Monday, 27 February 2012

A Game of Thorns: Or This Partially Being an Epic Review of the Epic Fantasy Novel, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, And Partially Something Else

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man. 
- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
At first Conan thought it to be a great black gorilla. Then he saw that it was a giant black man that crouched ape-like, long arms dangling, froth dripping from the loose lips. It was not until, with a sobbing cry, the creature lifted huge hands and rushed towards him, that Conan recognized N'Gora. The black man gave no heed to Conan's shout as he charged, eyes rolled up to display the whites, teeth gleaming, face an inhuman mask.  
- Robert E. Howard, Queen of The Black Coast
I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories, for the reason that degeneracy is so prevalent in such races that even in fiction it can not be ignored as a motive and as a fact if the fiction is to have any claim to realism. I have ignored it in all other stories, as one of the taboos, but I did not ignore it in this story. 
- Robert E. Howard, in a letter dated December 5, 1935, talking about his three-part-serial, Red Nails.

The Ancien RĂ©gime 

There is a bit of a kerfuffle going on in epic fantasy. Accusations of misogyny, racism, and questions about grimly realistic and yet potentially titillating depictions of violence  - while not exactly new - have stirred up the genre of late. Especially where these complaints have combined with negative reviews of popular novels. The resulting fallout has prompted heated discussion, name calling, and for some authors to push back. 

Much of the current focus has centred on writers who feel they have been singled out for close scrutiny. This has sparked flame wars to erupt and sputter on and on and on, between supporters and detractors across Twitter and in online editorials, such as this one on the World SF blog:

To make a full disclosure, you will find that my own name is not missing from the discussion threads. Lovely folk for the most part, even the brave anonymous stalkers such contributions have won me on my Twitter feed. But that's life in the game.

Mark Lawrence is a relative newcomer to the scene with his debut novel The Prince of Thorns released in 2011 but which has garnered praise from fans and reviewers since. Not all quarters have received his debut as favourably, nor all critics have felt it was what the genre needed more of, exactly. Lawrence has been no stranger to replying to his critics or reticent to come out in defense of his book in the comment sections of other people's reviews.

With this in mind, it was not surprising that when I first asked about the book after reading a review of it on A Dribble of Ink, and asked some pointed questions in light of the discussions I'd been having online about the work of R. Scott Bakker, he was quick to add this reply:
By my calculation 0.06% of the book is concerned with rape. 
As to your concerns about the “general trend towards misogyny in this sort of thing” – well I’m pleased that later on you were able to discover Liz Bourke’s review of “this sort of thing”. Many thanks for reposting the link. I do try to retweet and link that review myself as much as possible but there’s only so much one man can do.
But then it's a debut which has courted controversy from the start. A tale of revenge and bloody mayhem with its amoral fourteen year old protagonist, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, introduced in the midst of causally murdering and raping the inhabitants of a small farming village alongside his band of "Brother" brigands. The impressive claim that Prince of Thorns represented one of the more promising debuts in the genre in 2011, if among its bloodiest, has hardly injured it or kept it from attracting criticism.

Such attention is unlikely to do anything but help a new author such as Mark Lawrence elbow his way into a crowded marketplace. Reviewer Liz Bourke garnered a good deal of visibility for the book with her review on Tor's website, and the resulting discussions this review has produced have likely helped to ensure that it was not allowed to simply founder among the wider trend of epic fantasy novels leaning toward "a dark grim sub-genre."

It's a murky pool and no one wants to get lost in the deep end. Having been popularized by the likes of Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, R. Scott Bakker, and the High Priest of Grimness, George RR Martin, there's been no shortage of novels taping into this perceived shift in tone. In this, Prince of Thorns is hardly unique. A lot of authors seem eager to raise or perhaps lower, the standards for violence, rape, and graphic realism.

But there are more interesting aspects to this novel to talk about, than simply bloody handed one-upmanship. Or settling the question of where it fits exactly in this sub-genre, or perhaps trend is a more correct word, in epic fantasy, depending on if you like this sort of thing or find it alarming. Elements which link the Prince of Thorns to both our current embroilment and a longer line of argumentation held within the genre.

There have been authors such as Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft whose own misogyny and well documented racism are inseparable from an understanding and indeed, an appreciation of their work. We would have never had Lovecraft's Deep Ones or much of his crawling alien horrors without his pathological fear of miscegenation.

And Howard struggled most of his short and tragic adult life against what he perceived as a dying of manly values, rugged independence, and the loss of a certain type of white, anglo-celtic primacy. Conan for all his faults and fondness for slaughtering 'degenerate' blacks and dusky fellow savages, is empowered by the very perishing vitality that his creator was obsessed with the perceived loss of in "civilized" society.

To deny these authors the full spectrum of their personal biographies, is to do both they and their stories a grave disservice. So is to perpetuate the myth that their blinkered viewpoints were merely the product of "their time and culture" and not in fact attached to their authorial presence as much as other elements which surface in their fantastic tales. People write stories, but stories are not brought into the world as innocent babes. They all bear the marks and the sins of their parents. To deprive them of this, is as damaging as to exclude their many virtues.

But we do not need accept that this is their legacy. That fantasy must by default forever bear their stigmata. We need not step in their footsteps or hoist ourselves on their shoulders. Fantasy has long stood independently outside of their influence, having deeper roots and a more diverse present and future than offered by these two limited authors. Unfortunately, the overt flaws of their work, have survived in many less overt forms, and in many lesser books, and can be said to be well and healthy in the present. This is why, one supposes, we use the term entrenched and institutional.

I bring this up as a lengthy preamble, because our greatest danger may lie in letting the worst elements of great authors flow unnoticed into our own stories, or unchallenged. For most people, most writers at least, this is simply a question of being reasonably aware. Knowing where ideas come from, and making sure that those included in a new work have been carefully chosen by the author when finally pressed into service on the page, ensuring that unfortunate antecedents are not accidentally included.

In no way do I wish to suggest that Mark Lawrence has set out to write a misogamist or racist fantasy novel, or that he hates women or has it out for people of colour or queer identification. Or that he pathologically despises fat people. If he had or he did, it would be much easier to dismiss his debut novel, Prince of Thorns. It is none of these things, of course, yet suffers from the presence of these contentious elements to various degrees. This, and other aspects where the novel failed to come together for me as a reader, left me deeply troubled.

Writers like Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were unquestionably racist. They were sexist as hell, though Howard's own failings with women had roots in a more complex and innocent misunderstanding of the other gender, and both suffered greatly for it. I would not wish this fate upon any living author, now matter how well received their stories still are.

They wrote some interesting things, but I don't think the defense that a story is only a story is ever an excuse for us to ignore the failings we may find there. Like Howard and Lovecraft, we should always be able to talk about an author's stories, and what is wrong with them, without losing sight of what they have accomplished.

So it is with Mark Lawrence's debut, Prince of Thorns. It is a curate's egg when it comes to deciding what parts of its unpalatable sum are most difficult to digest. Taken as a whole, I simply can’t recommend it.

For there exist deeply problematic elements in Prince of Thorns. It is a novel which shows a failure to come to terms with race in a post-apocalyptic fantasy Europe, has no female characters with any sort of agency beyond a naked vampish necromancer, demonstrates a great deal of casual misogyny and disturbing violence towards those few females in the story who are not either outright raped or murdered, takes place in a world without a whisper of homosexuality, and displays a knowing but utterly un-self-aware appraisal of its own themes of violence and ingrained evil.

And if there needed a cherry to place atop this toxic cake, it has for no reason I can understand beyond the book's relationship perhaps to gaming, a bewildering contempt for fat people.

Also, I was not convinced that this is in fact, a fantasy novel. It's a strange beast. And not because the world of Prince of Thorns contains castles built out of the foundations of old skyscrapers, super mutants, toxic waste loving necromancers, talking thousand year old computers, and nukes. We've seen all this before and it is a familiar trope in itself, linking the two great camps of F and SF.

But rather, because regardless of the exact positioning of Prince of Thrones in the genre and its poor handling of gender and race, I am going to argue that it is ultimately a novel about gaming. And gamers, which are in this case, all exclusively white male heteronormative ones, with a pair of noteworthy exceptions. And which despite being exceptions, hardly cover the novel in glory and should have been struck out of the story by any good editor familiar with TVtropes.

Indeed, if I was left with a clear sense of what Prince of Thorns is about, it is about Playing the Game. And our point of reference to the game and its players, is the implausibly young and bloodthirsty eponymous Prince. Who is in it to win it. Whatever "it" actually is, remains less clear. Is it the well treaded game of thrones? The game of war? Or just a mashup of fantasy and post-apocolyptic MORGs? You may take your pick. In the end, it hardly matters. Whatever its origins, Prince of Thorns is in effect a prose fantasy role-playing game.

While I was tempted to leave this introductory section entirely out of my review, Mark Lawrence is praised both for his writing and the challenging nature of his protagonist in Prince of Thorns. And he has produced a novel promoted as the start of a smart new series - as they almost always are. We will no doubt be faced with more of this sort of thing from Lawrence in the near future.

My overriding impression of the novel was that it was strongly related at its core to the awfulness we have seen in the genre and gaming communities, such as demonstrated at Bioware, with the harassment of games writer Jennifer Hepler. In other words, that Prince of Thorns is afflicted by either a lack of authorial awareness of its faults or plagued by a certain type of lazy writing that lets institutionalized prejudices and tropes exist within it unchallenged. Tropes which are hostile to women, dismissive of diversity, and prone to stirring up anger among fans at any encroachment, real or imaginary, into their zone of privilege.

And that the worrisome misogyny and causal racism found sprinkled throughout Prince of Thorns have clear parallels which link it to the genre's chequered past, the present fuss over epic fantasy authors, and the current toxic expression of male anger in the online gaming community - makes it highly topical. The author also has a record of commenting on reviews of his novel, ignoring the golden advice given when it comes to replying to critics. Prince of Thorns seems perfectly suited then, and centres us directly in the heart of the author-reviewer-gamer maelstrom.

So I choose as the author of this review, to willfully digress.

But at last, I give you now this thing which is partially a review of the thing which is known as Prince of Thorns, whatever that thing may ultimately prove to be.

N.B. If you are a reader who wishes not to be 'spoiled' by this exhausting review, then this is likely not the sort of thing that you will like. I recommend you look elsewhere for things you might like better. If you are a reader on the other hand who is likely to be spoiled by reading a book with a very thorny mishandling of gender and race among its manifold problems, then you might be well served plunging ahead.

