Friday, 16 October 2015

Did we read the same book?

I've always been fascinated by the fact that an intelligent person who agrees with me on all manner of topics may have a totally different opinion to me when it comes to the quality of a particular film, the goodness of a book, the attractiveness of an individual, the impact of a picture or poem, or the yumminess of olives.

Yes it's a fact of life. I understand it intellectually. But emotionally it still surprises me when something I've been shocked and awed by leaves another cold.

On an unrelated subject: it's inadvisable for authors to argue with reviewers. 

But ... it's fine to let them argue with each other!  :)

There are two fine bloggers, James of Eagle's Book Reviews, and Wendell (or Lee for short) of BookWraiths, who both enjoyed the Broken Empire and who both have posted very positive reviews of two of the three books. However, one really didn't like Prince of Thorns and the other really didn't like King of Thorns!

Here I've invited them to visit each other's points of view. 

For Prince of Thorns their reviews are at right-angles to each other, concentrating on very different aspects.

For King of Thorns they talk about the same things but react very differently.

I've paraphrased key points of disagreement (in bold) and both have kindly responded, expanding or clarifying on those points. To me it's a fascinating insight into how two people come away from a text with such different reactions.

The original reviews for all three books are linked and are well worth visiting.

Prince of Thorns - 2* from Eagle, 5* from Book Wraiths. 

Prince of Thorns reviewed on Book Wraiths.
Prince of Thorns video on Eagle's Book Reviews.

BW – This book was essentially a character study of Jorg Ancrath. The depth and meat of the story lies in getting to grips with Jorg’s view of the world and the philosophy he adopts to make sense of it. Showing Jorg at the time of the events that shaped him, and then four years later give us insight into the nature and nurture of character. The portrayal of Jorg is believable and human. Accomplishing this for a character who does such terrible things is a significant achievement of the book. The faint hints that he might be redeemed compel you to read on from page to page and from this book to the next.

E - I have a dislike for the term ‘character study’. It implies that a novel is given a free pass on other aspects of storytelling and cries out to me to be more appropriately used for a biography rather than a Fantasy novel. It is true that the narrative is mainly focused on Jorg’s malicious viewpoint and I think that was where ‘Prince of Thorns’ faltered somewhat. It is, to some degree, too introspective, focusing heavily on Jorg without giving ample time for world-building and character-development (for the range of supporting characters). Jorg himself isn’t as multi-layered and natural in Prince like he is in King. He is a very damaged individual but in this installment he is merely a violent sociopath whereas he grows into more of a philosophical tortured soul in King which makes him far more human and much more interesting.

E – preceding timeline didn’t support current one.

BWI stand by my initial review, in that Jorg’s past definitely showed a plausible reason how and why he exhibits such extreme psychopathic behaviour. 

E - I understand that the flashbacks showed how Jorg became the man he is ‘today’ but other than that I don’t recall them adding much to the plot. If anything the story might have worked better had it just been one chronological sequence. Jorg: From Rags to Riches as it were. But as this is the narrative structure that continues throughout the trilogy I can see why the book is set up the way it is.

E - All characters save Jorg are names on a page. Book too much too short and much too rushed. You can’t build characters in a book this length.

BWRespectfully disagree. Prince was a grimdark tour de force, not short at all, but rather fast paced in a way that made the pages fly by as a reader desperately tried to discover how all the exquisite madness would end. As for the characters, I found many of those in Prince the most interesting of the series: The Nuban, Sir Makin, Chella, Olidan Ancrath, and Katherine to name just my favorites. Definitely Jorg was the focus and maintained the spotlight, but even with little page time, these people came alive before my eyes, eliciting strong feelings in not only Jorg but myself as well

E - I have no experience of writing 1st person but I can gather that it must be rather difficult to flesh out characters that aren’t given a viewpoint. It did seem to me that the figures in Jorg’s life were simply that, figures, with no more depth than the shallow end of a leisure centre swimming pool. These characters (Katherine, Chella, etc.) are given far more depth in later books and the new characters introduced in King seem to be given more of their own identity. I believe the fact that Prince is very short could have contributed to why I feel/felt that way. It is difficult to present a main (1st person perspective) character, a world, and a plot, in so few pages and I think this did harm the supporting cast.

