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[Book review]: The Half a King Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

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Book 1: Half a King

 

 

 

The abrupt death of his father and elder brother puts Prince Yarvi on the throne of Gettland. It's not something he ever wanted: born with only half a hand, he's spent his life training to become a Minister, a man of learning and science. Thrust onto the throne, Yarvi must instead take up the sword to avenge his dead kin and defeat his kingdom's enemies, from within and without.

Half a King is the first novel in a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. It's also his first novel for a new publisher and the first set outside his signature First Law world, not to mention his first Young Adult novel. It's a change of gears for the British author, and there's a fair bit riding on how he manages to pull it off.

Those hoping for a radical change in direction or prose style will be disappointed, though conversely those hoping he'd stick doing at what he does best will be overjoyed. This is still very much a Joe Abercrombie novel, meaning there's an air of both cynicism and humour to proceedings and there's a fair amount of violence. There isn't much swearing and no sex at all, but beyond that the only way you'd know this was a YA novel is because the author said so on his website.

The main character is Yarvi, initially presented as a crippled, intellectual man forced to exist in a society where valour with a sword or axe is praised above everything else. Yarvi is constantly on the back foot until put into a situation where his wits and education can be used to the mutual benefit of himself and a band of companions. Abercrombie paints deftly the relationships between Yarvi and his new companions, such as the enigmatic swordsman 'Nothing', the master navigator Sumael and the bowman Rulf, fusing them into a genuine fellowship over the course of many trials and adventures: a harsh overland march through a frozen, barren wasteland is particularly vivid. Working with less than half the word-count of any of his previous books, this is also his most concise, focused novel to date.

The benefit of that is that there are not many wasted words and the story moves extremely briskly. The downside is that the worldbuilding doesn't get as much of a look-in as it sometimes needs to. My review copy didn't have a map and it doesn't look like the final version will have one either, which is a shame because the geographical interrelationships between the various kingdoms of the Shattered Sea and the northern wastes from where Yarvi has to make his overland journey are not strongly presented in the text. Characterisation outside of the central group is also a little vague: the machinations and plots of the main villain seem a bit random without further exploration of his character. These issues mean that Half a King does not satisfy as much as a complete package as Abercrombie's prior novels.

However, whilst this is the opening of a trilogy it is surprising that Abercrombie is able to bring as much closure as he does to the novel. There are still loose ends to be addressed in the sequels, but there are no cliffhangers. Given the relatively rapid release schedule of the trilogy (the second volume is due at the start of 2015), Abercrombie could have been forgiven for adopting a more serialised approach than he does.

Half a King (****) is in many ways vintage Abercrombie: action-packed with a vividly-told plot and characterisation is which straightforward on the surface but gives way to hidden depths underneath. The concise page count makes for a focused story but also doesn't leave much room for deeper explorations of the world. Still, this is a fast-paced, gripping story with a few nice twists. The novel will be published on 3 July in the UK and 8 July in the USA.

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Book 2: Half the World

 

 

 

The High King of the Shattered Sea is displeased with the new King of Gettland and his defiance. Forces religious and military gather to bring Gettland to heel, but the king's advisor is crafty and cunning beyond his years. Yarvi brings together a new fellowship to travel halfway across the known world to the First of All Cities and there make an audacious play for an alliance. Unfortunately, his crew consists of cutthroats, ex-criminals, disgraced boy warriors and violent murderers.

Half the World is the middle volume of The Shattered Sea and picks up several years after the end of Half a King. This novel features a structural shift from the previous one, with the narrative now divided between two new characters - Brand and Thorn - and Yarvi relegated to more of a supporting/mentor role. It's a nice structural twist that means that Yarvi's storyline continues from his previous book, but is now presented more in flashes and glimpses from the other characters. If you haven't read Half a King, you won't notice too much of this but those who have will find themselves able to follow Yarvi's story as it develops mostly off-stage.

Thorn is where much of the book's marketing has been directed and it's easy to see why. Less of a tomboy and more of a walking ball of anger, Thorn could be the milder, younger sister of Ferro (from The First Law Trilogy). Her character arc is - at least somewhat - traditional but she remains a vibrant and well-written protagonist. Brand, the young warrior disgraced for being too nice and who has to make good, is a much more standard character but Abercrombie gives him enough flair and memorable moments (including an eye-watering moment where he has to stop a ship being ported from rolling over).

There's some splendid action and some intriguing politicking, but it's the frigid atmosphere (turning more clement as our characters journey south and off the edge of the map) and the relentless pace that make this novel so successful, and more enjoyable than its forebear. Abercrombie is still working with a shorter word count than normal here and it helps maintain focus and drive. This is a 400-page novel where the pages fly by. Abercrombie is also upping his game with his prose, with some darkly delicious dialogue and more poetical moments peppering his more traditional style of black humour. Even the worldbuilding is taken up a notch, with the idea that the Shattered Sea might be a far future, post-apocalyptic part of our world developed further.

Half the World (****½) is a resounding success and an improvement on Half a King on almost every front. It will be released on 12 February 2015 in the UK and five days later in the USA. Highly recommended.

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Book 3: Half a War

 

Father Yarvi has brokered an unlikely peace between the formerly warring kingdoms of Gettland and Vansterland, bringing them together to stand against the forces of the High King. Still tremendously outnumbered, Yarvi is forced to rely on an untested young queen to help lead the way to victory and a last stand at the fortress of Bail's Point.

Half a War concludes the Shattered Sea trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, an experiment by the British author to write shorter novels aimed at a more general audience. How successful that experiment has been is quite debatable - the tone and feeling of the trilogy is really not far removed from his First Law universe novels - but it's certainly resulted in the impressive delivering of three very decent novels in less than eighteen months.

As with the previous book, Half a War revolves around three main POV characters: Skara, the young and untested queen of Throvenland; Raith, the bloodthirsty Vansterland warrior made into Skara's reluctant bodyguard; and Koll, the woodcarver turned minister-in-training who finds himself increasingly serving as Yarvi's conscience as Yarvi is forced into more and more desperate acts to try to save his people. Previous POV characters become secondary characters in this novel, which is both clever (showing how others see them) and frustrating, particularly when they don't all survive.

This is a war story, with the great fortress of Bail's Point changing hands as the fortunes of the conflict ebb and flow. Abercrombie has done big war stories and battle narratives before and does a good job of depicting the conflict here, helped by a map of Bail's Point. However, the limited POV structure means that a great deal of the details of the conflict are missing. This is effective in giving us a feel of the fog of war, with confusion and misinformation lurking everywhere, but it does occasionally make the conflict feel murkier than it should.

Abercrombie's razor-sharp characterisation is on top form here, with Skara developing believably into a ruler from humble beginnings and secondary characters like Blue Jenner and King Uthil getting outstanding and memorable moments. However, it's Father Yarvi who develops most fascinatingly in this novel. Yarvi's ruthlessness was on display in the second book, but in this one it pushes him into more and more dangerous decisions that even shock his allies. The development of Koll as his moral weathervane is nicely done; without Koll, it may be that Yarvi would have become another version of Bayaz from the First Law books (i.e. Unrepentant Amoral Bastard Gandalf). As it stands he comes pretty damn close, and it's likely any future Shattered Sea books will have to deal with the fallout from his actions.

Half a War (****) closes the Shattered Sea trilogy in style, with a war story that prioritises the characters over the action and ends well by not pulling a single punch.

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