Let’s talk about maps for a moment. A fantasy staple since the year dot, the map at the front of the book is perhaps the most evocative element of a given genre epic. Your humble correspondent used to draw fantasy maps in high school (no, I wasn’t exactly knocking ’em dead with the ladies, why do you ask?). Granted, not every fantasy epic comes with a handy map. I can think of a few authors off the top of my head (Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan) who eschew the concept. But they are very much the exception.
I’m the sort of reader that flips to the map at the front of the book at least every 20 pages or so, especially for a globe-hopping narrative. If nothing else, a map helps give the reader context: the Shire is way up here, Mordor is way down there, there’s a ton of crap in between, and Frodo is going to have himself a long-ass walk before he gets to Mount Doom. At their best, maps help the reader fill in the blanks, imagine the spaces between cities, learn about more than just the basic topography of the world.
Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, first book of a trilogy, does indeed have a map. If we’re going to judge the book simply by the map, then, well, I rather regret having bought it off Amazon, as I most likely would have put the book back on the bookstore shelf had I inspected it prior to purchase (and would have generally benefitted from the decision, as my review will make abundantly clear). The map appears to be badly mimeographed, its aesthetics are generic, and it conveys precious little information, save for the fact that it looks an awful lot like fucking France. Which, you know, is a thing. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the action takes place in some future postapocalyptic Europe, which would be cool if it wasn’t clumsily executed.
Actually, “clumsily executed” is a pretty good way to describe the book (Lawrence’s first) as a whole. The supporting characters are bad sketches, the language clunky, the setting drab, the pacing erratic. The fight scenes are muddled and meaningless, and the magic system is irrational. Of particular negative merit are the frequent dreams and visions, which are as subtle as a mailed fist to the jaw and about as welcome. I could go on and on. But the crowning touch, the element that moves Prince of Thorns from run-of-the-mill bad to almost endearingly terrible is the protagonist.
Fantasy is rife with arch-bastards in leading roles. No one is ever going to mistake the Black Company for the Fellowship of the Ring, Jaime Lannister took three books to begin to approximate a human being, and Karsa Orlong is frankly terrifying. And these are great characters, with their own (often dubious) moral codes and worldviews, and they offer enough to keep the reader interested in their travails. Not so for Jorg, teenage highwayman and secret heir to the throne of Ancrath, who’s empty and heartless and sadistic and frankly quite dull. He’s also a complete fucking psychopath: as the book opens he and his band of outlaws are in the process of butchering, raping, and burning the residents of a small village. Most of the truly vile stuff happens offscreen, but Jorg’s approval of and participation in the proceedings puts him in such a hole at the beginning of the book that it would take a truly skilled author to bring Jorg back to a place where he can function as a plausible protagonist. Lawrence, sadly, is not a skilled author. You see, Jorg is a complete fucking psychopath because four years earlier he had to watch as his mother and younger brother were murdered by a rival nobleman. Granted, totally awful thing that would obviously scar a person. But awful things happen to people all the time in fiction, and I’m going to go way out on a limb and say that slaughtering farmers and violating their daughters and incinerating their homes is a poor way to handle one’s grief. If there really were a Jasper Fforde like place where all the characters in fiction lived and interacted, I imagine Luke Skywalker, Arya Stark, and Batman would like to have a word with young Jorg. Straighten him out. Maybe beat seven shades of shit out of him for making everyone else look bad. Now THAT book, I would read and enjoy.
Anyway, there’s some question as to whether Jorg is entirely responsible for his actions, but that question is properly raised far too late to save the book. Antiheroes work when they’re charming or badass or (preferably) both. Some kind of moral code is helpful but not necessarily required. Fiction abounds with rogues and thieves and assassins and even psychopaths who nevertheless win over the audience. The problem here is, Jorg is about as charming as the Hanta virus, nor is he particularly badass (save for the preposterous and poorly-paced climax, in which his plan boils down to “Imma be super cool and deadly then boy I hope I get really lucky,” in fact the best thing that can be said about the climax is that it’s mercifully brief), and Lawrence’s occasional attempts to convince the audience to at least sympathize with his protagonist are unsuccessful.
I almost certainly wouldn’t have finished the book were it not for the chance CBR gives me to gleefully eviscerate it on the internet. And I most certainly will not be reading the other books in the trilogy. Prince of Thorns reads like a really unkind parody of gritty fantasy, which I rather doubt was the author’s intent. There’s the kernel of a good idea here, but it’s buried under a mountain of bad ideas. Hell, the whole book is inept on a scale that I feel inadequate to convey. Maybe it’s just that I’ve read most of the good fantasy and thus have to settle for minor league talent while waiting for the new Martin or Novik or Rothfuss (yes, Rothfuss, despite my well-documented issues with him, as on his worst day he wouldn’t trust Lawrence to pick up his dry cleaning). I’ve read some iffy genre fiction over the last year, but even if a book isn’t particularly good, there will be elements of the story that I end up enjoying: the setting of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the gender politics of 2312, the pure batshittery of Gun Machine. But I honestly cannot think of a single redeeming quality to Prince of Thorns, save that, should you find yourself in a survival situation, the pages will make excellent kindling.