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."Gritty," "grimdark" fantasies rarely, if ever, appeal to me. The graphic violence in such tales usually feels gratuitous to me, tacked on to appeal to the imaginations of those who when watching a cinema may feel that the more "special effects" or "explosions" that a film has, the "more exciting" it will be to them. Tastes do vary, but it does bear noting that in reading these first two paragraphs from Mark Lawrence's debut novel, Prince of Thorns (2010), quite a few personal alarm bells were ringing quite loudly. I did soldier on (ironic choice of words, perhaps), despite my general antipathy for these subgenre of literature, with mixed-to-negative results.
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 (e-book p. 12, beginning to Ch. 1)
Prince of Thorns is the first of a projected trilogy of novels focused on a fifteen year-old youth, Jorg Ancrath, whose callous (some might say wicked and be very near the truth) deeds play a central role in describing a far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth (apparently, the setting is meant to be France after some disaster, but the map resembles NW Middle-Earth to a very uncanny degree). Lawrence apparently intends to explore what traumas can cause an intelligent and sensitive youth to do deeds (among the least of which is rape) that stand out in a brutally violent world, yet the narrative fails those ambitions more often than not.
First-person PoVs can be tricky to write, but doubly so if the narrator is a troubled soul. Jorg's character, particularly in the early chapters, before flashbacks to events four years prior (when he was 11), is twisted into a sort of self-parody of an anti-hero. His often laconic responses, as as this comment at the end of Ch. 2, try to present this purposefully aloof and uncaring soul:
"I stuck Gemt with my knife then. I didn't need to, but I wanted it" (p. 17 e-book)
The problem I had with this approach, in light of developments late in the novel, is that Lawrence apparently wants to show a character so traumatized by his past experiences that he believes himself beyond caring. The narrative, however, is just unconvincing, as Jorg fails to respond in a fashion similar to those survivors of violence who turn to violence themselves. It just did not feel "real" to myself, based on my years of interactions with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed male teens. I kept finding myself feeling that this was a shallower version of a very complex persona that was being presented here, as lines like this one from late in the novel, felt rather lame and clichéd in their attempt to capture an anti-hero "coolness" more than anything truly profound:
"I hoped I looked like Hell risen, like Death riding for the Count. I could taste blood, and I wanted more" (Ch. 46)
It is easy to dissect a text based on a few (sometimes representative) clunky metaphors or rehashed images of blood, gore, and a killer possessing a sharp wit about him, but that would be unfair to Lawrence. So while there were a few groan-inducing moments (including the attempt at onomatopoeia with crossbow bolt sounds), on a sentence level, Lawrence at least tries to evoke a certain atmosphere in his prose. There are times where it works quite well, where there is a strong sense of suffering, sadism, and shit-splattered corpses and moaning prisoners, but too frequently Lawrence tries too hard to create an evocative sense, with the result that the scene falls flat, if not instead being reduced to a parody of a serious moment. Here is one example of Lawrence's prose being out of sorts with the scene:
"I closed my eyes. What else? Green fought red on the back of my eyelids. The clack of swords, the grunts, panting, muted scuffle of shoe on stone, the song of skylarks. What else?" (Ch. 11)The scene involves the younger 11-year-old Jorg and a sort of tutor, Lundist, walking through a courtyard, hearing birds singing and the clacking of practice swords. In a different setting, such lyricism might fit, but here it feels oddly out of place. If this were an isolated situation, it would not merit any attention, but this occurred too frequently in the novel for me to overlook it. It just felt like the author had pretensions of writing something grander than the Frankenstein's monster of evocative description and plain, unadorned dialogue.
I mention the dialogue because that is another element in which Prince of Thorns falters. Part of this perhaps is a necessary evil, considering that Jorge is the central figure in the trilogy and his thoughts and reactions to other characters is by necessity going to have the spotlight shined on him. Yet even taking this into account, the characterizations are rather sketchy, feeling devoid of any true depth of humanity (not to mention the near-total lack of female characters, much less any that would in any sense be "strong" or outside the whore/victim spectrum). Perhaps that phrase, "depth of humanity," could be applied to not just the lack of interesting, dynamic characters, but also to Jorg's character himself. Perhaps his character is fleshed out in the subsequent two volumes, but here in Prince of Thorns he just feels incomplete, hollow even to himself, and not truly in the sense that the abused might feel in regards to themselves.
By novel's end, there had been some interesting events that seem to bode a greater exploration of the setting (itself very sketchily described), but the frequent prose missteps, coupled with an uninteresting plot and unsavory character, made Prince of Thorns a rather dull and plodding affair for most of its pages. The glimmer of promise in the final chapters is too faint for one who prefers "dark" characters to have more depth to them if the premise of a grim, violent setting is to be endured. Prince of Thorns just was not a "good novel;" perhaps for those who want something closer to cinematic character developments it may appeal to them, but for those like myself who prefer complexity instead of a simulacra of it, it just fails on too many levels for the sequels to be considered.