Tuesday, August 7, 2012

REVIEW: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I'm quite annoyed that it took me this long to get around to reading Prince of Thorns, one of the sharpest, freshest and most entertaining reads in recent times for me.

I begin my quasi-review (let's be honest, I don't actually write reviews, I just spew forth unchecked opinions) with an excerpt which demonstrates why I loved this book.
""What in feck's name was the point of stealing a horse if I have to drag the damn thing up the slightest incline we meet?"
"To be fair, Prince, this is more by way of a cliff," Makin said.
"I blame Sir Alain for owning a deficient horse.""
Of course it's not as entertaining without the context of the rest of the story, but rest assured I had a good chuckle. This is really one of the strengths of Prince of Thorns for me; the easy flow in which Lawrence moves between the ofttimes macabre and the amusing, the latter in a very droll kind of way. His handle on humour reminds me a lot of Pratchett's Discworld novels, some of the only books to have me laughing out loud. Especially in fantasy I find the key to a good laugh can just be a simple real-world reference or colloquialism, and its often the surprise of it and the simplicity that makes it funny. For instance:
""For Christ's sake" I drew my sword and swung on a rising arc in the same motion. His head came off clean. I let the momentum carry me round, and brought the blade down with all my strength, overhand on the pulsing stump of his neck. The blow cut him before he could fall and cut deep, splitting his sternum.
"I'm not interested!" I shouted the words at his corpse as I let its weight pull me to the ground."
The casual manner in which Jorg deals with this foe as if he were a door-to-door salesman might not be that funny on its own, but of course it takes place after a harrowing battle in which a favoured character meets their end. The swift transition between exhaustion-fueling-hopelessness and exhaustion-fuelling-an-impatient-rage is one I appreciated.

Jorg is really one of the things that makes this book. Thankfully Lawrence has no time for woeful and angsty heroes or simpering maidens fair. Rather than lamenting his losses and considering at length the problems that plague the world along with his own inner-torments, Jorg is prone to simply lop off someone's head and be done with it. That isn't to say he's a happy-go-lucky teenager though - far from it. Jorg is cold and more than a little unhinged, but somehow his extreme sociopathic tendencies do little to sway us from his side; in fact his brusqueness and honesty are a breath of fresh air and quite endearing.

However, even with his dark past and unpredictability, it is sometimes difficult to truly believe in Jorg and his actions. Most 10-year olds I know are sitting on the couch eating Coco-Pops and watching Cartoon Network and still cry if they fall over (wow, still sounds like 25-year old me). Yes, different world, different circumstances, but what bugged me a tiny bit was how unapologetic Lawrence was about his teenage-genius-killing-machine. Of course there are many strong similarities between Prince of Thorns and Rothfuss' KingKiller Chronicles, both in terms of the style and story, but also the protagonist. But where Rothfuss continually points of how extraordinary Kvothe is, taking pains to detail how he actually got that way, Lawrence just lets us assume that it's totally normal for pre-pubescent boys to hatch plans that decimate entire kingdoms.

I read some tidbits about this book containing shocking violence and rape ... I'm sorry, but is there another version of this book that those people read? I'm no horror expert (in fact I totally steer clear), but I think a quick viewing of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will get some perspective happening. In fact, it was so toned down that I didn't even take note of it while reading the book. All we really experience is some run-of-the-mill gore from one-on-one combat and some hinting at rape, that is never actually experienced on described. I make it sound like I'm unimpressed, but of course this is just my case against the bemoaners. I thought the violence was handled with a masterful stroke and genuineness. Some parts were even given over to the black humour mentioned earlier ... this was one of my favourites:
"The combination of a woman and time on my hands wasn't one I'd tried before. I found the mix to my liking. There's a lot to be said for not being in a queue, or not having to finish up before the flames take hold of the building. And the willingness! That was new too, albeit paid for. In the dark I could imagine it was free."
The pace of Prince of Thorns was something I really appreciated, especially after spending the better part of this year reading A Song of Ice and Fire. Traveling scenes? Lengthy descriptions of times gone by? No, no, not for Mark Lawrence! In my opinion he really has created the perfect balance; hints and tidbits of exposition are delivered gradually throughout, building a dark and desolate world and characters which leaves us satisfied yet intrigued, stroking our ego's like a house cat as it let's us begin to fill in the gaps. Not weighed down, this leaves the storyline free to race on ahead!

The way the foreshadowing, or lack thereof, is handled has something to do with this I think. Lawrence doesn't set up some grand quest or ultimate goal to be achieved and so we have no expectations or holes that need to be quickly filled. We don't necessarily need to know all the details yet, which keeps us from going mad with curiosity, which would usually be the case in this situation.

This mystery of this formerly technologically-filled, post-apocalyptic world checked all the boxes for me and was handled very similarly to Paul Hoffman's The Left Hand of God, with just enough info being casually mentioned to make you question where the story was taking place. Even more so however, it reminds me of the setting for Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, in which the technological remnants of the past remain to plague, mystify leave their mark on the current population. Whereas Carmody's series was a little bit more believable in terms of the mutations that occurred in human-kind, teetering on the knife-edge of fantasy and sci-fi, Prince of Thorns is like a child on red cordial, taking every liberty to introduce some fantastical elements which just seemed a little too far fetched for me. 

The only downside to this break-neck pace and lack of foreshadowing for me however, is that when new elements or plot-twists are introduced later on in the story, they seem to come out of nowhere and the absence of justification or strong-grounding within the plot is keenly felt. This is especially so in the last two thirds of the book as they depart severely from where the first third was going and if you were like me and didn't even read the blurb, this is quite a jolt. There is a point where the story goes from band of vagabonds making a living by smashing heads of all kinds, to dealing with sorcerers and alien-like creatures that look like they should be Pokemon.

By the end of the book though I think we all come to terms with it and finally get to settle down in the world Lawrence has created, with hopefully a clearer view of what to expect next ... buuuuttt also hoping for more of the unexpected! King of Thorns has definitely been bumped up through my to-read list!


  1. Still need to give this series a read - every review I come across seems to nudge it a bit closer to the top of the TBR pile.

    1. Obviously I recommend you do. It's a relatively short novel and as I mentioned very fast paced - only took me two days. Give it a go!

  2. See, this is why I'm getting out of fantasy reviewing...I HATED this one! same as I hate Abercrombie, and the rest of the world pretty much seems to love 'em so...eh...maybe I'm just too old and stuck in my ways!

    1. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I think the book itself is only one factor in deciding whether one likes it or not. For instance it's also totally about the context and timing. One of the reasons I loved this was for the pace, BUT I had just finished reading A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows. Additionally, I've found the more I have read, the more picky I've become. When I was a teenager I loved EVERYTHING I read, possibly because I didn't know any better.

      It's also about expectations and hype - expectations can make or ruin anything.

      But regardless, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a different opinion to the masses - we're all completely unique and individual. My friends struggle with the fact that I don't find Johnny Depp attractive in the slightest :P