On page five of Prince of Thorns, I almost stopped reading. By page 12, I went to my computer to read a few reviews from some trusted bloggers/critics to reassure myself that it was a book I truly wanted to give a chance. By page 40 of Prince of Thorns, I couldn’t put it down.
So, why’d I hate it?
The novel begins in such a caustic, morally insensitive way that I was almost instantly reminded of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book to bring me such ire that I almost literally threw it into the fireplace. I finished Lord Foul’s Bane, on the strength of two trusted readers, but ended up hating the novel so much that I haven’t touched Donaldson since. That experience rang though my head as I began Prince of Thorns. The protagonist/narrator, Jorg, was just such a little fuck, so insensitive and hard to relate to, that I couldn’t fathom reading an entire novel centred around him.
So why’d I continue?
Where the actions of GRRM’s most atrocious characters can often be justified and accepted with a certain sense of reality, Lawrence’s characters are black all the way to the pit of their core
Just like Lord Foul’s Bane, I went to some trusted readers and reviewers for an opinion more informed than the one I’d come to after reading only 12 pages. Reviewers with tastes similar to mine love the book, often citing it as one of the top Fantasy debuts of 2011. Heady words. Also scattered amongst those reviews were comparisons to some of my favourite writers: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin. Comparisons to Abercrombie (for unleashed violence and nihilism) and Lynch (for wit and an easy black humour) are fair, though such comparisons perhaps do Lawrence’s work a disservice by pigeonholing him into a style of Fantasy that he breaks away from with some interesting plot developments mid-way through the novel, but comparisons to GRRM are silly. There’s certainly a high level of high stakes politicking and a penchant for killing characters, similar to what you find in some of Martin’s storylines in A Song of Ice and Fire, but where the actions of GRRM’s most atrocious characters can often be justified and accepted with a certain sense of reality, Lawrence’s characters are black all the way to the pit of their core and their actions reflect this in a way that often tore me away from my sense of belief and reminded me that I was reading a piece of fiction.
So, why’d I fall in love?
So off-putting at first, but central to the success of the novel, is Jorg (not pronounced “yorg,” apparently, but “george.”) He begins as a reprehensible bandit, torching a village and acting like a villain for little-to-no reason other than that he’s angry, young and enjoys the mayhem. (And to allow Lawrence to establish the essence of his character) But as the novel progresses and Lawrence delves into the past of the young prince through a series of flashbacks, the reasons for his actions and his shattered psyche become more clear and, almost without realizing it, the reader begins to see Jorg not as a sociopath without hope, but a boy damaged by a traumatic childhood experience that once forced him to become the demon he hated so as not to be overcome by the fear, anxiety and anger that fills him. By the end of the novel, Lawrence has taken the little shithead to great depths and his actions are explored thoroughly. Prince of Thorns is a dark novel and often hard to read, but by the end it’s not dark for the sake of shock value, or dark simply to allow Lawrence to explore some sick part of his soul; rather, it’s dark because exploring those lightless depths is central to the core themes of Jorg’s story.
“There is no evil, Makin,” I said. “There’s the love of things, power, comfort, sex, and there’s what men are willing to do to satisfy those lusts.” I kicked the ruin of the necromancer’s corpse. “You think these sad creatures are evil? You think we should fear them?” (p. 248 of Waterstone’s ERC)
Jorg is Doogie Howser as written by Joe Abercrombie, and it’s sometimes hard to swallow.
Jorg, and Lawrence’s handling of him, is not without a few missteps though, and the most egregious comes from something so simple, so small and easily changed, that it’s a wonder no editor or early reader intervened along the way. It’s his age. As a character and a narrator, Jorg is compelling and likable despite his heinous acts; he’s intelligent, ruthless and sly, commanding a band of dozens of hardened bandits, criminals, murders and rapists who bend to his will; he’s fifteen years old. Too often, I was ripped out of the story because Jorg acted in a way that defied his age (which is implicitly concrete in the story, given the chain of events that leads to Jorg’s self-imposed exile). He has the mental and emotional capacity of a person much, much older than himself and there’s little reason given for why he is able to act in such a way. No matter how hard a life a child’s had, or how grisly his companions, a fifteen year old is still a child in the teetering transition into adulthood, and should act as such. Think of a fifteen year old savant coaching the New York Yankees. Or taking control of a company of soliders. Or an inner-city gang. It’s just not going to happen, no matter how brilliant or charismatic he is. Jorg is at times impetuous and acts rashly, which rings true for a teenager, but then at the drop of a pin he’s a ruthless and calculating political genius. Jorg is Doogie Howser as written by Joe Abercrombie, and it’s sometimes hard to swallow.
