Half a King (Shattered Sea #1)
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book (2015)
David Gemmell Legend Award Nominee (2015)
Fantasy, particularly high fantasy – the type with kings and queens with swords and fiery steeds that takes place in some vaguely Medieval European setting – has been a really hard sell for me lately. Call it “Game of Thrones” burnout. Which would be more accurate if I were actually watching “Game of Thrones,” but I’m not, because I burned-out on fantasy way before fantasy became ubiquitous and mainstream. Before all the cool kids were doing it.
I can’t even tell you when my burnout happened, because it used to be my go-to genre. I could not get enough of all the knights and their chivalry when I was fourteen. If there was a sword on the cover, I read it. Twice.
And then I drew fan-art of it.
And then I told all my friends to read it and convinced them we should LARP it in the woods with wooden swords.
Maybe it was that last bit that led to sudden burnout.
Since challenging myself to read award nominees in speculative fiction this year, I’ve had several high fantasy books come across my desk. For various reasons none of them stuck, until I picked up Abercrombie’s Half a King.
Right there on the cover? A blurb by none-other-than George R. R. Martin himself. Read this, he says. I really liked this, he says. I’m sure your favorite characters won’t meet horrible and bloody deaths, go on…try it, you’ll like it, he says.
So, I tried it.
It turns out, despite the fact that it is chock-full of all the things I thought I was ridiculously tired of – betrayals, court intrigue, lost princes, my favorite characters meeting bloody and horrible deaths – I really enjoyed it.
The story follows Prince Yarvi who was born with a “withered” hand. Luckily he was the second son, the spare, so even though he had to put up with derision his whole life because he’s not a fighter, he had plans to become a minister. In this universe, ministers function like priests/advisors with a large helping of druid/herbalist thrown in. But alas, his father and brother were killed in a battle – betrayed, it seemed, by their old enemy: some guy with the moniker Sword Breaker, Orphan Maker. Yarvi makes a public oath to the Sun-God and the Moon-Goddess that he’ll avenge the deaths of his father and brother. When his uncle is surprised at the voracity of his oath Yarvi says, “I may be half a man, but, by gods, I can swear a whole oath!”
Of course, things aren’t so obvious and easy done, so, once king, the betrayals only multiply. The rest is the best part of the story, so I will leave you to discover it on your own.
Maybe this still sounds like the last thing you’d ever want to read. But, Abercrombie’s writing elevates this story in a way I can hardly even articulate. Do you know how sometimes an author’s voice just feels…comfortable in your head? Like an old friend sitting by the fire, spinning you a tale? You don’t have that? Well, I get that from some authors and Abercrombie is one of them. He has the kind of narrative voice that, when I’m done with a book, still kind of haunts me, and I miss it.
Though only Half a King, it occupied my whole brain and left me wholly satisfied.
Originally published Oct. 2015