Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Literary Fantasy Or Bread With Your Jam

There has been an increase in the use of the phrase "literary fantasy" of late. Discussion on the topic has ranged from reviewers using the term to praise fantasy novels with a literary style or certain quality of prose, to arguments over whether Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, is too good a.k.a. too literary, to be considered fantasy. Literary it turns out, is an imprecise term, a moveable feast if you will, and so to no one’s surprise, no one seems to be able to agree what it means.
But then the word literary isn’t used to define a genre as much as a quality. Or at least, it is frequently pressed into the service of both. So we have literary fiction on one hand, but we have fiction outside the literary category, being praised as literary. This is understandably confusing and lends itself to misuse that borders on willful. Fantasy by comparison is rarely so unclear. While you might argue over the borders of the genre, and people frequently do, fewer use fantasy as word to describe a novel’s style or even more unlikely, its perceived quality.
Taking the first instance of literary fantasy being used to describe what is clearly a fantasy novel, I draw attention to a recently released debut by author Den Patrick: The Boy With The Porcelain Blade. You can read the first three chapters online and peruse a handful of early reviews provided in cover blurb snipets.
Among them is this to-the-point bit of praise from UPCOMING 4 ME.

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade packs a lot of punch and is extremely well written in an excellent literary style which is sadly often absent in modern fantasy… The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is a rich, literary fantasy thriller which bodes well for the rest of the series (UPCOMING 4 ME)

This mention of the book’s literary credentials is not limited to UPCOMING 4 ME, but echoed elsewhere such as on the Waterstones blog:

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade could be described as literary fantasy steeped in a kind of alternate history Italian Renaissance.

Not to be outdone, over at Forbidden Planet International’s blog, the reviewer adds Mervyn Peake and literary both to the mix:

I mention Gormenghast not as some lazy literary reference or a familiar sound-bite to draw a curious reader in, I genuinely feel its influence at play, but there is much more youthful gusto in the writing.

In fairness both reviews do a good job of suggesting literary may be a bit of stretch when it comes to describing this debut novel, but blithely or unselfconsciously at least, still make use of the term even as they point out its rather non-literary aspects. Likewise with the references to Gormenghast floating about in the ether which feel a bit like a game of Telephone where someone, somewhere said it once but no one is sure why or if that’s exactly what was said.
Outside of a possibly author-made, possibly publisher-made reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and which reads in the actual sample as more of a science fictional origin device than a literary one, I haven’t seen any real reason to use either comparison so freely. Certainly, after reading the sample three chapters of the book itself, I found no strong urge to mix my literary with my fantasy. There is on display all the typical excesses and disappointments of typical fantasy debuts, along with a sea of over descriptive writing - but no sign of any literary magic.
 While the review on is more prosaic about the book, I feel that I’ve seen this pattern before. And expect to see it again: a debut fantasy novel, made the subject of unsupported but heartfelt praise regarding its literary qualities, confusingly intermixed with claims of being easy to read, fast paced, or full to the roof beams with pure accessible entertainment. And I regret to say, very little in the way of actual literary quality on display once the online dust settles.
That is not to suggest literature can't be exuberant, easy to read, or fast paced. But generally, there will be something more alongside all of this. I find Kafka's The Castle to be very easy to read, but it is not a straightforward novel. Conversely I am not a fan of John Updike whose "Rabbit" Angstrom novels have never satisfied me, but I accept there is something powerful there for other readers. Defining literature, and arguing about the existence of a literary genre, is not what I'm interested in here. Not least because I suspect the latter doesn't exist. 
In a way this brings us back to Calvino. One of the products of this tendency to misuse literary as a rather it-means-whatever-you-want-it-to-mean descriptive term when discussing books that may not be considered literary or belong to the fuzzy category sense of the word, is the fierceness with which fans of fantasy or other particular genres will annex writers who territories overlap.

Fantasy is a place where it rains.

Italo Calvino made this quote in reference to Dante. One could argue, that both these complex, important authors, were writers of fantasy and of the fantastical. But you’d be hard pressed to limit them to Fantasy with a capital F because their works are of course, so much more than just that. Complex, allegorical, wrestling with points of both philosophy and theology, these authors are not to be typically found shelved among the work of J.R.R. Tolkien or Brandon Sanderson. And with good reason, though the reason is perhaps not their quality alone, but what they represent in literature and as texts upon which rest, countless other important or less important, works of literary fiction. In this sense I am quite content to find them at Waterstones, filed under plain fiction.
The estimable Gore Vidal, no friend of Updike himself, considered Calvino “a true realist.” The playful Italo would likely have been uncomfortable with being boxed in by fantasy as a genre. His works span everything from fables and stories developed through the random permutations of tarot cards, to literary theory, and the hidden nature of states and cities in the face of their not always happy citizens. This is not to say that these things can’t be fantasy too, but to limit Calvino, to cut him off from his very catholic engagement with deeper themes and very clear literary roots, is to throw out the tree with the baron.
Another quote by Calvino goes more to the heart of his place in and his use of fantasy: 

that only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.

Which brings us back to fantasy as a genre, again. Because if there is a defining characteristic to a considerable number of fantasy novels, debut or otherwise, it is a great deal of jam and very little bread. Some, I might go as far as to suggest, are entirely jam with nary a crumb in evidence. This is not to say that one is better than the other, though our mothers and fathers and Italo Calvino are probably correct on this point. And we do not come to fantasy in most cases by accident. A writer does not sit down to write a realist novel and suddenly find that elves and dragons have crept in. Unless perhaps, one is writing urban fantasy. But I suspect that Calvino thought very carefully and at length about the fantastical elements he spread on his bread.
With this other sort of fantasy it is always jam today. Which may very well be part of fantasy’s abiding allure, its very popularity lying in its sticky, insubstantial sweetness and its promise of always more from the jar. Certainly as a child, I was intensely attracted to this style of fiction, over more dry and bread like literature. But with time and having found that my tastes have changed, I’ll admit that I now enjoy more adult fibre with my fantasy, more bread with my jam; the savour of Gogol, the bitterness of Camus.
So while I would be one of the last people to suggest that Italo Calvino - like Dante, like Borges, Kubin, Kafka, Gogol, and the wonderful Angela Carter - are writers who have not influenced fantasy as a genre, I’d be loath to say that is what defines Calvino as a writer. Perhaps he is, at heart, the realist and even hyper-realist, that Vidal took him for. Above all, I suspect he’s too clever to be labeled anything but a masterful writer, weaving his fables, his fantastical, alongside both his critical theory and down-to-earth musings on death, literature, and beyond.
But others are not content to let poor Calvino rest quietly. Nor do they generally take any attempt to extricate literary from fantasy, as less than a call to arms. It is snobbery, they cry. It is all a matter of taste, insist others. Fantasy and literature are the same thing after all, it can be argued, stories brought to us through the medium of authors and words.
Of course, to reduce all art to a matter of taste is to reduce all products of art to - products - to cans of Coke or Pepsi or RC Cola lined up on the shelf according to market preference. Author of The Luminaries and Booker Prize winning writer Eleanor Catton has an excellent article debunking the subject here.
However, to hear some fans argue for the trumping of taste over literary qualities is to suspect perhaps Philistinism is alive and well; incorrectly as it turns out. Philistinism, as Malcolm Bull suggests in his book Anti-Nietzsche, is one of those things that abounds in theory but can be found nowhere in practice. A true Philistine does not believe there is value in art, beyond the practical value of things for their thing-ed-ness, and hence no valuation can be made even on the basis of taste. A fantasy fan however who argues for universal subjectivity, is arguing that art’s only value is subjective. Not that art has no value.
Philistine or fan, consumer or reader, passions on this subject run hot. I suspect this is because we tend to equate our perceived taste in things - or brands if you want to keep this grounded in the wisdom of the markets - with our personal valuation in a consumer society. No surprise that we want to elevate our favoured brand to a higher or at least equal position that others hold, regardless of merit.
While there is no question what we read says things about the people we are, such as do perhaps the shoes we wear or the car we drive or the size of the house we live in, it is a mistake to cling to this exact scaling of value with the novels we most enjoy reading. We can read all sorts of things, without one hopes, each moving us up or down the social ladder of perceived self-worth. But perhaps this requires a belief that art means more than our buying habits on Amazon.
A good book might make you a better person, but liking a bad one does not make you the reverse. We can of course, enjoy all sorts of novels, some of them crude, some of them complex. If the vast majority of our intake proves disposable, we persist, I like to think, in the hope of coming across something that may change the way we look at the world, ourselves, or even the act of reading.
I would suggest that great literature is capable of this, in a way that commercial fiction, however popular, rarely achieves. And that, questions of taste aside, is something worth chewing on.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Shall I Tell You The Problem With Dystopian Novels?

On Such a Full Sea

Noted science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin begins her article by first nailing her colours firmly to the mast. An authority on the genre of science fiction and fantasy, if not the sub-genre of dystopian novels, she is quick to suggest that literary authors* have no place on the ship.

Authors, of literary background such as Chang-rae Lee, who have neither sensitivity or importantly, sufficient respect, for the seriousness of genre, are not up to the task. Le Guin is concerned, about where the coffee comes from, and the petrol. How the details of a fully imaginary world fall into place in all their minutiae is top on her list - or second, after noting his credentials as a literary author.

Lee's story, in her estimation, comes up wanting in this respect - despite, what seems to be praise for his "suave and canny" prose, flowing story, and vivid description. Never mind those "pleasant contemplative moments" what matters here is a seeming betrayal of "literal, rational questions" in a work of fantasy - sorry, "social science fiction." This is, no light matter, because social science fiction, Le Guin reminds us, is granted no such license for frivolity.

A less charitable interpretation of this short review would be of an well established, iconic even, author of genre shouting from what she views as if not her front porch, then a neighboring property, for invaders from the Lit-o-Sphere to get off her patch. All hands to the social science fiction laser turrets!

She begins this broadside by pointing out that the dystopian novel is done and dusted. Wiser and importantly, more genre genuflecting authors who have come before, have Already Done It Better. This may or may not be true, because dystopia is a funny thing. You can hardly separate it from its mirror (literary) image, the utopia which has even more august antecedents. Whether it is Cloud cuckoo land of Aristophanes or the Eldorado of Voltaire or for that matter, the eponymous Utopia of Thomas More, the boundaries between utopia and dystopia are never a certain thing. Defusing the implausibility but also the horror of such fully fictional kingdoms were they to be made actual places, it is not a long road to travel to reach the more classically delineated spaces of Huxley, Orwell, and indeed, McCarthy.

But of these, McCarthy, who had remained in the literary camp despite his waverings, is judged the less serious, more superficial author. A rather weak claim coming from Le Guin who despite her excellent work in fiction, has never written a novel half as brilliant or as uncompromising as Blood Meridian. The latter a book which despite being a "historical" novel, is not a whit less fantastical or dystopian as the best that the SFF genre has to offer.

"But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction."

Ah, but then writers like McCarthy, are just day trippers then. Le Guin seems to suggest, that the True Blue genre-ist, lives there. Perhaps in a nice cozy caravan if not a castle. But again, there is little support for this if we actually look at the books which have been written on both sides of the supposed lit-genre divide.

There is no note of Margaret Attwood who has in the past been at pains to point out she "doesn't write science fiction." But she certainly writes dystopian novels. Both The Handmaid's Tale, as well as The Flood (and under the same broad tent, its prequel, Oryx and Crake) sit comfortably within the world of the dystopian and social science fiction novel. Of the two, the one with the least respect shown for conscientious world building of the sort that Le Guins suggests real social science fiction demands, is the former: The Handmaid's Tale. And of the two, it is by far the better work for it.

No mention of johnny-come-lately and literary author Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Nor, of that prince-jestor of fantasy and science fiction, M. John Harrison, who with deadly seriousness has taken the piss out of both with his Viriconium series and Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In Harrison's case, both of these are startling bodies of work which inhabit a space that has at best, haphazard social science fiction elements but deliver a one-two punch to genre with more than a touch of dystopian trappings and a refusal to be pinned down by the traditional limitations of either.

To say that any of these authors are less serious than Le Guin or for that matter, EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and others, is absolute rubbish.

And what is wrong, even if this charge by Le Guin had any basis in reality, in a lack of seriousness in fiction? Deconstructing, irrelevance, and breaking with tradition, are all fine elements of good writing. Science fiction and to a lesser extent, fantasy, are often resistant to this, however. Over sensitive perhaps to anything which defamiliarizes the unfamiliar as the very smart, very irreverent author Lavie Tidhar points out in his article on science fiction author, Adam Roberts:

Genre fiction doesn't need genuflection, of course, as much as it needs a list of others things. High among them, mischievous renovation. If outsiders to genre wish to make use of the - here Le Guin and I can agree - rather tired tropes of traditional science fiction - good for them. If they can take them more lightly and with less heavy handed pomposity, all the better. Genre, for all its strengths, its use of realism is not actually one of them. For realism comes in many forms, not all of them the micro economics of imaginary places. But emotion, character, plot, and shall we say it? literary authenticity. All of these, Le Guin admits, Lee has.

So why then is she unable to vouchsafe On Such a Full Sea as a true dystopia? Mostly, it seems to come down to the credentials of the author as a less serious (?) non-genre author slumming it in the section of town where she lives, and Lee's "use (of) essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially."

Some commentators have been quick to agree. Where are the edible fungi? asks one, in McCarthy's novel The Road. I can't say this was a stumbling point for me personally in this powerful, moving, emotionally realistic exploration of a son and father's harrowing dystopian road trip through a dying world whose singular strength is perhaps the utter incomprehensible nature of the disaster which has upended the world. What matters is not the DNA sequence of some fictional plague, the specifics of a made up science fictional weapon, the colour of an alien sun, but the interactions of its principals.

The sad fact is genre needs to move on. And genre fans and authors, many of them at least, need to stop trying to stem the fluidity of genre's always porous boundaries. They also are not helped shouting like angry geese whenever a self-identified literary author strays onto the property.

It just reveals the facade like nature and low self esteem of a wide spectrum of literature that need not wall its totally imaginary and invented worlds behind invented social or science fictional realism.

Here's hoping for better literary and science fictional worlds in the future.

*While some may wish to argue that EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Aldous Huxley are all literary authors who Le Guin shows to have Gotten It Right, only Forester can be said to be untainted by clear association with Science Fiction. Zamyatin's biography almost always has science fiction before any mention of his role as a satirist, and Huxley has long been canonized by SF. The fact is, not one current literary author who crosses that the divide, is praised by Le Guin in their handling of SF tropes. A point, I think, salient to the discussion at hand.


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Ecce Humanoid: The Digested Digested Reivew:

Ecce Humanoid: The Digested Digested Review:

Little Nietzsche in Fantasyland.


Ecce Humanoid: The Digested Review

Ecce Humanoid: The Digested Review

Mark Lawrence’s second novel, King of Thorns, is a Nietzschean journey through otherwise familiar territory. Lauded for its ‘grim dark’ appeal and youthful anti-hero, it is more a slog through typical misogyny, casual racism, and oodles of fantasy violence in an post-apocalyptic setting that hasn’t progressed much from earlier examples in the genre. It is singular mostly, in its extreme toxicity towards women and its queasy relationship with underage female sexuality and constant appeals to gamesmanship. Where it dares, it dares mildly, mostly by increasing the level of familiar tropes from background radiation to a lethal dose.


Ecce Humanoid

Ecce Humanoid: Nietzsche, Epic Fantasy and An Epic Darkness at the Heart of Genre - A Truly Epic Review of Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns.

Human Crumminess, an Introduction

The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When that’s done, we can curl up on our toes and sink into the pit. That’s work enough for a lifetime.

- Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night

Human crumminess is a common theme in literature. It’s certainly true for fantasy, lately. Perhaps our interest in dystopian futures has blended with a fetishization of our perceived brutish past. It could be a reaction to modern fears or just a misunderstanding of history, which has caused the edges of fantasy’s map to curl. But to suggest such a darkening is entirely new is to forget our history. A reader need only look to the origins of fantastic literature to find that such grimness has always been with us. Letting the witch eat the children, the cow be sold for beans and the family starve, sits surprisingly well beside the tragedies of Euripides. It slots itself equally well into the conversation held between crisis capitalism and hungry modernity without disturbing the other diners at the table. So whatever it is that has propelled the sub-genre of epic fantasy into the fore, which goes by a number of names but tends to be characterized by grim and dark expressions of otherwise familiar fantasy tropes, it’s not a novel reworking of the genre.

Among those writing in this category popularized by authors George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, is relative newcomer Mark Lawrence. His debut novel Prince of Thorns was enthusiastically received, but not without criticism. While Lawrence himself has claimed that the negative perception of his book has been focused on a small percentage of rape occurring early on in the first novel, I and others found deeper, more problematic elements seeded throughout. Even measured against the low standards set by contemporary epic fantasy, I would be comfortable saying that the novel’s handling of race and gender is regressive.

Not that this has stopped readers and bloggers from praising Lawrence, enthusiastically comparing his debut to the work of Patrick Rothfuss and Robin Hobb. Some fans have gone so far as to laude Lawrence’s ability to write “prose as a means to present darkness and pain in its truest form⁠1;” a claim I can’t personally find support for in the actual writing. Rather it’s a comment which I think says more about a tendency towards hyperbole among bloggers and reviewers, than the quality of Lawrence’s output. Even more recently, King of Thorns, the sequel to Lawrence’s debut, has been shortlisted for the David Gemmell Legend Award. 

Of course, it is one thing to be a fan, a questionable state in itself, as in what does it mean to be a fan of genre these days? But there has been a tendency to attack reviewers who have negatively reviewed Lawrence’s work. Mark Lawrence himself has not been a stranger to discussion threads on the topic. Two years after the reviewer Liz Bourke wrote a mostly negative review of Lawrence’s first book for, she is still getting personal criticism leveled at her over it, showing that she perhaps touched a nerve in a community of vocal fans and enthusiastic reviewers.

I am not surprised. There is a tendency to want to enjoy things in the genre that King of Thorns belongs to, and in speculative fiction as a whole, with those desires unexamined. Especially if examination comes from perceived outsiders or less than fans. Though considering someone such as Liz Bourke, a well respected and published reviewer of speculative fiction, an outsider, seems questionable itself. Determining who is and who is not a true fan is far more muddied ground. Frequently, the definition of ‘true fan’ seems to fall back into an endless regression.

When questioned, those resistant to examination may cite differences in taste. Others choose to raise the issue of literary snobbery (accusations of ‘litfic’ are particularly du jour) or make appeals, strangely, to realism - in what are works of fantasy. If this proves insufficient to see off a perceived interloper into the zone, it is not uncommon to see accusations of “a social agenda” hurled from the battlements. A disagreeing opinion can thus be transformed into an attack on someone’s character. Attacks trigger counter attacks. War sweeps across the comment sphere. Written out this way it may seem a bit juvenile, but people react emotionally when challenged and are sensitive to perceived vandals entering their cherished spaces.

To disagree or find problematic elements in a work beloved by others is not to suggest they are bad readers or bad people. Or that their temples are actually cow sheds. Far from it. One person’s enjoyment of a thing, however, is not sufficient reason for others to remain silent. No agenda is necessary. And any reader should in theory be free to take whatever approach they wish when it comes to reviewing - without their conclusions causing moral panic. Once a work of fiction is released into the world, the world has as much right to tear it apart as to cherish it. As Diderot stated in his Encyclopédie, "Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection.”

This is not to argue that readers can’t like what they like or disagree with reviewers. Nor that all critics are neutral in their stance. No book is written with every reader in mind. Critics know this. Which is why they have different knives hanging in their kitchens. But they are generally human beings too, and for the most part are restless souls who want nothing better than to love a work as much as you or I. Imagine that. A caveat being that if we like potentially questionable things, we should be prepared for others to question them.

Also, when enjoyment approaches unconditionality, it may be possible to have overlooked potential pitfalls in a work. A reader then should not begrudge others who might stumble over such their complaints if they do. We are all set free to like what we like, and dislike what we dislike - dependent upon your local decency laws. Above all, we should not tie personal valuations of ourselves into our valuation of fiction too tightly. But of course, we do. As we will see, they are themselves part of a competitive ecology of taste. And in fantasy, that ecology is frequently Nietzschean.

