Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie


Title: Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1) 

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Rating: 4 Stars

I find it distinctly odd that Half a King is Joe Abercrombie's young adult debut. Yarvi's tale, full of political strife and immense character growth, is far removed from the quintessential young adult fantasy novel. I love fantasy--high fantasy, romantic fantasy, young adult fantasy, adult fantasy--but I find that young adult fantasy marks a delicate balance between magic and romance. When you pick up a novel by Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, you know it's fantasy--obviously--because of the fictional setting. Both Tolkien and Martin imbibe magical elements into their work, whether it be in the form of other races of humans or fantastical creatures, but those characteristics are not at the cornerstone of their work. Instead, their novels focus on human nature, challenged to its utmost in foreign lands and situations, but somehow prevailing.

Now that is the type of novel Half a King is. Not only does it lack a romantic story arc, but it further lacks a protagonist who discovers their own magical ability--qualities evident in nearly every young adult fantasy novel. Yarvi, Abercrombie's surprising hero, is a cripple, constantly living in the shadow of his warrior father--the king--and his equally competent sword-wielding elder brother. Thus, Prince Yarvi, the youngest prince of the realm, trains to become a minister, forsaking marriage and status in a quest for knowledge. On the eve of his exam qualifying him to leave behind the manacle of Prince Yarvi and become Brother Yarvi, news arrives that both his father and his elder brother have been killed. Thus, Prince Yarvi becomes King Yarvi--half a king with only half of his hands. But Yarvi's reign as king is short-lived. Swearing an oath of vengeance to kill those who have murdered his father and eldest brother, Yarvi sails away to war. Naive, trusting Yarvi finds himself caught in the crossfire of political machinations, though, and is sold into slavery before fulfilling his oath. Now a slave instead of a king, Yarvi vows to complete his oath and seeks revenge...no matter the cost.

Half a King is littered with unforeseen plot twists, some I predicted but most I did not. As such, it is nearly impossible to set down once picked up and Yarvi's tale is both moving and captivating. Abercrombie's secondary characters, alongside Yarvi, are infused with depth and as they travel with Yarvi through cold snows and roaring rivers, they begin to shed their layers, revealing their true personality beneath. While Yarvi is an endearing hero, both physically and emotionally weak at first despite his cunning, his story is impossible to prey away from his friends. We see him Before, as a lonely and cowering prince fervently praying to be made minister, and then we see him After, thrown into a game of survival and forced to rely on his wits to form alliances and escape the bonds of slavery which keep him from his rightful throne. Consequently, Yarvi's growth is steady and noticeable, a marked difference throughout multiple stages of the narrative. Ultimately, as he grows from boyhood to manhood by the end of the novel, we will have met a dozen different Yarvi's, all facets of his journey to acquire the strength he lacks as Prince Yarvi.

What I find fascinating about Half a King is that, despite the "typical" politics of usurping a king to overtake his throne, the politics of this world are heavily wrapped up in the mythology/religion of this universe as well. Moreover, the traditional genders we associate with ideas such as war or peace are reversed in Half a King. In Greek myth there is a God of War and a God of the Sea just as there is Mother Earth who symbolizes nurture, growth, and peace. Conversely, within these pages you will hear of Goddesses of War and the Sea just as you'll hear of Father Peace. While this isn't indicative of peaceful men and warring women in the societies of Yarvi's land, it does hint at stronger female roles and, what's more, I suspect that with such role models the women of this universe haven't grown up nearly as suppressed as the women in our universe. Abercrombie writes of fearless women, ones who aren't afraid to take on leadership roles and own their place in them effortlessly. Not all of his characters are good, but the feminist in me loved the dual-nature of both his men and women regardless.

Yet, perhaps what I appreciate most about this novel is its ending. I love an epic fantasy series but what I love even more is a novel that is both part of a series and able to stand on its own. Half a King ends remarkably, wrapping up the loose threads of this particular plot line but leaving readers anxious for more of this world and, of course, of Yarvi. From an underdog to a hero, Yarvi is a protagonist who is shockingly easy to relate to, despite his high-born status, and the conclusion of his tale is utterly perfect. I was kept guessing until the very end but the pay-off was more than worthwhile. Even if Half a King fails to shock readers with its plot twists, the level of character growth is certain to entice even the most heartless of readers. Yarvi's tale is an impossible one, full of courage and hope, and I loved every minute of it. Its sequel can simply not release fast enough.

15 comments:

  1. I think the dual nature of the men and women who populate this world intrigued me the most. Definitely an unusual YA, especially since it didn't read YA-ish. Just happened to have a young and inexperienced protagonist. A really good story!

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  2. I had not thought about romance and ya but it's true. Maybe cos many are written by women and aimed at women? Maybe that is why YA fantasy often fails for me then.

