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Immodest Proposals for the David Gemmell Legend Awards

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half-a-king-uk-mmpbI'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.

Half a King (2014) is the first entry in a new series from Joe Abercrombie, one of the most well-established modern fantasy authors. It is hard to believe that it was only nine years ago that The Blade Itself hit the shelves or, that after six volumes in that series, the author has moved on to test his mettle in a new world. But, here we are - away from Logan Ninefingers and into the quasi-European world of Prince Yarvi and the Shattered Sea.

Yarvi is, as noted, a prince - the younger son of the King of Gettland. Born with only 'half a hand', Yarvi's ill-suited for combat, and doesn't fit in with the macho Viking culture of Gettland. Fortunately, a scholarly path is available to him, and Yarvi's happily studying to become a minister - a keeper of knowledge, an advisor to royalty, and an innocuous, forgettable nobody that will never have to lift a shield or lead soldiers.

Alas, fate intervenes. Yarvi's father and brother are killed in by the rival pseudo-Nordic Vanstermen. Not only is Yarvi suddenly elevated to the throne but also he's now a king at war. Despite an edict from the High King - the distant figure that owns all their fealty - Yarvi launches a raid on the Vanstermen. 

It doesn't go well.

Before long, Yarvi's a galley slave. But it is here, shackled to an oar, that he becomes - not a minster, not a king - but a person of his own. This comes complete with friends, oaths, a bit of romance, bro-bonding and, eventually, a destiny

Half a King is billed as both an epic fantasy and a Young Adult novel*, and the plot arc is pretty well-constrained by both literary traditions. It takes being 'broken' before Yarvi discovers the strength of character that was in him all along, and that, half a hand or not, he's got all the will and the character he needs to succeed. Plus, he's got a quirky set of friends - particularly the grim warrior, Nothing, and the snarky navigator Sumael. Together they work as a team, triumph, etc. etc. 

If it sounds like I'm giving Half a King slightly short-shrift, that's not intentional. It is, narratively-speaking, quite easy to summarise. This is because, to some degree, it is almost exactly what you would expect - a coming of age story with a quick-witted, slightly prickly protagonist who learns that 'real' victory comes from taking control of his own life, and not letting others dictate his decision for him. He starts out spoiled (relatively), gets broken down, works his way back up again, but this time choosing his own path. Connections are made. Obstacles are overcome.

Without getting too meta about the review, I do think it is worth stepping back and thinking about Half a King as something beyond the text. By that I mean as a book intended for the 'Young Adult' market, and how that intent seemingly impacts the narrative itself. (Yup, I just busted out intent. I've not started reading minds, nor do I have any special insight into Abercrombie's work. But it gives me a hook for the review, so I'm sticking with it. You can FAIL! me later.)

First, and I puzzle over this every single year, if there's a dividing line between what constitutes Young Adult and what constitutes epic fantasy, I've yet to figure it out. Nor, given the frequent rebranding/reshelving of books by Tolkien, Eddings and Feist (amongst others), do I think the 'industry' has an answer either.** Only people who don't read Young Adult fiction think there's a difference in tone or content, as modern YA contains some of the sweariest, most graphic books on the shelf. Similarly, however 'dark' fantasy has gotten, Young Adult books certainly have their edge as well. Spend some time in The Bunker Diaries, and grimdark fantasy feels like a light-hearted beach read.  

Similarly, the difference can't be in the age of the protagonist, or even the shape of their journey. Teenagers coming of age, discovering problems (real and metaphoric), experiencing things for the first time, and finding out their purpose in the world... I'm not actually sure which genre that describes more. If anything, epic fantasy is even more attached to the formula than Young Adult is. See everyone from Frodo to Fitz.

Half-a-king-uk-hbSo what makes Half a King particularly intriguing as a book (that is, an object that is shelved in bookstores and traded for your hard-earned bottlecaps) is trying to guess what it is that makes this, and not, say, any of Abercrombie's previous works, Young Adult. Certainly there's less swearing and younger protagonists - although neither of these traits are unprecedented in Abercrombie's works nor, as noted, necessary for YA categorisation.

My hunch? It seems that the bid for Young Adultness comes from the story's simplicity. Unlike any of Abercrombie's previous work, Half a King is, well, predictable. From the start you know what's going to happen to Yarvi - not the specifics of his rise and fall and rise, but that they will, invariably, happen. A bit like John Gwynne's Valour, this is, structurally, a book for people that either a) know what's going to happen or b) have never read a fantasy book before.

But that's about where the similarities end. Line by line, Half a King is awash in the same humour, dark wit, and brutal action that makes the Abercrombie's books such a delight to read. However, and especially given the context of the author's previous, thoroughly rebellious works, Half a King felt confining. The reader can see the dots and know how they're going to connect. And indeed, there are some moments - such as the trek through the snow, where even the expected emotional maturation feels 'fast-forwarded'. There's still plenty of craft in how things happen, but the things themselves are pre-ordained. 

