Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Ritual of the Stone' by Rob Donovan

I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king's only son... This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there's a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.

The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there's Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn't about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact's eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.

There’s also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman's evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.

To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There's Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn't she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can’t or won’t. For instance, Janna, Rhact's daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I’d happily read a whole book about her.

The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We’re in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman’s period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.

The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending 'quality time' with his son, and Rhact's son having 'teenage' moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that’s just me. There there was the horse who was 'saddled' in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there’s some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.

None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it’s a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king’s knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as ‘the boy’ or ‘two men’ or ‘the elderly woman’. I’m still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?

This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren’t concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Sci-Fi Review: 'Hollow World' by Michael J Sullivan

This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction - a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But - oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in - well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.

The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or - well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.

If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear - compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking... There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.

As for the characters, there’s only one who matters - Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty - I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.

The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers - I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.

The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.

This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Mystery Review: 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)

Well, well, well. J K Rowling has balls after all, publishing under a pseudonym and gathering some good reviews and typical mid-list debut author sales rankings along the way, until she was accidentally outed. Maybe next time she'll self-publish and keep her identity a secret until she's ready to reveal it.

I was never much attracted to ‘The Casual Vacancy’ but murder mysteries are right up my alley. This one, set in London, features a superstar model who apparently jumps off a balcony to her death, but her brother is convinced she was murdered. Enter Cormoran Strike, an ex-soldier with a surprisingly classy and rich ex-girlfriend, and a not very successful private eye business. Robin Ellacott is his new temp, starry-eyed about her recent engagement.

A straightforward genre book of this type, presumably the first of a series, succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the main character, and to be honest I can’t work out whether Cormoran Strike works or not. On the one hand, he has all the typical hallmarks of his type - ex-military police, invalided out of the army, now down on his luck, girlfriend’s thrown him out, hounded for debts and sleeping in the office. So far, so standard. Yet beneath the bluff exterior, he’s a painstaking and intelligent detective, methodically tracking down potential witnesses, interviewing them with tedious thoroughness and carefully writing up his notes every night. Despite sleeping in the office and living on pot noodles and Chinese takeaways, he manages to shower every day and do his laundry, even the ironing. It’s as if the author couldn’t quite bring herself to make him a complete slob.

The big question for me, is why exactly was he down on his luck and in debt in the first place? He’s had a good (ie well-paid) job in the army, and presumably now has a reasonable pension from being blown up on active duty. He’s clearly very good at what he does, he has friends, plus an endless supply of useful contacts for information or computer hacking skills, he doesn’t routinely drink to excess or gamble or indulge in other expensive habits. He’s had a very posh (ie rich) girlfriend with whom he lived for a number of years, so he’s not even had to put a roof over his head. So why is he in debt? Maybe this will be revealed later, but for now it makes little sense.

His sidekick, Robin, is less of a mystery. She’s moved to London to be closer to her fiance, so while she’s clearly overqualified and far too inventive to be a low-rent temp, she was supposed to be only passing through on the way to better things. She is conveniently good at computer searches and play-acting, though. There’s probably much more backstory to be revealed about her, but for now the little we know is enough. And, like Strike, she’s a likeable character. The other characters are a mixed collection of the rich and famous, or the tail-end of society, all of them nicely delineated and very believable.

The plot follows the usual pattern: as Strike interviews one person after another, little clues are revealed about the victim, her lifestyle, her friends and relationships, and ultimately the truth about the night she died. This is handled in a fairly predictable, not to say pedestrian, way. The interviews are long in themselves, and when interspersed with chatter about what people are eating and drinking (‘Another one?’; ‘Yeah, I’ll have a lager, thanks.’; Strike went to the bar and ordered... zzz) they seem interminable and banal. But the murder mystery itself I found intriguing. It sucked me in exactly the way it was supposed to: so who did she phone up? and why did the woman downstairs hear talking? and who were those guys running away? I liked it.

I do have some grumbles though. Someone should point out to the author that jumping from one point of view character to another without warning is seriously disruptive. There are only two main characters with points of view, Strike and Robin, but the view hops from one to the other without any indication. Every time I came across this I stopped, said ‘what just happened?’ and had to go back and reread. It’s an annoyance. The other big annoyance are those long, convoluted sentences with several sub-clauses in them. Here’s a random example:

“He behaved, in Lucy’s terms, well throughout the rest of the party, devoting himself in the main to defusing brewing arguments between various overexcited children, then barricading himself behind a trestle table covered in jelly and ice cream, thus avoiding the intrusive interest of the prowling mothers.”

