Yarvi, crippled second prince of a warrior kingdom, is a disgrace to his parents and considered unfit to rule—which is perfectly all right with him. He prefers to study diplomacy and religion as an apprentice to his father’s Minister, and intends to become a Minister himself. When his father and older brother are betrayed and murdered, Yarvi is forced to hastily assume kingship. Everyone around him, secretly or openly, thinks him unequal to the job, and Yarvi agrees, but he’s the only rightful ruler left. His first act as ruler is to take a vow of vengeance and lead a raid against his father and brother’s killer, but that ends in Yarvi himself being betrayed far from home and left for dead. The road home is hard and dangerous, and Yarvi gains toughness, manipulative cunning, and a surprising group of allies along the way.
Half a King is dark fantasy done well. The world in which it is set is a harsh one, full of violence and injustice. The story doesn’t shy away from that, but doesn’t wallow in it either. The strong rule the weak, those who can’t protect themselves get sold into slavery or worse, and there’s little room for kindness and compassion. These elements are presented bluntly, without either moralizing or glossing them over. They’re part of the story, but they’re not what it’s all about; it’s a gritty book, not a downer.
Abercrombie walked a fine line in writing Yarvi. He’s a very passive character in the beginning of the book, with many of his decisions being made for him. He blames most of his troubles on his barely-functional hand, and waxes self-pitying and self-loathing about it so often that I lost track of every instance. (In all fairness, he was raised in a culture where physical combat ability is everything, and the only prominent fighting style requires two hands, by parents who withheld demonstrations of love and approval because of his deformed hand. There’s no way a kid gets through that without some issues.) As Yarvi becomes a stronger person over the course of the book, he doesn’t necessarily become a more likable one. Sympathetic, certainly, but with a growing deviousness and ruthlessness that makes the book seem very much like a villain backstory. He’s not unaware of it, either.
Yarvi gets most of the character development, but the supporting cast is well-fleshed out. Not one of them is everything they appear to be at first; although with some, it’s more obvious than others. Nothing might as well have been introduced with a sign reading “fallen warrior” taped to his forehead. Coupled with the two or three references to Yarvi’s long-dead uncle, it’s not hard to put two and two together. The big twists seem to come out of nowhere, but are foreshadowed by cleverly dropped blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hints. Yarvi has a love interest of sorts in navigator and fellow slave Sumael, but it’s a fairly unimportant subplot and never hijacks the story. The female characters are just as well-written as the male, running the gamut from the cold, savvy Queen Laithlinn to the drunken, delusional, and rather lecherous merchant captain of the ship on which Yarvi becomes an oar slave.
The writing flows well, and the sensory descriptions—particularly of the sea, and snow—are immersive in their effectiveness. Fittingly for a story of a character whose primary strength is his intelligence and cunning, there are fairly few straight-up action sequences; these communicate the speed and violence of battle without being choppy or difficult to follow. The style is a little odd and almost musical, which works for the majority of the book. It does fall flat occasionally, and (at least in this edition of the book) there were words used in a way that left me wondering if they were the result of typos or not. Not all readers will appreciate the way Abercrombie hyphenates two words (sick-sour, etc.) to get a visual or sensation across, but it meshes well with the rest of his writing style.
The mythology and setting of the Shattered Sea, despite being completely fictional, are familiar enough that the reader doesn’t need large amounts of exposition dumped on them to understand. There isn’t any particularly mind-blowing world-building in evidence, but what’s there is solid. The kingdoms of the Shattered Sea have an obvious Viking influence, but not to the point that it feels like a lazy relabeling of a real culture. The concept of the original god being broken into aspects is intriguing, as is what little information is given about the elves; it would be great to see this history explored more. Religious conflict is a driving force of the political maneuvering in the background of the story, and is explored just enough to give the reader something to think about without feeling like they’ve been beaten over the head. There are no grand messages about good and evil in this story, but Abercrombie doesn’t use that as an excuse to ignore moral dilemmas, as evidenced by moments like Yarvi’s discomfiting realization that he has gone back to thinking of oar slaves as tools, even after being one.
Most of the elements in Half a King have been done before, but they’re put together well and make for a story that will pull you right in and take you for quite a ride if given the chance. Readers who don’t typically like fantasy, or who prefer the more realistic end of the fantasy spectrum, should definitely give it a try. The themes of seeking acceptance and belonging, and uncovering inner strength through hardship, will resonate with just about anyone. He’s not a hero (nor is he quite an anti-hero), but Yarvi is a protagonist the reader ends up rooting for. Seeing how he turns out is a major draw for reading the next two books in the series.
– Reviewed by Rachel C.
N/A, nominated for the 2015 David Gemmell Legend award
“As in all Abercrombie’s books, friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends; the line between good and evil is murky indeed; and nothing goes quite as we expect. With eye-popping plot twists and rollicking good action, Half a King is definitely a full adventure.” – Rick Riordan
“Polished and sharp, perhaps his most technically proficient novel yet . . . I dare you to read the first chapter and try not to turn the next page.”- Brent Weeks
“A fast-paced tale of betrayal and revenge that grabbed me from page 1 and refused to let go.”- George R. R. Martin
In Half a King, one of the sources of conflict is the high king’s attempt to impose a new monotheistic religion on people who follow a well-established polytheistic one. There are plenty of examples throughout history of real kings and leaders trying to do this, with varying levels of success and resulting violence or upheaval. Topics for discussion and research from this starting point include: possible motives (religious or not) for a ruler trying to change a country’s religion, how these campaigns succeeded or failed and why, and which specific events might have inspired those in the story, if any.
What do readers—especially those who are also writers—think of Abercrombie’s slightly strange use of hyphenated adjectives to describe certain sensory details? Are there single words that would have conveyed the same meaning, and would they have made the sentences more or less effective? Literature classes or book clubs with a more critical bent might try finding some of these usages and rewriting them without the hyphenated adjectives, to see how differently they read.