The publication of a new Joe Abercrombie novel is a cause for celebration and cheers. Abercrombie is one of the finest fantasy authors in the business, and I would not be surprised that he reached George R.R. Martin levels of fame some years down the road.
The latest reason for celebration and cheers is Half a King; the first book of a planned YA trilogy. The thought of letting our youth read a Joe Abercrombie novel makes me cringe. He’s known for his epic, gory, exciting battle scenes. He’s known for his sharp and witty dialog (most of it for mature eyes only). When I heard Half a King was intended as a YA book, I worried that it would be a watered down, less interesting version of Abercrombie. I worried that the ‘edge’ with which Abercrombie writes with, that helps distinguish him above other grimdark authors, would disappear.
Were my fears unfounded? Mostly.
Half a King is the story of young Prince Yarvi. His left hand is deformed and twisted, and is cruelly mocked and ridiculed despite his high place as royalty. His father is king, but after the king is killed in battle, Yarvi has the crown thrust upon him. This does not sit well with his uncle, and the uncle attempts to assassinate Yarvi. Yarvi escapes and is sold into slavery. He declares an oath of revenge. The machinations and execution of this revenge sits the stage for most of the book.
“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”
At a high level, most of the plot is standard revenge/heroes journey fare. A motley band of misfits form together to help Yarvi exact his revenge. But the pleasure is in the details. Abercrombie is one of the best when it comes to world building and creating memorable characters. Yarvi’s misfits each have interesting and believable personalities. The villians are well-defined and their motivations are clear. Particularly amusing is the captain of the Southwind, a drunken, cruel rogue who is oddly charming.
There’s a bit of a twist at the end that didn’t surprise me but did catch me off guard. I also enjoyed the way Abercrombie resolves his heroes’ journey. And there is a sad and reflective coda where Yarvi gets his final bit of revenge that struck an emotional chord and goes to show how much Yarvi has grown over the course of the novel (oh, right, I forgot to mention this is also a classic coming-of-age story).
There is a noticeable lack of swearing in Half a King. The amazing battle sequences and fights are toned down to the point of vanilla and mostly occurs off screen (I missed this stuff the most). I didn’t quite buy that all of Yarvi’s misfits would follow him like they did, but I guess it is good that they did, otherwise, there wouldn’t be a novel.
So, yes, I would call Half a King as ‘Abercrombie-lite’. Yes, I would consider this the weakest novel in the impressive Abercrombie bibliography. Despite these two opinions, I fully enjoyed Half a King. I look forward to book 2. And I definitely encourage anyone who are already fans of Lord Grimdark or anyone who is considering jumping into Lord Grimdark’s novels to give Half a King a full chance.
***I read Half a King via the audiobook edition. The narration is top notch.