Saturday, 4 October 2014

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie - my (Spoiler Free) Review

Young Adult ? Grimdark? Straddling a divide, or falling between?

I have read just two of Lord Grimdark's books, his first and his latest published works.  I reviewed The Blade Itself (First Law) in a previous post and had already started Half a King and was looking for and seeing some differences in style and substance.  An author's books are like their children, indeed in some cases it would appear more precious than their offspring, and as with children one hesitates to draw direct comparisons between them.  However, no book can stand entirely separate from its context as authors strive to stretch the envelope of their achievement or to exorcise (or even exercise) some inner demons, and comparisons can cast a little light on literature.

The first thing I understood about Half a King was that Joe was setting out to explicitly write for the Young Adult audience, to extend his reach into another genre, to break free of the carapace of Lordgrimdark and maybe show a glimmer of Lordyoungadult. My first thought was that this book more straddled the two genres than broke wholly through from one to the other, and that is a good thing in that it can appeal to both audiences, rather than leave his many fantasy fans wailing in despair as he goes in pursuit of John Green's legions of admirers.

So what might make this Young Adult?  Well the first thing I noticed was the absence of swearing, not an f-word in sight (believe me I even did a kindle search to check) which is a big drop in the gritty darkness of the first-law peppered with a realistic use of coarse language (which even so fell someway short of the potty-mouths I have known at work, my own included).  But then while this is a difference between Joe's two books, it is not necessarily a key feature for distinguishing the genres.  Mazarkis Williams and Robin Hobb have both written glorious fantasy trilogies with not a single f---  between them, while many a YA book will be sprinkled with the versimilitudinous expletives of modern youth.

The second thing that might denote YA is the age of the protaganist. Yarvi is a boy, a teenager whose never been kissed, and there is in the midst of his many trials, a longing to see again the girl who kissed him first and promised him a better kiss when he returned.  And then against that promise he has the bright eyed young woman with whom he has established bonds deeper than love, bonds of life itself in a shared fight for survival.  That shifts this work away from the First Law where Logen was a hard bitten warrior with scars of life as well as war, and Bayaz was older than all of them.  Also, like many a young adult, Yarvi's thoughts and fate are bound up with his parents far more than the mature and cynical badass heroes of The Blade Itself.  He worries about his parents and he pines when he is parted, even though the approval he so yearned for from them has never been truly or freely given.  There are, therefore, those echoes of ordinary teenage angst, a fearfulness of what being an adult might involve and whether he is capable of it.  To be fair Mark Lawrence too had a teenage protaganist in a book which would indubitably be in the grimdark tradition if only someone would give an unequivocal definition of what grimdark is.  As teenage boys Jorg and Yarvi could not be more different, though Jorg too has debts he owes his parents which he fears cannot, or will not be paid.  In short, a youthful hero (or anti-hero) does not a young adult book make.

So this book stands not so much athwart the divide between YA and grimdark fantasy as rooted in its grimdark heritage but reaching out for a younger audience. But does that really matter?  What counts is whether or not it is a good story and labels are just that. J.K.Rowling showed how a good story can transcend the arbitrary type-setting of age.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it's the story, stupid" and the story is the thing.

But what about the story?

So what of Yarvi's story and, setting aside the YA/grimdark division, how does it compare to Logen's and Glotka's?

Well there is a resonance of Glotka, in my view Joe's finest creation in the Blade Itself.  For Yarvi is a cripple and that fact dominates his every waking moment.  He was born with half a hand (well strictly speaking one and a half hands but you know what I mean) and this makes him unfit for war and unworthy of his father's love or approbation.  There is, more resignation than bitterness in how Yarvi deals with his deformity, but it sets out the story's stall at the outset.  This cannot be a Luke Skywalker tale of the farm boy who makes good and becomes the warrior god that makes others run in incontinent fear.  Yarvi's victories must be won by cunning and it is here perhaps more than in his YA ambitions that Joe most throws over the traces of traditional fantasy tropes.   Despite his many difficulties, Yarvi finds many subtle ways to control the ebbs and flows of his most troubled life, to show that the pen is mightier than the sword, that brain can move more than brawn can.

It is a good story with colourful characters and twists enough to surprise you and an ending entirely unlooked for but in keeping with Yarvi's character and journey.  Just as he is no typical hero, his triumph is no typical triumph. There is Joe's love of battle with combat described in fast paced detail.  At times the plot might have looked a little holey as impossible hardships were endured in a way that made me think Scott of the Antarctic was a bit of a wuss for giving in so easily. People die, as people do, sliding off swords with sorrowful; expressions, but you know enough about each one to care about the dreams they won't fulfill, or to rejoice at an overdue end so richly deserved.

So, is it Young Adult - not noticeably, but is it a good story - yes, and sufficiently different to its archetype to be worth pursuing into the sequels.

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