Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

YA Book: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

What happened was - I got into work on Saturday the 5th of Juli aaaand, on seeing this book I inched to pick it up until eventually I peeked at the blurb and knew immediately I was going to buy. I watched the 4 books we had on the shelf like a hawk. When I noticed that one was missing, I panicked and hastily put one aside which I promptly bought on my break. IT IS NOW IN MY POSSESSION! Mwa ha ha ha ha c:

Let's backtrack a little. I wasn't going to read this book. As I explained, me and YA aren't on the greatest terms. When I saw an article talking to the author about it in SFX (or was it Sci-Fi Now?) magazine, it didn't look all too interesting. But that blurb was truly amazing and from that moment I was extremely excited to get my teeth in, even though I knew that it doesn't count towards the Fantasy Challenge.

So, er... here we go!

Kindly remember that my reviews are not spoiler-free.


Half A King review

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published: July 2014
Fantasy Sub-Genre: Young-Adult

“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 his throne
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 the world, Yarvi 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, he finds they help him more than any noble could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

Even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi finds that his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps and the death of a king...

Little Pre-Read stuff... When a hardback is as luxurious as this one, I truly don't mind buying it at all. The feel of the cover and the map on the inside cover is sooo smooth and velvety! :3 I had a happy cat moment indeed.

Boy, I did love that map. Some fantasy maps attack you with countries and cities and towns and rivers and so much detail and tiny writing that you get confused and panicky and in the end you turn a page and take a deep breath because you're hoping extensive knowledge of that map isn't required to understand the story. *pant* O_O As a result I no longer look at maps in fantasy books properly until I'm at least halfway through, when it makes more sense.

So, the book. As George R.R. Martin's quote declared, (they really seem to be riding on that quote for this book, I've seen it everywhere) I was also hooked from the first page. The language and the atmosphere was like gently-moulded and still-moist clay, and you could slip right in and make yourself comfortable. As it happens my three year-old cousin was over, so there's no way I could've concentrated if I was reading a more elaborately-written fantasy book.

By page five I was cracking up with laughter, when Mother Gundring says that one day our protagonist, Prince Yarvi, will be Father Yarvi and he responds; ' "I lack the wisdom." He meant he lacked the courage, but he lacked the courage to admit it.' (p.5) There was a bit on page fourteen that made me frown; '[Uncle Odem] "You know your mother loves you." / [Yarvi] "Do I?" ' and I automatically thought that the appropriate response would've been, "Does she?" and yet, somehow, what he said was right for his character. He places the blame on himself a fair bit.

His family was interesting, if only because they seem really messed up. You've got the mother with a heart of ice, the seemingly-arrogant now-deceased brother, the unseen raging father who - even though Yarvi wants to avenge him for honour's sake, the late King Uthrik really did seem like an arsewipe of a father, never mind what sort of king he was (apparently pretty good) - and the uncle who was the only one who ever made Yarvi feel worth something, and yet the only solution he could seem to come up with was killing his nephew - ?! Not even shipping him away or locking him up? Look, I won't pretend to know anything about how to dethrone a boy-king. But honestly. This family. What the hell.

I've got to say it, though. If there's one thing that made me groan, it's how Yarvi, after being betrayed, literally went from the top to the very bottom. Not even a banished prince or a humble shepherd - he went from prince to slave, lowest of the low, and has marks that will forever remind him of the fact. I mean, on a symbolic level it works, but I still groaned!

I feel this book had the right balance of things happening by chance and things happening by divine (*cough* author) intervention. For example, Yarvi miraculously survives death plot - chance. Yarvi sold as a slave - rotten luck. And then we get that great moment where, having already been told that Yarvi could sing, he is heard singing by Shadikshirram and fortune is suddenly in his favour. Then we are watching watching him weigh up his opportunities. I found that simply great. Authors should foreshadow subtly way more often.

I LOVED, loved loved Shadikshirram. What an incredible character! And what a glorious name - I really liked the names in this story. She is the one character in this story that I pictured very vividly in my mind. I could see her swagger and the ever-present bottle of wine in her hand. I always laughed when she went on about her good nature being her downfall. She was so entertaining, fearless and awe-inspiring, and when she becomes an object of fear, it's clear to see why. Her ruthlessness is terrifying.

I adored Nothing. (hehelol.) I also loved the puns that arise of having a character called 'Nothing'. Although it was clear - from the complete lack of any information being revealed about him - that he was going to be important. I had no idea though, he would be Uthil! That was a shock. But I'll get to that a bit later.

