Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Lawrence's PRINCE OF THORNS

Admit it. You've always wished that George R.R. Martin was gutsy enough to let Joffrey Baratheon have the odd point of view chapter. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

Admit it. You loved Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in all its occult glory, but wished it had a reliable narrator, and would give bonus points if said reliable narrator was a boy psychopath. So, apparently, did Mark Lawrence. And he did something about it.

And here's the kicker -- he did both of these things in the same damned book! And thus Prince of Thorns and its two Broken Empire sequels came to be. So we have an extremely post-post-apocalyptic setting, in which civilization has been bombed back to medieval France but there is so much bizarre and inexplicable leftover technology and other phenomena about that it's basically an epic fantasy setting chock full'o'magic... and we have a boy psychopath, a prince of the blood with a thirst for revenge and a giant cauterized wound where his conscience might be, leading us through it from his perspective.

This is not a pretty book, folks (especially not for someone coming off the ravishing loveliness of A Song for Arbonne), but damn, is it a compelling one.

It does perhaps require something in the order of a trigger warning, though. Our boy, who rejoices in the name of Prince Honorus Jorg Ancrath, is truly a wicked one. Though only 13 years old when we first meet him, he's already a murderer, a thug, a manipulator, and, yes, a rapist (though the rapes occur offscreen). The book itself starts off with rape and murder and violence, as such is Jorg's origin story; when he was nine, he, his mother the Queen, and his little brother were waylaid on their travels; mama was raped and murdered; little brother was mutilated and murdered; Jorg only survived because he got tangled up in the world's wickedest briars and was held helpless and out of sight by the thorns, hence the book's title. He has scars inside and out, yo.

To make matters worse, his father the king declines to take revenge on the attackers. It's politically inexpedient. You'll understand when you're older. Be a good boy and go page through your Plutarch and leaf through your Livy and don't leave too many stiffened socks for the servants to clean up.

Wrong answer, dad.

So by the time the lad is 13 (the nine/ten-year-old Jorge we meet in judicious flashbacks), he's left home and become the head of a band of ruthless bastards. And these aren't fun, funny bastards like Scott Lynch has made us love. These are evil, violent, bloodthirsty marauders who you will find yourself a little abashed to be rooting for (more or less).

Some readers have complained that it's impossible for a 13 year old boy to take control of such a band. I'll let his friend Sir Makin answer that, as he did when Jorg asked him what he meant when he said Jorg is good: "Playing a role. Filling in for lost years with that intuition of yours. Replacing  experience with genius."

And then there is the matter of some mages. Sneaky, powerful, subtle, nasty mages, who can manipulate other people like puppets. Arguments can be made that some of Jorg's precocity, and maybe some of his ferocity, aren't entirely his own.


Regardless of who the baddest guy really is, though, regardless of how nasty things get, because Lawrence has presented Jorg's point of view so convincingly, so clearly, so logically, the reader winds up in some way rooting for him. Even if we find him utterly irredeemable, we love watching him go.

Yeah, you'd better believe I'm going to read the rest of his saga. With frequent showering in between chapters, but I'm going to be reading it. Soon.

Maybe I'll intersperse it with Guy Gavriel Kay. You know, just so I don't wind up hating humanity altogether 8)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's A SONG FOR ARBONNE

It's been a long, long time since I struggled so with a book as I did with Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful A Song for Arbonne. And that's a good thing. I'd never get anything done if I went through what I went through with this one every time I sat down to read.

The struggle, incidentally, was not to finish it all in one long greedy gulp. I had to force myself to pace myself. I had to sip.

I knew pretty much right away that I'd found another favorite, you see, and I'd only have this first reading once.

A Song for Arbonne is, for me, the perfect kind of fantasy novel, which means in lots of ways it probably barely counts as fantasy. There are no prophecies, no chosen ones, no blatant manipulation by gods or immortals or wizards. There's barely any magic, and a reader can pretty much choose to ignore as coincidental or at least as a matter of interpretation what magic there is.

What's there in place of all those tiresome tropes is absolutely top-notch character drama in a world similar to our own (except in that it has two moons, one of which shines a beautiful blue in the night sky), in a period that might more or less equate to our twelfth century. The known world consists of six nations, more or less versions of regions of Europe, with the titular Arbonne pretty clearly based on Eleanor's Aquitaine, a chivalric culture of troubadours and courtly love but one in which women can actually wield political power and inherit property and you can already see a part of why I loved this book so; Kay obviously did a lot of thinking about how this could work. The central fact of this culture is that it reveres a goddess, Rian as the equal of the world's war god, Corannos, so it follows that mortal women should also be treated as equals -- at least in Arbonne's high culture/ruling classes, which are all we get to see here.

This idyllic land is uneasy neighbors with a much more traditional fantasy kingdom, Gorhaut, a male-driven culture given to sneering at "woman-ruled Arbonne", who revere Corannos only, and who have, as this novel gets into gear, recently concluded fifty years of border war with another country by ceding over a huge chunk of territory in exchange for a lot of money, thus displacing a huge chunk of Gorhaut's population and leading all eyes to look south to the ripe-for-the-taking fertility and ports of Arbonne.

Drama button!

But it's the personalities of the figures involved that truly matter. I'm not going to spoil those here, except to say that a lot of the country's fate comes down to the unfortunate choice made a generation ago by a headstrong woman who was married to a duke and cuckholded him with a troubador who later on became a duke himself, leaving a legacy of hatred that threatens to weaken Arbonne fatally. Good thing the country is ruled by a devastatingly astute and strong women (who happens to be the headstrong woman's mother) -- and that a mysterious man from Gorhaut has appeared on the scene, introducing a whole new set of consequences (and daddy issues).

Every single character matters. Every single arc matters. Everything is given its due. The construction of the narrative is flawless. The writing is nearly flawless -- like many, I found myself annoyed by the occasional slip into present tense to, I guess, heighten the drama of some scenes, usually involving the mysterious man's family in Gorhaut, but even there the prose was gorgeous.

Now I've just got to struggle with the urge to binge-read the rest of Kay's stuff. Wish me luck.