Half a King


"Joe Abercrombie does it again. Half a King is another page-turner from Britain’s hottest young fantasist, a fast-paced tale of betrayal and revenge that grabbed me from page one and refused to let go."

George RR Martin, author of A Game of Thrones

"Joe Abercrombie does it again. Half a King is another page-turner from Britain’s hottest young fantasist, a fast-paced tale of betrayal and revenge that grabbed me from page one and refused to let go."

George RR Martin, author of A Game of Thrones

Book One of The Shattered Sea

“I swore an oath to avenge the death 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. 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 finds his path may end as it began—in twists, and traps, and tragedy.

Buy the Book

On Paper, E-Book, or Audiobook read by Ben Elliot


  • Issuu Reader
  • Downloadable Files
  • Full Text


    There was a harsh gale blowing on the night Yarvi learned he was a king. Or half a king, at least.

    A seeking wind, the Gettlanders called it, for it found out every chink and keyhole, moaning Mother Sea’s dead chill into every dwelling, no matter how high the fires were banked or how close the folk were huddled.

    It tore at the shutters in the narrow windows of Mother Gundring’s chambers and rattled even the iron-bound door in its frame. It taunted the flames in the firepit and they spat and crackled in their anger, casting clawing shadows from the dried herbs hanging, throwing flickering light upon the root that Mother Gundring held up in her knobbled fingers.

    ‘And this?’

    It looked like nothing so much as a clod of dirt, but Yarvi had learned better. ‘Black-tongue root.’

    ‘And why might a minister reach for it, my prince?’

    ‘A minister hopes they won’t have to. Boiled in water it can’t be seen or tasted, but is a most deadly poison.’

    Mother Gundring tossed the root aside. ‘Ministers must sometimes reach for dark things.’

    ‘Ministers must find the lesser evil,’ said Yarvi.

    ‘And weigh the greater good. Five right from five.’ Mother Gundring gave a single approving nod and Yarvi flushed with pride. The approval of Gettland’s minister was not easily won. ‘And the riddles on the test will be easier.’

    ‘The test.’ Yarvi rubbed nervously at the crooked palm of his bad hand with the thumb of his good.

    ‘You will pass.’

    ‘You can’t be sure.’

    ‘It is a minister’s place always to doubt—’

    ‘But always to seem certain,’ he finished for her.

    ‘See? I know you.’ That was true. No one knew him better, even in his own family. Especially in his own family. ‘I have never had a sharper pupil. You will pass at the first asking.’

    ‘And I’ll be Prince Yarvi no more.’ All he felt at that thought was relief. ‘I’ll have no family and no birthright.’

    ‘You will be Brother Yarvi, and your family will be the Ministry.’ The firelight found the creases about Mother Gundring’s eyes as she smiled. ‘Your birthright will be the plants and the books and the soft word spoken. You will remember and advise, heal and speak truth, know the secret ways and smooth the path for Father Peace in every tongue. As I have tried to do. There is no nobler work, whatever nonsense the muscle-smothered fools spout in the training square.’

    ‘The muscle-smothered fools are harder to ignore when you’re in the square with them.’

    ‘Huh.’ She curled her tongue and spat into the fire. ‘Once you pass the test you only need go there to tend a broken head when the play gets too rough. One day you will carry my staff.’ She nodded towards the tapering length of studded and slotted elf-metal which leaned against the wall. ‘One day you will sit beside the Black Chair, and be Father Yarvi.’

    ‘Father Yarvi.’ He squirmed on his stool at that thought. ‘I lack the wisdom.’ He meant he lacked the courage, but lacked the courage to admit it.

    ‘Wisdom can be learned, my prince.’

    He held his left hand, such as it was, up to the light. ‘And hands? Can you teach those?’

    ‘You may lack a hand, but the gods have given you rarer gifts.’

    He snorted. ‘My fine singing voice, you mean?’

    ‘Why not? And a quick mind, and empathy, and strength. Only the kind of strength that makes a great minister, rather than a great king. You have been touched by Father Peace, Yarvi. Always remember: strong men are many, wise men are few.’

    ‘No doubt why women make better ministers.’

