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.

1 comment:

  1. Oh your review is great but I admit I am one of those readers who consider Jorg a bit too young to fit the shoes of a psycho teen leading a band of ugly brutes - murderers and rapists. Perhaps you are right that Jorg had to mature very early; still I suppose I would be far more pleased with him if he was two-three years older. Still I loved the book and I hope you will continue reading the series and writing about it. Reading your reviews I feel as if I wrote mine with my feet ;p.