Half a King is the first book in the Shattered Sea trilogy by New York Times bestselling fantasy author Joe Abercrombie, who has also written The First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. This latest novel, his first YA book, will be followed by Half the World in February 2015. Half a War, the conclusion to the trilogy, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2015.
Prince Yarvi plans to sit beside the Black Chair of the king someday rather than on it. Born with a partial hand in a kingdom that values fighting ability, he does not feel suited to the role of king and is much more comfortable using his mind. He has been training to be part of the Ministry under the tutelage of Mother Gundring, the Minister who currently serves as an adviser to his father. Soon he will take the test, and as Mother Gundring’s brightest student there’s no doubt in her mind he’ll pass and become Brother Yarvi, giving up his place as the second son in the line to the throne completely.
In the way such things often come to pass in stories, Yarvi’s father and brother are both murdered shortly before he is to take the test and he becomes King Yarvi. At their funeral, Yarvi swears vengeance on their murderers. After the ceremony, he and his warriors sail to seek revenge against Grom-gil-Gorm, the leader who killed their king—and Yarvi is betrayed by someone close to him, who tries to murder him and would have succeeded if the young king hadn’t fallen to the rocks below and been assumed dead. Yarvi is found and presented to Grom-gil-Gorm himself as one of the attackers but wisely hides his identity by pretending to be a cook’s boy. He’s given to a slaver, who sells him to a couple of men seeking a rower for their captain’s ship—but he cannot give up his dreams of escape and vengeance against his father’s murderers and his own betrayers.
Half a King is the fifth book I’ve read by Joe Abercrombie and perhaps the most enjoyable, though I also enjoyed the others (for context, the other four I’ve read are the First Law Trilogy and Best Served Cold). It’s not an incredibly original book or one with a lot of depth, but it is one that handles familiar elements well and manages to be at least somewhat unpredictable. I think it works for three reasons: the writing is full of personality and entertaining phrasing, Yarvi is a likable underdog who is easy to sympathize with, and the book is exactly the right length for the story being told without a single chapter seeming overly long or unnecessary. Half a King was simply an engrossing book that left me glad there is not a long wait for the second book in the trilogy.
Joe Abercrombie is known for writing grim books, and Half a King is lighter than his other books I’ve read. It’s certainly not happy—half of Yarvi’s family is killed, then he’s betrayed, nearly killed himself, and made into a slave even before some of the darker turns toward the end—but Yarvi does find friends along the way and they face various obstacles together. Yarvi is also a character it’s easy to root for since he’s forced into a situation that really isn’t what he wants when he’s made king, only to end up in an even worse situation when he is no longer a king. He’s also an outcast, not just because of the way he is viewed because of his hand, but also because his personality doesn’t fit with society’s expectations for a prince or king. While his brother and father reveled in war, Yarvi is sickened by what he sees during his first wartime experience. After all, he has been training to serve Father Peace as part of the Ministry instead of Mother War.
Though it is a successful way to make readers feel connected to a character, this is not a new concept in fantasy; many books have featured protagonists who do not fit into the mold their culture creates, particularly characters living in societies in which men are expected to be mighty warriors. What I did find a little unusual for a country in fantasy headed by a patriarchy valuing fighting skill was that women did seem to have significant influence and power despite there being an obvious division between men’s and women’s roles in the society. (Throughout Yarvi’s adventures elsewhere, there is a woman who captains a ship and fights with a sword as well as a woman who leads her people so I am specifically discussing the customs in his homeland.) Often, societies in fantasy that value strength in men seem to have them at the front and center of all other important roles as well, such as advising the king or managing the country’s affairs.
In Half a King, the Ministers–who acquire a range of knowledge and skills and serve as advisers to kings–are generally women. While Yarvi’s father was clearly the one considered the primary ruler of the two as his death resulted in his son’s ascension to the Black Chair, Yarvi’s mother Laithlin seems to be far more powerful and influential in reality as the renowned “Golden Queen” whose financial skills and strong integrity made the country prosperous. When King Yarvi is betrothed, his bride-to-be’s primary concern has nothing to do with her relationship with the king—it’s living up to the example set by this Golden Queen, revered and even worshiped for her cleverness and competence at managing the entire kingdom. She isn’t in this book very much, but I hope Laithlin is in the next book more since she seems like one of the more interesting characters.
Actually, the adult characters were both numerous and compelling, which I think is unusual for a YA book. Nothing, a slave on the ship with Yarvi, is more restricted than the others because the captain learned firsthand that he can do a lot of damage on his own, and he also has quite the mysterious past. The ship’s captain, Ebdel Aric Shadikshirram, is a little too over-the-top with her constant drunkenness and proclamations of her greatest weakness being her mercy, but she is entertaining and seems like one who may have had a rather colorful past (even if roughly three quarters of it was made up or embellished).
The fantasy aspects of the world are generic and not incredibly well-fleshed out, but I did get the feeling that this was just an introduction to the setting and the world is waiting to be opened up and explored in future installments. This may be due to the skill with which the book was paced and wrapped up: it seemed just long enough for the story told, and it also concluded in a satisfying manner without closing the door to sequels.
While I find it likely that the rest of the trilogy will delve further into the world, I think this particular book is best read for narrative voice, dialogue, and the occasional plot twist. Half a King is not a terribly unique story, but the way it was told made it a very engaging familiar story—one that’s just the right length, diverting, and filled with some interesting personalities. I’m glad there is not a long wait for Half the World.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.