If the young boy is prince, then the setting is king in Prince of Thorns. Taking a page from an idea touched upon by authors such as Walter M. Miller Jr. (A Canticle for Leibowitz) and Terry Brooks’ (lightly in The Sword of Shannara and then more obviously in The Druid of Shannara), Lawrence builds a Fantasy world out of post-apocalyptic Europe. Throughout the novel are scattered tantalizing hints at the end of our world, referred to at the “Day of a Thousand Sun,” and, along with Jorg, are the most compelling aspect of Lawrence’s creation.
“There’s a door to death, a veil between the worlds, and we push through when we die. But on the Day of a Thousand Suns so many people had to push through at once, they broke the door. The veils are thin now. It just takes a whisper and the right promise, and you can call the dead back.” (pp. 217)
The way Lawrence draws a compelling post-apocalyptic wasteland full of skyscrapers-turned-castles, rogue AIs and biological warfare from a seemingly generic fantasy wold is a feat to be lauded. Most interesting is that through the end of the world, religion and myth have both persevered among society, though technology and political lines are long shattered and forgotten. From Robin Hood to Plato and Socrates, Lawrence has weaved the mythology of our world into his post-apocalyptic society with an easiness and logic that feels natural, allowing the world to seem alien and familiar at the same time.
From my encounter with Sageous in the West Yard I went straight to mass. Meeting the pagan had left me wanting a touch of the church of Roma, a breath of incense, and a heavy dose of dogma. If heathens held such powers, it seemed only right that the church should have a little magic of its own to bestow upon the worthy, and hopefully upon the unworthy who bothered to show up. Failing that, I had need of a priest in any case.
We marched into the chapel to find Father Gomst presiding. The choir song faltered before the clatter of boots on polished marble. Nuns shrank into the shadows beneath the brothers? leers, and, no doubt, the rankness of our company. Gains and Sim took off their helms and bowed their heads. Most of them just glanced around for something worth stealing.
“Forgive the intrusion, Father.” I set a hand in the font by the entrance and let the holy water lift the blood from my skin. It stung.
“Prince!” He set his book upon the lectern and looked up, white-faced. “These men . . . it is not proper.”
“Oh shush.” I walked the aisle, eyes on the painted marvel of the ceiling, turning slowly as I went, one hand raised and open, dripping. “Aren’t they all sons of God? Penitent children returned for forgiveness?” (pp. 194-195)
Prince of Thorns is further bouyed by some beautiful writing. Eloquent amongst the chaos, Lawrence’s prose is simple and fast-moving, with just enough of a hint of poetry to lend and air of realism to Jorg’s narrative voice and royal upbringing. In such a grim story as Prince of Thorns, Lawrence is able to find a certain sort of beauty in his grim world. One of my favourite passages comes during a fight in the latter half of the novel:
I cleared scabbard and followed the arc of my family blade to face the necromancer. It’s one of those swords they say can make the wind bleed. Appropriately the edge found only empty air, which hissed as if cut. (p. 228)
Also of particular note are the precise descriptions of Jorg’s fellow bandits scattered throughout the novel as chapter breaks:
Brother Row you could trust to make a long shot with a short bow. You could trust him to come out of a knife fight with somebody else’s blood on his shirt. You could trust him to lie, to cheat, to steal, and to watch your back. You couldn’t trust his eyes though. He had kind eyes, and you couldn’t trust them. (p. 218)
Most men have at least one redeeming feature. Finding one for Brother Rike requires a stretch. Is “big” a redeeming feature? (p. 236)
Without wasting narrative space, these little vignettes and observances achieve a depth for Jorg’s bandits that allows the reader to connect with them and understand something of their nature without intruding on the story itself. It also reveals more of Jorg’s introspective nature, something that he often stifles in the main narrative.
It will make you think and wonder, it will stick in your gut and twist itself around while you’re not reading it.
Prince of Thorns is not an easy novel to read, despite the fast-flowing prose and short chapters. It’s caustic and hard to swallow; it won’t wish you off to sleep with pleasant dreams, nor greet you in the morning with a smile on its face and a kiss on your lips. But it will make you think and wonder, it will stick in your gut and twist itself around while you’re not reading it. I almost put Prince of Thorns down in its first few pages, but on turning its final page, I had discovered one of 2011’s finest Fantasy novels. Prince of Thorns comes with my highest recommendation, but be warned that it’s not for the weak of heart, mind or taste.