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REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Dear Mr. Abercrombie,

Ronnie from Paranormal Haven recommended Half a King to me, and it since I have another friend who enjoys your adult fantasy novels, it seemed like a good idea to give this, your first YA fantasy novel, a try.

Half-a-KingHalf a King (book one in the Shattered Sea trilogy) takes place in a society inspired by that of the Vikings and begins with Yarvi, the second son of the King of Gettland, about to take a test that will strip him of his standing and make him a minister. Yarvi has a disability, a crooked hand, that limits his fighting ability, but he’s intelligent enough to make a good candidate for the ministry, an organization that advises the kings of the kingdoms around the Shattered Sea.

Before he can become a minister, though, Yarvi is informed by his uncle Odem that his father and brother are dead – killed at the hands of another king, Grom-gil-Gorm, who sent Yarvi’s father a message offering peace, but then killed him and his heir when they arrived to negotiate.

Yarvi is now the rightful king, but because of his disability, many in his ableist society see him as only half a man, half a king. Yarvi himself has internalized this view of himself (to a degree I found problematic—more on this later), and is intimidated by the thought of ascending to the throne and attempting to avenge his father and brother’s deaths as he must now do.

With his uncle Odem and his mother advising him, Yarvi soon becomes betrothed to his cousin Isriun. He also swears an oath to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, and then he and his uncle, as well as Hurik, his mother’s guard, sail to fight Grom-gil-Gorm’s people.

In the raid on their enemy’s kingdom, Hurik and Odem turn on Yarvi, revealing that they mean to kill him. Yarvi falls into the sea and is assumed drowned, but he comes ashore at Grom-gil-Gorm’s feet. Yarvi realizes that his uncle made up the peace offer from Grom-gil-Gorm in order to lure Yarvi’s father and brother to their deaths. To save his skin and survive to carry out his oath of vengeance on its true target, Yarvi pretends to be a cook’s boy and is sold into slavery.

Yarvi is purchased by a ship’s captain as an oar slave. On the ship, Yarvi presents himself as Yorv to his two oar mates and fellow slaves Jaud and Rulf. Together the three (as well as most of the crew) suffer hunger, cold, exhaustion and other privations. Yarvi bides his time, praying for an opportunity to escape and execute his revenge on his uncle. Eventually, though fraught with danger, such an opportunity does arrive….

Half a King has strengths that impressed me and weaknesses that frustrated me a great deal. I’ll start with what I liked.

My favorite part of the book was the middle section, in which Yarvi escapes slavery and finds a group of allies with whom he bonds. I don’t know why but while I don’t find hardship at all appealing to live through, I really enjoy books in which characters have to survive in difficult conditions and discover strength and endurance that they never knew they had. This part of the book had all that and I enjoyed it a great deal.

The characterizations didn’t always strike me as completely believable, but I don’t think they were entirely meant to. The book is written in a language that seems suitable to legends, and the characters are mostly suitable to legends too. I didn’t like all the characters equally, but they were almost all memorable and colorful.

The voice of the story is distinctive too—here’s a paragraph of description to show what I mean by that:

Yarvi’s stomach was in his sick-sour mouth as they crested one surging mountain of water, was sucked into his arse as they plunged into the foam-white valley beyond, pitching and yawing, deeper and deeper until they were surrounded by the towering sea on every side and he was sure they would be snatched into unknowable depths, drowned to a man.

Whatever one thinks of that style, whether one likes it or doesn’t like it (it took me a lot of getting used to), one can’t deny that it’s vivid and descriptive. It feels deliberate in its musicality, which isn’t the case with every book.

The plot goes in unexpected directions and toward the end of the book, there are a couple of big twists I didn’t see coming. Since I’m usually able to anticipate surprises this was something I enjoyed. When I say the twists are big, I mean that they are the kind of twists that cast the entire book in a new light. I could envision reading it again with a new understanding I didn’t have the first time, and enjoying it in a different way, if it weren’t for the frustrations I encountered.

Of these frustrations, the biggest was the way Yarvi’s disability was portrayed. Since Yarvi was born with his weak and crooked hand, he has had his entire lifetime to accept this fact. But unbelievably, he hasn’t. Throughout a good portion of the book, he wishes, over and over, for “Two good hands.” It is almost a refrain of his, and it didn’t take me long to get fed up with it.

I wanted Yarvi to get over his ableist self-pity and move on, find something active and interesting to do in the story besides whining and being victimized. He does, eventually, but it took a good chunk of the book to get there, and I gave serious consideration to quitting because of it.

Yarvi also spends most of the first third of the book with very little agency, either as the puppet of his uncle and his mother or as a slave. What all this added up to is that I didn’t like him that much until the middle section that I mentioned earlier. Then, just as that section was coming to a close and I was rooting for him, Yarvi made some questionable choices that made me view him with less liking than I’d felt in the middle, and that remained the case for much of the final third.

