17 June, 2014

"Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

With no ado at all, I'm back! Shit's been crazy; I'm finally reading again, at last.

So, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. I have really mixed feelings about this book-- I'd been really excited to read it, but when I got into it I just... couldn't get into it.

A synopsis: When he was nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath watched as his brother was murdered and his mother raped and then murdered by villainous Count Renar's men. His father the king is a neglectful vicious jerk who refused to enact vengeance upon Renar in favor of using the murders as leverage to bargain a profitable trade agreement with him. Furious and betrayed, Jorg peaces out of home at age ten, and collects-slash-joins a bunch of thugs who then pillage their way across a bunch of kingdoms under his command, all with the ultimate goal of vengeance upon Renar and overthrowing his father to take the throne of Ancrath for his own. But there's more at play than just bloodlust; the Hundred Kingdoms are at war, and the closer Jorg gets to understanding how to win it, the more he starts to realize he has no idea what he's up against.

The book is tightly written and well plotted; its biggest virtue is its brevity. Lawrence doesn't waste words, nor does he (with one or two exceptions) spend time on characters or events that don't further the plot of the story. The feel of it is sparse-- Jorg doesn't display a wide range of emotions, either outwardly or inwardly, and that sense of narrowness and focus extends to the setting as well. Whether we're in an abandoned town or in a castle, what's important is only what is right in front of Jorg, what's happening to him in this moment. We get tons of backstory, but only the bits that are important to the "present day" plot. Yet the worldbuilding is casually very efficient-- little things, references, names are dropped in such a way that there's a definite sense of a larger world even beyond the scope of what Jorg cares about.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you've probably noticed I talk about narration, voice, and point of view a lot. To me, they're one of the most important parts of a book. If I can't stand the way the story is being told, I'm going to care a lot less about what's happening in it. In this case, I'd cite Jorg's narration as the main thing that kept me reading. His point of view and voice are strong and consistent, and he talks like a real person.

But I have to say, it would be much more compelling and believable if he weren't supposed to be 13 years old. The whole "I endured an experience as a nine year old that aged my soul beyond its years" construct seems a thin premise on which to base a character, and it makes him rather hard to relate to. I feel like maybe Lawrence kept dropping references to Jorg's age as a reminder to his readers, since Jorg talks and acts like someone twice his age or more. Even if he were supposed to be in his 30s I'd have had some skepticism for the amount of emotionless bloodthirst he displays. I can't tell if Mark Lawrence was trying to one-up the grimdark genre to a new place (look, it's grimdark, but it's a kid!) or if he just... doesn't understand how psychological development works. I suppose I can get behind the idea that [spoiler: Renar's necromancer meddling with his free will changed him even more than just the trauma of watching his family murdered did], but if that was meant to be the big reveal, it wasn't clear enough for me.

My biggest problem with this book, though, and it's a serious one, is the lack of women. And when I say lack, I mean almost total absence. The book begins on the road with Jorg and his sword-brothers, who are highly reminiscent of Gregor Clegane and his pack of torturing murderous thugs in ASoIaF. And they're all men. I'm sorry, Mark Lawrence, but do better. There is just no excuse, even in a supposed band of pillaging wild bandits, for not having any women included.

But it doesn't get better when Jorg returns to court. There are two women at the castle whose names I remember-- Jorg's mom is fridged before the story begins and as far as I recall is only ever referred to as "my mother" or "the queen", and ugh I am so tired of this storyline-- Katharine and Hanna. Katharine is Jorg's wacko father's new wife's sister (new wife herself has no dialogue and is basically wallpaper), and despite having no memorable personality traits or really any outstanding features at all besides being a pretty woman who has a conversation with Jorg, he of course ends up totally fixated on her, to the point that by the end of the book, despite their interactions having been few in number and desperately shallow, he refers to her as "his weakness" and can't bring himself to kill her even though he knows he should. Hanna is an old nurse who lives in the castle, who is mean to Jorg and who then gets strangled by him as he's coming out of his necromantic coma toward the end of the book. Fantastic.

The point is, the book spectacularly fails the Bechdel test and doesn't even give one interesting female character a proper amount of screen time. I was also uncomfortable that the one character of color (or the one character whose race was specifically mentioned, at least) didn't even get a name, just an epithet referring to his country of origin. And there are no gay people mentioned at all, even in passing. What the hell? Do. Better.

The part of the book I liked best was the slow reveal that Jorg's world is a many-centuries-distant future of our own. The references to the Day of a Thousand Suns, sprinkled here and there throughout the early parts of the story, clarify as the story progresses so we understand that at some point in Jorg's past a world-wide nuclear war occurred. The plague/sickness that affects the country of Gelleth and creates the Blushers, we then understand to be radiation poisoning from a leftover stockpile of nukes hidden beneath the castle. I think my favorite moment in the entire book was the part when Jorg is in the under-levels of the castle in Gelleth (as I'm writing this I'm wondering-- "castle" or missile silo? it was described as being very tall...) and encounters an AI who's been lying dormant down there for centuries, and treats it like a spirit/ghost, asking it for answers and getting increasingly frustrated as it prompts him for a username and password.

