Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Mark Lawrence - Prince of Thorns
Prince Honorous Jorg is one part
lovable bloodthirsty rogue and one part prince cruelly deprived of his throne. It's an interesting combination, a genuinely unsympathetic character as the protagonist and seeker of such a high position, and so, of course, one's first thoughts most likely go to the potential failings, or, more accurately, ways to negate the unsympathetic part. This would not, after all, be the first Epic Fantasy to give us an antihero with a long list of whitewashed crimes and a resume of pure and justified badassery. But the first half or so of Prince of Thorns does not fall into that trap. No, this is not a stand up and cheer tale prettied up with a sheen of grime. Lawrence is quick to show that Jorg's brand of darkness is not skin deep. By the second paragraph, innocents are dead, and our faces are shoved into the aftermath:
The town square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage. (p. 1)
That's not the only such moment, far from it. No, Lawrence takes his concept, and he runs with it. but the problem with all this is that, while it's dark, and while it's vivid, and while it's gory, and while the first person narrator has a quite enjoyable mixture of arrogance and imagery and humor, there's no reason to care. I don't, of course, mean just in the first few pages, because we're just meeting our cast then, and it makes far more sense to introduce our pillagers with pillaging than with knitting. But the depth doesn't come. These are murderers, and we see them murder and wisecrack, but we don't see an inch deeper into any of them from the moment we see them first nab a ring to their first grinning rape scene to their deaths. Between some of the chapters, Lawrence gives us one sentence descriptors for some of them, and they're all things like: Knife work is a dirty business, yet Brother Grumlow is always clean. (p. 59) An amusingly written fun fact, sure, but insubstantial; you could change the names of just about all the brothers and nothing'd change about their new personas besides size. As for the brother's ultimate goals, Jorg is quick to point out that they're not just aimless butchers. Echoing the marketing quote mentioned a ways up, he scoffs when a soon-to-be-dead innocent says that he's fifteen:
Fifteen! I'd hardly be fifteen and rousting villages.
By the time fifteen came around, I'd be King! (p. 4)
But that's, as far as one can tell from the opening dozens of pages, utter tosh. Jorg talks big, but he takes no strides in that direction at all. The opening chapters of the novel consist of Jorg wandering to and fro and killing people, at one point scaring away a ghost with the empty time where my memory won't go (21), lurid violence described and committed for the sake of lurid violence. Through it all, it must be mentioned that this is no more a realistic picture than the unblemished farmer-to-be-king, just with blacker than black instead of whiter than white.
Interspersed with all this are flashback chapters to the death of Jorg's royal mother and brother, to Jorg's recovery and discussions with his tutor, and to Jorg's eventual flight from his castle, in pursuit of vengeance. The scenes of initial murder are well done, but it's the second of those two groups that, surprisingly enough, proved the most effective for me. The discussions of world and philosophy first of all provide our first delicious clues that this is not a standard fantasy world but rather a post apocalyptic one and then, more importantly, provide an excellent juxtaposition for the demonstration of Jorg's ruthless views in action that we get in the present day chapters.
Even here, though, there are problems, aspects of Lawrence's world that seem done for dramatic effect and thematic thrust but which niggle badly as the novel proceeds. The greatest of these, and the source for many of the novel's oddities, is the court world of Ancrath. Basically, in the royal world of Lawrence, people are irrelevant as more than chips upon the game board. This makes perfect sense, but it's taken to simply silly extremes, because, for some reason, the royals themselves are not considered important. After Jorg is wounded, his tutor says that the king will visit, to which Jorg thinks: I knew my father would not waste time on me whilst it seemed I would die. I knew he would see me when seeing me served some end. (p. 27) Until it would serve some end? The near dead man's the heir to the throne, god damn it! The prince is most certainly a matter of state. This is, however, soon surpassed in terms of insane negligence when the nation that, in a surprise attack, killed the king's wife and attempted for both of his sons (getting one) is forgiven in exchange for the rights to the Cathun River, three thousand ducats, and five Araby Stallions. (p. 57) At this point, things aren't so much insane as inane. Count Renar nearly wipes out the royal line, the king shrugs and gets a river.
All this leads to the most puzzling aspect of the novel, namely why, exactly, Jorg is doing the whole bloody bandit thing in the first place. We witness his departure from the castle, breaking a gang of violent marauders out of the dungeons and then joining them in their flight, but nowhere do we get an explanation for it that makes any sense. In the scene, the choice is presented as one between the calm pragmatism of the tutor and Jorg's need for vengeance. But that's utter nonsense. Jorg wants to be king? Well, congratulations, my boy, you're already in line for the god damn throne. You want vengeance on another sovereign nation? Well, the way to do that is not you, an unnamed black "Nuban" (seriously, he never receives a tag that I saw besides his nation of origin), and two dozen outlaws. It's through your father's armies, which you will come to own and command in but a handful of years. He's not doing this to be his father's enemy, mind you. He's not staging a coup. No, he's, though afraid of his father, even aiding his interests. By riding around like a blood-splattered fucking Robin Hood.
