Title: Half a King
Series Title: Shattered Sea
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Date Added: July 14, 2015
Date Started: May 27, 2017
Date Finished: June 18, 2017
Reading Duration: 22 days
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Grimdark
“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.
If life has taught me one thing, it’s that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best.
Prince Yarvi lives in a society very similar to the Ironborn of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: harsh, cruel, and unforgiving of weakness. They follow Mother War, eschew Father Peace and present a juxtaposition within the two ideals, as the mother or feminine side is usually associated with tranquility whereas war and battle are typically portrayed as masculine.
As the second and youngest son of King Uthrik, Yarvi had neither hopes nor ambitions for the throne. He was meant for the ministry, studying under Mother Gundring, where having only one good hand would make no difference. Yarvi’s bitterness bleeds on the page, because he cannot live up to his culture’s expectations, and neither of his parents let him forget this.
A man swings the scythe and the ax, his father had said. A man pulls the oar and makes fast the knot. Most of all a man holds the shield. A man holds the line. A man stands by his shoulder-man. What kind of man can do none of these things?
I didn’t ask for half a hand, Yarvi had said, trapped where he so often found himself, on the barren ground between shame and fury.
I didn’t ask for half a son.
His mother isn’t much better in the beginning. She has nothing but scorn for her disabled child, but considering their culture, his parents’ behavior makes perfect sense. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather is a product of the harsh climate and culture they live in, which could be overlooked through the lens of presentism. This is not to say that Yarvi deserves his plight. He doesn’t. No one does whether from ancient history or far flung future; however, his misery fits into that zeitgeist, and his reaction to the emotional abuse and gaslighting is timeless.
Unfortunately for Yarvi, his planned life of peace in the ministry is sundered when his father and brother are treacherously murdered during peace talks with the king of a rival island in the Shattered Sea. Similar to Radiance (whose review I linked above), *spoiler* the “spare” heir now becomes the primary, *end spoiler* and prior plans that would have been adequate for his life are thrown into tumult due to death’s upheaval.
As the last living heir of Uthrik, Yarvi becomes king overnight. His mother Laithlin desires vengeance for the murders of her husband and eldest son, but she also knows to do nothing (despite the High King’s decree forbidding open war) will portray them as weak. The erstwhile queen of Gettland is what Cersei Lannister wishes she could be. Though Laithlin has just as much pride, she is far more clever than Tywin’s daughter, not seeking power for power’s sake due to some false belief of entitlement, but rather to fully protect her interests. Though if this means making her remaining son her puppet (much to his downfall and rue) then be it so.
This novel also shares similarities to An Ember in the Ashes (a story I haven’t yet reviewed) insofar as neither Yarvi nor Elias want the ruthless and terrible life that’s been thrust upon them. Though they are king and elite soldier respectively, they’re both insightful enough to realize these titles are merely a veneer over the truth of their bondage.
This book took me through a maelstrom of feelings. I bought it as soon as I read the sample, because I loved the way the author used language. Its beauty lies in its simplicity despite the cruel, unforgiving world it describes. However, I started to lose interest when Yarvi was crowned and half considered relegating this to the DNF pile. I thought it was going to be a boring narrative about how the prince turned king either slowly steered his warring subjects towards peace or conversely turned warlike himself. Neither of those options would have made sense for the Gettlanders or him, and I frankly enjoyed the irony of a king who had neither the ability nor the inclination to fight upon a throne held with blood. Then just when I was close to calling it quits, the novel turned into Hamlet/The Lion King.
Just mentioning those two narratives may give too much away, but even having such betrayal as a common trope did not take anything away from this tale. Yarvi is forced to become in a man in an even more brutal way than what he would’ve endured as only his mother’s puppet and the one-handed King of Gettland.
It’s yet another face of the Hero’s Journey/Monomyth, and each and every betrayal and reveal ride the razor thin edge of being both utterly shocking yet absolutely fitting. Like ASOIAF there were little to any purely good or bad characters. Everyone had some valid motivation for their acts, and even the main antagonist of the tale, the person who tries to rob Yarvi of everything he has, earns some sympathy points from the reluctant king at the end.
Villainy and heroism are not static concepts, but rather dependent on point of view. Yarvi’s betrayer believed he was acting for the good of the realm, because he and many others saw a weak prince who would become a weak king. In the world of the Shattered Sea, weakness gets you killed or enslaved. Their lives are too harsh to coddle. While Yarvi didn’t deserve to be abused, Gettland both deserves and requires a king strong enough to lead and protect them. While the betrayer does have some selfish reasons for his actions, nor has he ever been wholly innocent, not all of his motivations are completely foul.
While Half a King certainly steers you towards the protagonist’s side, even some of Yarvi’s decisions are suspect and some of his orders are hypocritical. This makes him more relatable rather than unlikable, because the situations present a dilemma that anyone would be loath to resolve. There are no villains…there are only people doing their best.