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What does it mean when a book is released as YA fantasy in one country but adult fantasy in another? What IS epic fantasy, anyway? Should everyone read One Piece (YES)? Does it matter if most of the awesome parts of a book have to be found in hindsight and require qualification? Are revenge narratives over kingdoms even interesting anymore? Does Joe Abercrombie like pain and suffering to the exclusion of everything else*? Renay and Ana from The Book Smugglers tackle these questions and more using thousands and thousands of words.

* lies; we don't tackle this at all, because the answer is obviously yes.


the cover of Half a King with a group of tiny people walking across a snowy expanse of land.


"I swore an oath to be avenged on the killers of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath"

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began — in twists, and traps and tragedy… (source)





Spoilers.

Renay: So, that happened.

First off, I liked this book. It's pretty quality popcorn reading if you like your popcorn sprinkled in blood, misery, and woe dust and served to you on a platter with the pickled, fried, decapitated heads of your enemies. I don't necessarily read books to be challenged all the time, because I'm pretty lazy. But I also tend to notice when coincidences in a book begin to pile up like dead bodies and reek, too. Am I taking this too far? Probably.

You know the feeling when you like a book so you also sort of expect more from it when you close it? The best thing I can say about this book is: I would totally read fanfic of it, because I know fan writers could really dig into all the world building that wasn't done in text make it really shine, and take shallow secondary characters and really build out who they are (because in text some of them are extremely pasted on). If I don't give a crap when people die, and that's not...the right...reaction.... I want to write to Abercrombie and go, "okay, I need to you drop everything and go read One Piece immediately, because you will learn a lot about being able to develop deep character bonds in a short period of time, and this will help you write YA. Also, you're welcome for ruining your life, because One Piece."

You reviewed this book already and gave it a 6 on what I like to call the Book Smugglers Scale of Readability. That's legit the bottom edge of what I'll read from you all. If you give something a 5 or lower, it's largely no go for me, and a 6 is sometimes pushing it depending on the genre. I find that after a few weeks when I read a book sometimes my feelings about it change. Would your rating be different now?

Ana: That’s an interesting question! In truth, I hardly think back on how I rated a book and don’t often wish I had rated them differently so the answer here is no. It’s funny what you said about our 6-rated books because that’s exactly how I feel — a 6 from me translates as "I like this book however" and this "however" might encompass a myriad of different things. In the case of Half a King I think it was mostly the lack of actual character development and their emotional backgrounds in meaningful ways that held me back?

Like for example, you mention in the beginning that the book "sprinkled in blood, misery, and woe dust" but to me, even though those things are true about the story, none of it really stood out as really gory. This is a problem because I never felt that the horror, the terribleness of all this implied and overt violence came through via the characters’ impressions and reactions to them. So even though the violence and horribleness are there, they are never felt in a way that transcends the pages and reaches the reader. At least it didn’t do it for me.

Anecdote: I was just reading another YA (I say another because in the UK Half a King was published as YA) novel just yesterday. Main character’s mother dies in the first few pages and the way the author conveys the emotion of that loss was so intense, I had to put the book down and I doubt I will go back to it because I can’t deal. Meanwhile in Half a King the main character spends his whole life and the actual story dealing with so much loss and yet…nothing. What’s missing there?

Renay: The missing piece for me is "why do I give a crap about this kid?" His goal is to avenge his father and brother and reclaim his throne which he doesn't even want. In the meantime, he suffers lots, which I guess is the narrative doing the gymnastics of making me feel sorry for and empathizing with him. Which, sure! But I never did, whoops. I was just like, "damn son, you've got terrible luck."

It all felt massively perfunctory, I agree. I read to care about the characters, and when the book itself treats the characters like objects to be arranged to serve the plot, rather than people having a lived experience that creates the plot, something goes a bit sideways. The book's story is a circle, and it's sort of brilliant about it, but once we're back at the start the characters don't feel that much different, and so the emotional distance is stamped in hard. This type of story has a market just like anything else, since I'm sure plenty of people are like "screw your characterization and emotions, just give me adventures and battle and bloody revenge!" But that's not my jam at all.

Stories that do this can be entertaining, which this one absolutely was at the moment of reading it, but then I leave it behind feeling cold and sort of miffed that I legitimately couldn't connect with most of the characters — even Yarvi — because their inner lives were a complete mystery to me beyond a lot of vague nostalgia for the past before slavery became the main feature of their existence. Hence my feeling that I would totally dig fanwork of this. How much do you think I would have to pay Jared to get him to do a charity anthology where a bunch of authors write fanfic for this book? PERFECT IDEA.

Maybe some of my disconnect is that I'm not really...good...at epic fantasy, or epic fantasy light, because if people are going to legit try to call this epic fantasy, I'm afraid we're going to have a slight disagreement on terminology. (Somewhere, Aidan's eye began to twitch, and he doesn't yet know why.) I need revenge and quest narratives to be focused on what something the person truly wants, for themselves. Not because it's necessarily the right thing to do, not because that's the formula, but because they want something that will benefit them. The book didn't sell me on Yarvi's desire to reclaim the throne for anything other than obligation to an ideal of vengeance, for family that very obviously didn't treat him well at all. Even the revenge for the betrayal of kindness rings sort of hollow to me, but I suspect that's more because Odem is like a Cartoon Bad Guy.

