Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns is the first novel by Mark Lawrence.  It’s the first in a trilogy, and, in the way of trilogies, is followed up by two further novels: the stunningly imaginatively named King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns.  I shan’t be reading either.  Some blurb on the cover informs us that it’s on a par with G.R.R. Martin.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more misleading comment on a book — it’s like claiming that Bourneville is on a par with Green and Black’s 70%.

So — what’s the gimmick? Prince Jorg Ancrath is another insufferable teenage ubermensch.  He’s got skills and smarts beyond those of normal men.  He’s got destiny knocking on his door (yawn…).  He’s also an asshole of the highest degree — an honest to goodness psychopath.  This is not necessarily a bad thing in a protagonist (see American Psycho — or not, if you’re not in to that sort of thing), but it certainly didn’t seem to be a good thing here.  There are a few meritorious things about this book (which I’ll get to in time, I’m sure), but the author seems to feel that finding a niche characteristic (in this case, psychopathy) and dialing it up to 11 is all he needed to do to get people to buy it in droves.  It seems like he’s right, too, as the book is incomprehensibly popular.

At the opening of the book we find 13-year-old Jorg leading a bunch of villainous rapists and pillagers.  They’ve just plundered a village and gone to work on its womenfolk.  Charming.  Soon thereafter, Jorg decides that he’s tired of his life as a vagrant murderer and that the whole gang should head home to his father’s Capital.  Which they do.  Their welcome is not warm.  Jorg now has a stepmother with a child on the way and Jorg, heretofore thought dead, is clearly not the successor his dad would prefer.  Nonetheless, Jorg impresses him enough with his bad-assery to be sent off on a suicide mission to conquer the neighbouring kingdom.  People are killed, castles are blown up, radioactive mutants with psychic powers are discovered.  It’s all action, all the time.  All this is interspersed with flashbacks to the events that led up to this state of affairs.

Here’s a good thing for you: There are a couple of exciting fight scenes.  They’re not technically brilliant, but they’ve got moxie and a rude kind of energy.  Here’s another: it’s got that post-apocalyptic encounters with magical technology thing that I love so much (from Jack Vance, to The Wind Through the Keyhole, to Adventure Time).  This world doesn’t seem so very far in the future.  Bits of the map are fairly recognisable, Catholicism still exists (now headed by a She-Pope), and people have set up mediaeval castle societies in ancient buildings made from cement and reinforced concrete.  I’m not sure it’s done that elegantly (the radioactive mutants referred to above seem particularly broad), and the implicit connection with magic in the book is not made as clearly or convincingly as it might be.  It was, however, the source of my favourite gag in the book, which went something like this — [After finding an ancient book on disease] “I couldn’t imagine what this word ‘neurotoxicology’ might mean.  Perhaps it’s a style of hat.”

Here are some bad things: Jorg really isn’t very convincing.  No matter that he has seen and done terrible things, a 13 year old is still a child.  Jorg, on the other hand, is characterised as a camp, surly, supervillain.  He’s also highly unpleasant.  That said, I quite respected the author’s commitment to making him as unreedemed as possible.  There was a point near the middle of the book where it seemed like the power of love was going to undo all of this.  Unpleasant though he is, this would have been a pretty weak move, and I was almost glad when this trend was put paid to by a typically repellent trip to a brothel.

Apart from this prostitute, there are four women in the book.  One, his mother, exists solely to be raped and murdered in front of young Jorg’s eyes. Another is a magical glowing mutant child.  She doesn’t last long either.  A third is his new stepmother — an utterly characterless hurdle for Jorg to overcome. The fourth was the most promising (and she might come into her own over the next two books) — his stepmother’s hottie younger sister.  She’s got a bit of fire and cheek to her, and I thought that we had finally encountered that strong female character so sorely lacking in the book.  Sadly, she too turns out to be merely grist for the Jorgmill. Complementing this abnegation and abuse of women, there’s some really awful orientalism going on, too.  In particular, I had a hard time with the Noble nubian (though he was actually pretty cool and very likeable), and a really hard time with the hypnotically eeevil Middle Eastern (or possibly Indian) mage.

So there you have it.  A couple of good gags and fight scenes.  A whole lot of ham handed world building, douche characters, sexism and racism.  One to avoid.


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