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’...

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