For a genre that has dragons and elves, invoking the spectre of social philosophy may seem digressive. But Nietzsche has always been popular despite or because of his insistence that his works were for the few and not the grubby mass of humanity. The unwashed many, who were hardly better than cattle, worse actually: because cattle generally allowed for a singular will to overpower their own herd mentality, went where they were told to, and dutifully filed past the abattoir gates. Nietzsche’s ideas are still immensely popular, and not just in fantasy, filtering into such spheres as entertainment and even economics - the latter accomplishment which might have rendered Nietzsche speechless had not an encounter with an aging cart horse accomplished that first.

Returning to Prince of Thorns, Lawrence has since my original review, followed up with the inevitable sequel; this being the land of trilogies and quartets and multi-volume spanning series. I was curious to see if his second novel, King of Thorns, would compose its themes any differently. Prince of Thorns having been a novel tailored around Nietzsche’s own philosophies and fictions, but depressingly familiar ground for those have hoped for something more human than superhuman to blossom in the ruins of epic fantasy.

This is not then a traditional review of Mark Lawrence’s novel King of Thorns. I shall be concerned with talking at length about Mark Lawrence’s strengths as a writer, what occurs in the plot, with avoiding spoilers for those who are bothered by such things. I may touch on all of these, of course. But they are not the focus of this - highly divergent - essay. In other words, I’m not here to examine the book as a fan or even a neutral outsider.

Rather, I’m interested in reading like a loser⁠2, or at least someone who acknowledges that the text may be hostile to them. That it may place the reader in some difficulty when it comes to reconciling its aims with one’s own. That comprehension of its philosophy is not so much to be embraced but atomized. That it should be held at arms length, with tongs, perhaps. And above all, that a sympathetic reading of King of Thorns should not be accommodated but resisted.


By our best enemies we do not want to be spared, nor by those either whom we love from the very heart. So let me tell you the truth! 

- Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

As one might surmise I do not identify as a fan; neither of Mark Lawrence’s novels or the genre to which his work belongs. Certainly not of Nietzsche, who while an interesting writer of unmistakable genius, has produced ideas of dubious utility but of immense popularity. In my defense, sometimes it is better for our enemies to review us than our friends. For while friends may be counted on to be kind, they are not always candid. Something similar can be said for fans of a particular author, or even a genre, where a positive consensus in a tight-knit community is often viewed as the only polite response to a new book appearing in the marketplace.

Many readers and reviewers have literary intentions of their own. No one likes an unfavourable review, or is liable to forget one. Fans generally are involved in a different dialogue with what they embrace than a reviewer or an author though the line between all three has effectively blurred. This is not better or worse, though it carries its own suit of luggage up and down the stairs, at all hours. And once you have made contact with an author on a personal level, it can become harder to put the boot into their work even if you encounter problems.

There is pressure then, hardly the fault of writers and publishers, to either say something positive or to remain silent. So authors can get on the with business of crafting books, and not wasting time replying to their critics. While I may have been unhappy with Mark Lawrence’s first novel, Prince of Thorns, I have no agenda in slating his novels per se. Nor a desire to stop him from writing more of the same, if that is what he enjoys doing and can make a living from it. Likewise, I have no vendetta against epic fantasy in general, even if I’m frequently disappointed by it. Many books will be written each year and most of them will not be works of genius.

However, I can hardly be seen as unbiased. Despite an abiding interest in fantasy, I do not feel embedded in the genre; and read outside it as much as I do within. But I am not of the belief that the only product of fiction is entertainment. Each book is a snapshot of the current state of a population of readers: their preoccupations, their triumphs, their failings - their prejudices. Focusing on what a novel does poorly is not without merit. Fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it created there. It interacts with the world through its readership. It can challenge or strengthen certain ideas about the culture that has given it form.

Over time these ideas escape from being mere tropes to becoming features of our shared cultural and artistic landscapes. They are part of the ecology of culture. With the popular transferal of books to films and TV series and back again, they are not even limited to a population of readers. They become signifiers of the world’s meaning through their connection to the world’s population of consumers.

‘For Nietzsche, the sense of the world does not lie outside the world but rather within the world, where (as Wittgenstein puts it) ‘everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen’. If the sense of the world lies inside the world, then the meaning of the world can only be given by the things in it - their meaning its meaning. That is another way of saying the meaning of the world is a question of population, and that arguments about its meaning must be determined through its demography and ecology.’⁠3

Books, films, comics, television series, embed their narratives in us. In a work of fiction such as King of Thorns, those populations, their ecology and values, are entirely the product of the author. Or to be precise, they are selected by the author out of those preexisting ones extant in the culture, adjusted, and repurposed for use in her or his fictional creation. Arguing that a book’s ultimate value lies in either the value of the world, i.e. realism, or in nonsense, i.e. meaningless entertainment, is to ignore that they are both. Simultaneously they are valuations made by individuals and part of a larger population of authors and readers who are to varying degrees, sharing or even competing in this selection of values. By doing so, they are creating the meaning by which we are likely to live out our lives in the world. It may be a small chipping away or addition to, rather than wholesale creation, but populations are increasingly becoming huge numbers, and with huge numbers small effects can be magnified.

This interplay can be seen in history, politics, religion, economics, and of course, philosophy. It is not limited to genre fiction. And while fiction may come far behind these in terms of its ability to mold populations of readers, it can have reverberations. Culture feeds on itself and what it produces is frequently what it already knows to be established truths of the marketplace. It feeds on itself and produces more of the same.

This means that we all have a stake or none of us do, in every book. Against the assurance of Nietzsche, every book ‘belongs to the many, to anybody in fact - which means, of course that it belongs to no one.’⁠4 So to say that only fans of a genre can claim ownership and that all others are talking nonsense, is to deny those multitudes both within and without these works of fiction, their fair voice. We all have an interest in their outcome and how an individual book adds its voice to the babble of the world.

Nietzsche was scathing about the failure of a small number of strong wills to overcome a multitude of lesser ones. A population made up of ineffectual wills to power was akin to a fatal sickness. It was a contagion by which the total value of the world was mortally reduced. Nietzsche stressed that valuation was not meaningful in itself but that the success of strong valuators in overcoming other valuations and dominating those weaker viewpoints in a positive ecology of value, was. His philosophy presented to the reader a stark choice between a morality of soft slaves or hard masters. And by choosing the one of masters over slaves, this alone could halt the relentless progress of nihilism from sweeping humanity into darkness. For this reason, exploitation and harshness were keystone values of a healthy human population.

He certainly would not see the distribution of value makers across such a spectrum as the internet as healthy or as anything but a sign that our current culture was teetering on the edge of destruction. But Nietzsche and epic fantasy are not unsurprising bedfellows beyond this. Both draw the reader in with promises of victory. Both tend to champion the strong over the corruption of the weak, contests not simply dominated by strength of arms but of will. They are full of powerful individuals fighting off vast hordes of lesser men and subhumans, so subhuman that the latter are often no longer human at all. Nietzsche would have identified his ideas spreading out from the centres of such stories.

To read like a loser however, is to refuse being carried to victory. To read to one’s confounding even, as Malcolm Bull suggests, in the fear of being hurt by sympathetic or even opposed comprehension.

Rather than reading for victory with Nietzsche, or even reading for victory against Nietzsche by identifying with the slave morality, we read for victory against ourselves, making ourselves the victims of the text. Doing so does not involve treating the text with scepticism or suspicion. In order to read like a loser you have to accept the argument, but turn its consequence against yourself. So rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche’s extravagant claim, we will immediately think (as we might if someone said this to us in real life) that there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable.⁠5

Another advantage to identifying with the subhuman rather than the superhuman in either Nietzsche or epic fantasy is because the superhuman is dangerous and statistically unlikely to be one of us. Especially if the reader is female. Their victory then becomes only a victory over the very sort of reader most readers are likely to be - the human sort. So to read to victory, as Nietzsche and most authors of epic fantasy would have us do, is possibly to read to our own enslavement.

I am conflicted over recommending that we need to leave scepticism behind us, or that sometimes reading against a text, is not a successful way of blocking the same path to victory. But it is an interesting approach and I hope to try both in the following review of King of Thorns. Reading like a loser who accepts the logic of Jorg’s world, but fears being the victim of it.

Because as possibly one of those weaker valuators, as a vector of human sickness in the midst of Nietzsche’s idea of a society dominated by rude health, I am interested in the reverse of the triumph of the superhuman will. To that end I have tried to take an anti-Nietzschean stance; to read as one who opposes the completion of nihilism by focusing on the very subhuman viewpoint that Nietzsche and the protagonist of King of Thorns disregard. 

Or at least, it’s a viewpoint which they do not value as anything other than something to master as the ‘few’ continue their race to an empty horizon. A horizon which remains lost, I would suggest, in perpetuity. And one that no amount of overcoming the many on the part of the few in either life or in fiction can achieve a conquest of; so nihilism remains a wave front that travels with Nietzsche and his followers rather than ends with him.

Jorg can’t escape it either. Trying to infuse meaning into nonsense such as King of Thorns by means of Jorg’s will to power, in which we can trace a direct line to Nietzsche, we are left chasing after phantoms. Phantoms which continue out over a cliff, and so to read like a loser or to oppose Jorg and Nietzsche is to stop short of the precipice. To turn back, to refuse to follow our protagonist there along with the endless spread of nihilism, or even to wait for eternal reoccurrence. To baulk at monstrous acts, be it firestorm capitalism, our faith in the markets, or that realism requires our fictions to exclude women and denigrate other races.

For I am less interested in the eternal return, than the predictable repeat. I would trade the superhuman gladly for more humanism. I’ll take purposefully unrealistic history over a misunderstanding of it. For that’s what we often get in epic fantasy. Whole kingdoms empty of women that matter, a lot of Europeans in worlds that don’t contain Europe anywhere on the map, and painstakingly re-created pike formations battling it out with zombies and talking wolves. Heroes or anti-heroes, the trajectory of a select group of wills overpowering others is frequently the same. The logic of all of which tends to fly apart, once we pry Nietzsche, that false dwarf of gravity squatting on our shoulders, out of the evaluation. 

Why chose this approach? Why read a work of epic fantasy if it offends more than it delights? Because just as it’s healthy to have a wider spectrum of voices present in epic fantasy, or less healthy if we’re speaking by a Nietzschean definition, then there’s value in more diverse viewpoints in reviewing. Viewpoints which looks less at the protagonist perhaps, and more at the defeated. Or a perspective that in the process of forming counter-interest to a novel’s own goals, loses sight of even that counter-interest; is exhausted by its search for meaning in nonsense even before setting out. A viewpoint that can say reading to victory in such cases may actually do the reader harm. That epic fantasy as a whole, is already sufficiently nihilistic and Nietzschean. Into that tenuous gap, I ride, to tilt at windmills, certainly, but in a landscape where we know at least, exist giants.

The Most Well Traveled Road In The World Is Not A Road But A Sewer

The children of the Quarter pretend to understand these signals. They know the histories of all the most desperate men in the city. In the mornings on their way to Lycee on Simeonstrasse they examine every exhausted face.

- M. John Harrison, Viriconium Knights

In Prince of Thorns we are introduced to Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath. Hung from a ‘hook-briar’ as a child he is forced to watch the rape of his mother and her and his brother’s brutal murders. Afterwards, Jorg sets out on a path of revenge familiar to us as it would be familiar to Nietzsche. Other than the tender age at which Jorg starts and the velocity with which he completes his initial journey through allies and enemies alike, Prince of Thorns does not break new ground.

Instead, the book makes a study of what continues to be central to much of the sub-genre. Prince of Thorns posits a world where what matters is a young white European male winning ‘the game’. Like the Germany of Nietzsche and Heidegger perhaps, Jorg’s kingdom lies at the middle of a new European clearing. A clearing whose edges are darkened by a past catastrophe and out of which, humanity is making its own eternal return. Jorg’s search for meaning in his world-poor environment however, is less cerebral than Zarathustra’s.

Setting out, stirred by vengeance and a revolt against the domination of his will by outside forces, Jorg plows ahead. The game upon reflection is revealed to be no more but no less, unadulterated Nietzschean will-to-power. Even interpersonal relationships in the novel are in service to this equation. There is no real development of character, outside of what advantage each piece may bring to the game board and Jorg’s dominance of it.

Not surprisingly, Prince of Thorns is causally brutal where the narrative is not entirely dismissive of the book’s few female characters. There are the famous rape elements, which I won’t reintroduce here. But they are as Mark Lawrence states, only a small part of the whole. However, there is little sympathy for weakness or softness throughout. If the aforementioned rape scenes are a small part, it is a small part out of a depressing whole if one isn’t male.

Hardness, as it was for Nietzsche, appears to be an overriding concern in Jorg’s world. But Prince of Thorns is also a novel that spits bile at fat people, trades in racial stereotyping well in keeping with Nietzsche’s contempt for equality, features a ‘magical Negro’ in the plot who is denied a name in his otherness and is sacrificed to save the white protagonist.

There is little time wasted on anything but relentless forward motion, even in the midst of narrative flashbacks. All of this is encased in smooth, sparsely descriptive prose that tries for a certain gravitas, often by means of dropping philosophers’ names from real life into Jorg’s soliloquies. But this produced for me only the gloss and not the substance of philosophy, no matter how one feels about their sources. Unsurprisingly, a great number of readers absolutely loved it.

I'm trying extremely hard not to run around in circles, laughing like my 2 year-old is prone to do. PRINCE OF THORNS reads a bit like a dark and dirty version of a David Gemmell or Robin Hood novel that got some influence from Glen Cook and Joe Abercrombie. Uh huh. Awesome.
The introductory premise of the novel is simple enough. Revenge. Jorg wants revenge on those that killed his family. But it becomes soooooo much more than that while still staying true to that original goal of revenge. But let me be clear: this is not a novel for those of you wanting a 'good guy'. There really are no good guys here. That said, I became attached to Jorg because of how broken he was and how he fought for everything.
PRINCE OF THORNS is told in 1st Person, which could have absolutely wrecked this novel. Instead it lets the reader appreciate Jorg's views on things. The writing as a whole was silky smooth and relentlessly dark. Honestly, I've having a hard time fathoming that Lawrence is a brand new author. His work just seems so professional. So full of experience. The action scenes are paced near perfectly. The 'slow' moments all have direction leading towards the final goal of the novel.⁠6

Now we have the sequel, King of Thorns, which moves us on from the end of the previous novel where Prince - now King - Jorg has enacted his revenge, won the game so to speak, or at least the level. King Jorg contemplates his next move as a new boss enters Jorg’s freshly won kingdom. Jorg’s success and his dominance, even his continuation as one of the few strong wills to power in his locality, is threatened. 

Interestingly, the prologue begins with epistolary fragments narrated by Jorg’s previous love interest from Prince of Thorns, his aunt Katherine. She will be the only female POV in this novel. These fragments, read by Jorg in the ruins of his burnt out stronghold, the Haunt (as we’ll see, Lawrence’s place names are typically broad signposts for things⁠7) suggest the outcome of the approaching battle. From here, the narrative moves back and forth from the framing story of the present, which is also King Jorg’s wedding day, to a period four years prior, where the previous Prince of Thorns ended and the new one began. The books chapters are thus generally separated into ‘Wedding Day’ and ‘Four Years Earlier’ in terms of the chronology.

Like its predecessor, one of the aspects of King of Thorns which dismays a reader such as myself and no doubt makes it very readable to others, is its sheer familiarity. And while it is book two in a series, the ground King of Thorns covers feels depressingly compacted. After setting up the intriguing premise of locked away memories haunting Jorg and fragments of Katherine’s journal finding their way into his hands, however contrived their appearance may be considering what happens on the battlefield, we quickly digress into a typical overland adventure.

Having acquired two super powerful mutants in the last novel as henchmen that would, one suspects, make the unwinnable situation Jorg is placed in at the start of King of Thorns, perfectly winnable, they are summarily disposed of through means of a Quest. The younger of the king’s two monsters keeps burning down the Haunt, and so Jorg is counseled to get rid of him. This means killing him, not just sending the monster back out into the wasteland - or bricking up a small room with heat resistant tiles, apparently.

Why Jorg doesn’t stable the monster in a stone outbuilding of the Haunt and hence not be under nightly threat of burning to death in his bedchamber, is as I mention, less believable. Some argument is made that even then someone would use him against Jorg. But it seems strange that there is truly nowhere in the citadel that might be both guarded and not so close to the king. Has not Jorg some damp dungeon? An oubliette with a view? Nor does it suggest that Jorg is much of a king if he can’t keep his own monster safe and at the same time, in more fire-proof chambers under his own roof.

'I nearly died in my bed tonight.' I stepped down from the dais, Makin at my shoulder now. 'The royal chambers are in ashes. And dying abed was never my plan. Unless t’were as emperor in my dotage beneath an over-energetic young concubine.'⁠8

But the principle reason would appear to be because with the two mutants on hand, it seems impossible that an army of any size could breach the Haunt’s defenses. They along with Jorg’s fading necromantic ability have destabilized the game’s power levels. Which happens, not unfrquently in these sort of things.

To rectify this, and in order that Jorg can return to his previous adventuring life, he takes his Brothers (the band of brigands he used to gain his kingship in the last book) on the road killing and looting, fighting zombies and fire mages in the surprisingly dull remains of a post apocalyptic Europe. In this, the book feels like a typical role-playing game whose characters needs to get out and do things or else their players will grow tired of sitting about the castle arguing over ownership of magic items. Inject into this Jorg’s Nietzschean will to power, and what results is a strengthening of the familiar spectre of sameness which hang over epic fantasy and this series in particular.

But it’s a landscape which Lawrence, uncharacteristically for epic fantasy, paints vaguely. It remains underdeveloped: a world-poor world full of towns and forts that are all but interchangeable and often dully named after dully predictable objects, dull forests, dull caves, even dull mountains which are just dull things to be climbed, or turned into dull strategic objects. Objects for Jorg’s unquenchable will to power to overcome and dominate. In this sense, they could be anything. Not unoccasionally they are blunt signifiers like the Haunt. But beyond this, most are not terribly interesting in themselves.

The road forked. An unmarked junction, a dirt road scored through dreary hills where Ancrath met the Marshes met the Highlands.⁠9

All of which, is more interesting than having Jorg sulk about the featureless Haunt and its highlands where he obsesses over his aunt Katherine like the jilted teenager that he is, narrates his inner torment and his unquenchable Nietzschean will to power. And engaging in the very un-kingly sport of extreme mountain climbing. But then Nietzsche was a fan of mountaineering as well, and Zarathustra has his own to climb, complete with an argumentative dwarf on his shoulder. Jorg is less encumbered.

It is the dream of the mountaineer who, though his goal may be above him, goes wearily to sleep on his way and dreams of the happiness of the opposite course of effortless falling.⁠10

This might sound entertaining, and it could be I suppose, with a more complicated principal character. But it becomes claustrophobic after a while. Jorg, despite Lawrence’s attempts at providing depth, really isn’t very interesting. He is no Zarathustra, no Raskolnikov - not even an ‘Alexander the Large’. He’s a winner, and really, if you’re not interested in winning as much as he is, if you choose to read as a loser, Jorg is a rather boring narrator. In King of Thorns he has been reduced to a skeleton of will. To be trapped with him for long periods would have the prisoner eyeing up the edges of the parapet. But Jorg soon leaves the Haunt and sets out with the Brothers once more. He has vague plans to find a fire wizard who Jorg hopes can master his child monster.

How pure that fury had been. I missed that purity in myself. Only yesterday every choice came easy. Black or white. Stab Gemt in the neck or don’t. And now? Shades of grey. A man can drown in shades of grey.
The game of kings was never a clean game.
Play your pieces.
Play your pieces. Win the game. Take the hardest line.

'I’m taking him to Heimrift,' I said. Gog is a weapon and I will forge him there.

'Now that’s loyalty for you.' I shot Rike a look. 'So where’s this new wife of yours, Brother Rikey? Not coming to see you off?'
'Busy ploughing.' He slapped his horse. 'Got a job of it now.'⁠11

We will have a job of it as well. It doesn’t take long to realize that what we’re traveling on is not a familiar thoroughfare but a sewer. A road so well traveled that its banks have risen while the roadbed has descended until we are going forward through a channel.

Future Imperfect Man

I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous - a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.

Friedrch Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

A number of reviewers have lavished praise on Mark Lawrence’s writing. I’m at a loss to see exactly why. There is a narrative smoothness, I’ll give Lawrence his due on this point, and I found the structure of King of Thorns - while it fell apart on close examination - reasonably well done. But there is nothing here I believe that’s worth suffering through the tired material that fills up all the other available space. It is a fairly lean book by epic fantasy standards. But these faint praises aren’t enough in my opinion to make up for its toxic treatment of women and its in most other regards, fairly bog-standard fantasy tropes.

