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.

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