I'm sorry that guy didn't have more monologues. That would been great.

Ana: That’s interesting because Yarvi’s desire for revenge is one of the things that actually did work for me in the story. Although I agree that this desire was not really fuelled by a desire for anything tangible (i.e. his throne, his home), but simply by the fact that he swore an oath. That there, the fact that it was the swearing that made him thirst for that revenge and kept him going, is probably the realest thing about this character. It’s the one thing connects him to his religion, to the path he had indeed chosen for himself to start with before everything changed. It also made the ending — his reaction to what happened and all the revelations — all the more authentic.

The problem is that everything surrounding that oath and his journey is so paint-by-numbers. I still think this is still technically epic fantasy because of the intended scope of the novel which spans time, journeys and changes to the characters and world building. "Intended" here is the key word: because the execution of those ideas is so under-developed and formulaic that it removes the epic from the epic fantasy....

I am curious though and since we are already down this rabbit hole — why would you not call it epic fantasy?

Renay: WE ALREADY DISAGREE. PISTOLS AT DAWN.

The oath thing just felt...overwrought. It became a cutesy line and thus, super silly. "I MAY BE HALF A MAN BUT I SWORE A WHOLE OATH." Yeah, yeah, okay, kid, that's great. You have a catchphrase! What's next, Yarvi trading cards? If the oath was what was connecting him to his past — religion, his chosen work, the life he could have had before the betrayal — then what was connecting him to it before the oath? This was not Malcolm Reynolds level declaration for me, there's no emotional core to the oath itself because Yarvi doesn't need the oath to still be connected to his religion/past. Odem's betrayal was always couched in terms of the betrayal itself, and only rarely did it draw back to having Yarvi react with any emotion beyond REVENGE REVENGE REVENGE.

Thus, it becomes an empty way to push him along a very obvious plot path, collecting pokemons teammates who'll help him fulfil his vengeance dreams. The cleverest thing about that was the subversion of some of the teammates, even though as soon as Yarvi threw Nothing a piece of bread I was like "well, damn, I know who THAT is." That's how obvious this plot was for me, and I don't think it was obvious in a good way. If I want to read something paint by numbers, I can read a coffeeshop AU for free.

Maybe that's the problem. I get no sense of who Yarvi was before his oath, so him taking the oath on such a premise means very little to me especially when it's that oath driving him in place of other emotions. He's a paper doll, not a person.

And you said it yourself with regards to intention. If this was intended as an epic fantasy, then I have the expectation that the different parts of world will come into sharper focus as Yarvi travels around the world. This didn't happen. We're told about other places, we're told the scope of the world is large, we're given a casual introduction to two or three different cultures that could be interchangeable in the story itself, and we're told there are bigger political implications beyond Yarvi's perspective. We're told a whole bunch of stuff, but the world of the book is actually very, very small: a ship, the length of Yarvi's chains, and then later a bubble of humanity trawling through the wilderness, which is largely a tour of sameness. Therefore: epic fantasy light. Fat free epic fantasy. I Can't Believe It's Not Epic Fantasy.

Ana: This is probably where I tell you that I did NOT see the twist about Nothing coming? It wasn’t very obvious to me at all, to be honest. That said, it was a nice surprise as I read the book but one that made me go "wait a minute, what a fucking coincidence!" after the fact, when thinking back.

And we are definitely in agreement that it wasn’t particularly well executed epic fantasy but to me it’s still epic fantasy. I wonder how much of what is missing — how much of the background exploration, depth of world building — was curtailed due to a perceived notion of what Young Adult epic fantasy should be? I have not read any of the author’s books before so I can’t compare with his usual fare, but I do wonder. On a side note that has nothing to do with the actual book or the author at all: I hate that a few of the more negative reviews on GoodReads associate the problems they see in the book with the fact that it’s YA — I die a bit inside every time I read one of these reviews.

With that said, maybe we could talk about what we did like for a bit? Because we both did like the book to some extent, right?

I like coming-of-age stories and this is a good qualifier for what Yarvi goes through. Despite the utterly familiar genre trappings and regardless of the superficialness of character development, the book was actually fun to read? I like revenge stories and underdogs in my fiction too so it was easy to fall back and root for these people as they go through their journey.

What about you?

Renay: I don't normally do genre distinction like that in YA; only in adult SF. The classification conversation only seems relevant in adult circles because everyone's clawing for space on shelves, in brains, or wherever. YA just gets to be YA for me, with one handy genre label. Generally that's "fantasy" or "science fiction" or "paranormal" or "romance", etc. without the extra frills. Would we having this conversation about hierarchical genre if it had been published as YA in the US, too? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say no. ;)

(Stop reading those reviews, Ana. There's no gain there, only tears of rage and frustration! JUST SAY NO.)