Many, many times I ground to a halt, losing the thread, and had to reread. Yet another annoyance: the intrusive name-dropping. Do we really need to know that Strike drinks Doom Bar beer, that the victim’s laptop was a Dell, the exact brand of cigarette smoked? Then there’s the mention of ‘the election’ and references to Gordon Brown. None of this seems to have any relevance to the plot [* but see below], and only serves to ensure that the story will very quickly seem dated. None of these are mistakes, exactly, but they do disturb the flow when reading. But there are moments in the second half when the writing is right on the nose. Here’s the description of the victim’s mother:

“The dying woman wore a thick ivory-coloured bed jacket and reclined, dwarfed by her carved wooden bed, on many white pillows. No trace of Lady Bristow’s youthful prettiness remained. The raw bones of the skeleton were clearly delineated now, beneath fine skin that was shiny and flaking. Her eyes were sunken, filmy and dim, and her wispy hair, fine as a baby’s, was grey against large expanses of pink scalp. Her emaciated arms lay limp on top of the covers, a catheter protruded. Her death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.”

On the whole, though, everything about the book works well enough without ever being mind-blowing. The murder grabbed me right from the start and each little reveal kept me turning the pages for the next. The ending is carefully thought out, with every loose end neatly tied up and everything logical (although stretching credibility, but that’s par for the course in the genre). Did I guess the identity of the murderer? No, I had no clue at all, even though the motive was fairly obvious. So full marks for the sleight of hand. The methodical detective and his implausibly creative secretary are a nicely likeable pair, and I’ll certainly look out for the next in the series. Four stars.

[*] It’s interesting, in view of the revelation that nominal author Robert Galbraith is actually J K Rowling, to consider the role of the press in the story, specifically the paparazzi who are described as buzzing like flies in the book’s opening, and are ever-present in the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful people who make up most of the principal characters. In particular, the phone hacking of the victim herself affects her actions and, in retrospect, makes it very difficult for the police to work out what she did on the last day of her life and, ultimately, why she was killed. The reference to ‘the election’ dates the story to 2010, a point when the initial scandal about the hacking of royalty and celebrities (including Rowling) had died down without action taken. It was only in mid-2011, when it was revealed that the mobile phone of a child murder victim had been hacked, that public opinion was sufficiently incensed to trigger the usual round of inquiries and commissions and more serious police investigations, leading eventually to arrests. Rowling herself was one of those who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. So it may be that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ is just one long diatribe about press intrusion. Still a nice piece of work, though.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Emperor of Thorns' by Mark Lawrence

It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read the reviews, I knew something of what it was about, I knew it would be good, but I kept putting it off. Part of me felt: well, it's probably not as good as the rumours have it, I'll only be disappointed so no point in rushing. Eventually, when not just the second but the third book in the trilogy was imminent, I grudgingly made the time for it. And it blew me away. The second part, 'King of Thorns', was a spottier affair with some creakiness, but I loved it despite those weaknesses. And here I am with the final part of the story, and I already know it really is final. The author has said there will be no more.

A brief recap, with spoilers for books 1 and 2: Jorg is still king of the tiny mountain kingdom of Renar, but since his defeat of the Prince of Arrow, he's acquired several more kingdoms. He's married to Miana, an alliance which secured the help of his maternal kin in the battle against Arrow. This book has moved on a year or two, and Miana is now pregnant. The primary timeline is the journey to Vyene, the seat of the emperor, for the four-yearly congression where the petty kings and their ever-shifting allegiances try to agree on a new emperor. To vote on the matter, no less. I really like the idea of electing an emperor in a world of swords and castles and constant border wars. You’d think it would be settled on the battlefield, and to some extent it is (that’s how Jorg acquired some of his votes, after all), but in the end everyone gets together and negotiates. The secondary timeline carries on with the flashback sequence from book 2, with Jorg ambling about at the behest of the 'ghost in the machine', Fexler Brews (is that an anagram?), and grubbing around in the almost-but-not-quite-functional left-overs of the long-ago Builders’ world. There are other occasional flashbacks tossed out here and there, as appropriate. And instead of the strained device of Katherine's diary, we get the journey of Chella, the necromancer.

