Thursday 22 September 2016

The internet is not forever.

They say the internet is forever, and that what you put out there will haunt your descendants for generations, rather like plastic bags thrown in the sea.

But they lie. The internet erodes constantly. As Yeats had it, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

In some cases people erase their own tracks and attempt to rewrite history.

In others it's just that websites go dead, information is lost, even the Wayback Machine loses its grip. I've been on the internet since 1992, and believe me, it forgets.

Which is why, having found that my link to Orson Scott Card's review of the Broken Empire had gone dead, I was worried it was gone forever.

I may violently disagree with OSC's recent political/social declarations (or at least what I have seen reported about them - and I am the first to acknowledge that people can wildly misrepresent you in order to further their own agendas, having had it done to me), but I remain a big fan of his work, and when the author of Ender's Game (which blew me away when I read it 20 years ago) praises your work, you want to keep those words.

So, having found where the review moved to, I've copied the relevant section here for safe(r) keeping.

Mark Lawrence's fantasy trilogy is billed as "The Broken Empire," but you're never going to remember that and it won't help you find the books. Instead, think of it as the "Thorns" series: Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns.

If you thought George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones (series name: "Song of Ice and Fire." Like anybody actually refers to it that way) was full of appalling acts of barbarity, I assure you -- Lawrence's Thorn books make Game of Thrones feel a bit like a picnic.

The inciting event of the series, though we only discover it partway through the first book, is that Prince Jorg's mother and younger brother were dragged from a carriage and brutally murdered. Jorg is an unwilling witness, because someone threw him from the carriage into a particularly nasty briar patch.

The thorns go deep into his skin and muscles, and they inject an excruciating poison. He had no choice but to remain pinned, doing nothing to help the others -- even when he's rescued, it takes him a year to recover from the injuries and poisons of the thorns, and he is covered with scars.

What hurts even worse, though, is the fact that his father, the king, instead of seeking vengeance against the man who ordered the assassination, accepts "compensation" -- a treaty, a few advantages.

So as soon as he is able -- and while still a child -- Jorg frees a band of thieves from the king's prison, runs off with them, and eventually becomes leader of the band, using them to exact his own personal vengeance against the murderer of his mother and brother.

And, because the murderer was his own uncle, after Jorg kills both of the man's sons, he becomes a plausible heir to his throne.

The story itself is fascinating and often moving, but it is made all the more intriguing because it takes place in a future Europe, one in which civilization is only just beginning to make a comeback after nuclear war.

Most of the "magic" is really the machines of the Builders -- who are basically us plus a century or so. The Builders were developing technologies that allowed the human will to alter reality directly -- a pretty good description of what most of us mean by "magic."

But some of the surviving computers are trying to save the world from what will happen if the human will ever becomes omnipotent, able to change anything to what the person needs it to be. And through the process of the trilogy, Jorg comes to realize how much his life has been manipulated by the surviving machines -- which are themselves divided into warring factions.

Ultimately, it comes down to Jorg's own will -- which we have already learned is unflinching and relentless. His father raised him brutally, cruelly -- and Jorg does not want to be the heartless tyrant his father trained him to become. Yet in some ways he is even more heartless than his father probably wanted.

Well, not heartless. He feels everything -- he just doesn't let his feelings stop him from doing some pretty terrible things.

Reading the Thorn series is an unforgettable experience. It feels like a remarkably inventive fantasy -- even after you come to understand that it's actually even-more-inventive science fiction. Lawrence is a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, which is why the lingering computer intelligences in the novel are so compelling and interesting.

Just keep in mind that if you think George R.R. Martin is willing to kill off his characters, Mark Lawrence is perfectly happy to kill all of his. Well, not all -- the story is told in first person, so unless this is a monologue from hell, Jorg himself somehow manages to live through everything.

Lawrence is a very good, clear writer. This is a hard story to make understandable, since the viewpoint character can't understand things that would have been perfectly clear to us, with our understanding of technology. But every step along the way, Lawrence allows us to follow the action -- even when the characters are confused and the rules of reality are shifting before our eyes.

I started reading Prince of Thorns in book form -- I picked it up at Barnes & Noble because it looked intriguing. But I got so involved that I couldn't keep reading it in print -- because I can only read books when I'm holding still and doing nothing else.

So I downloaded the audiobook, powerfully read by James Clamp. That way I could keep reading even while driving, shopping, exercising -- I don't have to set the book down.
The irony is that while I'm moving around through perfectly sunny, cheerful days in Greensboro, what's playing in my ears (and therefore running through my mind) is a tragedy of astonishing bleakness and emotional devastation.

And yet there is always hope -- without hope such stories would be unbearable. Maybe the world can be saved; maybe Jorg himself can lay his own guilt to rest and carve out a realm in which people have a chance of happiness. Maybe it's not too much to hope that he might be happy.

If I have one frustration with the books, it's that the correspondence with the map of Europe is never quite clear. Some names remain unchanged; some seem weirdly misplaced. Ancient European names are revived; many modern ones are gone.

It's pretty clear when we go to Spain and North Africa, and Austria is plain enough, but are we in a world with higher or lower sea levels? Are we actually going by land from Ireland to the continent? This puzzlement is probably peculiar to me -- certainly it never interferes with the story itself. I'm unusually map-sensitive, that's all.

The series also ends in a way that I repeatedly warn my writing students never to do. But I also tell my students that you can break any rule as long as you're willing to pay the price. Lawrence pays that price, so the ending works; instead of feeling like a cheat, it is absolutely fulfilling and right within the rules and history laid out in the books.

I'm not sure how to recommend these books. What kind of person thrusts a book on his friend, saying, "This is the story of a life utterly filled with violence and cruelty, in a violent and cruel world, where almost everybody is faithless, and the faithful people are almost always rewarded with brutal death"?

But I can also, truthfully, say, "This is a book about trying to make something better out of a world of chaos and suffering; a book about trying to please a parent who is unworthy of honor; about trying to find redemption in a world without a redeemer."

Or maybe I just have to say, No matter how painful this story is along the way, it's all worth it -- worth reading, and worth Jorg's having to live through it all.

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  1. My memory of the ending is a bit rusty, but I'm curious what specific rule was broken with the ending that OSC tells his students never to do.

  2. Yes, yes, yes to all of this. I finished the trilogy months ago, and it still sticks with me. I picked it up after I bought and read Prince Of Fools, and couldn't put it down. It is gorgeously written and so heartbreakingly devastating... it's stunning! I honestly want to copy and paste (because I feel exactly the same way!) this entire review all over the internet, so that others will have the pleasure of reading this fantastic story. I am now eyeball deep in The Liar's Key, but am realizing I should probably go back and reread Prince Of Fools, because I don't remember some of the overlap. That, and it's also incredible.

  3. Having an author you hold in high regards review you it's a dream. Can't wait to read your books!

  4. Mark, will it be possible to purchase Red Sister directly from you when it drops?! Thanks.

  5. I think i'll quote you, Mr. Lawrence, if I may, in the article regarding the right to be forgotten on the internet that i'm writing. Some interesting view right there. I don't know what rule is Mr. Orson talking about (maybe the fate of Jorg?, but I loved it all. I cried a lot, i admit it, but hell, what an ending! I can't wait until i have time to reread the whole trilogy again.

  6. What do you believe was the broken rule?
    The Thorn series remains my favorite series of all time and Jorg my favourite character, it has been this way since I read it when I was 13.
    My one problem was that the end was too rushed, there could have been more time spent on the politics of the election among other things, and the realization that it was his brother also could have had a slightly longer build up.
    Though truthfully I'd ask for everything to be extended, I cant have enough of it.