount of ability to change their destination within a still patriarchal society.  

Pros: Quick pacing, humor, a well done blend of genres(despite the lack of guns it really does feel like a western), more of what the authors fans already like. 
Cons: A strange betrayal plot in the early going doesn’t pass the logic test, some characters did very little to advance the plot.  The dark world view will certainly not be for every reader.

4 stars, a very enjoyable continuation of the series.