E - The book had no meat, no depth. It was a collection of plot points. Can’t be called a novel. An extended short story.

BW - Novels are stories about people and their lives. Life is a string of events strung together over a period of time that defines that particular person. Generally, there is no grand nature to these events or their consequences at the time; it is only in hindsight that everything is clicked into place by the beholder to proclaim that all this resulted in a certain event or is important for this reason. Without this later evaluation of the isolated events in a life, they are all just random scenes, random short stories of this or that. But when viewed as a whole, they tell magnificent stories. And with Prince, Mr. Lawrence captured the essence of real life, allowing Jorg Ancrath to narrate his own story and explain how all these important (and isolated) events in his life led him to the concluding lines on the final page. Absolutely, Prince has meat, depth, because it is the story of one man’s life journey.

E - The plot did feel very disjointed, with a lot of things happening, but not much reasoning or exploration as to why they were happening. A short story can get away with to the point storytelling, but a novel, particularly the first in a series/trilogy needs more padding out for the reader to fully appreciate the world and the characters within it. Had Prince been the same size as King or Emperor it might have pulled it off. Just a few breather scenes perhaps. Moments of character interaction around a campfire or something along those lines. Maybe a bit of exposition as to contemporary history, current culture, or international politics. Just to flesh the story out a bit.

E – There was almost no world-building. The only non-generic elements, the necromancers and mutants didn’t add anything.

BWI can’t disagree that the world-building was sparse -- mere hints and tidbits scattered here and there, but in Prince, it fit the story of Jorg Ancrath’s journey from royal heir to psychopathic revenge seeker. Honestly, world-building had little to do with the story taking place, which is why Mr. Lawrence wisely chose to keep it to a minimum.

E - I blame Conn Iggulden for my immediate reaction to the novel. I was expecting a book similar to A Game of Thrones thanks to his cover review. Of course, Prince of Thorns isn’t. It is its own book, and I was a fool for thinking otherwise beforehand. But because of that I was expecting a slower read, big exposition on history and culture, flowery descriptions and political deceptions. It’s my fault for putting expectations on this book, because it was never meant to be that kind of book. However, I think that considerable more exposition on Jorg’s world would have benefited his story.

E – I’ve seen nastier characters in other books. Jorg wasn’t really that awful a person. Lawrence shouldn’t have made him in any way redeemable. If Jorg had been more detestable the book would have been stronger. This was nothing new. Just not gripping enough.

BWOne’s view of Jorg is a personal judgment call, of course, but many readers (myself included) were shocked by Jorg Ancrath’s casual and (more importantly) fully justified murder and mayhem. But the beauty of Mr. Lawrence’s narrative was that Jorg’s redeeming qualities and his horrible past came tantalizingly close to justifying his behavior. Making Jorg more detestable and wholly evil would have merely turned him into yet another forgettable fantasy villain.

E - I think this again is the fault of my own expectations. I went into the book with the understanding (as I had seen by many reviewers and forum posts) that this Jorg guy was supposed to be the most hideous, disgusting, monster known to man. He’s not really. He’s pretty damn bad but he’s not the worst. I think the build-up didn’t truly justify Jorg’s character. He is a tortured soul who wouldn’t hesitate to commit brutal deeds to get what he wants, but he’s not a sadistic bastard (well maybe at the start…). To stand out as a darker character I think it would have been better had he taken the role of a Joffrey Baratheon or a Ramsay Snow, but he didn’t. He has depth and good sides which gets expanded upon in King, which I think is a very good thing.

E– It’s all too swift. I want to see the travel between locations. This is fantasy in brief. A story for people who can’t concentrate on explanatory and descriptive prose.

