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Underground Reading: Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

Emperor-of-thornsEmperor of Thorns (2013) is the third and final volume of the Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. The first two books - Prince and King of Thorns respectively - were also finalists for the DGLA and I feel that reviewing this series has become part of the annual tradition. 

Please be warned that the plot summary below contains  serious spoilers for the entire Broken Empire trilogy.

In Emperor, Jorg Ancrath is finally close to achieving his grand ambition: to take the throne and declare himself Emperor. Every seven years, the Congression is held at Vyene. The many, many rulers of the bitty kingdoms of the world all flock to the former Imperial hall to cast their votes for a candidate. One kingdom = one vote, so Jorg, after thumping his rival (the Prince of Arrow - in King) and claiming his lands, has quite a few in his pocket. That said, other notable claimants have come and gone in the past, and the odds of Jorg being the first to unite the Broken Empire are slim indeed.

And the land has problems (above and beyond the prospect of 'Emperor Jorg'), zombie-monsters are continuing to rise and their mysterious leader, the Dead King, seems particularly fixated on Jorg. His chosen harbinger is a familiar one to readers: the necromancer Chella, who has the dubious honor of having appeared (and been thwarted) by Jorg in the past. 

As with the previous books, Emperor splits its narrative into two parts. In the 'present', Jorg and his retinue head towards Congression and a showdown with the Dead King. In the 'past', Jorg (after the events of Prince but before King), travels the world trying to learn more about its history and his own potential.

Again following the pattern of the previous books, the two narratives build (more or less) to the same climactic moment. Jorg faces his destiny, his past, his enemy and his future - all at the same time and, fittingly enough, at the base of the Imperial throne.

Each day provides its own gifts - Marcus Aurelius

I'm repeating myself, but I'm doing so on an annual basis, so forgive me: there's so much right about this book.

For one, the split narrative is a lovely piece of literary trickery. In previous books, most notably King, 'past-Jorg' was running about gathering power-ups for present-Jorg's use in the book's boss fight. Emperor is a bit more subtle about it: Jorg is still arming himself, but he's doing so, if you'll excuse the wank-word, philosophically. For two books now, we've had a character that varies between egotism and nihilism: doing what he wants, when he wants, for reasons unknown and largely unchallenged. In Emperor, past-Jorg is on a walkabout - aggravated by the assassination attempt upon his family (from King), he heads to Africa in search of revenge. But on the way, he heads out into the desert, Coehlo-style, in search of answers from a transcendent intellect. Enlightenment comes not from an alchemist, but from the slightly faulty AI, Fexler.

Fexler inspires (or goads) Jorg with the True Picture of the World: magic is the result of scientists doing stupid stuff in the apocalyptic past. And, rather than being a 'yay unicorns!' thing, it is actually the symptom of something much, much worse. Natural laws are becoming unravelled at an accelerating rate (see: Dead King, zombie-monsters) and Jorg needs to make it better. Somehow. The terms and conditions are quite clear, but he can achieve this by following Fexler's increasingly dictatorial scavenger hunt.

The result is that Jorg is enlightened with the Big Picture of what's at stake: possibly the universe, probably the world, definitely humanity. And here we have the critical path of Jorgism: does he sit back and let the real chosen one handle it (the Prince of Arrow) or does he take care of it himself? In effect, we're led to believe - as Jorg often recites - sometimes you need a bad person to do the right thing. Jorg is motivated (ostensibly) with the believe that he's the right wrong person to save the world. More subtly, Jorg's also motivated by his inherent orneriness: if cosmic forces say he can't do something, he'll move hell and high water to get it done. Predestination by way of reverse psychology.

The balance of big picture, little picture and the active subversion of the epic fantasy 'destiny' trope is incredibly compelling. The elements are woven together so that Jorg has both free will and predestination, he himself is not chosen. Instead, the universe requires a very specific person for a very specific task, and Jorg is determined to claim that role for himself. He is molding himself into a Platonic form. Does it make him a hero (he's keen to save the universe, right?), a monster (he embraces the ruthless things it will require of him) or merely a flawed and selfish human (Jorg doesn't care about the universe or the ruthlessness, he's just determined that the bigger 'story' be all about him).

That's the big good of Emperor of Thorns, and it is both very big and extremely good. Nor is it the only praise I have for this book, although much of it descends from this theme. Jorg is intelligent and hard-working - he struggles and sweats to get everything he achieves. That intelligence also comes out in the form of a tactical cunning. Even as his grand strategy is revealed in bits and pieces (arguably across all three books even), he's constantly full of entertaining surprises: escapes and dodges and tricks for every situation. 

