Thursday, October 23, 2014

[Review] Joe Abercrombie: "Half a King"

It's perhaps no secret that I enjoy Joe Abercrombie's sense of humor and his no frills fantasy action adventures, but to be honest I almost gave up on him when I read his debut novel, The Blade Itself, when it was published. There were too few characters I liked, I thought, but what I really needed was to recognize a different strand of characterization, and when I learned to enjoy characters more than flawed, it became a joy. I finished the two sequels that made up the The First Law trilogy and saw an author developing his style book by book, getting increasingly entertaining.
It was with his first stand-alone novel, Best Served Cold, which followed the trilogy, that I became a fan. Here, Abercrombie perfected his style and I still think it is his best novel...or do I? The Heroes was excellent too, with a few scenes that haunt me to this day, and Red Country was good as well.

I was surprised to learn that Joe would leave the setting of all these books - the Circle of the World - to concentrate on a trilogy of young adult novels, and I admit I wasn't sure whether I should buy Half a King or not. Half a King, then, is the first in this trilogy, and it is stylistically something entirely different, though the trappings are similar enough that it could have been set in the Circle of the World, only that the violence is given less graphic descriptions, and the lands around the Shattered Sea (the new setting) have elf-ruins. Otherwise, the two settings are quite similar in that they convey a gritty fantasy world - perhaps the Shattered Sea, the younger of the two, leans slightly more toward a northern European early medieval feel, in particular does it invoke a feeling of reading a story set in a Viking age (or perhaps a setting like the world of How To Train Your Dragon - except for the dragons). 

Abercrombie's style has been watered down here into amazingly fast-paced, tightly written chapters where not a word feels wasted. From the first scene to the last, the writing is economical yet still allows Abercrombie to provide vivid images for the reader's mind. In fact, by writing Half a King, Abercrombie shows that he has more tricks up his sleeve than just the style of his six first novels, and maybe that was one of the reasons Joe decided to write this story this way. 

The story itself is, at least at first glance, nothing that will make your eyebrows develop engines to forever leave their place above your eyes, but there are a few twists and turns that came out quite surprising (to me at least), particularly how Abercrombie dealt with characters' fates. Also, even though the book is labeled 'young adult', Joe isn't afraid to leave characters in pretty dire circumstances - almost all the time. Every chapter is exciting and gives you an incentive to read just one more chapter; it has been a long while since I read a story so quickly (though I admit Half a King is ridiculously short - however, the story that remains embedded in the mind afterward feels just as epic as novels three times its size). 

Yarvi is the main character, a prince, and his mother Cersei Laithlin is an important character to the plot - but the story is really about Yarvi going through a lot of ordeals and gaining friends in the process. These friends are of typical, if watered-down, Abercrombie style. When I say they are watered down I mean the cast of characters in this novel, Yarvi excepted, are painted in broad strokes and we never get the complexities or fun of characters like Glokta, Logen, the Dogman, Cosca, or Monza Murcatto. The plot itself could have run twice its length to allow more time for the reader (and Yarvi) to absorb everything that's going on, but the lean pushing on style works wonders. I am impressed how Joe manages to change gears like this, and I am impressed at how well he writes. 

In the end, I prefer his earlier work, but Half a King still is a pleasant surprise and not at all what I expected. It's exciting, fast, not as fun as his previous work, simpler, has some great turns, and employs a narrative device lifted straight from one of the Abercrombie 'classics'. The book certainly makes me want to read the sequel, but at the same time it is actually so well-rounded it doesn't really need a sequel. Or rather, I don't need a sequel. It was a perfectly satisfying little morsel of fantasy.

And now I'm on the next on the list, Mark Lawrence's Prince of Fools, and it's completely entertaining already, just a few chapters in. That Lawrence fellow really is a contender for the throne of "black-humored fantasy" Joe has been sitting in for a while. 

In other news, I did eventually beat Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos and I am now mired in the fun that is Legend of Grimrock 2. I wanted to do a post on my victory over the hag Scotia but the world is so depressing these days. 

And in Ice and Fire news? The Ice Dragon is coming out, for the umpteenth time, but with new art! Praise the old gods and the new. Actually, the awesomeness of this allows for capital letters. New Art, people! Buy buy buy buy

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