For almost half the book, I was just a little disappointed. Many of the complaints I had about the second book are here again: the disjointed timeline that hops about, the seemingly random traveling through the landscape. The writing is not exactly lacklustre, the author is too adept for that, but it's very repetitious in places. I'd like a pound for everyone who spat, or for every time giving birth was described as squeezing out a baby. Meh. But then suddenly everything cranks up a gear and we're back with lots of glorious Jorgness and all's right with the world again.

Jorg is a much more mature person now, although still prone to outbreaks of kill-everything temper. But he's beginning to think more carefully about the consequences of his actions, and when he goes walkabout, he takes care to leave the rest of the crew behind out of harm's way. When he does kill he has a reason for it (although yes, sometimes it's pure revenge), and he takes care to leave the minimum of blameworthy mess behind him. He has more than just himself and his fellow road-brothers to consider - there's the imminent arrival of his firstborn, and that’s an interesting challenge for him and no mistake. How will Jorg take to fatherhood, given his dire relationship with his own father?

None of the other characters quite rise to three-dimensional roundedness. He still has his sidekicks, Makin, Rike, Marten and so on, who have developed a solidity through familiarity, and a variety of lesser characters pass through his life, but they are no more than momentary glimpses. That's appropriate, however, since this is entirely Jorg's story, told in the first person, so we see these people as he sees them and when he moves on, they're gone. This being our world in some future time (a thousand or more years in the future), it's disappointing how much cultural baggage seems to have been carried along. The Catholic church, the African man who was an ex-slave, the Muslim Arab world - given the enormity of the 'Day of a Thousand Suns', the apocalyptic event a thousand or so years ago, and the number of people who must have died, and the turmoil since, it's astonishing that any cultural norms survived unscathed. A thousand years is a very long time.

A word about women in Jorg's world. It's striking that all the dynamic characters are men. Men run most of the petty kingdoms, and beyond that there are few women even mentioned. Just occasionally a woman turns up where a man might be expected (a female Pope? Really? Even a thousand years from now? Did hell freeze over in the interim?), but generally speaking the female characters are an insignificant part of the plot. The men run kingdoms or wave swords about, but the women, not so much. Miana, a truly strong, proactive female, is only there as a single strike get-out-of-jail-free card in book 2, and to produce the son and heir in book 3. There is a moment at the very end where Miana is the blindingly obvious choice for one specific role, but no, Makin is chosen instead. Disappointing. Katherine does better, at least having an agenda of her own (even if I wasn’t always clear why she did certain things), but she is also sexual fantasy and motivation for Jorg, and her magic, cool as it is, is not much more than a convenient plot device. I would have loved her to do something truly worthwhile in the big finale, but no, she seems to have just as little purpose in this book as in book 2. And Chella? More sexual fantasy and plot device. As for the female Pope, I'm not sure whether that was a random gender-neutral choice, or whether Lawrence is actually making a point about organised religion here, but whatever the reason for it, I loved how Jorg dealt with her. Way to go, Jorg!

There are various aspects of the plot which come together beautifully as the book develops. One is the straightforward political story - the fractured empire with the unremitting squabbling for supremacy amongst those who see themselves as entitled to claim the emperor’s throne. Then there is the slowly revealed world left behind by the Builders, with their high-tech gizmos, some of which have survived intact, even though their original functions may have been long forgotten. There’s a cool game observant readers can play - spotting which modern device is actually masquerading as an unfathomably mysterious Builder artifact. Finally, there is magic - inadvertently released into the world by a Builder-created catastrophe and over time spinning increasingly out of control, so that even the dead walk again, led by the mysterious Dead King.

Then there’s the ending. There are several shifts before things come to a final stop, and some are as expected, and some are predictable in one way or another, and some are moments where I thought: ah, yes, I see where this is going. Except that it didn't. And then a final switch that I didn't see coming at all, but it is utterly brilliant and entirely fitting. Ever since I finished reading, the story has been swirling round in my head. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. It’s rare for a book to get under my skin quite so much. Partly that’s due to the towering personality of Jorg himself, both boy and man. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s totally unforgettable. Partly, too, it’s the unusual combination of medieval-style fantasy plus magic, with the still fuctioning technology of the Builders playing a very active role in events. And partly, of course, it’s the author’s spare writing style and uncompromising approach to telling the story. It may have offended some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with Jorg’s personality.

