Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

half-a-kingHalf a King (Shattered Sea #1) by Joe Abercrombie, published in 2014 by HarperCollins Voyager.

Author. Goodreads. Amazon. Book Depository. Barnes & Noble.

Source: purchased (by my husband).

Genre: YA high fantasy.

“I swore an oath to be avenged on the killers of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath” 

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver. Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He 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 and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper? But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy… (Goodreads)

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My rating: 4.5/5.

So this was a wonderful surprise! Joe Abercrombie is a bit of a sore spot when I try to discuss him with my husband. A. absolutely adores his books but I’ve only ever been moderately interested in them. I’ve read The First Law trilogy and while the beginning seemed promising and I liked the cast of characters, I was seriously disappointed by the ending (I felt the characters never changed one bit and everything was sort of stuck in place, and I hated the way he treated his women). So I was fully prepared to leave Joe’s books be, and never read another – my tbr pile is too high for me to give time to average authors. But then Joe went and wrote a YA book! Curiosity got the better of me – and I’m really glad it did.

In The First Law trilogy, I got the feeling that Abercrombie relied heavily on the fact that gore, guts, and loads of swearing make for an interesting combination in writing. But take those away and the story immediately feels inadequate, at least to me. This is why I was so very interested in his attempt to write YA – the age group restrictions would prevent such crude language, so Joe had to change his tactics. The result is very different from what I expected: while I still see the similarities with his earlier works, this time his writing really impressed me. I think I’ll have to read the three books he wrote between that first trilogy and this one so I can experience his evolution as a writer – a lot must have changed!

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So let’s talk about Half a King. I loved the characters. Like I said, I liked the characters of his first trilogy as well and Joe realy has a way with shaping his heroes (I think he’s a psychologist by profession originally, but please don’t quote me on that).

Prince Yarvi, the protagonist, is a slightly crippled boy who has the misfortune of growing up in a society where wielding a sword is worth much more than wielding words. He’s been raised on a steady diet of cruelty and harsh humiliation, interspersed with nuggets of wisdom such as this one: “Once, after his father had hit him in a rage, Yarvi’s mother had found him crying. The fool strikes, she had said. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.” 

I can’t really go into the plot without spoiling it for you so I’ll just say I had huge fun following Yarvi on his unwanted adventure – and I especially enjoyed the way he developed as a person. The cast of secondary characters is wonderful as well. I love how Abercrombie spins the tale of morals, survival and growing up, spiced up with a healthy sense of irony and humor. 

Abercrombie’s writing has been thoroughly cleaned of elements that were his crutch in his earlier works, but instead of being the poorer for it, he found his true voice. Looky here: “Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lenghtening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.” This is some beautiful prose, people.

I would thoroughly recommend Half a King to anyone who wishes to read some good YA high fantasy. I’m planning on reading Joe’s other books, so you can expect some reviews here, but I have no idea when. :) I’m also curious whether the remainder of this new series, The Shattered Sea will feature more Yarvi or not. We’ll see!

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Have you read this book? How about Joe’s other books? 

Tell me what you thought about them – I’d love to compare notes!  

  • I seem to remember Abercrombie talking about listening to/reading criticism of his female characters, and working a lot harder on that in his more recent books. How was that in this one?

    • Kaja

      That was one of the things that bothered me very much when I read the first trilogy. Half a King was *way* better in this regard (women with actual voice and power), but Joe’s still no revolutionary when it comes to feminism. Yarvi still lives in a war-loving patriarchy, so… Nothing very innovative in this sphere.
      A. told me the standalone novels that come after that first trilogy are better – I think one has a female protagonist who’s an assassin or something – but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s equality in that world or anything.
      I guess I’ll have to read them and see!