So in a nutshell, I didn't dislike the book enough not to finish it, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to read the two sequels. There's something compelling about the world that makes me want to give them a shot-- that, and the fact that this was such a quick read I was done with it in less than 4 hours of cumulative reading time; it wouldn't be too big an investment or loss if they end up sucking. But I'm really not excited about slogging through Jorg and Katharine's inevitable re-meeting and his ham-fisted attempts to get in her pants. I'm really not looking forward to yet another "emotionally damaged" white male protagonist who uses a woman as the symbol of his redemption without bothering to get to know her as a person first. And I can do without any more of Jorg's continuous brooding over his own inner darkness... but unfortunately that seems to be the bulk of what he thinks about when he's alone, so I'd just have to hope that the sequels (if I do read them) are full of enough action that he doesn't have any time to belabor his manpain.

Overall rating: 3/5 stars
Geek quotient: 4/5 stars
Girl quotient: 1/5 stars
Gay quotient: 0/5 stars


  1. Hmm, I can't agree with the point you are making about the lack of "gay" characters at all. For one, how do you know? And maybe more pressingly, does every book absolutely have to include one? For me a book is not determined by whether or not it includes characters that represent every sexuality, gender, or even opinion. Their presence (or absence) isn't really a reason to demand the writer to "Do. Better." as the last time I checked, there wasn't a checklist to fill out in order to have "done your best" at writing a novel... In my opinion, your review makes some good points but in general... Do. Better.

    1. When I'm talking about inclusion and representation, the lack of specific mention is exactly the problem. And I absolutely can demand that authors do better, especially when there are very successful authors doing better already-- George R. R. Martin, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie are all examples of high fantasy authors who manage to include women, people of color, gay people, and disabled people in their narratives without breaking a sweat. How much trouble would it have been to mention that one of Jorg's brothers in arms preferred men to women? No trouble-- so why wasn't it done?

      I agree there's no checklist for doing your best at writing, but what I'm talking about has nothing to do with the writer having done their best at writing a novel. It has to do with the writer having done their best to represent a full and complex world, with all the varied people it contains. Straight white men are seen as the default in our society, and they never lack for representation. But if you're a black queer trans disabled or otherwise minority person, you have to work harder to crack open a book (especially a fantasy book) and find a character like you on the page. The world around us is full of these people-- we see them every day. Why shouldn't the books we read be just as complex?

      Like I said in my review, I didn't hate the book. But if an author writes about a world that seems to have no place for women, queers, nonwhite races, etc, and they DON'T make a point of explaining why, they're not bothering to think about the representation of experiences and lives other than their own. And frankly, that's just not a perspective that makes me feel very good about giving an author my money.

      That said, I appreciate your comment and I hope I addressed your questions in a way that clarified my points. Thanks for reading!

  2. I would be very worried if Jorg was a representation of any person that Mark Lawrence knows.

    1. Me too, lol. But (presuming you're referring to my above comment about populating fiction with the people in the world around us) it's not about representing the people you know, it's about representing the people you can imagine. If Mark Lawrence can imagine a world thousands of years from now with people with nuclear energy running through their blood, necromancers who misquote Shakespeare with armies of skeletons at their command, but he doesn't talk about what that world is like for women or minorities to live in, it seems like it's not that he can't imagine their experiences but that he's not bothering to imagine them.

      And that's just... a less interesting choice, and a lazy one. No one can claim that stories about complex interesting women don't sell (A Song of Ice and Fire alone would blow that out of the water) and anyone who tries to perpetuate the idea that women and minorities don't have interesting stories to tell is either deluded or a bigot or both.

      My favorite article about why it's important to change the perspective, and why inclusion is super important, is We Have Always Fought. Every time I read it, it makes me re-examine my writing, and the lens I read others' work through, too; if any of you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it. :)

    2. Speaking as a queer myself, I don't need any of the characters in a book to be gay just so I can feel included. Mention of people's sexuality in that book would not have improved it one iota. In fact, a token gay would have irritated the hell out of me. Sexuality is not part of the story he's telling.
      If you read into the next book, there is a female POV in parts of the narrative if that's what floats your boat.
      Personally I thought the women on PoT were quite interesting enough seen through jorgs eyes.

    3. Oh absolutely, I don't love that sort of "token" inclusion either-- but for me, there's a difference between a "token" minority (the term to me speaks of stereotype, the kind of cameo that perpetuates generalizations and flat, uninteresting characters) and including mentions of minority people as fleshing out the backdrop to the story. It's hard to articulate, lol, and maybe it's a personal preference-- I don't need every main character to be a minority, or to know everything about every minority character in a book, but just knowing that some of the people in a story are gay or women or not white, makes me relate more to that made-up world.

      For example, none of the main characters in the Locke Lamora books are gay, but just hearing homosexuality spoken about in a natural way, or having some random thief be specifically called out as gay, makes me appreciate that there's a place in that world for gay people. I mean, fantasy is about escapism, in part, it's about getting out of this world and into a different one. But what's the point if there's no place in that world for me? That's my perspective, anyway-- it's not about needing a main character who's exactly like me, but when an important facet of my identity seems ignored by the person who created the world, it's harder to immerse myself in the story.

      It does actually make a difference to know there's a woman's POV in the next book. Since Lawrence has displayed a strong and mostly interesting POV with Jorg in this book, I'd hope that that ability would translate to any other character he chooses to give their own POV. So thanks for that tip, I am actually more interested in reading it now. :)