I'm not going to attempt to describe what these books are 'about'. Everyone who reads them will have a different take on it. For me, it was Jorg's sheer bloody-mindedness which struck a chord. If someone told him he couldn't do something, his usual response was: just watch me. Something in me just loves that about him. Yes, he was a mess, an evil bastard who slaughtered his way to the top without remorse. Yet there were occasional hints about the normal well-meaning person he might have been if life had treated him better. There’s a flashback to a point when he’s about ten or so, and to earn the respect of his road brothers he volunteers to spy out the thieving possibilities of an abbey by joining as an orphan. He’s set to work with the other orphans:

“It turns out there’s a certain satisfaction in digging. Levering your dinner from the ground, lifting the soil and pulling fine hard potatoes from it, thinking of them roasted, mashed, fried in oil, it’s all good. Especially if it wasn’t you who had to tend and weed the field for the previous six months. Labour like that empties the mind and lets new thoughts wander in from unsuspected corners. And in the moments of rest, when we orphans faced each other, mud-cheeked, leaning on our forks, there’s a camaraderie that builds without you knowing it. By the end of the day I think the big lad, David, could have called me an idiot a second time and survived.”

I don’t think it gives away too much to say that Jorg’s time at the abbey doesn’t end well (it’s a flashback, after all), but for me this scene is the most poignant in the whole trilogy.

For those who hated the first book because of the way Jorg is - his propensity to kill, rape and otherwise cause havoc wherever he goes - you might like to know that this book puts his behaviour in a different perspective. Yes, he's done some terrible things, and he does a few more in this book, but in the end his willingness to cross lines and think the unthinkable, his determination, his inability to compromise and his desire to put himself on the emperor's throne whatever the cost are exactly what's needed to take the final step to mend the Broken Empire. It had to be done, and it took a long time for the right person to come along. If Jorg is an extreme example of humankind, it's because he needed to be.

This book, indeed the whole series, isn’t perfect. Nothing is. It is lumpy in places, and slow in others, and sometimes Jorg is too over-the-top for words. But it’s also sharply funny and slyly clever, and written in an incisive, focused style that makes a refreshing change from a lot of rambling fantasy. And that’s another question - is it even fantasy at all, since it veers so close to science fiction? To my mind, it transcends genre classifications altogether, and enters the realm of greatness. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece of in-depth character analysis, with an ingeniously interwoven setting and a mind-blowing and absolutely right ending. A fine piece of writing. Five stars.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Fantasy Review: 'King of Thorns' by Mark Lawrence

Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also setting up the climax of the third without being able to resolve the big questions. All too often it feels like drifting - there’s motion of a sort, but it’s slow or undirected. There’s an element of that here. What seems like the main plot, the massive army of the Prince of Arrows camped at Jorg’s gate, seems to play second fiddle to the flashback story which feels like nothing so much as a road trip. If it had a magic gizmo to be found or a Big Bad to defeat, we could call it a quest, but actually it just feels like ambling through the scenery. Look, a circus. And some Vikings. Here’s a swamp, and some ghosts, and ooh! zombies! And now let’s visit the family. Wait, now we’ve got a sort of murder mystery. It’s all a bit choppy. Of course, even a road trip is brilliant fun with Jorg.

To recap: the fourteen-year-old who grabbed a throne as part of his revenge plot in book 1 is now eighteen, getting married and simultaneously facing up to the massive army of the would-be emperor, the Prince of Arrows. Interspersed with that are flashbacks starting four years earlier, filling in some of the missing four years. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also snippets from the journal of Katherine, Jorg’s step-aunt, for whom he has the hots, which are also flashbacks and also reveal crucial information just when the author wants to. And on top of all that is possibly the most outrageous device ever for witholding information from the reader - the memory box. This is an ingenious twist on the old bump on the head amnesia trick; Jorg has done something so terrible that the memory of it has been taken from his mind and put into a box. So we get little reveals trickled out over the whole course of the book as Jorg almost-but-not-quite opens the box.

I have to be honest and say that I found these different threads confusing. In ‘Prince of Thorns’, there was a now plot and a four-years-ago plot, and the two wove together very well. Here, the multiple timelines meant that more than once I had a wait-I-thought-he-was-dead moment, and had to think quite carefully to work it out. It’s very disconcerting to grieve over the death of a character one moment only to have him appear alive and well a few pages later. Sometimes it felt like there was a page or three missing. At one point, Katherine turns up with the Brothers - why? How did that happen? And the calculated dribbling of those reveals felt quite contrived, especially the big one at the end, which borders on cheating.

