It wasn't bad.
Can I go now? No? Sigh...you have no idea how hard it is to say that about this book after reading Prince of Thorns, the first book in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence. I should also say that I have nothing against Mark Lawrence, he seems like a very nice man and I've enjoyed what few twitter conversations I've had with him. He seems like the kind of man who is more amused by bad reviews than annoyed, which isn't surprising since almost every review I've ever read on his books have been positive. As you know by now, though, I don't do "Positive" reviews, I do realistic ones, where I critique what works and what doesn't. My review of Prince of Thorns was, of course, one of my harsher reviews because to be honest, I really didn't enjoy it as a whole or in any part individually. I was reluctant, therefore, to pick up the second book, King of Thorns, because not only would it be unfair to review a book I already knew I wouldn't enjoy, but also because...honestly, I'm not a masochist.
But this month is about doing things differently, I picked up a book I really didn't want to read, a book in a genre that isn't exactly my forte, and I'm also doing an audio book to show that I can mix things up. So with that in mind, I picked up King of Thorns, (figuratively speaking since I got it on my new Kindle [yes I have a kindle, I like buying books at 2:00 AM when everything's closed]) and ripped into the pages with an open mind, and you know what, it really surprised me.
King of Thorns is the semi-direct continuation of Prince of Thorns, taking place in the far future, where the world has devolved back into a dark-ages type land after nuclear war set the world back to castles and knights. It's main character, the morally bankrupt Jorg Ancrath has become King of his uncles lands and has to take steps to protect them from a man who would take control of the Empires lands. All the while he is tortured by a figment from his past that he has locked away to retain his sanity, but which holds the key to making him whole again.
This book was a toss-up, to be honest. The first half of the book irritated me as much as I thought it would, all the problems I had from the first book were present in the second. Jorg is still self-serving and a moralizing nut job. Let me put it this way: listening to Jorg talk about life after having murdering an entire nation is a little like listening to Hannibal Lecter expounding on the moral imperative of vegetarianism. The characters are still disposable, most of them don't last long, and many that the author gets you to like end up dying in really inconvenient ways, making me wonder who's going to be alive by the time the third book comes around. The problem with the secondary characters is mostly that they are forgettable probably because they have such a short shelf-life, but I find that with the exception of Jorg's "brothers", if the characters are skipped for a few pages I sometimes forget who they were and have to look back. In any case, it's definitely a situation where more characters are being subtracted than added, and while far fewer of them were killed by Jorg, and indeed the body count for Jorg was at least kept in the thousands this time, it does make me wonder what kind of Emperor Jorg would be.
I'd have to say that the biggest problem that I have with the Broken Empire books is really Jorg's self-serving attitude. The majority of the book takes place with Jorg trying to help his young brother, Gog, who has been spontaneously setting his castle on fire and needs to learn to control himself. This is the perfect example of what I'm talking about, and is an ever present theme in the book, Jorg sets off to do something dangerous, and seemingly altruistic, and you think for a moment, "wow, this is growth...this is actually character development " And then Jorg says something stupid to ruin it, like that he was only doing something selfless to do something selfish, and it all falls back down to the lowest common denominator. It's common in the entire book, the entire series so far, in fact: that Jorg does something nice, then proves that he was only doing it for himself. I get it, that's your story and you're sticking to it, but at some point, the character really needs to grow otherwise who are you really reaching out to as far as readers?
But this month was about doing things differently, and that's what I did: I took this book, which I initially wasn't interested in reading, and I looked at it differently...in a way that I wouldn't even consider reading any other book before, or after as a matter of fact. What I did was, for lack of better word, whiteout Jorg's character flaws. Now I don't mean all of his flaws, because I get it, I really do: Jorg is a tragic character. He's had a rough break in his life: the unavenged murder of his mother and brother, the pain and rage that he's had to hold onto to get to where he's at, and the threat of murder by his contemporaries in both the noble society and the bandit brothers he camps with. Those are understandable; I'm talking about the manner of which he is morally ambiguous at the best of times, and a cesspool of crud at the worst. When I completely blanked out the part where Jorg does something corrupt for no apparent reason other than that he seems to be on a timer for it, (oops, I've been neutral for more than five pages, I better stab something!) the book became a surprisingly wonderful read. Don't get me wrong, I'm not so blind that I didn't notice it at all, I just kept it to my peripherals.