Acquaintance lessens fame - Claudius

This is a minor point in Emperor of Thorns, and more of a prolonged aside on fantasy in general. The Broken Empire trilogy uses a type of setting that is straddles the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. That is: it is a fantasy that's actually far-future, post-apocalyptic SF. From the latter category, we get books like A Canticle for Leibowitz that embrace the descent from technology and (enjoyably, if meticulously) explain how pre-apocalypse culture can become fetishized. It is world-building with something of a running start, with the reader's surprise and delight coming from not the 'new' but the imagined difference.

On the fantasy end, we have books like Emperor, in which the far-futureness is a feature of the world, but not essential to it. Other examples include things like, say, The Hunger Games - which could just as easily take place on an alien world, but by saying it is on Earth, you get a running start on the atmosphere.

Emperor - more so than its two predecessors - has a bit of fun with the fact that it isn't a secondary world. If Prince hinted at it and King spelled it out, Emperor fully indulges itself with its European and African road trips. Jorg goes on journeys into the ruined/renamed/rebuilt cities, gawks at rare and valuable plastic, resurrects the fabled 'Custodian' (guffaw) and has long and quasi-enlightening conversations with AIs about What Came Before. 

My feelings are mixed: I think, in Emperor, this is actually kind of distracting. The references to the past could, I suppose, remind the reader of how badly the people of this [our] world have got it wrong: "Har har - they've got a lady-Pope and they think the janitor is a god." A sort of in-joke with the reader? But, that's a generous interpretation. In the greater picture, using our world as the basis for the setting adds another level of meaning and, in this case, challenges the suspension of disbelief. Emperor is now forced to present a credible thesis of how this came to happen and how it all fits together.

Sorcery and demons and the dead all make 'sense' in a secondary world: I'll believe whatever you serve me in an imaginary setting. In our world, I'll start looking for explanations. This is why, for example, most fantasy worlds that 'touch' on reality use a portal mechanic to transport the characters [and reader] into a new universe. These are signposts that inform us that the rules are changing. Emperor certainly has a lot of fun linking Jorg's world to our world, and it makes for some charming 'ah-ha!' moments, but I question whether that's worth the distraction.

At best, everything is smooth, I ignore it and I move on to the story. At worst, I furrow my brow and start focusing on the place-names instead of concentrating on what's actually happening. In something like Canticle this works because the entire book is devoted to the relationships between the world of the book and the world of our reality: how the fictional future relates to a non-fictional past. It is a one-trick pony, and that is the trick - that's the whole point of the book. Emperor, unlike Canticle, is a book that talks about far more than our relationship to the past - bigger and better things, honestly. There's no real reason to call attention to the setting.

To do no evil is good, to intend none better - Claudius

Back to broken record territory, twice now I've kvetched that x of Thorns is a difficult book to read because the treatment of women is dire and the hero is a terrible person. And, guess what? Here we go again.

There are three major female characters: 

  • Katherine, the unobtainable. Who 'picks on' Jorg (with good reason). He chivalrously takes it (to a point, see below) because he loves her and her unattainable glacial beauty. 
  • Chella, the necromancer, who, I believe, is the first non-Jorg POV in the series. This is a curious decision. Chella helps pad out our knowledge of the Dead King, but none of that is actually valuable to the book. Through Chella, the reader learns nothing but what we already knew: that the Dead King is coming, that he's extremely powerful and that he's pissed off at Jorg in particular. Plus, we're treated to a Chella/Jorg hate-fuck in a carriage - which, unless I'm missing the subtleties, is basically because Jorg's really mad that Katherine won't have sex with him and now he's winning at something? Or something? Chella's always been a one-dimensional character, obsessed with Jorg  [Prince: have sex with me; King: marry me; Emperor: Let's shag on the side of the road] having her own, exposition-heavy point of view doesn't help her any.
  • Miana - Jorg's wife. In King, Jorg was proud of himself for not having sex with his child-bride. In Emperor, she's 'a month's shy of fifteen' and heavily pregnant. But hey, 'at least pregnancy had added some curves' (9). I'd argue the cause of true love, but please see random necromancer hate-fucking, above.

And... that's it.* Ergh.

Meanwhile, Jorg.

Jorg, as we are introduced in Prince of Thorns, is a rapist and a murderer. We know this because we read it. We're there for these establishing acts of his character and we follow, first person, as he is untroubled by guilt, or even second thoughts. This is the series' baseline. 