The background to this world continues to open up in intriguing ways. When I read 'Prince', there was still room for a tiny sliver of doubt about this post-apocalyptic world, that perhaps it might be some parallel but freakishly similar world to our own, almost the same but not quite. Not any longer. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there can surely only be one world which has 'American Pie' in it. We get to see some of the Builders’ devices, and find out what the Tall Tower really is (or was, perhaps). I have to say, I’m not sure that I buy into the idea that such things could last a thousand years unscathed. I assume the Builders’ heyday was a little after our own, with technology just a bit more advanced.

Jorg has matured somewhat, which is hardly surprising. In the earlier parts, when he’s still around fourteen or so, he still has his let’s-just-do-this attitude, where he listens carefully to advice (“This is a bad idea, Jorg”) and then cheerfully ignores it. He’s still reckless and careless of his own (or anyone else’s) welfare. But by the latest time shown here (when he’s eighteen), he is definitely on top of his game, showing an astonishing degree of forward planning, and becoming quite philosophical to boot. He deals unexpectedly gently with his bride, Miana, and while he’s never exactly sentimental, he’s certainly less cavalier with his friends.

I have to say that Miana is one of my all time favourite fantasy princesses. She smart and resourceful and apparently just as likely to take the spectacular one-shot chance as Jorg, and she probably has the funniest lines in the book. Katherine, on the other hand - not sure what to make of her. I’m not at all sure what Jorg sees in her, except that she’s unattainable and therefore he’s determined to get her. Meh. The rest of the characters - I have to confess that I found the Brothers fairly undistinguishable. It’s not that they don’t have differences, it’s more that I can never remember which one is which. Plus Jorg sheds them like dandruff; no point getting attached to a character that could be dead two pages further on. Of the others, I liked Uncle Robert and Makin and Gog and the big guy (Gorgoth?). And the Vikings - gotta love the Vikings.

With book 1, I had very little to grumble about, and this review seems like a catalogue of complaints by contrast. Doesn’t matter. Jorg’s wild journey to the emperor’s throne is as compelling as ever. Lawrence has a wonderfully vivid writing style which makes even the craziest moments pop out into stark 3D relief, so that images linger unforgettably. In the cave with Ferrakind and Gog. The ghost in the basement. Miana and the ruby. The swamp. And the dog - ye gods, the dog. I’m sitting here trying not to cry just thinking about it. I rarely find books that have such emotional depth, and there’s also an intellectual depth, if I could only tear myself away from the racing story for a second to ponder it. I like Lawrence’s economical way with words, too; he never uses twenty or even ten words where four will do, but every one chosen with surgical precision.

I know not everyone approves of Jorg’s style. He’s basically a villain, a lying, cheating scumbag, and there’s a wonderful contrast here with the heroic Prince Orrin of Arrow, the honourable selfless leader that everyone likes. His meeting with Jorg early in the book is heart-rending. But this is not a story of heroes, and I loved watching Jorg’s progress. Yes, he cheats, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win, but he’s smart, he’s endlessly creative, he’s wickedly funny and he never hesitates to put his own life on the line. This book isn’t quite as smooth as the first book, but it’s still an astonishing performance. Five stars. And now on to ‘Emperor’...

Friday, 2 August 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Prince of Thorns' by Mark Lawrence

I’m late to this particular party and no mistake. Not just fashionably late, but so late that the lights are out, everyone’s moved on, even the next party’s winding down and the champagne’s on ice for the one after that. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the third part of the trilogy is upon us and here I am just getting round to reading the debut. And what a debut it is. When this was released in 2011 it caused a furore. Jorg, the lead character, was too young, too misogynistic, too murderously violent, too heartless, too psychopathic, quite simply too unredeemable. Maybe so, but he is also utterly compelling. Jorg is surely one of the great characters of fantasy, and his story grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for an instant.

Brief synopsis for the three people who don't know the premise: Jorg is the eldest son and heir to a petty king in a land of innumerable such petty kings, who spend their lives scrabbling to get to the top of the heap on the backs of others. The always out of reach prize: a winner-takes-all seat as top dog of the broken empire. Jorg's mother and younger brother were slaughtered by another king, and Jorg only survives because he was tossed into a thornbush and overlooked. When he learns that his father dealt with this assassination by making a pragmatic trade agreement and taking a second wife, he vows bloody revenge. His journey to achieve that revenge, told in flashback to the time of the murders, when he's nine/ten, and later, when he's thirteen/fourteen, is the story of this book.