Seeing all the different methods they employed to try and stay alive kept me well and truly hooked. Yarvi's character development was done extremely well, and I really felt that he was growing and changing throughout the story. Towards the end, when there are moments that he is quite cold like his mother, or consumed by rage like his father, it catches you as being out of his character, and then you think about what he's just been through and realise that actually, it all inevitably pointed here.

I really liked Sumael as a character, though I wasn't really sure how to picture her and 'dark-skinned' made me wonder what equivalent culture she would be in, er, "our earth". I only wondered because when questioned by Yarvi's mother, it's said that 'her dark cheek coloured' (p.288). Now I don't know about you, but I have never in my life seen a dark cheek blush, so that was really weird both because I couldn't imagine it, and because the image I had in my head of her instantly shattered the moment I read that line. Now she's just a newspaper cut-out dolly in my mind's eye.

I found Sumael and Yarvi's romance quite cute, and also interesting because nothing significant came of it. As in, they didn't properly acknowledge it or anything. I feel that's probably because this book is the first of a trilogy, but it's kind of sucky because I liked the idea that not every story where a boy and girl are friends has a romance ensue. Oh wait - did I mention this is part of a trilogy before? No? Oh. Whoops. Meant to do that at the start.

I always laughed when Rulf would say "[Trees/sheep] mean warmth." And Jaud would always counter, "[Trees/sheep] means food!" This book was so funny in so many ways and so many places that I'm not even bothering with quotes. Too many. Which helped to counter the utterly tragic deaths of Ankran and Jaud. That made me really sad. Oh, and Shadikshirram, because I really just loved her.

Yarvi's mother, Queen Laithlin, was a 50/50 character for me. Even by the end, I couldn't let go of that eternal coldness to her character, the same coldness that filled child-Yarvi with fear and even made him think he didn't love him. I see why it would be necessary, but something about the way she does it puts me off her. And yet, I admire her wit and her cunning, her sharp sharp tongue and her legendary bartering skills and very proud 'queenly' (whatever that really means) nature. I believe she puts Queen Cersei to shame, and for anyone who has never read the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, you have NO IDEA how big what I've just said is. It's big. Colossal, man.

Image: Half A King Limited Edition cover from

Twists. All the twists came at once. Uncle Odem's moment alone in the temple where you get a glimpse of his remorse, and Nothing turning out to be Yarvi's Uncle Uthil! A part of me wanted to groan by instinct because I'm so used to the Surprise!-It's-The-Character You-Never-Suspected being done so poorly. Not so with this story! I felt like it was at least plausible. Though I wish there'd been a little more foreshadowing because for a moment, when you first realise, it's like What The Hell? because you first have to remember who he is, and then that he's supposed to be dead, so by the time you've caught up with the shock of the characters, your own emotions are a bit 'Oh'-like.

I had a feeling that Yarvi wasn't going to be king in the way the reader was supposed to expect, because no way in hell would Gorm-de-worm (I like calling him that. Grr, villain.) was going to be King of Gettland. Get OUTTA HERE. That would turn our hero into an anti-hero. Having Yarvi pursue his dream of becoming a minister after all was such a lovely way to tie loose ends together.

When Queen Laithlin approached King Uthil to plead that her son not be exiled, I was surprised because she was tender in a way we'd  never seen before. I felt almost like she was throwing herself at him just because she was pleading, which she never does! From that small part of the scene, I get the feeling that she must have loved him once, and hinted at the start when she explained to Yarvi that she'd been promised to Uthil but had to marry Uthrik instead, saying "I put aside my feelings and did my duty. So must you." (p.13) Oh, it also says on that page that her voice cracked as she spoke, which I suppose makes it obvious. Okay then, case closed!

For some reason it reminded me of George R.R.'s A Song Of Ice And Fire - Catelyn Stark was promised to Ned's older brother, but ended up marrying Ned instead. Sad times, man.

Oh, back to Isriun! I was excited when I read that bit. My gut feeling was that they weren't going to like each other. I only had this hunch because this also reminded me of another book - my favourite fantasy book ever, Magician by Raymond E Feist. SPOILER!! THIS IS AN ENDING SPOILER!!! > When Pug finally returns home and meets his childhood sweetheart again, SO MUCH has happened, including Pug falling in love with someone else, that it doesn't make you think about how sad it is that they never had their happy ending - you know it would never happen anyway. It just made you think, 'Wow, I can't BELIEVE how far we've come from him being just a kid and having girl troubles! Now he has to save the WORLD and shit!' < SPOILER OVER.