BWOnce again, I’d say this is a personal preference issue. Some people adore pages and pages of descriptive prose; others thank the heavens when a writer just gets to the point already. As for myself, I am a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring with its pages of text and trilogy long journey, but I appreciated Prince’s streamlined style, as it truthfully captured how Jorg himself would relate the story of his own life. At least, how I believed he would have told it. 

E - This kind of goes back to my ‘collection of plot points’ statement. The pacing of the novel is very fast, which although might make it quite exciting, does also impact its integrity as a novel. Making it feel more like a movie-tie in or something along those lines. I ended the book not feeling very satisfied with it as its own novel. I guess that’s because I felt it had ended before it had truly begun. Jorg’s progression to the climax and the speed of the climax was super-quick. If there had been more of a build-up to this confrontation, a conflict that is core to Jorg’s character growth, it would have worked better. I don’t mean to be insulting to whoever likes to read that type of story however as my earlier quote might indicate.

King of Thorns - 5* from Eagle, 2* from Book Wraiths. 

BW - Storytelling was lacking. It is obvious that this novel does not rise to the shocking brilliance of Prince of Thorns.

E – It was a very good, satisfying story. Far superior to Prince of Thorns in every way. The extra 
length and slower pace added a lot of quality.

E - There is so much to this novel and, having read all of Lawrence’s works, I think I can still consider it my overall favourite. The weaving narrative, the fruition of Jorg’s characterisation, the expansion of the world through the added viewpoint of Katherine. It gelled well and created a story which had a better arc than the original. The focus of the story on the invasion of Renar by the forces of Arrow was centrally grounded giving the plot a firm direction and a point to proceedings. Lawrence seemed more comfortable with taking his time rather than flying through the story.

BW Expectations are dangerous things. And, in hindsight, I now see it was impossible for King to satisfy my unrealistic desires. Simply put, I was so amazed by Jorg’s story and his warped but intellectual meditations on life that no one (not even Mr. Lawrence) could ever have met my expectations for Prince’s sequel. Even with that admission though, I still stand by my review, because my criticism were exactly how I felt after finishing this novel.

BW - The character growth was non-existent.

E - Jorg much more believable. Gone into in much more depth. Great deal of satisfying character building, aided strongly by the support/synergy of the three time-lines.

E - Jorg’s growth was very much there. He becomes a more understanding figure. Less driven by rage and a desire for violence, and more by ambition and a, rather twisted, sense of right. His confrontation with Egan at the novel’s climax and his statement concerning Orrin (‘I think that I would have followed him and called him Emperor. I hope that I would have.’) remains one of my favourite moments of the trilogy. It showed me how much he had matured with the tale.

BWStand by my review with one further attempt to explain my point. After reading King, I felt that the Jorg at the beginning of the novel was absolutely no different than the one on the final page. All the changes that his travels and his experiences had created were washed away by the “box” -- a perception that highly disappointed me.

BW - The plot had glaring holes.

E - A lot more thought into plot progress. My only niggle was a small one about Gorgoth’s motivation.

E - The plot was exciting and engaging. There we so many fun moments and the mystery of the box added an intriguing element to the plot. Its addition keeps the reading guessing and the revelation of its contents are surprising and really entice feelings of sympathy for Jorg. Something I didn’t expect going into the novel.

BWAs I mentioned earlier, my review was how I felt after finishing King. Obviously, it was written without the benefit of Emperor’s continued revelations regarding Jorg’s travels. Now, after having finished the trilogy, nearly all of the “glaring plot holes” which I complained about have been fully and adequately plugged by Mr. Lawrence’s further revelations about Jorg’s travels. So in regard to the majority of that criticism, I hereby humbly acknowledge that my lack of faith in Mr. Lawrence’s writing skills was disturbing and wrong. Thank God, Mr. Lawrence is more forgiving than Lord Vader.

