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Review: Half a King [UPDATED]

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@HarperVoyagerUK – London Comic Con

Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King releases in North America today so we’re posting an updated version of our preview.  Not exactly a re-preview.  More of a… review.

I promise it’s  not just an excuse to share the current obsessions of our household mashed up as a spooky pop meta tulpa on the other side of the world.

I mean, it’s that, too.  Behold Princess Anna and Queen Elsa of Arendelle, time traveling fictionauts on a diplomatic mission to Gettland!  Okay, let’s get to the review:

 

“It began with the tea,” the Hatter replied.

 “I swore an oath to avenge the death 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. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

Half a King is grimdark young adult secondary world fantasy.  That’s a jargony way of telling you how it will be shelved and marketed.

Yarvi is the second son of a stern king and an intimidating queen, born with an only partially formed hand which left him without a place in a world where a strong sword arm and a stout shield for one’s shoulder man define masculinity.  Trained as a minister – something of a þyle, and a position otherwise notably occupied solely by women – his wit, and a good singing voice, are all he has.  He’s excited and relieved to exchange his birthright for a life of service… so that birthright is thrust upon him one day before he can.

This is the kind of thing I think longtime readers expect from Joe Abercrombie.  In fantasy, reaching the heights of power is often a goal.  Here it’s the last thing the protagonist wants.   It’s kind of retirony turned on its head.  Deployed at the beginning of a story, of a life, rather than the end along with an increase in status rather than the promise of death, we’re left to wonder what awaits.

“He had always been weak, but he never felt truly powerless until they made him a king.”

Abercrombie is in full command of his craft with this book.  I came to know his work as gritty, dismal, and violent long before I’d actually read any of it.  And that’s fair up to a point.  It’s even applicable here to some extent, but it is and always has been in the service of story and character.

The setting isn’t grim to excite some base sadism of the audience or overwhelm its sympathy.  The world is painted in dull tones under overcast skies to mirror the inner world of the protagonist.  Setting mirrors set.  Kings are murdered on dark and stormy nights.  If Yarvi’s thoughts are also turbulent, his assessment of his situation stygian, so much the better.

When his world is turned upside down, Yarvi retreats upward to the aviary, the hub of inter-kingdom communication, in order to be alone.  The last refuge of the life he must leave behind is quite literally shitty.  And yet it’s this uppermost point in the kingdom, not the uppermost position he’s been forced into, that he prefers.  And it’s here that he served Mother Gundring, his father’s minister.  Here he’ll discover the true extent of betrayal.

Shattered Sea MapBeginnings and endings stretch out before and behind this story.  To say that Yarvi comes full circle is to vastly understate the skill with which Abercrombie has worked that concept  into the narrative.  It engages a type of reading and recognition of structure that  informs what’s coming, what’s come before, and what that means.  Even the shape of the world, or at least the portion of it involved in the narrative, mirrors the shape of the story.

Yarvi travels clockwise until a literal and structural reversal of fortune sends it back the other way.  On this subsequent anti-clockwise haul, the Yarvi of the past is unmade, dispelled, disillusioned.  I’m sure that many reviewers will note, correctly, how the content emphasizes the adult in young adult, and how refreshing that might be.  But this could be the rare fantasy book that makes it into the classroom on the strength of its workmanship.

His previous work could be described as an intricate tapestry of interwoven threads.  Half a King is more focused but no less impressive.  This novel is more personal, the world through one pair of eyes, a single thread woven tighter, stronger.

Abercrombie fans will not be disappointed.  Newcomers will likely become fans.

Recommended for readers who like Unferð, Gríma, and Gunnlaugr.

The first seven chapters of Half a King are available online.

The second book, Half the World, pictured, will be published in February 2015.

Abercrombie tweeted that it had been turned in to the publisher on July 9th.

The first line is:

He hesitated just an instant, but long enough for Thorn to club him in the balls with the rim of her shield.

The final installment, Half a War, is scheduled for Fall 2015.

I look forward to both.

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