PRINCE OF THORNS by MARK LAWRENCE
PB, 400 pages, Harper Voyager
This review contains spoilers throughout – be warned!
Coming clean, I wouldn’t review this book in the normal course of things. I tend to review either new releases, or books that I think might have been overlooked. If there’s one thing you can say about Prince of Thorns, is that it hasn’t been overlooked. Quite the reverse, in fact. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this book, and it’s as divisive as Marmite.
Lawrence’s fans – there are many, and they are vocal – will tell you it’s the best thing since sliced Beatles. Lawrence’s detractors – and there are many, and they are equally vocal – will tell you it’s misogynistic, rapey, torture porn, the darkest of grimdark…
I’d just like to say at this point that I like grimdark, I’ve been told I write grimdark (on occasion), and it takes a lot to squick me out – I made it through American Psycho with only mild heaving after my friend had thrown it across the room in disgust. So squickiness is not an issue for me – it might be for you. There is squickiness, but there were, I think, only two scenes that made me outright wince, and one of those was when a character took a crossbow bolt directly to the face. If you think this kind of thing might be too much for you, you probably shouldn’t read it. So, yes, it’s violent, but not excessively so.
This is a Man’s World…
One of the issues I think a lot of people have with the book is that it’s told in the first person, through the eyes of Honourous Jorg Ancrath, son to a murdered mother, leader of a quite grotesque band of reprobates, scarily accomplished for a teenager, and, for the most part, a despicable little shit. Jorg’s misogyny becomes the books misogyny. But is it “rapey?”
There are rapes, one right near the beginning – Jorg and his war band rape two farmers daughters. I’m pretty sure this was only put in to shock, and while a lot of people do seem to have made a big deal of it, the actual assault is only alluded to by Jorg, and pretty much takes place off-stage. Again, later, when Jorg’s mother is raped and murdered by his uncle’s soldiers while Jorg is trapped, hanging in a nearby thorn bush and forced to watch, the action is implied more than it is described. So there’s rape, but it’s not graphic or gratuitous. And while Jorg fantasises later about raping his Aunt Katherine while she’s unconscious, he doesn’t act on the urge. The rape of the farm girls and Jorg’s mother are the only two rapes in the book, so I’d dispute that it’s “full of rape”.
There is, however, still a problem with women. While you wouldn’t expect a woman to be riding with Jorg and his band of thugs, you have to read 150-odd pages before a woman with the slightest bit of agency turns up, the aforementioned Katherine, sister of Jorg’s new stepmother. And despite the fact that she gets a few scenes where she gets to hold her own against Jorg, she ends up clobbered over the head with a vase and we don’t see her again.
The other two principal female characters in the book are Jane, a mysterious psychic glowing child who lives with a band of radiation-afflicted mutants in the bowels of a mountain, who dies along with her mutants in a nuclear explosion caused by an unrepentant Jorg, and Chella, the lithe necromancer. Aside from Jorg, Chella is the most interesting character in the book, and she’s woefully under-used, her story left inconclusive. It’s incredibly frustrating that Lawrence hints at interesting back-story for a few of his characters, only to take it nowhere, while most of the characters are interchangeable paint-by-numbers rentagrunts. The three women with personality are far more interesting, but they are mere cameos in Jorg’s story, at least in this book.
Youth and Young Manhood
Which brings us on to Jorg, because it is his story and he gives slightly less than a rats-arse about most of the people he’s surrounded by. Jorg is very young – 13-14 – yet he leads a band of murders and cutthroats with an absolute authority that I thought I would find hard to buy into, but that actually felt totally natural within the context of the book. He’s single-minded, he’s coldly sadistic, he’s quite possibly insane and he’s supernaturally lucky. And, while fairly charismatic, he’s also very hard to warm to. Yes, he saw his mother and brother murdered; yes, he’s had a rotten time. But while you can feel sympathy for Jorg, you wouldn’t want to sit down for a pint with him.
I got to thinking after I read the book (that’s why this review is so long, and I’m taking that as a plus point, that the book made me think after I’d finished it). There are a number of parallels between Jorg and my Rhodri from The Art of Forgetting. They’re both in their early teens, they’ve both lost their mothers and have troubled relationships with their fathers or father-figures, and they’re both growing up in a hyper-masculine environment – Jorg with his road-brothers, Rhodri on the other side of the law with the King’s Third. And they both have a consuming anger that they have trouble keeping a lid on; it would only take a little push in the right direction to turn Rhodri into Valery, or Jorg… Rhodri is saved by the people around him, but everyone in Jorg’s world appears to be more-or-less of a scumbag, and there’s no redemption for him there.
Days of Future Past
The setting for Prince of Thorns is fairly unusual for a medieval-styled knights-and-tourneys fantasy, in that it appears to be set in a very-far-future post-apocalyptic Europe. I say appears to – there are hints throughout the book that this isn’t your bog-standard Medieval Funtime Land, and references to a disaster (“The Day of The Thousand Suns”) that brought about the demise of the legendary “Builders” and let to the splintering into the warring Hundred Kingdoms of Jorg’s world. But again, frustratingly, very little is fleshed out. We see little of the world or its history, only hints and flashes, intriguing but inconclusive.
Lawrence has a distinctive writing style – we see Jorg’s thoughts swirling around us, and at times it’s almost poetic. But a fine style covers up a hollowness at the heart of both book and protagonist. It’s a quick read, elegantly written, exciting, fairly bloody and full of intrigue, but it lacks both the warmth and humour of Abercrombie, and the layered detail and investment in world-building of George RR Martin. It’s almost something and nothing – not as bad as I feared, but not as good as I hoped.
Mind you, some people are indifferent to Marmite, too…