17 June, 2014
"Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence
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