Does it matter that Jorg's a terrible person? Back in Prince I argued that the thesis of the book was the protagonist as horror (a la Clockwork Orange or American Psycho). And the challenge of the book was to bear with it: to understand that, as a reader, you're required to read about someone that is abhorrent. As a literary experiment it is - like the two books referenced above - bold, if also distinctly unpleasant to read. 

And if distaste is my first major concern (and that's a tactful phrasing), my second is that I can't shake the feeling that the text contained a series of scenarios that challenged the reader to forgive Jorg. Again, this fits into the central thesis of creating empathy for the unempathetic and unempathetisable, and, again, it makes for incredibly difficult and unpleasant reading.

For example, through the course of the books, we keep learning - mostly through various past-Jorgs - that terrible things have happened to him. His brother is killed. His mother is killed. His dog is killed. He's misunderstood. He's abused. He himself is ultimately killed. (I warned you about spoilers!) And, after each one of these revelations, the reader is challenged - do you forgive him yet?

And, well... no. 

Specifically, none of these mitigate his actions at the beginning of Prince. At best, the fact that he's out to Save the World can be used to - arguably - debate a different set of actions: the fact that he's killed hundreds and thousands of people in cold blood for the Good of the Many. But even that doesn't address the other crimes that happen either before that or simply 'along the way' - including our brutal introduction to the character. 

Moreover, Jorg's hypocrisy is exhausting. The series is predicated on Jorg's passion for free will: he rebels against any attempt to dictate his actions and his great purpose in life is to show that he can do what he wants to do. Which, as I discussed in King, makes the great irony of his activities all the more painful to read: Jorg writhes and agonises whenever someone takes a choice from him, yet he unrepentantly enforces his desires upon others.

In King, Jorg's greatest failure of self-awareness occurred when he was (falsely) accused of attacking Katherine and then positioned himself as the angry defender of sexual violence victims. In Emperor, Jorg reaches similar heights (depths?) when, to get Katherine to stop magically badgering him (for killing a child), he shows her scenes when he was a child and abused. "I made her understand how dirt can get inside you, too deep to be scrubbed out..." A powerful scene, but undermined by the fact that he is explaining rape to a rape victim. He's not only using his experience (which, again, she's undergone) as a way of asking for her sympathy, but he's, again, forcing someone to do something: removing choice from others. Made, of course, all the worse that he himself is, again, a rapist: clearly Jorg's empathy starts and ends with Jorg.

Emperor also left me with the sinking suspicion that, as far as the text is positioned, Jorg was forgiven. Redeemed, even. He dies, but he dies at a time and place of his choosing: his interests, legacy, family all intact and protected. Furthermore, he dies in a way that addresses - as far as Jorg is concerned - his defining failure and sole source of regret: the death of his younger brother. If, as Jorg implies, his life has been haunted by this moment, his embrace (physical and spiritual) of William in the afterlife shows that he's been successfully redeemed. Similarly, whether or not that afterlife is the societal construct of heaven ('golden gates' and all) (429) or 'real heaven' (434) is left for to reader to decide, but the text implies that Jorg's deemed to have earned his place in either one. 

Which then boils down to this:

The Broken Empire begins with the rape and murder of two innocents, and ends with the rapist becoming a martyr to save the world. Between these two moments, we have a trail of blood and violence - some of which is committed upon Jorg, most of which is committed by him. Within the text, it is established that the balance of his actions was necessary and that the sum total of his life is positive. Outside of the text, what do we think? How do we weigh up the good and the evil that he has done? As an intellectual exercise, this is intriguing. As something to read, it couldn't be less pleasant.

Let them hate us so long as they fear us - Caligula

The Broken Empire is a polarising series, and I sometimes feel that I'm the only person with mixed feelings about it. And, to be clear: they are mixed. I think this series is brilliantly written, clever as hell and stunningly bold. I also think it is grotesquely unpleasant, and I not only disagree with its premise, but also shudder at its conclusions.  (It is worth noting, if only to clear up any sort of confusion, that I don't believe that these messages and philosophies are shared with or endorsed by the author - no more that I would accuse Burgess of advocating ultraviolence or Orwell totalitarianism. These books are exploring horror not marketing it.)

