Since starting to read fantasy again several years ago, there have been a few authors whose names have been constantly whispered in my ear as the “it” writers to try: Peter V. Brett, Brent Weeks, Mark Lawrence, and especially Joe Abercrombie. From all the gushing, I was led to believe that reading a novel penned by Lord Grimdark (as Mr. Abercrombie is called) would not only enthrall me in his fantasy spell but leave me a meth-like addict begging for more. Well, finally, I’ve given him a try, and all I can say is that Half a King wasn’t as great as I anticipated it being (because we all know nothing is ever as good as the hype surrounding it), though it was still a very entertaining read – just not necessarily for me.
Why do I say that? Well, while I’m not a grimdark aficionado, I have read several of those types of novels during my fantasy renaissance, enjoying most of them: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence being my personal favorite and the standard that I judge all other grimdark against. But relative to my other forays into the grim, Half a King did not have the shock, grit or gore of my favorites. In fact, there were lots of times it read eerily like a YA novel, but it really wasn’t a true YA novel either, because for every moment where the main character would be lovesick, naive or voice his teenage angst there would be another where he was acting like a very seasoned and mature grimdark hero. So I suppose, Half a King is not really either grimdark or YA but rather a genre blending work which I hereby dub GRIMWHINE!
Now, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Abercrombie creating grimwhine. It is obviously a whole new genre, and creative people always like to push the boundaries in whatever they are doing at the moment. Take some of my friends, for example, they personally enjoy grilling, even though they are not “chefs” by any definition of the word, and when they grill, they will occasionally create new recipes to wow their friends and family. Sometimes, they are lucky and get it right, and everyone pats them on the back, telling them how great they are. Other times, they aren’t so fortunate, and while no one hates their new dish, no one loves it either. The later situation is how I view grimwhine as served up to me in Half a King.
The story itself focuses on Yarvi, the second son of King Uthrik and Queen Laithlin of Gettland, who is born into a Viking-like world where physical strength and honor in battle define manhood. Unfortunately, for our youth, he can never live up to this societal role, because he was cursed with a deformed hand that is almost useless.
Growing up as the kingdom’s one handed prince, Yarvi views himself as inadequate and an embarrassment; feelings that are only reinforced by his father’s very open disgust for him. Whenever he can, he slips away to the secret tunnels in the castle, attempting to hide from his tormentors and an older brother whose good-natured teasing cuts him like a knife. But now, all the years of crying in the dark are over for Yarvi, because he has found his calling in life. No more weapons practice or hiding his deformity from view. No, our young prince is training to be a minister, taught by Mother Gundring herself, and she has recognized that while Yarvi might not have the physical strength to be a great king, he has the quickness of mind, the empathy, and the silver-tongue to someday become Father Yarvi, advisor to kings.
But Yarvi’s happiness does not last, as life in this violent and brutal land intervenes. During a raging storm, his Uncle Odem arrives to break the news to him: A horrible act of treachery has been executed by King Grom-gil-Grom of the Vanstermen, and both his father and his older brother lie dead of their wounds. Now, Yarvi is King of Gettland!
From this beginning, Mr. Abercrombie weaves a story of Yarvi’s ascent to the Black Chair of kingship, the political betrayals that inevitably follow, and his descent into the depths of misfortune where he has to struggle to just survive. Along the way, several interesting and compelling characters enter our one-handed Prince’s life, poking and prodding him along his way to inner enlightenment. There are murders, grand fights, personal revelations, and twists and turns in the plot — even two surprise endings (Yeah, you read that correctly), and during it all, a reader is pulled along on a journey that cannot be called anything other than entertaining. But even the best novels have problems, and Half a King is no different. Let me explain my personal issues with it.
The first problem was that there wasn’t any suspense. In a tale full of manipulations, murdering schemes and revenge, you expect the revelations of “who did what” to be the exciting part of the narrative, but here none of the villains or heroes were surprising in the least. The first “betrayer” of Yarvi was readily apparent from the outset of the story; the young prince’s future friends and saviors were easily recognized; the identity of the big surprise “hero” was so thoroughly foreshadowed that I would have been disappointed if it had not been he; and even the climactic ending did nothing but unveil a villain who looked suspicious from the beginning of the tale. These things plus the fact that the latter two revelations were deus ex machina endings definitely made me sigh a bit and set the book aside until I stopped shaking my head at the very tidy and convenient conclusion Mr. Abercrombie penned.
The second problem with Half a King was that it had no fantasy elements in it. Sure, we have passages here or there mentioning ancient Elves who destroyed the world and split apart the One God, but other than seeing a few of their relics and ruins, they have no part in the story, and they are the only thing fantastical about it. Without these allusions to the past, there is no magic in this novel: nothing to keep it from being a tale about a one-handed Viking prince back in the Middle Ages. In fact, you can just change the names of Gettlanders to Scylding, add a few other Danish kingdom names, and the novel is now about real history, not fantasy. (And before anyone mentions it, I know what George R.R. Martin is writing about in Song of Ice and Fire, but would anyone like to list all the fantastical elements he has integrated into his fantasy version of the War of the Roses?) So while it is perfectly fine for Mr. Abercrombie to write a Viking-esque story, Half a King could just as easily been historical fiction as fantasy.
In a summation, this was a decent coming-of-age story that combined elements of grimdark and YA to create what I like to call “grimwhine.” It was fast-paced, well written, and very easy to read in no time at all. The continual ups-and-downs of Yarvi’s existence never became dull or bogged down in angst or romance like many YA adventures and neither did the blood, gore, and pessimism of grimdark totally overshadow the inherent optimism of a youth trying to find his place in the world. Truthfully, Mr. Abercrombie did a great job of balancing the two tones. However, the balancing act cost Half a King something, and it was that the testosterone rush of blood-drenched grimdark and the heart-wracking angst of great YA were both missing, which doesn’t bode well for grimwhine’s appeal – at least to me.
I RECEIVED THIS NOVEL FROM NETGALLEY.