Friday, 14 March 2014

‘Half a King’ – Joe Abercrombie (Harper Voyager/Del Rey)

‘I swore an oath to be avenged on the killers 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 itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand.
Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.
But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy…

Joe Abercrombie must be the only writer I know who takes a sabbatical and ends up using it to write three more books; me must be approaching the same level of output as Brandon Sanderson, albeit with a hell of a lot more grit and (for my money) ultimately better written tales. Genre circles online have been all abuzz with talk of this new series; mostly because it’s by Joe Abercrombie but also because the series is aimed at the Young Adult market and that’s a departure from his fantasy novels which are most definitely adult in tone.
It’s been so long since I read a YA book that I couldn’t even tell you what the genre does anymore; I’ll admit to half formed ideas of Yarvi going to a new school and possibly falling in love with a vampire while his parents separate. See? I told you it had been a while. Despite this complete lack of knowledge, I was anticipating changes in Abercrombie’s plot delivery and was interested to see how it all ended up. Plus it’s a Joe Abercrombie book, of course I was going to read it.

Reading ‘Half a King’ then, I was surprised to see just how little of the delivery actually changes. The swearing isn’t there (no ‘shit’ here, it’s ‘soil’) but that’s about it; Abercrombie does pretty much the same thing he always does and the end result is pretty much the same as it always is (if it ain’t broke and all that..) ‘Half a King’ is a very engaging opening to a trilogy that is promising good things already.

‘Half a King’ is another ‘rites of passage/coming of age’ tale and what better place to test all those themes than in one of Abercrombie’s settings; a typically brutal world where might takes right and a relative will happily have you thrown out of a castle (shades of ‘Best Served Cold’ there) if he thinks it will advance his own ambitions. That’s Yarvi’s world and he has to make his way in it so he can fulfil his oath without dying first. You can see the ending coming (Yarvi is clearly going to be around for the next book at least) but what Abercrombie does with Yarvi in the meantime is what you end up staying to see.
Abercrombie strikes a fine balance with Yarvi, a young man up against it from the very start but with the brains to win through if he can think quicker than an axe swing. Yarvi is clearly quick on his feet but is also clearly a short term thinker; in a sense he has to be (his life depends on it) but Abercrombie also uses this to paint a vivid picture of a slightly bewildered teenager coming to grips with the fact that actions, and rashly sworn oaths, always have consequences. These consequences are what you would expect from a Joe Abercrombie novel, a very solid foundation then to build on what already looks like a very interesting character (and likeable too, not what I was expecting at all).

The story itself sometimes feels as linear as the route Yarvi and his friends take around the Shattered Sea (Abercrombie isn’t one for maps but does like to show readers his creation here) but it has enough twists and little cliff hangers for you not to worry about that too much. What I particularly enjoyed were the little clues that Abercrombie hides in plain sight which cast new light on the plot at just the right moment. Add in some brutal close combat and you have yourself a tale that I couldn’t get enough of. I couldn’t and now I’m eagerly anticipating ‘Half the World’, if only to see if Yarvi has learnt some lessons or not. Maybe he has but I suspect he will be learning some new ones.

‘Half a King’ is published at the beginning of July by Harper Voyager over here and Del Rey in the US. You’ve been looking at the US cover, by the way, as I couldn’t find a UK cover anywhere…

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