I enjoyed Half a King, Volume One of the Shattered Sea Trilogy, one of those rip-roaring fantasy tales full of betrayal, revenge, and lots of adventure. It is a young adult story and focus is very much on the action and the characters. It was a quick and easy read, though I dallied a bit at the beginning before the action heated up and I became engrossed.
Yarvi is our hero–the youngest son of a powerful king in what seems to be Viking era Scandinavia. When his father and older brother are murdered after being lured to a truce meeting to talk peace by rival king Grom-Gil-Gorm, he inherits the crown and the Black Chair that is his country’s throne. Although he is smarter than most, educated to be a minister of state, he feels inadequate. Most of his insecurity comes from a congenital birth defect that left him with only half hand, incapable of holding a shield in battle. Nonetheless, he swear revenge on his father and brother’s killer and leads an army against Grom-Gil-Gorm.
There his uncle Odem reveals himself as the traitor who killed his father and brother and attempts to murder him but Yarvi survives the fall off the cliff and into the sea. Washed ashore in the land of the rival king, he is sold into slavery as an oarsman on a trading ship captained by a drunk, violent woman. Hard labor and privation become his lot but he survives and even thrives forming bonds of friendship with his fellow slaves.
The book is essentially in three parts, the first is the betrayal and time in captivity, the second is the escape and flight back to his homeland while pursued by the single-minded captain, and the third is his attempt to recapture his throne and take vengeance on his uncle. I found the beginning a bit slow going and easy to put down, but the pace quickened after the escape and was at full throttle by the end. It took me three days to read the first third and then I finished the final two-thirds in an evening.
Abercrombie is most skilled at plotting, giving us a story full of twists and turns. He is also fair, providing textual clues to the surprise reveals that come at the end. Of the two biggest twists, one I had already come to expect and felt the satisfaction that comes from reading between the lines. The other was a surprised, but as soon as I reflected on it, I realized that the foundation was laid honestly and it was all there for us. I was shocked, though, by Yarvi’s final act of revenge–as deserved as it may have been.
Abercrombie also does a great job with creating a world complete with a history, a mythology, customs, religions that provide the context for people’s actions and decisions and even drive the plot, but he does it organically within the text without pages of exposition. All this action and plot movement happens and before you know it, you have absorbed the worldview of another time and place.
As to character development, the quality is uneven. Some characters are very nuanced and change over time. Others are caricatures. Shadikshirram, for example, is a paper cutout and not very interesting other than a plot device. However, we do get a deeper understanding of some of the fellow slaves as they escape and struggle toward freedom. There is some interesting developments there. The most frustrating is the character of the navigator, Sumael. She has a scar, an attitude and amazing skills, but far too little was done with her story. There’s a suggestion of romantic interest between her and Yarvi, but like most of her presence in the story, it is a blossom with no fruit. I hope that means the second or third volumes will give her more substance and tell more of her story.
Abercrombie is less skilled at writing language that feels fresh and new. I love it when genre writers bring the same literary efforts as literary fiction writers, but I know that action and fantasy writing is very much about the plot, so he focuses on what is more important. It was successful in getting me to request the next volume in the trilogy from the library.
If you like fantasy fiction, this is a good story that can stand alone, though I am looking forward to the next two in the series. Both are already published, so I happily will not have to wait for months. This is all about the story and on that level, Abercrombie delivers all we can ask for.