Monday, November 14, 2011
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
I’ll begin this review by stating that I didn’t much care for Prince of Thorns, so this particular review isn’t going to join the many glowing reviews Mark Lawrence has received for his debut novel.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Prince of Thorns and Mark Lawrence seems to have become the ‘next big thing’ in the subgenre of gritty fantasy, joining the likes of Joe Abercrombie.
Prince of Thorns most definitely fits neatly into the gritty subgenre. The book was so gritty in fact that I had to have a glass of water after finishing it to wash the dirt out of my throat.
The Prince of the title is Jorg Ancrath; a seriously damaged, highly ambitious, vengeance seeking, 14 year old psychopath. When Jorg was 9 years old he was forced to watch his mother and younger brother murdered by the forces of the powerful and vicious Count Renar, Jorg was trapped in the embraces of a thorn bush at the time (hence the book’s rather lyrical title). As his father does not appear to be motivated to move against Renar, Jorg strikes out on his own (at the age of 10, mind you), gathers a band of brutal mercenaries around him and determines to make Renar pay for what he did.
After finishing the book and thinking about it the word that sprang to mind most often was basic. I’ll try to explain why. Prince of Thorns ticks off most of the boxes of epic fantasy, but does so in a very spare way. Compared to many of it’s competitors Prince of Thorns is quite a short work, very tightly edited, it’s one of the few instances where the writer could have afforded to be a bit more expansive. In his defence there, Prince of Thorns is the first of a trilogy and the author wrote it as one work (the sequel King of Thorns is due out in August of 2012).
The need to world build was neatly circumvented by not really bothering to build a new world. Prince of Thorns is set in a post apocalyptic earth in which society has managed to advance to the medieval stage, in the 1100 years since the downfall of the previous civilisation. I had some problems with this setting. Firstly I was over half way through the book before the reveal about the apocalypse came about, and this was done to me in a rather out of the blue fashion. References to ancient philosophers such as Plato and Sun Tzu are scattered throughout the book, I started to wonder about the setting when a character quoted Nietzsche. I found it stretched credibility for me that works from ancient times survived, but nothing later than the 19th century did. There was a distinct lack of history about the setting. The civilisation in which Jorg lives has been around for 1100 years, yet they don’t seem to have any history about them, beyond starting a huge civil war that has fractured the continent into a number of small kingdoms.
Then we have the characters themselves. It’s a very popular thing these days to people a f epic with ‘shades of grey’ characters (I regard George RR Martin as the master of this, and Mark Lawrence has confessed to enjoying Martin’s work), and Prince of Thorns is no exception. Lawrence has attempted to make the characters grey, but they’ve mostly turned out black or irrelevant. For me this made it hard to actually care about any of them. The only character I managed to make any sort of ‘give a damn’ connection with was Jorg’s zen master tutor Lundist; and he was dead by the start of the book.
The construction of the book itself was odd, and this may have been a publisher thing. It’s composed of very short choppy chapters. The chapter ends and it goes straight into the next one, making the reader wonder why it ended where it did. There are a few flashback chapters throughout, set four years before the current narrative, they explain Jorg’s situation and give him some sort of reason for his actions.
I don’t actually mind first person narration, but I didn’t like Jorg as a narrator. He was to the point and blunt, but gave the reader no real insight into his character. He didn’t seem to see beneath the superficiality of anyone else either. Maybe the characters were genuinely that two dimensional. Other reviewers have mentioned the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, there are a few poetical touches, but overall the writing is serviceable, rather than remarkable. The whole thing had the feeling of something written for a writing class or writers group and then workshopped into a full length novel.
The action was well done, although one of the big action set pieces; a fight with animated skeletons controlled by a necromancer/vampire, had the distinct feel of being lifted directly from a computer game. One of the few criticisms that people do direct at the book, and I’m going to touch on it too is to do with Jorg’s age. The belief is that Lawrence made him a little too young. I have to agree. I can’t buy that a 10 year old, no matter how ruthless can run with a bunch of badass mercenaries for three years and wind up running the crew and having them scared of him by the age of 14. There’s also the matter of how Jorg regularly beats bigger and better trained opponents. He does say that at 14 he’s six foot, which is a big kid, but he wins most of his fights by the virtue of being sneakier and more ruthless than his opponent. Sorry, didn’t work for me. Jean Tannen, he ain’t.
Throughout I kept feeling that there was something missing, and it eventually dawned on me that the missing ingredient was humour. I think I chuckled twice, once had to do with an exasperated Jorg cutting off a necromancer’s head before he could bring a spell to bear, and that’s an old joke that I’ve seen done many times in the past, and the other was his observation about another knight’s horse late in the book. People compare Prince of Thorns to Abercrombie's work, although Mark Lawrence has said that he did not read any Joe Abercrombie until after he’d written Prince of Thorns, but his story lacks the wit, charm, class and polish of his fellow fantasist.
Prince of Thorns does have the advantage of resolving most of it’s storyline in this volume, although the way is clearly open for the sequel. That was handy for me, because I was distinctly unimpressed by this and won’t be strapping in for the rest of the ride.