Grimdark for Young Adults: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is two writers. He is the writer everyone ascribes him to be and the writer he actually is. The former is Lord Grimdark, a moniker even the man himself has adopted, in which he is accused of, or praised for, writing the most despicable characters and situations. The latter is one of the most thoughtful writers of fantasy fiction, who undermines tropes, points out their absurdity, and makes us feel good about loving them still.

I have always believed in him to be the second of the two.

In the days after the announcement that Abercrombie’s next series of novels would be written for the young adult market, there was no shortage of kvetching about whether his style would work there. And I think it came from both sides, with fans of Abercrombie worrying that for the next few years they’d only get him watered down and boring, and YA aficionados scoffing that someone who writes the way Abercrombie does could play in their space. I had no such worries. Abercrombie’s grit and grime always serves a point, and despite what others might say about his characters, he never writes them without a genuine desire to be better people.

Not only did I believe Half a King would work as a young adult novel, I believed the end product would all but indiscernible from his previous work, excluding a marked lack of onomatopoetic sex. I was right and wrong. Half a King isn’t merely equal to Abercrombie’s previous work; it is his finest novel to date and the one that may one day make him a household name.

Yarvi is a Viking prince, in a culture that prides physical strength above all else. Unfortunately, Yarvi is not terribly fierce, having been born with a crippled hand. Unable to swing a sword or hold a shield, Yarvi has learned different skills, those of a minister trained to use his mind before all else. When his father is killed, Yarvi is forced to become King. Holding the throne for only a moment, he is quickly betrayed by his Uncle and left for dead. Enslaved and beaten, Yarvi vows to regain a throne he never wanted.

Much more a coming of age novel, or a bildungsroman for those who enjoy literary terms, Half a King sits neatly into the pocket of fantasy fiction that straddles adult and children’s fiction. In the spirit of David Eddings, Tamora Pierce, Elizabeth Moon, and Lloyd Alexander, Abercrombie has written a novel that takes a normal teen (albeit one in line for a throne) and sets him on a journey of self-discovery. Yarvi begins as someone who expects life to work out his favor to someone who knows it won’t, but demands renegotiation. He has no agency at the novels outset. He fears becoming King because he isn’t capable of meeting the cultural ideals. Adults guide his life. As the novel progresses he takes hold of his destiny, recognizing his weaknesses and embracing them. This change is personified by the quote on the dust jacket,

I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.

There’s recognition by the young man that despite his disability, there is nothing less about him. It’s a powerful message sure to resonate with younger readers facing their own battle to emerge as fully formed people. However, unlike the authors I mention above, there’s nothing predetermined for Yarvi, no prophecy foretelling his ascension, no sense that he is righteous. Like all of Abercrombie’s work no one is absolved of their actions—not even Yarvi, who does his own fair share of misdeeds before the novel concludes.

Structurally, Half a King is a different novel than anything Abercrombie has written before. Having spent quite a bit of time reading Abercrombie’s Circle of the World novels, it’s become part of his style to sit down in characters and get comfortable. Expanding their points of views beyond the constraints of the story for purposes of color, Abercrombie often meanders to enrich the reader’s perspective. Half a King affords no time for such a stroll. It’s tight and full of intent, without the usual wibbling his longer work allows. Although this lack of scope may frustrate existing Abercrombie readers, there’s no question the narrative drive, combined with his typical authentic moral ambiguity, will appease.

However, those looking for a traditional YA experience may be disappointed. Abercrombie writes Half a King for young adults, not for the Young Adult genre. It lacks the immediacy of emotion and the self-centered focus that I so closely associate with the form. Instead, he has taken the trappings that made him one of the most exciting modern fantasists and made it more accessible to a younger, and more widespread, audience. Half a King is a novel that will appeal not just to traditional fantasy fans, but to mainstream readers alike. This isn’t your grandmother’s fantasy. Joe Abercrombie is attempting fantasy for the post-HBO Game of Thrones environment, where fantasy doesn’t need to be a genre, just an adjective. Although it feels weird to say it about someone already so successful, I’m excited for his future.

Half a King is available now from Harper Voyager (UK) and July 15th from Del Rey (US).

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.


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