"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and a...more"You'll find out you're a clown in a trivial circus where everyone tries to convince each other how vital it is to have a certain look one year and another the next. And then you'll find out that fame and the big wide world are outside of you, and that inside there's nothing, and always will be, no matter what you do."
I have been saving this book for years. It's one of those books that had enough glowing reviews and literary accolades to make me almost certain I would like it. Not only that, but it is about the subject of existential nihilism - which, frankly, fascinates me and has for a long time. I'm rather inclined to believe the world is meaningless; or at the very least has a certain abstract meaning that is defined by individual perspective and experience. So, really, Nothing had me at the premise. But it just didn't deliver for me.
I can see some of the attraction - it's a complex book that once again proves YA doesn't have to be shallow or lacking in "literary value". It demands that you step outside of your normal mode of thinking and ask yourself questions: is everything pointless? Can meaning be found anywhere? If nothing matters, is it better to just do nothing?
It all starts when Pierre Anthon stands up in the classroom one day and declares "Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that." He then parks himself up in a plum tree outside the school, refuses to come down, and spouts constant odes to the meaninglessness of life, the universe and everything. His classmates grow increasingly uncomfortable with what Pierre says, so they decide to gather a "heap of meaning" - a pile of what is most precious to them, in order to prove that certain things do have value.
As they are required to give up more and more of what is important to them, soon they start to turn on one another and the sacrifices become ever more extreme. It is this part of the book that I personally found most effective: the gradual disappearance of morality and the way the children turn to violence. Despite the simplistic sentence structure (a possible side effect of the translation), this is a very mature piece of YA that contains many disturbing scenes.
What I didn't like began with the short, choppy sentences and continued to grow worse with the complete lack of realism in the story. Nothing feels more like a philosophical essay than a novel. I never developed a connection with any of the characters, nor any sympathy for them - not even the narrator. And there was no way I could believe that these young teens were allowed to run about digging up graves and stealing from science labs over the space of several months without some adult questioning what the hell was going on.
I understand that this novel is primarily intended to provoke philosophical thinking, but I believe it would have been far more effective if we were allowed to warm to someone in the novel and develop an emotional connection with them - something I personally feel was lacking. And there was another thing I didn't like. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but certain characters equated female virginity and innocence with the self. As in: if you lose your virginity, you also lose yourself, which is ridiculous.
And maybe we should call it irony or something, but this whole book felt a little pointless. In the end, it seems I took nothing from it. At first I actually wondered if that was the whole point - serves you right, Emily, for spending a couple of quid on Nothing! Ha-Ha, you fool. It would've been quite cool - if somewhat infuriating - if the book had delivered its promise and carried no message because there is no message because everything is meaningless... but no, I think there was something we were supposed to get here that was obviously lost on me.
Once, after his father had hit him in a rage, Yarvi's mother had found him crying. The fool strikes, she had said. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.
Half a King is the kind of book that creeps up on you gradually, painting a picture of kingdoms and slavery and backstabbing until you think this is basically another fantasy set in the comfort zone of the genre, and then it hits you hard when you least expect it. I kid you not, there were three huge "twists" in this book and I remained completely oblivious to all of them until they were upon me. It is the first twist (a few chapters in) that sucks you into this story... and I found myself unable to stop reading from then on.
I'm really picky when it comes to traditional fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy or fairytale retellings) because I find it falls into one of two extremes - either it is too lengthy, dense and wordy for my tastes, or it is "fantasy-lite" masquerading as real fantasy whilst really being all about that boy with the tortured soul. This is neither of those. It is a gritty and fast-paced tale of survival, betrayal and friendship. I started reading this in my back garden under the hot afternoon sun and I was so addicted to Yarvi's story that I was still there when the sun began to set.
The story opens when Yarvi - the king's youngest son and the not-so-proud owner of a crippled hand - finds out his father and brother have been killed and he must take his rightful place on the throne. Everyone is skeptical as to whether a crippled "half-king" can really rule over the people of Gettland, even Yarvi himself. I won't give away spoilers, but Yarvi's life takes a rapid turn downhill from there and plunges him into one threatening situation after another. Circumstances see him being forced miles away from his home, barely able to defend himself with his crippled hand.
It's a real underdog kind of story and Yarvi is a complex character that simultaneously evokes sympathy and is allowed to make mistakes, do horrible things and screw people over to survive. He is one of those flawed but likable characters whose actions, even at his worst, feel understandable and realistic. He constantly faces threats from all sides, whilst also battling with nature's demons out in the wilderness. And I swear I could feel the icy cold coming through even in the middle of July - Abercrombie works setting and atmosphere together very well.
Despite my love for Yarvi, this book wouldn't have been the same without the varied and interesting cast of secondary characters. They all provide something important to the novel, whether it be the underlying theme of friendship and finding a place as an outcast that features heavily throughout the story, or some much-needed moments of comic relief. The character Nothing especially made me laugh:
Nothing smiled. Yarvi was starting to get nervous when Nothing smiled. "And they will come ashore, tired and wet and foolish, just as we have, and we will fall upon them." "Fall upon them?" said Yarvi. "We six?" asked Ankran. "Against their twenty?" muttered Jaud. "With a one-handed boy, a woman and a storekeeper among us?" said Rulf. "Exactly!" Nothing smiled wider. "You think just as I do!"
He saw Nothing hop a few steps from the bank and raise his sword high, point downwards. "Are you mad?" Yarvi screeched, before he realized. Of course he was.
And even though women are not often sword-wielding warriors in this world, Abercrombie's female characters were fantastic, in my opinion. They were strong but flawed, deeply complex and varied. Those considered "good" had faults and those considered villains had multiple layers to them. Though this could really be said for all characters. There are no mindless villains in this book and it makes the story all the more compelling, because the author doesn't make it easy for us to group people into "goodies" and "baddies". As Rulf says:
"If life has taught me one thing, it's that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best."
Plus - the ending was PERFECT. I wasn't sure how the author would tie it all together and still leave us with something that would make me need to get my hands on the sequel - but he did. The novel's climax is an incredible show of drama and excitement, followed by a couple of gentle, quiet - but no less effective - chapters, in which Abercrombie surprised me once again. I now need to go find everything else he has written and, if you haven't already, you need to read this book.