We did like things, it's true! As a coming of age story it's pretty good, but of course I ended up liking all of the side characters better (for various qualities of better — they were still walking piñatas). I have a thing for found families, so there was no way I wasn't going to get attached to the idea of Yarvi's group as a unit (even though the book faked me out, MAYBE THE SEQUEL WILL FIX IT? Will you read the sequel and tell me?).

One thing I really did dig about the political plot underneath Yarvi's journey was that so many of the machinations used women and the story hinged on the power and influence the woman had across the nations we see in Yarvi's travels. I could nitpick about how it would've been nice to see more of that influence, because world building, but once the reveal goes down it's nice to look back and realize that the world is actually full of women who were meant to be complicated and that they and what they do matters to how the characters live their lives and survive (or not).

Ana: Yes. Except….like you said, it’s only when you look back with the information disclosed in the ending that you can try to parse and see everything under a different light. On the one hand yes, that’s cool and I like this underlying, almost subversive way of introducing the power dynamics. But on the other hand, I don’t know, I wish things had been more obvious and in-your-face? This is probably me being really frustrated at how we are so used to seeing women — specially in epic fantasy — having no power at all or being nothing but wallflower decoration or used as motivators for the main male characters.

One of the things I noted in my original review was how I like certain facets of the world building very much in regards to the female characters, especially how we have a "role reversal" in terms of traditional gender expectations — in this world there is a goddess of war and a god of peace. There is very little that is affected by this choice. I was hoping to see more female warriors and soldiers, for example, because it would so fit the mold, but nope.

I will read the sequel, though, because I am curious.

Renay: This is a pretty breakneck novel, and I suspect given the size of the story and frothy, barely-there world building and the speed at which it happens contributes to us not seeing more of the influence of women, even though they're in leadership roles (I'm thinking of the various governments/groups we see, also the ship captain, the woman in the North, etc.). And yet the Smurfette Principle button was smacked as hard as possible re: Yarvi's Misfit MalContents. Dear writers, if your main band of travelers only has one of anything re: gender/race and there's no excellent plot reason for it, maybe give that formation the stink eye. On the plus side, I guess she wasn't motivation as such, so +5 subversion!

How did you feel about how this book framed disability? It's a fairly ableist world, and Yarvi's definitely internalized a lot of those feelings. The book is named after it! The oath he takes is defined by his nature as someone "lacking" something he must bypass to seek revenge! He'll overcome all his hardship; his physical limitations become a mountain he must climb in order to operate as "normal". When he manages to interact in the world despite his disability (which is how the book frames it), it's portrayed as something positive which often squicked me out. The story doesn't seem to interrogate or critique the fact that the culture views people with physical differences as a marginalized group. I probably don't have enough tools to unpack everything that this novel is doing in regards to that, but I noted it the entire time I was reading because it was a lot like being smacked in the face with a slimy fish.

Ana: I am glad you brought that up! It’s something I have been thinking about since finishing the book. To be honest, it didn’t bother me when reading Half a King — that part of the story struck me as mostly positive because of Yarvi’s arc of coming to terms with his disability in a good way by making it clear that the ableist views of that world were a negative aspect of the world. But I did not interrogate this aspect of the world building and didn’t go much further than that with my reading or my original review.

With that said, after reading the book, I had a conversation with Janine of Dear Author that made me challenge my reading - and how I was approaching it from an ableist point of view. Her review raises really good points and is well worth a read.

Renay: Yes, that's an excellent overview of the problems I had with this part of the story. It was really frustrating to watch him continue to internalize the abuse he received even as it becomes clear through his actions he's actually not half anything, but is a whole person who deserves to be treated like one. He never comes to terms with it as far as I can tell. He's still carrying around all the internalized self-hate and judgment at the end, even if he has moved into a position of power. There's probably many different ways to turn this to analyze it. After all, our reality suffers from some of the same problems, depending on where your body resides on the scale of what culture deems "normal".

My main issues with this book: it packs a lot of complicated social issues in too small of space and storyline and drops them in without consideration beyond how they can further a basic revenge narrative. They're subsumed under the speed and rush of the story. Instead of becoming something that could critique the narrative and make it and our understanding of the world and characters deeper, they only succeed in becoming predictable stereotypes that uphold the status quo. And that's okay! Some people like the status quo, and the status quo sells, buy it if you love it and more power to you. But if the US adult SF market is going to scurry up this dude's mountain and yell about how awesome a book is until they die at the top from lack of air, I expect more than a Fantasy 101 outing, even if it was published as YA elsewhere.

animated gif of a young man sighing


Ana: Yep. It’s still a 6 from me.

image of two characters on a sofa toasting with glasses and drinking the alcohol in unison


Thank you again for having me over! It was fun. Next time, let’s see if we can do this in less than two months.

Renay: If anyone asks why it took so long, just tell them had a lot of emotions. IT’S NOT EVEN A LIE.

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers, Liz Bourke, Fantasy Café, Dear Author, Not Yet Read, Good Books & Good Wine, Fantasy Review Barn, yours?

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