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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

This was my first Abercrombie novel, though he is the author of the best-selling First Law trilogy. Abercrombie came highly recommended to me, not by my peer group, of whom there are precious few fantasists, but by a blog post by Steven Erikson who mentioned the author in passing. Then, of course, the book jacket has George R. R. Martin praising the book as well. Now, Martin is a fame whore, so that could mean anything. But the man is obviously super intelligent, certainly enough to know his name means something, and that he ought not to abuse it.

The cover isn't much. A book in the new style, I suppose to reach out to other markets. Those swords and sorcery covers of the 80s and 90s are a dying breed. While sleek, for all the inventiveness and relevancy of the cover art, the book could have been self published! I should note that more recent copies have rectified this oversight. The modern way to market fantasy novels appears to be with heavily stylized images on stark unicolour backgrounds.  It's a damn shame given the high quality of illustration out there today. If the 80s had publishers would have been peeing their pants.

Which leads me, finally, to a substantive critique.  I found this book enjoyable, and certainly page turning.  But, also very hard to read. The prose isn't difficult.  In fact it's the very opposite.  It's almost Hemmingway sparse.  After having completed a reread of Erikson's Midnight Tides, I found the prose rather simplistic.  But, it was also hard to read because it seemed almost grammatically incorrect.  Now, even a casual glance at my writing on this site would indicate that I am not a stickler for the rules of grammar.  As a former actor, I tend to write as I speak, or as I hear the words in my mind. So my prose is commatastic!

Abercrombie's prose is distinctly lacking in commas. I'm not saying he's wrong, or that the staff at Del Rey is either, just that I was frequently thrown for a loop by some of the descriptive sentences.  This is my major criticism of Half a King, there was something off-putting about the writing for me.  I think it is likely a matter of taste. Let me say simply, it is nothing like Erikson's.

That said, the story was decent. Not sweeping, like Jordan, Erikson, or Martin, but certainly a bonafide world sparsely but deftly described.

A Maester, from ASoIF
Character:  our main character is a teenage boy named Yarvi, the perspective from which the entire story is told. There is no switching of narratives, as there frequently is in epic fantasy. The novel is the start of at least a trilogy, according to Abernathy's website.  Yarvi starts off the novel a true anti-hero, a thirdson, a sniveling, cowardly, deformed wretch slated to become a king's counselor, a Minister, much like the Maesters of George R.R. Martin's world (Academics sworn to serve their king, yet members of a larger enlightened circle of scholars.). Yarvi is proud of his achievements and excited to take the final test.  But The day before he sets sail for the capital city he finds out that his elder brother and father are slain.  At first blush the novel seems a Coming of Age type where an enlightened king gains the respect of his people and leads them to greatness.  However, to Abernathy's credit, this is NOT the direction the novel takes.  SPOILER: The boy ends up a rowing slave on a merchant galley.  END SPOILER.  Yarvi's character development is decent and believable, and the Slave to Greatness cliche is used quite effectively here in his growth from boy to man.  Yarvi's companions are interesting and each is given a decent character sketch, though the best minor character is killed off before story's end.  But none are worth mentioning, telling. Half a King would have benefited immensely from an additional two hundred pages.  That would have given the sub-characters real time to grow.  In common fiction, brevity is highly laudable.  In epic fantasy, this really isn't so, and I feel disappointed that I will never learn more about them.

Cliches:  I've already mentioned a few of them.  The most obvious is the Coming of Age cliche.  Yarvi is a boy, weak, with little or no confidence in his ability to lead, and by story's end he is a leader and a man capable of killing in cold blood.  The Second Son cliche is a new one for this blog.  It's the idea that in a medieval kingdom, the first son becomes the heir to the throne, and the second is a spare, often sent to the priesthood.  Second Sons are not taught to rule, though though they are taught the same princely arts that first sons are.  As usual with my naming convention, I do not exclude daughters, though certainly it was a rare medieval kingdom that passed leadership onto women.  The Advisor Cliche, that of the trusted advisor taught at a central university, or passing certain certification tests, and then assuming a position as a hand of the king.  The Slave to Greatness cliche: where a person spends some time in the annealing fires of misery that only slavery can teach.  Inevitably, the hero escapes slavery and his derring-do, righteous rage, and astounding humility astonish the local nobility.  One interesting note: when Yarvi escapes slavery, he does not abolish or make slavery more palatable in any way.  In fact, he seems to give a mental shrug and say "someone has to row the boat."  That's a nice touch, certainly realistic, I suspect.  The Shattered Sea has much in common with the Norse medieval cliche.  Not so much the series of gods, or the serpentine dragon called the Nidhogg, but the idea of a warrior culture thriving in cold weather, crossing the sea with longships and raiding the neighboring kingdoms. All in all, I'd say the novel's use of cliche was effective, and this is one example where the cliche speaks a thousand words.  By using these cliche's Abercrombie is able to write a slightly shorter novel.
The Niddhogg, definitely not in this novel

Which leads us to completeness:  the Norse cliche gives the world a binding ambiance for the setting of the Shattered Sea, without delving into the complex relationships that must exist between the various kingdoms.  But the novel is billed by it's own advertising as a thriller of betrayal.  Several of these betrayals were startling, several were indeed quite obvious.  Some of these betrayals were made obvious by the lack of explanation occurring in the novel's set up.  The king and his brother were killed, and since everyone says its an ambush by a rival kingdom, the main character does too. But the story's narrator is Yarvi, a scholar, who should be asking these questions for us. He does, once, question the whole "who really killed my father and brother" thing, but only once and the question is ignored thereafter. But in the last ten pages you find out that in Yarvi's secret life, when he's not rowing, starving, freezing, or wheedling himself out of a sticky situation, he has thought about these things extensively and come up with a cruel, cold plan for revenge. Nonetheless, it seems an obvious and unfortunate fail on Abercrombie's part.  Rowing is tough work, and being chained night and day to a bench with an oar would make some higher thinking difficult, but he seems to accomplish enough whinging during this time to make it seem more like an oversight.

One last note on the subject. SPOILER: Given that this book is the first of a trio, it is difficult to say where the next two novels will go. This can be a good thing, if the groundwork for what comes was layed properly. What mysteries remain: who are the Elves? What is god, is he the shattered version post elf Apocalypse, or The One God of the High King? The High King is characterized as a silly, vain, weak-willed ruler. If so, who is pulling his strings?  Yarvi has relinquished his kingship to his other Uncle, who after a 15 plus year absence happily marries the widowed Queen, his moms. Will Yarvi ever be King? The a rule of law says no, when a man becomes one of these advisor types he relinquishes his title. But of course, there are always those who would change that. What about Yarvi's almost-girlfriend, will she prove a reoccurring character. Or now that Yarvi is sworn to celibacy will she become irrelevant. (Why these scholars are sworn to celibacy is beyond me.  Having been around academics for over a decade I can tell you they are anything but!)

Clearly there is much to go forward with, but what there is not at this point is a Big Bad, nor a coming Apocalypse. Unless its the concept of one currency.  The old Queen was beginning a plan to stamp her own currency and to proliferate it throughout her economic sphere as the only currency. As a Queen who "minted" money for her kingdom, it's not inconceivable that she could have the clout to do so. And, I must say, as an economic blogger, this would indeed be a sequel worth writing about.

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