    ‘And better tea, in general.’ Gundring slurped from the cup he brought her every evening, and nodded approval again. ‘But the making of tea is another of your mighty talents.’

    ‘Hero’s work indeed. Will you give me less flattery when I’ve turned from prince into minister?’

    ‘You will get such flattery as you deserve, and my foot in your arse the rest of the time.’

    Yarvi sighed. ‘Some things never change.’

    ‘Now to history.’ Mother Gundring slid one of the books from its shelf, stones set into the gilded spine winking red and green.

    ‘Now? I have to be up with Mother Sun to feed your doves. I was hoping to get some sleep before—’

    ‘I’ll let you sleep when you’ve passed the test.’

    ‘No you won’t.’

    ‘You’re right, I won’t.’ She licked one finger, ancient paper crackling as she turned the pages. ‘Tell me, my prince, into how many splinters did the elves break God?’

    ‘Four hundred and nine. The four hundred Small Gods, the six Tall Gods, the first man and woman, and Death, who guards the Last Door. But isn’t this more the business of a prayer-weaver than a minister?’

    Mother Gundring clicked her tongue. ‘All knowledge is the business of the minister, for only what is known can be controlled. Name the six Tall Gods.’

    ‘Mother Sea and Father Earth, Mother Sun and Father Moon, Mother War and—’

    The door banged wide and that seeking wind tore through the chamber. The flames in the firepit jumped as Yarvi did, dancing distorted in the hundred hundred jars and bottles on the shelves. A figure blundered up the steps, setting the bunches of plants swinging like hanged men behind him.

    It was Yarvi’s Uncle Odem, hair plastered to his pale face with the rain and his chest heaving. He stared at Yarvi, eyes wide, and opened his mouth but made no sound. One needed no gift of empathy to see he was weighed down by heavy news.

    ‘What is it?’ croaked Yarvi, his throat tight with fear.

    His uncle dropped to his knees, hands on the greasy straw. He bowed his head, and spoke two words, low and raw.

    ‘My king.’

    And Yarvi knew his father and brother were dead.

    2. DUTY

    They hardly looked dead.

    Only very white, laid out on those chill slabs in that chill room with shrouds drawn up to their armpits and naked swords gleaming on their chests. Yarvi kept expecting his brother’s mouth to twitch in sleep. His father’s eyes to open, to meet his with that familiar scorn. But they did not. They never would again.

    Death had opened the Last Door for them, and from that portal none return.

    ‘How did it happen?’ Yarvi heard his mother saying from the doorway. Her voice was steady as ever.

    ‘Treachery, my queen,’ murmured his Uncle Odem.

    ‘I am queen no more.’

    ‘Of course … . I am sorry, Laithlin.’

    Yarvi reached out and gently touched his father’s shoulder. So cold. He wondered when he last touched his father. Had he ever? He remembered well enough the last time they had spoken any words that mattered. Months before.

    A man swings the scythe and the axe, his father had said. A man pulls the oar and makes fast the knot. Most of all a man holds the shield. A man holds the line. A man stands by his shoulder-man. What kind of man can do none of these things?

    I didn’t ask for half a hand, Yarvi had said, trapped where he so often found himself, on the barren ground between shame and fury.

    I didn’t ask for half a son.

    And now King Uthrik was dead, and his King’s Circle, hastily resized, was a weight on Yarvi’s brow. A weight far heavier than that thin band of gold deserved to be.

    ‘I asked you how they died,’ his mother was saying.

    ‘They went to speak peace with Grom-gil-Gorm.’

    ‘There can be no peace with the damn Vanstermen,’ came the deep voice of Hurik, his mother’s Chosen Shield.

    ‘There must be vengeance,’ said Yarvi’s mother.

    His uncle tried to calm the storm. ‘Surely time to grieve, first. The High King has forbidden open war until—’

    ‘Vengeance!’ Her voice was sharp as broken glass. ‘Quick as lightning, hot as fire.’

    Yarvi’s eyes crawled to his brother’s corpse. There was quick and hot, or had been. Strong-jawed, thick-necked, already the makings of a dark beard like their father’s. As unlike Yarvi as it was possible to be. His brother had loved him, he supposed. A bruising love where every pat was just this side of a slap. The love one has for something always beneath you.