    Cos the ones I have read written by men, no romance, just lighter version of an adult version

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  3. I have to admit to being a little bummed about the lack of romantic arc, but everything else about this one sounds AMAZING Keertana! I love books with really strong characterization, and this one clearly has that in spades. Can't wait to experience all the twists, turns and the fantastic ending!

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  4. I agree with Jenny, the lack of romance makes me sad but it sounds so amazing otherwise that I just know this will be one that I will try anyways.

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  5. I am thoroughly impressed by the sound of this worldbuilding. Politics combined with religiona and mythology... where do I sign up? Oh wait, I know the answer to that.
    Sometimes YA high fantasy is burdened by romance. I can think of at least five books that would have been better without.
    This sounds like my cup of tea.

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  6. I was glad there was no romantic arc. I mean where would it go? LOL I have to agree with you.... that ending was so worth it. I think that was my fave part of the book. Well, that didn't sound right :) but I did love how it wrapped things up.

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  7. Oh yes I heard great things about this one and everyone is loving it, it sounds so good! I should try it one day too.

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  8. I"ve been seeing this book everywhere, and it's usually accompanied by 4 and 5 stars. Interesting to hear that this doesn't read as YA to you--sometimes that turns out to be some of my favorite reads, like STORMDANCER or more recently, the very polarizing QUEEN OF THE TEARLING.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

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  9. I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Keertana! I didn't like it quite as much, but I still found it to be a delightful read, and I'm sure I will continue on with the series. I also loved the reversed gender roles in their religion, and I'm eager to see this developed more. I'm curious to see how Yarvi will grow in the later installments! I am sure there will be plenty of surprises in store for us. Stunning review! :D

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  10. No romance?!! Not even a hint? You know I must have some romance or even just a hint that it will come at some point. Although I do enjoy The Iron Druid series and there hasn't been any romance...yet. I know one's coming though. Wonderful review, Keertana! :)

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  11. First off, I must say that your review is infinitely better than mine and you pointed out some of the things I really liked about Half A King: fearless women, Yarvi's growth and the dual-nature of this novel's characters. Although to be honest, I find it really hard to finish this one but I'm glad I did because I got to experience it's shocker of an ending. I also didn't mind that there is no romantic arc at all, I think it's refreshing in a way. Fantastic review as always, Keertana!

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  12. The feminist in me is already quite happy to hear that the women in this world do play a stronger role than otherwise imagined. Have you ever noticed that in quite a few fantasy books (not all by any means but.. yeah), women do seem to be quite suppressed? It always bothers me which is why I am really happy to hear that might not be the case with this book.

    I actually had no idea Yarvi was sold into slavery too.. which has me all the more intrigued now.

    I love stories about underdogs so I getting more and more excited with every positive review I see for this book.

    Hopefully, I'll read it soon!

    Gorgeous review, Keertana!! :)

    Rashika @ The Social Potato

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  13. This sounds REALLY interesting Keertana! :D I love the sound of the magic and the characters.

    This might be weird, but I'm actually happy to hear you say there really isn't much of a romance in this one. Too many books are bombarded with unnecessary romances (that quite frankly, they could have done better without!), so I'm really glad to hear that the author didn't go along with the phase.

    Thanks for sharing Keertana, and, as always, BRILLIANT review! Definitely intrigued now! xD

    ~ Zoe @ The Infinite To-Read Shelf

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  14. WOW. I've heard nothing about this. I'll admit to being a sucker for romance - even a small, subtle part (sometimes I prefer that). But I also love a male protagonist and a strong growth arc, both of which are appealing here. The way you've painted Yarvi and his journey through this book make me want to pick up this book asap. Did this just come out? I wonder if there will be a romance eventually? I don't mind waiting for it. Anyway, great review.

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  15. I do think YA fantasies have a tendency to have a bit more romance, but that's not always the case. Martin and Tolkien are very tricky authors to use as the examples of the epic fantasy genre - with Martin it's difficult to focus on romance too much because of the many, many narrators, and Tolkien barely has any female characters present. Theirs are definitely more politically-driven books, however, and I agree that Half a King is as well.
    And I don't know if I predicted one plot twist here correctly. I was so focused on the story at hand that I also didn't give myself much time to reflect upon potential twists - which isn't a bad thing. It's a pretty engaging book.
    The gender reversals were pretty neat, but I am not sure Abercrombie developed them quite as much as he should - or even as much as he wanted to. I'm hoping they're more laid out in the subsequent novels.
    That ending, though, was fantastic.
    I'm so glad that you really enjoyed this one, Keertana! There's always something so special about finding a beloved new epic fantasy series, in my mind. :)

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