The opening sequence for the book was spectacular, giving an edgy, humanistic approach to the savagery of the setting. I kind of wish that the entire book could have been written just like it. I liked the interspersed journal entries by Kathrine, though I didn't like that they kept her from being a truly sympathetic character by making her a little crazy towards the end, although her spiraling was kind of interesting and it kept with the consistency. Mostly I just have to say that I really liked the segment where Jorg went to his maternal Grandfather's lands. That segment really humanized Jorg in a way the rest of the book could not. No matter what Jorg loses, as far as brothers or "friends" or even enemies and allies, he still remains a bit of a monster. But when Jorg goes there, it almost brings him to a level state where he's almost, if not quite, redeemable, than at least personable.
Mostly, when I was looking through my blinders, I noticed that Jorg doesn't really have a plan in life. He wants to do things, don't get me wrong: he wants to be king, bam! he does just that, he wants to be emperor...well that seems to be on the agenda. But, like I said earlier, I just don't see the kind of emperor he will be as a good thing, and the way things are going it seems like it would be a random occurrence for it to happen at all. Mostly, Jorg just wanders around, meeting people he has somehow made a connection to, that we know we should find interesting, but don't really get a backstory to. Hey Lawrence, maybe you could make a short story about how Jorg met the circus the first time, so we can feel connections to them. That'd be cool...
When viewed through rose-colored glasses, the book takes on a much more interesting twist, becoming a story about a man who really wants to do the right thing, but doesn't know how. He wants to help a young boy, orphaned, learn to control this power he's been gifted with. He wants to prove himself to a family he's never met. He wants to gain alliances with other kingdoms for his future march for emperor. All of this done by being tortured by a memory he doesn't dare reach for. It becomes a story about a man who's lost everything, and wants to gain what little he can through whatever means he has at his disposal, which aren't always the most warm and fuzzy, but then again, war is hell and all those fun, generic platitude.
As far as writing goes, the book was a little mushed. Several things are happening all at once, and if you put the book down for a few days after finishing a chapter, you might pick it up to find yourself completely confused by what happens next, and that's ignoring the big disconnect that happens in the first act where Jorg has a memory taken out of his head and comes to learn he's missing weeks or months, I can't remember which it was just that disconcerting. If anyone remembers my review of Devil Said Bang, the first one at least, you'll understand what I'm talking about. One moment something's happening, the next, Rike's rooting through his pockets in some kind of desert.
I could go on for hours about what I didn't like about the book, but the fact is, it all pretty much evened out. Lawrence's use of irritating catchphrases, (really? "I don't like being angry, it makes me angry" made it off the cutting room floor again?) is evened out by some surprisingly fitting quotes from other books and historical events. Jorg's rambling inner monologue is matched by some deep scenes that have a deep feeling that reminded me of some of my favorite books, (yes, Mr. Lawrence, I secede the point that there were no trees in your marsh. I still say the overall scene reminds me of the FEELING that I got when reading Tolkien's Mirkwood section in The Hobbit.) And overall, the book felt well balanced and had some really good parts in them that made me want to continue reading.
My Final Point, is just to say this to you, the reader, and any writers out there. Mark Lawrence's Jorg seems to fall victim to one of the classic blunders, and no it's not "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line." It's that just because something is obvious to the author, and to the character, doesn't mean it fits within the story. Several times in the book, Jorg has an "Ah-hah" moment, where he reveals that he knew something all along and that it was because...he's smart? He's been paying attention? No, he just knew, and we are supposed to go, "Oh, of course, that makes sense." Jorg is that kind of teacher that doesn't really care if you are paying attention to what he's teaching, because at some point he's going to say "1+1=banana," and watch with an amused smile while everyone copies it down studiously. I don't care about this trend with writers where they write without plot, to each their own. But things still have to add up. As a contrast, the big plot-driving secret in the book about the ghost Jorg keeps seeing seems less thrilling when you look at the clues hidden within the text. It's revealed to be a little bit of a twist at the end, but less so because Jorg's nature makes the reason for what happened somehow unimportant. Things have to add up, otherwise you are just saying random things and expecting people to make conclusions that never quite match up to reality.