Half a King by Joe Abercrombie is the first book of the Shattered Sea series. Although Joe is revered for his creatively dark worlds and provocative adult books-the Shattered Sea is his first foray into the world of young adult fiction. The same sort of gritty tone and context is used as he usually does, but the spirit of this piece is much different than anything he’s written before. It’s as if he’s created the step-child of his own work…raised in the same household with some of the same values, yet entirely different genetics.
I also almost hesitate to consider Half a King young adult; it could very easily serve as a transition between young adult and adult fantasy, and covers several themes that skew older, such as knowing one’s place in the world, and realizing that a dream might not be attainable. Very philosophical for a “teen” read, but this complexity really carried me through the story and gave it a wonderful place in my list of “must read again” books.
Prince Yarvi was never expected to be king. He’s barely tolerated at court, what with his disgusting and disfigured hand revealing to the world that the royal line is not perfect. Yet the death of his father and brother have now forced him into the limelight of kingship. Not only are the nobles scrambling to see what kind of king he might make, he is battling enemies whose poisonous whispers about his disfigurement are stirring unrest across the land. Finally, a dark betrayal from someone Yarvi viewed as the closest ally spins his world out of control and lands him in the bonds of slavery.
Prince Yarvi as a character is quite compelling. You really feel for him at the beginning. He deals with the stunning double blow of his father and brother’s deaths with grace and sadness, but you ache for both him and the loss of the Ministry-the path he had been passionately pursuing before he was forced on the throne. Unfortunately, then the tide turns against him. Yarvi is so bitter about his disfigurement, so angry about losing out on the life that he expected that he is honestly quite unbearable. He is the perfect moody teenager in other words.
This makes the betrayal he faces a shocker, but kind of grudgingly appreciated. It certainly sends his character development on a tailspin as he is forced to grow and change to meet the hard life of a slave and then battle his way back to the crown. As the book rockets onward, Yarvi is tested again and again, and the bitterness fades away into something more: determination, strength, and passion for his life.
Unexpected is the best way to describe the theme of Half a King. Certain companions that you fall in love with at the beginning turn out to be starkly bitter enemies-ripping your heart out in the process. But you do gain the balm of other characters coming out of the woodwork that you expect to be bad guys or adversaries and they turn out to be to Yarvi’s advantage. The pacing is quite rapid, and although the audiobook was pretty short, it covered a million different aspects of plot and character all within the few short hours that I spent with Yarvi, Nothing, and all the others.
I don’t even remember how many twists came out of nowhere and blindsided me with their sudden alteration of the story line. You come into this series expecting to be taking on the classic hero’s journey, and in some ways you do. There’s a young boy, a sort of mentor, and a journey towards destiny. That is great, but The Shattered Sea is so much more than that. The self-discovery, the purely unique look at the world of Gettland that comes from Yarvi and his companions is unmatched in young adult fantasy today.
The narration, provided by John Keating, is excellent. Keating has narrated a score of my other favorite books, from War Horse to at least one of the Ranger’s Apprentice series that I can recall. I’m always blown away by the verbal acrobatics that Keating is able to contort his voice into by altering it so much to create individualized characters. My favorite in was his portrayal of Nothing. He was able to capture darkly witty humor as well as a more gruff character amazingly well. Even without names as cues, you could still tell which character was speaking. I give a solid A+ for the narration here!
Joe Abercrombie took a much lighter tone with this, if it can be light while still maintaining a gritty darkness that Abercrombie just bleeds into his novels. The light was mainly reflected by witty one-liners and quips between Yarvi and his companions along their journey. I found myself laughing out loud at times when the scene was actually quite dark and morbid but I found the ridiculous juxtaposition of dark scene with word play to be hilarious.
Half a King is a coming of age story like many of the genre, but it’s also deeply adventurous, darkly humorous, and grips you with such an enjoyable plot that you’d rather turn down plans with friends than put down this book. One of the best aspects for me in particular, was experiencing how Yarvi convinces himself to fight for a crown he doesn’t really want in the first place. Frodo wanted and needed to destroy the one ring, Harry Potter needed to kill Voldemort or he himself would die…yet Yarvi could very easily just shut up and go live a happy life elsewhere without the burden of the crown on his shoulders. Yet he chooses to fight any way. Seeing him grow and become the person that would persevere was awesome.
Half a King Is unique too, in that it portrays some kind of romance between Yarvi and others, but that isn’t the main focus. One of the biggest issues for teen boys is that they feel they can’t read young adult fiction because it’s all about romance and finding their one true
sparkly vampire love. I’m not saying that teenage boys don’t want love, but I am saying that they tend to need much less of it than girl readers do.
Half a King offers gritty fighting, a sense of survival, occasional flirting, but mainly great issues for teens such as finding one’s identity and beating the odds to overcome hardship. These ideas are universal and compelling to all genders and ages-allowing for a timeless and ageless quality to the piece. I would recommend Joe Abercrombie to anyone I meet, and will certainly be sharing Half a King with anyone, young or old.
* Please note: this review references the original narration by John Keating. The Half a King audiobook has recently been updated with new narration by Ben Elliot.