However, what's also interesting about Emperor is that I've not actually reviewed the plot at all. The stuffing of this book is fairly meaningless. Jorg follows his magical GPS from place to place and meets people and occasionally fights stuff and whatever. But what makes for the entirety of most genre books is almost incidental in Emperor of Thorns. Jorg's motivation, (oft-internalised) discussion and, again with the wankiness, philosophy - those are the key elements of this book. The plot is crafted to meet the themes, not the other way around.

As a result, I am reviewing this book differently from the other DGLA finalists to date - not as an epic fantasy, but as literature.

Before my fellow fantasy fans start keelhauling me on social media, I merely mean that the genres (treating 'lit-fic' as a genre) are reviewed and discussed differently. Epic fantasy is discussed in terms of story and character and plot and setting. Is the setting cool? Does neat shit happen? Are the characters interesting? Can I escape into it?

As far as discussing this series goes, the above criteria don't apply. When considering the Broken Empire series, I immediately gravitate towards the themes of the book. These books have messages. They have a philosophy. Most epic fantasies... do not. I've noted Sanderson's work, for example, is utterly devoid of subtext (several times, now) and I hold to it. I would never say the same about this trilogy. Whether or not I enjoy these books, they are deep enough that they force me to read them more critically (and by that, I mean not "negatively" but "with examination of themes in mind").

There's nothing wrong with a fantasy book, there's nothing wrong with a book devoid of subtext and there's nothing wrong with a book that's read for enjoyment: I wholly endorse all three of those things. I'm just not sure that Emperor falls into any of those categories. And whether or not I like Emperor and its predecessors, I am judging them differently from many others in the genre. 

Fortunately, whether or not Emperor of Thorns is good fantasy and bad literature or bad fantasy and good literature is completely irrelevant! I've got my DGLA criteria!

Let's see how it does, shall we? 

'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:

  • Secondary world: Ye... [comes to screeching halt]. Wait. Ok. Here's my thought - the fact that Emperor of Thorns is set in 'our' world would preclude it from being (technically) a secondary world. But, I dinged this above for being a distraction - specifically, not something that's core to the book. So, yes, our world, but no, not really our world, and meh, because whether or not it is in our world, that doesn't mean much. (And, on the whole, may actually count against it in other areas. The end. So, whatever. We're sneaking it in.)
  • Traditional: Yeah. There are castles and necromancers and lost cities and empires and clerics and zombies and stuff. All familiar tropes.
  • Heroic: No. This is the big one. What Jorg is trying to accomplish doesn't abide by any sort of clear moral compass - that's the 'point of the book'. If anything the only moral direction this series gives is in favour of free will and choice (except the lead character is a viciously hypocritical unempathetic dictator, so, even if there is a compass, he ain't abiding by it). So... no.
  • Epic: Yes. Behind it all, we really do have a situation of a lost (virtually-)orphan prince becoming High King and saving the day. With the help of great eldritch powers, ones that conveniently provide him with Google Maps for his quest milestones. However, the intriguing part of this book - again, noted above - is that Jorg sees this role as a role and strives to achieve it.
  • High fantasy: Lots of magic. Even if it is Earth, there's lots of magic (and magic-magic, not just tech-disguised-as-magic-magic).

'Excellence' criteria:

  • Entertaining: Yargh. No? Yes? It made me think (which is a form of entertainment, at least, so lit-fic defenders argue when they're reading Proust for 'fun') but was not the sort of book one 'enjoys'. We'll give it a weak 'yes'. If it were boring and nihilist, I wouldn't have finished it. 
  • Innovative: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Immensely. We've got the grand epic quest, turned on its head and used as a platform to discuss other, bigger themes. (Standing ovation)
  • Reactionary: Well, the women are appalling. I might as well put that in some sort of autotext, as we're pretty much six for six as far as Gemmell contenders are concerned. As to the greater themes of the book... I think Jorg's redemption arc is despairing and depressing and horrifying, but I'm not sure it is specifically 'reactionary'.

So where's this fit into the scheme of things? I think comparing Emperor of Thorns to the other books on the shortlist is like measuring out a Moray Eel for tuna salad. Whereas the other books I've read so far are more or less engineered for audience entertainment, Emperor of Thorns, on the other hand, eschews enjoyment in favour of thematic consistency. It is a very different sort of beast. I suppose I'll say no more for now, but that I'm looking forward to considering all five of the candidates together.


*I would like to spare a moment of silence for all the chambermaids and servant girls that Jorg was having sex with in King of Thorns. He had 'necromancy in his veins' at the time (until the end of King), and, as revealed in Emperor, that turns his bodily fluids into poison. Eee.

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