Underground Reading: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Thursday, September 19, 2013
This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.
King of Thorns (2012) is the second book in Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire series. His debut, Prince of Thorns, was one of 2011's most interesting and controversial books due to its lead character: Jorg Ancrath, a vicious teenager who takes his adolescent angst to near-apocalyptic levels. To some, Prince was grimdarkness to the point of farce. To others, it was an original and fascinating interpretation of the genre.
[This review contains major spoilers for both Prince of Thorns and King of Thrones.]
Jorg has now become king of his own tiny portion of the Broken Empire, but he's got his eye on bigger and better things - the Imperial throne. To some degree, Jorg sees his ascension as inevitable, he's got the unmatched combination of cunning and ambition, after all. Unfortunately, not everyone else agrees. The first problem that poses itself is Prince Orrin of Arrow, as close as this land will ever get to a 'knight of legend'. He's ostensibly everything good and right, and the other micro-countries are all flocking to his banner. Jorg, however, has no such intention.
Jorg's war with Orrin (and his brother Egan) is the central plot of the book, but by no means the only one. Following the complex structure that he began in Prince, Mr. Lawrence divides the book into several narratives. In one, Jorg is defending his land from Prince Orrin's invasion. In another, Jorg has a magic memory box - every time he opens it, he finds something new from some point in his past (generally, but not exclusively, four years previous). In yet another, Jorg's gallivanting around the world with his Brothers (his ex-bandit friends) around that same, four years previous, time. And, finally, Katherine, Jorg's "love interest" (we'll get to that) narrates snippets of her own story through journal entries.
The narratives are all deftly woven together, with all the timelines and stories building together to a single climactic moment.
Why it should be King...
It isn't just the narrative trickery - it is that it actually works. On its simplest level, the primary narrative (Jorg defending his kingdom) is punctuated with 'flash-back' style looks at his travels from four years before - when he essentially set up the groundwork for his tiny country's innovative defense. His 'strategic' flashbacks also come with more personal ones, and as Jorg fights a physical battle on the mountains, he's also fighting a deeper, more emotional one internally. What did he do four years ago? And why is it haunting him? And what is really at stake in this battle? It is all intricately planned and executed.
In addition - another two perks of the shifting narrative: by cutting back and forth between the storyline, King of Thorns heightens the tension each time; also it allows the author to explore different perspectives on the same set of events. The current genre style is to juggle multiple point of view characters, in the hopes of achieving that same result. The advantage to Mr. Lawrence's approach is that there's only a single character involved, allowing the reader to better connect with him over the length of the book. The (potential) disadvantage is that it forces Jorg has to have different 'perspectives' on the same events - in essence, he needs to surprise himself in order for the reader to be surprised. Mr. Lawrence solves this deftly by using the magical "memory box".
Jorg's also a clever protagonist. He has one early fight that he leaps into on brawn alone and he learns his (painful) lesson. From then on, Jorg's solely about brains and intuition; unconventional solutions and some interesting lateral thinking. Furthermore, with the exception of one final deus ex machina, all of Jorg's tricks are 'fair' (in the Detection Club sense). The reader can applaud Jorg's resourcefulness without ever feeling cheated, or that King of Thorns is making it up as it goes along.
All of the above reasons are testaments to King of Thorns' craftsmanship. But the primary way it impressed me is through its philosophical ambitions: adding a discussion of the "why?" that infuses every action. Ultimately, the theme I gathered out of King of Thorns was one of freedom. Jorg consistently rebels against anyone telling him what he can or cannot do, and his own goal is to be in a position where he - and he alone - is is own master. If nothing else, this is a fantastical exploration of Crowley's "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law".
On the largest level, this is core to the plot. Jorg's opposition to the "inevitable" victory of the Prince of Arrow is based on his refusal to submit to another's control. In fact, his entire quest for the Imperial throne is one that began purely because people dared to tell him otherwise. In smaller scenarios, whether Jorg is doing "good" or "evil" (note the scare-quotes in both cases), he's quick to react to situations that would impose on his individuality or that of others. He's anti-church and frees witches, anti-prophesy and kills soothsayers. He goes on a ridiculously convoluted quest with Gog because, otherwise, Gog's destiny will be dictated to him. His ongoing battle with the forces of the undead is similarly motivated: they want Jorg to do and/or be something that he refuses to be.
