“You may need two hands to fight someone, but only one to stab them in the back.”
Every so often, I like to wander around Chapters until I find a book that strikes my fancy. These fancy-striking books are usually ones I’ve never heard of, because I like exploring new stories on the off-chance they’re something special.
When I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, I was afraid I’d chosen… poorly. True, it was a rollicking fantasy yarn. True, the world was well established and extremely well thought out. True, there was a lot of detail that didn’t seem particularly important but helped add to the realism of it all. But the book wasn’t anything particularly new or special — at least until I reached page 300, at which point all the pieces snapped together.
It was at that point that I realized I’d been reading a completely different book than the one I bought. And it was glorious.
Half a King starts out as the story of Prince Yarvi, the younger heir to the Black Chair of Gettland and the not-so-proud owner of a crippled left hand. Yarvi is about to take his minister’s exam (it’s a cross between being a doctor and a priest, sort of) when he learns that his father and older brother have been killed by his country’s mortal enemy, Grom-Gil-Gorm.
Yarvi is made king, and he vows to avenge their deaths by raiding a nearby town. During the raid his uncle attempts to kill him and succeeds in taking the throne for himself, à la The Lion King. Though Yarvi manages to survive, he’s sold into slavery.
He becomes an oarslave on the ship South Wind, where he makes a few friends, mans up a little, and eventually is able to improve his situation until he becomes the ship’s store-keeper. When the time is right, he makes his escape along with his friends, and they spend a lengthy amount of time on the run through lands of ice and fire as they attempt to escape from the vindictive ship’s captain and reclaim Yarvi’s throne.
Their escape eventually culminates in a battle with the captain and some of her men, at which time the resident warrior Nobody kills quite a few people, Yarvi succeeds in killing the captain, and one of his friends dies. The survivors are promptly captured by Grom-Gil-Gorm’s men. Yarvi is forced to make a difficult alliance with his enemy to ensure the return of his throne — a deal that will result in many of his people being enslaved or killed — and learns that his enemy was not in fact responsible for his family’s deaths.
Yarvi and his friends sneak back into his home city, at which time Yarvi is reunited with his mother. Together they plot to sneak into the citadel, trap the false king there without his army, and kill everyone standing in the way of the Black Chair. Everything goes according to plan (with a lot more bloodshed than Yarvi was expecting), at least until they finally reach the king. That’s when Nobody reveals himself as Uthil, Yarvi’s supposedly dead oldest uncle and the rightful king of Gettland.
Uthil claims his throne and Yarvi lets him have it, content now that he’s had his revenge. He’s in danger of being exiled for jeopardizing the entire country in his efforts to gain it back, so he requests instead to join the Ministry and forsake his claim to the throne. Yarvi becomes a Brother, and when he returns home, he regretfully kills his instructor as he reveals his knowledge of her part in his family’s deaths and his own betrayal. This makes him a Father in the Ministry, and the story ends with him taking his place at the king’s side where he belongs.
I’ve found that most fantasy books take one of a limited few tacks.
- The character starts out life horribly, discovers a grand destiny, undertakes a grand journey, and ends up happy in a position higher than when they started.
- The character starts out life somewhat all right, discovers there’s more to life than they thought, go through several ups and downs, and end up in a very similar position to the one they started in except now they’re wiser.
- The character is in a great position, falls as far as they can go, claws their way back up, and reclaims what they lost.
Half a King is sort of a combination of all three, as it turns out. And that’s one I haven’t run into before. Yarvi has one of the highest positions in the land, and though he isn’t liked or even respected, he’s reasonably happy with his lot in life as a soon-to-be-minister. Then he’s raised to a position of authority, which he isn’t at all qualified to handle, and brought down to the lowest level of humanity.
Except instead of reclaiming his throne as a stronger, wiser king who would be good for Gettland due to his cunning and wits, Yarvi returns to his starting point with a little more self-confidence and a lot more discernment. Gettland instead has a king just as brutal as Yarvi’s father was, but this time the king will be guided by Yarvi himself, and maybe that will be all right for everyone.
Remember what I said about how this wasn’t the story I thought it was? I was fully expecting Yarvi to claim the throne, even with his withered left hand, because that’s where the story was headed. But it took a sharp left turn on page 300 (really, it’d been blinking the signal light in that direction pretty much the whole way through the book, but I can’t see the forest for the trees) and at once became the story of Uthil, the long-lost king come home.
Instead of being about a lame kid who goes through hard times to become the king he needs to be, this story is about a lame kid who still remains somewhat lame but learns how to minimize his lameness while finding the king that Gettland deserves.
That’s something I’ve always wanted to try, really: an epic story told from the perspective of a side observer, someone who shouldn’t have been part of the action but somehow managed to be included against his better judgement or fervent wishes. Yarvi might have been the protagonist of this story, but he wasn’t really the hero of it. He definitely wouldn’t be in the eyes of his people.
To me, that felt worth writing about. The characters are strong and well written, especially Yarvi himself, who starts out as a whining, snivelling boy and becomes a determined, sometimes cold-hearted man. I especially enjoyed Rulf and Jaud, who were the Timon and Pumbaa of this narrative; Shaddikshirram, who was a bloody but blackly hilarious ship’s captain; and Nobody, who seemed to be a maniacal, sword-wielding psychopath until he became a maniacal, sword-wielding king.
I also liked the tentative, barely-there relationship between Yarvi and Sumael. There’s nothing more than a brief hand-holding between them, but Yarvi tries to keep her safe by pushing her away. And even though he knows exile would mean he could be with her, Yarvi instead joins the Ministry because he knows that’s where he’s needed. As so many heroic types do, he places the needs of his country over the needs of his heart and lives with the consequences of that decision.
And it’s a great world, where shadows of an ancient civilization loom over the everyday, where a king’s brutality and strength in battle means more than his wits, where slavery is industry and burning corpses is efficiency, where men’s loyalties shift like sand in the wind, where the people we’re cheering for have less honour than the people they’re fighting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely parts of the story that could use improvement. Some of the craft is a little more characteristic of a debut writer than of the New York Times bestselling author who actually wrote it, as is the grammar at times. I also don’t understand the necessity of making the characters go through volcanic lands immediately after the icy lands, apart from painting a picture of the world for future books.
But those things aside, this was a great read that kept me turning the pages for hours on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. That’s quite the accomplishment, and I can’t wait to spend another Saturday reading Half the World, the next book in the series (which seems to be told from the POV of an Arya-type character, so you might very well be stuck reading about that next week).
Final Grade: B+
- I don’t understand why there was a note about type at the end of the book. I don’t actually care what font the book was written in. I’m sure some of my designer friends would be all over the fact that Fournier was named for some guy who did things with type, but… *pats pockets* …I’m afraid I just don’t have any bothers to give.
- I like that in proper books, the characters aren’t all drop-dead gorgeous. That just doesn’t happen in real life. People are flawed and broken, but when we care about them, we find them attractive. That’s how it really works, and the book reflected that beautifully.
- I found a neat theory that says the Shattered Sea series actually takes place in Earth’s distant future. Check out some discussion here.
- I really like the religion in the book. I like the idea of their god having broken into thousands of little pieces: six Tall Gods, four hundred Small Gods, the first man and woman, and Death, who guards the Last Door. I like the warring idea of a monotheistic religion. And I really, really like how he planned everything and keeps it all straight. I wonder if Abercrombie has a list somewhere that includes four hundred minor gods and their purposes. With the level of detail in the story, though, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. That is all.