In an era when fantasy seems enthralled by long series of huge volumes that seem to pass by like freight trains at a crossing when you’re trying to get somewhere, Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King serves as a reminder that there are considerable virtues yet to be found by efficient, on-the-ground storytelling propelled more by plot than by setting, with crisp dialogue, humane characters, and a distinct inward spiral of rapid-fire events. To be sure, it’s the first volume of a trilogy (although the entire trilogy promises a page count not much longer than some of those luggage novels, including a couple of Abercrombie’s own), and to be sure, it’s clearly a YA novel (though Del Rey’s price point and marketing suggests confidence that they will draw adult readers as well, which they should). But there’s certainly enough incident and background in his almost classically structured, Dumas-like betrayal-suffering-and-revenge plot to have pumped the novel up to three times its length, and while there may well be readers who would wish for that, I found myself relieved at a novel which is not only a page-turner, but in which something actually happens on the next page. At the same time, Abercrombie has found room for a few passages of extraordinarily graceful prose, though never to the point of self-indulgence or sentimentality.
The set-up seems almost archetypally familiar. Yarvi is the younger prince of Gettland, a vaguely Viking-like warrior society, but his studious nature and a birth defect of a withered hand lead him to study to be a minister rather than to prepare for succeeding to the throne, which is the role of his more traditionally macho brother. By the end of the first short chapter, he learns that his father and brother have been killed in a treacherous attack by the rival Vanstermen, and Yarvi finds himself not only inheriting the kingdom – with absolutely no one’s confidence – but betrothed to the daughter of his father’s chief advisor. It’s not long before he finds himself the victim of treachery, and he must use his intelligence and talents not only to survive a brutal coming of age, but to collect an unlikely but mostly likeable band of former slaves and outcasts in an harrowing effort to regain his true identity. Along the way, he not only gains a radically different perspective on his world – including the feared Vanstermen and the ancient metal structures left over from an apparently superior culture called the elves – but he meets a colorful collection of secondary characters, including a spectacularly alcoholic woman ship’s captain and a strangely quiet galley slave called Nothing. A good deal of the efficiency of Abercrombie’s narrative derives from the manner in which he reveals the inevitable things-are-not-what-they seem insights without interrupting his basic action-thriller template. While at least one of these revelations seems somewhat contrived, and a couple of others are apparently coupons for succeeding volumes, the overall pace of the volume is extremely satisfying.
In a way, there is nothing much new in Half a King for anyone familiar with the long tradition of redress adventures, but that’s not really the point. Abercrombie is not out so much to revise the tradition, or to wallow in his world-building, as to celebrate a particular kind of storytelling, not unlike the celebration of Western tropes he explored in his recent prequel to Red Country, ‘‘Some Desperado’’. If the novel introduces new readers to this kind of narrative, and reminds older ones of its virtues, he’ll have done his job. Sometimes a story is just a good story.