- E. M. Edwards

Prince of Thorns - A Review

Part I: A Very Magical Nuban

The world of the Prince of Thorns which is first presented to us by means of a map suggesting north-western France, and afterwards comes to us through the eyes of its principal character, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, who will henceforth be called Avatar Jorg for ease of typing, is recognizably a chunk of a post-apocalyptic Western Europe. 

There are remains of roads and skyscrapers, computers, and chemical and nuclear weapons. The works of Plato, Socrates, and Plutarch, a Church of Roma (sic) and its "high Latin," are all known to the inhabitants. There are occasional references made to a mysterious Orient and to Moors and Saracens. So we are set, someplace in a future of a fantasy Europe not dissimilar to our own.

Even the presence of magic, specifically necromancy, is presented as a byproduct of the Day of a Thousand Suns - which thinned the barriers between this world and whatever other ones may be lurking beyond. 

“Nuban!” I called him over. “Nuban, come tell Sir Makin why the dead don’t rest easy any more.”
He joined us, crossbow over one shoulder, oil of cloves in the air around him. “The wise-men of Nuba tell it that the door stands ajar.” He paused and ran a very pink tongue over very white teeth. “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.”

All fine and well-tread territory for fantasy though it might be argued the novel's setting blurs the boundaries and veers close to becoming SF. But this raises a question about the Nuban himself, and the handful of non-white, non broken Empire characters, the rest of whom one might note, are nearly all villains.

Now consider the Europe of the present. Be mindful of projections for its future demographics even if no other states were to be added to its recognized members. There is a wide range of ethnicities who make their home in Europe, as there have always been since Classical Antiquity, including Africans, Middle Easterns, and Asians. It is a region which has seen continual migration back and forth between these connected parts of the globe and can expect it to occur in the future. One need only look at most European capitals to see how multicultural our present situation is as a starting point.

France while not the most cosmopolitan of all nations, is hardly exclusively white anymore. And yet, after the Day of a Thousand Suns, it would seem that all these ethnic types have vanished. In order one supposes, so we can have a lot of pale people in plate armour clanking around unhindered.

There is passing mention made in Prince of Thorns of the Nippon dwelling in tortuous barbarity in some far off place called "the Utter East." An unfortunate choice of words on Mark Lawrence's part, that makes one think of green-tea dispensing bovines.

“Before I journeyed and fell slave to your mother’s people, I dwelt in Ling. In the Utter East pain is an artform. Rulers make their reputations, and that of their land, on extravagances of torture. They compete at it.”

Ah yes, torture competitions. One wonders if Avatar Jorg plans to make a visit. This is from Avatar Jorg's Tutor Lundist. Who teaches him all sorts of exotic things, like martial arts. We don't learn much else about Tutor Lundist other than he has a funny accent, long white hair, and "wrinkled yellow fingers." That's the Utter East for us then - or perhaps just those from Ling. He disappears from the story shortly after Avatar Jorg leaves him for dead. Later when he reappears, it is to find out that he had been promptly executed.

But getting back to the map, it remains, as we will see with the case of the Nuban, that white Europeans seem to constitute the exclusive population extant in the broken Empire. Either other ethnicities were cleansed from the borders of the Empire before things went pear shaped, or they've all hightailed it back to the Other Kingdoms in the wake of nuclear fallout. Nothing is explained on this count, so we're left with some uneasy conjecture.

Among the few facts we're given in passing, is that Orientals excel at causing pain, apparently, and not just in the "Utter East."

“And if I knew it . . . Oh, if I knew it, I would teach such a lesson in pain that the Red Men of the East themselves would come to learn new tricks.”

One may be jumping to conclusions here, for all we know, these Red Men are Asians, or Middle Eastern types. We're not shown where these lands may be, certainly they are not on the book's map, or as Tutor Lundist notes, in any of the Ancrath king's library. But just as obviously, they're not a part of the broken Empire though these kingdoms have some knowledge of them, even this far north-west. Though if the locals are in the habit of enslaving foreign travelers, perhaps this explains why no one wants to visit from the Other Kingdoms.

Sageous smiled, a friendly smile, like I’d just run an errand for him. “Prince Jorg, welcome home.” He had no real accent, but he ran his words out fluid and musical, like a Saracen or a Moor.

No real accent. Just a generic other. More worrisome is Nuba, where the superstitious natives eat each other, apparently:

The Nuban once told me about a tribe in Nuba that ate the heart and the brains of their enemies. They thought it gave them their foes’ strength and cunning. I never saw the Nuban do it, but he didn’t dismiss the idea.

There are lots of blue and green eyes, blond and red hair, though the latter is only judged good if you're female. Male gingers are typically thick louts. But one must not weep for them, for the only character of real colour we meet for certain other than Tutor Lundist and the villainous Sageous is the very magical Nuban. And his treatment is much worse.

He is introduced literally by virtue of the shade of his skin. So we are left with some cause to think everyone else in the environs of Ancrath is white and European.

 The black man’s naked chest glistened below the glowing point. Ugly burns marked his ribs, red flesh erupting like new-ploughed furrows. I could smell the sweet stench of roasted meat.
“He’s very black,” I said.
“He’s a Nuban is what he is,” Berrec said, scowling. He gave the poker a critical look and returned it to the fire.

In fairness, it is made explicit in the text that Jorg is both young and very white. A common malady it would seem in the broken Empire. He's very pale after having been bled by the thorns.

“He’s so white.”

Despite saving this very black man and requiring him to run away with this very white child on a quest for vengeance like a gimlet-eyed Huckleberry Finn dragging behind him his Jim, Avatar Jorg never questions why he doesn't think to ask the Nuban his name.

He is simply the Nuban. Why not? He's obviously the only black person the prince is going to encounter it seems, unless Avatar Jorg bothers traveling to Nuba. And with his predilections for causing people pain, safe money is on him sailing first for Ling. 

Still, four years of living and fighting together like brothers on the road and Avatar Jorg still hasn't bothered to ask the Nuban his name, a man whose life he goes to the trouble of saving any number of times over the course of these four years. So it seems the fate of the Nuban is to remain a nameless black raisin in the midst of a sea of fantasy cream. 

But then he is a very mysterious Nuban. A complete blank slate apparently, stubbornly and intransigently other.

The Nuban said nothing, his face a blank.
Something about the Nuban’s silences always made me want to say a little more. As if I had to make it right with him. Makin scraped at me that same way, but not so bad.
“It’s not like he can’t leave,” I said. “He’s free to walk home if he really must. He’ll just have to earn himself some food for the journey and a map is all.”
The Nuban gave me the white crescent of his smile.

And again.

The Nuban said nothing, the blackness of his face impenetrable in the dying light.

And just in case we haven't realized that the Nuban is too black to be anything more than a cypher, we get the following.

The Nuban set old Gomsty on his feet. He looked at me, his face too black to read. “It’s wrong, Jorg. Trade in gold, not people. He’s a holy man. He speaks for the white-Christ.”

He's very black, we are repeatedly told. Out of context this may seem unfair to focus on such a minor issue, but one finds it jaw-dropping how Mark Lawrence could write this over and over and not see the inherent problem with this trope. Literally, this is a character, the only real character of colour who isn't a villain and who is still involved in the action, and he is defined by the extreme blackness of his skin, alongside a suggestion of holding primitive superstitions, which includes cannibalism, probably. That this didn't trigger loud alarums when either writing or passing it to an editor, is the bigger mystery. 

The Nuban has a big crossbow which he is frequently fondling. And a mouth full of white teeth which he is just as frequently "flashing" at Avatar Jorg. Mostly in the dark, but then he's so very black that one supposes it's always a bit dark wherever the Nuban is smiling.

The Nuban lifted the bow. He ran his fingers over the metalwork inlaid on the wood. “My people made this.” He traced the symbols and the faces of fierce gods. “And now I owe you another life.” He hefted the crossbow and smiled, his teeth a white line in the lantern glow.

Or even when he's not.

Fat Burlow came up on my right, on my left the Nuban with his teeth so white in that soot-black face.

He may be very black, but at least he doesn't take fright easily. 

He’d seen something, the Nuban wasn’t one to spook at nothing. 

Except when he does:

Nobody stood with me. The Nuban ran, eyes wide in a dark face. 

I suppose the Nuban should give thanks for not being a half-wit. However other he may be, Avatar Jorg never calls the Nuban stupid and doesn't leave him behind to die slowly. Even though the Nuban might be better off if he did.

The Nuban ran a soot-black hand over the ironwork of his bow, touching the faces of his pagan gods. “There’s no pride in this, Makin.”
I could never read the Nuban. One moment he’d seem as simple as Maical, the next, deeper than a deep well. Sometimes both at once.
“Maical,” I said, remembering. “What happened to our pet idiot in the end? Did he die? I forgot to ask.”
“We left him in Norwood, Jorth. He should have been dead, with that gut-wound, but he just hung on, moaning all the time,” Elban said. He wiped the spittle from his chin.
“Too stupid to die,” Makin said. He grinned. “We had to drag him off to a house at the edge of town. Little Rikey was all for finishing him off, just to shut him up.”
We had us a chuckle over that.

He is simple yet "deeper than a deep well." He's always there for Avatar Jorg. He's magical that way as well, quite literally it turns out.

One finds oneself hoping that the Nuban doesn’t have a Mrs. Nuban and some small black Nubans waiting for him at home in his "hut." Because the Nuban is not making it exactly a priority to get back to Nuba once he gets his freedom.

Instead, the Nuban's motivation seems to be hanging around Avatar Jorg in order to be saved by him, or else cast looks that are able to be described by Mark Lawrence as suitably inscrutable or darkly superstitious, or the bedrock of their bro-dom or some such twaddle, depending on which nuance of the Nuban’s magical otherness needs to be emphasized. 

Whoever made the Nuban must have fashioned him from bedrock. I never knew a man more solid. He held his words close. Few among the brothers sought his counsel, men upon the road have little use for conscience, and although he never judged, the Nuban carried judgement with him.

No doubt Avatar Jorg likes to read him excerpts from Plutarch at night by the light of burning bodies, to which he marvels. And of course the Nuban is on hand to braid up Avatar Jorg's hair when he goes into the caves of the necromancers. Complete with magical Nuban charms attached to the ends. 

My hair swung behind me as I scanned the cliff. I’d let the Nuban weave it into a dozen long braids, a bronze charm at the end of each. He said it would ward off evil spirits. That just left me the good ones to worry about.