I think that when Yarvi and Isriun both had a role to play, and of course they were young and naive, they warmed to each other in the way you kind of have to when you have no choice. Now they are both by definition 'nothing' (LOL), they are older and wiser to the cruel ways of the world, they've both lost their fathers to murder. Not only has it brought out their true colours, but they don't even have to pretend about it. It's a moment both awesome and awful.

But finally, the great twist ending that I hadn't for a moment foreseen...

Just when you think it's all over, Joe Abercrombie has to kick your heart in the butt. The quotes throughout that were the guidance of Mother Gundring, the incredible wisdom that kept him alive at the toughest parts of his journey, now all became so bittersweet. The same person who'd indirectly helped him to become cunning enough to survive was also the person who'd put him in a situation to use it in the first place. And the moment he mentioned the doves, I remembered that intriguing little fact we get at the beginning of the story and knew he'd poisoned her. It's an awful, awful justice.

AMAZING! AMAZING! I have that hollow feeling I get when I finish a book I really liked. I can't believe I read it in two days. Two short days... well, verdict time.


5 Sha's - !!

Without a shadow of a doubt. (Hate that phrase.) Sometimes, the decision to write YA fantasy as opposed to adult fantasy removes the depth required to make fantasy telling come to life, with all its intricacy and wonder. Not so with this book.

Half A King told a fresh and exciting story and did so without the fluff and falafel of extra embroidery. At time I did feel there could've been more description - for example I still have no idea what Nothing is supposed to look like, though I've got a blurred and patchy-coloured silhouette in my mind. But in this instance, it didn't matter because whittling that extra fluff down to an engaging story mattered so much more. It was told with so much emotion and humour, and we're left with the moral of the choice between doing something because it is your right, it is your duty, or doing something because it is right, it is justice.

I loved this story to pieces. What a shame shame shame it's not part of the Reading Challenge. *sigh* Back to my day job.

Hey kids, fun fact!

I'm going to London Film and Comic Con 2014 this Saturday, (the day before I go on holiday c: ) and guess what? Joe Abercrombie gonna be there, yup! Hopefully I can get Half A King signed, get Half Bad signed by Sally Green, and get Darren Shan to sign my favourite book of the Demonata series, Bec. Gonna be a gooooood day!!!
Be there, or be cuboid!

Image: Google

Fantasy Food For Thought

Half A King raised some really good food for thought this week, a banquet for the mind in fact! The first of our two topics this time is Deities.

"Tell me, my prince, into how many splinters did the elves break God?"
"Four hundred and nine. Four hundred Small Gods, six Tall Gods, the first man and woman, and Death, who guards the Last Door.[" ...]
[Mother Gundring speaking, "]Name the six Tall Gods."
"Mother Sea and Father Earth, Mother Sun and Father Moon, Mother War [ and Father Peace was likely the end of the sentence.] (p.6)

In fantasy, I'm most familiar with a small pack of Gods, a small little gang of them, either working as a unit or each devoted to one particular attribute of nature. Four hundred and nine is a staggering number of Gods, and yet Hinduism has even more than that, with some reports stating 330,000 and others saying a much as thirty-three million.

Fantasy cultures are often tied very very closely to religion, as in real cultures - even if the only tie is that the people worship no Gods at all. In Tigana, I believe there were three primary Gods; Aemon(?), Eanna and Morien is what I THINK their names were. Aemon represents the masculine principle, Eanna the feminine, and the world was created as a result of their union. Morien wasn't a metaphor for death, but the personification of it. These Gods were so fully integrated in the lives of the characters that their everyday speech included praises and curses to either of the three, actually to the point where it became very annoying.

One thing about the Gods in the story that intrigued me very much is the reversal of the attributes of nature of human nature that we ascribe to gender.

For example, our familiar concept of Mother Earth is changed to Father Earth, which exchanges the feminine aspect of creation and growth to what I imagine would be the multiplying and supporting aspect of the masculine principle. Instead of the sun being male and the moon being female, that is switched. Instead of the concept of nurturing and peaceful woman, instead we have the protector of her children, Mother War, and the powerful, assertive masculine aspect is subdued into Father Peace.

The reason why I love this is because in our modern day culture, gender roles are not straight-cut - at least, not as much as society or media-brainwashing would have us believe. So in this fantasy world, I found the gender swap symbolised alternative thinking to the roles of men and women. After all, the character shown to be the most lowly and submissive was not a woman - it was Nothing. And on the flip side, we have a 'Golden' Queen who is revered and feared just as much (or maybe more) than the King, and Shadikshirram is the best darned woman-captain's I've ever read about in a book!