BW – The flashbacks spoiled the flow and added nothing. Too much of King of Thorns is isolated incidents of horrendous gore or ghostly undead or sociopathic musings without any of it coalescing into a coherent story.
E - The 3 timelines really worked. Early one really supports current one. Box memories really counterpoint the story and aid in character building and emotional peak.

E - Yep, I fully stand by my statement there. There’s not much more to add. Did I say how much I loved the interweaving storylines?

BW - Okay, the gore and undead and musings (Jorg quotes are my all-time favorites.) by themselves were actually pretty cool. But what bothered me was that the flashbacks ruined the flow of the narrative, keeping all those things from organically growing into a true story like Prince. At least, for me that is what occurred. Honestly, I just felt the flashback sections of King were not necessary except those dealing with the “box.” The journey to the Horse Coast and Jorg’s exploits there (as they were revealed in this novel, not Emperor) would have worked just as well presented in a linear fashion. I also felt it would have made the story feel less choppy, because the flashbacks interrupted the narrative flow of the battle.

BW - Katherine diaries boring and not relevant.

E - Katherine’s diary entries very good. An extra layer of depth and a different perspective on Jorg and events are very intriguing.

E - It was great to get an insight into the workings of Arrow and to get behind the eyes of someone else in this world. Katherine, perhaps as tortured but certainly not as vile as Jorg, is able to shine a new light on plot points. The epistolary form adds a degree of authenticity and Lawrence’s writing in these passages is sublime.

BWThe Broken Empire is Jorg’s journey. He is telling this story. Everything revolves around him; his perception of the world around him and his interaction with everyone in that world the focal point of the narrative. But there is always the lingering question of whether Jorg’s version is accurate or merely a distortion of reality caused by his psychotic mind. Interjecting Katherine’s personal diaries into this sociopathic fever dream interfered with the near hallucinogenic nature of the tale, ruining the psychotic-like quality that Prince had exhibited so well. Sure, Katherine played an important role in the novel’s conclusion, but I thought it wasn’t worth taking the spotlight off Jorg.

BW – Post-apocalyptic setting not exploited/built upon.

E – The post-apocalyptic setting that was under-used in Prince of Thorns was used really well in King of Thorns. Many great examples.

E - The dying-earth setting is always a fascinating choice to go with and I think it is one of the strongest aspects of this world. Whereas, in Prince its inclusion seemed rather random, here it begins to influence the plot and start to set up its true importance in Emperor.

BWWithout a doubt, Mr. Lawrence interjected more world-building into King. The “Four Years Earlier” sections are basically built around Jorg uncovering knowledge of the ancient past. My problem was there were too few revelations about the past (recent and ancient), and it all seemed like a clever plot device to allow Jorg to obtain yet another super-power rather than as an integral part of the narrative. Obviously, Mr. Lawrence changed that perception with the more extensive world-building in Emperor, but when I closed King, I felt very unhappy with it.

BW - Builders add nothing. I wanted to know the history of the current world.

E – The Builder interaction was very good. It provided a history lesson and the magic explained.

E - The character of Fexler Brews was someone very different to anyone that Jorg had met before in his story and I loved how we were able to get glimpses of why the world had ended up in such a decrepit state through his ramblings.

BWI stand by my initial reaction to the Builders in King, but I admit that the continuing story in Emperor solidified their central role in the whole story. As for my wish that Mr. Lawrence had given me more information about the current status of the world or about why the Broken Empire was broken and things of that nature, I still feel the same. I want to know more about it! So, Mr. Lawrence, please consider some more short stories or novelettes about this wonderful place.

BW - I didn’t want to hear about Sageous, because he is only trotted out a couple times in the book and is basically a non-entity. This one, minor character is not a reason for a flashback story.

E - Ongoing antagonists Sageous and Chella were very good, much better than in Prince of Thorns.

