“Half a King” by Joe Abercrombie

This is, again, not an ARC, but a book I picked up at the library because the blurb sounded interesting and I vaguely remembered one of my friends having enjoyed it a while ago. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and the length of some of Abercrombie’s books had put me off them in the past, but I ended up devouring this one in an evening and being pleasantly surprised by it.

Quick note, before I start: in future, all book reviews will contain two Amazon links at the end of the post (UK and US). These are affiliate links, so if my review moves you to buy a book, doing so via these links earns me a tiny (5%) commission at no extra cost to you — an easy and painless way to support me and this blog. This won’t change my approach to reviewing or influence my reviews in any way (see my Reviewing Policy for more information). Some posts have contained UK links for a while, but I only just got a US associates account, so that’s a change, and I thought I should make you aware of it. Half A King paperback cover

I’m not entirely sure how to classify this book, to be honest with you. The setting is fantasy, with a vaguely historical/Viking-ish vibe, but there isn’t really any magic to speak of, so it seems strange to put it in the SF/F tag. But oh well. It’s going there anyway. Onto the actual review…

This book contained a lot of things that I enjoy, which is always a good start: plenty of action and betrayal, humour, a disabled protagonist, a distinct Hamlet vibe… all good things, when it comes to it.

Beyond that, though, I don’t have a huge amount to say. It’s a dark book, but it never feels relentlessly grim, partly because of the humour. There’s an underlying feeling of hope, which helps it not to become depressing even when the characters lives suck, a lot — as well as the kind of gallows humour that always lightens those kinds of situations.

“If you have a plan,” hissed Sumael from the corner of her mouth, “now would be the time.”
“I have a plan,” said Nothing.
“Does it involve swords?”
A pause. “All my plans do.”
“Do you have a sword?”
Another. “No.”
“How will you succeed without one?” Muttered Sumael.
A third. “Death waits for us all.”

The plot twists and turns this way and that, with betrayals on every side except where you find unexpected loyalty, and I have to say there were frequently twists I didn’t see coming.

As for the Hamlet vibe… well, it wasn’t until Yarvi was hiding behind a door listening to his uncle pray and hesitating to kill him that I noticed the parallels, since that scene had so many resonances, but the narrative of a king murdered by his brother and reluctantly avenged by his son, who would honestly rather be studying than killing anyone, has a few similarities. Except that Yarvi is a lot readier to take action (he’s just inconveniently very far away from his enemies), and the women get to do more. I love Hamlet, though, so once I noticed this thematic parallel, it made me like the book more — even if I have no idea whether it was deliberate.

(Nothing’s constant refrain of “Death comes for us all” is, in the end, just another way of saying, “All that lives must die”.)

I liked the characters too. I liked the unexpected friendships, but I also liked the surprisingly dangerous enemies who kept popping up all over the place. It didn’t feel like there was merely one person to be feared or overcome, which helped keep the tension high and the plot complicated. The writing style and worldbuilding were enjoyable without being too complicated to follow; melodrama was kept at bay most of the time by humour.

Finally, I liked that Yarvi was disabled. I liked that his withered hand was a problem. I liked that it stopped him doing things, and that he was constantly aware of it, and that there weren’t easy workarounds that meant it didn’t affect his life. I liked that his narrative arc was one of shame to acceptance and pride, rather than one of magical healing — and I liked that while he became a man of action in a way he never expected to at the start, it wasn’t because he was suddenly able-bodied.

His hand was never forgotten about, but despite all the things it affected, he still got to be the main character. There aren’t enough adventure stories about disabled characters, especially in fantasy and historical settings.

So, all in all, this was an unexpectedly enjoyable read. It doesn’t quite hit enough of my esoteric spots to get five stars (nor is it sufficiently mind-blowing stylistically to manage that without appealing to my very niche interests), but it’s a strong four stars, definitely.

Rating: ****

Buy ‘Half a King’ on Amazon (UK)
Buy ‘Half a King’ on Amazon (US)

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