    ‘Vengeance,’ growled Hurik. ‘The Vanstermen must be made to pay.’

    ‘Damn the Vanstermen,’ said Yarvi’s mother. ‘Our own people must be made to serve. They must be shown their new king has iron in him. Once they are happy on their knees you can make Mother Sea rise with your tears.’

    Yarvi’s uncle gave a heavy sigh. ‘Vengeance, then. But is he ready, Laithlin? He has never been a fighter—’

    ‘He must fight, ready or not!’ snapped his mother. People had always talked around Yarvi as though he was deaf as well as crippled. It seemed his sudden rise to power had not cured them of the habit. ‘Make preparations for a great raid.’

    ‘Where shall we attack?’ asked Hurik.

    ‘All that matters is that we attack. Leave us.’

    Yarvi heard the door closing and his mother’s footsteps, soft across the cold floor.

    ‘Stop crying,’ she said. It was only then that Yarvi realized his eyes were swimming, and he wiped them, and sniffed, and was ashamed. Always he was ashamed

    She gripped him by the shoulders. ‘Stand tall, Yarvi.’

    ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, trying to puff out his chest the way his brother might have. Always he was sorry.

    ‘You are a king, now.’ She twisted his crooked cloak-buckle into place, tried to tame his pale blonde hair, close-clipped but always wild, and finally laid cool fingertips against his cheek. ‘You must never be sorry. You must wear your father’s sword, and lead a raid against the Vanstermen.’

    Yarvi swallowed. The idea of going on a raid had always filled him with dread. To lead one?

    Odem must have seen his horror. ‘I will be your shoulder-man, my king, always beside you, my shield at the ready. However I can help you, I will.’

    ‘My thanks,’ mumbled Yarvi. All the help he wanted was to be sent to Skekenhouse to take the Minister’s Test, to sit in the shadows rather than be thrust into the light. But that hope was dust now. Like badly-mixed mortar, his hopes were prone to crumble.

    ‘You must make Grom-gil-Gorm suffer for this,’ said his mother. ‘Then you must marry your cousin.’

    He could only stare into her iron-grey eyes. Stare a little upward as she was still taller than he. ‘What?’

    The soft touch became an irresistible grip about his jaw. ‘Listen to me, Yarvi, and listen well. You are the king. This may not be what either of us wanted, but this is what we have. You hold all our hopes now, and you hold them at the brink of a precipice. You are not respected. You have few allies. You must bind our family together by marrying Odem’s daughter Isriun, just as your brother was to do. We have spoken of it. It is agreed.’

    Uncle Odem was quick to balance ice with warmth. ‘Nothing would please me more than to stand as your marriage-father, my king, and see our families forever joined.’

    Isriun’s feelings were not mentioned, Yarvi noticed. No more than his. ‘But… ‘

    His mother’s brow hardened. Her eyes narrowed. He had seen heroes tremble beneath that look, and Yarvi was no hero. ‘I was betrothed to your Uncle Uthil, whose sword-work the warriors still whisper of. Your Uncle Uthil, who should have been king.’ Her voice cracked as though the words were painful. ‘When Mother Sea swallowed him and they raised his empty howe above the shore, I married your father in his place. I put aside my feelings and did my duty. So must you.’

    Yarvi’s eyes slid back to his brother’s handsome corpse, wondering that she could plan so calmly with her dead husband and son laid out within arm’s reach. ‘You don’t weep for them?’

    A sudden spasm gripped his mother’s face, all her carefully arranged beauty splitting, lips curling from her teeth and her eyes screwing up and the cords in her neck standing stark. For a terrible moment Yarvi did not know if she would beat him or break down in wailing sobs and could not say which scared him more. Then she took a ragged breath, pushed one loose strand of golden hair into its proper place, and was herself again.

    ‘One of us at least must be a man.’ And with that kingly gift she turned and swept from the room.

    Yarvi clenched his fists. Or he clenched one, and squeezed the other thumb against the twisted stub of his one finger.

    ‘Thanks for the encouragement, Mother.’

    Always he was angry. As soon as it was too late to do him any good.

    He heard his uncle step close, speaking with the soft voice one might use on a skittish foal. ‘You know your mother loves you.’

