People keep asking me whether Half a King is a Young Adult book. Well, yes it is. Kind of. But also an adult fantasy. Kind of. Crossover, you know. Depends a little on who you ask…
Categorisation is always a bit of a strange business. Books are often put into a certain genre, or shelved in a certain part of a bookstore, because of things that are nothing to do with the content of the book – the history of the author, the nature of the publisher, the whim of a bookseller, the font on the spine. Young Adult is a particularly tough category to define as it straddles all kinds of different styles – fantasy, historical, thrillers, romance, tough real world stories. The one thing a young adult book must have is a young adult protagonist, but outside of that, there are no hard rules. They’re often shorter and more focused than adult books, but not always. They’re often less explicit in the areas of sex and violence, but not always. They’re often softer on the swearing, except when they’re not.
And of course all these categories are constantly in flux. The boundaries of what’s permissible in a young adult book are constantly expanding, and books that might once have been considered firmly in the camp of adult fantasy (like Eddings’ Belgariad, for example), are sometimes rebranded YA as the years roll on.
A little background as to how I came to write Half a King. I had a meeting with Nick Lake, young adult publisher at Harper Collins, what feels like a hundred years ago but was maybe four. He liked my adult fantasy and thought I might have a good young adult book in me. At the time I was finishing up the Heroes, I think, and the idea sat with me, in a vague sort of way, for some time until, by chance, as these things do, the seed of the idea for Half a King took root in my brain loam. Having written six big, chunky, complicated, relatively similar, unapologetically adult books I felt the need for something of a change. So I started writing.
Now, I will admit to being no kind of expert on young adult literature. Some people might think it’s rather presumptuous of me to try writing it. Maybe it is. Sorry bout that. But then I have a far from encyclopaedic knowledge of adult fantasy either. I’ve always felt strongly that you don’t write something good by trying to slavishly assess what’s working in the marketplace, still less by trying to read everything in a category so that you somehow eliminate everything done before and leave yourself only with the fresh and original. I think you write something good by drawing on all kinds of diverse influences from fiction, from non-fiction, from film and tv and games and life and combining them in a way that only you can to write the kind of book that you would like to read. Or, perhaps, the kind of book you wanted to read at 14.
My main touchstones in the young adult arena were things I read and loved when I was younger – notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical books (Blood Feud especially) and John Cristopher’s post-apocalyptic Sword of the Spirits. These were books full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices. These were not books that ever simplified, preached, or talked down to their audience. But I also had in mind the powerful voices of some adult viking fiction, like Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships, Robert Low’s The Whale Road and sequels, Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo Saxon Chronicles and others.
I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults. Just young ones. Many of them are extremely sophisticated in their reading. What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults (like me) want to read. I get emails, after all, from 11 year olds who read my adult work. When I was 14 I was reading Dragonlance and David Eddings. I was also reading Dickens and Dostoevsky (I may have been enjoying them less than Dragonlance, but you take my point). People in that 12-18 age range are dealing with serious issues of sex, money, identity, responsibility. The last thing they want to read is simplified, childish, toothless pap. The last thing they want to be is talked down to. Talked to as if they’re children. What adult does?
So my aim was not to soften, or bowdlerise, or pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there. My aim was to write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic. I spent some time with horror writer Adam Neville not long ago, and he explained to me his philosophy of life and death on every page. I modified that just a little to a slap in the face on every page. No wasted space. A driving single thread which is all killer, no filler. My aim was to write something tighter and simpler in its narrative, perhaps, but certainly not simpler in the way it was written or in the themes that it tackles. Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing departments but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, the same moral complexity, the same shocks and challenges, the same visceral action, the same rich vein of dark humour that I fondly imagine my other books have offered. Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.
There’s a degree to which, once it’s finished and released into the wild, it’s not necessarily up to me to say whether Half a King is Young Adult or not. Publishers, booksellers and, of course, readers, will make their own determinations. The fact that I’m already known for adult fantasy certainly plays a role. In the UK there were 6 publishers interested – 1 children’s, 2 general fiction, 2 adult fantasy and a collaboration between an adult fantasy and a young adult list, all of them with slightly different ideas and emphases on how they’d package and market it. There was much talk of Crossover – that sweet spot between children’s and adult fiction where many of our most beloved fantasies sit, but is always difficult to aim at. It was the collaboration that won through in the end, between Harper Voyager (adult fantasy) and Harper Collins’ YA list with what you might call a comprehensive approach aiming at both markets. In the US, where categories are less flexible, Del Rey will be selling the book primarily in fantasy sections, but with wide-ranging attempts to bring in a young adult readership too. There are already ten or so translation deals done and the various international publishers – some of whom already publish the First Law books and some of whom are new to me – will all have slightly differing approaches depending on their own strengths and their own market.
The term YA is sometimes used disparagingly (probably by folks who’ve never really read any) to mean something superficial, fluffy, disposable, lacking in depth and edge. That is not what I had it in mind to write. That is not what I believe I’ve produced. That is not what I think any serious writer of YA fiction produces. From a recent review by the redoubtable Adam Whitehead, at the Wertzone:
“This is still very much a Joe Abercrombie novel, meaning there’s an air of both cynicism and humour to proceedings and there’s a fair amount of violence. There isn’t much swearing and no sex at all, but beyond that the only way you’d know this was a YA novel is because the author said so on his website.”
I would argue there’s a degree to which – other than by the way it’s talked about, marketed, packaged, and sold – I’m not sure you should be able to tell a good young adult novel from a good adult novel. For me they’ll both be tough, honest, truthful. They’ll both have wit, excitement, strong dialogue and vivid characters. They’ll both leave you desperate to turn the next page, and when you’ve turned the last page, they’ll both leave you with something to think about.
I read a chapter from Half a King at the World Fantasy Convention last year, and at the end, as you do, I asked for questions. Someone called out, ‘is that meant to be toned down?’ That got a laugh from the room, and from me as much as anyone.
Because no, it isn’t meant to be toned down.
Why would it be?