Having found Abercrombie's books a bit too grim for my taste in the past, I ventured into his young adult series with a bit of trepidation. I read the first book fairly quickly, and I'd have to say that while the subject matter is a little less drearily difficult, the overall tone isn't a whole lot perkier. It's not bad, and the story of Yarvi, the one-handed son thrust onto the throne when his father and father's heir die unexpectedly moves along well.
In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as the bare bones outline of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. And there, my friends, we have an object lesson in Roger Ebert's maxim that it's not what something is about, but how it is about it. In both stories we have a protagonist who is an unlikely heir, disqualified by many for reasons beyond their control, thrust into the spotlight on the unexpected death of a father and heir(s). Both must battle treason and distrust, negotiate arranged marriages, discover commonalities with the lower classes, and find people whom they can trust.
With those very broad outlines in place, these are vastly different books. The Goblin Emperor is more optimistic, turning away from a world where no one can trust anyone because virtually everyone has a knife aimed at your back unless you've been through ordeals with them. There is a lot of politicking, but the main character finds allies as well as enemies at court, and although his marriage is arranged, it's not necessarily a bad thing.
In contrast, virtually the only person at court Yarvi can trust is his mother, and such is the feel of the book that I spent a good portion of it expecting to find her in on the whole plot as well. No one thinks he can be kind, apparently, even those who know him best, and people will not stop trying to kill him, even at the cost of their own lives.
It's all hellbent for depressing leather, with a prolonged bout of slavery thrown in. It is as a slave oarsman that he finds others he can trust, those in chains beside him, and there are moments where trust is forged even when it seems unlikely, so points to Abercrombie for deciding that not every moment of possible betrayal needs to be explored. It's more than I expected, honestly.
There are a couple of female parts in this book, but they're not extensive - there's Yarvi's mother, his mentor in the kingdom's bureaucracy, his bride-to-be, and the tough as nails navigator on the slave ship who mostly serves to be a repository for his hopes for a relationship, only to be, I think, dashed. Mostly they're there to support or oppose his potential kingship.
I am likely being too hard on this book - it's really not bad, and accidentally coming across something about the series as a whole online has made me interested to see how that aspect is developed in the later books. I'm just tired of, although less so than in Abercrombie's adult books, unrelenting misery and drabness. That is no more accurate a depiction of the world than is painting it as all rainbows and unicorns, and the claim to "realism" is vastly overmade by those involved in the so-called grimdark camp.
But truly, this is a shade lighter, even if we're still mostly talking about shades of grey. I'm just not ready to give up on this series yet.