    ‘Do I?’

    ‘She has to be strong. For you. For the land. For your father.’

    Yarvi looked from his father’s body to his uncle’s face. So like, yet so unlike. ‘Thank the gods you’re here,’ he said, the words rough in his throat. At least there was one member of his family who cared for him.

    ‘I am sorry, Yarvi. I truly am.’ Odem put his hand on Yarvi’s shoulder, a glimmer of tears in his eyes. ‘But Laithlin is right. We must do what is best for Gettland. We must put our feelings aside.’

    Yarvi heaved up a sigh. ‘I know.’

    His feelings had been put aside ever since he could remember.

    3. A WAY TO WIN

    ‘Keimdal, you will spar with the king.’

    Yarvi had to smother a fool’s giggle when he heard the master-at-arms apply the word to him. Probably the four score young warriors gathered opposite were all stifling their own laughter. Certainly they would be once they saw their new king fight. No doubt, by then, laughter would be the last thing on Yarvi’s mind.

    They were his subjects now, of course. His servants. His men, all sworn to die upon his whim. Yet they felt even more a row of scornful enemies than when he had faced them as a boy.

    He still felt like a boy. More like a boy than ever.

    ‘It will be my honour.’ Keimdal did not look especially honoured as he stepped from his fellows and out into the training square, moving as easily in a coat of mail as a maiden in her shift. He took up a shield and wooden practice sword and made the air whistle with some fearsome swipes. He might have been less than a year older than Yarvi but he looked five: half a head taller, far thicker in the chest and shoulder and already boasting red stubble on his heavy jaw.

    ‘Are you ready, my king?’ muttered Odem in Yarvi’s ear.

    ‘Clearly not,’ hissed Yarvi, but there was no escape. The King of Gettland must be a doting son to Mother War, however ill-suited he might be. He had to prove to the older warriors ranged around the square that he could be more than a one-handed embarrassment. He had to find a way to win. There is always a way, his mother used to tell him.

    But despite his undoubted gifts of a quick mind, empathy, and a fine singing voice, he could not think of one.

    Today the training square had been marked out on the beach, eight strides of sand on a side and a spear driven into the ground at each corner. Every day they found different ground for it – rocks, woods, bogs, Thorlby’s narrow streets, even in the river – for a man of Gettland must be equally ready to fight wherever he stands. Or equally unready, in Yarvi’s case.

    But the battles around the Shattered Sea were fought most often on its ragged shore, so on the shore they practised most often, and Yarvi had taken enough mouthfuls of sand in his time to beach a longship. As Mother Sun sank behind the hills the veterans would be sparring up to their knees in the brine. But now the tide was out across flats streaked with mirror-puddles, and the only dampness came from the hard spray on the salt wind, and the sweat leaking from Yarvi at the unfamiliar weight of his mail.

    Gods, how he hated his mail. How he hated Hunnan, the master-at-arms who had been for so many years his chief tormentor. How he loathed swords and shields, and detested the training square, and despised the warriors who made it their home. And most of all how he hated his own bad joke of a hand, which meant he could never be one of them.

    ‘Watch your footing, my king,’ murmured Odem.

    ‘My footing won’t be my problem,’ snapped Yarvi. ‘I have two feet, at least.’

    For three years he had scarcely touched a sword, spending every waking hour in Mother Gundring’s chambers, studying the uses of plants and the tongues of far-off places. Learning the names of the Small Gods and taking such very special care over his penmanship. While he had been learning how to mend wounds these boys – these men, he realized with a sour taste in his mouth – had put all their efforts into learning how to make them.

    Odem gave him a reassuring clap on the shoulder which nearly knocked him over. ‘Keep your shield up. Wait for your chance.’

    Yarvi snorted. If they waited for his chance they would be here until the tide drowned them all. His shield was lashed tight about his withered forearm with a sorry mass of strapping, and he clung to the handle with his thumb and one stub of finger, arm already burning to the shoulder from the effort of letting the damn thing dangle.

    ‘Our king has been away from the square for some time,’ called Master Hunnan, and worked his mouth as though the words were bitter. ‘Go gently today.’

    ‘I’ll try not to hurt him too badly!’ shouted Yarvi.

