Sunday, August 3, 2014

[Review] King of Thorns

[Minor spoilers, nothing that'll have you pull out your hair or genitals or anything]

Of all the books that promise you an experience similar to A Song of Ice and Fire (which many blurbs have promised ever since Martin's series became the new benchmark), there are only a few that I believe would actually speak to the core audience of Martin's novels. This audience has become increasingly diluted of course with Game of Thrones, or rather, expanded, and so when I see a book promising something akin to Martin, I take it with an even bigger pinch of salt now than I did when, say, Bakker, Abercrombie and Lynch became among the new rising stars in fantasy. Of course, most people who read books enjoy different books, so a book doesn't have to be a carbon copy of another series, but I suspect these blurbs help guide certain folk toward certain authors and novels; King of Thorns, then, shares with Martin's Ice & Fire a few things - this sequel to Prince of Thorns delves into a gritty world with grittier characters, with the main character Jorg still a fellow you love to hate. Imagine The Adventures of Joffrey Baratheon and you're close, although Jorg is much more likable in most respects.

This sequel is just as witty and well-written as the first book, and opens up the setting bit by bit, giving us some nice revelations along the way. The author also employs a few unusual (or at least uncommon in fantasy) techniques to get his story across, such as using snippets of diary entries, alternating between the present and a story line happening four years earlier (but featuring the same characters), and even different fonts to keep it all straight. I like it. I like it a lot.

Mark Lawrence also has a whole range of neat little concepts up his sleeve, sprinkling the story with his own fairy dust (although in this series, it'd be more appropriate to call it tar or some such). One of these fun ideas is the concept of Jorg carrying around a box in which he keeps memories that just are too tough to bear. It also allows the author to keep us hanging on certain things we'd like to know about Jorg's past until it is time (perhaps readers brighter than me figured it out beforehand, what do I know).

The way the tale is written in the first person, by a character of dubious morality, is just great, and it allows for some very droll humor and fun one-liners, which is one of the book's strengths. If there's a weakness to it, I'd say that at certain points in the tale it lags a little bit, but overall this is a very minor niggle as it flows well enough most of the time, and that some events are described a little vague so that I am not sure what I am supposed to envision - this is partially due to the nature of the setting, though, because Lawrence tries to describe things we know through the eyes of a character who has no idea what he is seeing. Another niggle is the way exposition can be really in your face at times, which is kind of the opposite. It's too vague! It's too obvious!

As in the first book, Jorg is once again surrounded by a cast of characters, but I feel that some of those he has lost on the way were more interesting than some of the new characters in this part; but this is also a minor niggle, as Jorg hogs the spotlight most of the time - and one could argue that the other characters are viewed through his eyes, and thus it would make sense that they aren't given too much depth. His loyal companion since book one, Makin, is still present and correct, and the one Jorg has the most interaction with. Sometimes his band of brothers remind me a bit of the Dogman and his group (from Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy), both as characters and as types.

While the story is in general about large-scale politics (as the titles of the three novels in the trilogy suggest), don't expect the kind of intrigues and backstabbing found in King's Landing. There's a little of it, but, like the first story, this tale is closer to the classic fantasy travelogue in many ways, with Jorg and his band roaming the lands (to secure his power) on various adventures. There's even a whiff of Rothfuss-esque fairy tale air in this story, with certain encounters absolutely evoking that feel (at least until you have deciphered some of the setting's back story).

It took me a long time to read this book, but that isn't the book's fault - it's crisp and smooth and there's not much dawdling in the plot (not at all, one can argue) - I just take a much longer time reading physical books because I don't always have the opportunity to read by light. However, to remedy is, and because I hunger for the conclusion, I have purchased the e-book version of the third and final book in the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, which I hope will answer some of the questions I have and provide the same humor and adventure that the previous two did.

I've already jumped into Emperor of Thorns and enjoying it. After that, oh many to read. So many. I think I'm going to read Abercrombie's Half a King, because, you know, he's the man and I expect a lot from him, even when I'm not in his target audience for once.

Here are a few quotes from Amazon that I feel paint a pretty accurate picture of King of Thorns (it has a 4.5 rating based on 341 reviews - it is really good, but you must enjoy your fantasy a little bit cynical):

  • Overall, this book is a lot less dark that its predecessor and involves a lot more planning on Jorg's part - and is thus a more enjoyable read. 
  • The main character Jorg is not quite as bloodthirsty as he was in the opening volume of the Broken Empire Trilogy but every bit as treacherous and quick-thinking. Lawrence subverts some of the fantasy world cliches in interesting ways. 
  • Powerful and clever language. Full and deeply-realized world. And best of all, a protagonist of truly moving complexity.

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