Joe Abercrombie is increasingly referred to as a rising star of fantasy, but it somehow doesn’t feel like an appropriate description. He’s not so much rising above fantasy as tunnelling beneath it, undermining it from below. His stories are dirty, and only occasionally in the X-rated sense. He eschews classic high fantasy tropes of elf wizards and dragons in favour of squalor, misfortune and characters battling manfully to be crowned the biggest asshole of them all, and there’s stiff competition. Morality comes in all shades of grey, and he has no compunctions about giving his characters a well-deserved spanking.
Aimed at a young adult market, Half A King might feel like a divergence from his usual style at first glance, but stories like the Hunger Games have shown that young adults can be a bloodthirsty lot, and any fears of Abercrombie dialling down the grit and filth can be safely dispelled. Half A King might not be quite as harrowing as some of his adult works, but you can be sure you won’t find any fairies or noble heroes either.
The story follows Yarvi, an unprepossessing son of a warrior king whose strengths lie in herbalism and quick thinking rather than violent swordplay, something down in no small part to his deformed and useless left hand. When his father and brother are both killed in battle he unexpectedly finds himself on the throne, only to be betrayed and dumped off it (and down a cliff) before he even has time to get the seat warm. He then barely has time to catch his breath before being captured and sold into slavery. It’s hard not to sense a certain glee as the misfortunes are piled on and on to our increasingly bedraggled protagonist.
What follows is Yarvi’s journey around the Shattered Sea, Abercrombie’s latest fantasy world, as he stumbles and crawls his way back to his homeland for a reckoning, picking up a gaggle of reprobates along the way. The humour is as black as ever, and the bastards just as likeable as the very occasional good person who bobs past, adrift in a sea of the bickering and the selfish. Captain Shadikshirram Jack Sparrows her way around the ship with a bottle of wine sloshing in one hand, owing as much to Nicomo Cosca, the alcoholic dandy and mercenary captain of Abercrombie’s adult novels, as to Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards pirate tribute. Yarvi himself ends up growing into a bastard of note in his own right, as the story watches classic righteous heroes suspiciously from the other side of the room and decides it wants nothing to do with them.
Compared to his previous books there’s considerably less shagging in Half A King, with things staying firmly in the “fumbling adolescent sexual tension” end of the spectrum rather than the more usual grunting, sweaty and slightly disappointing reality – well, you try having sex in some boiled leathers after 2 years without a bath. The violence is also knocked down a notch – there’s plenty of thrilling fight scenes and bloody murder but compared to Abercrombie’s usual brand of concussive and visceral smackdown, it’s a definite step down, which is probably for the best considering the younger audience. That isn’t to say that it’s completely toothless, just that he’s set himself such a high standard of hacking and nastiness that it was inevitable the brakes would have to go on slightly.
Abercrombie has managed to transition to a young adult audience without losing any of his bite, and it’s not much like anything else you’re likely to read, and Half A King has emerged into the sunlight, sworn loudly and isn’t going anywhere soon. This is the fantasy revolution: get on board.
We've got three copies of Half A King to give away, want one? All you need to do to enter is answer this simple question in the comments section below:
What is the name of the main character in Half A King?
a) Captain Shadikshirram