Delightfully subversive YA fiction. Warning, here be spoilers.
I should mention that I read and finished the entire series in the space of a week while stuck in a hostel, waiting out the rain in autumn-time Japan. As such, the reviews for each book in this series will be written with the benefit of knowing what happens at the end.
Half A King is probably the most self-contained of the trilogy. It requires no second or last book to complete the story it wants to tell. In fact, all the books are like that – they tell self-contained stories, set in the same developing chronology but featuring different story arcs and protagonists. But Half A King is the most independent of the three, probably because it doesn’t assume that the exposition takes place in a previous novel. It’s a risky but in this case successful way for Abercrombie to tell his tale from different perspectives over the course of the trilogy.
It starts out conventionally enough. Prince Yarvi, our protagonist, is made King against his will after his father and older brother are murdered, but soon loses his throne and is left for dead by his scheming uncle. So begins a quest to retake his throne. So begins what appears to be a tame coming-of-age story, featuring young love, epic journeys, and a climactic battle where the hero wins the day.
I can’t help but be reminded of a similar series to this one: Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy of books, which I read last year. The parallels are uncanny: young, ambitious and often ruthless protagonist, a fantasy world that is actually a post-apocalyptic far-future Earth, an overpowering quest for revenge. But where Mark Lawrence was bombastic and unsubtle, Half A King takes a more measured approach, but beneath its seemingly formulaic exterior lies a subversive heart. With this series, Abercrombie turns YA tropes on their head.
Yarvi’s story is not so much a hero’s journey as it a villain’s origin story (Trope subversion!) It is a story of how people can rationalise increasingly evil deeds in the name of the greater good; getting easier and easier each time they do so. Yarvi is intelligent, brave and learned, and he uses his gifts to outsmart his foes and win friends and allies. But at the end of the book, he gets his revenge by sacrificing half his country and murdering his once-mentor, the one responsible, however, indirectly, for his initial downfall. But the brilliant thing is that it’s not that obvious that Abercrombie is going for that – in this first book he walks the fine edge between making Yarvi sympathetic and showing us the consequences of his decisions. Do we cheer Yarvi because we are so invested in witnessing him claim his revenge? Do we sympathise with the hard decisions he has to make? Do we vilify them for choosing the lesser evil? The first book of the series is subtle enough for Yarvi to escape moral pigeonholing. The latter books complete his moral degeneracy, but at this point, the reader doesn’t know about that.
The other nice thing, which also parallels Broken Empire, is the emerging realization that the fantasy-Vikings are actually real Vikings – or their descendants, at least. The eponymous Shattered Sea is actually the Baltic Sea, thousands of years in the future, after some unnamed cataclysm destroys modern civilisation, leaving our ruins to these latter-day Europeans to marvel at as elf-ruins. It feels a bit like a riff at all the post-apocalyptic, anti-authority YA novels that have been all the rage in the past few years. It’s like Abercrombie decided to work it in to pay lip service to the post-apocalyptic strain in YA novels. But it’s certainly far more subtle than what goes on in Broken Empire, and tantalizing enough in its subtlety that it makes you want to find out more. But Abercrombie doesn’t really delve into it that deeply, and certainly no holo-ghosts appear to explain everything. It’s left nicely mysterious by the end of the series.
Half A King is a readable and self-contained first entry in Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series of books. If you enjoy revenge tales but are scared off by Abercrombie’s penchant for spilling blood (figuratively) on the page, this will be a great choice of fantasy novel. It’s not YA as much as it encompasses YA tropes, and subtly subverts them.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 pommel-chains