Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

What is YA fiction?

I ask because Half a King is Joe Abercrombie’s first foray into YA fiction (and the first book in the Shattered Sea series). Fans, or at least those familiar with Abercrombie’s fiction, may have a reaction along the lines of ‘what!?, ‘Really?!’, ‘No Fucking Way!’

Abercrombie has a bit of a reputation in the SFF world. His fiction is … messy. It certainly falls into the relatively newly coined term grimdark (which, for the record, I dislike as a sub-genre describer but I’m afraid it’s here to stay). Some would throw about the term ‘realistic’ to describe what Abercrombie does with fantasy, regardless of how silly the term realistic can be when describing fiction, and fantasy in particular, but I digress. What Abercrombie does do is explore the fantasy genre by destroying some of its core concepts – The First Law Trilogy turns epic fantasy on its head, stretches it out on the rack and slowly eviscerates it. Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country all similarly subvert the revenge, war/hero, and western narratives, respectively. And they are messy. The single unifying concept (beyond grunting dialog) is that nothing is romanticized.  War is hell, killing is necessary, and blood gets everywhere. People are flawed, scarred, and any ideals they hold to are crushed in creative forms of torture. Redemption is not something that is oft found in the Abercrombie tale.

So, I come back to my opening question, what is YA? Does YA feature a simple narrative, clean reality full of romanticized characters and beautiful ideals? Are triumph, redemption and similar ‘good’ outcomes needed? If you tend to jump to a ‘yes’ answer for any of the above questions, I’d suggest that you haven’t read much YA fiction, or at least much good YA fiction.

So, I ask, is it really a surprise that Joe Abercrombie, LordGrimdark himself, is writing YA fiction?

Just what does YA Abercrombie-style look like? Is there a boy? Yes. Is there a girl? A couple actually. Is there a classic mentor figure? Yes, maybe more than one depending on how one looks at it. Is there a struggle and ‘heroes’ journey to become oneself and achieve their goals? Yes. Do the good guys win? … Does the boy get the girl? … Is there a cute and tidy moralistic message to be learned? Umm… Abercrombie wrote this, OK? Is there a death that is important to the protagonists development? See previous answer. Is mommy proud of her crippled son? … Just what is being subverted here? …

Half a King is a wonderful example of good YA fiction – note, that it’s not ‘children’s fiction’ as some people tend to falsely equate with YA. In many ways, this book is just as dark (err…grimdark?) anything else that Abercrombie has written. Blood is splattered all over the place. Betrayal occurs…repeat. The person that our ‘hero’ grows into … well, I’ll let you decide.

To answer the question I began with, YA fiction (at least as I choose to define it) simply features a protagonist who falls into the YA age category. It may be shorter than other novels and a bit easier to read (both are true in the case of Half a King), though those aren’t necessary. It’s a book that is probably marketed to the YA audience, which may be the only real definition for YA that matters. But who looks back on their ‘YA’ years and thinks those were the best times of my life? Teenagers are brutal. They are impulsive, short-sighted, vain and cruel. Sure, there are more than a few positive attributes as well, but don’t forget that the ‘YA years’ are not the easy sailing, Disney years that so many wish them to be. Abercrombie (and grimdark) fit right in … or maybe not, because who actually fits in during those years?

So, yes, Half a King is awesome. It is YA and it will equally appeal to those beyond their YA years. This is probably Abercrombie’s best book to-date (I waffle because I’ve not yet read Red Country), and shows that he’s writing with a golden finger (of death).

And nothing is better than naming a character Nothing. Nothing.

Abercrombie wrote Half a King, and this is a whole review that talked for a bit about Nothing.*

The First Law Trilogy (my review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*This line doesn’t really make much sense in the context of this review, but after reading the book I had to write it. Once you read the book you will understand. Or not … my sense of humor is odd.


Paul Weimer said...

I've been curious as to whether to point my nephew at this or not.

I think this tilts it toward "Yes".


John Zeleznik said...

Thank you for the respect to YA books. People don't seem to take them as seriously as they should some times and dismiss them as trifles.

Mulluane said...

I've always pondered the YA question myself. Most of what I read, well the older stuff anyway, I would not hesitate to give to a teen or sometimes even a tween.

I eventually stopped recommending age appropriateness because said books are not industry standard "targeted" YA.

However, when I was a teen I didn't shy away from any book. If anything I avoided "YA" because -- being a normal teen -- I wanted people to believe I was mature. Being seen reading a YA book would have made me a target of bullying.

Today, reading YA books is "cooler" than in my day but that just makes YA even more of a marketing ploy instead of the content recommendation it should be.

IMO that is why so many of my favorite authors are jumping on the YA bandwagon. That is where the money is atm.

But this is just my opinion...


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