It’s fitting then, that Half a King is quite viking in tone and setting. It’s a book set in cruel lands plagued by snow and ice. Lands where the weak are killed or enslaved, where a man’s ability to stand as part of shield wall is the measure of his worth.
Yarvi can’t stand in a shieldwall. His malformed hand makes combat difficult, and earns the scorn of fighting men. But he is a prince, and then a reluctant king. No longer able to to focus on his studies, he tries to be the king his father was and his mother demands.
It doesn’t go well, and it doesn’t last long. Betrayed, injured, and enslaved, Yarvi swears to reclaim his unwanted crown and exact vengeance on the traitors.
I’ve read the authors First Law series before, and enjoyed them, but Half a King is better. It’s a little less dark, a little less explicit, but that’s a measurement of subtlety, not bowdlerization. Half a King still has violence, still has conflict. And it’s very, very good.
The book is strongly structured – details circle back round and pop out at exactly the right time. There’s lots of foreshadowing, meaning that the most surprising events are entirely justified – nagging loose ends suddenly pull together, and you can’t think of another way that would have worked so well.
The prose flows – sparse and detailed in the right and respective places. Dialogue is pithy and engaging. Patterns of language and structure reoccur, keeping the tone consistent throughout. There’s a lot of impact to the violence and the speech – it’s weighty and not over-used. Occasionally, in this pitiless Northern world, the writing even has elements of humour.
Really, my only criticism is that that book could have done with being longer. I’d have liked there to be more time spent on certain characters and developments, as some aspects occasionally felt a little skated over. Yarvi’s character development, for example, made sense and was believable, but it would have been more convincing with more time spent on the progression. Still, if the worst I can say for a book is that I wanted more of it, that’s not a bad thing.
If you wrote a list of events in Half a King, you could be forgiven for thinking it was boilerplate epic fantasy. There’s a deposed heir, a stint as an oarslave, a ragtag group of outcasts fighting back against an evil king. But that ignores all the complexity, all the ways in which Half a King differs from the expected, reinterprets the old tropes. Yarvi is a man who can’t live up to the expected patterns, and so doesn’t even try; Half a King is a book that could if it wanted to, but chooses a more original path.
A crippled protagonist is an interesting and original choice for fantasy – you get protagonists with scars and traumas and so on, but they tend to be cosmetic and a source of strength. Abercrombie does not do that – Yarvi’s hand is a problem throughout, a difficulty to be endured, not overcome. Having a protagonist who can’t fight makes Half a King a very different book to the norm; problems can’t be solved as easily by violence, and there’s no montage scene where Yarvi learns to be a heron-marked swordsman. I like the shift in focus; fantasy needs more intelligent characters, different approaches other than questing and battling.
Abercrombie is, in many ways, the king of compromise. The structure of the novel is neat, but – just as in the First Law books, the resolutions provided to the characters aren’t. Victory isn’t satisfying, and it isn’t cheap. This isn’t a story of prophecy fulfilled and happy endings. Characters have to make difficult choices, and then live with those consequences. The protagonist is sympathetic, but not a hero; Yarvi’s story is one of compromising and discarding principles in pursuit of an overall goal.
I’d highly recommend Half a King. It’s original and complex, covering ideas from a new perspective and exploring different themes to most of fantasy. It’s good – very good. It also has two sequels, one of which only came out recently.