Half A King is a first for British author Joe Abercrombie, in that it isn’t an adult fantasy gore-fest packed with strong language and humorous sex scenes. It’s also a first for the young adult fiction genre, in that it doesn’t involve super hot vampires, awkward love triangles and/or a dystopian future where the fate of mankind rests on the shoulders of a teenager. It’s a breath of fresh air in an overly crowded genre.
The story centres on only one character, Prince Yarvi, a disfigured embarrassment to his people and an all-round coward wallowing in his own self-pity, who gradually becomes a confident, unlikely hero and an all-round badass with the help of an extremely unfortunate incident and a handful of friends. It is a coming-of-age tale but, unlike what we are used to, it retains a certain amount of Abercrombie’s Lord Grimdark grit, with a dash of political backstabbing, intrigue and war for good measure. It is also set in a completely independent world from Joe Abercrombie’s previous First Law novels; a world which feels Norse-inspired, with shaggy beards, slavery, piracy, swords, and more shaggy beards.
Yarvi being such a likeable yet broken character helps the immersion into the book. He is not the perfect hero waiting to claim his throne and banish all evil from the lands. He’s a cripple; a cripple in a Viking-esque, war-mongering society where strength is rewarded and even a Prince isn’t immune to the judgement and scorn of others. He has to suffer a lot, and grow, and overcome his weakness, not overnight, but in a believable and still mostly-flawed way that isn’t seen in typical coming of age stories. He’s not black and white, he’s grey.
Joe’s writing is much tighter in Half A King than what we have read in the past. There are a lot less campfire politics and a lot more plot-driven scenes. Thankfully though, despite this being a young adult novel targeted at a wider demographic, it certainly doesn’t feel like the prose was in any way toned down in forfeit. Joe doesn’t feel compelled to patronise his younger audience with simplistic narrative and forced exposition through dialogue like so many in the Young Adult genre. At times, perhaps, it does feel like it lacks the same depth Best Served Cold, The Heroes or Red Country had, but it certainly makes up for that in pacing and well fleshed out characters. Half A King also retains that dark humour we are so used to with notable lines such as ‘Death waits for us all,’ said Nothing. ‘But she takes the lazy first.’
Half A king is Abercrombie’s dark cynicism, wit and war, without the graphic sex and swearing. It is his incredible world building and his mastering of characterisation condensed into less than 400 pages rather than 500 or 600. Essentially, it breaks the mould, leaves you gasping for more, and sets the bar impossibly high for other would-be young adult authors.