August 23, 2014

Half A King - Book Review

Ever since I discovered Joe Abercrombie through his First Law trilogy, I've enjoyed every one of his works. Though Half a King wasn't as gripping a plot as as the First Law trilogy (which is technically not a fair point to make, considering one's a standalone book, and the other is a series of three), nor as deviously charming as Best Served Cold (my fave of his), I still devoured Half A King.

I've always enjoyed Abercrombie's gritty realism. Though Half a King is set in the same world as the First Law trilogy, it doesn't include any fantasy (not that the trilogy had that much to begin with). Still, he doesn't need to add any magic in his stories to make them sound vivid and interesting.

Half A King is the tale of Yarvi, the crippled younger son of the king of Gettland. Think of these people as burly, ruthless, war-adoring Viking-like people. Because he's crippled, Yarvi's always felt himself but half a man (hence the title), and is constantly reminded of that fact by everyone around him, his family included. Though he's trained to become a minister (an order reminiscent of that of the druids), the surprising news of both his father's and older brother's deaths forces him to eschew his brother's robes for those of a king's...

...until he himself is betrayed by those closest to him (dun, dun, duuuuun). After that, Yarvi finds himself on a long, arduous journey of learning and growing as he makes his way from the deepest pits of slavery back  to reclaim the Black Throne. On the way, he makes a a few friends and many enemies, and all the while Death's Last Door is never very far away:

And Yarvi realized then that Death does not bow to each person who passes her, does not sweep out her arm respectfully to show the way, speaks no profound words, unlocks no bolts. The key upon her chest is never needed, for the Last Door stands always open. She herds the dead through impatiently, heedless of rank or fame or quality. She has an ever-lengthening queue to get through. A blind procession, inexhaustible.

Definitely recommended to any who like coming-of-age stories set in an Early Middle Ages-inspired era, with lots of action and intrigue. And on that note, I will leave you with one of the character's summary judgement of life, which explains the tone of the book quite well:

"If life has taught me one thing, it's that there are no villains. only people, doing their best."

13 comments:

  1. Boo! I saw Lukasz you commented on my post, but Google+ deleted it :( All I read was that (1) this isn't your genre, but (2) you found the quote quite moving, (3) you love the English language, and (4) death is feminine in Polish.
    It is feminine in French as well, but I believe that in English it can take both sexes, if any :)
    Sorry I couldn't see the rest of your comment... I won't be touching any Google+ buttons anymore!

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  2. Yes, there was something wrong with the layout of your blog. You summarized my post perfectly! The only two other things there were that in Ingmar Bergman movies (at least one, but I think two) Death was masculine and that the notion of "the Grim Reaper" implies masculinity. Why do you think Death is feminine in French, Polish, Russian? Is it semantic or just syntactic? Here's what Wikipedia says about it (the item is called "Death (personification)"):
    In Poland, Death, or Śmierć, has an appearance similar to the traditional Grim Reaper, but instead of a black robe, Death has a white robe. Also, due to grammar, Death is a female (the word śmierć is of feminine gender), mostly seen as an old skeletal woman, as depicted in 15th century dialogue "Rozmowa Mistrza Polikarpa ze Śmiercią" (Latin: "Dialogus inter Mortem et Magistrum Polikarpum").

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to write out your answers again!

      It's very possible that the whole idea of death as a woman vs. a male can be all about semantics, but perhaps it's a cultural thing too. Just how in a lot of countries, the personification of said country is feminine, but in German I believe they call it Fatherland (in German, of course).

      It's definitely interesting to see how each culture was influenced over time, and by whom. Death having a white robe reminds me of some Asian (?) cultures where mourning clothes are white as well, and, I believe, something joyful to celebrate.

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  3. I forgot to ask - what about Death in Dutch? Last year, on vacations in Utah, we were meeting lots of tourists from the Netherlands. I really like the sound of Dutch. I hope this will not seem offensive to German speakers, but Dutch to me sounds like a much softer version of German :)

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    1. I'm not sure about Dutch. From what I remember, it's closer to English in that their pronouns aren't sex-based per say (they use different "the" however: de and het, depending on the word).

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    2. Well, I checked google translate and "death" seems to be translated to Dutch as "de dood", which strikes me as hilarious considering The Dude from "The Big Lebowski", probably the funniest movie I have ever seen. Of course, I know "dood" is not pronounced "dude", but still... It is "der Tod" in German, so masculine. Maybe we can divide cultures into ones when death is brutal and reaping and ones where is is a quiet pacifier of pains, and thus feminine.

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    3. Hahaha, I think it's hilarious how you always associated calm, nice things with being feminine. But really, the sea is the best personification of femininity--it can be beautiful, and calm-looking, one moment, but terrifying and dangerous the next. Then again, I think it would describe most human beings... :)

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    4. The sea metaphor is beautiful. Well, I have always liked women more then men - not just in the obvious sense, hahaha, not gay enough - but because even if the percentage of "bad" men and "bad" women is the same, the "bad" men bring more harm to the world because of the male-oriented civilization. I would love to see an experiment - a society run completely by women, with men serving just as providers of genetic material (and consumers of beer). Of course, I may be very wrong, but I think it would make the world a better place.

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    5. I remember this one class in college which showed the differences in art in Ancient Egypt when the land was ruled by both the pharaoh and his queen on an equal footing (disclaimer: it could've been ancient Greece, I'm a little blurry on that aspect). Then, slowly, as the society moved to a patriarchal one, statues of the pharaohs because much larger than their female counterparts (and any other people depicted, except for deities).

      As for an experiment, I think perhaps you could look at today's matriarchal societies to get a taste: http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/05/where-women-rule-the-world-matriarchal-communities-from-albania-to-china-3525234/

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    6. Thanks for the link! Fascinating. I particularly liked "While women hunt, the men cook." and "Aka fathers offer their nipples as pacifiers to their babies when mum isn’t around." But banning stuff (in Iceland) is never the way to go.

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    7. I liked those passages as well. It would be fun to write a story set in a world drawn from those societies, don't you think?

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  4. You might try one day. It would have the benefit of currently popular feminist perspective, but would this guarantee popularity of the story? No one knows... randomness (to connect to our other conversation).

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    1. Only if it's a really good story, and word of mouth functions well which, as you state, could be successful or not due to randomness :)

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