Book Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Book Synopsis

Betrayed by his family and left for dead, prince Yarvi, reluctant heir to a divided kingdom, has vowed to reclaim a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the shattered sea itself – all with only one good hand. Born a weakling in the eyes of a hard, cold world, he cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so has sharpened his mind to a deadly edge. Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast, he finds they can help him more than any noble could. Even so, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, traps and tragedy.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie is the first book in the Shattered Sea trilogy. Set in a completely separate universe to his more well-known First Law books, and aimed at a younger audience, it does feel a bit different to what some of his fans might be used to, but it still has his magic combination of ‘grimdarkness’, humour and excellent character work that we have all come to expect from Mr Abercrombie.

While he isn’t an author necessarily famed for his world-building compared to other big name fantasy authors, especially in terms of inclosing huge reams of history and lore into his stories, Joe Abercrombie is an underated author here, in my opinion. The First Law world feels very real and has depth to it, and the world of the Shattered Sea is very much the same. It feels real and lived in throughout, though this might be helped by the fact that it does feel very familiar in some ways. It leans heavily into its Scandinavian/Anglo-Saxon/Dark Age feeling and inspirations, which really isn’t a bad thing – I mean, who doesn’t love Viking-themed fantasy? Look at Skyrim’s popularity, after all! However, it isn’t a hugely unique world in some senses, which doesn’t bother me, but I know some readers are looking for something a bit more ‘fresh’ and unique.

Being targeted at a younger audience – I think it is technically YA, even if it avoids many of the genre’s cliché troupes – this story brings a rapid pace. Yarvi’s story gets going very quickly with only a chapter or two of build up and introduction. This, combined with generally quite short chapters, means that it feels like you’re flying through this book. Or I certainly did, anyway. It really was a case of, ‘Oh, just another chapter, it won’t take long.’ At the risk of sounding cliché myself, it really is a page-turner!

In terms of our characters, you only get one POV with Yarvi… But what a POV it is! The second-son of a king in a world that seemingly only values strength of arms and a warrior’s spirit, Yarvi was born with a crippled arm that means he is constantly looked down up on as a nothing more than an embarrassment. However, what he does possess is a razor sharp mind and a steely determination that he must use as his weapons when he is unexpectantly thrust onto the throne following the sudden deaths of his father and older brother. Throughout the course of this book, these traits allow him to rise above the multiple challenges he faces (yeah, Yarvi is really put through the grinder here) and come the other side. In true Abercrombie fashion, this isn’t necessarily as a better person, but a person more able to succeed in the brutal world he lives in. All in all, his progression and character growth is captivating and believable, if a little unusual as a coming-of-age story.

On top of Yarvi, we have a host of other well-realised characters littered throughout the pages. Being honest, there’s two early on (aging warrior types) who felt a little samey and bland, which isn’t something I thought I would ever say about an Abercrombie character. Aside from them, however, we get a very strong cast of distinct personalities. I want to avoid spoilers really, but Yarvi’s ‘gang/crew’ in the later half of the book are especially great, and I did not see the twist in their dynamic with Yarvi at the end coming at all!

So overall, what did I think? I really enjoyed Half a King. It’s gripping, fast-paced and full of twists and turns that will keep you on your toes throughout and I can’t wait to start the next book in the Shattered Sea series, Half a World.


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