The genius touch is that it's told in first person, from Jorg's point of view. So no matter how vicious and conscienceless and reckless he is, the reader can always understand what drives him at that particular moment. Even when he has no rational reason for his actions, when he seems to be randomly poking sticks at powerful and dangerous people just to see what happens, it's perfectly believable - the what-if curiosity of a boy pulling wings off butterflies, the reckless trail of destruction of an adolescent who doesn’t care about the consequences because he has no reason to care.

Many critics have said Jorg is too young to be the credible leader of a group of battle-scarred outlaws. I don't agree. Jorg has been raised from birth to be a leader of men, in an environment where children grow up fast, and besides, all the outlaws owed him their lives and freedom. They chose to follow him, and he was smart enough to give them whatever they needed to keep them happy enough to (ultimately) do what he wanted them to. Is he misogynistic? Well, duh - teenage boy, of course he's misogynistic, he's at an age when he sees every female as a walking tits-and-vagina. What thirteen year old boy wouldn't fill his life with guilt-free rape and pillage and mindless slaughter if he could just shed the cloak of civilisation?

Of course Jorg is psychopathic, but who can help sympathising with him after all that's been done to him? He's been at the receiving end of so much evil, even from his own father and uncle, that it's not surprising he's become evil himself. Frankly, I totally enjoyed some of his least glorious moments, the times when he couldn't win by any straightforward and honourable means, so he cheated. I cheered and punched the air at that brilliantly underhand fight with Galen in his father's throne room, for example. Because no matter how bad he is, I was rooting for him every step of the way.

The author doesn't go into much detail with the background. It's not clear to me whether this is our own world in a post-apocalyptic distant future or some parallel but eerily similar world, although it probably doesn't matter. The hints of long-lost technology, of magic and ghosts and demons, of (perhaps) post-nuclear mutations are fascinating, and I look forward to finding out more. There’s enough here to support the plot, although it takes some suspension of disbelief to accept that a post-advanced-technology world would descend into quite such a quaint medieval castles-and-swords scenario. But - whatever. It works for me.

If Jorg is drawn in vivid fluorescent colours, the supporting cast is painted in much more muted and murky shades, occasionally illuminated by a sharp flash of light. The outlaws could have had depth if they weren’t discarded one by one when their usefulness was spent, like a trail of autumn leaves littering the plot. Just when you get to know one, bang, he’s gone and with barely a second thought on Jorg’s part. Which is, of course, entirely in line with his personality at this point. Life is a game, and if you get too close to the playing pieces, you only get hurt. Use them however you have to and don’t waste time agonising over it.

The most interesting character to me was Jorg’s father, a king who never showed the slightest care for or interest in his eldest son and heir. That’s an unusual position to take, since the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is to nurture your offspring well enough to take over the running of the kingdom. I’m not sure how much of that was his own twisted personality and how much was outside influences affecting his judgment. Not sure I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, so let’s just say he’s a total bastard and be done with it.

There were one or two other places where I wondered about motivation. Katherine, for instance, was a bit of a puzzle. She dislikes Jorg because of Galen, yet she unaccountably decides to help him. Sounds suspiciously like ‘because the plot required it’ to me. Sometimes the magic seemed a little bit convenient too, but that's in the nature of magic so I can let it go. For those who like ghosts and monsters and necromancers and all-round creepy things, there's enough here for all tastes, flitting in and out of Jorg's life like glow-in-the-dark moths.

This is not a book for everyone. People seem to love it or hate it, and the very first chapter is as polarising as anything in the book. We first see Jorg and his pals joyously slaughtering the men of an entire village, scavenging the bodies for valuables and collecting the heads as macabre souvenirs. Then, just as cheerfully, they set about raping as many of the women as they can, before burning the village and all survivors. And it's not merely what they do, but the cheerful, joky way Jorg relates the tale that will either horrify or, frankly, amuse. I loved the humour, but obviously not everyone responds that way.

For those who find it reprehensible to portray a main character who is not merely unheroic but so wicked that he seems unredeemable I would say: this is exactly what fantasy is for, to explore the otherwise unthinkable. Not every book has to portray an Enid Blyton world view, where bad people get their come-uppance and good people always triumph in the end. Sometimes the story of one abnormally evil person, however it ends, is more illuminating than a hundred more balanced portrayals. This is an utterly compelling portrait of a young man growing up in a society which seems to reward the dishonourable. It will be fascinating to see where the author takes Jorg and how much wisdom he gains in maturity. And whether he even survives, of course. A brilliantly conceived and written book. Five stars.