Just as the world stops reeling from the latest twists in Game of Thrones—or just in time to remember the characters’ names—Joe Abercrombie has grabbed hold of Occam’s razor and slit open the obsessively complicated worlds constructed by today’s fantasy maestros.
The joy of Half a King lies in its simplicity. The addiction to adjectives that plagues so much fantasy writing has vanished. Impossible plot machinations have been ceded to Machiavelli and the Italian states. Gone, too, is the pedantry that so often seems to complicate things solely to urge on the pissing matches fought out within the precincts of fantasy review websites.
In this book, you can stab a woman multiple times with a knife to become a man, but God forbid you sleep with her.
Abercrombie weaves the tale of Prince Yarvi in a tale part Captains Courageous, part Revenge of the Nerds, and part Prodigal Son.
Yarvi is the second son, and was born with a deformed hand—making him ill-equipped for the hyper-masculine life of an heir to the throne in a warrior culture. So he trains to be a minister (of the bureaucratic, not theological, persuasion) until his studies are interrupted by an act of violence that shoves him onto the throne. Unprepared, and a laughingstock because of his handicap, Yarvi is bullied on every front—even by his mother.
Abercrombie’s novel is full of twists and turns. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say that Yarvi is forced to grow up quickly when one of those twists sees him left for dead and subsequently chained to an oar as a galley slave. The book sweeps the reader along in Yarvi’s quest to not only free himself but to seek vengeance on those who put him in his situation. Once a pampered princeling, Yarvi cannot single-handedly succeed (literally or figuratively) and so must become a leader.
The story is briskly told—it takes at most a day or two to read—but it packs the necessary essentials: treachery, dangerous men, women who are not what they seem, duels, and moral dilemmas.
And yet, there is a gaping hole at the heart of the book. Abercrombie demonstrates a comfort with violence. Slavery, murder, and mass slaughter are all prevalent, and even used to push forward this coming of age story. At the same time, the other major part of coming of age—sex—is merely hinted at. You can stab a woman multiple times with a knife to become a man, but God forbid you sleep with her.
The ease with which violence is portrayed as entertainment is not unique to Abercrombie. Films with immense amounts of violence can still get a decent rating from the MPAA, while sexual content seems to merit stricter scrutiny. The bias that sex does more damage than gore goes all the way up to the Supreme Court.
And it is perhaps a bit unfair to single out Abercrombie—in fantasy books where sex isn’t the main plot driver (ahem vampires), sex of the consensual variety is rarely written about in a meaningful and daring way. Perhaps being nominated for the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award deflates any ambition.
Qualms about violence versus sex aside, the book is a finely spun tale. While there has been a lot of debate as to whether adults should be enjoying young adult fiction, thanks to Ruth Graham at Slate, for those who can’t be bothered by the chastening of those who prefer life with lines, Abercrombie’s book is a great chance for some adolescent escapism.