Whether or not Jorg is likable (he isn't) or empathetic (he isn't), or his decisions are appealing (they aren't), Jorg is consistent - and King of Thorns manages to weave this larger discussion into its narrative. Which, whether or not I agree with the philosophical construct at work, I can certainly appreciate it, and, as a project, this is an ambitious, laudable use of a fantastical setting.
...and why it is just thorny...
As has been my tendency for the past few books, I'm going to pick at King of Thorns in a few ways:
- First, a few critical thoughts about King of Thorns.
- Second, a seemingly tangential question on how we are meant to review and compare shortlisted books.
- Finally, why that question is actually relevant to King of Thorns.
First, issues with King of Thorns:
Women are represented badly. Katherine is the only female character with a major role... as a sex object. Her diary (another way of dehumanising her) is filled with complaints about her lack of agency - everyone only sees her as a beautiful woman and a prize (...and she tells the reader that she kind of likes it). King of Thorns is littered with third-party characters that tell us that she's amazing and fiery and important, but we're never shown a reason why. Her romance with Jorg is equally flimsy. Their actual interactions with Jorg mostly consist of our 'hero' gazing on her with ferocious lust and the two of them yelling nonsense at one another (either false accusations or actual nonsense).
On the next rung down we have Chella, the naked necromancer. She tries to seduce-and-kill Jorg, only to fail - whereupon she tries to marry-and-corrupt him. Despite her impact on his "loins", he manages to outwit and kill her. Huzzah. There's also a circus contortionist (who initiated young Jorg into sex, but now he worries she'll seduce him in order to get a position at the castle) and serving maids (who Jorg 'explores' as part of his new-found position as king). Objects and seductresses - using sex to take control from men.
The one woman that is a character (of sorts) is Jorg's child-bride Miana, who is precociously clever and completely desexualised. There are other female children as well: a little girl that Jorg saves from a lingering death (by providing her an anaesthetic - one of the book's best scenes) and the dead daughters of his closest male friends. They're also objects: representations of complete purity and innocence. Other (male) characters are established by how they treat these young girl/things. Jorg, for example, behaves in a "good" way because he won't be forced into sex with Miana. (Whereas, he notes, some girls her age look more adult, and he wouldn't feel bad about them.)
I also don't - as noted above - appreciate the twist at the very, very end. (Reiterating the spoiler warning.) The model of King of Thorns is that of a "prolonged boss fight". If you imagine the primary narrative as one long battle (because, well, it is), the rest of the book is Jorg travelling around collecting usable resources, just in time (narratively speaking) to expend them. Everything he does in the battle comes a result of something else he's achieved. Except - the very, very last thing, a pan-dimensional explosion where all the evil forces haunting Jorg run amok and devour his enemies. How Jorg contains and then unleashes (under his control, no less) the apocalyptic wrath of multiple demi-gods is never explained. It is dramatic and cinematic, but also nonsensical. In a book that's been predicated on Jorg's intelligence and self-reliance, it is frustrating to have his last, critical act come screaming out of left field.
Second, a larger question on reviewing and comparing shortlisted books:
Due to my random, vague-alphabetical method of reviewing the DGLA shortlists, King of Thorns is the first book so far that is part of a series. Arguably, Red Country is part of a series, but it is written as a stand-alone - unlike King of Thorns, The Blinding Knife or The Gathering of the Lost - all of which are one segment of a larger narrative arc.
If I were just reviewing King of Thorns on its own - this isn't a problem. I can draw from, or not draw from, the other books as I see fit. However, I'm not. The shortlist forces me to compare five books and choose one that is (by same undefined metric) "best". So how do I do that with a book in a series?
- Ignore the rest of the series and judge the book completely on the strength of its own text. Removing the rest of the series from the equation forces this book into an uphill battle. Jorg's background, his early struggles, his connections with many characters - these were all defined in Prince of Thorns. King of Thorns is not meant to be read as a stand-alone, and would it would theoretically suffer for it.
- Judge King of Thorns with the series - and its context - in mind. In this case, we're being unjust to all the other books, who have established a setting, characters, context, etc. in the course of a single text. Why should other books be penalised for not having two or three times the space to tell their story?