So what do the beliefs of fantasy societies about their Gods say about that culture? What deities in fantasy literature have really made an impression on you and why?

Image: alphacoders

The second of our two topics is Death.

"Before the elves made their war upon Her, there was one God. But in their arrogance they used a magic so strong, it ripped open the Last Door, destroyed them all and broke the One God into the many." (p.109)

The metaphor for death in this story is the Last Door. When somebody is thought to be about to die, it's said the door is open. If somebody does die, it's said that they've gone through.

The book I was meant to read for last Saturday, Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson, talked about the 'Abyss', and I'm quite sure that in Stella Gemmell's The City, it was something about going through the Halls, or it might have been seven halls and the last one was death...? (Whoops. I didn't do that justice, did I?) Death has been called different things in different fantasy tales but often, they all encapsulate the same thing - that the living have no idea about what happens to the souls of the dead.

Some fantasy books show the characters as openly afraid of what happens after the Last Door or the Final Portal or whatever it may be, and others show cultures that are very comfortable with that fact and are accept that their time will come. One thing I find even more interesting is agents of Death, actively manipulating the flow of souls into their embrace. Strangely enough, the books I've read where death is a sentient being don't declare themselves as fantasy books; they are either literary fiction or horror. There's another I'm thinking of, but it's kindaaa an end-of-book end-of-series spoiler so I absolutely can't say.

My other final thought for today is, how is death perceived by a fantasy culture? As a creature, as a person, an entity, or deity? Is death gendered? And for writers, does your character think they know what happens when they die?

And as this is fantasy... is it true?

Ashana Lian .


  1. Brilliant review. I admit to skipping some because you mentioned that you have spoilers in it and your review has made me really want to read this. I have been trying more fantasy books recently, as I don't usually read them very often. I have been really enjoying them and this sounds like one I could really love. Thanks for linking to this, I need something epic to get me out of my slump.

    1. I'm glad you liked it! I do go all out on my reviews. (I'm not sure I could curb the habit if I tried, heh. I sacrifice too much novel-writing time for this e_e) Well, there's lots of different types of fantasy but epic-wise, this is definitely a good place to start! If you do get round to it, you're very welcome to leave a linky here, I'd love to read your review.

  2. Finally read this one and, yes, I agree with what you said about it.

    The major things I liked was the bittersweet ending with Mother G. What a twist, shock and surprise that was! One of only two real major surprises in the book, I feel. (The other one being the murder attempt on Yarvi at the beginning.) I liked the depiction of the culture - the Last Door, the idea of the one god split into many, the power of oaths and the effect they have etc. I also like the weight of importance placed on women, which bring them up to equal standing as the skills the men have; this was done so, so, so well - the female ministers, Mother War, Mother Sea etc, the exceptional skills of the Golden Queen, navigator Sumael and the female Captains.

    One issue I had was the lack of description. Once someone or a situation was described that was it, you never got any further depth of description. Yarvi was the only one that was constantly described due to his weaker hand and even then, I don't recall getting much detail about what the rest of him looked like. I was also wondering if dark-skinned meant in the region of olive-skinned or darker. I suppose it was of the olive variety if her blushes were visible. Maybe the lack of description is a YA thing...? I also felt that the plot was highly, highly contrived in some places. And that spoiled it for me a little. The fact that Nothing chose not to reveal his name made it so cringeworthingly obvious that his true self would be revealed at the very last moment and that he would be someone important from the past/family. There were a lot of coincidences - Yarvi not being killed in battle, the group choosing to head towards Gettland when they escape and so on. There were also some really annoying things that happened like Yarvi being prepared for innocent people to die for his oath and asking Juad to stay and die for him when he can't even fight. Also it seemed weird for King Uthil to seriously consider killing him for that decision when he did implement other plans to help win win back the throne. Yarvi was humble and proud, clever and dumb, selfish and selfless, and brave and cowardly throughout the story and some parts of his personality didn't sit well.

    But overall it was a very enjoyable and worth reading.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yup, I agree. On the lack of description thing - I don't feel this is necessarily true for YA, but it might just be how Joe Abercrombie approaches it. But that was one of my issues too. There were a lot of contradictions in terms of Yarvi's behaviour but I felt it actually did sit well with him being a teenager and still discovering who he really is and what he believes in.


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