Ah, Prince of Thorns. A book that's seen a prominence in Britain due to none other than Martin (of the G.R.R. variation), and Harper Voyager's insistence that fans of Martin will love this book to the point of giving it away if people pre-ordered A Dance With Dragons from Waterstone's. It's got a lovely sticker on it with Martin's name on it, although to be brutally honest, which fantasy/sci-fi books don't have a mention of the Bearded One these days?
I've seen many reviews for Prince of Thorns over the past months, many of which praise it very highly. Four stars here, five stars there, best debut of 2011 here. Me? I can see why it was so well liked, but it did little for me, and I had a good number of problems with it to boot.
Prince of Thorns is a tale about a kid named Jorg. When we first meet him, he's 14, six foot tall, toned and muscular, and an utter bastard. He murders, lies, rapes, assaults, abuses, steals - He's pretty much the villain of most gritty fantasy books. Oh, he's also a prince who lives under a sort of self-exile after the murder of his mother and younger brother. And he's incredibly mature... acting. He's a self-obsessed, self-righteous, egotistical arse too, who would even sacrifice mother dearest to get what he wants, although without mother dearest dying, this story probably wouldn't happen. Can you see where I'm going with this? Jorg is able to cut down experienced soldiers, fight in armour, survive being stabbed in the chest and all these other magical things. Pah! You can't deny that something about him is compelling, though, and it's the only thing that kept me reading.
The supporting characters are little different. We have a black man often called the Nuban, and we're frequently reminded that the black man is indeed black and that he has black skin and that Nubans are black. Because he's black, you see. Jorg's Brothers (i.e. his band of merry men) are either food-obsessed, rape-obsessed, violence-obsessed or they're the fallen captain who joins in but still has a sense of honour. The women tend to act simply as sex machines, angry birds or... Oh, I think that's about it. Aside from the almost Oedipal reverence Jorg has for mother dearest, there's not a single positive female character. The one I liked the most was a prostitute, the second best was Jorg's aunt-through-marriage, yet he seemed to quite enjoy mentally fapping over her. Oh, and he almost raped her. Pretty much every woman bar Jorg's mother and his mother-in-law gets beaten, sexed (Either consensually or raped) or... Uh, I think that's the range of interactions.
The world is a bit unusual, because it starts off as a typical medieval world, although some places have suspiciously real place names (Normardy, for example, sounds suspiciously close to Normandy), and people like Plato and Sun Tzu begin to be named, until we find out that this is in fact a darker, bloodier Shannara and that the world has sort of gone pop and then back to this medieval age at some point in the past. A lot of things take their names from archaic places and names. Persia makes a sort of cameo appearance, there's some new Sarachens (Saracens, mayhaps?), Nubans are clearly African and so forth. Things we take for granted such as concrete and plastic also appear, although they're named Builder-stone and plasteek respectively. Oh, and a weird vault computer thingy also magically survives.
Now, the plot. I honestly do not know why most things happened. Jorg is trying to kill his uncle, which clearly involves razing villages, raping women, killing his own men and killing others. He then decides to go home to his dad (The King!) for some reason, but not before killing one of his brothers for the fun of it, and he encounters ghosties and some old priest bloke who recovers from near-death rather quickly. Daddy tells him to bring him a county, Jorgy-poo runs off to do it (Not before getting angry at Daddy's advisor/puppet-master) and so on and so forth. We go through tunnels with necromancers, a tourney outside a castle and a few other things here and there.
The chapters of the plot are peppered by retrospective chapters that, without fail, take place four years ago, back when Jorg was about ten or eleven (I'll comment on that later). They almost invariably involve Jorg and the black Nuban of blackness, and how Jorg comes to respect him (I'll mention that later, too) and how we ended up where we are with this story. I thought they added some good information, but I feel like they could perhaps have been put at the start to give a chronologically smoother read.
My problem with the plot for the book was that whilst some overarching plot was clear, I felt that most of the book just happened, and it wasn't helped by the time skipping all over the place. Something interesting would be about to happen and then... Pop! It's over, and we weren't privy to the actual events. I honestly struggle to remember why Jorg went through the necromancer tunnels, up an elevator shaft (I think... Or was it a buried skyscraper?), why he killed the ladymancer, why he found the bombs, why he blew the mountain up, how he managed to escape in time and so forth. Things just happened, and I felt no real connection nor relevance to the events. I don't think many of these events were helped by Lawrence's often unclear writing, which caused me to reread things more often than I'd have liked.
The fusion of post-apocalyptic settings and a medieval fantasy world doesn't fully work for Lawrence, partially because of his writing but also because of the setting itself. Some things from our existence carried over, but many things didn't. How did this vault continue to function potentially thousands of years after the "apocalypse", and why did society revert itself to a society where women are only good for food and sex? Surely if humanity survived, which it clearly did, then many things like social attitudes would survive to some degree? Christianity survived in this world, and somehow so did written texts, but some characters speak Latin. *How* did they learn Latin in the first place? How did magic come to exist? How could they almost word-for-word reconstruct a medieval setting? Too many questions were left unanswered for me.
Finally, in terms of writing, I felt that Lawrence repeated things too often. The line, or a variation thereof, "I respect that in a man" came up often. I mentioned before that the Nuban's skin colour is stated frequently. There were also inconsistencies with Jorg's age. He's almost fifteen at the start, and reaches that age soon enough. That would mean the Four Years Ago bits span from ages ten to eleven, which is fair enough, except for the fact that Jorg is almost exactly the same four years ago. The way he speaks, the way he acts? He's an arrogant arse even at ten. However, when one of Jorg's best friends said "A little over three years ago, you were ten", it's clearly wrong. Jorg would have been eleven going on twelve. That's a big error there, Mr Protector of Jorgy.
Overall, Prince of Thorns is a disappointing read. I don't mind gritty fantasy, but so little about this book was redeeming. The way women were treated made last year's Farlander look like the pinnacle of female equality, and that even mentioned breasts every two pages! Whilst Jorg was oddly compelling, he was as believable as Nicolas Cage's attempts to act. I find it impossible to believe that an arrogant, puffed-up fourteen year old would be able to lead a band of men twice his age, twice his strength etc, and so forth. It made no sense to me. It made even less sense for him to be a walking tank. I'm sure many people like this book, and that's fine, but for me? I just didn't buy it, and I thought the way women were treated was almost creepy. A shame, really.