I can see the arguments for both sides, and, to be honest, there's no easy answer. It is a discussion I had every year when I was judging the Kitschies, and I know that Clarke judges have the same annual debate. In the case of the DGLA, however, I think there are two factors that sway me towards the latter interpretation:
- The status quo in epic fantasy is the series. Red Country is actually in the minority as something that at least tries to stand alone. The commercial reality of the epic fantasy marketplace is that long series (trilogies or more) are the standard, and very few books are meant to be read as isolated texts.
- Past performance. Last year a second book in a series (Wise Man's Fear) won - one that did not have a self-contained story arc (cough - or a plot). Previous winners have also included a Black Library title by Darius Hinks. The experienced epic fantasy readers of the DGLA clearly have no objection to texts that are not in and of themselves 'complete' - happy to rely on characters, setting, context and story being provided in other books.
Fair enough - I'll respect the voters and the market, and judge King of Thorns not solely as a stand-alone text, but also as a continuation of Prince of Thorns. (Note: I can't include Emperor of Thorns, as voters don't have access to it at this point.)
Third, and thus, we have a problem...
If we take Prince of Thorns into account, King of Thorns suffers. And by this, I'm referring almost entirely to the (controversial, oft-parsed, much-discussed) opening scene of Prince of Thorns, in which Jorg rapes two young women and then burns them to death.
First, ultimately, there's absolutely nothing that Jorg can do that makes him a redeemable - much less likeable - character. That was my primary issue with Prince, and it is retained through King. It puts the reader in a position where, at 'best', we're cheering for someone that has been constructed to be as deliberately reprehensible as possible. At 'worst', we can't even do that, which makes reading the book a task without pleasure.
Second, this adds an element of hypocrisy to Jorg's character. Take, for example, the subplot in Katherine's diary. Katherine fights with Jorg and is knocked unconscious. She wakes up and realises she's been raped and (falsely, as it turns out) accuses Jorg. This tears Jorg apart. He's furious that someone has assaulted Katherine and upset that he's been blamed. At no point does he realise the horrible irony of this. He is a rapist - he just doesn't happen to be responsible for this particular rape. Similarly, when he contemplates the horror inflicted on Katherine (which he can't stop picturing, because, you know, someone violated his love interest) with the fact that he's inflicted that same horror on multiple occasions.
This lack of self-awareness continues: two of Jorg's friends are united in quiet, macho grief by the fact that their daughters were murdered. Jorg notes the impact that had on their life, how it took something from them that has changed them, etc. etc. etc. But, again, never does Jorg make the obvious connection: he's done that very same thing.
Philosophically, I suppose there's some consistency, in that Jorg is obsessed with his own freedom. (Which adds a second level of hypocrisy: he's happy to abuse his power over others.) He's upset because he could've assaulted Katherine (and, indeed, was expected to) - but chose not to. Similarly, when he's forced into the murder of his infant step-brother, he's less upset by the act than the fact he was made to do it.
To some extent, my response is instinctively and unwaveringly puritanical: Jorg will never be redeemed for his actions from the early pages of Prince, and I chafe at the idea that this book 'dares' to put him in positions that would encourage our respect or, worse, sympathy for him. But, more than that, there's the jarring lack of self-awareness, Jorg never addresses the conflict inherent in his role as both villain and supposed avenger, not even to try to rationalise it. (Not that he could.)
To return to the start of this section - my point is this: King of Thorns is the rare case of a book in a series that would be better off judged as a text in isolation. However, it isn't - and the actions of Prince of Thorns still echo through the rest of the series.
And in conclusion... king or thorns?
As with Prince of Thorns, I'm left without an easy answer, and absolutely no idea where I'd rank this on this year's shortlist. Did I like this book? No, not at all. Although I suppose I enjoyed King of Thorns more than its predecessor, that's still a relative measure - Prince burned bridges that I can't see being rebuilt. Do I respect this book? Yes, a great deal. As with Prince, this is an excellent work of writing craft, with a complex narrative, an intriguing protagonist and an intriguing philosophical stance. I don't agree with the latter, but I don't have to: I can still be impressed by how it is woven throughout the book.
I suppose, in a way, I should be careful what I wish for. After grumping through several reviews about how we're getting a class of epic fantasies that are satisfied with being mere entertainment and not reaching for anything more... I'm given a book that has a coherent subtext and thematic strength, and... I didn't enjoy it at all. A book I'm glad I've read but will never be able to recommend. Make of that as you will.