August 11, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
Series: Shattered Sea, #1
Published: 2014, Del Rey
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Publisher via Netgalley

A wise minister weighs the greater good, Mother Gundring always said, and finds the lesser evil. Surely a wise king could only do the same?

In a world where a leader’s worth seems to be determined by his fighting skills, Prince Yarvi of Gettland had the misfortune of being born with a crippled hand. Due to a considerable degree of mental acuity and the fact that he’s only the second son, Yarvi has found a way out of the constant pain and harassment of being seen as half a man; instead, he’s been training for years to become a minister, an advisor for the people.

All is as it should be until shortly before Yarvi is poised to take the test to become a minister, when he learns that his father and brother have been murdered in one fell swoop, effectively leaving him as King Yarvi. It’s a position that no one wants for him, least of all Yarvi himself. Determined to make the best of his situation, Yarvi pledges to avenge his father and brother. The act of vengeance, however, is no simple task, and soon Yarvi finds himself far away from home, with seemingly insurmountable obstacles barring his path.

There’s always something so thoroughly refreshing for me about reading a well-written work of high fantasy. And, slight flaws aside, Half a King really is a solid fantasy novel, complete with the beginnings of a finely crafted world, a protagonist whose odds never seem to be in his favor, political intrigue galore, and established religious and cultural systems.

On its most basic level, Half a King is a novel of revenge. It is a need for vengeance that drives Yarvi’s decisions to become king and attack the neighboring kingdom, which is supposedly responsible for the deaths of his father and brother. It is Yarvi’s need for vengeance that keeps him focused after a series of terrible events take him far from home. Vengeance for his family, and vengeance for himself.

More than mere vengeance, Half a King focuses on Yarvi’s personal growth. In his pseudo-Viking world, Yarvi is essentially worthless in his role as prince and heir of Gettland. The tolerance that the people of Gettland and surrounding countries have for “useless” people is about as icy as their climate. Yarvi’s clearly accepted this mentality long ago, but it’s still heartbreaking to witness the lack of respect he garners, knowing full well that he’d rather be doing something - anything - else himself, but that he also understands the responsibilities inherent with being heir of Gettland. Yarvi is also not the most likeable protagonist. He’s so set in what he believes to be physical “weakness” that he becomes overly reliant on his mental talents, making many amoral or downright reprehensible decisions. Fortunately, this novel does chronicle some major growth on Yarvi’s part, challenging him to see beyond his preconceived notions (beyond the preconceived notions that his entire world has for him) and become something more.

Outside of Yarvi, the secondary characters are quite interesting in their own right. Much of the novel recounts Yarvi’s struggle with a group of strangers who become some of his greatest friends and allies. Even while away from his home, Yarvi constantly remembers his mother, his mentor, Mother Gundring, and the other family members waiting for him at home. I liked learning about the various characters presented, but many did not quite feel established enough, especially those of Yarvi’s group. This is Yarvi’s story, and that much was made pretty clear by secondary characterizations that did not feel quite as fully realized as I would have hoped.

I feel as though Abercrombie tried to incite conversation about established gender roles through this novel. Unlike most fantasies taking place in a pseudo-historical period, here it appears that women do have a bit more power. The Gettlanders’ religious pantheon features Mother War and Father Peace, Mother Sky and Father Earth, among other deities. Female ministers appear to be equal to their male counterparts, and the minister for the high king is a female. Like men, females are sold as slaves, captain ships, and much more. Unfortunately, I do not think that Abercrombie made as strong a point about gender roles as perhaps he’d hoped. Upon his father’s and his brother’s death, it is still Yarvi who inherits the crown, regardless of how queenlike or imposing his mother is. In fact, all the positions of entrenched power are filled by men. On top of that, the female characters in this book are largely overshadowed by the sheer amount of male characters. If Abercrombie wants to explore gender dynamics in a more convincing manner, then hopefully future installments will feature more female characters overall.

Outside of how it attempts to portray gender roles, Half a King does challenge many stereotypes present in fantasy novels, most to very great effect. Yarvi is not a traditional sort of protagonist, nor is his journey simply driven by vengeance. Abercrombie knows how to plot well, and pacing and reveals were excellent overall. And the ending is very well done. Honestly, that ending is just about perfect. So while I did have some issues here and there, I found quite a bit to enjoy in Abercrombie’s first foray into YA fantasy and will certainly be reading the sequel.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer: I received this review copy from Netgalley on behalf of the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I did rather like the ending, as it held a nice little twist. I think you enjoyed this one a little bit more than me, though I will agree it's a good enough read overall. I also found the characterization for the secondary characters somewhat lacking, and I'm hoping we learn more about these characters in future installments. Great review, Manda!

  2. I think I enjoyed this quite a bit more than you did, Amanda, but I'm glad to see you did still like it. Definitely the gender roles caught my eye and I'm hoping Abercrombie builds upon that in the sequel to emphasize it further--it was a little too subtle in this installment--but the ending, as you said, really is absolutely perfect. Wonderful review--I can't wait for the next book! :)

  3. This book wasn't really on my radar, but reviews from both you and Keertana have me much more intrigued. Your discussion of gender rolls is rather interesting, especially that the author tries to make a point, but maybe misses it in the process. But I like the idea of this unconventional hero and his personal growth. I'm not sure I'm ready to invest in this book, but I plan to watch the series as it progresses. Thoughtful review, as always.


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