E - Sageous was a persistent threat, in the background of both Jorg’s and Katherine’s stories. Knowing his connection to Corion and understanding his influence on Olidan, Sageous was an enemy very different to what Jorg was used to dealing with, with attacks that were mental rather than physical. This gave added complications to Jorg’s story. Chella’s part of the novel was fantastic and very exciting.

BWWhile Sageous wasn’t a favourite of mine, my point in singling him out in my review was that his particular plot wasn’t a good enough reason to have flashbacks.

BW – Jorg just keeps acquiring super-powers to conveniently solve problems. It was boring.

E – Jorg used necromancy and pyromancy effectively. It all made sense this time and was interesting.

E - I didn’t have problems with his powers. They were explained and whilst they may have been rather uber-powerful in the novel’s climax they certainly didn’t detract from the spectacle.

BWPersonal preference again, I suppose. My review fairly well summarized why I felt that Jorg’s s “super-powers” were a bit too much. I thought the “big screen” conclusion was entertaining in its way, but it just wasn’t to my tastes.

BW – Jorg keeps on being a psychopath and it gets old.

E - Plot and character choices were far more realistic in King of Thorns. Jorg’s struggles with choices made him more of human and relatable.

E - I don’t agree that Jorg is psychopathic in this book (certainly he is less so than in Prince). I think he is a malevolent character who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, but that doesn’t make him mad. He has moments of intense philosophising and self-critique that shows he understands the darkness of his own actions. This is a depth previously unexpected of the boy who was happy to run around murdering everything in sight in Prince. It was welcome. Little did I think that Jorg’s meditations would make me think about humanity and the world. He is a strong character caught up in a mucked up world, and he is making something of himself, even if he has to become the bad-guy to do it. 

BWJorg is a psychopath of epic proportions. His philosophical musings and psychotic madness is what makes him so compelling to read about. But even psychopaths change with time, and I felt Jorg didn’t show enough growth in King. After having gained some measure of vengeance, becoming king, returned from epic journeys, and now facing nearly certain annihilation, you’d expect Jorg to be somewhat different, but he seemed the exact same youth that strutted across the first few pages of Prince; something that did not ring true to me and was distinctly different from Emperor where Jorg is an older, more mature man.

Many thanks to James (Eagle) and Wendell (Book Wraiths). The good news is that however they might disagree about Prince and King, both of them approved of Emperor!

Emperor of Thorns reviewed on Book Wraiths.
Emperor of Thorns video on Eagle's Book Reviews.


  1. Oddly, I found myself disagreeing with nearly all of the criticisms levied by *both* reviewers here, save that I might give Lee some due in calling Katherine's epistles "unnecessary" interjections that interrupt the flow of Jorg's narrative. I did find myself wanting to get back to him during these. Yet even then, I do find them "necessary" (and relevant!) in that they form part of an anti-Jorg pov that is completely lacking among those close to Jorg in Prince, where his followers seem to blindly accept his sociopathic behavior, even revel in it. In this case, series structure trumps book structure, the initial volume being a wild challenge to the reader: chew on THIS, my friends, here's a real piece of work even as seen "from his own pov"! Can you handle it? Then saving detailed explanations and some form of redemption for later. Yet there was enough in Prince to assure me that Jorg's story *would* have those elements eventually, otherwise I might have struggled more with accepting the character.

    Mark, I love seeing such a detailed look at the phenomenon we all know and "love" that's summed up so perfectly in the phrase "Did we read the same book?" Points up how much readers bring to a work, with the slightest hint of the controversy of "authorial intent", the idea that there is only one "correct" reading of a text, which could be food for another experiment like this one :-)

    Mike Voss (not really Anonymous, just confused by the choices in Publish As!)

  2. Awesome stuff here guys! Great job!

  3. Now I gotta read the books to see which one is correct.

  4. As an author, I loved reading this! It's fascinating to see how differently readers react to the same story, particularly when they both are obviously articulate and intelligent. Thanks for the excellent, detailed post.