Some reviewers have been taken by the novels’ protagonist Jorg, citing his youth, his uncompromising will to succeed at any cost, his ‘complicated’ character. Again, others may differ, but I don’t see much in the character that is terribly new as anti-heroic main characters go. Depth isn’t something Jorg, unlike his many other abilities, has in any great amount. When the plot needs him to do something, Jorg generally does it, whether or not it really has much of the genre’s lauded whitewash of ‘realism’ behind it.

In this respect, Jorg’s a typical epic fantasy protagonist whose endless bag of tricks can seem more appropriate to a conjurer than a king on the run. Along with his mountain climbing proficiency, he’s also an able spy on the side, of course. Vaulting rooftops and whipping out handy disguises, he is well prepared to smooth over any obstacle. Most of the time this is as simple as killing someone, but here he indulges in a little bit of espionage.

In a dark corner of the courtyard I take off my bravo’s hat and return it to my pack. I pull out a tunic, blue and red in the Ancrath colours. I had a woman called Mable tailor it for me at the Haunt, in the style of my father’s servant garb.⁠12

In most other respects it’s a Brother’s world, in the end. To be met head on. Indeed, when he’s not busy philosophizing Jorg’s doesn’t mind a bit of adolescent joy riding and cracking jokes about shooting clowns. All of which I suppose, we’re not meant to take seriously. 

Makin finished with his straps and stepped beside me. 'That was probably too harsh,' he said. 'You did ask me to point these things out.'
'Fuck off,' I said.
I waved to the Brothers. 'Let’s ride.'⁠13

I took the Nuban’s bow. I didn’t trust the midget to be able to run down any thieves, and besides, I might want to shoot a circus clown or two. Just for laughs.⁠14

Except when we are. Such as when it comes to the less pleasant parts, and the cod-philosophizing. I have the feeling such is the message. That’s realism, some readers might be keen to remark, creeping in and stabbing us in the back. And to point out the other, helpfully, as humour. I suppose if you think like that you can have it both ways: rape and racism played for laughs, but philosophy and Nietzschean will to power when it turns to musing on the nature of evil, heroism, and guy stuff.

The curious light heartedness of Lawrence’s creation doesn’t stop here. Or the guy stuff. To the north, we have faux Vikings by Ikea, sufficiently camp that I’m amazed they don’t have horned helmets. Perhaps they are more Wagnerian. In any regard, the men at least are to a one noble and manly and very Beo-bro.

When you journey north, past the River Rhyme, you start into the Danelands, those regions still unclaimed by the sea where the Vikings of old came ashore to conquer and then settle among the peoples who bowed before the axe. There are few Danes who will not claim Viking blood, but it’s not until the sea bars your path that such claims take on weight and you start to feel yourself truly among the men of the wild and frozen north.⁠15

“Well met,” he called, standing in his stirrups. A local man, hair braided in two plaits, each ending in a bronze cap worked with serpents, a round iron helm tight on his head and a fine moustache flowing into a short beard.

“Lead on,” I said. A band of warriors probably watched us from the woods, and if not, Sindri deserved to be rewarded for his balls.⁠16

Elsewhere we get to explore a Cave of Manotaurs, or trolls as they’re locally know. In one such cave, Jorg and his big monster cow a bunch of equally big trolls into submission by being, well, big. And masterfully manly. Jorg’s monster arm wrestles one to a standstill and the rest fall into line after this, being of one mind. Then Jorg and his smaller monster drown the resident fire mage who holds the trolls in thrall, by releasing a melted glacial lake on their collective heads.

Jorg’s fire mutant however, is destroyed in the process. Jorg’s remaining monster stays behind to be king of the trolls. And so Jorg can call on their forces later on during the battle of the Haunt. So the quest ends with Jorg’s two troublesome monsters disposed of, more or less. But the sacrifice feels empty, like all the costs that Jorg must pay. Later in the book, both mutants will be of use to him when needed most. What Jorg wills, then, only results in strength. What he takes, becomes an enrichment of his goals and remains his to control.

There are further elements of frivolity seeded here and there, of course. There’s a Ring of Google Earth, and Jorg gets a chance to bring a Colt revolver to a sword fight. A grouchy techno-ghost in a box gives Jorg a way to keep his foes from reading his thoughts. This latter item provides a handy plot device to explain how the reader can enjoy the first person point of view of Jorg’s narration yet still be surprised by events - by putting Jorg’s own memories in a box. Which he carries around. And pops out a memory, somehow, when he needs to know it, but not before. It’s a clever box in this way. Of course, a device that would stop Jorg’s enemies from mentally eavesdropping in the first place might be better suited. But that would not allow Jorg’s POV to be conveniently spoiler free until Lawrence wishes to reveal something, so instead we get memories-in-a-box.

Now, all this may make King of Thorns sound fun and rather harmless, but if you’ve read any of the series you know that lighthearted isn’t its unique selling point. I’m not against jokes and silliness in fantasy. Frankly, more would be welcome as opposed to the po-faced seriousness we get when Jorg’s not busy making jokes about women and idiots and shooting clowns. But it doesn’t always gel with the other elements of the book.

But again, I personally didn’t experience the riveting narrative or world-building richness that others have praised. Even if such exists, it would not excuse the relative weakness where the story’s women are concerned. It might come down to reading like a loser. Or it might simply not be there to find.


What is the true object of Don Quixote’s quest? I find that unanswerable. What are Hamlet’s authentic motives? We are not permitted to know. Since Cervante’s magnificent Knight’s quest has cosmological scope and reverberation, no object seems beyond reach. Hamlet’s frustration is that he is allowed only Elsinore and revenge tragedy. Shakespeare composed a poem unlimited, in which only the protagonist is beyond all limits.

- Harold Bloom, Introduction Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

Older if not wiser, Jorg is still young for his crown. King of Thorns comes close to subverting the assertion that Jorg is mature for his age, and closer to exposing his naked Nietzschean will to power as an infantile quest. A quest which could be farcical or humourous or satirical, especially in light of the place names Lawrence sometimes uses. But Lawrence appears to baulk at going this far. Not that King of Thorns is without humour, in fact it is full of Jorg making jokes about fat people, old women, and idiots.

However, the book takes Jorg’s quest to dominate his world with great seriousness. Instead of embracing the nonsense inherent in Jorg’s Quixotic search and Nietzschean will to power, Lawrence regresses grown men in his fantasy landscape to moral infants. In fairness, this is hardly unique among epic fantasy, which all too often has a whiff of the nursery about it and a reluctance of characters and readers to leave it.

As before, despite mentions of dead philosophers peppering the text like heaped heads after a massacre, much of the action feels reminiscent of a dungeon crawl set in a poorly sketched quadrant of TSR’s Gamma World⁠17. There is a paucity of imagination on display, considering the possibilities. And while I’m not a fan of elaborate world-building for its own sake, and thankfully Lawrence doesn’t spend his efforts creating some magic system, the terrain of Lawrence’s fantasy is otherwise wearingly well trodden and comes close to being interchangeable with other fantasy settings.

'Half his forces are out in the marsh or barracked in the bog towns. Dead things keep hauling themselves out of the muck these days. There’s others having similar problems. I had a merchant at court telling me the Drowned Isles have fallen to the Dead King. All of them. Given over to corpse men, marsh ghouls, necromancers, lich-kin.'⁠18

Terry Brooks in his own less-than-original novel The Sword of Shannara, does a more convincing job sketching a post-apocalyptic-cum-fantasy setting perhaps, than we find here - thirty six years later. That is quite dispiriting if you think about it. Regardless, the Builders’ buildings in both Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns are so blandly described and generally under-detailed as to make the reader wonder why Lawrence has chosen to complicate his story with them. Except for the expediency that their various technomagical remnants allow for when inserted into the story. And I suppose something had to be there, so why not some featureless future-past-things?

They also serve as an origin story for the changes to the world which allow magic and zombies and sexy necromancers to romp about, I suppose, so there’s that factor - if it is not a very original one. There is a map included at the start of King of Thorns which shows us a familiar world, a Europe with the disappearance of lowlands due to rising sea levels or something equally bad. There is a retro-nuclear doomsday mentioned, but never detailed. It’s got a name, with upper case capitals, of course. This in itself isn’t problematic, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road never explains what has happened to the world and is all the better for it. M. John Harrison’s monumental Viriconium series is full of technology that isn’t explained beyond what is necessary. But in terms of narrative richness, these nods towards the future-past in King of Thorns seem unconvincing beyond their utility and are too thin in their crafting to shroud it in mystery as these better writers have done. 

Which is a shame, because Lawrence is not without moments where he might, if he were not perhaps single-mindedly set on exploring the inner landscape of Honorous Jorg Ancrath, have come out with something more interesting to say. With a richer story to tell, perhaps, and something other than a misunderstanding of Nietzsche to place in the mouth of his principal character, this could have been a better book. Perhaps. Certainly, there is no reason why Lawrence couldn’t have written a more interesting series. Not that he is required to, but in the absence of other things in the novel I can’t help but wonder why wonder is often bypassed for yet more dullness.

  There’s a peasant’s cottage, a little to the west, entirely built from headstones, weathered granite markers with time-blurred legends remembering the dead for illiterate field-men. A house built of stories, to shelter a man who cannot read.⁠19

Or elsewhere while among the Asterix & Ikea styled vikings that Jorg encounters on his way to Heimrift, we get this intriguing passage:

Sindri caught us half a mile down the road, his plaits bouncing off his back as he cantered along.
‘Not this time, Sindri, just me and the pretty boys here,’ I said.
‘You’ll want me until you’re clear of the forest.’
‘The forest? We had no problems before,’ I said.
‘I watched you.’ Sindri grinned. ‘If you had gone wrong I would have guided you. But you were lucky.’
‘And what should I be scared of in the forest?’ I asked. ‘Green trolls? Goblins? Grendel himself? You Danes have more boogie-men than the rest of the empire put together.’
‘Pine men,’ he said.
‘How do they burn?’ I asked.
He laughed at that, then let the smile fall from him. ‘There’s something in the forest that lets the blood from men and replaces it with pine sap. They don’t die, these men, but they change.’ He pointed to his eyes. ‘The whites turn green. They don’t bleed. Axes don’t bother them.’
I pursed my lips. ‘You can guide us. I’m busy today. These pine men will have to come to the Highlands and get in line if they want a part of me.’⁠20

We do not get to see our pine men, regrettably, just trolls. Jorg stays in the world clearing made by the plot and his will to power, and does not budge from it. Which is a shame, but as it shows us, there is no space for detours in Lawrence’s world. I have the feeling that if the pine men show up in the series, it will only be as yet another weaponized aspect of the landscape, achieved, unlocked, used, and discarded afterwards.

Which brings us to my continuing problem with the book’s maladroit treatment of gender and race. This is the greatest hurdle for me as a reader, I suspect. Women are poorly represented and poorly treated where they appear. To a one. Racial inclusiveness is non existent. Most non-Europeans are denigrated or made into charicatures. This is the true shadow in my opinion, which darkens the series, not Jorg’s bloody will to power or tender age or even the parroting of Nietzsche. These issues however depressingly standard to epic fantasy, are not made up for by either breakout prose or a remarkable re-imagining of the books’ fantastic elements. Others’ expectations may be lower and thus better served. And many readers may be perfectly satisfied with the book’s focus on unexamined action and naked will to power, where it is examined. Where King of Thorns dares, it only dares in the safest, most predictable manner. Mostly by upping the quotient of violence, racism and misogyny, as if the author can only think of dialing things up to eleven.

A Hero Of Our Time

As in Prince of Thorns, there is a tendency for Lawrence to show Jorg as both an absolute monster and to absolve him of blame. But without as Nietzsche does, establishing a new valuation that suggests morality itself is only a valuation in Jorg’s world, a stopping point on an endless path made up of the will to power. I don’t believe any claim that we’re supposed to like Jorg and dislike ourselves for doing so. There is too much leeway given in the actual text, too much encouragement of Jorg’s viewpoint without risking the discomfort produced upon readerly reflection for example, by Nabokov or even Nietzsche’s own writings. Despite Jorg’s age and despite being outnumbered or even out skilled in many of the contests he faces, Jorg always finds a way to win. He is an effectively unstoppable Übermensch, propelled to greatness by the pure strength of his unbendable will.

I am not against horrible, unpleasant characters in books. Nor young male heros who are preternaturally accomplished. I am not even entirely against those who encompass the Nietzschean virtues. I’m less charitable however, towards those who are I feel not honestly portrayed by their authors. Protagonists who never face the consequences of their actions in an internally logical way. Or at least in some way. Even if it is entirely nilhistic. 

For the most part, Jorg is excused from moral consequences of his actions because he is our viewpoint protagonist. He is in it to win it, and carries the reader reading for victory on his shoulders. There seems to be little else underpinning Jorg’s progress or indeed, to like about him. It may be a fine distinction, but for me this heightens the artificiality. Though I suspect other readers will view the same demarkation as a radical jumping off into grimmer, darker territories. But I’m also less obliging when the book feels like a repeat of the previous novel - or a number of others from diverse authors, some more or less successful at creating believable sociopaths. The plot goes on but nothing else seems to change or develop.

In King of Thorns, Jorg is shown to be merciless and cartoonishly cruel, as he was in Prince of Thorns. As he will be, one suspects, in Emperor of Thorns. And whatever comes after that. At the same time he is excused by himself and others as being the only way he can be. He is what he is, Lawrence seems eager to convince us, because Jorg exists in a world where the world is what it is, and where the game to dominate it is the only valuation available. But this is a fictional world, a fantasy world, so these choices are slights of hand on Lawrence’s part. They are also, I would argue, gross oversimplifications of the real world that they are meant to reflect in some unknowable measure. They are simplifications of simplifications. And like Jorg’s lack of depth, spoil the trompe l'oeil or at least produce a crude rendering.

Jorg wants to play the game because it is there to be played. He desires to win it because he has been told he will not be allowed to. This is not to say this does not happen in the real world, and in a sense, a reader could claim fairly this is part of what they enjoy reading like winners. Much of the frisson people get out of a story of this sort, is akin to that felt playing a similar video game: obstacles overcome, enemies defeated, new areas of the scenery unlocked. One doesn’t need to question a game in the same manner as a text. The rules are generally clear from the onset, as are the objectives.

But in the non-fictional world, there are frequently those who question things. Who express doubt, not just in themselves but in the world and in their motivations. And indeed, in literature as well. Jorg however, is rarely allowed normal human limitations, moral, emotional, or even physical ones, let alone doubt. He doesn’t seem interested in questioning the why of things such as why he can not step outside of the game if he so chooses. There appears to be no leeway for him, fettered as he is to the story, which ultimately for me at least, makes Jorg’s artificiality too pronounced to ignore. Lawrence points him like an arrow and Jorg doesn’t deviate from his course. He is wooden in this way, and others as well.

It’s been said once or twice that I have a stubborn streak. In any case I have never subscribed to the idea that a king can be told where he can’t go in his own kingdom. And so in the years since arriving as a callow youth, in between learning the sword song, mastering the art of shaving, and dispensing justice with a sharp edge, I took to mountain climbing.

'Why are you doing it?'
I pursed my lips at that, then grinned at the answer. 'The mountains told me I couldn’t.'⁠21

There is a slightly underhand championing of this petulant, child-like behavior in King of Thorns that reminds me of another character from a popular work of speculative fiction: Andrew 'Ender' Wiggins from Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game. This is another enthusiastically praised work from a polarizing author with strong Nietzschean overtones.

But then I’ve long mistrusted the story of Ender as well, especially the way which Card I feel manipulates his audience, using techniques aimed at young readers, encouraging them to sympathize with a protagonist who commits murder and genocide but who is constantly presented as the real victim in the tale. And who much like Jorg is effectively exonerated of his crimes afterwards, however brutal, including genocide. A protagonist who is good, not on the weight of his actions or even intentions, but because the author insists through the mouths of his supporting characters that Ender is fundamentally ‘good.’

At its heart Ender’s Game is a tale of revenge on juvenile bullies served up alongside a disturbing messianic message. It delivers a payload of self affirmation that appeals to those young or even not so young, who may recall unfair treatment in a world that always treats young people unfairly in some way or another. Many of whom, I suspect, wish they’d been a super intelligent underdog who wins the game. Even if that means bodies stacking up in orbit or whole kingdoms set on fire.

There’s an interesting article by John Kessel, Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality which explains some of the problems inherent in this technique, specific to Card’s novel. Rather than duplicate or discuss them, I encourage you to read it on your own, as it has parallels to Jorg’s story. But we shouldn’t get sidetracked here. Like Jorg, we need to keep our course moving forward or risk terminal boredom.

Similar to Ender, Jorg Ancrath is an embodiment of the Nietzschean Superman. Or at least, the popular misconception of the Übermensch that has become better known than the more complicated if equally problematic original envisioned by Nietzsche. He is a character - like Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins - who is willing to go to extremely violent ends to win the game, but who is shown to be a sympathetic hero in a number of ways despite it.

Lawrence makes it clear that Jorg is forced into his actions by the demands of a world which only Jorg can save, or at least, prevail over. And despite the questionable desirability to anyone but Jorg, of a world were his will is triumphant, it seems certain that this is what we will get by the end of the series.

'Good,' she said. 'You’re better than most. Better than those bold, noisy boys wanting so much to be men, wanting only to hear the words from their own mouths.'⁠22

Except of course, that he is not. This is exactly what Jorg is: a bold, noisy boy who not so much wants to be a man, but who considers himself already one. He is hardness in the world, doing what a man does, what he and the Brethern do in the world: killing, looting, raping, and forcing their will upon subhuman, softer, others.

‘You should know that the men who fight the Hundred War, and they are all men, save for the Queen of Red,’⁠23

Jorg admits that his rival the Prince Orrin or any number of other competing kings would make a better emperor, but this isn’t supported by the text. The invading king who is supposedly the better choice, is shown to be overly soft, overly weak, or at least, overly good. Here we find another echo of Nietzsche who famously decreed ‘All good people are weak … good because they are not strong enough to be evil.’ Prince Orrin of course is manipulated and later killed by his ‘harder’ brother, demonstrating that had he been able to overcome Jorg, he would not have overcome his own insufficiently soft nature.

‘I was sorry to hear that you killed Orrin. He was a better man than both of us. Perhaps the best man of our generation.’
He was a fool,’ Egan said, fixing his helm in place again.
‘Too easy with his trust maybe. I heard that you stabbed him in the back and watched him bleed to death?’
Egan shrugged. ‘He would never have fought me. He would have talked. And talked. And talked.’⁠24

Talking is for losers in Lawrence’s world. Strength is what matters. Though with that said, Jorg is never at a loss for words. Even in the middle of killing people Jorg generally keeps up his banter. When Jorg isn’t sneering, or making jokes, he’s typically shouting. Often and endlessly about the game.

‘This is not your game!’ I shouted. Loud enough for Arrow’s thousands to hear if they hadn’t been screaming for my blood as they surged forward. I shrugged. ‘I don’t play by the rules you choose.’⁠25

When it comes to choice, over and over we are treated to the refrain that people can’t change the way they are - especially men. Especially Jorg. The former of course, familiar from the many similar novels in the sub-genre and is not unique to Lawrence’s fantasy setting. Nor is the suggestion that readers who find the claim distasteful are unwilling to face the reality of these made-up universes. As if reality and evolutionary biology required this in a fictional world where trolls and fire mages propagate but not a wider entitlement of what it means to be human.

Gorgoth heaved in a breath. 'They will serve,' he said.
'What?' I said, then, 'Why?
The troll on the floor rolled over and got to its feet, backing to its companion.
'They are soldiers,' he said. 'They want to serve. They were made for it.'
'Made?' I asked, still watching the trolls, ready to try to defend myself.
'It has been written in their dena,' Gorgoth said.⁠26

'It’s written in him. His thoughts touch fire. Fire touches his mind. He is fire-sworn. We can’t change how we’re written.'⁠27

So despite declarations that Jorg is a monster, we are constantly shown that he isn’t. Or that if he is one, like the trolls of Heimrift, Jorg has been made so without his consent. It is in his ‘dena’. It is his true nature. And we should not judge Jorg or hold his nature against him. For nature requires a strong will to dominate it if the greater good is to prevail. Even if Lawrence is somewhat fuzzy about what the greater good actually is. Unlike Nietzsche, he doesn’t bother to define it or even redefine it. One thing is clear: other sources of goodness if they exist at all are ersatz: weak, soft, or suspiciously feminine. 