Without giving away the plot turns at the end of the book, the first of these twists confused me initially, and the second left me with some uncertainty about the direction of Yarvi’s character arc. Still, I think if hadn’t been for his attitude toward his disability, I would have liked Yarvi and the book more. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

16 Comments

  1. Readsalot81
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 11:47:24

    Hey Janine,

    Thanks for giving the book a try and I’m sorry it didn’t work for you. The ableist position with Yarvi was one of the biggest things I took exception with in the story in general, but I thought the characters and overall plot probably worked a lot better for me than it did for you.

    Everyone had different motivations and I thought it was interesting to see how an enemy that uses and discards Yarvi could turn into an ally and someone with strength – Yarvi eventually does have the foresight to see this, and it’s not something I frequently run into when I read fantasy. The ableist position is by far, the biggest and most distracting part of the book – and something I did note when I talked about it, and the world building to me struck me as rather half ass at best.

    I’m a character reader at heart though, and I did appreciate how conniving Yarvi was and how that is one of his greatest strengths. I’ll probably read the forth coming book just to see where it takes Yarvi, but I can’t disagree with you on the downsides of reading this book either.

  2. Janine
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 12:24:20

    @Readsalot81: Hi Ronnie! I appreciate the recommendation even though I didn’t like it as much as you did. It was my first time reading YA fantasy set in a Viking-like society so that was interesting. You’re right about Yarvi’s foresight and cunning — I appreciated that also, and the way it developed over time. I should have mentioned that in the review.

    I think maybe the reason why the ableism bothered me to the degree it did was that I have some personal experience that made it hard to relate to Yarvi. I have joint pain in both of my wrists and it limits some of what I can do, especially when it comes to heavy objects or using a lot of force. Like Yarvi, I can’t row or fight with a sword–in my case, at least not without a lot of pain. Unlike Yarvi, I wasn’t born with this disabilty, but still, it didn’t take me that long to accept the situation because it is a daily reality. I think that made me less tolerant of the ableism in this book.

    Another factor I forgot to go into was the worldbuilding. A point Ana from Book Smugglers made in her review was that the reversal of traditional genders for gods and the concepts they embodied in Gettland — peace was “Father Peace,” and war was “Mother War,” — was interesting but wasn’t carried that far, because there weren’t female warriors (that we saw) from Gettland. I thought that was a great point — the “Mother War” stuff kept bothering me too as I was reading, and Ana put her finger on why.

  3. Susan/DC
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 12:43:22

    For some reason this reminded me of Rosemary Sutcliff’s “Sword Song”. Her novel is set in a real place and time, although one very different from our own. As I noted in my reading journal: Bjarni is a Viking swordsman. Banished at age 16 from his home for a murder he didn’t intend to commit (the man had kicked his dog), he takes up a new life as a mercenary. He journeys from England to Dublin and then to the islands off the west coast of Scotland (Barra and Iona). There he meets the man who is to shape the course of his life for several years, a life that will lead him from boyhood to manhood – fighting among the clan chiefs from the west coast of Scotland in feuds as bitter and bloody as can be imagined. Sutcliff’s last book. She is, as usual, VG at giving you a sense of life in a time and place very different from ours, but not as good as her greatest books. Bjarni’s growth from impulsive adolescent to manhood is interesting. Also interesting is her portrayal of a time when the old religion of the Norsemen coexisted with the new one of the White Christ.

  4. Janine
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 12:49:22

    @Susan/DC: It sounds interesting!

    Also interesting is her portrayal of a time when the old religion of the Norsemen coexisted with the new one of the White Christ.

    Indeed, something like that happens in this book too. Yarvi’s society initially worships multiple gods but then a new religion, a religion of the one God, begins to spread.

    She is, as usual, VG at giving you a sense of life in a time and place very different from ours, but not as good as her greatest books.

    What are her greatest books, Susan? I’ve never read her and I’m curious.

  5. etv13
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 15:19:33

    I can’t speak for Susan, but I’d say her greatest books are The Mark of the Horse-Lord, and Sword at Sunset. Also really good are The Lantern-Bearers (a prequel to Sword at Sunset), The Eagle of the Ninth, and Knight’s Fee.

  6. Janine
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 15:48:47

    @etv13: Thanks! I’ll look into those.

  7. Greg Strandberg
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 16:56:18

    Joe Abercrombie and YA, huh? I read his First Law Trilogy and it was pretty violent. Hard to imagine him toning it down.

  8. DS
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 17:21:17

    Another vote for Sword at Sunset. I checked her books out of the library multiple times.

