We'd long been threatened with a Young Adult story from the pen of Joe Abercrombie. "What is this betrayal?!" cried die-hard fans of grimdark's poster boy. "Clap the scoundrel in irons until he writes another proper fantasy novel, like those blood-soaked First Law books we all loved."
If you were thinking along similar lines, have some mead and relax. After six tomes about the Union and the Northmen we're off to a completely fresh world; but if it's intended for a younger audience it compromises very little of the Abercrombie vision. So what exactly does "Young Adult" mean in this instance? For starters, this is Abercrombie's shortest book: just 80,000 words compared to, say, Last Argument Of Kings , which burdens your bookshelf with an epic 230,000. There's a teen hero, fewer sex scenes, slightly less swearing and a bit - a bit - less graphic brutality. But those Abercrombie fans who were put off the idea of Half A King because of its coming-of-age tag can breathe easily again: it's still recognisably the mud-caked, back-stabbing, magic-lite version of fantasy we’ve come to expect.
The new tale begins in Gettland, a kingdom on the Shattered Sea, a setting that feels icily Scandinavian. Its Prince Yarvi was born a weakling with a disfigured hand, more suited to the ministry than the crown. But when his father and brother are killed in battle he must overcome the scorn of the court and rise to the challenge of leadership... Except he's overthrown almost immediately. Sold into slavery, Yarvi experiences hardships but great camaraderie as an oarsman on a trading vessel. Gathering a loose fellowship around him, he escapes and begins the long trudge home, determined to slay those who humiliated him and reclaim his rightful position.
Compared to the likes of The Blade Itself , the narrative style is more streamlined - gone are multiple viewpoints, for instance – and it's pleasingly direct, with the linear nature of Yarvi's fall, rise and return making for a well-paced, easy, read. Until we're wrong-footed by a couple of rapid twists, that is, which make you want to flick back to check how they were set up.
In terms of setting, Abercrombie's novels always feel inspired by popular culture. Best Served Cold was a renaissance version of Kill Bill . Red Country was a Western, Red Dead Redemption with swords. Half A King , although nowhere near as sprawling, seems more simply indebted to Game Of Thrones , with its family politics, icy wastes and brutal competition for the Black Chair (surely an analogue of George RR Martin's Iron Throne). With phrases like "flesh may forget but steel never does" and "a king must win, the rest is dust", Abercrombie peddles a fine line in Machiavellian aphorisms; with a lesser writer it would create that portentous, pompous tone that plagues generic fantasy. But Abercrombie is skilled at character building, and by the time somebody spouts one of these worldly observations it feels comfortable in their mouth. The populace of this world are likeably flawed, the author layering on depth so that many who seem initially evil ultimately gain our sympathy — and vice versa. Only "Nothing", the nameless mad knight who escapes slavery with the group, never quite fits; nevertheless he adds a certain brutal mystery, like a psychopathic version of Tolkien's Aragorn.
So, classic Abercrombie, and yet also something unexpected — grimdark fantasy for people who aren't necessarily very young, just those who don't have the patience or stomach for Game Of Thrones . Okay, it's not a masterpiece like, say, 2011's The Heroes — but then little is; that's one of the best British fantasy novels of this century. Yet still Half A King is arguably a better read than Red Country or even Best Served Cold , with the author, just as much as his Prince Yarvi, obviously refreshed by the chance to embark on a new quest.
Dave Bradley twitter.com/SFXDaveB
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