If you've been waiting for the right time to check out acclaimed fantasy novelist Joe Abercrombie, then his new novel Half a King is probably the perfect jumping-on point. It's short, with a sympathetic main character, a fast-paced plot, and plenty of neat world-building. Highly recommended.
In Half a King, Prince Yarvi is preparing to take the exams to become a minister — basically, a maester in the Game of Thrones universe. He will give up all rank and titles, and cease to be in line for the throne — which is no problem, since Yarvi's father is still King and his older brother is the heir. Nobody wants Yarvi to be King anyway, because he was born with a useless left hand, and he's regarded as "half a man" because of his disability.
But as the novel begins — read an excerpt here — Yarvi learns that his father and brother are dead, and he's the new King. He's forced to try and rule the best he can, despite lacking the respect of his people. And it doesn't take very long before Yarvi is betrayed by pretty much everyone closest to him. He's nearly killed, and everybody thinks he's dead. Yarvi quickly goes from supreme power to being nothing at all, and he has plenty of cause to wish he was dead.
Basically, it's the story of a sympathetic underdog who's put through the wringer — first by being pressured to be King in spite of all the haters, and then by being betrayed and put through unimaginable torments. Yarvi has to grow a backbone, get tougher, and make some hard decisions, to make it back to his kingdom and get revenge on the people who turned against him.
But this is a great example of worldbuilding carrying the story forward, too — Abercrombie builds in a lot of neat details about the warring kingdoms in Yarvi's world, and the High King who's trying to assert his rule over everybody else. There are religious schisms and political divides. And fascinatingly, the whole plot turns out to be motivated by debates over standardizing trade and providing a stable currency for trading.
Abercrombie's structure also allows him to delve into the underside of his fantasy world. Slavery is pretty much universal in this nasty realm, and Abercrombie gets a lot of mileage out of exploring how it affects people who are caught up in it — and how it's nearly invisible to the people who benefit from it. Yarvi is forced to confront some harsh truths about his own life, and the society he comes from.
Yarvi, the one-time King, is a great character — especially when you see him drawing on the lessons he learned in his training for the ministry. He learns to use cunning to prevail over stronger, more experienced opponents, and his coming-of-age saga is more about learning ruthlessness than courage. Which fits the world he's in, and is also a compelling arc. The supporting cast is less fleshed-out, but mostly pretty memorable.
I guess Half a King is the first book in a new series, the Shattered Sea books. But it reads well as a standalone, and you could easily pick this one up without feeling obligated to read another dozen volumes in order to get a complete story. There's a beginning, middle and end here, with a nice amount of resolution.
I've also seen it described as a young-adult novel, but other than its relatively short length I didn't see much sign that it was aimed a particular age group. There's no romance in this book, nor does Yarvi spend a lot of time dwelling on his feelings — and there's still plenty of the gritty realism/violence for which Abercrombie has become known.
That said, Half a King isn't exactly a perfect book — towards the end, there's a huge reveal that seems to come out of nowhere and isn't supported by what's come before. And that kind of puts a damper on the book's ending in general. Certain characters are kind of thrown under a bus, too, in order to reach the resolution that Abercrombie wants.
But those problems don't detract from the overall wonderfulness of Half a King, because the character of Yarvi, and his journey from unwanted eminence to unbearable trials, are what make this novel a must-read. Half a King is a perfect airplane read, with a character whom you absolutely root for, even as he makes more questionable decisions and sinks deeper into the Abercrombian morass of shit.
After reading a slew of fantasy debuts that fail to establish any compelling characters because they're too busy setting up subplots that will pay off five books from now, Half a King is refreshingly straightforward. And a great read. Definitely check it out.