Thus the reader reading King of Thorns for victory is always herded towards enjoying Jorg’s dark impulses both through his POV and the state of the world he inhabits. These are necessary evils, and as such, hardly evil. Like the liberating revelations made by Zarathustra, Jorg and the reader are set free from guilt for enjoying them. It is the duty in fact of the strong to make the rules and the valuations. Though Jorg’s own self-loathing surfaces from time to time, it is not very convincing. As a rule, Mark Lawrence does loathing much better when it is directed at a woman or a similarly soft target.

Prince of Peace

Jorg’s occasional lapses of moral confidence are short lived. There are fewer adults on hand in King of Thorns to tell Jorg he’s ‘plain good’, though there are several surrogate father figures who provide support and comfort for Jorg in moments of crisis.

'You shut your mouth, old man,' I said.
'You’d need to dig me out to stop me,' he gasped. 'Or run away. And I’ve a mind you’re not running, not just yet.' He coughed and tried to hide a groan. 'You need to hear such words, Jorg. You need to know that you are loved, not just feared. You need to know it to ease what poisons you.'
'You need to hear.' Again the cough.
'I’m coming back for you when this is done, Coddin. So don’t say anything you’ll regret, because I will hold it against you.'
'I love you for no good reason, Jorg. I’ve no sons, but if I did I wouldn’t want them to be like you. You’re a vicious bastard at the best of times.'
'Careful, old man. I can still stick a sword through this crack and put you out of my misery.'
A Watch man screamed and fell to my left, an arrow through his neck. Just like Maical, but louder. Another shaft hit the rock behind me and shattered.
'I love thee for no good reason,' Coddin said, falling back into some accent from wherever he was born, his voice weak now.
I could hear the thud of boots. Steel on steel. Shouts.
'…but I do love thee well.⁠28

Long suffering, noble ex-knight Makin is another figure whose role often seems to be to provide understanding for Jorg.

'I was consumed by me, by what I wanted. Nothing else mattered. Not my life, not anyone’s life. All of it was a price worth paying. All of it was worth staking on long odds just for the chance to win.'
Makin snorted. 'That’s a place everyone visits on their way from child to man. You just went native.'
I reached into the pouch on my hip and slid my fingers around the box. 'I have…regrets.'
'We’re all built of those.' Makin watched the diggers. A spear of daylight struck through into the cave.
'Gelleth I am sorry for…My father would think me weak. But if it were now—I would find another way.'
'There was no other way,' Makin said. 'Even the way you took was impossible.'   '⁠29

Youth and regrets, seem a gross understatement for absolving Jorg’s litany of crimes. But they are balanced here, against the greater good. Foremost among such good, is the prospect of peace or at least, unity.

'I follow you because I’m tired of war. I would see it stopped. One empire. One law. It doesn’t matter so much how or who, just being united would stop the madness,' Makin said.
Which is as unlikely as anything, considering Jorg only plunges from one armed conflict to another. Even when he’s not officially at war with other princes of the broken empire he spends most of the book scheming or killing people. 

A student of history might suggest as well, that when an empire vanquishes all of its enemies internally it is frequently faced with either manufacturing them within its borders or turning outwards to find new ones. Peace achieved through unity is not uncommonly followed by pogroms or expansion. In that sense, a fractured epire is unlikely to kill more people than an unified one. This is as I’ve mentioned, a fully fictional world. So we can allow Makin more leeway than we should allow ourselves. Makin might think this, but there is little reason why we should.

How backing Red Jorg in anything would stop the madness, isn’t clear either. For despite a privileged upbringing, Jorg appears poorly suited for rulership. As a king, he shows little aptitude for or even an awareness of, the overall management of his kingdom. And it seems incongruous here, youthful naiveté placed in the mouth of war-weary veteran soldier, Makin for the sole purpose of refitting Jorg out as an agent of peace. Or in other words, a reverse that only thinking like a fractured, vanquished loser, truly exposes this truth for the lie that it is. 

There is another method by which Lawrence manages to exonerate the un-exonerable, or at least to suggest that Jorg is inherently good at some level, or at least innocent in this sense. We are shown that in Jorg’s world there are those who are far worse. This is a time proven technique, but Lawrence lays it on exceedingly thick.

Starting with Jorg’s actual father who is a humorless tyrant who loves torture and engages in one of the few taboos left in epic fantasy, that being not racism, misogyny, or paedophilia but cruelty to animals. 

As a slight aside, in the awful and painfully unhumorous sequel to 2010’s Kick-Ass - a movie that I suspect appeals to many of same demographics as does King of Thorns - the self-titled supervillain of Kick-Ass 2 who is happy to rape, maim, and murder people, is asked if he wants his henchwoman to kill a dog. 'Geez, I'm NOT that evil,' is his reply. Attempted rape is played for laughs, but killing a domestic pet is simply too evilness taken too far.

So too here. In King of Thorns it is revealed that Jorg as a child had a dog named ‘Justice’ who Jorg is forced to torture by smashing its legs with a hammer, one at a time, and which, when he falters on the third limb, his father sets alight while Jorg watches as lesson not to be soft. 

Justice is maimed and burnt alive along with Jorg’s childhood because young Jorg can’t make the sufficiently hard choice. Even a loser reader such as myself can see this as Lawrence striking an obvious nail with an exceedingly large hammer. Jorg is forced to retrieve the corpse from the dungheap and bury it himself, just in case any readers have missed the subtly of the message. Now this, the books seems to say, is a truly evil man.

'I’ve noticed that you love this dog,' Father said.
I wondered at that, even in my fear. I thought it more likely that he had been told.
'That’s a weakness, Jorg,' Father said. 'Loving anything is a weakness. Loving a hound is stupidity.'
I said nothing.
'Shall I burn the dog?' Father reached for the nearest torch.
'No!' It burst from me, a horrified scream.
He sat back. 'See how weak this dog has made you?' He glanced at Sir Reilly. 'How will he rule Ancrath if he cannot rule himself?'
'Don’t burn him.' My voice trembled, pleading, but somehow it was a threat too, even if none of us recognized it.
'Perhaps there is another way?' Father said. 'A middle ground.' He looked at the hammer.
I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to.
'Break the dog’s leg,' he said. 'One quick blow and Justice will be served.'⁠31

All of this is heavy handed. But the point here is to make it obvious to the reader reading for victory that Jorg isn’t really a bad person after all. And that we are free to follow him to victory. If he’s brutal, murderous, uncaring, and abusive, it’s because he has had to be. It’s because of his father. It’s because - by some extension of this - because his father is a man, a hard man, and a man in the Hundred War must show absolute strength of will. Even Jorg’s father is thus a necessary evil, of sorts. He may be a violent animal torturing psychopath, but he’s doing so to teach his son Jorg a hard truth. He is intent on rooting out weakness.

That’s how stupid dogs are, my brothers. And that’s how stupid I was at six, letting weakness take hold of me, giving the world a lever with which to bend whatever iron lies in my soul.
Father was right of course. There were lessons to be learned that night. The dog was a weakness and the Hundred War cannot be won by a man with such weaknesses. Nor can it be won by a man who yields to the lesser evil. Give an inch, give any single man any single inch and the next thing you hear will be, 'One more, Jorg, one more.' And in the end what you love will burn. Father’s lesson was a true one, but knowing that can’t make me forgive the means by which he taught it.
For a time there on the road I followed Father’s teaching: strength in all things, no quarter. On the road I had known with the utter conviction of a child that the Empire throne would be mine only if I kept true to the hard lessons of Justice and the thorns. Weakness is a contagion, one breath of it can corrupt a man whole and entire.⁠32

No mention, mind you, that the Hundred War might be won by the Queen of Red - who is apparently seen even by women such as Katherine Ap Scorron, as a monster. Considering this is fantasy, perhaps she is, but she may also just be a woman who is ruling without the oversight of a man. It is left unsaid that the unthinkable is exactly that. Victory by a woman would be one gets the sense, victory of weakness over strength. 

Jorg subverts this in a strange but familiar way. Not the primacy of male gender, of course. He accepts the burden of the Superman, the needs for an iron unquenchable male will to dominate the world, but keeps his sympathy for animals. Perhaps this is just a vestige of the softness his father failed to burn out. Nietzsche famously let himself weep over the beating of a cart horse, so perhaps not. An animal is not part of the struggle of wills. It can not challenge other wills in the quest to valuate. Even the Superman can view them with greater compassion than he can afford to show his fellowman or fellow-woman, though women like animals, are there to be dominated and domesticated.

This is a theme which Lawrence will return to elsewhere in the book. You can rape and murder women, torture and slaughter thousands, but if you value your skin don’t injure an animal. Unless you’re Jorg. Who is allowed even this because he’s doing it for the animal’s own good. And he has already demonstrated his triumph of his will to power. Jorg is hard enough to show softness towards the lower species who are not in competition with him for mastery.

At first I thought the shrieking was a village girl foolish enough to get snagged by the Brothers, but it turned out just to be two of the lads bent over a tied dog, poking it with something sharp to get a song out of it.
I had slipped off Gerrod and grabbed them by the hair, one black handful, one red, and hauled back, throwing my weight into the motion. Both took to shouting and one even reached for me in his anger. I sliced his palm open for him nice and quick.

'So hurting dogs is bad luck now, is it?' Still with that grin on him.
'It is near me,' I had said.
Blinking now, I found the rain still rolling down my face on our long trek beside the Rhyme. I shook off the memory. 'Do you recall that dog your brother found before we hit Mabberton, Brother Maical?' I asked. He wouldn’t of course. Maical recalled very little about anything.
He looked at me, lips pursed, spitting out the rain. 'Putting the hurt on dogs is bad luck,' he said.
'It was for your brother,' I said. 'Had himself an accident the next day.'
That dog came back the next morning, just before we hit Mabberton, as if I was its friend or something. Wouldn’t leave until I gave it a good kicking, a free lesson in how the world works, if you like.
He has a similar soft spot for ‘idiots’ as well. If they’re his, at least. Not that he himself has much respect for the obviously subhuman. But the Nietzschean Superman has always had need of lesser wills to dominate. Kings depend on their fools.

I set a grin on my face. 'Well, that’s a new perspective. I thought you might like them on account of their stupidity.' Why I was baiting Maical I had no idea. Part of me even liked Maical, almost.⁠34

When his Brother Maical is shot, Jorg butchers an entire fort of armed men singlehandedly. Even his other companions seem nonplussed, or at least, considering the jokes that Jorg has made previously about the half-witt, are confused at the degree of his anger over one more death. One can sympathize with them.

Knife-work is a red business, Brothers. With the knife you slice meat up close, lay it to the bone, and swim in what gushes out. The screams are in your ear, the hurting trembles through your short blade. I could say I remember all of it but I don’t. A fury took me, painting the world in scarlet, and I howled as I killed.

I don’t know what Maical would have wanted. I never really met him until those last seconds when he lay dying. It surprised me that I cared, but I found that I did.

'So what was that about?' Makin asked, striding up behind.

'They shot my idiot,' I said.⁠35

His final answer is solipsistic.

'We told you he was dead back in Norwood and you didn’t spare him a moment,' Makin said. 'So why now? The truth, Jorg.'

'What is truth?' I asked, washing the last of the blood from my hands. 'Pilate said that, you know? ‘What is truth?’'⁠36

Welcome To Sparta

Another approach Lawrence takes to demonstrate to the reader that Jorg, despite appearances, is heroic not anti-heroic as some reviewers have claimed, is to show that those who meet such fates, are deserving of them. If by nothing else for being inferior men. Men - and it’s mostly men that we’re discussing here, who have failed to measure up to the standards set by such historical examples as … the Spartans.

Three hundred is a magic number. King Leonidas held back a Persian ocean at the Hot Gates with just three hundred. I would have liked to meet the Spartans. That story has outlived empires by the score. King Leonidas held back an ocean, and Canute did not.⁠37

Now the Spartans were immensely xenophobic by our standards: slave owning, militaristic, abusive towards their children and women, and of course, all those in fact who were not Spartans. Long before Nietzsche, they understood the responsibility of the Superman towards the subhuman. Which is to dominate and master them. It is hard to think of a group plucked from antiquity that would be less ideal to model a future society on. They were the anthesis of many of our more progressive democratic values (which admittedly, Nietzsche was and would be horrified by as well). It is only through the power of several distorting lens that they have retained their popular appeal, I suspect.

Nietzsche had his own misconceptions and idealizations of the Greeks to air, of course. His chapter “The Greek State” originally withheld from the The Birth of Tragety and later bundled and sent as a gift to Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima, may have not delighted the recipients. But it contained hard truths that Nietzsche felt were necessary to speak aloud in a Europe that was sliding towards democratic and labour led dissolution. The Greeks, were the ultimate example of the positive aspects of slavery, a society with a native contempt for labour and a natural feeling for artistic excellence, elitism, and militaristic and social will to power. 

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.  Here is to be found the source of that secret wrath nourished by Communists and Socialists of all times, and also by their feebler descendants, the white race of the " Liberals," not only against the arts, but also against classical antiquity. ⁠38

Nietzsche would not have been disappointed by what can be heard today on the topic of the ancient Greeks. As those in the West seek to summon the spirit of antiquity to do battle for them once more, many of the negative aspects of Greek society such as slavery, are easy to overlook. And in the Spartans in particular, one can find the hyper masculine, militarized traits that still appeal in our action heroes of today. The ferocity and brutality of the Spartans have conversely, preserved their reputation for the ages. They have had a longstanding role as the symbol of the West’s superiority over a supposedly decadent and effeminate East. Even the Spartan’s positioning as a numerical value: a small elite city-state set against a vast sea of inferior Asiatic wills, would have appealed to Nietzsche. As they appeal to many Westerners today frightened by China, India, and Turkey.

Of course, the wars waged between the Persians and the Greeks is much more complex than this simple and almost entirely fictitious picture. But a myth is easier to digest. It is not surprising then, that the Spartans are lionized by a great number of epic fantasy and SF writers. I fear that they see what Nietzsche was most attracted to, when he speaks of the Greek polis, and what we’d conversely find least modern in their ideas.

In this way a type with few but very strong traits, a species of severe, warlike, prudently taciturn men, close-mouthed and closely linked (and as such possessed of the subtlest feeling for the charms and nuances of association), is fixed beyond the changing generation; the continual fight against ever constant unfavorable conditions is, as mentioned previously, the cause that fixes and hardens a type.⁠39

That history does not support the myth of three hundred brave warriors holding back a brown horde of freedom-hating barbarians, or effeminate decadents, take your pick, has never got in the way of peddling this as a ‘good story.’ Never mind that Persia at the time was less oppressive than Sparta by a number of standards, never mind that the famous three hundred soldiers of King Leonidas were supported by most likely several hundred to several thousand combined Helots and allies. Never mind that Sparta was generally reluctant to engage in war beyond its need to control its own enslaved population of Helots and annexed territories and was part of an empire of its own in terms of territory and resources. Never mind that popular histories are not far from popular fables. Never mind that the full complexity of the Greek and Persian Wars would take a scholarly approach to unravel - the Spartan myth is trotted out like depressing clockwork in epic fantasy when it needs to be shown that the hero is heroic (and generally white European and male) and here it surfaces in the text as well like a mechanical phalanx of spearman.

At least in Lawrence’s case, one might suggest it is the will to power, the complete commitment to dominating one’s enemies at any cost, that he is seeking to summon. But I fear that it is more the idea that the Spartans represent the good, the noble, the righteous warrior in the face of terrible odds and again, by this way, undermine his outward declaration that Jorg isn’t meant to be heroic. I can’t say that Lawrence is invoking the Spartans as I know them, and hence showing exactly what sort of being Jorg is seeking to emulate.

The Hundred War, you must know, is a game. And to win it you must play your pieces. The secret is to know that there is only one game and the only rules are your own.

⁠40All men will dig their heels in if pushed enough. All men will reach the point that they say 'no' for no reason other than opposition, for no reason other than the word fits their mouth, and tastes as good as it sounds. And in the Highlands, among our mountains, the heights breed men who will give no single inch without defiance.⁠41

Spartan society was extremely misogynistic, even by the standards of the ancient Greek city-states. And proudly so. No surprise that we see Jorg’s child bride, Miana, emulating the Spartan women when Jorg shows signs of faltering.

She slapped me, the little bitch slapped me, and for a second that mattered⁠42.

Miana gave me a look of contempt. 'I deserved a stronger one. There’s no victory without sacrifice. My mother taught me that. You have to raise the stakes and raise them again.'⁠43

Recall that this is the same twelve year old, ‘very small,’ child like bride who has just arrived at the Haunt and with whom Jorg has spent less than an hour so far. But she’s not above giving him a slap, and telling him to ‘man up’ - to either win or come back on his shield.

'This is madness, Jorg.'⁠44

No, this is Sparta, clearly. Lawrence has Jorg and his outnumbered band of brother-warriors set against a decadent army of thousands, foiling their advance in a narrow mountain pass, at the gates of the Haunt, and in the spirit of this lazy trope, Jorg needs to stand firm. All very familiar ground for him to stand on.

'How many of the enemy did you kill, and at what loss?' Miana asked. The men had been waiting for me to speak. She felt no such need. I would have asked the same question.
'About six thousand for the loss of two hundred,' I said.
'A thirty to one ratio. Better than the rate of twenty to one needed.' To hear her high sweet voice recite the statistics of our body count seemed wrong.
'True. But they were two hundred of my very best, and I have played the aces from my hand.'
'And Chancellor Coddin has not returned,' Miana said. She was remarkably well informed for a little girl.⁠45

Indeed. But then Spartan women were expected to both suffer systematic abuse, including rape and sodomy, and then serve as baby-making factories for the next generation of warriors from an early age so Miana’s Spartan like admonition is not out of place. Nor would Nietzsche have disapproved. Hardness was one of his regular commandments.

Only the noblest is perfectly hard. This new law-table do I put over you, O my brothers: Become hard.’⁠46

Hitler famously criticized his own troops after Stalingrad for their failure to embody the example of the Spartans. Jorg and his Brothers, lacking weakness, will overcome because they are the better warriors, the better men, the harder men; willing to do any deed, however reprehensible to win against impossible odds. They are new Spartans for a new, if tarnished, golden age.

Utter Failure

Another reason to summon the ghost of the Spartans is Lawrence’s continued treatment of race in King of Thorns. In Prince of Thorns we were treated to a magical cannibalistic ‘Nuban’ among the Brothers. The Nuban’s character is defined by his skin colour, producing a figure literally too black to be given a name. In Prince of Thorns, the Nuban’s role is that of a wise mystical advisor and ultimately, as a willing sacrifice in place of Jorg. Readers of fantasy or indeed, fans of any format of speculative fiction should recognize this tired trope.

Not that other ethnicities get off unscathed. Those from the ‘Utter East’ are obsessed with torture and the writings of Sun-Tzu. While the landscape of the old Empire despite being set in a supposedly future Europe, remains curiously white.

All this is familiar from the low standard set by epic fantasy. But I was curious to see as the story expanded outwards, if Lawrence would do more with the issue of race and racism, or simply set the bar a few inches deeper into the ground trod by his predecessors and his own last book. 

Have you been east, chasing the sun to the wall of Utter itself? Have you seen the shores of dark Afrique?⁠47

For the most part, my answer is the latter. While the Nuban is absent from the majority of the story this time around, much of the same lazy stereotyping resurfaces. We do finally get to ‘Barlona’ where a slightly more cosmopolitan scene is to be found.

I liked the city from the moment we rode in. The air held exotic scents, spices and cooking smoke that made my stomach growl. The people thronged, loud in voice and clothing, bright silks, garish jewellery made of glass and base metals, flesh of all colours on display in wide swathes. Men and women as light as me, as dark as the Nuban, and all shades in between. None as pale as Sindri and Duke Alaric though. Those, I think the sun would melt.

Music came from almost every corner in as many shades as the people. It seemed that the citizens walked in time to the beat and pulse of a thousand drums, horns, voices. I’d not heard such sounds before, so many strange melodies, some reminding me of the marching beats the Nuban used to slap against his thigh as we walked and which he elaborated on around the campfire. Others held remembrances of the curious atonal humming Tutor Lundist lapsed into in empty moments.⁠48

There is a sense that Lawrence is reaching out to capture a broader landscape - trying - even if he does so not entirely successfully.

on her decks men with copper skin worked at repairs.

