J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: Half a King.

Back in college, I had a World Literature professor that was a bit… unusual. I say this because I found out that she was the editor for a pretty big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan club, when most literature professors tend to concern themselves only with the classics. This was around the time when I really was getting into Laurell K. Hamilton, and the concepts of Urban Fantasy. I mentioned this to my professor on an office visit, thinking that they would interest her, and she told me she already read them, and enjoyed them. Then she said something that has stuck with me to this day:

“They’re like popcorn… light, quick, and easy.”

Well, this past weekend I read another book that had that popcorn feel. That book? Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie.

Anyone who’s read this blog before is probably aware that I am a big fan of Joe Abercrombie’s work, given that I’ve done a “Worst to best” list for all of his books. I only do those lists when I’ve read ALL the books a particular author has written, and for that to happen I need to love the author’s writing. He mentioned while working on this book that it was going to be geared more for the coveted YA crowd than his previous work, which worried me.  Was it going to feel like Sylvester Stallone doing a Rambo movie where no one gets shot? Would it be like a Takeshi Kitano movie with no ridiculous gore and bloodspray? For an author famed for his visceral fight scenes, and descriptions of gore that pulls no punches, I was concerned. But I understand his reasoning. In the end, it’s all about getting more readers. I can respect that.

The blurb reads like this:

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”
Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.
Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.
Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?
But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds that his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.


What I liked:

The characters. One of Abercrombie’s strengths in writing fantasy is giving us a cast of characters that feel like a band of misfits. It’s true of just about every book he’s written. The protagonist, Prince Yarvi, dwells on the fact that he only has one good hand constantly. He’s like a Glotka from The First Law trilogy without the sarcasm, which is admittedly a bit of a downgrade, but still better than most authors would think to do. Abercrombie often finds a way to make their struggle a physical one as well as a mental one. As we travel with him, he meets a group of memorable, and surprisingly likable characters along the way. The character simply named “Nothing” stands out, in particular, as my favorite.

The author has a gift for introducing a character, giving you a good/bad first impression of them, and later having something happen that tells you that you were dead wrong about them. It’s a fun trick, and I love it every time it happens. Incidentally, it does occur often in this particular book.

The world. All of the author’s previous books took place in the same world. A very cool world that I feel has a ton of exploring yet to be done in it, full of rich history, magic, wizards, eaters, and so forth. This book departs from that world, instead introducing us to the Shattered Sea. It’s a body of water surrounded by a bunch of smaller kingdoms, all declaring fealty to a High King. Everything, from the names to the culture, evokes a Scandinavian/Viking feel, and it works great for the purposes of this story. It was nice to see Abercrombie branch out, if only a little. As a writer myself, I know how good it can feel to do something different from time to time.

The twists. Another of Abercrombie’s strengths is pulling out a twist in the plot that makes you stop and sort of mouth “Wow” to yourself as you read. The Last Argument of Kings has my all time favorite one of these in any book, but Half a King has three that are very nice in their own right, even if the last one is fairly predictable.

The quotes. “What kind of world do we live in where an innocent man burning a couple of corpses looks suspicious?” That line made me laugh out loud. Classic Abercrombie.

What I didn’t like:

The formula. Here’s the thing about all of Abercrombie’s books: they feel like an overly dressed up Dungeons and Dragons campaign, just made into polished novel form. Don’t believe me?

The First Law trilogy: A psychotic barbarian, a crazy half demon vagabond, a wizard with mysterious motivations, and a pretty boy nobleman who almost certainly has the weapon finesse feat. They all meet up in a city, and have to go on a quest to retrieve a macguffin.

Best Served Cold: A crippled mercenary, a disgraced northman warrior, a poisoner, and a OCD convict who cares about nothing but numbers. They travel together for revenge, money, and the need to prove themselves anew.

Etc, etc.

This book has a similar feel. It has a beginning to set up the plot, but it was hard for me to not imagine the author sitting down, and coming up with his cast of characters, and simply changing the opening setting from a cliche tavern, to the much less cliche slave boat. You’ve got the wizard/bard (no magic in this story, but he plays the role well enough), the warrior, the thief, the jack of all trades, and the wild card.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good formula, and this is a great one. I’m even trying something similar in what I’m working on right now. But I’d like to see what Abercrombie could do if he left his comfort zone on this point. Maybe we’ll get to see that in the next few books he writes, as he is clearly willing to try new things.

Speaking of which… This book takes a LOT from Best Served Cold. As in, you can use the sentence “Protagonist with bad hand seeks revenge against person in power, due to how they wronged them”, and it describes both books perfectly.

Simply put, this is like the PG version to Best Served Cold‘s rated R. Again, not like it’s a bad thing, since Best Served Cold is an awesome book. If more readers discover his writing because of this book, mission accomplished, and I’ll be happy for him.


The verdict:

This is a rock solid, fun and light fantasy novel. It’s popcorn, folks. It doesn’t really do anything new or fresh, by the author’s standards, but it definitely made for a good afternoon companion while it lasted.

I give this book ***. It’s good, but not particularly fresh in terms of ideas from the author. Still, if you’re a fan of Abercrombie like I am, you should still read it. It doesn’t have tons of violence, torture, and sex like some of his other offerings, but I don’t consider that a negative. It’s a YA novel, for goodness sake. There’s plenty of dark fantasy out there to choose from as is.

And in case you’re curious… I’d rate this just above The Heroes on my “worst to best” list.


One comment on “Book review: Half a King.

  1. Clint
    May 19, 2015

    It sounds like I will like it but I am not compelled to read it right away. If my library had the ebook it would be a no brainer. I’m first on the hold list for both the new Neal Stephenson and Stephen King. Can you add me on good reads? My link is https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/11843080-clint

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2014 by in Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .
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