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Monday, August 8, 2011

Prince of Thorns - Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns, by debut author Mark Lawrence, has been within the "buzzosphere", as Carles at Hipster Runoff might say, for the last eight months. Of course, hype doesn't always make right and recent hype-machine bull riders such as Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and The Unremembered by Peter Orullian have met with reviews that trend negative. In Lawrence's place I may have been a bit nervous given how long the reviewing community has had their hands on the novel. As it turns out, Me-Mark would have been wrong. Prince of Thorns has been almost universally praised as one of the best debuts of the year and I don't disagree.  

When Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was nine, he watched his mother and brother killed before him. Three short years later he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs on the run from his responsibilities as heir to the throne.  Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar's men slaughter his family, Jorg has done little but vent his rage.  Under the tutelage of his Brother's, he's become a psychotic killer with little regard of anyone or anything.  Now the time has come to return home and face his demons, but treachery and dark magic await him in his father's castle.

My first reaction while reading Prince of Thorns was how much it reminded me of Fallout.  Remember Fallout?  It was a computer role playing game from the late-90's on the PC.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world it allowed for a lot open ended decision making by the player.  The first time I played through it, I was a hero, making all the good guy choices and enjoying the plot Interplay put together.  Great game.  Where things started to remind me of Lawrence's novel was on my second play through.  I decided, fuck it, and I just killed everything that got in my way.  Talk my way out of a situation? Nope - minigun!  In Prince of Thorns, the answer is always - minigun!

There are other similarities to the game, most notably that the setting is not second world fantasy and is instead post-apocalypse Earth.  This is hinted at in the early going as Jorg refers to philosophers like Nietzsche and Plato and places like Roma and Normardy (sic).  Still, most of the novel reads like a second world fantasy with knights, horses, and some as yet unexplained magic.  Technology does rear its head a few times, and I can only suspect that will continue in future installments in the planned trilogy.  For this reader, it worked well.  While things occasionally get close to the shark's event horizon (one scene in particular) they never clear it and with a modicum of suspension of disbelief everything makes sense.

As the short summary indicates the plot itself is rather humdrum - if not overtly simple.  As a result the novel succeeds (or fails) on the back of Lawrence's protagonist Jorg, a fourteen year old would-be-king of a fractured Empire.  Telling the entire story from inside the head of a deranged individual leads to some difficult moments.  There seems to be a trend in Science Fiction/Fantasy right now to produce first person narratives.  If I'm right and there is a trend, I think it stems from a movement to have more character driven stories.  The trend would fit right in Prince of Thorn's pocket.  Among the few bad reviews out there, most of them seem to center on the fact that they just couldn't read about an extremely troubled teenage killing machine who objectifies women, glorifies nihilism, and is willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to accomplish his goals.

None of that was particular problematic for me, but had Jorg been even an iota less compelling the book might have fallen flat on its face.  As it stands, Jorg is incredibly compelling and thus so is the novel.  Those who read the novel and paint Jorg as a sociopath or insane might be missing the mark.  Lawrence layers the narrative very well telling back story intermixed with current events.  As the layers peal away on the back story so to do the layers to Jorg's psychosis.  By the novel's conclusion there's a great deal of question about how many of his actions were his own.  On his twitter feed Lawrence mentioned that the novel was originally a stand alone before becoming a trilogy.  The questions left on the table about Jorg are very open to interpretation and as someone who loves to mull a book over after I finish it I almost wish this was the end of the story.

It seems to me that Mark Lawrence has accomplished something pretty extraordinary for a debut author.  His novel is functionally a psychological thriller of a young man walking a tight rope between insanity and genius.  None of this would have been possible without an incredible grasp of the language, how to use it to communicate complex imagery, and how to keep it all moving.  Lawrence has this is spades.  Many metaphors stick in my mind, most notably one discussing a swords sharpness as making the wind bleed (awesome, right?).  Additionally, the whole thing has a tremendous pace that had me finishing the novel in two relatively short sittings.

In an interesting a fit of parallel, I think Lawrence was walking a tight rope very similar to Jorg's.  Where Jorg's was a tight rope of sanity, Lawrence was walking one between authenticity and repulsiveness.  When someone gets that kind of finesse right, the end result is something spectacular and Prince of Thorns is that.  In a year of tremendous debuts, Lawrence deserves his place at the table.  I highly recommend anyone with a strong stomach read this immediately and I look forward to his sequel next year.

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At July 13, 2012 at 12:16 PM , Anonymous redhead said...

And the sequel is here!

PoT has been pretty polarizing, with some of us going crazy for us, and some of us completely turned off by the crazed main character. Books that create this much discussion are rare indeed.

You hit it right on the head, that Lawrence has writing chops in spades, and the tight line everyone is walking.


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