When you’re at the top of your game the heights must be dizzying, and the briefest glance down will show how far the fall, should a foot stray from the path. Ask Logen Ninefingers or Prince Yarvi.

Back in 2006, Joe Abercrombie stirred great excitement up with his debut novel, The Blade Itself. It was a fantasy tale full of grim, gritty and bloody-minded characters who could barely stand themselves, let alone each other, but were forged into something like a force for good. There was a surprising streak of black hilarity running through the core of the book, and a chill pragmatism that raised it above literary comfort food. It was dark, dangerous, funny and unpredictable stuff.

Logen Ninefingers swiftly became a fantasy icon while, in the real world, Abercrombie sauntered on-stage at fan events and became something of a celebrity himself. If his rapid ascent phased him at all, he masked it well, but the first true indication he was brave came with the publication of his fourth book, Best Served Cold – a small-scale story that unceremoniously dumped his established heroes in favour of bit-part players.

Each follow-up felt deeper, more important; and the fans realised that the author didn’t have to rely on his star (though he wouldn’t deprive us of him entirely.) He was just that good. If it took courage to leave Logen on the shelf that long, it must have taken balls of steel to leave the world of The First Law behind entirely, yet that’s exactly what Abercrombie has done now. Read on to see if his footing remains true…

Half A King is the first of a trilogy that targets a new readership. As with his earlier tales, this book wears the loose trappings of fantasy but keeps the focus squarely on character and plot rather than elaborate world-building. Our protagonist is no warrior though, no seasoned soldier or embittered bandit; he is a Prince, and a young one at that. He may be mocked and despised for his peaceful nature and malformed hand, but his is still a life of privilege and power. Or it would have been had fate not twisted to make him a King, then toss him to the sharks.

Betrayed and enslaved, Yarvi must grasp every opportunity, use every ally he can find if he is to survive to fulfill his oath and reclaim his birthright. It takes a few pages for the faithful reader to realise (with something between horror and wonder) that this book marks Joe Abercrombie’s entry into the Young Adult market. You wouldn’t know it from the cover and the marketing has not been explicit. Now, if you find yourself wavering at this point, let me add a reassuring note. I think Joe’s done a brilliant job of balancing the expectations of his fan-base with the differing needs of the Young Adult readership. If his previous work helped redefine where modern fantasy is now, then these books act as signposts to point the way for new readers. It might just do the same for new writers.

Yarvi is an easy character for bookworms to empathise with. He is intelligent, but belittled; loving, but unloved; strong of purpose yet weak in body. He is no Tyrion Lannister or Nicomo Cosca when it comes to charisma but he’s a likeable young underdog nevertheless. Underestimated and alone, the boy is constantly forced to seek ‘the lesser evil and weigh the greater good’ as he strives to bring down his usurper.

It’s gratifying to see that Abercrombie still refuses to paint any of his characters as wholly good or evil, despite his audience. If the point of being a child is to learn how to become an adult, then YA fiction is there to help navigate that difficult path. Sure, there are missteps along Yarvi’s journey, and some of his choices will taint his soul, but the world is always more complicated than children imagine.

YA can be patronising at times, but Abercrombie is having none of that. The adult cast are depicted as adults, with history, foibles, bad(ish) language and hypocrisy. They are not defined wholly by their relationship to the hero, but become fearsome enemies or staunch allies in response to him. I particularly appreciated the unfolding arcs of Ankran and Odem, but I can comfortably say that every character feels vivid and vulnerable in their own ways.

There is a classical bent to the plot which makes it feel familiar, comfortable even, like the folk-tales you come across as a child. Repetition is a part of it, the usurped throne another. I confess to a slight curl of the lip whenever Elves are mentioned, but thankfully they seem to be a dead relic rather than an active force.

I do wonder how much Joe tried to fit his story into a perceived mould before deciding to ‘sod it’ and write what he wanted. His prose feels a little too artfully constructed in the set-up, but I’m glad to say that the style settles down quickly once the new king falls from grace. It’s a pretty paced read with a very real sense of danger and, importantly, it never talks down to the audience. It’s a shorter, lighter read than any of his previous books, but it does not lack for substance.

This is a story of brains over brawn, of hard knocks, harsh choices and learning to play the long game. Aside from the physical danger, Yarvi faces his own sense of inadequacy and the hardest challenge of all, making enemies into friends. Still wondering whether the grimdark king of charisma has kept his footing? I’d have to say yes. He may be straddled between two mountains now but from where I’m standing he looks pretty comfortable.

Rating: 4/5
Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

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