As mentioned, he's a very magical Nuban. Of course, all this magicalness isn't going to save him. The Nuban must be sacrificed, likely so Jorg can learn a Very Important Message About Friendship. Tough luck for the Nuban. From the moment Avatar Jorg meets the Nuban in the torture chamber of his father's castle, the Nuban’s fate is sealed, just pending the right dramatic moment.

Only Avatar Jorg's white friends are going to pull through this book and into the next one. Tutor Lundist and the Nuban have not been invited. But then the Nuban owes it to Avatar Jorg. We know this, having been there when it happened, but Lawrence likes having them remind each other, and us one supposes, at what feels like regular intervals.

“You owe me your life, Nuban,” I said.
“Yes.” He jerked the keys from Berrec’s belt and stepped toward the cell on my left. I stepped with him, keeping him between Lundist and myself.
“You’ll give me a life in return,” I said.

After making it into the caves of the necromancer, Avatar Jorg is nearly vamped by a white sexy naked lady named Chella who is definitely not fat, though she's pretty smoking for a dead chick - until Avatar Jorg smashes her face. The bitch.

The bitch felt it though, when I broke her face.
The bitch.
When in doubt, let your hate lead you. Normally I’d reject that advice. It makes a man predictable.

Did we mention? Avatar Jorg really likes to call women, "bitch." Poor Chella! All she wanted was to sex him up, but at least she has proper name even if Avatar Jorg, like, isn't going to use it. Not so the Nuban. The bitch.

The bitch. She’d be somewhere near. Surely. Waiting to trap our souls as we died. Waiting to feed.

He could have been a twin to the bitch that took the Nuban.

“I sent you to Hell, with the Nuban’s bolt through your heart, bitch,” I said.

Whatever runs in the veins of that dead bitch who did for the Nuban, that little girl too, who ran with the monsters, whatever kept her glowing, well, I’ve got a spark of it now.”

Having allowed the Nuban to predictably save Avatar Jorg from her initial clutches, which despite knowing his danger, Avatar Jorg chooses to all but throw himself headlong into her bony arms, he lets the bitch run away.

Not long after, Chella grabs the Nuban, drinks a bit of his magical Nuban blood, and allows Avatar Jorg to at last prove he's a man of his word by shooting the Nuban stone cold dead with the Nuban's own magical crossbow. ChooOom! Bitch. 

The only surprise really, is that it took him this long. The Nuban of course, isn't surprised at all.

Play to win.
The Nuban’s eyes were on mine. For the first time ever, I could read what he held there. I could have taken anything else. I could have taken hatred, or fear, or pleading. But he forgave me.
The bolt hit the Nuban square in the chest. It put a hole through both of them and took them off the edge. Neither of them screamed, and it took forever before they hit the bottom.

But it's OK of course. He's just playing the game. Doubly so, because the Nuban forgives him. And because as Avatar Jorg and his white knight Makin agree, the Nuban is better than them.

Though obviously not better at playing the game. Game over for him. Silly Nuban. But perhaps that's why no one wanted to ask him his name during the preceding four years, that supercilious savage. He really should have stayed in Nuba with his "hut-brothers" if he was going to be so black-faced and judgmental.

“I hope she went to Hell screaming,” Makin said.
“She died hard,” I said. An easy lie.
“The Nuban . . .” Makin had to hunt for the words. “He was better than the rest of us.”
I didn’t have to hunt. “Yes.”

One supposes Avatar Jorg doesn't have to hunt, because he's good at lying. Maybe being better means not saying stupid things in front of Avatar Jorg. Only the zombie gods of Nuba know, because the Nuban doesn't get a lot of words in edgewise. His is not really, a speaking role. He exists to exude his magical beneficence and can do so by just being in the room with Avatar Jorg.

But then next to Avatar Jorg most people would seem magical, so why it had to be the Nuban’s burden, is anyone’s guess.

The other boon of the Nuban's presence when he's not busy blacking up the sence is that it leaves little space in the text to actively other more racial stereotypes.

One can guess Avatar Jorg only has the concentration to condescend to one otherized race at a time. There are the Nippon and whomever it is that lives in Ling and some Turkmen who make untrustworthy swords from black iron, but we don't get any serious foreign hating on until the cow-eyed Sageous appears. 

Thankfully Jews are invisible in epic fantasy as they are in space, so we don't see any here. Otherwise one is left with little doubt they'd be be operating as money lenders to the king of Ancrath or as a plague of roving baby eaters from Judia scouring the countryside, in some plot twist requiring the plumbing of the creative depths of racial casting.

We do however, get a "pagan" from Indus or Persia, Sageous, who turns out to be none other than the dastardly dream-witch. He is Jorg's apparent chief foe at the court of his father. This is all a bit confusing at first, but that doesn't really matter. More importantly, he's clearly not European:

Sageous stepped out from the aisle given over to ancient philosophy. He was younger than I expected, forty at the most, wearing just a white cloth, like the Roman togara. His skin held the dusky hue of the middle-lands, maybe Indus or Persia, but I could see it only in the rare spots the tattooist’s needle hadn’t found. He wore the text of a small book on his living hide, cut there in the flowing script of the mathmagicians. His eyes—well, I know we’re supposed to cower beneath the gaze of potent men, but his eyes were mild. They reminded me of the cows on the Castle Road, brown and placid. 

He is of course, inscrutable as well. Despite cow-like brown eyes. Avatar Jorg may be a genius but he’s no good with foreigners.

The look Sageous gave me held more than hate. Where Katherine channelled a pure emotion the tattooed magician offered bewildering complexity. Oh, there was hate there, sure enough, but admiration too, respect maybe, and other flavours, all mixed in those mild brown eyes.

Other flavours, indeed. Avatar Jorg is only accustomed to vanilla. I suppose we may then consider Sageous to be a Very Magical Fakir, or the Baskin-Robbins of otherness. Because later on he's called "Saracen," confusingly, so one is left unsure what sort of ethnic type he is supposed to represent, or if Avatar Jorg just gets it wrong here. In his defense, it is true that people with brown skin all look alike.

But again, wherever Sageous is from, it is clearly not a part of the white region of the Empire. And here, more or less, is where the novel's toying with ethnic diversity ends.

But it is a slender book by epic fantasy standards, coasting in at a mere 384 pages. Perhaps in the next inevitable installment Avatar Jorg will travel to exotic locales where he will torture, rape, and kill any pigmented natives who dare to question his superiority at playing the game. ChooOom!

Or maybe in a radical twist, the Moors will invade the broken Empire and Avatar Jorg will be forced to kill them all, travel back in time and murder their ancestors, rape their goats, and salt the weeds they fed on. But we digress here, clearly wandering into the field of speculative fiction.

Many readers may fail to find fault with the Prince of Thorns’ treatment of race. One doesn’t doubt it. The prose is smooth after all, the action hectic, and so the racism while visible, isn't overt - unless one is not a white European, one imagines. And it quickly disappears into the general bloodbath which is our story.

It is possible that the author or other readers will see this drawn out complaint about the Nuban as evidence of bias and cite wildly out of context quoting as creating something that doesn't exist in the novel. Perhaps. But then perhaps many of the readers, like the author and Avatar Jorg, are simply very white.

Fewer of them one suspects, will be women.

Part II: Where Have All The Wimmens Gone?

Setting aside the problematic issue of race, Prince of Thorns is a boy's boy boy adventure novel. And it is true that the story is one of a first person male viewpoint character traveling at the centre of a motley band of "Brothers." Seen in this light, and with its fantasy faux-medivalism with added super mutants, female agency might be argued against - as the author himself has suggested in our previous exchange:
As far as ‘sisters’ go, no, none of those. I’ve never felt that every fantasy book should be compelled to set out a balanced modern view of how we’d like the world we live in to be, or even how the world we live in is. I see books as a place to explore rather than to politic. There’s a huge range on offer and if you’re looking for a book with equal numbers of male & female characters, an entirely female cast, or perhaps some mix of hermaphrodites and asexual jellies, it’s all out there to be discovered. For my part I go where my story takes me.
Yes. One was worried about the lack of asexual jellies, well spotted Mark Lawrence. Next time, it is hoped you'll attend to their plight. They have suffered at the oppressive hands of history for too long. It's sexual reproduction gone mad! Of course, Lawrence might want to patch up the total lack of positive roles for non-whites and females, first.

Back to the wimmens, or their curious absence. Like the mysterious plague which has stripped post-apocalyptic Western Europe of people with dark skin, sympathetic female characters simply appear to not appear in this story. Again, unless something on the Day of a Thousand Suns has targeted ovaries, there should be plenty of wimmens about. 

Being an author, one could of course make up some fantasy world where there aren't very many. But if you want some degree of faux historical realism, and you do if you write this kind of stuff, the truth is you'd have a lot more on the ground than seem to be found in Prince of Thorns.

But it is hard to write women well when one is accustomed to not noticing them in fantasy stories as anything but a background radiation of reproductive organs or something to rape. Or “bitch” about them with fellow blokes on a gaming forum, one supposes. And while it may be harder to write interesting women if one is a male writer, that shouldn't make it the default position. That's just lazy.

Much like making a reasonable effort to intelligently handle race, there are a number of fantasy authors who don't forget to include characters with ovaries in their stories. 

The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington is a fine example. It not only has women, it has black women, fat women, Muslim women - in this case all the same woman, admittedly. But she's also the main protagonist and a necromancer to hoof, so we can cut Jesse some spare rope.

In Bullington’s similarly slender novel, one encounters queer women, polyamorous women, married women, necromancer women, women who are whores, women who are also mercenaries to balance things out. It's glorious stuff. But then the writing is better all round as well: a joyful fecund Rabelaisian roll in the bones with some truly filthy and dark moments. It's not perfect, but that's at least not for lack of trying.

His previous book, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart featured characters who would make the amoral Avatar Jorg appear like a choir boy. And they are white, and real brothers in fact. But unlike the Prince of Thorns, again Bullington was able to write a story that balanced the complexity of irredeemable protagonists with a deft touch and true sensitivity for the material. So perhaps Bullington is an unfair example. He may be simply a much better writer.

However one views it, the trick is frequently pulled off. Just as talented female authors of fantasy manage write both excellent male and female characters in the same books, and seem to have no problem with telling stories which are more balanced - and let's face it, conform to a more realistic approach. And it's a real shame that it's hard to think of any who aren't Ursula K. Le Guin who have done so and gotten much critical acclaim. They don't get anywhere the same press as do their male counterparts who endlessly struggle with this in the genre.