I spent a few hours watching the great ships with their foreign crews, yellow men from Utter, black crews from the many Kingdoms of Afrique, turbaned sailors with curling beards, sun-stained, strutting the decks of pungent spice-boats. The Prince of Arrow’s words returned to me. His observations on the smallness of my world and the largeness of my ignorance. Even so, every man amongst these travellers knew of the empire, even though it stood in pieces. And so we had us some common ground.⁠49

A large number of those willing to explain away Lawrence’s controversial elements, single out his supposedly ‘literary’ qualities. But I myself find such claims unsupported by his actual writing. 

A port is an open ear to the world, a mouth ready for new flavours.

⁠50stopping once in a small port to unload a huge copper pot and to fill the space with red-finned fish called…red-fin. 
No matter what a reader might think about the singularness or otherwise of Lawrence’s prose, I fail to see how anyone would find his treatment of race terribly sophisticated. The yellow men of the Utter East give way to torturing Moors in King of Thorns. Following on the Spartan and Persian theme, Lawrence seems to be ramping up his series for the appearance of a ‘Moorish’ threat from the east - one that I can only wait with dread for Jorg to confront. And as if we have not been treated to this elsewhere in epic fantasy to excess.

'Terrible. Not sure he even knows the rules. But he seems to love it. And the men like him. They don’t even give him a hard time about being the castle’s only Moor. And by rights they should. What with his countrymen set on invading the mainland and turning us all to heathens or corpses.'

'Moors is it?' I asked. 'Should I be expecting to kill some soon?'

'I’m not here for games, boy. I’ll leave you to rot. If they die before you’re ready to talk, then the Earl will hire in Moorish torturers to make an example of you.'⁠52

Like the Nuban, their skin color seems to define them. 

'I’m told you are numerate.' The man had stepped from the shade of a lilac bush that swarmed up the inner wall of the main courtyard. A Moor, darker than the shadow, wrapped in a black burnoose, the burnt umber of his skin exposed only on his hands and face.
'Count on it,' I said.
He smiled. His teeth were black, painted with some dye, the effect unsettling. 'I am Qalasadi.'⁠53

'What’s the deal with the Moor?' I asked, and ran my fingers over my teeth as if 'Moor' were not sufficient description.⁠54

Along with that is, an adroitness with torture and poison. The single weak avowal forced from Lord Robert’s lips, hardly puts the book’s ‘Moorish’ population in a kind light. Especially when it is proven by Jorg that the lone Moor is of course, the actual poisoner who has tried to do away with the entire family and blame the act on Jorg.

Lord Robert frowned. 'Just because we’re at odds with Ibn Fayed doesn’t mean all Moors are out to get us.'⁠55

But the way Lawrence writes it, you could hardly be blamed for assuming they are. Or at least will be, perhaps in book three or four.

On the positive side, Jorg finally learns, albeit secondhand, that the Nuban had a name.

“I’m sorry about Kashta,” Taproot said. He filled his glass and raised it.
Taproot dropped his gaze to the bow beside me. “The Nuban.”
“Oh.” Taproot knew stuff. Kashta. I let him fill my glass again and we drank to the Nuban.⁠56

Which is something that is turned into a plot device later when Jorge uses his new found knowledge while encountering the Nuban as a zombie in the marshes, to kill him once more. This time for good. Or to be exact, ‘frees’ him.

'I release you, Kashta!' I slapped my palm to the wound in his chest, careless of his grasping hands.
When a name is held secret its power multiplies. The Nuban toppled without hesitation and I felt that he would never rise again.⁠57

Before this release, Jorg discovers a caged sickly lion in Taproot’s circus. The lion won’t eat his meat, for reasons Jorg is happy to explain. Broadminded Jorg goes on to compare the Nuban and the lion, and their ‘natures’ which are both those of noble dumb animals, ramming the point home by releasing the lion in Kashta’s name to at very least be killed but probably not before maiming some hapless performers and children. Just, it seems, because it is in Jorg’s nature to do so. And I suppose, in case any reader later misses the implication of Jorg’s third act of liberation in the marsh.

'He needs to take it,' I said. 'Not be given it.'
'That’s silly.' Her fingers ran along mine, starting fires.
'It’s in his nature.' I looked away.

'Well, there’s a thing,' I said. The Nuban had told me in his youth he walked scorched grasslands where lions hunted in packs, and even though the Nuban never lied, I only half-believed him.

I had pulled a single pin to set the Nuban free years ago, worlds ago. I pulled a pin and he took two lives in as many moments.

I didn’t forget the children or the dancers or the tumblers. But I pulled the pin. Because it’s in my nature.
'For Kashta,' I said.⁠58

I suppose you could read the scene as showing Jorg to have the worst nature out of the three, but it is still very problematic to find Lawrence comparing the dead Kashta to a beast, however noble, under these circumstances. And that only Jorg can set either free, repeatedly.

Beyond this, there is some mild sneering at other past and present savages.

And that exhausts my insights into the kicking of severed heads. Admittedly it’s more than most people have to offer on the subject but there were Mayans who knew a lot more than I do. That of course is a whole different ball-game.⁠59

Not least of all, the painted fakir and dream wizard, Sageous. A ‘savage’ we’re told as if this wasn’t made quite clear in Prince of Thorns.

'I will find the heathen and kill him,' I had promised Fexler.
'Sageous is nothing but a savage, straining truth through superstition to dabble in dreams.' Fexler shook his head.⁠60

Jorg’s frequent distain for other cultures is wide enough to encompass most of what we see in the book. And while a reader could say the racism is simply Jorg’s own, his is the dominant POV in King of Thorns, presented with authorial fiat that doesn’t take time to pick apart any of the problematic baggage it might bring along with that dominant view. If we read with him to victory, we are reading in all that as well.

'If you must know, I’m a goat,' I said. 'That’s right, a fecking goat. There’s a whole nation of people behind the East Wall who say I was born in the year of the goat. I’ve no time for any system that has me as a goat. I don’t care how ancient their civilization is.'⁠61

These are lines good for a laugh, but at whose expense exactly? Jorg’s, the crone’s, or those barbarians in the East? I suspect it is not Jorg we are being encouraged to laugh at, but those foolish enough to believe in astrology in a world that nonetheless has zombies and dream wizards in it.

Nietzsche seems to have a little more respect on these matters than Jorg, though his judgements are nearly as demeaning as Jorg’s. 

The Chinese have a proverb that mothers even teach children: siao-sin - “make your heart small!” This is the characteristic fundamental propensity in late civilizations: I do not doubt that an ancient Greek would recognize in us Europeans of today, too, such self-diminution; this alone would suffice for us to “offend his taste.” -⁠62

Brides, Crones & Lovers

However, it is on the topic of women, where King of Thorns reaches its grimmest pitch. The narrative is split by time into chapters titled ‘Wedding Day’ and interweaves these with chapters marked ‘Four years earlier.’ Which takes us to the next woman to enter the story. Not surprising, there is a bride.

'Princess Miana is being attended by Father Gomst and the Sisters of Our Lady,' Coddin reported. He still looked uncomfortable in chamberlain’s velvets; the Watch-Commander’s uniform had better suited him. 'There are checks to be carried out.'
'Let’s just be glad nobody has to check my purity.' I eased back into the throne. Damn comfortable: swan-down and silk. Kinging it is pain in the arse enough without one of those gothic chairs. 'What does she look like?'
Coddin shrugged. 'A messenger brought this yesterday.' He held up a gold case about the size of a coin.
'So what does she look like?'
He shrugged again, opened the case with his thumbnail and squinted at the miniature. 'Small.'⁠63

Jorg’s child bride Miana is problematic enough that we will examine her in more detail further along. But for now, let us say that she is our only positive female role model in the entirety of the book. 

Other females in King of Thorns fare less well than the bride of Jorg. Among those present in the framing story of Jorg’s wedding day are what remains of his old band of Brothers. Vile brigands, rapists, murderers, and criminals, who Jorg freed and then used as a weapon of terror throughout the previous installment of his tale in Prince of Thorns. Now we are reacquainted with them, via the topic of their own wives.

'Little Rikey,' I said. It had been a while since I’d spoken to the man. Years. 'And how’s that lovely wife of yours?' In truth I’d never seen her but she must have been a formidable woman.
'She broke.' He shrugged.⁠64

While Jorg makes little secret of his contempt for his men, he doesn’t appear to much care what they do with, or to their wives and lovers. He turns away ‘without comment,’ and soon is cracking wise with the serving woman who comes to dress him.

'Mabel!' I threw my arms wide and gave her my dangerous smile.
'Maud, sire.'
I had to admit the old biddy had some stones.⁠65

Nietzsche was never so sparing in his comments when it came to women. It was clear throughout his writings that he took the sobriquet ‘the weaker sex’ as a literal truth. He is not mild in his judgement on the worth and virtues of women - especially the woman who succumbs to a shameful rising above her natural state.

Woman wants to become self-reliant - and for that reason she is beginning to enlighten men about “women as such” : this is one of the worst developments of the general uglification of Europe. For what must these clumsy attempts of women at scientific self-exposure bring to light! Woman has much reason for shame; so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness and immodesty lies concealed in woman  - one only needs to study her behavior with children! - And so far all this was at bottom best repressed and kept under control by fear of man. Woe when “the eternally boring in woman” - she is rich in that! -  is permitted to venture forth! When she begins to unlearn thoroughly and on principle her prudence and art - of grace, of play, of chasing away worries, of lightening burdens and taking things lightly - and her subtle aptitude for agreeable desires!
Even now female voices are heard which - holy Aristophanes! - are frightening: they threaten with medical explicitness what woman wants from man, first and last. Is it not in the worst taste when woman sets about becoming scientific that way? So far enlightenment of this sort was fortunately man’s affair, man’s lot - we remained “among ourselves” in this; and whatever women write about “woman,” we may in the end reserve a healthy suspicion whether woman really wants enlightenment about herself - whether she can will it -
Unless a woman seeks a new adornment for herself that way - I do think adorning herself is part of the Eternal-Feminine? - she surely wants to inspire fear of herself - perhaps she seeks mastery. But she does not want truth: what is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth - her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty. 
Finally I pose the question: has ever a woman conceded profundity to a woman’s head, or justice to a woman’s heart? And is it not true that on the whole “woman” has so far been despised most by woman herself - and by no means by us?⁠66

Nietzsche finishes off his truths about women, with the following three-pronged advice which he recommends real friends of women should council all women with: “mulier taceat in ecclesia! mulier taceat in politicis! mulier taceat de muliere!⁠67

At least Nietzsche is willing to confess in the preamble to his broadside against the self-reliant woman, that his ideas or his ‘few truths’ as he cares to call them about “woman as such” are perhaps rooted in his own “great stupidity”. He suggests somewhat coyly, that they are deeply set emotive responses foaming up from the base of his being. So reading with generosity, one might be tempted to see these as invectives which Nietzsche may in the fullness of time recant or overturn by continued learning.

After this abundant civility that I have just evidence in relation to myself I shall perhaps be permitted more readily to state a few truths about “woman as such” - assuming that it is now known from the oustet how very much these are after all only - my truths.⁠68

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this ever occurred. More evidence, if we parse Nietzsche words carefully, I fear, that much like Jorg or Lawrence, he is making an appeal to his nature in the hope that his otherwise repellant thoughts on the subject will not be judged against him by the reader. This is not an overturn, but a retreat to a firm redoubt as I see it. Nietzsche knows he is making an attack on women, and knows even that his basis for it may be entirely wrong, but he is suggesting he is not to blame for doing so because ultimately this reaction arises from his “fatum” or his “unteachable” centre. 

Learning changes us; it does what all nourishment does which also does not merely “preserve” - as physiologist know. But the bottom of us, really “deep down,” there is, of course, something unteachable, some granite of spiritual fatum, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined selected question.

Later - we see them only as steps to self-knowledge, signposts to the problem we are - rather, to the great stupidity we are, to our spiritual fatum, to what is unteachable very “deep down.”⁠69

If Nietzsche’s fatum speaks ill of woman, it speaks as a more truthful, more uncorrupted, part of his spirit. Not only does this absolve Nietzsche in advance from giving offense as surely he suspects his words must give but it slyly suggests that Nietzsche is right to utter them. Doubly right, for not only is Nietzsche being true to his self, but he frequently suggests that man’s natural state, his uncorrupted, un-weakened nature is one of truth and virtue - in the Nietzschean sense of will to power and the domination of weaker wills - not a religious state of unfalleness or innocence or even goodness or even truth as the latter group, full of nihilistic weakness, might recognize it. Even if these are only his truths, they are still truths and carry with them subsequent weight.

To be sure one, one should not yield to humanitarian illusions about the origins of an aristocratic society (and thus of the presupposition of this enhancement of the type “man”): truth is hard. Let us admit to ourselves, without trying to be considerate, how every higher culture on earth so far has begun. Human being whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every terrible sense of the word, men of prey who were still in possession of unbroken strength of will and lust for power, hurled themselves upon weaker, more civilized, more peaceful races, perhaps traders or cattle raisers, or upon mellow old cultures whose last vitality was even then flaring up in splendid fireworks of spirit and corruption. In the beginning, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste: their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul - they were more whole human beings (which also means, at every level, “more whole beasts”).⁠70

This caveat aside, it is hard to see how Nietzsche could have possibly been sympathetic to women. And certainly not of women wanting to be granted agency that would be comparable with that enjoyed by even the lowest, weakest willed of men. Nor is his approval of women in their natural state, a very flattering proposition either. If he has nothing but respect for the atavistic barbarity of men, uncorrupted by weak willed decadence, he views the corresponding state in women as that of a vain, seductive, crafty slave, eager to bring man down to her level. Despite his flattering words aimed at subservient women, Nietzsche can hardly express less horror about their native tendencies, than he holds for their modern efforts at enlightenment.

It is the “the slave” in the blood of the vain person, a residue of the slave’s craftiness - and how much “slave” is still residual in woman, for example! - that seeks to seduce him to good opinions about himself; it is also the slave who afterwards immediately prostrates himself before these opinions as if he had not called them forth.
And to say it once more: vanity is an atavism.⁠71

In Nietzsche’s ecology of values, populations can only have so many value makers at their peak. As it “is the characteristic right of masters to create values”, those masters must rely on a vast foundation of lesser wills to power to dominate. Ideally, slaves. To elevate potentially a whole half of the human race out of its natural state of bondage would be to water down fatally the will to power of those men at the summit. Such a civilization, Nietzsche insists, would only go from suffering to wider suffering and either collapse under the weight of its corruption or be replaced by more vigorous barbarians, rising upwards. A healthy Nietzschean society is one where a sufficient number of its members are there solely to be exploited by the few, and by extension, a large if not majority portion of these are women. Without this, and indeed, without women being exploited by men, the poor exploited by the rich, the weak exploited by the strong, Nietzsche can only imagine nihilism spreading unchecked.

Exploitation is in Nietzsche’s opinion, only the mildest of expressions of the strong’s will to power. And those who resist this, are agents of contagion, and more to our point here, untruthful even with themselves.

Refraining mutually from injury, violence, and exploitation and placing one’s will on a par with that of someone else - this may become, in a certain rough sense, good manners among individuals if the appropriate conditions are present (namely, if these men are actually similar in strength and value standards and belong together in one body). But as soon as this principle is extended, and possibly even accepted as the fundamental principle of society, it immediately proves to be what it really is - a will to the denial of life, a principle of disintegration and decay.

Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation - but why should one always use those words in which a slanderous intent has been imprinted for ages?

- Not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power. But there is no point on which the ordinary consciousness of Europeans resists instruction as on this: everywhere people are now raving, even under scientific disguises, about coming conditions of society in which “the exploitative aspect” will be removed - which sounds to me as if they promised to invent a way of life that would dispense with all organic functions. “Exploitations” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life.
If this should be an innovation as a theory - as a reality it is the primordial fact of all history: people ought to be honest with themselves at least that far.
Nietzsche’s attempt to excuse his instinctive judgement on the value of women seems cowardly. His outward more considered one can hardly be higher. 

It brings to mind the common preamble “I don’t want to sound x… “ which is frequently heard before a speaker says something that they know is either racist or misogynistic or otherwise offensive, yet wish to suggest is true. This is a key bit of cognitive dissonance for people who desire to speak their truths exactly as they see them but not be seen as racists or misogynists for doing so. And even though their statements may be knowingly rooted within a spectrum that they seek to distance themselves from as they voice them. Often followed by the similar complaint that the listener can’t “handle the truth.”

What Nietzsche is doing distancing himself from a hard truth, is less clear. But it is a way to dodge much like Nietzsche does, responsibility for any offense before it is caused.

And there is plenty to be offended by in King of Thorns if you’re a woman. Even it it is not spelled out as succinctly as does Nietzsche, woman are generally objects of scorn in Jorg’s world. It is worth noting that almost every woman Jorg encounters in King of Thorns is either shown to be an old woman, frequently hag-like and derided for their wrinkled, sexless appearance, or else a young and voluptuous temptress. There is literally no middle ground for a woman to stand on. Most awful of all are those decrepit crones full of youthful lust.

Indeed, the four weird sisters of Lawrence’s meiliu, Bitch, Child, Crone, and Slut are never far away. We keep meeting them in the story. There is a positive scarcity of women beyond these narrow roles.

My new assignment was as personal guard to Lady Agath, a cousin of my grandfather’s who had been living at Castle Morrow for some years. A fat old lady, getting to the point where the weight started to slip from her as it does with the very old. Live long enough and we all die skinny.

Lady Agath liked to do everything slowly. She paid me no attention other than to moan that my scar was ugly to look at and why couldn’t she have a presentable guard? To the wrinkles brought by her advanced years she added those that fat people acquire as they start to deflate. The overall effect was alarming, as if she were a shed skin, discarded perhaps by a giant reptile.

“Be still, boy, you’re never still,” Lady Agath said.
I hadn’t moved a muscle for five minutes. I continued the habit and held my tongue.
“Don’t be smart with me,” she said. “Your eyes are always flitting from one thing to the next. Never still. And you think too much. I can see you thinking right now.”
“My apologies, Lady Agath,” I said.
She harrumphed, jowls quivering, and settled back in her black lace. “Play on,” she told the minstrel, a dark and handsome fellow in his twenties who had a sufficient combination of looks and talent to hold the attention of Agath and three other old noblewomen at one end of the Ladies’ Hall.
The Ladies’ Hall appeared to be where Horse Coast women came to die. For certain there weren’t any ladies there on the right side of sixty.⁠73

Men on the other hand, no matter what side of sixty they stand on, are treated with dignity and come in a wider range of roles. And all of them more flattering than those reserved for women. Old men in particular are always either wise, noble, or kindly. Strong lions turning to grey, or wild prophets. They are not dismissed out of hand or made into jokes for the most part - unless they’re fat, but there are far fewer fat men in the Hundred than there are obese women.

Two more ladies followed in. Old biddies I recognized from the Ladies’ Hall. A young man with a fat gut strode in, wrapped in blue velvet despite the heat. My grandmother, who I saw once at the Tall Castle, came escorted and supported by a pageboy. She looked unsteady, her hair very white, her skin pale, thin, drawn. Then my grandfather, taking his high-backed chair at the head of the table. Earl Hansa surprised me; he looked only a little older than my father, a solidly built man with a short grey beard and long thick hair still streaked with black.⁠74
Old women even where kindly, are either lacking in wit or personality. Or they’re madwomen.

My great aunt got a madness in her. Great Aunt Lucin. She must have been sixty, a small woman, plump, we all loved her. And one day she threw boiling water over her handmaid. She threw the water and then went wild, spouting nursery rhymes and biting herself. Father’s surgeon sent her to Thar. He said there was an alchemist there whose potions might cure her. And failing the potions, he had other methods. The surgeon said that this man, Luntar, could take out pieces of a person’s mind until what remained was healthy.
My great aunt Lucin came back in a carriage two months later. She smiled and sang and could talk about the weather. She wasn’t my great aunt Lucin any more but she seemed nice enough, and she didn’t scald any more maids⁠75

Time is universally unkind to them, and once old, they seem to have set purpose other than to serve as a warning and to make life difficult for everyone else.

I went to see my grandmother in her chambers. Uncle Robert had warned me that she wore her years less well than Grandfather.
“She’s not the woman she was,” he told me. “But she has her moments.”⁠76

Never is this the case for old men.

