I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, and was struck once again by his ability to evoke the medieval mindset. Though the book is set in a fantasy world – one with hints at a possible post-apocalyptic background – it’s a fantasy world that feels brutally different from our own, in large part because of the way it draws upon the thinking of an earlier European era.
This isn’t the medieval thinking of chivalric romance or the increasingly formal hierarchies of the later Middle Ages. It’s the brutal outlook of the early Middle Ages, the time often referred to as the Dark Ages. This was a time of Viking raiders, tribal warbands and the emergence, through violence and failures, of the kingdoms and principalities that would dominate the following centuries. It’s the time when feudalism really was about feuding.
The different outlook of the era comes through in various ways. There’s the pragmatic acceptance of deaths and slavery as elements of daily life. The way that violence is used in political disputes. A morality built around strength and obligation, not kindness and consideration. Actions that would be considered evil in many fantasy settings are just the way things are done here.
It’s an uncomfortable yet intriguing world to enter, one that could have been built for the ageing barbarians of Abercrombie’s earlier books. And if you’re looking for some gritty low fantasy adventure, or to explore a different outlook on the world, then it’s well worth a read.