There is no fundamental reason dictated by “realism” to have an all male cast in a story, unless it is just a failure of imagination. Or one is writing a mystery which takes place entirely within a snow-bound monastery. Or one wants only to sell fantasy books to boys.

If you look at the other elements Mark Lawrence has introduced to the broken Empire, the author really shouldn't be stumbling here. 

But there just aren't many women in the novel, and even less in any roles that aren't either villain or victim. Certainly other authors have had female mercenaries and brigands, cutpurses and camp followers, not to mention all the inhabitants of the villages the Brothers are pillaging.

So I think it's an absence worth noting that we don't even see any women for the most part, except where they are being raped off-scene, or smashed in the face. Which is all the more weird because this is an fantasy post-apocolyptic Europe. Which Mark Lawrence is eager to show us, is so fantastical as to boast a female Pope.

“Father must depend upon you, Sageous,” I said. I twisted my fingers, wanting to want my sword. “To have a pagan at court must vex the priests. If the pope dared leave Roma these days, she’d be here to curse your soul to eternal hellfire!” I had nothing but dogma with which to beat him.

Despite this odd addition, women remain very thin on the ground. Except at the start where they are thrown onto their backs, or piled up in heaps to be burnt. Why don't we have a female priest? I suppose the brigands would have raped her, but so what, Lawrence doesn't have a problem with male-female rape. Perhaps it would have nudged the percentage over the healthy "0.06%."

Mabberton burned well. All the villages burned well that summer. Makin called it a hot bastard of a summer, too mean to give out rain, and he wasn’t wrong. Dust rose behind us when we rode in; smoke when we rode out.
“Who’d be a farmer?” Makin liked to ask questions.
“Who’d be a farmer’s daughter?” I nodded toward Rike, rolling in his saddle, almost tired enough to fall out, wearing a stupid grin and a bolt of samite cloth over his half-plate. Where he found samite in Mabberton I never did get to know.
“Brother Rike does enjoy his simple pleasures,” Makin said.
He did. Rike had a hunger for it. Hungry like the fire.
The flames fair ate up Mabberton. I put the torch to the thatched inn, and the fire chased us out. Just one more bloody day in the years’ long death throes of our broken empire.
Makin wiped at his sweat, smearing himself all over with sootstripes. He had a talent for getting dirty, did Makin. “You weren’t above those simple pleasures yourself, Brother Jorg.”
I couldn’t argue there. “How old are you?” that fat farmer had wanted to know. Old enough to pay a call on his daughters. The fat girl had a lot to say, just like her father. Screeched like a barn owl: hurt my ears with it. I liked the older one better. She was quiet enough. So quiet you’d give a twist here or there just to check she hadn’t died of fright. Though I don’t suppose either of them was quiet when the fire reached them . . .

Notice that the fat girl gets poked fun at. Because Lawarence will come back to this theme again, and again, and again. Avatar Jorg may have little time for the wimmens, or very black people, but he has even less sympathy to spare for fat chicks, or fat people in general.

A fat woman in a tent of a dress which was striped like a tourney pavilion saw me amid the van. She pointed and gave a shriek that drowned the minstrels out

They're a bit fat at court, as well.

I let my eyes stray across the glittering crowd, pausing to linger on the finest jewels. I still had my road-habits and made mental tally of their worth. A new charger on that countess’s fat bosom alone.

Including the pregnant ones. 

The Queen went too, flanked by knights right and left, slightly awkward down the steps, a hint of a waddle. I could see the swell of her belly now, as she walked.

Waddle, waddle.

Queen Sareth spoke from Father’s side, her hands upon the greatness of her belly. “Are we to assume your losses were total?” A smile escaped the tight line of her mouth. An exceptionally pretty mouth, it has to be noted.

Fat girls, as everyone knows, have pretty mouths.

The Queen pointed at me—as if anyone would mistake her target—and her voice became a shriek.
I smiled and held my peace. Women are apt to lose perspective when fat with child. I saw Katherine try to press Sareth back into her throne.

Are wimmen apt to lose perspective when fat with child? Absolutely. And become shriek-y.

“We killed them all. Every man in that fortress is dead.” I looked to the Queen. “Every woman. Lady, scullion, drudge, and whore.” My eyes fell to her belly. “Every child, every babe in cradle.”

You'd shriek too if Avatar Jorg was staring at your fat belly.

But women are not the only fat people. Fat men in the broken Empire are either jolly, lazy, or untrustworthy. This is of course, true.

He lifted his visor then and showed a pleasant face, a bit fat in the cheeks, quite jolly really. 

This is no kingdom for fat people.

He had a screwed-up sort of face did Lord Vincent, as if the world tasted sour in his mouth, which was odd, because he had the sort of butterball shape that takes some serious eating to acquire and a few dozen extra stoats to cover in ermine. I took him to be about thirty, but it’s hard to tell with fat people: they’ve no skin spare for wrinkles.

The most which can be said for them is that they are not inscrutable.

Fat people’s faces are wonderful for emotion. Or at least Lord Vincent’s was. I could see his thoughts twitching across his brow, quivering in his jowls, twisting in the rolls around his neck. “I . . .”

Still, they are best pushed over a waterfall when possible.

“Lord Vincent de Gren,” I resumed my count. “I had to push him over the Temus Falls. He vexed me. Coddin is the Watch Master now, low born but a sound fellow.”

Or else left to be food for the ravens after their heads have been chopped off.

“Take his head,” I told them. “Leave his fat belly for the ravens.”

Avatar Jorg has a pet fat man. One is surprised he hasn't been pushed off anything yet. 

Days passed. Long days and cold nights. I dreamed of Katherine, of her face and the fierceness of her eyes. Of an evening we ate Gains’s mystery stews and Fat Burlow tended the beasts, checking hooves and fetlocks. Burlow always looked to the horses. Perhaps he felt guilty about weighing so heavy on them, but I put it down to a morbid fear of walking. We wound further up into the bleakness of the mountains. And at last the rains broke. We camped in a high pass and I sat with the Nuban to watch the sun fall. He held his bow, whispering old secrets to it in his home tongue.

He is like most fat people, lazy and greedy.

Everyone likes to eat. One man marches on his stomach as much as an army does. Only Fat Burlow didn’t much take to marching, and took too much to munching. And some of the brothers were apt to hold that against a man.

I think for the first time Burlow watched me eat without the green eyes of jealousy.

The whores aren't fat in the broken Empire, thankfully, just buxom.

A painted whore, hennaed hair and red-mouthed, backed into Makin’s lap. “Where’s your smile, my handsome?” She had good tits, full and high, pushed into an inviting sandwich in a bodice of lace and whalebone. “I’m sure I could find it.” Her hands vanished into the froth of her skirts where they bunched around Makin’s waist. “Sally will make it all good. My handsome knight doesn’t need no boys to keep him warm.” She flicked a jealous glance my way.
Makin pitched her to the floor.

Although they can be an annoyance. One might think that in a company of men and well, one boy, those on leave would fall upon whorish flesh after so long on the Lich Road, like ravens upon a fresh pile of eyeballs. But Avatar Jorg and his knight are more interested in hard iron and long swords, you know, manly stuff, to pay much attention. At least, at first. 

Ow!” The whore picked herself up from the wet boards and wiped her hands on her dress. “You didn’t have to do that now!”
Makin didn’t spare her a glance. He turned his dark eyes on me. “The doors are iron, thick as a sword is long. And what’s above the ground isn’t but a tenth part of it. There’s provisions in those deep vaults to last years.”
Sally proved to be a true professional. She transferred her attentions to me, so smooth you’d think I’d been the object of her affection all along. “And who might you be, now?” She came in close, running her fingers into my hair. “You’re too pretty for that grumpy sell-sword,” she said. “You’re old enough to learn how it works with girls, and Sally will show you.”

Fortunately, Sally doesn't seem to be a fat girl. Or else she'd get a slap. As it is, she just gets her wrist bent a little. But who cares? She's a whore and should count herself fortunate and likely does, that she's not a farmer's daughter.

I caught hold of Sally’s hand as it slipped across my belly to the buckle of my belt. I twisted her wrist a little, and she came front and centre, sharpish, with a high-pitched gasp. She had green eyes, like Katherine’s but more narrow and not so clear. Under the paint she had fewer years on me than I first thought, she might be twenty, certainly no more.

I kept the whore’s wrist turned. I took her throat in my other hand and drew her closer. “Tonight we’ll call you Katherine, and you can show me how it works with girls.”
Some of the dream-haze left her eyes, replaced by fear. That was all right with me. I had two hundred men and no secret door into the Castle Red. It seemed only right that somebody should be worried.

And that really is about as tender as it gets. Avatar Jorg like many boys, like many young male gamers it might be argued, doesn't have an understanding of "how it works with girls."

One supposes he means the kind one pays for and not the kind one rapes and then burns afterwards. When he is not raping them or burning them, he seems to see them as mobile furniture. Unless this is some coded gay message. But it's not. But then Sally's just a whore. Even if she is a Named Whore. Why not turn her into a lectern?

My book shifted again. I say “my” book, but in truth it was stolen, filched from Father’s library on the way out of the Tall Castle. The book lurched at me, threatening to snap shut on my nose.
“Lie still, damn you,” I said.
“Mmmgfll.” Sally gave a sleepy murmur and nestled her face in the pillow.
I settled the book back between her buttocks and nudged her legs slightly further apart with my elbows. Over the top of the page I could see the faint-knobbed ridge of Sally’s spine tracing its path across her smooth back to be lost in the red curls around her neck.

Silly sleepy whore. She's all tuckered out, unused to the amazing sexual prowess of a fourteen year old boy. Who only in fantasy novels seem to have endless reserves for long lovemaking. Or Kvotheism, as the syndrome is known.

One may suppose Avatar Jorg has honed his skills on all the fat farmer girls whom he has raped before burning in the past three years, but even he admits, raping tends to be a rushed affair.

“Mmmnnn.” Sally’s voice came from the pillow.
I’d tired her out. You can wear even whores out when you’re that young. 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.

It's hard being so young, callous, and naturally talented.

“Sweet Jesu I’m sore.” Sally tried to get up again. “Oh! It’s morning already. Sammeth will kill me.”
“I said still, damn it.” I found a coin from my purse on the table and tossed it up to her. “That for your damn Sammeth.”
She slumped back with a comfortable protest.
“Binary weapon leakage . . .” As if speaking the words would add meaning.
“You’re going to the Castle Red then?” Sally said. She stifled a yawn.
I raised a hand to slap her into silence. Of course she didn’t see it and A History of Gelleth blocked the best target.

