Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reading as a Writer: Prince of Thorns

I don't normally do book reviews because that's not what this blog is about. It's about writing and my journey in that world. But reading is a part of writing, and working at the craft has definitely influenced how and what I read, so it seems fair game to discuss a recent book that made me think about how my writing has influenced my reading.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is a buzzy book in the fantasy world, supposedly turning everything about the genre on its head and receiving lots of praise as well as a fair share of criticism. Most of both center on the generally evil nature of the protagonist, an anti-hero who kills, tortures, and has little or no regard for morality in any sense of the word. For me, that was a non-issue, and once you get past the apparent shock value of a story following the 'bad buy', there's some really good stuff in there and some things that made me just roll my eyes and want to stop reading. WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD.

I like books, I like stories, that's why I write them. Some I like better than others, but rarely do I not enjoy reading a book, as long as I can lose myself in another world for a period of time, I'm happy. I've spent the last several years working on my own stories, studying both the concepts of storytelling as well as the art of writing meaningful prose, it's given me a more critical eye and different measuring sticks I can use to judge a book, but in the end it's still a good book if I can get lost in it. That's where Prince of Thorns let me down.

First, I think Lawrence is an incredibly talented writer. Great prose, vivid characters, lovely little details that show his world. I feel like if he tackled something a little more conventional I would have loved it wholeheartedly. But Prince of Thorns is built on gimmick, more concerned with trying to subvert convention than really tell a good story. I was all too often aware of the author using some author trick to accomplish something, rather than the world developing as it should.

The first and most glaring problem for me was the voice. The story is told from the first person Point of View of a fourteen-year-old boy (except when it flashes back to when he was ten) named Jorg. Not once did I feel like I was in the mind of a fourteen-year-old.Now, this isn't your average kid, and his life included some pretty gruesome things done to him and done by him, so a certain world-weariness would fit. But a brutal, psychologically damaged kid is still different from an evil monster of an adult. Lawrence took great pains to explore Jorg's background and justify how he ended up where he was and how he was. And Jorg does have a great voice, just not believable for his age.

This isn't a YA book and I can understand why most readers would give him a pass and just accept that the voice works for the story. But I do write YA; I work very hard to try to make the voice match the age of my characters and it can be incredibly challenging. To me, it felt like Lawrence just didn't want to work that hard. I'm sure it was much easier to create the adult voice of a hard-bitten man and throw it on top of the fourteen-year-old character. The young age of Jorg does add to the story, but it's not a necessary part, it just makes it more shocking - that a kid could be so bad - and shock-value seems to be a lot of what he was going for.

Another problem that I consider lazy writing is the use of multiple deus-ex-machina plot developments. To his credit, Lawrence created a story were seemingly random or incredibly lucky (unrealistic) happenings are explained by 'magic'. A key trait of the main character is his rash nature and constant rushing into danger against all odds and common sense. He always survives, even when he doesn't - he's killed once and just comes back to life because, well, magic. You can get away with a little of this in epic fantasy - we all acknowledge that the 'chosen one' needs some lucky breaks to defeat the stronger enemy. But when that's the core of the plot, that the MC doesn't need a plan, or rational thought, or even to actually survive, then it takes all the tension out of it. Most of the set up seemed to just give the author another chance to point out how immoral the character was and that he survives through strength of will - his evilness/will to power is just that strong.

Again, I write plots, including epic fantasy. I even use magic as an underlying force in some of my stories. But I work really hard to make things plausible, to have the characters act within the rules of their world and for there to be consequences to their choices. Without that, the tension fades. By the end of Thorns, I found myself laughing at the implausible happenings and just waiting for the next silly instance, knowing that it would all work out for Jorg regardless of what he, or anyone else, did. That's not really what you want in a dark and 'shocking' saga.

I think in my younger days I would have enjoyed the book more. Been more willing to overlook these faults, or not even be able to articulate what was wrong. But I'm a writer now, and I hold myself to a high standard. I can't help but hold others to that same level. While I do admire Lawrence's skills, and admit that on many levels he's a better writer than I am, I am a little disappointed in the book and don't plan to continue the series. I'll wait for him to write a good story without falling back on gimmick and shock value - that I'd love to read.

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