When King Uthrik and his heir are taken through the Last Door on the edge of a murderer’s sword, Prince Yarvi ascends the Black Chair, wearing the King’s Circle on his brow. This was not the destiny Yarvi had hoped for. His wish had been to complete his spiritual training and to become a minister as plain Brother Yarvi, no longer a prince. To his father and brother, Yarvi had seemed half a man, one of his hands deformed beyond use. Restrained by unkind words and deeds, Yarvi is unprepared for kingship. It seems like cruel destiny, then, when he is cast from the throne through the greatest of treacheries, thrown into the sea, from which he is reborn as a slave, an oarsman and, finally, a warrior and one of a band of brothers and sister, each with their own vengeance to wreak, especially Yarvi who has a throne to claim.
Half a King is a fantasy adventure but for me it is fresh with the sea air of a Viking saga. It has a suitably traditional, ageless theme – the young prince overthrown who must prove himself as a warrior and leader before he can become king – but Yarvi’s character, and so many others aboard this novel, is so distinct and original that there are surprises throughout and our expectations as to the outcome of such a saga are wonderfully challenged. The ending is superb.
Once Yarvi is an enslaved oarsman aboard the South Wind, Half A King comes to life in fabulous ways. The female captain Shadikshirram is a painted monster and a joy to read. One slave who dared to try to escape is now literally ground under her foot every day, renamed as Nothing. Others aboard have taken on grotesque personalities due to the iron collars around their necks and the chains around their limbs. But fortune lends a hand, accompanied by desperate, determined violence, and once Yarvi and others of the enslaved crew escape, he learns the first of several valuable lessons about the nature of man, servitude and power. He also learns for the first time about friendship.
The journey across the Shattered Sea is a marvellous one, rich with perilous adventure, brotherhood, even the spark of romance, as one mystery after another is teased and unravelled. The strength of the characterisation is matched by the beauty and power of the mythology of this world. Its spirituality and greed are brilliantly developed, an enigmatic history hinted at. For me, the inhumanly built, ancient towering remains around the Shattered Sea were a reminder of the Roman ruins that fascinated Saxon travellers. The language, too, is vibrant and vivid and rich in colour and meaning.
In one distinct way, this is a society that stands out from our own ancient past. It is full of powerful women – from queens and captains to priests, navigators and householders. Kings and princes might still hold the sway in politics but in many ways this is a matriarchal society. The female characters are, for me, along with Yarvi himself, the highlight of Half a King.
I’m not a great reader of fantasy, usually preferring stories bound by history or science, but there is so much in Half a King that I could relate to, reminding me of Old English and Norse poems, and an ancient sea-tied society that had to make sense of its icy, harsh, feudal surroundings. There is no magic here, just a mythology, and no supernatural beings, just hints of a distant, forgotten elfish past. This is, I understand, Joe Abercrombie’s first Young Adult novel. Reading it, though, I would never have assumed it was for readers of any specific age – it has timeless appeal. There is also, thank heavens, much more to come.