I imagine she's talking about her wrists. What did you think she was suggesting? Pity poor Katherine, the real target of Avatar Jorg's boyish affections, whom he has earlier met and summarily assaulted in the corridors of Tall Castle. Let's hope she has strong wrists.

I turned the corner at the end of the Red Corridor, too full of memories to pay attention. All I saw was a figure bearing down on me. Instincts learned on the road took over. Before I had time to register the long hair and silks, I had her against the wall, a hand across her mouth and my knife to her throat. We were face by face and my captive held my stare, eyes an unreal green like stained glass. I let my snarl relax into a smile and unclenched my teeth. I stepped back, letting her off the wall.
“Your pardon, my lady,” I said, and sketched her a shallow bow. She was tall, nearly my height, and surely not many years my senior.
She gave me a fierce grin and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. It came away bloody, from a bitten tongue. Gods but she was good to look at. She had a strong face, sharp in the nose and cheekbones but rich in the lips, all framed by the darkest red hair.

Luckily she smells of flowers rather than dream-weed when he meets her, and despite shooting Avatar Jorg with glances from her "emerald eyes," he doesn't try to kill her. Not yet, but he is hungry and eager to get to the kitchen so killing her might delay his breakfast, one gets the impression. He'll try to kill her later.

“More pride in that than in what true family I have left.” I felt a bite of anger. I felt like sending this distracting merchant’s daughter on her way, making her run.

Avatar Jorg does manage to get her to run, helping to keep her from getting fat, one supposes, but the silly thing, she runs the wrong way. 

She ran to catch me, silks swirling. “Why did you struggle? Why didn’t you stop?”
“I was stupid,” I said. “I wouldn’t struggle now.” I wanted the silly bitch to leave. I didn’t even feel hungry any more.

Of course, once Avatar Jorg finds out she's a Princess he's conflicted.

“Princess?” I turned to stare at her. I’d left my mouth open, so I closed it.
She gave me a smile that left me wondering if I wanted to slap it off her, or kiss it.

Bless. He's a lovable scamp, at least when it comes to red-headed, high-born, non-whore, non-fat wimmins. Though their stair-crossed romance goes a bit sour when Avatar Jorg insults Katherine’s sister the Queen by calling her a whore and then kills her gallant Teuton champion with a knavely crossbow bolt to the face.

She saw me and I saw her, both of us stripped of pretence in that empty moment, newlyweds naked for their conjugals. I saw her for the same weakness I’d recognized when first we rode back into the green fields of Ancrath. That soft seduction of need and want, an equation of dependence that eases under the skin, so slow and sweet, only to lay a man open at the very time he most needs his strength.

Obviously this is intended to reflect Avatar's Jorg's rough and tumble years in the company of bandits, but as a base line for his development as a character, it is just depressing. Clearly Avatar Jorg is destined not to travel far towards enlightenment in this particular story, but how much woman hating can one fit in such a slim novel? Quite a lot, is the answer. Bitch.

At least we can safely say that there is no gay bashing likely to occur in Prince of Thorns. Because if the broken Empire against all statistical likelihood has mostly only white male people living in it, it is completely free of homosexuality. Everyone here is clearly straight. 

One can tell, because no one, other than Sally, ever jokes about it. Not even among the foul-mouthed brotherhood of all male bandits who have shown willingness to rape just about anything that might have a hole. And yet no comments about buggering are ever made in the book.

No sly nods or winks cast at Brother Sim either, who by the Brother's own admission with a lick of paint, can pass as a girl. Nor does the thirteen year old Avatar Jorg traveling in their midst mention a pass made in direction, nor a whistle. But then if the Brothers did Avatar Jorg would likely flip out and kill the lot of them, using only his teeth and his index finger.

While these men may be rapists, murderers, thieves, and cutthroats, the statistical likelihood of even a drunken bout of situational bisexuality is apparently, as Mark Lawrence might say, "0.00%."

Ah. It's just not part of the story, you see? Perhaps something to do with the Day of a Thousand Suns, nuking all the latent queerness right out of the universe. Not even the brown skinned bad-guy is further “blackened” by calling him a catamite or pederast, so this well may be true. Perhaps in Ling?

Brothers yes, weak sisters, no thanks.

Part III: War Games

So far our time has focused on picking apart Prince of Thorns' handling of race, gender, and the queer lack of any queerness in the book. But assuming that one is not bothered by this, and some readers will not be or else there wouldn’t exist such a market for exactly this sort of thing, is there anything in Prince of Thorns actually worth recommending?

And what, exactly, is the Prince of Thorns concerned with, if not any of these things obviously. Things which Mark Lawrence does not feel constitute a part of his story. What, in the words of its author, is the story about?

This is more easily answered. Not a lot, and playing games, are respectively the answers. Boys' games to be more specific, war games of the sort which are endlessly popular among people who like this sort of thing, is what remains when the rest of the text is taken apart.

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallowspost and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.
The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, blood on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.
“Water! Water!” It’s always water with the dying. Strange, it’s killing that gives me a thirst.
And that was Mabberton. Two hundred dead farmers lying with their scythes and axes. You know, I warned them that we do this for a living. I said it to their leader, Bovid Tor. I gave them that chance, I always do. But no. They wanted blood and slaughter. And they got it.

No doubt, they were asking for it. Silly peasants. But then that's the way it is with war, we are told, it's a beautiful thing.

War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing. If I’d bothered to go over to old Bovid, propped up against the fountain with his guts in his lap, he’d probably take a contrary view. But look where disagreeing got him.

But if it's a war, the war is an ersatz one. Not really real war, not really. As we'll touch on later, this is one of the products of the book's style which is always knowing, but never touches on self-awareness. It's a game.

Mark Lawrence paints very smooth scenery as a backdrop for his nonstop action in Prince of Thorns, but the text never achieves anything but a flat emotional register. There is only surface here. As a result one finds it increasingly difficult to believe in Avatar Jorg and his war as anything real. It’s all just a game.

I gave him my warning look. His cursing stole the magic from the scene;

No matter how grim, how dark, how full of blood and rape and bodies, these are just games that boys will play. Boys will be boys.

Makin pursed his lips. I never liked his lips, too thick and fleshy, but I forgave him that, for his joking and his deathly work with that flail of his. “Well, you can have the cows, Little Rikey. Me, I’m going to find a farmer’s daughter or three, before the others use them all up.”
They went off then, Rike doing that laugh of his, “hur, hur, hur,” as if he was trying to cough a fishbone out.

And boys like men, can sometimes take their games too seriously. Equally, boys like Avatar Jorg dislike not being taken as seriously by others as they take themselves. This could be seen less charitably as a metaphor for the text.

He didn’t seem too worried. It’s hard to worry a man so close to the worm-feast. Still, it irked me that he held me so lightly and called me “boy.” “Do you have daughters, farmer? Hiding in the cellar maybe? Old Rike will sniff them out.”

Again the “boy.” “Old enough to slit you open like a fat purse,” I said, getting angry now. I don’t like to get angry. It makes me angry. 

Anger is not going to get in Avatar Jorg's way. He's a cool killer. When he's not angry at being angry. And he knows the secret of war.

There’s a reason I’m going to win this war. Everyone alive has been fighting a battle that grew old before they were born. I cut my teeth on the wooden soldiers in my father’s war-room. There’s a reason I’m going to win where they failed. It’s because I understand the game.

It's his chief advantage, it would appear.

That’s the secret, and it amazes me that it’s mine and mine alone. I saw the game for what it was the night when Count Renar’s men caught our carriage

And like a game, which may have rules, it doesn't really have consequences. One plays to win, but that's the full sum of our involvement. Keeping things in perspective, not allowing extraneous issues to get in our way, like the lamentations of the wimmens, are all that matters.

A knife is a scary thing right enough, held to your throat, sharp and cool. The fire too, and the rack. And an old ghost on the Lichway. All of them might give you pause. Until you realize what they are. They’re just ways to lose the game. You lose the game, and what have you lost? You’ve lost the game.

Experiences which might have either broken or expanded the mind of another, lesser player, have torn the scales from Avatar Jorg's eyes. Though later, he says he thinks he's always been this way. We need to talk about Jorg, one thinks. But not when he's in the room.

The thorns taught me the game. They let me understand what all those grim and serious men who’ve fought the Hundred War have yet to learn. You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.

He will play his game.

It’s a game. I will play my pieces.

Most importantly, he will play to win.

Because it’s a game. And I’m going to win.

Beyond this, there is not a lot of reasoning about what winning the game means. Or why it might be important to anyone reading Avatar Jorg’s story to care if he wins. By the end, one can't say it makes much more sense.

For the longest time I studied revenge to the exclusion of all else. I built my first torture chamber in the dark vaults of imagination. Lying on bloody sheets in the Healing Hall I discovered doors within my mind that I’d not found before, doors that even a child of nine knows should not be opened. Doors that never close again.

What he is playing for, or to what ends, seems even to elude Avatar Jorg. It might be argued he seeks to be the Prince of Peace.

“I’m going to fight them all in the end,” I said to him.
“Pick your fights,” Makin said.
“I’ll pick my ground,” I said. “I’ll pick my ground, but I’m not running. Not ever. That’s been done, and we still have the war. I’m going to win it, Brother Makin, it’s going to end with me.”

At other times he just wants to be Emperor.

“Seriously though, Jorg, you should have left Galen to it,” Makin said. “If you had, you’d be sitting pretty at court. You’re still heir to the throne. You’d have got that saucy princess in time. The Castle Red is a death sentence for smashing that stupid tree. That and calling his wife a Scorron whore. Your father is not a forgiving man.”
“You’d be right in all that, Makin,” I said. “If my ambition were limited to ‘sitting pretty,’ I’d have let the Teuton do his worst. Luckily for you, I want to win the Hundred War, reunite the Broken Empire, and be Emperor. And if I’m going to stand any chance of that, then taking the Castle Red with two hundred men will be a piece of cake.”

Which may be a more reasonable goal because Avatar Jorg doesn't seem accomplished at forging peace, unless peace is to be achieved by killing everyone that lives in the broken Empire. One then supposes it may be safely recolonized by the inhabitants of the Other Kingdoms and used for winter sports.

All of this could be explained and is, as Avatar Jorg's traumatic reaction to seeing his mother raped and murdered while hanging in a briar. That by destroying the broken Empire, the war which is responsible for her death and his trauma, will be obliterated.

Here again, this central premise is let down by the novel’s smoothness. Never do we really see much under the surface of Avatar Jorg or the world he inhabits, despite being locked to his point of view. He is world-weary, sarcastic, glib, but not reflective. He doesn't even seem that intelligent.

