This is part of a series of reviews, covering the finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award (both best novel and best debut categories). I think it is fair to say that Prince of Thorns (2011) by Mark Lawrence was one of last year's most highly anticipated debuts. Part of it was the Voyager clout - they did their best to package Prince of Thorns with A Dance with Dragons (both mentally and promotionally) - "Marketing" takes a lot of abuse in publishing, but this was a good move that shouldn't be forgotten.
More than that, Mr. Lawrence's book, at least superficially, rides the wave of George R.R. Martin's fantasy legacy, painting secondary worlds with the grim tones of Middle Ages historicity. (As a thesis, that's pretty rubbish - GRRM wasn't the first to do this, nor was he even the first big seller to do this. But for our purposes, he'll do. It is worth watching the video of GRRM at EasterCon for his opinion of his own legacy.)
But Prince of Thorns takes "Martinian" moral ambiguity to a new extreme. Mr. Lawrence sets his adventure in a complex and well-crafted world, but features one of the most controversial and monstrous protagonists in fantasy fiction.
The titular Prince of Thorns is Jorg Ancrath, a teenage boy (under 15) who has spent the last four years as an outlaw in his own kingdom. While his father sits atop his throne, Jorg has taken to the road and spent his adolescence becoming a monster. Under his leadership, his band of "brothers" plague the countryside. Not that they're the only problem: the world is a mess. Petty kingdoms and their leaders all grub about for the shattered remnants of a fallen empire. Dark magic lurks in the corners, and, all in all, it is a pretty unpleasant place.
Mr. Lawrence describes the land with a light touch, and what detail is given often comes second-hand, shared through thoughts and dialogue rather than description. In one brilliant exchange, the entire setting is summed up:
"So you're a soldier. What's the world about?"
"War." He set a hand to the hilt of his sword, unconscious of the action. "The Hundred War."
"And what's that about, soldier?" I asked.
"A hundred noble-born fighting across as many lands for the Empire throne."
"That's what I always thought," I said. (326)
Not only is this everything the reader needs to know about the setting's background, it also sets up a bit of subjectivity. We're not learning what the world is, we're learning what the people think it is. Maybe what they've been told isn't true, and maybe there's something set up for later. Or not. Either way, this simple conversation spares us pages of exposition, and tells us that the land is a violent, restless, disorderly place, and possibly an untrustworthy one as well.
Atmospherically, the use of magic is reminiscent of the stories of Robert E. Howard. Magic is a twisted, sinister, lethal force that makes strong men lose their will and undermines the moral and physical fabric those who use it. It is cheating - an unholy force that helps the weak overpower the strong. Mr. Lawrence never explains the wizardry (more necromancy, really), but errs on the side of horror. It is unknown and horrible. Even when the reader puzzles out how things work, Jorg is often still in the dark - knowing only that grisly forces are at play.
As far as plot goes, Prince of Thorns borders on the traditional - almost a coming of age epic. Jorg has been lurking in self-exile, scratching at the fringes of society. Now he's returning home, to reintroduce himself to his father, avenge the death of his mother and prove himself to the kingdom. Jorg has plans, although this first step may prove to be the most difficult of them all.
However, Prince of Thorns lives or dies by Jorg, the book's main character (and first person narrator). Despite the depth of the world or the engagement of the plot, this comes down to the experience of spending 380 pages in Jorg's head. And here, Mr. Lawrence may have succeeded too well. Jorg is brilliantly crafted, utterly engaging, clever, intelligent and, ultimately, sickening.
The book opens with the end of a successful raid. Jorg is directing his outlaw band in the celebratory sack and pillage of a farmers' hamlet. As well as directing the attack in the first place, Jorg participates in all the various activities, down to raping the farmers' daughters and then burning everyone to death. (He even lights the thatch of the inn with his own torch.) It is a powerful scene and, unsurprisingly, a controversial one.
Most of the debate has been focused around the rape - with Prince of Thorns acting as a lightning rod for the entirety of modern epic fantasy. Not since Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (1977) has a mainstream fantasy featured a protagonist that opens a book by raping someone. And, arguably, Mr. Donaldson's entire series was about the suffering brought about by that one act. Here, it isn't only that Jorg starts the book in this way, but also that he treats the act so casually. Some of the discussion has been about the quantity of rape, which is misleading. Prince of Thorns is not cover-to-cover graphic sexual violence, as several critics have made it sound. But with a few carefully worded lines (see the link above), Jorg becomes a monster.
Moreover, it isn't something that he can ever come back from, changing the reader's experience of the rest of the book. When Jorg encounters Katherine, a young noblewoman at his father's castle, every scene is uncomfortably tense - not just for the characters, but for the reader. This isn't adolescent confusion, this is a young man who has a moral compass that would allow him to "take her" against her will. And then burn the castle down afterwards.
Which all begs the question... why? Why is it necessary to have a protagonist that's so aggressively, angrily vile? Bret Easton Ellis did something similar with Patrick Bateman. American Psycho (1991) was the vivisection of the young, male American Dream in the late 1980s. Businessman by day, serial killer by night, Bateman degenerated further and further into madness until, at the end, the lines between truth and fiction were blurred entirely.
Continuing the parallel, Jorg could be the Patrick Bateman of Minas Tirith, with Prince of Thorns a savage reinterpretation of the void at the center of a young man's dream. Bateman and Jorg both commit acts from their respective positions of privilege and power. Furthermore, rather than examining the emptiness of Wall Street, Prince of Thorns even could be seen as a twisted examination of escapist fantasy itself, asking provocative questions about what readers really want from their stories. Is their (young, male) dream the satisfaction of a happy ending or is it voyeurism into uninhibited power?
But there are crucial differences between American Psycho and Prince of Thorns that mean the comparison doesn't hold up. For one, Mr. Ellis relies on splatterpunk grotesqueries to make the actions of Patrick Bateman less - not more - real. Bateman's descent into madness is the central transformation of the book. His actions (real or imagined) are releases; they are his ways of coping with the crippling realisation that he's "succeeded" and success is utterly empty. For Jorg, his actions are unquestionably real. He's not approaching from a position of madness or release, but from one of ambition and calculation. Bateman is eventually revealed as pathetic; Jorg as terrifying. His atrocities are deliberate and often, in the context of the book, they underpin his progress. There is a good chance that the later volumes of the trilogy will present some sort of karmic conclusion, but as a self-contained text, Prince of Thorns borders on nihilism.
So again, why? And here I just don't know. As an experiment, Prince of Thorns is incredibly ambitious and ingeniously composed. But that only makes it more puzzling as the book is so painfully bleak. Prince of Thorns is not morally ambiguous, nor is it savagely amoral - there are rights and wrongs established, and the protagonist deliberately and callously chooses the latter and reaps the rewards. Jorg's actions don't make him unheroic, they make him a monster. Watching him succeed is a bleak and unrewarding thing, and ultimately, one that I found uncomfortable to read. There's no question that his debut establishes Mark Lawrence as a talented writer, but his book is a well-done thing I can't embrace.