Review – Half a King (Shattered Sea #1) by Joe Abercrombie


Publisher: Del Rey
Publish Date: July 15, 2014
How I got this book: eARC from NetGalley

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer.

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.

*blurb from Goodreads

Although categorized as YA fantasy, I didn’t get the typical YA vibe at all. Yarvi was the only youngish character of primary note in the story. His companions were not teens, most being considerably older than himself. Nor was he presented as being wise beyond his years from the get-go, as is so often done in YA. Instead, Yarvi’s life experiences carved him into the man he needed to become. As such, it did have elements of a coming-of-age story, which I suppose could put it in the YA wheelhouse. This story was dark and gritty and didn’t shy away from putting its characters through hellish times. I thought it was well written, and I enjoyed this hero’s journey.

We are first introduced to Yarvi, the King’s youngest son, as he anticipates taking the Minister’s Test that would set him on a path to become a King’s advisor. He may have had the book knowledge, but I felt he sorely lacked the maturity, confidence and strength of character that role would seem to require. He was too full of self-pity about his deformed hand. He felt victimized by it. He thought of himself as crippled, unable to hold his own among the warriors of his people, and refused to believe he could be more. I think he initially wanted the Ministry path as a way out of expectations he felt he could never live up to, and so he turned his attention to educational pursuits while secretly nursing a resentment that he couldn’t be what his father wanted him to be. But, how could he possibly be a good advisor to kings when he had so much self-loathing? Thought so little of himself? Had spent his life in the shadows, trying to be unseen? Refused to participate in anything other than his studies because of his disability? There are people who see their limitations as challenges and rise above them. There are others who are crushed by them. Yarvi was of the later persuasion.

Although he felt called to Ministry, he found himself forced to answer another calling: to take his father’s seat and become King of Gettland. But nothing is ever quite that simple when following the archetypal template of the Hero’s Journey. Young Yarvi must first be tested. And tested he was. Betrayal. Conspiracies. Enslavement. Oaths taken. Oaths kept. Death. Survival. Those challenges became the grist of the story. Yarvi was the ultimate observer, yet when called to action, he did what needed to be done. In the end, he became a man capable of being king, even if it was something he still did not want in his heart.

Abercrombie presents a harrowing tale where the characters are forced from one bad situation to another and must find a way to survive unimaginable conditions. The pacing was well done. The writing style was descriptive and visceral yet detached. I really enjoyed the tight focus on Yarvi’s character progression. For example, I liked how Yarvi’s view of his mother, Laithlin, changed from beginning to end. In the beginning of the story, Yarvi saw his mother as cold and distant. When he finally made it back home, he had matured in ways that allowed him to realize she had loved him all along, but he had not allowed himself to see it. His self-pitying victim nature had prevented him from seeing past anything. His mother was a strong woman and may not have been the doting mother he had hoped for, but she loved him well just the same. These types of changes in attitude and perception were evident throughout Yarvi’s ordeals.

The companions that Yarvi collected along his journey were equally well developed and clearly had an impact on Yarvi’s own development. However, I liked that Abercrombie let Yarvi exist in the grey area, neither wholly good or bad, in his pursuit of vengeance. There were times when Yarvi’s opinions and actions surprised me considering what he had been through. And what Yarvi did at the very end…it shocked me and I’m still torn about that. At the same time, it showed that Yarvi was now well equipped to fulfill his destiny.

Half a King was a great story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I give it a solid B+. The only issues that kept this from an “A” were that it took me a bit to warm up to Yarvi, and the climax had a bit of a twist that felt just a twinge coincidental…yet it was fitting, so I can’t really knock it that much.

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