Half a King by Joe Abercrombie is a grimdark fantasy novel and the first instalment in the Shattered Sea trilogy. It revolves around a young man named Yarvi who is preparing to take the final examination towards becoming a minister of sorts. However, when news of his father’s and brother’s—king and prince—death reach him, his entire life is tumultuously turned upside down. Rather than take the vows and devote himself to his chosen craft and faith, he must now pick up the mantle of “King” and take his place as the ruler of his people. However, an opportunity arises for others in the court, giving them the chance to utilise a mission of vengeance for an act of terrible betrayal.
This book was a giant surprise. Firstly, it’s quite short at approximately three-hundred-some-odd pages. Secondly, the premise sounded quite basic and I questioned whether it would be able to provide something more concrete or interesting beyond the realm of “wronged royal dude.” Lastly, it didn’t have the best reviews out there. Yet, all of my reservations were blasted out of the water, so to speak, within the first one-fourth.
Fifty pages into Half a King, we have a main character with a physical disability that has been used to taunt and control him for his entire existence. This creates some fascinating dynamics for Yarvi as a character and lays out a foundation for excellent depth to be had if properly built upon. Then we have the pacing. It flies by quickly, which was another element that had me slightly concerned. I was worried it would get super fucking ahead of itself, but it never lost focus even as the velocity shot up more through Yarvi’s journey. The descriptions of the surroundings and the people were exquisitely imaginative. My first impressions of the novel by this point were rather outstanding. Now that there was a level of established expectation, did Half a King live up to it? You can bet your arse it did!
I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy narrative where the protagonist had a disability, and if I did, it has been so long I just don’t remember it. Yarvi is constantly feeling sorry for himself initially. The reader is also never allowed to forget for a single moment that Yarvi is “half a man” and thus shall only ever be more than “half a king.” I believe for some readers this can be a shortcoming as it does start to feel a bit repetitive during the introductory section (approximately fifty to seventy pages). His self-loathing is heavy and difficult to pass at times. Personally, it didn’t grind my gears too much because I knew it was a tool of establishing a base for which Yarvi would develop upon. I also related a bit to him and his self-hatred as I have mental disabilities that have made me feel quite similarly to him many times before. So, right here, there was an aspect instituted into the narrative to hold my attention, mostly my curiosity, that I never expected.
Secondly, that pacing, wow! It’s like the novel cut out all of the bullshite that tends to make fantasy stories drag on forever and ever. It was refreshingly straight-forward, getting to the point and sticking to all of the important details, events, etc. Additionally, it does this without sacrificing vital facets of world-building and atmosphere-building. Fewer words are used when you compare this to other titles of a similar genre, but those handful of words can establish an ambiance of complete dread and depression that stems from betrayal, or the shocking terror of surviving the most extreme of environments in such a wondrously gripping manner that most tomes can’t accomplish. Half a King is a succinct masterpiece at maintaining kick-arse momentum amid swathing environments of oceanic thunderstorms, raging blizzards, and a profusion of blood-thirsty baddies galore.
Something else that ignited my fancy for Half a King were the side characters. There is an exceptional introduction of minor characters, and others who later become regulars beside Yarvi, and each one had just enough of a back story to justify the rapport that was being formulated with our bitter royal brat. I could distinguish one from another easily as well and didn’t need to sit through blocks and blocks of text or deal with an awkward displacement of the story’s flow to chat about unconnected elements. Everything was woven into Yarvi’s campaign naturally.
Other qualities to note that make Half a King bloody fantastic include: no romance, positive portrayals of enemies-to-friends that doesn’t end in disloyalty or insecurities, strong ferocious females who aren’t weakened or dehumanised before men and they are written so genuinely, no goddamned rape, no plot twists for the sake of shock value only, and it can comfortably be read as a stand-alone as it has a distinct finale that doesn’t end with a cliff-hanger.
If there are any negative things that I could point out, things that other readers may not like (they didn’t bother me, but I know others noted them in their reviews and I can understand why), the most prominent would be the occurrences in Yarvi’s odyssey. A lot of the shite that happens to him are negative and quite gloomy. This may feel unrealistic to many people out there. I didn’t agree with this because it’s a grimdark fantasy novel and I love my fantasy narratives to have unrealistic traits, especially if there is a grand adventure involved, and more so if that adventure is filled with fucked-up obstacles. Plus, everything that happens to him helps him develop as a character and a human being.
Other minor faults are the lack of romance (I appreciated this so much, but other readers may not care for it) and Yarvi’s self-deprecating attitude for most of the first half of the novel. This does get quite a bit continual as I mentioned above.
Overall, I highly recommend Half a King to bibliophiles who are a fan of grimdark narratives and aren’t searching for something with a huge commitment factor to it. You don’t have to read the sequels if you don’t want to because it’s such a comfortable and satisfying book by itself as a stand-alone; so marvellously well-rounded. The action, settings, and intrigue are sterling. The plot is extremely character-driven, and the surprises are genuinely astonishing at times. It’s just so damn good in nearly every way. You can expect to see this on my Best of 2019 list for sure.