I just watched him. A big man, white-blond hair and a beard down his chest.⁠77

The Lord of Wennith strode right up to me without preamble, craning his neck to look me up and down as if examining a suspect horse. I resisted the urge to show him my teeth. Plump and grey and old he might have been but he had a look about him that said he knew his business, he knew men well enough and the notion of putting his child in my marriage bed pleased him as little as it did me.⁠78

This never flags throughout the whole book. Nor does the insistence that all women must be perishable crones or objects of lust and or violence. Played out, more often than not, with a grim juvenile humour. 

One old biddy screamed, clutched her chest, and fell over. That made me laugh. And when they told me she never did get back up…well that seemed funny too at the time. Maybe I’m getting too old, for it doesn’t strike me quite so merrily any more. Let truth be told though, she did fall funny.⁠79

Everywhere Jorg goes, females are shown to be of a predictable and limited dichotomy of types. Either lustful harridans or whores.

I watched her backside as she went. I thought perhaps I wouldn’t die if I could still find time to watch a well-crafted bottom.⁠80

I walked past the dancers. They hadn’t gone far.
'Remember me, Jorg?' Cherri smiled. The other struck a pose. They both followed Taproot’s advice. Hips and tits.

Cherri I remembered, lithe and pert, hair lightened with lemon and curled around hot tongs every morning, a snub nose and wicked eyes. They both closed on me, half-playful, half-serious, hands straying, warm breath and that gyration in the pelvis that speaks of want. Her friend, dark-haired, pale-skinned, and sculpted from fantasy, I did not recall, but wished I did.
'Come and play?' the friend murmured. She smelled money. Sometimes, though, reasons don’t matter.
It’s hard to pass up an offer like that when you’re young and full of juice,

'Girl' may have been pushing it but she was a good ten years younger than Thomas, and who better than a circus contortionist to deliver a boy’s first lessons in carnality?⁠81

Even Chella, the dead necromancer who is pursuing Jorg in more senses than just one, and whom a reader could say is the only female character who comes close to having real power (although she seems to be being gamed by the mysterious Dead King)  - and whom apparently, gets her own POV in the next book - is reduced in King of Thorns to basically her rotting genitalia. Bringing to mind Nietzsche, Lawrence seems to suggest that his most powerful female character in the book is only an armature for her biology and male wishes.

Katherine Ap Scorron fills my nights. More than is healthy. And all of those dreams are dark. Chella walks in some of them, stepping direct from the necromancers’ halls beneath Mount Honas, wicked and delicious.

The necromancer had a magic to work on the living as well as the dead. Or at least a magic to work on men. The mire had tainted the flesh that I remembered so well, leaving it dark but still firm. The slime that ran from her, that dripped and clung, seemed to guide the eye, to gild each dark curve and point.

The creature put an ache in my groin, true enough, as if that line between lust and revulsion had been erased as completely as the village. Part of me wanted to take her dare. Embrace what you fear, I had told Gog. Hunt your fears. And what is death if not the ultimate of fears, the final enemy? I had eaten the cold heart of a necromancer. Perhaps I should take Chella, take death by the throat, and make it serve me.

'Cruel words.' She smiled. She stepped closer. The fluid motion of her held my eyes. The jounce of breasts, the jut of hips, the redness of her mouth.

'You know what men are really afraid of, Chella?' I asked.
'Tell me.' She ran her hands up her thighs, across her belly, smearing dark skin with darker mud.⁠82

Powerful women, might have been Nietzsche’s honest reply. Jorg’s real terror however, is reserved for less desirable women. Chella at least, he deems worthy enough to take violently by the throat and force his will over hers. Old women, in particular or even just women past their prime, are in Jorg’s eyes only objects of shame - especially if they dare to express some lingering spark of female desire.

Serra stepped closer, shawl tight around her shoulders against the chill of the breeze. She moved in that fluid way that reminds every watcher she can cross her ankles behind her head. Even so, on her cheeks, here and there, the white powder cracked, and around her eyes the unkind morning light found tiny wrinkles. She wore her hair still in ribbons and bunches, but now it looked wrong on her and a thread or two of silver laced the blackness of it.
'How many rooms does your palace have, Jorg?' A husk in her voice. A hint of something desperate at the back of her smile.
'Lots,' I said. 'Most of them cold, stony, and damp.' I didn’t want her to go begging and dirty up my golden memories. I didn’t know what I’d come looking for around the circus camp; Taproot’s stories for sure, but not now, not here in the messy reality behind the show-ring mask. I didn’t know what I’d come for, but not this, not Serra showing her years and her need.
‘Silly,’ she husked. Old or not, that magic of hers had started to work on me. ‘Dragons aren’t real.’ The twitch of a smile in her painted lips, her small and kissable mouth.⁠83

'Builder-glass,' she said, wetting her lips with a quick pink tongue, somehow obscene in her withered mouth. ⁠84

An impertinent question perhaps from a boy of fourteen but she had asked to see me, not I her, and the longer I sat there, the smaller and older she looked.

'Fine words from a hag that smells as though she died ten years back and just hasn’t had the decency to stop wittering,' I said. I didn’t like the way she looked at me, with either eye, and insulting her didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel fourteen.⁠85

The only woman to actually gain her own POV in King of Thorns is made to parrot this horror of old women: Katherine Ap Scorron.

She’s kind but rather dull and she seems to think she needs to shout in order for me to understand her accent. ⁠86

One wonders where the true friend to women was who might have relayed to Katherine Ap Scorron Nietzsche’s closing advice: “mulier taceat de muliere”?

Katherine’s Story

As mentioned, we start with Jorg sitting in his castle remains pouring over the journal fragments of his aunt and reluctant love interest, Katherine Ap Scorron. Who, in the previous book, Jorg has at various times menaced and outright physically abused. 

Jorg obsesses over Katherine, despite, there really being nothing previously established between the two, other than Jorg’s abusive behavior, no evidence that they are like minded, compatible, or suited to one another beyond the physical beauty of Katherine, and Jorg’s refusal to take ‘no’ as an answer to his ‘courting.’

I hardly know Katherine but I want her, with unreasonable ferocity. Like a sickness, like the need for water. Like Paris for Helen, I am laid low by irresistible longing.
'Hello, Jorg.' And my clever words desert me. She makes me feel my fourteen summers, more boy than man.
I want her beyond reason. I need to own, consume, worship, devour. What I’ve made of her in my mind cannot live in flesh. She’s just a person, just a girl,
At first glance, this seems helpful, framing the story at least, Katherine’s story, from a female point of view.

I’ve looked back to see what I wrote yesterday. I don’t remember writing it but it tells how Jorg Ancrath tried to kill me after murdering Hanna, throttling her. I suppose that if he really had wanted to kill me he could have done a better job of it having broken Mother’s vase over my skull. He’s good at killing, if nothing else.⁠88

Jorg is also good at threatening women. But then, he’s not unique in his scornful attitude when it comes to the female sex. Nearly all of the male characters and more disturbingly, most of the women we meet in the series will share this trait, and we see it here, at the very start of King of Thorns: a hatred of other women, expressed via Katherine’s dismissive and often sneering viewpoint which will flavour the book from start to end, as hers is the epistolary story that Lawrence layers alongside Jorg’s own narrative.

The ladies sew with their quick clever stitches, line stitch, cross-line, layer-cross. Sharp little needles, dull little minds. I hate them with their tutting and their busy fingers and the lazy Ancrath slurring of their words.⁠89

Having been abused and raped, Katherine is now damaged goods, as Jorg later expresses with a shopping list of her qualities.

I think of Katherine. I make a list.
She said I was evil and that she hates me.
She has set her heart on the Prince of Arrow.
She tried to kill me.
She destroyed the child she thought was mine.
She was defiled by another man.⁠90

Defiled ends the list. And depressingly, as this is the only female POV we get in the story, fragmentary as it is, it mostly comes down to the hatred and shaming of other women.

She said they would come back to sniff around me again. That’s just how she said it. As if they were dogs and I was a bitch in heat.
I don’t think I am. In heat that is. I can be a bitch. I can be a bitch every day. I made Maery Coddin cry today and I hardly meant to.⁠91

Including her sister who has just given birth.

Sareth has squeezed out her Ancrath brat. She howled about it, loud enough for half the castle to know more than they ever wanted about the business of pushing a big slimy head through a hole where even fingers feel tight.

It wasn’t sulking. It was fear. She howled the rest of the day and into the night before she got it out of her. I knew she had a dirty mouth, but the things she shouted near the end. I wonder how the servants will look on her now. How the table-knights will watch their queen behind their visors.⁠92

Mixed in this is a weird longing for both her abuser and other brutal - but strong men - like Eagan, the younger of the two Princes of Arrow. Eagan is another masterful man possessed of near-Jorg like will to power.

And if they do burn bright—if they do put heat in me—or me in heat—what of it? I fancy I put some heat in them.

the other as dark and tempting as Jorg who killed him.⁠93

Whom Katherine is shown to prefer over the more noble and gentle brother, Price Orrin of Arrow. Despite herself.

I both like and don’t like the way he looks at me. Some animal part of me relishes it. Every reasonable part of me is offended. Although I can find nothing to like in Egan that does not start with what my eyes give me of him, there is still a mystery there. When he watches me it is with an instinctive understanding of women that is denied to the wise. Denied to Orrin.⁠94

In painting her as an abuse-crazed madwoman, with little rational control over her lusts among all her other negative traits, she is never granted our sympathy like Jorg is, even though Katherine’s only crime seems to be that she’s female and the object of Jorg’s lust. She is a pawn for men to move about or abuse, and her will is constantly thwarted. Her only virtue is her great beauty which is treated like another shortcoming as it drives Jorg and other abusers to seek her out.

And of course, a lot of body-hatred pours out of Katherine’s journal alongside these details, especially for those who are fat, or old, which at least is something she shares with Jorg.

Egan asked with short words and long, dark looks. I think his passions would terrify Sareth, despite her dirty mouth. I think a weak woman would die in his bed. And a strong one might find it the only place she’s been alive.

Egan told me he wanted me, and I believed him. He told me he would make me happy and how. I’m sure if I’d turned around Maery’s face would have been as red as mine. Egan spoke of his horses, the battles he’d fought in, and the lands he would take me to. Some of it was boasting, sure enough, but in the end he spoke of his passions, killing, riding, travelling, and now me. It may be shallow of me, but to be counted among the simple primal pleasures of a man like Egan of Arrow is a compliment. And yes, he may see me as a prize to be won, but I think I would be equal to his fire and that he could find himself well matched.

I dreamed of Jorg last night, coming to me, and my belly all fat, taut and hot and stretched, stretching like the bastard wanted out of me, little hands sliding beneath my skin.⁠95

Most worrisome even than this, is when by ‘chance’ Jorg comes upon her in the same graveyard where the body of Katherine’s nursemaid, murdered by Jorg, lies buried. Katherine is made to flirt with Jorg - who she believes not only nearly killed her but raped her as well - before trying, ineffectually, to take his manhood - literally, with a knife. She is drawn to Jorg, despite all this, after he disarms her. Which seems rather a quick turnaround, considering all the reasons she has to repel him.

She can’t deny it. 'Damn you,' she says.
'You’ve missed me then?' I say and I grin because I’m just pleased to see her, to breathe the same air.
'No.' But her lips twitch and I know she has thought of me. I know it and I’m ridiculously glad.
She tosses her head and turns, stepping slowly as if hunting her thoughts. I watch the line of her neck. She wears a riding dress of leather and suede, browns and muted greens. The sun finds a hundred reds in her coiled hair. 'I hate you,' she says.
Better than indifference. I step after her, moving close.⁠96

Jorg also takes time to threaten her sister Sareth, as well as once again showing that it’s not his fault and that Jorg is real victim here. None of his rapes or conquests have been due to his own lack of a moral centre but others leading young Jorg astray. It is in fact Katherine’s fault, if it’s anyone’s, that Jorg wants her, because she is beautiful - and because she’s told him no. She is standing in the way of his mastery, thwarting his will.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. None of the others made me this way. Not Serra leading me astray as a child almost, not Sally bought and paid for, nor Renar’s serving maids, ladies-at-court, bored wives of nobles, comely peasant girls, not the ones on the road that the Brothers took and shared, none of them.

'I might kill Sareth in case you’re wrong or trying to protect her,'

But I didn’t kill her. The voice told me to rape her too. To just take her. But I only touched her hair. What I wanted couldn’t be taken.⁠97

But there are no assurances here or in Jorg’s past behavior to suggest that he wouldn’t take ‘it’ if he thought it could be, or if Lawrence didn’t want to sneakily insert yet another point to show that Jorg isn’t really the villain that his actions suggest - more of a misunderstood scamp. Raping women on the road, that’s all behind him, most likely. Peasants, and subhuman women, who are hardly human are of no account. Above all, he’s not a victim; not a woman. Jorg is only being true to his own truths, and his nature.

'I wasn’t made to be this way.' She’s reaching for something hidden in the folds of her riding dress, under fawn suede. 'I wasn’t meant to be the prize princes compete for, or the container to grow their babies in. Damn that. Would you want to be a token? Or made just to grow babies and raise children?'
'I’m not a woman,' I say. It’s just my lips filling the pause while the questions, or rather the new images they paint of her, bounce around my mind.
I see her pull the knife from her skirts. A long blade like those for slotting through chinks in armour when you have your foe pinned, only not so sturdy. This one would break if the man twisted and might not reach the heart. I’m not supposed to see it. I’m supposed to be watching her eyes, her mouth, the heave of her breasts, and I am, but often I see more than I’m supposed to.
'Can’t I want something more?' she asks.
'Wanting is free.' I can’t stop watching her. My glance touches the knife only now and then. Her eyes don’t see me. I don’t think she knows what her hands are doing, the right gripping a hilt, the left on her belly, clawed like she wants to tear her way in.
'Do I have to be a monster? Do I have to be a new Queen of Red to—'
I catch her wrist as she drives the knife at me. She is stronger than I imagined. We both look down at my hand, dark on her white wrist, and the thin blade quivering with its point an inch from my groin.
'A low blow.' I twist her arm but she drops the knife before I make her.⁠98

Katherine on the other hand, is ever hemmed in by her biology. And she suffers for it far more than Jorg ever did hung on his hook-briar. She may suggest she doesn’t wish to obey her nature or be ruled by her fate, but Jorg points out that she has no choice in the matter - because she’s a woman. Unlike Jorg, who is not. Jorg even attempts after the fact to pull the bigot’s defense by saying it’s just his ‘lips’ which have perhaps, said something unpalatable.

Better that she submit and as Nietzsche would certainly have been in favour of, be “maintained, taken care of, protected, and indulged like a more delicate, strangely wild, and often pleasant domestic animal;”⁠99

But if Katherine has broken free of her enforced domesticity she stands before Jorg quivering in her wildness. But it is not her unhappiness with her proscribed fate that has spurred this. She is ultimately revealed to be deranged not because she’s been raped either, but because she chose to abort the fetus of that rape - believing it be Jorg’s. This has made her a murderer, despite the child being a product of rape while she was unconscious, and something that if discovered, would ruin her possible marriage to either of the two Princes of Arrow. Not to mention, put her own life in terrible danger considering how Jorg’s father feels about him and the threat that he poses to his throne. An heir born from a union with Jorg would likely seal her fate, no matter what side of the blanket it came from.

Once it is revealed that while the rape is real enough, even if Jorg is not the culprit, something that has been obvious to the reader since in the beginning of the book, and that the pregnancy was a phantom cast by Jorg’s enemy the fake-Indian fakir Sageous, and even though Katherine’s abortion of her unreal fetus has caused her to be permanently sterile - what Katherine is really concerned about is the fact that she’s no longer a murderer of her never having existed unborn child of rape. This seems a curious victory.

I tried to stab Jorg but it was like a dream. I both knew and did not know what my hand was doing. I didn’t want to hear his pain or see him bleed. I don’t recall picking up the knife to take with me. I told myself to stop. But I didn’t stop.
And now. If I had Friar Glen here. I would want to hear his pain and see him bleed. I would not tell myself to stop. But I would stop. Because for the first time in a long while my head feels clear, my thoughts are all my own, and I am not a killer.⁠100

This seems to me also, a terrible admission to force the character into. And it begs the question, why is the abortion of a fetus in this case made to be more terrible than the rape and sterility she has suffered? Should fantasizing about the murder of her rapist be compared so evenhandedly with aborting her non-baby?

It is a rather selective piece of moralizing on the part of Mark Lawrence, and a hypocritical one considering how many other murders and rapes go by unremarked upon in the book. Or even are applauded. Kill as many adults as you please, but you’re only a killer if you believe you’ve aborted your own fetus. Worse, we can not know if this comes from an authorial bit of editorializing, or simple, casual pursuit of plot hooks and acceptance of the cultural least path of resistance. Or just laziness. The latter is far more problematic in my opinion than the former would be, as it reflects the genre’s tendency to treat rape and murder as just something easy to use in order to motivate their paper characters - and often, without much thought put into what that means for them or the reader.

But then perhaps we are simply seeing the nature of man versus the nature of woman exposed as they operate in Lawrence's fictional world. Men thrust their wills into the world as they see fit, raping, killing, competing, vying for dominance. Women must receive the thrust, and support and nurture whatever seed springs from this ‘union’ of unequals. Reading like a loser, my sympathies go to Katherine not Jorg, and my only hope is that she will see him as her chief danger - as indeed he proves to be as he ultimately burns her to death along with the Arrow army - and get as far away from him as she can before it is too late. But this, because Jorg wills it, is not going to happen. And she suffers a terrible death.

Certainly pursuing her own desires is not going to save her. Anything that helps Katherine escape her fate, is giving in to the dread forces that both Nietzsche and Jorg appear to feel will unman the world and close the door on its rightful progress.

All “feminism,” too - also in men - closes the door: it will never permit entrance into this labyrinth of audacious insights. One must never have spared oneself, one must have acquired hardness as a habit to be cheerful and in good spirits in the midst of nothing but hard truths. When I imagine a perfect reader, he always turns into a monster of courage and curiosity; moreover, supple, cunning, cautious; a born adventurer and discoverer.⁠101

Or in other words, the perfect reader - who is demonstratively a he and not a her - is Jorg. Not Katherine, who can never fulfill these roles unless she revolts against her own nature and betrays her biology.

Katherine’s story is a sad one, but it is this final bit that bothers me the most, I suspect. It is a small consolation at least, that she’s neither old nor fat or there would be no peace for her at all. And I suppose we can at least be glad that unlike Jorg’s actual bride, she’s not a child.

The Childlike Bride

While there are few exceptions to the binary view of womanhood presented in King of Thorns, which portrays women as either disgusting old crones with withered bodies or seductive/destructive forces of sexuality. The one we do find is most disturbing: King Jorg’s impending bride, the aforementioned ‘small’ Princess Miana.

'No,' I said. 'But we need to draw as many men from the fight as we can. The castle can work for us, but not with these odds. And remember, gentlemen, the beautiful Queen…Mi-something?'
'Miana,' Coddin said.
'Yes, her. Queen Miana. Remind the men who we’re fighting for, Hobbs.'⁠102

And there at the altar, head bowed beneath a garland of lilies, my bride.
‘Oh hell,’ I said.
Small was right. She looked about twelve.
All of this is more problematic that it might otherwise be, as we find out later, that Jorg has foreknowledge of their discrepancies in age. So this is in a real sense, not a surprise or an unexpected accident of long distance courtship, and before cries of realism are brought up, this is a fantasy novel set in an apocalyptic future and Jorg’s own perspective - and hence our own - is strongly rooted in a modern and anarchistic outlook so it is hard not to see this is a deliberate titillation which as far as I can see, serves no particular need of the plot. And this applies whether Jorg has voluntarily ‘forgotten’ this point by his memories-in-a-box contraption or because of some other twist.

And on that note, the book is consistently uneven. On the one instance Jorg champions taking a ‘new bride’ and one gets the sense he means ‘young’ here as well.

'Old men make old words holy. I say old words are worn out and should be set aside. Take a new bride to bed, not a hag,' I said, thinking of Ekatri. 'A fool may scrawl on a slate and if no one has the wit to wipe it clean for a thousand years, the scrawl becomes the wisdom of ages.'⁠104

This echoes one of Nietzsche’s Seven Epigrams On Woman: “Young: flower-covered den.  Old: dragon denzien.”⁠105

But elsewhere, we get a token negative response to child sexuality - unless for Jorg the cut off is not twelve, but ten. A distinction somewhat lost on most readers I suspect, or at least hope.

