Book one of the Shattered Sea series
By Joe Abercrombie
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
I have never read a Joe Abercrombie book before, but I knew his name from discussions of modern fantasy. When I saw he was starting a new series, I wanted to give it a try. HALF A KING begins much like this year's fantastic THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.
After a sudden assassination, a younger son who doesn't fit in at the court becomes the ruler. But there the books sharply diverge. Prince Yarvi is knowledgeable, but not a particularly savvy ruler, and he is quickly eliminated by a rival from the throne. Presumed dead, Yarvi is sold as a slave and must find a way to rescue himself and his country.
HALF A KING is a twisting adventure full of unexpected allies and enemies. Yarvi encounters people from many countries, and people who have much less and are more desperate than anyone he's known before. He also meets people who are not so ambitious as to murder for power, but loyal to the end. It's often pretty obvious which characters are which, but Abercrombie manages some surprises.
No one ever expects much of Yarvi, because the countries prize physical strength and he was born without a hand. His brain is one of his greatest assets, as he often has to convince people that he is too valuable to kill. And, as his journey continues, it starts to become true. The spoiled prince learns skills - physical, social, and mental - that he was lacking. At the same time, it may not be enough to make him a good king even if he would be a better one than at the beginning.
I've heard that Abercrombie writes fairly grim and dark fantasy. HALF A KING certainly isn't optimistic or idealistic, but neither is it grim (even with all the slavery). I'm sure it will have a significant overlap with the YA audience, given Yarvi's young age. I really like that HALF A KING stands very well on its own despite being the first book in a trilogy. I think the story works even if Abercrombie never writes another word about the Shattered Sea.