Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

When Mother War rides fierce and grim above the heads of kings and slaves alike, will you cower and avert your eyes? Or will you stand tall and bear witness to the blood-flecked triumph and tragedy that unfolds? Such is the question that this book will ask of its readers. “Half A King”, the first book of the Shattered Sea trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, follows the story of young Prince Yarvi, younger of the two royal sons of Gettland. He is a sharp and intelligent boy, and a quick study, but he lives a miserable existence. He was born with a malformed left hand, which is a source of shame from his family and from a culture that values physical strength in its sons. To make matters worse, the wheels of betrayal are set in motion, and Yarvi finds himself flung far from his home, forced to do whatever it takes to survive. But Yarvi wants more than to survive. He wants to return home, and bring justice to those that have wronged him and his family. His journey of revenge takes him to sights far and wide across the Shattered Sea, a wide landlocked ocean surrounded by the countries that make up this Viking-style world. He meets many people, noble and terrible alike, from pirates and slavers to ministers and royalty. He finds allies in the most unlikely places, and endures more than he ever could have imagined.

It is a rough and bitter tale, but all the more satisfying for its victories and payoffs as a result. Chief among its draws are the strong themes of how understanding the suffering of others affects our relationships with them. The antagonists in this story are people who cannot or will not allow themselves to see the suffering they cause by their actions. They are people who serve only themselves, or are bound by duty and promises to enact the will of such people. As Yarvi endures torments at their hands, he bonds with others who are in the same miserable position. These outcasts and downtrodden band together to survive the worst and bite back at those who, for sheer convenience and profit, make their lives hell. They recognize desperation to survive and the pain of isolation in their peers, and help each other out whenever they can. The severe and realistic depictions of violence and forced labor make such moments of kindness and levity stand out so brightly, and pull the reader forward through what would otherwise be rather too dark and miserable.

The lore of the narrative is impressive as well, showing many hints to a scope far greater than what happens to Yarvi and his friends. There is the country that Gettland is in constant bloody feud with, Vansterland, and other countries besides, leaders locked in power struggles and subservient to a High King. There is also a pantheon that exists in the context of the world, born of a myth of elves that once waged war on God and fractured God into four hundred and nine splinters before dying off. It makes for fascinating and immersive flavor, but more importantly, it provides hints and lays the groundwork for the stories to come in the other books of the trilogy. This book is also satisfying on its own, and has several impressive twists (though these are unlikely to surprise the more astute reader). Overall, “Half A King” is an intense story that piques the reader’s interest by the end of the first chapter, and comes highly recommended to those seeking an alternative to “Game of Thrones” with a similar flavor.

Guest review by library patron Drew Klemola, a recent graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology with a focus in narrative design of interactive media for games, forged of a love of writing, reading, exploring, and playing.