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Review of Half a King
Yarvi, Prince of Gettland with a mangled hand, is ready to give up his claim to the throne and take an oath to be a minister and serve the land as a councilor and emissary of peace. Instead, his father and brother are assassinated, leaving him as king and having to swear a blood-oath to avenge his murdered family. Yarvi knows he doesn’t command the respect of his warlike people and is soon betrayed, nearly assassinated himself and sold into slavery as an oarsman, sailing the Shattered Sea.
Thrust into a life of more extreme cruelty and desperation than he ever imagined, Yarvi turns to his best weapon: his mind. He begins to weave plots and manipulate his piratical owner because all his has now dreams of vengeance and the memory of his oath. As he says, “I may be half a man, but I can swear a whole oath” (42). He desires to at least once in his life not fail at his task, and he knows the Shattered Sea form a circle. One day he’ll be brought back to his home and the people that betrayed him, and he plans to be ready for them.
A Whole Oath
In many ways, Half a King fits well with Abercrombie’s previous efforts. There’s plenty of violence. If he bloodshed doesn’t reach the same scale as The Heroes or Last Argument of Kings, he makes up for it with a strange sort of intimacy. Yarvi is a particularly sensitive young man, and the suddenness and ferocity of many violent scenes shocks him, even when he’s directly involved. Similarly, there are a few interesting turns in the plot that come close to twists in Best Served Cold, Abercrombie’s previous extended meditation on the questionable virtues of revenge. The setting of the Shattered Sea is a rich world that seems just as lived-in if not more so than his setting for the First Law novels. The sense of place is strong among the characters, and Yarvi with his education and inquisitive mind makes for a good guide to it.
In comparison to Abercrombie’s other novels, Half a King is remarkably chaste. Yarvi is a young man, self-conscious and awkward in his few attempts at romance, and there’s almost no hint of sexual relations among characters otherwise, which is a departure from the First Law novels where oftentimes, carnal encounters were the most honest interactions characters could hope for. This general lack of sexual desire seems to mute a human element, leaving a void to be filled by violence, revenge, and, at least in Yarvi’s case, a craving for approval. Perhaps in correlation with less sex, there are few narrative protagonists. The concentration on Yarvi keeps the book focused and the page count much lower than any of Abercrombie’s previous books, but it also means the audience really only has one window into this world. Some readers may be willing to exchange plot speed for an additional view and more details, especially when the Shatter Sea seems like such an interesting setting.
Half a King is also an odd exercise in the theory that all fantasy writing is essentially post-apocalyptic. Everything that happens around the Shattered Sea takes place in the shadow of a greater, extinct civilization. Everything that people have made seems petty and diminished when compared to the Elf-ruins that often form the basis of what the present people have built. Seeing a capital city, Yarvi notes, “The elf-ruin might have been stupendous, but the parts of Skekenhouse that men built seemed quite a disappointment” (94). This sense of entropy and destitution give the Shattered Sea a marginally different flavor than the First Law books. There’s always a hint of alienation, that these people were not the first to live here and that their efforts will always be inferior to those of their ancestors. While this sense has been common in fantasy since Tolkien, in this novel is works as a thematic mirror to Yarvi, who always feels inferior to the deeds of his forbearers. This sense of shame, though, does not reach the pitch-black depths of despair and self-loathing that Abercrombie has explored in Best Served Cold and Red Country. As always in his work, however, the morality is grey and complicated. Even treacherous characters are revealed to have reasonable motives, and not all of Yarvi’s actions can be classified as heroic. As one character says, “If life has taught me one thing, it’s that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best” (321). A summation, perhaps, that goes for all of Abercrombie’s works.
Around the Shattered Sea
Because of its compact and focused construction, Half a King is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in getting into Abercrombie’s work or for fantasy genre enthusiasts looking for something new and exciting. Long-time fans of Abercrombie will likely enjoy it even if the novel does come in a little less full than they might have been expecting. If nothing else, though, previous readers can see the author play around in a new setting with new characters.
Abercrombie, Joe. Half a King. Del Rey: New York, 2014.
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