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BOOK REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

REVIEW SUMMARY: The world-building is not as deep as Best Served Cold and The First Law trilogy, and there is a bit of a quick twist at the end but Half a King is a fast paced enjoyable read.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Yarvi, second son of a King, born with only a partial arm, is heading for the ministry when both his father and older brother are killed. As King, he is quickly betrayed, and must survive on his wits as he plots his vengeance.

PROS: Fast paced, with Abercrombie’s expected action and bleak world.
CONS: Not much new in the setting as the world is similar to Abercrombie’s other novels; ending has a convenient twist; could have been an awesome fantasy.
BOTTOM LINE: The world feels familiar, the revenge theme is present again, the ending a bit rushed…but if you enjoyed the worlds of Best Served Cold and The First Law trilogy, you’ll enjoy Half a King, the first novel in the Shattered Sea trilogy as well.

Joe Abercrombie’s world’s are harsh. There is no middle class, only Royalty and those associated with Royalty and the poor, the slaves, the wretched, living in the mud (many of them going “back to the mud”).

So what can Abercrombie do to make one of his world’s worse? He makes one of his lead characters handicapped. Not “Nine Fingers” handicapped but half an arm, unable to hold a shield, in the usual harsh Abercrombie-esque world where warriors rule. Then he makes him a King, and then a slave.

Yarvi is second in line for the throne. With birth deformities which keep him from being a warrior like is father and older brother, he is trained for the “ministry”, to be educated as an advisor to Kings. But when his father and brother are both murdered, he future changes direction and he must try to prove himself a warrior.

His shield was lashed tight about his withered forearm with a sorry mass of strapping, and he clung to the handle with his thumb and one stub of a finger, are already burning to the shoulder from the effort of letting the damn thing dangle.

He gets his butt kicked in the training ground, challenges his opponent again (who is the same age, but well-trained), then selects a champion to take his place. The champion promptly returns the butt kicking that Yarvi received.

“That was ungenerous, my king,” said Uncle Odem, falling into step at his shoulder. “But not unfunny.”

“I’m glad I made you laugh,” grunted Yarvi.

“Much more than that, you made me proud.”

Yarvi glanced sideways and saw his uncle looking back, calm and even. Always he was calm and even as fresh-fallen snow.

“Glorious victories make fine songs, Yarvi, but inglorious ones are no worse once the bards are done with them. Glorious defeats, meanwhile, are just defeats.”

Yarvi is smart but inexperienced, so it is little surprise that, on an invasion to avenge his father and brother, he is betrayed, attacked, and left for drowned as his jumps into the sea. Sold into slavery, he vows revenge and must use his wits to try to escape and seek vengeance.

Without spoilers, the rest of the book follows Yarvi, who was a protected part of the Royals/upper class world, as he works to survive with the dregs of the Shattered Sea world, as a less-than-two-armed slave on a boat that takes him to parts of the world he has only read about, meeting people from other lands.

ALthough this new series has similar themes and action as Abercrombie’s other series, it doesn’t have the depth in the world building. There were lots of characters (like the folks they meet in the snowy north) and parts of the world that were interesting but were touched on briefly as the story rushed on. Yarvi’s “oar-mates” and the other people on the ship are the deepest, most enjoyable characters in the book, but many others were not given much time on the page. At 350 printed pages, it is quite a bit skinnier than each of The First Law books (which were 500-600 pages each). And there is a bit of a twist in the end; maybe I’m getting slow in my old age and missed the foreshadowing.

As a fan of the SF Signal Special Needs in Strange Worlds column (if you haven’t read Sarah’s columns and the guest posts, they are much more interesting than this review 🙂 ) I was hoping this book would be a poster boy for that meme – and it comes close. But Yarvi is portrayed as a bit too clever, and evades most of the butt-kickings that a word like the Shattered Seas would administer. One passage threw me to a flashback of young Conan pushing the grinder round and round in a circle growing up to be Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Jaud pulled their oar, and so did Yarvi, with the calluses thickening even on his crippled hand, his face hardening against the weather and his body turning lean and tough as Trigg’s whip.

This review is based on an Advanced Reader Copy received through NetGalley. I did not realize, since I was reading this as an ARC, that (a) this title was targeted at a Young Adult audience, or (b) that this was the first in a series. That the book is the first in a series makes the twist at the ending a bit more palatable. That this book is somewhere called YA was surprising; I didn’t find the tone different than Abercrombie’s other books, but after reading that it was somewhat classified in that manner, I did realize that there was no sex and little swearing…though there was violence. And it was less complex, less deep…a quicker read.

I for one dislike the classification of books for marketing purposes; my entire family has enjoyed books classified as YA (such as the Percy Jackson series). I did not “notice” that this was YA while reading it blindly. If you are a parent, I would not hesitate to let your young adult read this. According to Abercrombie’s blog, the next book in the series, Half a World, supposedly has sex and some swearing.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

2 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

  1. Matte Lozenge // August 21, 2014 at 6:58 am //

    3.5 is a fair rating. The book was worth a read but it wasn’t near Abercrombie’s “adult” books for quality. It’s not just dumbed down, it’s shoehorned into a pretty generic coming of age plot. And coming of age in Abercrombie’s eyes means being able to kill people hand to hand.

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