What we get is a sense of injured pride, perhaps a hint of childish pettiness. If there is love for his departed family, it feels muted to the point of being strangled to death in its bower of thorns. It can not be said to be rooted in anything prior to it.

At best Avatar Jorg admits, he was mildly fond of his murdered brother William. Of his mother, there is really nothing about her beyond the lurid details of her passing. She never emerges as anything but a whip for his back, a goad for his revenge.

Like the Nuban, she doesn't even warrant a name. This seems rather strange considering how important this person is supposed to be to the narrative, but she likewise remains a mystery. But as everywhere else, even these emotions reach us as glints off a hard surface, as if painted on the face of one Avatar Jorg's toy soldiers.

With the lack of a stronger narrative underpinning to Avatar Jorg's quixotic attempt to unite the broken Empire, it seems to be about wanting to win for its own sake. If so, Avatar Jorg starts out choosing an odd path to Total Victory.

Rike gave a grin that had more scowl than grin in it, then belched mightily. “You ran from a castle with gold and women, to ride with us? What idiot would do that?”
I sipped my beer. It tasted sour, but that seemed right somehow. “An idiot who knows he won’t win the war with the King’s guard at his side,” I said.
“What war, Jorg?” The Nuban sat close by, not drinking. He always spoke slow and serious. “You want to beat the Count? Baron Kennick?”
“The War,” I said. “All of it.”
Red Kent came over from the barrels, his helm brimming with ale. “Never happen,” he said. He lifted the helm and half-drained it in four swallows. “So you’re Prince of Ancrath? A copper-crown kingdom. Must be dozens with as good a claim on the high throne. Each of them with their own army.”
“More like fifty,” Rike growled.
“Closer to a hundred,” I said. “I’ve counted.”
A hundred fragments of empire grinding away at each other in a never-ending cycle of little wars, feuds, skirmishes, kingdoms waxing, waning, waxing again, lifetimes spent in conflict and nothing changing. Mine to change, to end, to win.

Actually, it's a rather good question. Avatar Jorg has a glib answer but one which seems far fetched. Even in a novel with a far fetched central premise as its POV character.

Indeed, there are no assurances when Avatar Jorg first leaves with the magical Nuban, that he has improved his chances over what they where they were when his father had refused him the forces necessary take on Count Renar directly.

If it's a game at heart, then the logic of these things doesn't have to stand up. Fight until you win. Win what? The fight. What fight? The fight to win the fight. To what end? To end the war that goes on precisely because you are determined to fight it until its end, brokering no peace, accepting no rational compromises.

It seems pointless. Just as it makes little sense that the previous Queen and both heirs to the throne would be allowed to trundle around in the same insufficiently guarded carriage, in some lonely part of the kingdom where an armed band of enemy knights can fall upon them at will, rape and murder the occupants at their leisure. 

Either the realm is safe, or the heirs and the Queen should be kept someplace more secure, say in Tall Castle. But the novel needs a premise for revenge, one supposes, so these qualms are shoved aside and Avatar Jorg ends up in a thorn bush. These are just moves in the game, after all.

As is the underlying explanation why a fourteen year old protagonist, Avatar Jorg, is better at killing than anyone else in the broken Empire. And why his fits of pique matter more than the towns full of innocent people he brutally kills.

“All men die,” Renton said. He spat a dark and bloody mess onto the steps. “What makes you so special?”
He had a good point. What made my loss, my pain, any more important than everyone else’s?
“That’s a good question,” I said. “A damn good question.”
It was. There weren’t but a handful of the prisoners we’d taken from Marclos’s train who hadn’t seen a son or a husband, a mother or a lover, killed. And killed in the past week. And this was my soft option, the mercies of these peasants compared to the attention of a young man whose hurt stood four years old.
“Consider me a spokesman,” I said. “When it comes to stageacting, some men are more eloquent than others. It’s given to particular men to have a gift with the bow.” I nodded to the Nuban. “Some men can knock the eye out of a bull at a thousand paces. They don’t aim any better for wanting it, they don’t shoot straighter because they’re justified. They just shoot straighter. Now me, I just . . . avenge myself better than most. Consider it a gift.”

He's just gifted at revenge. And languages. And lovemaking. And courtly banter if he's not bruising the faces of these courtly ladies he wishes to kiss. And the latter despite only having one assumes rape as a teacher and road-scum for instructors in such graces for the past four years.

In Avatar Jorg's defense, he does seem to be by far the most vicious and sadistic killer yet birthed in the lands of the broken Empire. Not Rike, or Sageous, or Chella the sexy necromancer, or even his hidden player, Corion, can hold a candle to his awfulness.

He has no interest in love, or much else. It doesn't make him interesting though, just unpleasant.

Makin pursed those thick lips of his. “Prince, you’ve spoken about how you’d break the cycle of revenge. You could start here. You could let Sir Renton go.”
Rike gave him a look as if he’d gone mad. Fat Burlow covered a chuckle.
“I have spoken about that, Makin,” I said. “I will break the cycle.” I drew my sword and laid it across my knees. “You know how to break the cycle of hatred?” I asked.
“Love,” said Gomst, all quiet-like.
“The way to break the cycle is to kill every single one of the bastards that fucked you over,” I said. “Every last one of them. Kill them all. Kill their mothers, kill their brothers, kill their children, kill their dog.” I ran my thumb along the blade of my sword and watched the blood bead crimson on the wound. “People think I hate the Count, but in truth I’m a great advocate of his methods. He has only two failings. Firstly, he goes far, but not far enough. Secondly, he isn’t me. He taught me valuable lessons though. And when we meet, I will thank him for it, with a quick death.”

Yes, death to you all, Empire scum. One quickly gets familiar with the drill. Indeed, Avatar Jorg spends a great deal of the book talking but never says much.

Love is not the emotion which will help him to win the game, he tells us. It is a weakness which will distract him from playing the game. The right response, the only response is to kill them all. Preferably from a great distance with a nuke. And that's just the mild fate of people who get in Avatar Jorg's way, but who haven't done him personally any harm.

“What?” I questioned his back, and my voice echoed in the Builders’ dusty vault. I spread my arms. “What? And don’t you dare speak to me of innocents. It is late in the day for Sir Makin of Trent to champion maids and babes in arms.” My anger sprang from more than Makin’s doubt. “There are no innocents. There is success, and there is failure. Who are you to tell me what can be risked? We weren’t dealt a hand to win with in this game, but I will win though it beggar heaven!”

It is possible that the book was aiming for something deeper, like Kurtz's voyage into genocidal madness in Heart of Darkness, or the "God is war" speech delivered by Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. But what comes across from the dialogue and thin plotting is just a wounded, self-centered teenager beating his chest. 

All that typical bluster and rage ends up directed not at the world's wrongdoings, but at the salient fact that someone in the world has done the protagonist wrong.

“One life, or ten thousand, I can’t see the difference. It’s a currency I don’t understand.”

Despite being a genius, he's no good with numbers. Or with strategy. He also gets angry when other people appear to play the game. 

“Let the wilds temper you, and if you weather it, in time the prodigal will return, a viper to his father’s bosom. Pawn takes king.” He mimed the chess-board gesture. “You might become something, Briar Prince. A piece to win the game.”
Corion took the bow as if it weighed nothing. Raising it to his lips, he whispered a word, too soft for hearing. Five paces took him to the door and he set the bow on the steps by the Nuban’s head. “A black knight to guard my pawn.”

Only he is worthy of it. It is his game to win.

“It’s not a game, Sir Makin. You teach these boys to play by the rules, and they’re going to lose. It’s not a game.”

But never mind, he's just kidding. It is a game of course. ChooOom!

The biggest lies we save for ourselves. We play a game in which we are gods, in which we make choices, and the current follows in our wake. We pretend a separation from the wild. Pretend that a man’s control runs deep, that civilization is more than a veneer, that reason will be our companion in dark places.

“It has to be one of the Hundred. Nations won’t follow monsters like me. They’ll follow a lineage, divine right, the spawn of kings. So we who have taken our power from the places where others fear to reach . . . we play the game of thrones with pieces like Count Renar, pieces like your father. Pieces like you, perhaps.”

“They play us, Makin. We’re pieces on their board.”
He had a smile at that, through torn lips. “We’re all pieces on someone’s board, Jorg.” He went to the tavern door. “You’ve played me often enough.”

Ultimately, what is important is not to lose it.

The glitter along that knife edge as she came at me, the thought of it slicing my flesh, piercing an eye maybe, these are all the sort of thing that might give a man pause. Until you realize what they are. They’re just ways to lose the game. You lose the game, and what have you lost? You’ve lost the game. Corion had told me about the game. How many of my thoughts were his? How much of my philosophy was filth from that old man’s fingers?

Though for all his understanding of the game, Avatar Jorg gets very angry when he thinks he's been played.

He had played me.

Bad move. The bitch. Now he'll kill everybody. Even the pets. Nothing should be done by halves, after all.

Victory without compromise, without mercy or hesitation.

I raised my voice. “Every horse and dog, every hawk and every dove. Each rat, and down to the last flea. Nothing lives there. Victory does not come in half measures.”

Nor with a refund. Caveat emperor.

Part IV: My Mother Is A Thorn Bush

Let us climb to a more lofty vantage point. Hark! Yonder comes a prince in a literary thorn bush.

It has been mentioned by the author in interviews that Prince of Thorns is intended as a homage to Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. And while I have only admiration for novels which mix genre and literary inspiration into the same mortar, I failed to find successful parallels between Prince of Thorns and Burgess' satirical dystopian masterpiece.
The inspiration came from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 classic, A Clockwork Orange. I was interested in the concept of a charming but amoral and violent young protagonist, and in the issues of nature vs nuture. Burgess works wonders with the first person point of view, investing the reader in a horrific character, and asking all manner of questions about good, evil, and the business of growing into who we are. It’s a very unsentimental work providing powerful insights into the human condition. Prince of Thorns is my homage to Burgess. I wrote it for me, with almost no awareness of what the genre was doing. Fortunately it turned out to be timely and aimed in a direction that publishers were interested in taking.
Here it seems only to make for a flawed foundation. Beyond Lawrence's uncomfortable handling of race and gender, the characters and setting of the novel have a curious flatness.

One does not say this lightly when it comes to epic fantasy, a genre prone to spending whole chapters describing dresses, exterior weather, interior furniture, and people drinking tea, but while the action keeps the pages turning, most of what one finds in Prince of Thorns is rather interchangeable. It's all a bit featureless when taken as a whole.

