Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Half a King - Joe Abercrombie

Half a King is the first in Joe Abercrombie’s “Shattered Sea” trilogy.  It follows Yarvi, the son of a king, as he deals with falling into an unexpected position, making friends and enemies, and learning about himself in a world somewhat reminiscent of that of the Vikings. There’s questions about family, about doing what the world expects or what you want, about duty and responsibility, love and loss, examined and explored. There’s also a fair few murders – this is Abercrombie we’re talking about, after all.

The world of the Shattered Sea (or at least Yarvi’s part of it) has certain similarities to that of the Norse in the late antique period. There’s a strong seafaring tradition, men setting out in boats for raiding, plunder, and general troublemaking. This is matched with a strong martial tradition, one where individual strength is prized, and battle-glory is a pathway to social standing. The other side of this coin is soft power;  this is provided by the Ministers, professional healers, politicians and advisers. Where those in the warrior professions tend to be men, the Ministers seem to largely be women. Their role, nominally at least, is the service of peace – through diplomacy and the occasional ruthless exercise of cunning. . It’s a hard-edged world that Abercrombie has drawn, one with a relatively low tolerance for mistakes. It’s also one living in the shadow of the past. Scattered through the Shattered Sea are ‘Elf’ ruins and artifacts, from towers dwarfing the efforts of humanity below, to devices of uncertain form, function and potential. Our protagonist and his society live in the shade of the broken grandeur around them, and Abercrombie masterfully ties up the melancholy this evokes with the rage and humour of the warrior life, and the quietly deadly byplay of the Ministers.

Yarvi is our window into this world; beginning as a Minsiter’s apprentice, he’s very quickly thrown into the metaphorical pool of sharks as a replacement for his father; from counsellor to monarch in a few rather fraught minutes. He’s perceptive, intelligent, and utterly unprepared to become a king. 

This is a well-drawn portrayal of an adolescent settling themselves into adulthood, defining themselves with and against their trials. Unfortunately for Yarvi, he has rather a lot of trials sneaking up on him. Watching him hammered from a more malleable youngster into something with a strain of steel running through it is both entertaining and affecting. Yarvi moves quickly to learning not to trust anyone around him, and struggles with defining himself against the expectations of others. But he also learns to trust those that have earned it, and to put his own definition of himself against the wills of others.

He’s assisted in this by a strong supporting cast. If our primary view is Yarvi, his interactions with those around him still act as a barometer for how that view goes over in the world. And those he works with, and against, feel as human as Yarvi does. There’s a theme running through the text exploring the values of loyalty and friendship, and Yarvi’s friends are very well realised indeed – human, flawed, but prepared to stand up and sacrifice alongside one another.The villains, by contrast – well, they’re not moustache-twirling lunatics, that’s for sure, but considered intelligent foes, doing (as ever) what they believe to be the right thing. There’s not any evil here per se, but there is a discussion being had about right, wrong, and how those things are decided.

The plot crackles along nicely. There’s a few lulls in the mid-section, but  it still managed to keep me turning pages to find out what happened next. Watching Yarvi’s journey, devouring his world and studying his character, waiting to see what sort of person he would become – well, it weas thoroughly enjoyable. Abercrombie adds a soupcon of murder and dules to this excellent recipe, and produces a strong start to a series which I’m looking forward to continuing to read.

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