Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half A King
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Hardcover: 352 Pages
US Publisher: Del Rey (15 Jul 2014)
UK Publisher: Harper Voyager (3 Jul 2014)
ISBN-10: 0804178321
ISBN-13: 978-0804178327
Series: Shattered Sea
Electronic Copy: Sent by the publisher

"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 his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy."

Half A King’s setting is reminiscent of the Viking era. The main protagonist, Yarvi, is a prince. He is the second son of his father, trailing a strong brother groomed to rule one day. Yarvi has a deformed hand so he is considered unfit to rule in a land where physical power is what a great leader is expected to have.

Young Yarvi learns the death of his father and his brother when he is about to become a minister, readying himself for a life of celibacy. Because of his handicap he has never imagined he would rule. But when his Uncle comes unannounced and kneels before him saying “My King” he understands that his father and his brother are dead. And this changes his life forever.

"He had expected to be a minister. To give up wife and children with hardly a thought. Kissing the aged cheek of Grandmother Wexen when he passed the test was the closest he had hoped to come to romance."
In Half a King, Abercrombie has created a world with a hint of mythology that I hope we would discover in more details in the series' future instalments. In this world, Elves are the legendary powerful beings who lived a long time ago and who vanished leaving buildings and all sorts of artifacts behind. It is told that they haven't been seen "since the Breaking of God" and "for thousands upon thousands of years".

This world has also many gods: "409 small and 6 tall". I really liked how the author created dualities by calling the six tall gods: Mother Sea, Father Earth, Mother Sun, Father Moon, Mother War, Father Peace.

When the new book of one of my favourite authors lands on my desk I drop whatever I’m reading in order to savour this precious newcomer. However it is not easy to review such a book. Not because I feel like I have to write a good review but because of expectations and standards. To me, the book of a top author comes with a heavy responsibility: to live up to the standards set by the author in her previous books. And this is where it gets tricky because having high expectations is the enemy of great entertainment. Therefore, opinions expressed about such a book should be considered in this context where disappointments could seem much larger.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to say that Half A King is a bad book. But… (You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you) since the moment I turned the last page of the book I’ve been telling myself “there’s something missing in Half A King. Something that made me love Abercrombie’s books”. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I guess what I missed the most in Half A King was the stomach knotting, gut wrenching, kick in the balls moments that leave you breathless and that make you shake your fist to the heavens. Those are the side effects of an immersive reading that usually earn Abercrombie 10/10 from me and I really missed them.

Then, maybe it’s also due to the “tone” of the story telling. I know some readers complain about cursing and sex in books but those are part of the reality, aren’t they? Think about the Viking era. Or about a medieval setting. Do you think that baddies, mercenaries, soldiers, sailors, slaves, whores talked like they were part of the royal family? No, of course not. Same goes for sex. They didn’t live their sexual lives like 13 year olds stealing kisses from each other. In my opinion those details add reality to a story and help in creating the immersive experience that I always look for in the books that I read. So maybe they were part of the things that I missed in Half A King.

Last but not least, the book also felt pretty short. I would have expected Abercrombie to develop certain parts of the story in more detail. I'm not sure whether this was due to editing or just due to the style of the story telling but that's what I felt. Now... this could also indicate a good story as in "pages turned themselves" or "read it in one sitting". You could be the judge when you read it.

I enjoyed Half A King but it didn’t satisfy me as fully as Abercrombie’s pervious books. It was like being very thirsty on a summer day, grabbing the last bottle of your favourite beer and finding it not as cold as you imagined it. Nonetheless, I would recommend it. It is a good story told masterfully by one of the best fantasy writers. You can’t go wrong with it. Get your copy, enjoy it and look forward to reading the second book of the series.

Overall: 8/10

Memorable Quotes:

"The fool strikes. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes." - Queen Laithlin

"A king must win. The rest is dust." - Odem

"Enemies are the price of success." - Queen Laithlin

"The wise wait for their moment, but never let it pass."

"When a wise minister has nothing but enemies, she beats one with a worse." - Mother Gundring

"When you’re in hell, only a devil can point the way out." - Yarvi

"The great warrior is the one who still breathes when the crows feast. The great king is the one who watches the carcasses of his enemies burn." - Nothing

"You cannot expect all the heroes to survive a good song." - Yarvi

"You may need two hands to fight someone, but only one to stab them in the back." - Yarvi

"A wise king always has someone to blame." - Mother Gundring

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