Not to suggest what is needed here is the presence of turgid worldblinging. There is no need to claw back description as the main pastime of fantasy novelists, seeing that rape is going out of style. But there is a certain smoothness to Prince of Thorns that is frustrating all the same.

The details of the world and the places Avatar Jorg travels to feel disappointingly generic. The characters never find traction in the mess either, neither as characters nor as inhabitants of their little worlds.

In this at least Prince of Thorns is consistent. The emotional register of its characters is flat, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the towns and fortresses of the broken Empire feel as if they could be fantasy anywheres. 

Even the more atmospheric locations like the gorge of the leucrota and the caves of the necromancers, which are the best part of the book, are oddly blank. They are a place with no natural beauty, as Avatar Jorg notes, to comment on. That would be fine if it was just one place, or a handful, but all the settings in the book feel a bit like that.

Here and there one is offered a few hasty details, but the pace of the action and Avatar Jorg's relentless quest to kill everyone, doesn't leave time for the imagination to linger. The caves are smooth bore holes. The mutants just a menagerie of weeping horrors, "heaped in foul confusion." Which is tempting to suggest, may be another metaphor for the novel.

Other monsters rose around our camp, some of them shockingly close. Had every gargoyle and grotesque torn free from the great cathedrals and gathered to form an army, the leucrota would be that army made flesh. No two stood alike. All had been sketched on the frame of a man, but with a poor hand. None were as huge and hale as Gorgoth. Most leaked from sores, sported withered limbs, or laboured beneath growths of wart and tumour heaped in foul confusion.

And that's it. We never get more insight into the leucrota, outside of a few data dumps by Jane and the two mutants who go with the group when they leave the mountain. And Avatar Jorg buries the rest of them under a pile of atomic slag. 

No one makes much of an issue of it. Despite Avatar Jorg being responsible for killing the entire "race" of leucrota with his half-baked scheme to destroy Castle Red, his two weaponized monsters never cast a glance backwards. The irony of Avatar Jorg saving one of the two baby mutants on a whim but wiping out the rest without a glimmer of remorse, seems lost.

There are other discordant notes in the setting. People wear "plate" and "chainmail" and various other bits of armour and fight with the typical range of knightly weaponry. A few exotic elements like swords made from Builder steel or Turkmen iron hint that Lawrence could have offered up a richer palate but the promise is never realized.

It's not just the scenery which is scant, so is any sense of a wider population who actually live in the broken Empire. Other than mostly being white, we don't know much about them. The foreign visitors are either cyphers or villians, and the local economy is, well, we assume some sort of feudal mishmash amid warring kingdoms.

Interesting locales like Castle Red, while admittedly not the most creatively named, or the Horse Coast, are skipped - or in the case of the former, obliterated from a distance. We get a very poor view of the broken Empire beyond its generic faux fifteenth century carapace, no real contact with its citizenry as anything other than bodies to slaughter.

Mabberton burned well. All the villages burned well that summer. Makin called it a hot bastard of a summer, too mean to give out rain, and he wasn’t wrong. Dust rose behind us when we rode in; smoke when we rode out.
“Who’d be a farmer?” Makin liked to ask questions.
“Who’d be a farmer’s daughter?” I nodded toward Rike, rolling in his saddle, almost tired enough to fall out, wearing a stupid grin and a bolt of samite cloth over his half-plate. Where he found samite in Mabberton I never did get to know.
“Brother Rike does enjoy his simple pleasures,” Makin said.
He did. Rike had a hunger for it. Hungry like the fire.
The flames fair ate up Mabberton. I put the torch to the thatched inn, and the fire chased us out. Just one more bloody day in the years’ long death throes of our broken empire.

This would be unimportant if the characters doing the slaughtering had more depth themselves. But really, they are mostly placeholders. Take Avatar Jorg's "Brothers.” There are the typical sorts: the fat one, the big one, the mean one, the argumentative one, etc..

Most men have at least one redeeming feature. Finding one for Brother Rike requires a stretch. Is “big” a redeeming feature?

Lawrence drops a series of short vignettes at the start of some chapters, sketching the potentially more unique members of the troop. Regrettably, these summations are simply that. We never actually see these interesting members doing anything, well, interesting. 

Some people are born to rub you the wrong way. Brother Gemt was born to rub the world the wrong way.

Which he quickly does and Avatar Jorg sticks him in the throat, making one suspect the whole reason he has been included is perhaps for the express purpose of showing Avatar Jorg's ruthless streak. Other Brothers hold more promise than their leader, but never deliver.

Knife-work is a dirty business, yet Brother Grumlow is always clean.

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.

Shakespeare had it that clothes maketh the man. The right clothes could take Brother Sim from a boy too young to shave to a man too old to be allowed to. He makes a fine girl also, though that was a dangerous business in road company and reserved for targets that just couldn’t be killed any other way. Young Sim is forgettable. When he’s gone, I forget how he looks. Sometimes I think of all my brothers it’s Sim that’s the most dangerous.

They bring to mind the Named Men of Abercrombie's First Law series, but with less reason to believe in any of their boasts. Perhaps if one actually got to see some of these feats being realized, they'd feel less parachuted into the text.

Some said that Red Kent had a black heart, and that might be true, but anyone who had seen him take out a six-strong foot patrol with hatchet and knife would tell you the man had an artist’s soul.

As it remains, one is presented with a series of otherwise interchangeable and literally disposable Brothers who are killed off at regular intervals to serve the plot. They never progress into characters in their own right. No more than their mostly faceless victims, which is a shame.

What we see of the forces opposing Avatar Jorg is just surface detail, even if competently polished. He has a cold hearted, vicious father, a shrilly contemptible pregnant stepmother, a nefarious pagan "mathmagician," a naked blood drinking vamp living in a toxic waste dump - all of whom might have been interesting foils but never rise above tired stereotypes.

It is hard to know who to root for in this novel, and one ends up in the default position of choosing Avatar Jorg as he plows his way through their ranks, if for no other reason than his enemies never assume the shape of figures more substantial than those in a panto.

Avatar Jorg has no charisma at all, but trapped in the first person point of view - which was perhaps a mistake for this book - the reader is dragged along willing or not.

What we do get in lieu of depth of setting or character, or even an interesting protagonist, is quite a bit of digested nihilistic philosophy served up to us by Avatar Jorg. When one of the toxic necromancers is humorously dispatched by some over the top theatrics, we get the sort of thing we would expect from any teenager who has read too much Nietzsche without understanding it.

“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?”

Later, he treats us to this.

“Free will has to be taken,” I said. When in doubt reach for the wisdom of others. Nietzsche in this case. Some arguments require a knife if you’re to cut to the quick, others require the breaking of heads with a philosopher’s stone.

It's a bit silly after a while. Childhood trauma is generally traumatic. It doesn't turn children into unstoppable killing machines. Or cause them to blossom in languages and just about everything else. It might shut them down, make them sullen or withdrawn, or even cause them to mistake a fish for their mother.

And it is tiresome to have the narrator claim that he's a genius and so talented that his tutor couldn't believe how fast he could learn Builder speech, when Avatar Jorg seems to be about as clever as plank. He walks into situations one after the other, with no complex plan, no real strategy, relying entirely on luck and his ability to kill anything that gets in his way. Even his survival at the end, is because a horse kicks him in the backside. 

Earlier he's a character who plans his whole assault on an unassailable castle by gambling that some old Builder's manuel and a cache of ancient, eleven hundred year old weapons which might or might not still be there, will allow him to overcome nine hundred armed men. And he hasn't even brought a shovel or a pick. If you stop and look at his strategies, they don't amount to anything than showing up and hoping the walls will fall down when he gets there. Which is basically what happens, more or less. 

Despite this, Avatar Jorg brags he knows "high Latin," ancient Greek, Builder speech, and likes to read Plutarch. Yet, Avatar Jorg can't puzzle out the roots or endings of more complex words to suspect they are more than millinery terms.

I could read the “Top Secret” at the head and foot of every page, but “Neurotoxicology,” “Carcinogen,” “Mutogen”? Maybe they were old styles of hat. To this day I don’t know. The words I did recognize were interesting enough though. “Weapons,” “Stockpile,” “Mass Destruction.” The last but one page even had a shiny map, all contours and elevations. Tutor Lundist taught me a little geography as well. Enough to match that small map to the “Views from Castle Red” painstakingly executed in the large but dull A History of Gelleth whose leather-bound spine nestled in the cleft of dear Sally’s oh-so-biteable backside.

Now some readers have remarked on the quality of the prose. One is less convinced they're reacting to quality, as opposed to a certain hypnotic smoothness. The problem with a very smooth text is that nothing much sticks to it. Including the reader. There are parts that however smooth, throw us out of the narrative.

I stood looking up at the cliff faces. There were caves up there. Many caves.

Yes. Many caves. None of them which Mark Lawrence going to say anything about, so they'll just remain very smooth and very many. 

This lack of description aside, the best bits are the necromancer caves. Everyone agrees. There was a memo. They're also the silliest bits, for the most part. These two things are not unrelated. If this sort of humour and sly inventiveness could have been maintained throughout the rest of the story, it would have been a stronger result possibly. 

And if someone could have left Avatar Jorg in a mire, back on the Lich Road, no doubt this would have been a more enjoyable book.

By the time one reaches Avatar Jorg's fifteen birthday, none of these problems have changed. Prince of Thorns is too lacking in the sort of emotional register which might have given it weight, too devoid of any journey beyond the solely surface exposition of Jorg's backstory and bloody accomplishments as he claws his way to his throne.

In the end one can only accept the text as a sort of written out RPG. A Fallout with fewer energy weapons, super mutants, and with armoured knights in lieu of a Brotherhood of Steel.

Part V: The Responsibilities Of Story & The Tyranny of Realism

But it is just a story, one might remark having wearily worked their way through these complaints about Prince of Thorns. And a fantasy story, at that. 

On the surface there might seem no need to crucify Mark Lawrence or poor Avatar Jorg for their lack of realistic treatment. There are necromancers in body paint running around, by Jesu. And magical Nubans.

But there is also difficulty with the voice. Avatar Jorg starts out his narration as a thirteen year old, with periodic flashbacks to three and four years previously. He ends the novel having reached the ripe age of fifteen, which ostensibly, is the viewpoint from which he is chronicling his adventures.

A lot has happened to Avatar Jorg in this time, mostly killing, but the voice one encounters at the start of the novel and ends with, does not change. And never does it seem like the voice of a young man, even a preternaturally precocious one.

