Joe Abercrombie is the author of the First Law Trilogy. A fairly brutal series that is more graphic than most standard fantasy, I recall wincing at times while reading the series. While I thoroughly enjoyed the First Law books, I have never gotten around to the follow up books in the world setting. In 2014 “Half a King” came out and was featured at my favorite bookstore as the speculative fiction pick of the month. I seem to recall hearing that he had written this book as something that his kids could read.
Not long after coming home my husband read and enjoyed the book, and he confirmed that it seemed more YA than Joe Abercrombie’s previous books. Then it languished on the shelves for nearly three years as books two and three in the Shattered Sea series joined it. The last book I read, Everfair, started off heavier than I had wanted, so this time I went for somewhat of a known quantity and decided it was finally time to read “Half a King”.
Much like the First Law books, “Half a King” starts with a bang and charges onward. Joe is skillful at building excitement and maintaining momentum. Yarvi is the second son of Uthrik, King of Gettland and mighty warrior. Born with a disfigured left hand that only has a thumb and one finger, Yarvi will never be a fighter and has been forever looked down on by his family and the nobles around them. Lacking physical prowess Yarvi turns to the ministry where he learns languages and customs, medicinal plants, and how to be a wise counselor. Moments after the reader meets him a messenger bursts in on Yarvi and his instructor Mother Grundering to inform his Highness that his father and older brother had been killed and now Yarvi is King of Gettland. A king with half a hand, half a king in his mind.
Yarvi exists in a state of shock as he learns of the betrayal by their rival neighbor, Vansterland, killing his father and brother while on their way to a meeting, in a time when then High King of all the lands had decreed a period of peace. Vengeance must be the answer to this foul act. In quick succession plans for a raid are laid, he is quickly betrothed and the great pyre is made to send off his father and brother. Through it all Yarvi can scarcely deal with the fact that he has been made king and leans heavily on the kindness of his Uncle Odem, his father’s brother.
The raid is a complete success and once the town has been subdued Yarvi is allowed to come ashore. Uncle Odem has requested Yarvi meet him in the tower. After a disgraceful disembark from the boat, Yarvi ditches his shield and quickly gets rid of his chainmail for being too burdensome. Huffing and puffing to reach the top of the tower, he quickly realizes something is amiss and his suspicions are confirmed when his Uncle orders Yarvi killed, so Odem can claim the throne. Having taken off the chainmail ended up saving Yarvi’s life as he manages to escape out a window and into the sea below. Clinging to a ledge on the seawall, Yarvi waits as long as the tide allows before he is forced out of his hiding spot, into the arms of guards of the King of Vansterland, Grom-gil-Gorm. It is here that Yarvi learns Grom was not behind the attack on his father. Between that information and his Uncle’s attempt on his life Yarvi deduces that Odem is behind it all. Using his quick wits Yarvi hides his true identity and convinces the King to sell him as a slave as opposed to killing him outright.
Becoming a slave is only the beginning of Yarvi discovering what he is truly capable of. It is also the beginning of his unraveling how deep the conspiracy of his father’s death goes. A king can’t reclaim his throne on his own and Yarvi finds friends and help along the way.
Joe Abercrombie weaves a tale of intrigue, vengeance and oaths with tantalizing glimpses of a shattered ancient civilization. There are many layers to this fairly simple revenge story. Joe has crafted a rich world setting, I particularly liked the way he flipped gender norms around in regards to the Gods of this World. Around the Shattered Sea the people pray to Mother War and Father Peace, Mother Sun and Father Moon, Mother Sea and Father Earth. Ministers in this world weigh the greater good and find the lesser evil as the basis for all their actions, which is an interesting concept to base a religion around.
I especially appreciate that “Half a King” was not overly gory. I suspect the graphic nature of the First Law trilogy has been a factor as to why I have not read the books that followed in that world setting. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the Shattered Sea series and seeing how the story plays out.