Saturday, July 12, 2014

REVIEW: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Original Publication Year: 2014 (July 15)
Genre(s): YA, Fantasy
Series: Shattered Seas #1
Format: E-Advanced Reader Copy from NetGalley.  Thank you!
Narrated By: NA

I first encountered Joe Abercrombie’s books when I read and LOVED his First Law series last year. Half A King is his first foray into young adult literature and I was excited and interested to see what he might do with it.  The First Law series is notable for complicated and majorly flawed characters and for turning epic fantasy conventions on their head.  What havoc would he wreak in YA fantasy?

First the story, which is probably a story you’ll recognize as it’s a common framework in fantasy.  Yarvi is the younger son of a king and he is bound for a lifetime in the ministry. He’s pretty happy about this because it allows him to use his sharp intellect and because he has a deformed hand which makes skill at combat, and other manly pursuits prized in his culture, elusive.  But then his father and older brother are betrayed and killed making Yarvi king for all of week or two before he also is betrayed and left for dead.  He does not die however and he struggles through enslavement and a long journey with a band of unlikely companions in order to win back his crown and avenge his father.  He never wanted to be king but he swore an oath which he feels bound by honor to see through to the end. 

So where do I even begin?  I can say that I spent much of the book feeling disappointed at the generic and simplistic lines it followed.  Yarvi is taken on as a galley slave and makes friends with his bench mates while learning about hard work and growing strong.  When he and his companions escape there’s an arduous journey which forges bonds and there’s a bunch of clumsily handled neon signs pointing towards a romance between Yarvi and a female companion.  The problem is that it all felt a little off.  Yarvi’s anti-hero hero doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the tale as old as time.  I didn’t hate Yarvi but he became increasingly difficult to sympathize with and the morality of his mission less clear cut. 

And then things change.  This book is best experienced, I think, if you don’t read the last few paragraphs below.  So for those of you who don’t want spoilers I will just end the review by saying I ended up really liking the book.  It is not what it at first seems and if you’re feeling a little ho hum through the first half, stick with it because you will be rewarded.  I should also say that my somewhat meh reaction to the first part of the book may have been because I am an adult reader.  I wouldn’t be surprised if younger readers, having less experience of the common fantasy tropes, enjoyed the action of the galley ship and cross country journey.  As always, Abercrombie also does an amazing job creating a fantastic but gritty and real feeling world to set his story in.  So despite my seemingly negative comments above, it is worth checking out!!


If you stick with the book you know that Joe Abercrombie delivers on his reputation in the last 20-30 pages.  The payoff doesn’t come until the last few chapters.  Yarvi never seemed to fit as the hero of this somewhat formulaic hero’s story because he doesn’t fit.  He is not the romantic hero and in fact there is no hero in this story at all except for perhaps stoic, loyal Jaud and misunderstood and noble Ankran.  

Yarvi is very young for much of this story - he is rash and makes oaths that end up requiring him to do horrible things.  He also grows up and realizes that even as a clever boy he was dreadfully stupid.  By the end of the book he understands the weightiness and treachery of oaths and knows his place in the world.  And the world is a pretty ugly place. 

It’s a pretty great denouement which takes what you were expecting and bashes it over the head soundly.  It still only gets 3 stars because the first ¾ of the book were pretty blah for me but as I said above that may have been just because I am an adult reader.  I’ll be very interested to hear what YA readers make of this book! 

Final Verdict:  An epic YA fantasy whose climactic ending makes the somewhat lackluster build up worthwhile. This appears to be the first in a series and I will definitely be interested to see where Abercrombie takes Yarvi next!

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