I walk through the Banlieu, nothing but slum dwellings and waste heaps, a boil on the arse of the city. Even a fine spring day cannot make these streets bloom. Children root through the mounded filth left by poor folk. They chase me as I make my way. Girls of ten and younger try to distract me with big eyes and kiss-mouths whilst skinny boys work to pull something from my pack, anything they can snatch free. I take my knife in hand and they melt away. Orrin of Arrow might have given them bread. He might have resolved to change this place. I just walk through it. Later I will scrape it from my shoes.⁠106

Perhaps Jorg’s just not in the mood. As Mother Fucker (clad we might note in a costume made from his mother’s modified bondage costume) claims in Kick-Ass 2 to be, when he finds himself impotent and unable to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend, the charmingly named Night Bitch. He is ultimately soft, and dies/commits suicide in the film. Unlike hard Jorg.

Of course, Jorg’s bride could just as well have been a mature or even an older woman than himself, considering his tender years. Instead, we get a very childlike bride presented with a wink. Her tender age is something Lawrence and Jorg seem eager to remind us of each time she enters a scene. Or really even before that, with jokes made about checking her ‘purity.’ Once they re-meet, there isn’t any improvement from here.

'Charmed,' I said, inclining my head. A child. She didn’t reach much above my ribs.
'I can see why your miniature was in profile,' she said, and sketched a curtsey.
That made me grin. It might be destined to be a short marriage but perhaps it wouldn’t be dull. 'You’re not scared of me then, Miana?'
She reached to take my hand by way of answer. I pulled it back. 'Best not.'⁠107

Now this revulsion is due to ‘necromantic’ energies lurking in Jorg’s hand. But we’re not reminded of this until a few pages later, and the overall effect is to strengthen this uncomfortable, leering, threatening atmosphere that all women in the novel are in constant peril. Mostly from the protagonist, but also from a background level of violence directed towards women that lowers their value to typically to the state of cattle and other animals - in remarkable harmony with Nietzsche’s own ideas.

According to reports, several men of the village had been killed already in the feud, though on closer inspection casualties were limited to a pig and the loss of a woman’s left ear.⁠108

In fact, the only ‘woman’ who we see in King of Thorns who appears to be worth Jorg’s grudging respect, is not a woman at all. She is a girl: Jorg’s child bride. But even here, it seems as much a way for the author to have underage flesh on display and not be labeled a peddler of pedophiliac wish fulfillment, as a sign that women matter as characters.

Because while the Childlike Bride is indeed, a child, she is the only female who speaks to Jorg both intelligently and fearlessly. And whom, Jorg quickly if surprisedly, considers his possible intellectual and emotional peer. She is only a child in body, but in mind she is an unjudgemental and willing mate, possessed of none of the frightening characteristics of an adult woman. None of a woman’s defects of biology or weak will. Her child state keeps her male like will to power perhaps, from being seen as a threat or a competitor to Jorg’s adult male one.

'The Prince of Arrow has a much bigger army than you,' Miana said. No 'Your Highness,' no 'my lord.'
'Yes, he does.' I kept waving to the crowd, the big smile on my face.
'He’s going to win, isn’t he?' she said. She looked twelve but she didn’t sound twelve.
'How old are you?' I asked, a quick glance down at her, still waving.
'You should attack now then,' she said. 'Before they surround us.'
'I know.' I was starting to like the girl. Even an experienced soldier like Coddin, a good soldier, wanted to hunker down behind the Haunt’s walls and let the castle earn its keep, if you’ll pardon the pun. The thing is, though, that no castle stands against odds like the ones we faced. Miana knew what Red Kent knew, Red Kent who cut down a patrol of seventeen men-at-arms on a hot August morning.⁠109

This seems to me the very essence of problematic underage sexual fantasies all too common to the genre: a female shorn of her adult sexual characteristics but fetishized, and shown to be innocently willing, coupled with an otherwise ‘mature’ mindset minus the fearful judgmental weight of having had previous sexual experiences or contemporary lovers. That this shows up in fantasy with regularity should alarm the reader who is looking to be defeated rather than swept to victory.

That a writer like Lawrence includes this, doesn’t surprise me. It of course has nothing to do with the author’s own feelings about age and sexuality. I do not wish to make any claims here of that sort but I do believe it speaks to the degree with which such ideas have been normalized and institutionalized within the genre. Which is worse, really. Much worse, because every novel that includes this sort of thing as unexamined as it is in King of Thorns further buries the low bar over which other authors can cross, without even needing to lift their feet.

Strange Love or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lolita 

Away from the disturbing Childlike Bride, we still have Katherine Ap Scorron’s journal, recounting her sad fate. While it is readily apparent that she has confused the full facts of her attack and subsequent rape, along with the identity of her rapist - though not, importantly, the man, Jorg, who knocked her unconscious after threatening her sister and killing her lover and her nursemaid.

And then he hit me.
I’m touching the spot now. It’s still sore. Lumpy with scab. I wonder if they can see it through my hair. And then I wonder why I care.
I’m bruised down here too. Bruised black, like that stain. I can almost see the lines of fingers on my thigh, the print of a thumb.
He hit me and then he used me, raped me. It would have been nothing to him, a mercenary from the road, it would have meant nothing to him, just something else to take. It would rank small amongst his crimes. Maybe not the largest even against me, for I miss Hanna and I did cry when we put her in the ground, and I miss Galen for the fierceness of his smile and the heat he put in me whenever he came near.
He hit me, and then he used me?⁠110

Within this secondary framing story, taking place prior to the four years earlier portions of the novel, we have the mystery of Katherine’s rape, Jorg’s return, and the death of a child, whose ghostly form as noted at the beginning follows King Jorg around in the present and in the ‘Four years earlier’ chapters. As devices go, it isn’t without its cleverness, though in a way it’s a cheat as it makes certain elements of the story which should be known to Jorg, and as the narrative is told in first person from Jorg’s perspective except for the fragments of Katherine’s journal entries which he is reading in the ‘present,’ which should be known to the reader as well, vanish until Lawrence has need of them.

Now some of these withheld facts are part of the engine which propels the creaky plot. Others unfortunately seem to be patches that cover up what are holes in the same and others still, as we see with the Childlike Bride, are straight out emotional feints I would argue, designed to subvert and blunt the unpleasant knowledge that Jorg - and hence the reader - possess that Miana is only eight years old and still carrying around her dolly when Jorg first meets her and agrees to the match. 

Surely, that would damage the illusion that despite the Childlike Bride’s immaturity, they are equals where it counts most. And while chronologically Jorg and Miana are only six years apart, a great deal of effort has been spent by the author in the previous book and in this one as well, establishing that Jorg has the precocity and experience of a fully ‘mature’ man - even if it’s the sort of ersatz maturity not infrequently seen among forty year old men who still have a worrisome adolescent outlook. He’s spent years on the road after all, murdering and raping, whoring and heaping up piles of skulls as he carved his way to the throne. If he was ever a child Jorg is certainly not one now.

As King of Thorns alternates between Jorg’s wedding day and the events of four years earlier, we return to the Childlike Bride later in the book. In Lawrence’s defense, no actual consummation of the marriage is depicted, but this unsavory flirtation continues unabated.

We are also treated to the reveal that Jorg has known Miana’s age all along via his repressed memories which he keeps stored in the ‘magic box’ at his side, allowing Lawrence to leak them out, in the order he wishes, and to keep the reader and supposedly, Jorg’s enemies from discovering his convoluted plans of defense of the Haunt before they are whisked out into place deus ex machina like.

'Lady Miana?' I went down on one knee to be level with her, turning my face so as not to scare her with my burns. 'And how is your dolly called?' I’d little enough experience with children but it seemed a safe enough opening. She looked down in surprise as if she hadn’t known the toy was there.
'Oh,' she said. 'That’s not mine. I’m near grown. It’s Lolly’s, my sister’s.' The shape of her mouth told the lie: it tasted sour to her. Her first words to me and already I’d made a liar of her. If we ever wed it would be the least of my crimes. I would be the ruination of her life, this little girl with her rag doll. If she had any sense she would run.⁠111

Even with Jorg understanding that their union is a potentially shameful and unequal one, so much so that he buries the memory of her age in his box, he later is seemingly dispelled of this - by the adult coquetry of the Childlike Bride now that they are wed. Despite the battle being in full swing and Jorg looking at this stage certain to lose, Miana’s chaperone demands that the union be sealed. This feels rather contrived considering the circumstances. Not to mention, foolish. For if Jorg’s fails in his bid at independence, his queen-to-be would be better off ‘intact’ in any terms a reader could think of.

Lord Jost set his conical helm on his head and flicked the chainmail veil out over the back of his neck. He looked from me to Miana. 'Our alliance requires that the union be sealed, King Jorg.’⁠112

Jorg’s major objection seems to be timing. There is some uncomfortable rationalization of why having sex with a twelve year old girl, may be acceptable - though it isn’t here, Jorg seems to feel. Because she is very child like.

'Crap.' I jumped up and took her hand. Leading her to the door. It felt like taking a child for a walk.⁠113

But rather than this being a moral call, Jorg then goes on to suggest the only reason he doesn’t deflower her on the spot, aside from the pitched battle raging under his windows, is that he doesn’t like being pushed. He is concerned about the surrender of his will, not her potential rape.

'Lord Jost requires that I remove your virginity from you,' I said to Miana. 'Or the House Morrow can’t support me.' I hadn’t meant to be quite so blunt but I felt angry, awkward even.
Miana bit her lip. She looked frightened but determined. She reached for the dress ties at her side.
'Stop,' I said. I’ve never liked being pushed. Not in any direction. Miana looked well enough, and twelve isn’t so young. I was killing at twelve. But some women bloom early and some late. She may have had the mind of a she-pirate but she looked like a child.⁠114

Now this seems to negate any concern for Miana’s own willingness in the union or the sexual act being discussed, and here things get murkier. The Childlike Bride quickly steps up and shows that despite her child like body, she possesses more than enough willing sexual appetite or at least, a carnal sense of duty.

'You don’t want me?' She faltered. Now she added hurt and angry to frightened and determined.
I’ve observed on the road that it’s old men who like young girls. Brother Row and Brother Liar would chase the young ones. Younger than Miana. Brother Sim and I had always admired experience. The fuller form. So, no, I didn’t want her. And being told to have something you don’t want, rather like being told to eat spiced squid when what you want is beef and potatoes, will kill your appetite. Any kind of appetite.⁠115

I fear many readers will be appeased by what seems an outward rejection of Miana’s Lolitaesque sexual depiction here, but that is what makes the Childlike Bride most insidious. She is reduced to a preference on a menu of readily available items for a start. There seems to be little worry that a twelve year old girl would find enforced sex in these circumstances realistically terrifying, willing or otherwise.

‘I don’t want you right now,’ I said. It sounded more politic than calling her spiced squid.⁠116

We are invited by Lawrence to both enjoy the titilation, the extended flirtation with the notion that Miana is willing and the notion that many girls her age are suitable bed partners, butressed by her precocity, and that we are only held back by Jorg’s blend of stubbornness and self-stated preference for older women. 

A preference that seems unlikely, as we’ll see below, as Lawrence through Jorg has already done nothing but heap scorn and insult on all mature examples of womanhood in the book other than Katherine Ap Scorron so far, who hardly is presented in a good light outside of Jorg’s obsession.

Miana put her hand to my thigh, half-nervous, half-bold.
She reached for her dress again, and I thought that there might have been more determination than fear in her, but she wasn’t unlacing. She pulled out a black velvet bag, dangling from its drawstring. Big enough to hold an eyeball.
'My dowry,' she said.
'I hoped for something bigger.' I smiled and took it.
'Isn’t that my line?'
I laughed out loud at that. 'Somebody poured an evil old woman into a little girl’s body and sent it to me with the world’s smallest dowry.'⁠117

This seems closer to the truth of how Jorg feels about mature women. All the old women we meet are indeed evil or else insane or pitiful sexual predators. There is more flirtation, lots of little darts at sexual innuendo as he fakes her blood on a sheet. Jorg literally holds his fist around Miana’s dowery and she enjoins him to ‘be gentle’ while he experiences a ‘pulse of heat.’

Taken as a whole, the insertion of Miana the child like bride of brutal King Jorg seems highly problematic. There certainly isn’t any reason in the plot that demands the princess be a Lolita figure. She could have just as easily been Jorg’s age, or older. She could have been sixteen or twenty, but she is not. She is twelve, and Lawrence is at pains to remind us that she is very much a child physically. While at the same time, she is one of the most mature characters we encounter, mentally, and completely and happily docile to Jorg’s desire.

So it is worth asking why, other than to revel in this taboo (which in the genre seems more common trope than taboo anyway) and to make Jorg seem noble in so much as he doesn’t avail himself of it, Lawrence chooses to make it so? Again, it is possible, even if I don’t think a close reading supports this, that the author seeks to subvert the trope. If so, he has I feel, failed to do so. By a wide margin.

Children of Men

If women of all ages bear the burden of rape, and Jorg’s fluctuating scorn and desire, and old men are charismatic uncles and wise mentors, how is the portrayal of younger men in King of Thorns handled? It is very much a land of men and boys.

Aside from the jokey descriptions of the Brethren, men are presented as tormented things who above all, can’t help but be true to their nature.

Most of all, though, as boys do when they’re hurt—and at fourteen I discovered I was still a boy if the hurt came fierce enough—I thought of my mother.⁠118

'It’s his nature.' Alaric shrugged. 'When men look too long into the fire it looks back into them. It burns out what makes them men.’⁠119

'This is our curse.' Lundist stamped and rose from his chair with a groan. 'Man is doomed to repeat his mistakes time and again because he learns only from experience.'
He smoothed out an old scroll across the desk, covered in the pictograms of his homeland. It had pictures too, bright and interesting in the eastern style. 'The zodiac,' he said.
I put my finger on the dragon, caught in a few bold strokes of red and gold. 'This one,' I said.
'Your life is laid out from the moment of your birth, Jorg, and you don’t get to choose. All the words of your story can be replaced by one date and place. Where the planets hung in that instant, how they turned their faces, and which of them looked toward you…that configuration forms a key and that key unlocks all that a man will be,' he said.⁠120

Being true to one’s nature is vital in Lawrence’s world, and can explain any any sin, but only when that nature is masculine. Rape isn’t on, we should note, if it happens to a man. It is their nature to rape, not to be the victim. When the Brothers’ musically inclined member, private in his habits, who ‘looks pleasing enough, a touch pretty, a touch delicate but sharp with it’, is raped by some locals, Jorg is in no mood to consider that it is just the nature of men to do such things. He burns them to death along with an entire forest.

'They took the harp,' I said. 'That’s an insult to the Brotherhood.' I let the pride of the Brotherhood take the slur: it would shame Sim to have this be for him.⁠121

The anger I brought with me ignited, becoming too large for my body, detaching from the men who hurt Sim and becoming an end in and of itself, all-consuming, a glorious laughing ecstasy of rage.⁠122

All this is to save Sim his shame. I wonder where the burnt forests are for those raped by Jorg and his Brothers? For all the shame faced by the women Jorg regularly abuses and insults elsewhere in King of Thorns? But then men have the bond of brotherhood, which trumps everything. There is only male agency, and male salvation, it would seem, in King of Thorns, but it at least is pure and available - at least to all men, good, evil, human or otherwise.

'You and I, Gog, we’re the same. Fighters. Brothers. We’ll go in there together and come out together.' And we were the same, all lying aside. Underneath it, brushing away the goodness in him, the evil in me, we had a bond. I needed to see him win through. Nothing selfless about it. If Gog could outlast what ate him from the inside out, then maybe I could too. Hell, I didn’t come halfway across the empire to save a scrawny child. I came to save me.⁠123

Anti-Nietzsche Redux

There is an alternative to reading for victory: reading like a loser.
- Malcolm Bull, Anti-Nietzsche

If Jorg is going to be saved however, it will come down to one thing: will. His will, of course. As above, Jorg is the Superman. Beyond caring about social niceties, beyond good and evil. He doesn’t care about these things - even if he occasionally wallows in rather insecure admissions of his uncaring. He admits over and over that he only cares about himself, and what matters is not one’s deeds, but that one has lived and forced one’s will upon the world, as we see below. 

People’s names escape me. Probably because I don’t care about them⁠124.

It wasn’t Gog I was sorry for, it was me.⁠125

In the end though, everybody dies, but not everybody lives—the climber, though he may die young, will have lived.

'If I die here,' I whispered to the stone. 'If I fall and die, I will count it a life lived, maybe not well, but fully. No book will know my end, but I will have died in battle none the less.'⁠126

Now this might be countered by the fact that Jorg’s world and his view is grim, dark even. But on the other hand, it is also presented as the main advantage he has over everyone else in the book. And why time and time again, he wins.

your choices are black and white, made on instinct without baggage.⁠127

Climb a mountain, see the world from its highest point, and a new man will climb down to a world of subtle differences the next day.⁠128

When a game cannot be won, change the game.  I read that in the book of Kirk.⁠129

If Jorg is different, it is because he has embraced the superhuman, the hero who has given up the burden of heroism or at least made the ultimate valuation about valuation.

In the end, my brothers, there is no price I will not pay to win this game of ours. No sacrifice too great that it will not be paid to stop another placing their will over mine⁠130.

This world will bend to my dominion.⁠131 

And if someone tries to stop him, he does not reflect, or reconsider if his will or his valuation is toxic - he is only more driven to enforce it.

I’ve never liked to be pushed, especially not by soothsayers and witches, not by the words of dead men, not by predictions based on the invisible swing of planets, scratched out on number slates or teased from the spilled guts of an unfortunate sheep,⁠132

I told Sageous my sins cried out for more, and I intend to give them company. I will burn and I will harrow

I will take these lands and make a weapon of their peoples.

In fire and in blood I will bend them to my will, because this is a game with no rules, and I will be victorious if it beggars hell.⁠133

And by doing so, and by Lawrence having his main POV uncritically be that of Jorg without, as I note above, any serious consequences - having already set the score as consequences being solely what removes you from the game - the reader is invited to read like a Superman. Like a hero, or antihero, whole polarity along an axis of good and evil makes little difference, so long as it is from a position of maleness and a willingness to win and dominate.

If Jorg’s a bastard, it’s because that’s the way he is, that’s the way he’s been made by worse men than himself, and ultimately, that’s what it takes to win the game. Which is what Jorg is most concerned with and most proud about.

Pride has ever been my weakness and my strength, but there are three things only of which I’m proud. The first—I climbed God’s finger to stand alone in that high place and find a new perspective. Second—I went to the mountain for Gog, even though I couldn’t save him from his fire, just as no one can save me from mine. Third—I fought the all-sword, Master Shimon with the sword-song all around, and we made a thing of beauty.⁠134

This is a very agreeable perspective, I’d argue, for the majority of the book’s expected core readership. A readership which even has the token salve to their consciences that this isn’t just a jokey book about hyper violence, misogyny, and rape - but one with some serious, adult naval gazing, signposted by a lot of name dropping of dead philosophers, included at no extra charge. A path for victory, when read straight ahead.

A lesson in life, Jorg. Whatever you look into can look back into you.⁠135

Know thyself, Pythagoras said. But he was a man of numbers and you can’t count on those. Sun Tzu tells us: Know thy enemies.⁠136

'The unexamined life is not worth living,' I said.

'Plato came to such a cave,' I said. 'And saw the whole world on its walls.'
'Your pardon?' Sindri said.
I shook my head.⁠138

Except again, this is somewhat disingenuous on Lawrence’s part. We get the gloss of the names without the substance of the argument. You could get as much comprehension of philosophy from a page of Wikipedia quotes. There is no inward gaze, no revelations made from within or without, save those which are already reflected on Jorg’s exterior. He’s an open book, whose pages are a juvenile scrawl of poisonous paint. What’s important is that he’s not a loser. Which is just what a reader wants to read, and whose desire to read like a winner, not a loser, even though we might be better off reading like the latter, is all too often the touchstone of epic fantasy.

The act of reading always engages the emotions of readers, and to a large degree the success of any text (or act of reading) depends upon a reader’s sympathetic involvement. A significant part of that involvement comes from the reader’s identification with the individuals or types within the story. People routinely identify with the heroes of narratives, and with almost any character who is presented in an attractive light. This involves ‘adopting the goals of a protagonist’ to the extent that the success or failure of those goals occasions an emotional response in the reader similar to that which might be expected of the protagonist, irrespective of whether the protagonist is actually described as experiencing those emotions. Hence, a story with a happy ending is one which the reader feels happy because of the hero’s success, and a sad story is one in which the protagonist is unsuccessful.⁠139

So it hardly matters that Lawrence tells us occasionally in the course of the narrative, that Jorg is a bad person. That he isn’t a nice fellow and that he does ‘evil’ things. Because what we care about, emotionally, is not the suffering of his many victims, though we should as we will see below, but his success in winning the game. Even if he himself, is not satisfied, or regrets the price he pays for it - though this is not I would suggest, much in evidence - or questions the game itself, we will ignore all of this especially as casual, unconscious readers reading for personal victory, and focus on his triumph.