It more resembles that of a forty year old man, oddly enough. And because one really needs to believe in Avatar Jorg's youth as a central support of the novel, this is problematic. Even where he comes across as petulant or childish, it is delivered with the same mature wink and dry sarcasm. He's always quick to explain.

“Sometimes you almost fool me, you’re that good, Jorg.” He sounded weary. I could see the web of fine lines around the corners of his eyes. “We’re not old friends. A little over three years ago you were ten. Ten! Maybe we’re friends, I can’t tell, but ‘old’? No.”
“And what is it that I’m so good at?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Playing a role. Filling in for lost years with that intuition of yours. Replacing experience with genius.”
“You think I have to be old to think with an old head?” I asked.
“I think you need to have lived more to truly know a man’s heart. You need to have made more transactions in life to know the worth of the coin you spend so freely.” Makin turned to watch the column close on us.

One is tempted to agree with Makin. And what one finds here is none of the above, anyway. It is knowing, but not self-aware. The characters show very little self-awareness, of course, which at least is consistent. But their story lacks anything with which to fill that void.

One can't replace experience with genius, of course. They are separate things, and to be honest, there is not much sign of the latter quality in Avatar Jorg. Just viciousness. And this constantly proves to be an impediment to believing in the story that Mark Lawrence wishes to tell, whether one likes the story or not.

I think about the road. Not so often now, but I still think about it. About life that begins new each morning, walking on, chasing after blood or money or shadows. It was a different me that wanted those things, a different me that wanted to break everything for the joy of breaking it, for the thrill of what it might bring. And to see who might care.
I was like Gog’s little wooden soldier, running in wild and meaningless circles. I can’t say I’m sorry for the things I did. But I’m done with them. I wouldn’t repeat those choices. I remember them. Blood is on these hands, these ink-stained hands, but I don’t feel the sin. I think maybe we die every day. Maybe we’re born new each dawn, a little changed, a little further on our own road. When enough days stand between you and the person you were, you’re strangers. Maybe that’s what growing up is. Maybe I have grown up.

Most fifteen year olds feel this, one doesn’t doubt, but that doesn’t means they've actually grown up. Most of all though, there generally hasn't been significant emotional growth achieved as compared to an adult, just as there hasn't been much here. But it is just a story.

Of course, no story is just a story. Every narrative contains an agenda, and is the product of a mind. A novel represents choices, decisions, authorial forks in an infinite number of roads. Even the most scrupulous of biographies reach us only through the lens of their chroniclers. They don't tell just a story, they tell a particular one which says nearly as much about what is left out as what is put in. To suggest that an individual story is only pure story, is not naive but disingenuous.

And I'm sure Mark Lawrence has thought about what he has written, shifted and discarded things, gathered up what he wanted to place there, added something he felt he wanted to emphasis in another spot. His novel didn't write itself. He did.

But unless the author of Prince of Thorns really thinks that half of the human species will not have agency in the future, or that Europe will be empty of people of colour, we come back to my first two major points regarding the novel's treatment of race and gender. Of course it is just a story but stories are our creations, not forced upon us by some outside force.

We write them, and thus ultimately we must bear responsibility for what we include and what we leave out. Perhaps that's just my notion.

Are authors in charge of how readers interpret their text? No. Should they however, consider as many of the possible angles in advance? Likely advisable. So while no one is barred from writing a novel with an underage murderer and rapist, set in a post-apocolyptic fantasy Europe, which is predominately white, male oriented, and heteronormative, writers shouldn't be surprised if readers and reviewers question why they have picked these elements alone to tell their story with and left others out. 

Because it is neither inherently logical nor realistic to have a setting where there are no positive female roles, a complete lack of nonstereotypical people of colour, no hints of homoeroticism or even homosexuality among an all male band of criminals, and a prince whose only characteristic appears to be that he's a singleminded, talented murderer. These are choices, authorial choices. Made by Mark Lawrence. And they have been chosen out of a very large number of permutations. Why these, and not something else?

Take France, for example. In our world, nearly 20% of the country’s population is represented by foreign-born immigrants and their descendants, comprising around twelve million people. Out of these there are possibly as many as 5 or 6 million who may be black or originally of African origin. Many of these millions are concentrated in and around Paris, the rest, to various degrees elsewhere in the country. If the broken Empire includes what was once northern France, where have all these people of colour gone? That is a lot of stories swept aside in order to tell, against the expectations of realism, a much more uniformly white one.

Could it be, that the author has not thought things out as carefully as they might have? Could this absence be in fact, the sort of pernicious inflection of other authors’ voices creeping in? Or is this, exactly, what Mark Lawrence set out to create?

Because it feels very much like standard fantasy racism. Or to a lesser extent, the inherent racism of history, which is about telling certain stories to the detriment of others. Medieval Europe has never been in truth as monolithically a whitewashed canvas as it frequently is portrayed in traditional fantasy books. Other cultures, other races, have always had a part if not always a harmonious or equal one, in forging the identity of Europe. It feels in other words, like authorial laziness again - or an agenda.

Simply because the agenda is someone else’s, set down by hands other than your own, whether that is a dominant culture or the expectations of a certain genre, does not make it any less of an agenda. To say that your story avoids it, along with asexual jellies, but then to allow all sorts of things to filter through unexamined into the, seems like folly.

This has very little to do with compelling fantasy settings to have a “balanced modern view of how we’d like the world we live in to be, or even how the world we live in is.” It is not a plea that Mark Lawrence and other authors prostrate themselves before the tyranny of realism.

Rather, it’s about being honest with the reader about whose agenda the book is perpetuating and whose fictions they’re being presented with. It’s about being honest with ourselves, as we write the book. And being able to, one hopes, give good reason why we have left so many of our stories artificially and unhistorically, unbalanced.

There is no reason why you can’t have this absence of colour, of course: postulate a hard right movement, much like those we see operating in our own century, combing forces to sweep minorities out of Fortress Europe. Or a Brown Plague, released in the waning days of the old Empire. You could have echos of this still extant in your story, or pockets of people of colour holed up like Albigensians in the nooks and out-of-way corners of your broken Empire.

You could, but Mark Lawrence doesn’t and nothing in the story seems to suggest why he has chosen the default position of “vague Western European cod medievalism equals stark absence of people of colour, unless they’re a pet or a villain.” Other than perhaps, because regrettably it is the default position for many novice authors.

It is worth questioning. Not every trope contributed to fantasy is equally worthy of being regurgitated. Howard and Lovecraft wrote some fine stories, but we don’t need to borrow their racism and inject it like a dirty needle shared by every new fantasy debut.

Part VI: Escaping The Fantasy Ghetto

I’ve cast a lot of harsh judgement upon the back of such a slim novel. Though if I were to play devil’s advocate in my favour, I might point out it is not I the reviewer’s fault that Mark Lawrence’s contentious Prince of Thorns is such a suitable surface upon which lay my hods of bricks.

It seems almost custom built for this purpose.

Perhaps I'm experiencing a mental dissonance. Encountering books which embrace a more literary tradition of violence and aim towards a psychological complexity, at least compared to what we call traditional fantasy, where the violence and realism is still relatively cartoonish, but which do not follow through on any other front.

One expects the emotional quotient to match. This may be what is so disquieting about books of this type: the current movement to depict graphic realistic violence but at the same time preserve a glib, cartoony emotional register, creates both a dissonance and a worrying pattern where we are expecting one thing, and get another - but many readers less thorough than myself may not realize that we've only been offered half of the real thing.

Arguments that this is "escapist fiction" and we can't expect such complexity out of fantasy is insulting. All fiction is escapist. We leave our worlds for a few hours at a time, slip out of our skins for someone else's. Fantasy permits for us to do different things, but it is not fundamentally different from any other fiction in this way.

And while there is nothing wrong in escaping, we should be mindful of what we're escaping into. To fill a book with nihilistic acts of violence, expound on the triumph of the will, but utterly fail to present the emotional or narrative consequences of the story in the same style, does not strike me as a sound approach. Especially when the story in Prince of Thorns seems to me tailored to appeal to a sub-section of the reading public who already have difficulty with displaying an emotionally mature response to perceived encroachment of people and worlds not like themselves.

 I don't mind serious novels, or light-hearted ones. But the combination here is a much worse sum of its parts.

I’m going down to see Renar now. I keep him in the smallest of the dungeon cells. Every day I let him ask for death, and then I leave him to his pain. I think when I finish my writing I will let him have the end he seeks. I don’t want to, but I know I should. I’ve grown. The old Jorg would have kept him there forever. I’ve grown, but whatever monster might be in me, it was always mine, my choice, my responsibility, my evil if you will.

I would also hope that we're more cautious now about what we set to paper. Whose stories we include, and whose we leave out. The casualness of prejudice is often toxic, which is why we affix the term "institutionalized" to it, as I've noted now several times. It can seep downwards and mutate and produce monsters. And it has consequences beyond the worlds of fiction.

Hardly surprising that smart, genre-informed people like Liz Bourke might look at a book like Prince of Thorns and find it not so much offensive as depressing. It's much the same muchness, with a little added ultra-violence thrown in and perhaps a younger protagonist than is the norm. It doesn't have any positive women's stories in it, nor any desirable roles for people who aren't white and European. Of course nothing requires an author to include these things, as Mark Lawrence is keen to point out, but there is no reason why we as readers shouldn't question the author exactly why these have been left out.

It’s what I am, and if you want excuses, come and take them.

No excuses, then. Prince of Thorns is not all warts. It's smooth, it's graphics are top notch. It reads quickly and rarely stops to catch its breath. Not a book which quite lives up to the literary standards of its inspiration, but that sort of thing would only be counterproductive here, I suspect. Without the other flaws fixed. This loops us back around to the flat affect of the book. It's part of its charm, and part of its hook, and it's what for me at least, makes it ultimately rather loathsome.

Because while the author claims it only has rape in "0.06%" of the book, it is certainly front heavy with it. And a general dismissiveness towards women stalks its pages. Very gamey. Quite a stench. Not like a well hung pheasant, but as in gamers who post rape threats and sexual slurs on forum message boards or leave behind verbal excrement in the comments of female reviewers of genre books. The kind that shout at women for not enjoying playing their games, even if they enjoy writing them and being paid for it. And even if that's some troll's manufactured lie. The kind some of whom I suspect, enjoy playing characters who are stone cold, emotionally crippled killers who look an awful lot like Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath.

And we've had enough of their stories being told, already. Perhaps, it is time to move on.



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