What a book! This was my first attempt at reading a book by Joe Abercrombie. And I am hooked to the series now!
I rarely pick up YA novels, but I picked up this one without knowing the genre. I was interested due to the cover, the blurb, the title – you get the idea. Anyway, I began reading this novel expecting there to be an undervalued hero (lets face it – assumptions are bound to be made), and I expected him to prove himself as soon as he got a chance. My expectations were turned to dust.
Story begins with the protagonist, Prince Yarvi. He is the youngest son of the royal family, and in everyone’s opinion, he is deformed. It is indeed a fact that one of his hands is not formed like the other. And so, he has borne the scorn of everyone since he has been a kid. It obviously does wonders for his self-confidence. Hence when the crown is thrust on his head, it does not favour him with any dignity or power. Soon afterwards, he is forced to take an oath to avenge the deaths of his father and brother. His sentiments:
“He had always been weak, but he never felt truly powerless until they made him a king.“
The story seems deceptively predictable. While reading the beginning, I had a sinking feeling that this would turn out to be another story about a man who is kicked down all his life, and then grows a backbone at the end, or survives due to a simple trick up his sleeve. Thankfully, I was wrong. Yarvi is wise, and his spirit isn’t completely broken. He prefers peace over war and knows the difference between killing a warrior and killing innocents. Bloodshed and fighting has never enthralled him. But a King must get his hands dirty at times and he must make hurtful decisions when required. Yarvi lacks these qualities. He was never required to have them, and nobody bothered instilling these into him. So when the mantle is his to take, he is not equipped to do so. Due to this, he is betrayed, and almost killed. The only reason he survives is because his enemies consider him dead.
Then begins his journey. His first thought had been vengeance, but now he fights for his survival. And he doesn’t fight with a sword, rather, he fights with his will, to live. He suffers living through muck and has his spirit broken badly. He faces fears he never thought existed. At last, survival instincts kick in, and from there on, things get better. But it happens slowly and gradually.
The friends which Yarvi finally makes are more due to circumstances than choice. However, these are the trustworthy ones, unlike those usually formed in palaces. The long journey home, with friends, makes a major portion of the book. But it is not overwhelming or boring at any point. The author doesn’t introduce any fantastical monsters, because there are plenty of enemies and plenty of hard times as it is.
Things come full circle at the end. Yarvi does come back to his kingdom, to claim his rightful place. But how it comes to happen, is a story worth reading. That is not all. The plot is peppered with twists. Anytime there is a lull, you can bet another twist is coming to rescue you from the boredom.
Half A King is set in a somewhat neo-viking world. It has kingdoms and dangerous barren lands, towns and villages, Kings and High Kings, Priests and Ministers, Slavers and Pirates. Religion is a strong vein pulsing through people, but even there they seem somewhat divided. The Gods and Elves share a story when it comes to religion, and both are remembered quite often. The world building, even with the details is simple and easy to understand.
Yarvi’s character grows throughout the book, and this development is beautiful to see. Yarvi had all the brains, he just needed the polish. But it is only after the veneer of safety and protection is taken away that his wisdom comes to the forefront. He survives a lot, purely due to his wisdom. He is helped slightly by Lady Luck, but that is a rare occurrence.
The other characters in the novel are painted with a double-edged blade – one of them would be friendly to you, another would cut you. It is quite surprising and quite good to see the transformation in Yarvi’s point of view towards certain characters. When at his weakest, Yarvi is finally able to channel the skills which he saw in his family and found lacking in himself. And this brings confidence in his stride.
I saw the first betrayal coming through, and was able to predict a few minor events in the book. But the larger picture I was never able to predict. Yarvi, it seemed to me, did have the properties to become a good king. A different kind of king perhaps, but a good king. Yet he definitely lacked the confidence and the muscle power. Once his suffering comes to an end however, Yarvi comes to a few realisations. One of them is that it is a dark world and he has to bend so that he doesn’t break. His maturity is shown in his actions and words:
“When you are in hell,” murmured Yarvi, “only a devil can point the way out.“
But this is the point where another twist takes the plot in a completely unforeseen direction.
There are insignificant details distributed throughout the text. It can be surmised that these are merely to fill the gaps, or act as an immediate bridge to another conversation. However, these insignificant details came together later, to contribute significantly to the larger picture. The author even created a few loopholes purposefully, just to ensure an airtight story later when he ties them up. In short, a brilliant hand at work.
Most significantly, I liked the portrayal of politics in the novel. It is done with a subtle touch, yet its importance cannot be undermined. The narration is simple, yet impactful. The author employs minimal fantastical elements, if any. The way the whole story comes to an end, the way the plot inside is revealed to the reader at the end, is classic on its own. The dialogues are good, and add to the pleasure of reading a good story. My favourite words:
“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.“
Overall, a great read! I am eagerly anticipating the twists the next book will entail.