So, anyway, this rather unsubstantiated premise is heading somewhere, though not quite building. What's the difference? Well, in one, tension steadily rises as events ramp up towards the next event. In the other, we simply stumble about till the next step pops out at us. I'll give you the paragraph in which Jorg decides to head home and kickstart the plot, and you tell me which it is:
I shouldn't have been turning for home, picking up my old ways, and thinking once more about vengeance upon the Count of Renar. That's what instinct told me. But today instinct spoke with an old and dry voice and I no longer trusted it. I wanted to go home, perhaps because it felt as though something else required that I did not. I wanted to go home and if Hell rose up to stop me, it would make me desire it the more. (p. 89)
Jorg gets home, learns that his dad's got a sorcerer and a new wife, demonstrates what he's learned on the road, and is tasked to prove his worth (or, as near all hope, die in the attempt) by, essentially single handedly, taking over the impregnable castle for another contender to the empire's throne for which all these kings and counts are fighting. And so it is that we enter a totally different book, or, at the least, the polished gem version of the first half's first draft.
In Gelleth, just about every aspect of the book's opening returns, albeit immeasurably stronger. The post apocalyptic world's no longer a king's road with some philosophers strapped on for color. No, we're now trawling fallout zones and dealing with mutations, hatching dastardly plots with just as dastardly remnants. Instead of aimless meandering based on instinct-but-not-instinct-because-instinct-can't-be-trusted, we've a master plan twisty and tricky enough to inspire a good bit of awe. And as for Jorg, well, that's where the biggest changes of all come from. What felt like empty bluster before the king and mere douchebaggery against unarmed peasants comes across as fantastically daring, perhaps even sadistically heroic, against the red haired people of Gelleth.
How do you defeat a nation with but a handful of men? How can you survive at a task you were meant to die carrying out? How can you win a war with more factions than you've subjects, break a cycle of violence, end a struggle that's began decades before your birth? Well, near the novel's opening, Jorg gives us some answers: The way to break the cycle is to kill every single one of the bastards that fucked you over […]. Every last one of them. Kill them all. Kill their mothers, kill their brothers, kill their children, kill their dog. (p. 64-5) Such bloodthirsty words meet bloodthirsty actions, Jorg stepping outside rules and expectations both with a move drenched in low cunning and at once so deplorable, so callous, and so fantastic that my jaw dropped.
Let's zoom out before I've given the whole blow by blow. The novel, thankfully, does not return to the aimlessness of its opening, though it doesn't ever quite reach the peak of Gelleth's annihilation. Still, things build to a martial climax and worldly revelation, one executed quite powerfully and also rather expected (or perhaps I should say fittingly inevitable), seeing the worthlessness of men in this grand war: the land is not in the hands of who it seems to be, the great players are themselves but pawns, and the dark and magical powers behind the scenes are ruthless and uncaring about the men that die in their stead. Amidst all this, there are a few turns of phrase that're right out of vintage Lovecraft, in near praise of a certain Cthulhu and man's ignorance:
We wrap up our violent and mysterious world in a pretence of understanding. We paper over the voids in our comprehension with science or religion, and make believe that order has been imposed. And, for the most part, the fiction works. We skim across surfaces, heedless of the depths below. Dragonflies flitting over a lake, miles deep, pursuing erratic paths to pointless ends. until that moment when something from the cold unknown reaches up to take us. (p. 266)
All of this, however, comes, depending on your perspective, either too early or too late. Any fantasy reader of recent years can, of course, tell me the other work in which scheming sorcerers bend patriotic nations to their whim. I'm speaking, of course, about Joe Abercrombie, [and know that SPOILERS for First Law trilogy are to follow] where the revelation that the causes the protagonists battle for are lies and that the protagonists themselves are horrible people is the capstone of his trilogy. To me, the difference between that end game revelation of futility is what differentiates that trilogy from Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and The Heroes, both of which had the same near-nihilistic edge without getting any of the investment of the opening's hope, fraudulent as such light might have been.
In the comparison there, Prince of Thrones falls into the second category. (Here let me pause for just a second and, in order to avoid any repetitions of a certain relatively-recent internet kerfuffle, state that the comparison is between Prince of Thorns and Abercrombie's books, not Mark Lawrence and Abercrombie's books; here, the reading habits of the author matter not at all.) Prince of Thorns paints a fabulously bleak world, in which hope seems lost and triumph impossible within the boundaries of morality, but these dark thematic points are dulled badly by following the purposeless violence of the novel's opening. While that killing does make sense, viewed within the novel as a whole, it's effect is not to indoctrinate the reader but rather desensitize and distance them, leaving them seeing not their world as a dark place but rather this dank and unpleasant creation as one, but, thankfully, as one that – thanks to the superficial but omnipresent and ocean-deep layer of blood everywhere – can be handily differentiated and separated from our own.
Ultimately, Prince of Thorns is a novel built around an interesting concept, written in an enjoyable manner, and more than capable of both shocking and intriguing. Alas, it's also a novel that shoots itself in the foot rather badly right outside the starting gate. Lawrence's final creation is fascinating enough that I may return for the hopefully more cohesive sequel, but too flawed for me to be able to say that Prince of Thorns really works.