I've been looking forward to this one for a while and when it came up in Net Galley, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. I'm not the biggest Abercrombie fan...I know, I should have my epic fantasy fan/writer card taken away for saying that. I started The Blade Itself, couldn't get into it and put it aside. Several years later, I picked it back up and started to get into it and it disappeared on me. (I think a certain little girl might have put it somewhere on me and I just have to find it again.) But I was eager to see what "Lord Grimdark's" take on "young adult" was like and it's quite stellar. It reminds me, in many ways, of a slightly more grown up version of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which I loved. (I'm only on book 5 and that's in my queue.) Half A King is top notch epic Viking fantasy for YAs!
Yarvi is an unlikely king. Born crippled but with a keen mind (a rather timeless trope really), he reminds me of a much more innocent and altruistic Tyrion Lannister. The parallels to ASOIAF are well done...is anyone writing a YA fantasy that isn't filled with nods and allusions to Martin now? That's not a critique, just a comment, because God knows I'm guilty of that as a writer. He's a great character that develops and changes over time. His naivete is hardened as his world crumbles around him from not becoming a minister (think Hand of the King) to losing his kingship and trying to regain it while plotting revenge against those who stole it from him.
The plot is pure Abercrombie. It snappy, filled with tense action and thrills. It moves and there is little in the way of slowing down with just enough places for the reader to catch their breath. His action scenes are second to none. I see the great appeal of his writing to so many people in the way that he draws these scene with words. I'm usually terrible at "seeing" these things, but Abercrombie makes it work. I wonder if studying the entire Abercrombie catalog might help my action scene writing.
His world building is sharp. I can imagine this place in my mind and the culture he's built. Inspired by Viking culture, there's a bigger world around them and Ambercrombie gives us some hints of that without overwhelming the reader. The analogous conversion to Christianity is a big idea in the story that I feel might show up in later volumes and make for a really interesting book.
Where this book shines is the characters. Yarvi is sympathetic from the outset. He's a hero worth rooting for and when things start to click for him about half way through the book, he wears the mantle well, very similar to the way Tyrion does in ASOIAF. His mates are well drawn and become the rag tag group of "brothers" that a book like this needs, especially in YA. The mystery of the character named Nothing, the grizzled Rulf, the obvious crush Sumael, the big guy Jaud and the heel turn face Ankran could easily become little more than the tropes that the embody, but they are deeper than that and become important to the story and integral in Yarvi's growth as a character. His antagonists, for the most part, aren't one-dimensional and have depth and layers. Even background characters have a little depth to them that make you feel like they are real people.
Ambercrombie knows the tropes and, like a good author should, knows how to play with them. I think using tropes properly and in the right way is the sign of a good fantasy writer. You can't avoid the tropes, you just have to learn how to play with them. Half A King is a great place to look at the right way to play with the tropes of fantasy.