Half a King
by Joe Abercrombie
Like George Martin, Joe Abercrombie writes grim dark fantasy that deconstructs many of the tropes that were used in fantasy literature post-Tolkien. I think this was necessary. How many times can one really read about ancient evil returning, kindly old wizards, grim but loyal warriors who never use their strength to do wrong or incompetent sheep herdsmen who turn out to be the lost heir/chosen one/world savior that everyone has been awaiting? After a while it gets predictable. In his First Law trilogy Abercrombie, like Martin and to a degree Moorcock before him, overturned all the chairs in the stuffy old temple of fantasy literature, using his sharp whips of cynicism and realism to drive out the lazy moneychanging clones of Tolkien and Anderson. However in his trilogy and a few of the stories he's written since then I thought that occasionally Abercrombie could go too far in the other direction where everything that happens is bad and everyone is only out for himself or herself. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that that wasn't the case in his book Half a King. Prince Yarvi is the second son of King Uthrik. Yarvi is an ongoing disappointment to his cold and stereotypically masculine father. Yarvi not only lacks the aggression, leadership qualities and violent streak much prized in men by his people, but even if he had those things it's unclear as to whether he could use them. Yarvi was born with a clubhand and withered forearm (on his left if memory serves correctly) and thus can't really properly bear a shield, swing a two handed battleaxe, or perform many of the military or athletic activities that are expected in men of his class and nation. In open despair, Yarvi once moaned to his father that he didn't ask to be born with half a hand. His father coolly replied that he didn't ask for half a son. There are only three close people in Yarvi's life who show something besides quiet contempt for him. They are (1) his beautiful, intelligent, perceptive and occasionally cruel mother Laithlin, who constantly gives Yarvi lessons on pragmatism and leadership, (2) his watchful uncle Odem who is one of the few people who doesn't laugh or turn away in disgust when Yarvi ineptly practices battle skills, and (3) Mother Gundring, who is the ruling family's minister (think doctor, biologist, philosopher, librarian, lawyer, advisor, and priest all in one person).
Ministers do not marry or hold any political office. They sire or bear no children. They can not inherit or pass on property. So Yarvi, recognizing that this lifestyle fits him better than being a prince, is studying to become a minister. He's actually quite smart. Yarvi's father has many years left to his reign. And Yarvi's older gruff, occasionally bullying brother is the heir. Being a minister and being apart from his relatives would make Yarvi and his family both very happy.
Those plans go out of the proverbial window when Yarvi's brother and father are murdered in a treacherous attack by a rival king. Suddenly Yarvi's the new king. And the obvious thing to do is to lead a war party to avenge his loved ones', (well related ones' anyway) deaths. His grieving mother will accept no less; her reputation for vengeance is scarcely less than that of her late husband. She married a M-A-N. She'll be damned if anyone claims she didn't raise one. However things don't exactly go the way Yarvi wanted. In short time he finds himself sold into slavery and thought to be dead by his kinfolk. His situation worsens from there. Yarvi must deal with some seemingly impossible odds to get vengeance for his murdered relatives and now himself. He says "I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man but I swore a whole oath." Yarvi will discover if the political skills he's picked up from listening to his mother and minister or by reading his books are enough to survive in a world where weakness is routinely mocked, exploited and destroyed. Can his mind protect him? This book was concise and packed full of humor where you would least expect it. It's also a mystery procedural though you may not even realize that until later in the book. Abercrombie leaves little asides and clues throughout the text that you may or may not recognize. As usual, Abercrombie has written well crafted characters of both genders, both evil and good. One prominent villainess combines Scarlet O'Hara's florid and grandiloquent speech with Simon Legree's brutal nature. No woman is just waiting around to be rescued, but Abercrombie didn't write women who are men in drag either. I liked this book. It's a coming of age story. It tones down some of Abercrombie's trademark grimdark cynicism. There is betrayal and evil in this world. But there is also selflessness, sacrifice and even love. I found Abercrombie's creation in Half a King more realistic than a world where everyone is backstabbing each other the second they get the chance. Humans are all a mixture of devils and angels. Good and evil furiously churn in the same person. Although the softcover version clocked in at just over 300 pages, Half a King is a very quick read. You will definitely want to know what happens next. The text size was pretty large so the page count is not truly an accurate indicator of the story length.
I had heard that this story was aimed at younger readers but given the mayhem I'm not sure if that was truly the case. Or perhaps younger readers are more inured to offhand descriptions of men being cleaved from head to chin than I thought they were. This is the first in a trilogy but is also complete in itself.