    There was some laughter, but he thought it had an edge of scorn. Jokes are a poor substitute in a fight for strong sinews and a shield-hand. He looked into Keimdal’s eyes, and saw his easy confidence, and tried to tell himself that strong men are many and wise men few. Even in his own skull the thought rang hollow.

    Master Hunnan did not smile. No joke was funny, no child lovable, no woman beautiful enough to bend those iron lips. He only gave Yarvi that same long stare he always used to have, as full of quiet contempt for him whether prince or king. ‘Begin!’ he barked.

    If quickness was a mercy, it was a merciful bout indeed.

    The first blow crashed on Yarvi’s shield, tore the handle from his feeble grip so that the rim caught him in the mouth and sent him stumbling. He managed by some shred of instinct to parry the next so that it glanced from his shoulder and numbed his arm, but he never even saw the third, only felt the sharp pain as his ankle was swept from under him and he crashed down on his back, all his breath wheezing out like the air from a split bellows.

    He lay blinking for a moment. They still told tales of his Uncle Uthil’s matchless performances in the square. It seemed his own might live just as long in the memory. Alas, for very different reasons.

    Keimdal thrust his wooden sword into the sand and offered his hand. ‘My king.’ Far better disguised than it used to be, but Yarvi thought there was a mocking curl to the corner of his mouth.

    ‘You’ve got better,’ Yarvi forced through his clenched teeth, twisting his crippled hand free of the useless shield-straps so Keimdal had no choice but to grasp it to pull him to his feet.

    ‘As have you, my king.’ Yarvi could see Keimdal’s disgust as he touched the twisted thing, and made sure to give him a parting tickle with the stub of his finger. A petty gesture, perhaps, but the weak must thrive on small revenges.

    ‘I’ve got worse,’ muttered Yarvi as Keimdal walked back to his peers. ‘If you can believe it.’

    He caught sight of a girl’s face among the younger students. Thirteen years old, maybe, fierce-eyed, dark hair flicking around her sharp cheeks. Probably Yarvi should have been grateful Hunnan had not picked her to give him his beating. Perhaps that would be next in the procession of humiliations.

    The master-at-arms gave a scornful shake of his head as he turned away and the anger surged up in Yarvi, bitter as a winter tide. His brother might have inherited all their father’s strength, but he had got his full share of the rage.

    ‘Shall we have another bout?’ he snapped across the square.

    Keimdal’s brows went up, then he shrugged his broad shoulders and hefted his sword and shield. ‘If you command.’

    ‘Oh, I do.’

    A grumbling passed around the older men and Hunnan frowned even harder. Must they endure more of this demeaning farce? If their king was embarrassed they were embarrassed, and in Yarvi they could see embarrassments enough to crowd the rest of their days.

    He felt his uncle gently take his arm. ‘My king,’ he murmured, soft and soothing. Always he was soft and soothing as a breeze on a summer day. ‘Perhaps you should not exert yourself too much—’

    ‘You’re right, of course,’ said Yarvi. A fool is his anger’s slave, Mother Gundring once told him. The wise man’s anger is his tool. ‘Hurik. You stand for me.’

    There was a silence as all eyes turned to the queen’s Chosen Shield, sitting huge and silent on the carved stool that marked him out among Gettland’s most honoured warriors, the great scar down his cheek becoming a white streak where it touched his beard.

    ‘My king,’ he rumbled as he stood and worked one arm through the tangled strapping of the fallen shield. Yarvi handed him his training sword. It looked like a toy in Hurik’s great, scarred fist. You could hear his footsteps as he took his place opposite Keimdal, suddenly looking very much his sixteen years. Hurik crouched, twisting his boots into the sand, then bared his teeth and made a fighting growl, deep and throbbing, louder and louder until the square seemed to shake with it, and Yarvi saw Keimdal’s eyes wide with doubt and fear, just as he had always dreamed of seeing them.

    ‘Begin,’ he said.

    This bout was over quicker even than the last, but no one could have called it merciful.