  9. Sunita
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 17:55:12

    Interesting review, Janine. I have to admit, the depiction of Yarvi would have made the book a wallbanger early on, both for the reasons you cite and for the general idea that having a physical impairment would mean you were only useful for your mental strengths. I’m also curious, though: what are the female characters like? Because there has been plenty of criticism of Abercrombie’s earlier books (and grimdark more generally) when it comes to depictions of women. Are they fully realized, or are they pretty stereotypical, or something in between?

    Also, is it the juxtaposition of the God of Peace and the Goddess of War that is supposed to be unusual? Because there are plenty of war goddesses running around in western and eastern mythologies.

  10. Janine
    Jul 14, 2014 @ 21:46:38

    @Greg Strandberg: There was violence and death in this story, but not much gore. A lot of YA’s these days have characters getting killed, so it didn’t strike me as unusual for the genre.

    @DS: Thanks!

    @Sunita: Early on it was almost a wallbanger for me too; I kept reading mainly because I had requested the ARC. Even though the latter two-thirds were somewhat better, I probably won’t read the next in the series. Yarvi’s depiction is ableist, but (I’m adding for clarification) he does succeed in overcoming some physical obstacles as well as ones that require him to use his brains.

    Re. the female characters, I’d say they’re somewhere in between fully realized and stereotypical. Yarvi is the central character so the book does revolve around his personal journey / quest for vengeance. The secondary characters who happen to be female are strong, but none of them breaks the mold.

    I don’t think that the juxtaposition of the gods is supposed to be unusual; I was paraphrasing Ana but here’s what she said that resonated with me:

    The author does attempt to do something very, very interesting with regards to gender by reversing traditional gender roles when it comes to the Gods and Goddesses in this Viking-like world. So, you have a GOD of Peace and a GODDESS of War. But it’s disappointing that this is never taken further to the most logical progression which would have been to have female soldiers and warriors in abundance in this world. Female characters – although in fairness and thankfully, quite powerful on their own – are almost always stuck to having power within the household/kingdom sphere with the odd female pirate (villain) out there. In the end, another character – female – swears a similar oath to Yarvi’s and I’d very much like to see that taken up with the same seriousness (perhaps that is exactly what book 2 is about. One can hope).

    From The Book Smugglers’ review.

  11. Brian Malbon
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 08:07:43

    Joe Abercrombie has always had a tendency to show his very strong characters suffering a debilitating injury that robs them of their strength and forces then to reevaluate who they are and how they interact with the world. In each case, the characters discover that overcoming their disability has made them stronger.

    I didn’t see any problem with the “ableist” early characterization because I instantly saw that Yarvi’s entire character arc would be finally learning to live with and overcome his disability. By the end of the book his hand really isn’t an issue at all, and he’s more powerful and confident than even the more dangerous characters.

    I think a lot of the book’s target readers likely have qualities or traits that they have had “years to live with” and still feel inferior because of them. I know a lot of adults who have never gotten past whatever their setbacks in life are and never will. I found Yarvi’s growth as a character completely believable and I think he could inspire a lot of younger readers to overcome their own adversity, whatever it might be.

  12. Janine
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 17:54:25

    @Brian Malbon:

    I didn’t see any problem with the “ableist” early characterization because I instantly saw that Yarvi’s entire character arc would be finally learning to live with and overcome his disability.

    I also instantly saw that that would be Yarvi’s character arc, but I still had a huge problem with it. The reason for that is that having been born with his disability, Yarvi should have been over it at least fifteen years earlier. The portrayal is still ableist because it fits into a sterotype of the the disabled that able-bodied people believe– the idea that disabled people don’t accept the physical bodies they have and adapt and move on.

    To portray a disabled person that way is no different than say, portraying a Jewish person as money grubbing or a blonde as a ditzy airhead. It’s a stereotype and while there are some stereotypes my privilege blinds me to, this is one that I was able to spot and felt compelled to gripe about since it really marred the reading experience for me.

  13. Brian Malbon
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 21:09:12

    I can s

  14. Janine
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 21:13:28

    @Brian Malbon: I don’t know what happened but your most recent comment got cut off somehow.

  15. Brian Malbon
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 21:16:03

    I can see that and accept your point of view, however I found he had more trouble with the stigma of his disability and the ridicule it subjected him to at the hands of his domineering father and his father’s sneering soldiers than with the disability itself. He could use a sword; he couldn’t hold a shield, which made him unable to fight in the same way that his people fought, earning their unwarranted contempt. And a child raised in an environment where every single person around him casts him as in inferior is going to have a great deal more to overcome.

  16. Janine
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 21:31:21

    Yeah, I agree the society was ableist and I had no problem when it bothered him that he was treated badly. But he also thought of himself as “half a man,” “half a king,” and kept wishing for “two good hands.” That was the part I had trouble with. I have physical limitations in terms of what I can do and while it would be nice if I didn’t have them, I accepted long ago that I am the way I am.

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