Not that reading like losers is as easy as it sounds. Even reading against a novel such as this, as I am doing, can still be reading for victory of a sort.

Identifying positively with any narrative (written or otherwise) means making its goals one’s own. And although we may not be trying to make common cause with other readers, reading for victory has a strong centripetal dynamic: the greater our success, the more closely our goals converge with those of others who are doing the same thing. Reading Nietzsche for victory is the route to this new mechanical solidarity. In contrast, reading like losers is centrifugal. Since we are not in any sense opposed to the text, we have no common cause even with those who are reading for victory against it; we just become part of that ‘mass of abject, powerless men who have no communal feeling’. Reading like a loser, in its consistent exclusion of the reader from shared value, is a willingness to exchange an exclusive communality for an inclusive and indiscriminate sociality.⁠140

But in the whole, we are not expected to be put off by the grimness or violence in King of Thorns. To the contrary, Lawrence presents this, along with Jorg’s supposedly irredeemable nature, as proof of his noble, honest intentions. I would suggest they are just another layer of dishonesty, but one which sugarcoats the very vile pill we are invited to swallow by the author. By acknowledging that these things are bad, that Jorg is bad, that the things he does to achieve his ends are bad - if necessary - things, we take a palliative measure against the emetic revulsion we might otherwise feel. But nowhere are we actually encouraged to resist that necessity, or even it seems to me, question the whole need for winning, dominating, and even playing the game. We are given the choice of either identifying with Jorg and his goals or being repelled by them - but mostly the former. It takes a true reversion of the text to gain distance.

Harder is it to be simply confounded by them, to be overturned by the text. Bull feels that truly reading like a loser to read to our own overthrow as readers. This is a long quote, if from a short passage, but provides an interesting insight, even if I am not entirely sure I agree with Bull on this point - or at least, its full conclusion.

There is an alternative to reading for victory: reading like a loser. Robert Burton described it and its consequences in The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Yea, but this mediation is that marres all, and mistaken makes many men farre worse, misconceaving all they reade or heare, to their owne overthrow, the more they search reade Scriptures, or divine Treatises, the more they pussle themselves, as a bird in a net, the more they are intangled and precipitated into this preposterous gulfe. Many are called, but few are chosen, Mat. 20.16 and 22.14. With such like places of Scripture misinterpreted strike them with horror, they doubt presently whether they be of this number or no, gods eternal decree of predestination, absolute reprobation, & such fatall tables they forme to their owne ruine, and impinge upon this rocke of dispaire.

To read to one’s own overthrow is an unusual strategy. It differs equally from the rejection of a text as mistaken or immoral and from the assimilation of a text as compatible with one’s own being. Reading like a loser means assimilating a text in such a way that is incompatible with one’s self.


Reading like losers, we respond very differently to the claims Nietzsche makes on behalf of himself and his readers. Rather than reading for victory with Nietzsche, or even reading for victory against Nietzsche by identifying with the slave morality, we rad for victory against ourselves, making ourselves the victims of the text. Doing so does not involve treating the text with scepticism or suspicion. In order to read like a loser you have to accept the argument, but turn its consequences against yourself. So, rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche’s extravagant claim, we will immediately thing (as we might if someone said this to us in real life) that there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable.

The net result, of course, is that reading Nietzsche will become far less pleasurable.⁠141

And this brings an interesting perspective to bear on King of Thorns, and epic fantasy in general: if we identify with the victims, more than the heroes in the tale, we are only then approximating any sense of realism. For we are far more likely to belong to the former group in the real world after all, or even in a fantasy setting such as we find in King of Thorns, than the latter. There is only one Jorg, and he is not us. To see ourselves through this lens is to want to put distance between us and Jorg, between us and the text. To run from a building which is about to be dynamited. Not towards it.

A text which repeatedly invites us to be winners, or at least to read like them, coaxes us in. We are encouraged to be the sort who will themselves to victory over others, or as we see in the text, suffer the consequences of the subhuman which is to be made subservient to the will of another, like Jorg, like us if we mistakenly seek to follow his example. Lawrence doesn’t condemn Jorg as much as ensure we crowd close and hold up our hands to enjoy the destruction.

The chief impediment to the development of any form of anti-Nietzscheanism is, as Waite points out, that ‘most readers basically trust him’. One reason for this is that Nietzsche gives readers strong incentives to do so. ‘This book belongs to the very few’, he announces in the foreword to The Anti-Christ. It belongs only to those who are ‘honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness’; who have ‘strength which prefers questions for which on one today is sufficiently daring; courage for the forbidden’:

These alone are my readers, my rightful readers my predestined readers: what do the rest matter? - The rest are merely mankind. - One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul - in contempt.’⁠142

All of this, Jorg and King of Thorns, of course, has in liberality. By inviting the reader to participate in it, we are invited to join the circle of winners. Even if, as we are here, we are perhaps better off forming our own negative community which rejects both the game and what is required to win it. Or reject reading against the text, but treat it like a potentially dangerous beast. Something that is as likely to do us harm as entertain us, and so we do not hold it too close to our breasts. Instead, we should fall back from it, and from the tropes it borrows and reinforces in epic fantasy. What we will wind when we do, is an interesting question in itself.

Negative community, the great beast, passive revolution - all are potentially a means of arriving at and extending the desert of nihilism, their very limitlessness the model of permanent revolution spreading out across the empty space of the universe. Seen from this perspective, the world has never seemed so open. We do not even need to borrow Nietzsche’s sponge to wipe away the horizon. Negation, it seems is not so much the erasure of the line as an inability to hold the line. Pivoting out rather than turning back, we realize too late: the line was just an edge to fall from.⁠143

Rose Tinted Horizons

It might seem harsh, in a non-Nietzschean sense, to suggest that most readers will be seduced by King of Thorns very anti-subhuman stance so easily. After all, we are told repeatedly, both in the text and as we’ll see below, by the author, that we are not meant or encouraged to like Jorg. That Jorg is not likable or at least should not be liked. However…

Here perhaps is the root of Nietzsche’s extraordinary bond with his readers. Reading Nietzsche successfully means reading for victory, reading so we identify ourselves with the goals of the author. In so unscrupulously seeking for ourselves the rewards of the text we become exemplars of the uninhibited will to power. No wonder Nietzsche can so confidently identify his readers with the Supermen. It is not just flattery. If Nietzsche’s readers have mastered his text, they have demonstrated just those qualities of ruthlessness and ambition that qualify them to be ‘master of the earth’. But they have done more than earn a status in Nietzsche’s fictional world. In arriving at an understanding of Nietzsche’s cardinal doctrine they have already proved it to themselves. Nietzsche persuades by appealing to experience as readers, in particular, our experience as readers of his text.⁠144

Viewed in this light, rather than through the distorting lens of a reader reading like a loser, both Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns are very Nietzschean positive texts. Positive texts, full stop, for all their supposed dark outlook. The books skillfully employ many of the same techniques, and garner - as I take it from some of the responses I’ve read online from those most enraptured with the book - similar results.

Prince of Thorns was a book that pushed boundaries. All renowned literature does this is one way or another. In fact, you could argue that if you do not challenge a reader’s beliefs, test their boundaries and evoke strong emotions, you will never write a book that can be considered great.

So, what was it about Prince of Thorns that ticked these boxes and made it great? Well, firstly: Jorg Ancrath. He was a unique character in epic fantasy. We’ve seen dark characters before, but we’ve never had a protagonist so dark that he’ll slit the throat of an infant, rape a defenceless woman, or order a village burned without a moment’s hesitation. What made book one so damned special was that you never knew what Jorg was going to do next, because he had absolutely no conscience, no moral compass. As a reader, you couldn’t rely on restraint, disgust or fear to hold him back. Now, typically, within a novel, there are only so many terrible acts you can take before you say ‘too much’ and put the book down. However, a wondrous juxtaposition was woven in by Lawrence in the form of Jorg’s charisma and charm – it was enough to grip readers and pull them deep into the story. I think the negative reviews of that first book have come from those who genuinely couldn’t handle the atrocious acts of Jorg and found that Lawrence’s fiction had crossed their moral boundaries.⁠145

As predicted, the perceived harshness, the extreme depravity of Jorg’s actions, is not a deterrent to enjoying the book, but I would argue, an enticement. It also helps allow the huge levels of more garden variety misogyny, racism, and at times uninspired writing and setting, to slide under the radar all but unremarked upon. We are busy being victorious and have no time to worry about what or who is crushed underfoot.

Readers who like to live in a rose-tinted bubble without any awareness of the kind of sick shit that does happen during times of turmoil will be upset by this book. If you prefer your heroes gallant and noble, then go read a romance novel. For example, some ladies couldn’t look past the references to rape. Um. Hello. This is WAR. Rape isn’t nice but hey, if you’re living in times of civil unrest, do you honestly expect war-mongering males to politely keep their dicks in their trousers? You don’t have to like what Jorg and his merry band of adventurers get up to. Hell, I didn’t like some of the stuff they did, but I accepted it as realism. Or maybe the fact that I live in South Africa has desensitised me. It doesn’t really matter, suffice to say that I shoved aside my own sensibilities so that I could get into the story.

A whole lot of unpleasant things happen. Anyone who’s read William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies will recall what happens when a bunch of boys are left to run amok. Now put weapons and dangerous men in the hands of a highly intelligent, manipulative boy with a broken mind? Jorg is doubly dangerous because he doesn’t know fear. He is a creature of impulses ruled by an overarching lust to exact revenge for perceived wrongs. A very volatile combination, if you ask me.

I suspect under less dire circumstances, Jorg could have grown up to be the next King Solomon, a wise ruler with great compassion. But where’s the story in that? Instead Jorg’s vast intellect is bent to a more sinister task. It’s not nice what he does to attain his ends by it *feels* real.


His dark, somewhat dry humour offers a counterpoint to the unrelenting death-dealing and misery. But, like with George RR Martin’s writing, don’t get too attached to the support cast. Jorg causes *a lot* of hurt but one can’t help but cheer him on throughout his depredations. Jorg has vision, and though he might be struck by the Imp of the Perverse at times, I get the idea that he might very well achieve all that he sets out to do—carve out an empire. He is not a peacemaker. He is a sociopath. But I love him anyway.⁠146

So by reading in agreement with the text, reading for victory - rather than rejecting it outright as inherently false, even if the reader feels like they know they shouldn’t approve of Jorg and his actions, or else reading to their overthrow and establishing a separateness between the reader and the text, looking neither to collude or oppose - they can do so, freely, and feel like they’ve bypassed the trap. And by doing so, place value on what is the ultimate valuation of Jorg and his actions, be it for the individual reader his charm, his will, his ruthlessness, or the emotional reward they feel for Jorg’s success. 

For me, the most chilling thing about Prince of Thorns was that I found it very, very difficult to hate Jorg. I didn’t like the things he did – but I could understand him and he won me over with his charm and charisma. Something about that shook me and I think that’s what makes the character of Jorg Ancrath so powerful.⁠147

This is I suspect, the greatest strength of the series. But hardly unique. It is very common to see both the sort of approval voiced above, and appeals to realism, when challenged, across a wide spectrum of fantasy.

The last point is as poorly supported as it is frequently invoked: obviously a fictional fantasy realm full of trolls, fire mages, dream wizards, and necromancers, isn’t a realm of realistic depiction. A far future setting, isn’t a faithful historical recreation of any past. And even if it was, these remain works of fiction. To apply to the needs of gritty realism, does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

Instead, the book ends with the following words flung as an unveiled challenge at the reader who has come this far:

A dark time comes.
My time.
If it offends you.
Stop me.⁠148

And no doubt, as a teaser for the next book, along with the promise of continuing or even increased ‘realism’ and victory at any cost. Mark Lawrence who is not a stranger to commenting on his own material, has seemed somewhat surprised that anyone would find his novels controversial. Despite, I would add, this being a well remarked upon selling point in nearly every positive review as well - and I suspect, something acknowledged from the moment this was brought to a publisher who are after all, very experienced readers themselves.

Lawrence had the following to say on the subject on Twitter:

Mark Lawrence ‏@Mark__Lawrence
despite being told repeatedly I've written a controversial book nobody's ever raised that controversy with me in interview, email, chat etc

Mark Lawrence ‏@Mark__Lawrence
the only complaint I've ever received regarded an imaginary dog.

Now an interview is not a review, and bloggers are not necessarily critics, but in fact more often fans, even before they read the book or meet the author. So it is hardly relevant that most have failed to challenge Lawrence about any controversies surrounding his work or even suggest that his series is anything out of the usual - and to be honest, it isn’t. It fits in depressingly with a well established pattern in epic fantasy.

Furthermore, it seems to me either naïve or else slightly disingenuous again, for Lawrence to suggest that as an author, and he seems a clever one, he would not anticipate such controversy regarding his novels as he has written them, nor that such attention is likely to be anything but commercially useful in the long run. He has stated that his idea for the series was in part an interest in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, a book and subsequent movie that has long been successful in part due to its aura of controversy and notoriety. And the theme of a very ‘evil’ protagonist at its centre, whose extreme youth was an intentional and intentionally provocative element.

Mark Lawrence ‏@Mark__Lawrence
I sometimes think if you can get a _really_ extremist, ranty and vindictive review it actually does sell more copies than praise. #Weird

The best defense here, and I’m not convinced Lawrence needs to be defended or defend himself, is that everything he does in King of Thorns and its predecessor, Prince of Thorns, is commonly done in the genre. What I don’t think can be said, is that Lawrence does any of this in a way that overturns the negative side of these tropes and lazy habits. We are still subjected to misogyny, racism, brutality, poor female agency, and encouraged to side emotionally with the hero’s journey through the text on the strength of it being our main POV. And for those who identify with the victims rather than the victors, this is a book we may not wish to cling tightly to on these merits alone.

The Limits of Control

Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of the burning village. It was a merry sight. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t even notice in the daytime, with ugly, uninteresting country around it, you can’t imagine how impressive it can be when its on fire at night! You’d think it was Notre-Dame! A village, even a small one, takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there’s only a bud and after that nothing.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline - Journey to the End of the Night

Authors are not obligated to write about only nice things. Or even nice worlds. Nor do they, or their characters, nice or otherwise, have any requirement to be moral. This is not my argument for why King of Thorns fills me both with disappointment and disquiet. Enough to write such a long, rambling critique. Its crimes, if you want to describe them as such, are to be typical, unoriginal, and predictably executed. That is not to say it is not a very readable book. Nor that Lawrence is not a very capable writer.

But by reading like a loser, by refusing to be seduced by the promise of Jorg’s Nietzchean journey, by questioning the many questionable elements found in King of Thorns, asking why we inhabit a fictional world that is only about the agency of men and boys, were salvation can only be achieved through one’s unstinting dominance of the subhuman, we expose these choices as fictions. By this I mean, literal ones. And we can better see them for being among the common problems that continue to bedevil epic fantasy, be it of the newer, grimmer variety, or the more standard sort upon which it is built. At the very least, by putting distance between ourselves emotionally and the success of the text, we can see better what we are being asked to enjoy. 

Which brings us closer to asking why these fictional choices keep getting made, over and over again. And by that I don’t mean questioning authorial intent or infringing upon it. I’m not interested in intent. Intent is a poor and treacherous substitute for result. Like looking at a row of broken Ozymandias standing in the desert, I only wish to gaze upon the works left behind and judge them on their actual legacy.

Of course, we can question what it means to write a book of this sort, with a protagonist of this sort, who wins the game, as he does, in the way that he does, without the sort of consequences which might come about in a truly realistic world, and in fact one which has the standard baubles of fantasy strewn about it - and for the reader to be put in a place where they are rooting for victory at any cost. And how we might wish things different. 

To say such scrutiny of the inscriptions we find there sand-blunted as they may be, free of their context, is to do them a disservice, I would argue the opposite. For hidden in the midst of the text, the passage over them is always smoothed by the need to get on to the next bit of action or even the distraction of the action itself, these leave their hooks in the reader all the same. If anything, more deeply, for the casual reader can consume them without noticing their toxic nature. Accumulating like mercury in the system, or at the least, numbing us to their proliferation in similar works. Especially for the reader who is reading for victory, who is reading to find sympathy and affirmation in the act of reading. We should be careful what we get used to rooting for in epic fantasy.

If the passages I’ve quoted seem stark singled out, should they not be considered just as unpleasant when embedded in the overall narrative?  As already stated, I think they should be taken at face value. Certainly taken singularly or as a whole, they point me towards a work of fiction where boys and men are free to scrawl whatever horrors they wish upon the world, women are treated in a highly unsympathetic manner, realism is frequently appealed to but rarely applied, and much if not all of this is excused by the supposed nature of the world and its characters. This is hardly fantastical.

Above all, I hope this review draws attention to the problems that King of Thorns presents to the less than sympathetic reader and the pitfall it represents for the sympathetic one. Because while I can understand why readers are drawn to it, I’m of the opinion we’d be - as a community of readers - perhaps as a community of people - better served if they were less so. That as a genre, epic fantasy could do with more people writing and reading like losers, rather than like those willing to win the game at any cost.

1 Aplin, Marc, Fantasy Faction Review of Emperor of Thorns
2 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P. 36
3 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, Forward
4 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, Forward
5 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P. 37
7 The ghost of a dead baby is haunting Jorg as well as his locked away past, whose significance will be kept from the reader, and from Jorg, until later.
8 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 32
9 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 79
10 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Daybreak 
Book IV - Aphorism # 271
11 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 32-33
12 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 400-401
13 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 309
14 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 163
15 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 180
16 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 193
17 The author of this review loves Gamma World, let it be noted for the record.
18 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 82
19 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 86
20 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 235-234
21 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 108-109
22 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 216
23 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 53
24 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 582
25 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 584
26 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 209
27 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 245
28 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 277-278
29 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 390
30 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 390
31 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 101-102
32 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 104-105
33 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 141-143
34 Lawrence, King of Thorns, P. 141
35 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 155-158
36 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 158
37 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns P. 116
38 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Greek State,
39 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, PP. 400-401
40 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 569
41 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 418
42 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns P. 539
43 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 540
44 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 565
45 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 420
46 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Twilight of Idols, P. 122
47 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 57
48 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 424-425
49 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 431
50 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 425
51 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 435
52 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 450
53 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 445
54 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 450
55 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 476
56 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 170
57 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 349
58 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 176
59 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 309
60 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 575-576
61 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 218
62 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 406
63 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 9
64 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 13
65 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 14
66 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, PP. 353-354
67 Woman should be silent in church! Woman should be silent in politics! Woman should be silent about women!
68 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 352
69 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 352
70 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 391
71 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 399
72 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, PP. 259 - 260
73 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 455-456
74 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns P. 474
75 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 482
76 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 487
77 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 195
78 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 493
79 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 81-82
80 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 296
81 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 172-174
82 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns
83 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 174-175
84 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 216
85 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 221
86 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 529
87 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 89-90
88 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 2
89 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 2
90 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 397
91 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 136
92 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 253
93 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 255
94 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 557
95 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 254
96 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 266
97 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 284-285
98 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 286-287
99 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 358
100 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 480
101 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo, P. 720
102 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 271
103 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 17
104 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 227
105 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, P. 356
106 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 396
107 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 20
108 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 22
109 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 23-24
110 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 26
111 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 493-494
112 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 510
113 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 510
114 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 511
115 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 511
116 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 512
117 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 515
118 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, PP. 298-299
119 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 198
120 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 215
121 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 187
122 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 191
123 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 240
124 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 220
125 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 293
126 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thornss, P. 130
127 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 132
128 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 132
129 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 98
130 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 595
131 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 595
132 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 226
133 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 296
134 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 597
135 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 498
136 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 117
137 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 182
138 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 207
139 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, PP. 33-34
140 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P.51
141 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, PP. 36-37
142 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P. 31
143 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P. 175
144 Bull, Malcolm, Anti-Nietzsche, P. 35
148 Lawrence, Mark, King of Thorns, P. 597


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