    To give Keimdal his due, he leapt in bravely enough, but Hurik caught the blow on his sword, wooden blades scraping, then darted in quick as a snake despite his size and kicked Keimdal’s feet away. The lad whooped as he fell, but only until Hurik’s shield rim caught him above the eye with a hollow ping and knocked him half senseless. Hurik frowned as he stepped forward, planted his boot on Keimdal’s sword hand and ground it under his heel. Keimdal groaned, one half of his grimace plastered with sand, the other blood-streaked from the gash on his forehead.

    The girls might not have agreed, but Yarvi thought he had never looked better.

    He swept the warriors with a glare, then. The kind his mother gave a slave who displeased her. ‘One to me,’ he said, and he stepped over Keimdal’s fallen sword as he strode from the square, choosing a path that forced Master Hunnan to shuffle awkwardly aside.

    ‘That was ungenerous, my king,’ said Uncle Odem, falling into step at his shoulder. ‘But not unfunny.’

    ‘I’m glad I made you laugh,’ grunted Yarvi.

    ‘Much more than that, you made me proud.’

    Yarvi glanced sideways and saw his uncle looking back, calm and even. Always he was calm and even as fresh-fallen snow.

    ‘Glorious victories make fine songs, Yarvi, but inglorious ones are no worse once the bards are done with them. Glorious defeats, meanwhile, are just defeats.’

    ‘On the battlefield there are no rules,’ said Yarvi, remembering something his father told him once when he was drunk and bored with shouting at his dogs.

    ‘Exactly.’ Odem put his strong hand on Yarvi’s shoulder, and Yarvi wondered how much happier his life might have been had his uncle been his father. ‘A king must win. The rest is dust.’

Reviews & Plaudits

A Sunday Times no.3 Hardcover Bestseller. Winner of the Locus Award for best YA Novel.

“I’m a big fan of Abercrombie’s stark gritty fantasy books for grown-ups so I was curious to see how he would approach the world of young adult fiction in Half a King. The answer: brilliantly … friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be friends; the line between good and evil is murky indeed; and nothing goes quite as we expect … With eye-popping plot twists and rollicking good action, Half a King is definitely a full adventure.”

Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books

“Joe Abercrombie is fast becoming my favourite writer. Half a King is a remarkable achievement — thrilling, enthralling, and relentless. The action is frenetic, the characters are as sharp as the blades they wield, and the humour is biting. It’s sure to garner him a whole new legion of fans.”

Derek Landy, author of the Skulduggery Pleasant novels

“Fast-moving, gritty and violent, Half a King will not disappoint Abercrombie’s legion of followers.”

The Guardian

“It grips like a bear hug. It warms like a bear skin.”

The Daily Mail

“In this superb fantasy trilogy kickoff, Abercrombie (the First Law trilogy) regales readers with the tale of a young man who is thrust onto the throne by unexpected betrayal … Abercrombie’s stellar prose style and clever plot twists will be sure to please both adult and teen readers.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The story does not compromise anywhere. It’s a coming of age story but that trite description does it no justice. No spoilers here, just a whole hearted recommendation.”

Robin Hobb, author of the Farseer novels

“I got all the grit that I love in Abercrombie, and the craft, and the character. And the book was grim… but it never got so far as being bleak. Simply said, I think this is my favorite Abercrombie book yet. And that’s really saying something.”

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind

“It’s lightning fast and filled with a wonderful collection of rogues, villains and two-faced bastards.”

Sci-Fi Now

“Bloody awesome. A must-read”

Ben Kane, author of the Spartacus novels

“The author’s economical voice gives a clear and unsentimental account of events sordid, beautiful, or, often, a blend of the two.”

Seattle Times

“Half a King can be summed up in a single word: Masterpiece … It’s a coming of age story. It’s a Viking saga. It’s a revenge tale and family drama and the return of the prodigal son. But most of all, it’s this: a short time alongside people as weak and blundering as we are, and in the midst of it all, as heroic. Far too short a time, as it turns out. What a wonderful book.”

Myke Cole, author of Control Point

“In an era when fantasy seems enthralled by long series of huge volumes that seem to pass by like freight trains at a crossing when you’re trying to get somewhere, Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King serves as a reminder that there are considerable virtues yet to be found by efficient, on-the-ground storytelling propelled more by plot than by setting, with crisp dialogue, humane characters, and a distinct inward spiral of rapid-fire events.”