(This is a spoiler-free review of an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King” is a mutant love child of Hamlet and Oliver Twist. It’s what you’d get if Joss Whedon decided to write a fantasy novel. It’s delicious.

The protagonist, Yarvi, is the ugly duckling of his royal family: born with a deformed hand, his only path in life is to become a minister and advise his older brother, who is obviously going to become the king. At least that was the plan, until both Yarvi’s brother and his father were killed in battle. What happens when a painfully shy teenager with serious self-esteem issues and no leadership skills becomes a king? Nothing good, that’s what.

Yarvi’s misadventures make for a highly addictive rollercoaster narrative as he goes from one worst-case scenario to another, getting an occasional bit of good luck that never lasts long enough. Abercrombie skillfully shows the protagonist’s growth and development as he’s forced to make hard choices and determine who his true friends are, and what he would (or wouldn’t) do for them. The story goes to some mighty dark places, but always stops just short of hopeless despair, keeping the reader engaged, enthralled and entertained.

By far my favorite thing about the book was an overabundance of medieval-style aphorisms. (Think Benjamin Franklin in the 1100s.) Inconspicuously scattered throughout the book, they help make the barbaric “might is right” atmosphere that much more believable. There are several interesting plot twists that can easily be missed and that provide “a-ha!” moments toward the end. The most attentive readers might be able to notice a couple of clues and put together a very unusual science fiction Easter egg that has no bearing on the plot but makes me wish for a sequel that would shed some light on the mystery.

The only gripe I have with “Half a King” is its use of the Rambo trope: warriors that spent several years in chains turn into mean, lean killing machines the moment they break free. Then again, I suppose it was either that or several dozen pages of medieval swordplay montage and physical therapy (also featuring swordplay because, you know, fantasy and stuff). Aside from that minor blight, “Half a King” was probably one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Score: 5 stars

Release date: July 15, 2014

Amazon pre-order link