So what's this mean? Well, ironically, I think writing to a formula is, traditionally, one of the strengths of fantasy. From Tolkien to, well, everyone else, what makes for high quality epic fantasy isn't the element of surprise, it is how the story still manages to capture the reader despite the lack of surprise. And, by that standard, Half a King is great epic fantasy. But I can't shake the feeling - unjust as it may be - that the quest for simplicity may have taken away half the fun.

Is it fantastic? Actually... no. There's a bit of alchemy and potion-crafting and such, but I'm struggling to think of anything that's actually magical

Is it entertaining? Yes. Great prose, excellent battles, harrowing set-piece melodramatic last stands, and a great sense of humour. (GSOH. Likes: frolicking in the surf, (light) snowfall, reading. Dislikes: strenuous exercise, crew.)

Is it immersive? Moments, yes. The book is... shortcutty. That's a made-up, bullshitty term, but from the pseudo-Viking society to the archetypical divinities (War, Sea, etc), this isn't a world built for depth as much as speed. Once Yarvi is off the ship and on the road, the journey skips about as well, hopping from one setting to another. The end of the book, and the revelation of the 'metaplot', indicates more complexity (politically, at least) than we get in all the chapters preceding. In fairness, the world of the Shattered Sea is more to my personal taste - I'd rather the setting support the story, rather than the other way around. But when it comes to secondary world settings, Half a King errs on the side of 'function' over 'detail'.

Is it emotionally engaging? Yes. Yarvi is great. From the start, the reader feels the weight of Yarvi's obligations, and later, the nervousness, the shame, and the fear. But also the relief, the (very occasional) joy and, perhaps most importantly, the warmth of belonging. There are a few moments where I think the emotional take-out is forced a little too much - the trek through the snow, mentioned above. But those are few and far between. 

Is it embarrassing? Nope. Very mild and vague spoiler, but virtually all the real movers and shakers are women. Yarvi's love interest(s) are both very interesting characters as well, with depth that goes above and beyond being his crush. Philosophically, I'm all on board with Half a King - a book that is about Choosing, rather than being Chosen, working hard rather than being born to privilege, and, of course, brains over brawn. And, of course, there's Yarvi's hand - see below.  

Is it different? As noted at length: no. Structurally, Half a King is about as traditional as it gets - the character growth, the coming of age, the bonding and questing and such. That said, there are two points of difference worth flagging up:

  1. How often do you get an epic fantasy protagonist that's actually differently-abled? Not in a metaphoric way, either - ('oh, I have these crazy magical powers! woez') but genuinely facing additional difficulties because of a physical disability? Not often.
  2. I think the ending continues the Abercrombian tradition of giving people what they actually deserve, and not what the tropes dictate. (I wang on about this at length with every Abercrombie novel.) But the fulfilment of the quest is heroic - and just - but also unexpected. It isn't about fulfilling the obligations of the fantasy formula, as much as doing what is - in terms of the world's thematic construction - right

Those are cheeky little elements, and not to be underestimated, but as noted (at length), this is largely a very straightforward book and, by far, Abercrombie's most conventional novel yet.

I think it goes without saying - but, hell, I'll say it anyway - that this is a very good book, and a blast to read. Even colouring in a predictable plot, Abercrombie adds... well... a lot of colour. Yarvi is a delightfully brains-over-brawn protagonist, one that's overcomes obstacles with a combination of gumption, intelligence and flair. His friends are diverse, quirky, slightly disgusting and utterly charming. And, as traditional as the plot is, the ending is extremely promising, as it gives a pay-off that's both a relief and a surprise.

As unfair as it to compare Half a King to Abercrombie's other books, I can compare it to everything else I've read - and in a year dominated by Viking-influenced coming of age narratives, this is, so far, the cream of the crop. There's a solid chance that this could win the DGLA award as the year's best fantasy, and - even if it isn't the best Abercrombie - it ain't half bad.*** 


*Which means, presumably, the DGLA has started taking Young Adult fiction. Even if this was an exception made for Joe Abercrombie (and if this book hadn't been accepted, the howling would've been heard from here to Mordor), the fact that Half a King is so blatantly billed as YA means that it has, in effect, changed the rules.

**Wouldn't it be ironic if, by moving from epic fantasy (a readership dominated by teenagers) to Young Adult (over 50% purchased by people in their late 20s or older), the average age of Abercrombie's readership actually went up?

***A few things to tack on, and they don't really belong anywhere else. First, I think Abercrombie's probably the defining - if not the most important - contemporary fantasy author. Second, I think it is hilarious ironic that, as a combination of publishing schedules and ill luck, Abercrombie's never won the award that's specifically about celebrating contemporary fantasy. Third, I think the year it should've happened was 2012, when The Heroes (one of the best fantasy epics of all time) lost, in particularly head-desky fashion, to Wise Man's Fear (Red Country losing to The Blinding Knife was also regrettable, but The Heroes is better than Red Country and The Blinding Knife is a lot better than Wise Man's Fear). Fourth, Abercrombie's best book since The Heroes - and maybe his second-best ever - is Half a World (2015), so next year will be very, very interesting indeed.