LAST GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017
Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence
Well. Mark Lawrence has done it again: sucked me into his latest fantasy adventure from the first page – effortlessly, his story-telling skills buffed and polished from his first two trilogies, ‘The Broken Empire’ and ‘The Red Queen’s War’. And so he should! I would expect nothing less from the creator of murderous anti-hero Prince of Thorns Honorous Jorg Ancrath, (see 2012 review below) or his opposite number Prince of Fools Jalan Kendeth, (see 2014 review below) known chiefly for his good looks, shameless behaviour, and ability to hide or run like the wind at the first sign of danger.
Now, Mr Lawrence introduces us to the Red Sister, the first book in The Ancestor trilogy. Once again he has created a character as huge in spirit and soul as she is small and malnourished, for Nona, called Grey for the part of the narrow land from which she was sold to a Child-Taker, has unique powers, powers she is too young to understand or harness. All she knows is a world that is gradually being consumed by mile-high walls of encroaching ice, for the sun has died and all humankind has now to nurture life on the planet is an artificially developed Focus Moon. Every night it casts its square (yes, square!) red warmth over the landscape and melts what the ice has claimed.
There are still towns and cities, rich and poor, and Nona is dirt-scrabble poor. She cannot understand why her mother and the head man of the village sold her – no, GAVE HER AWAY, so that she eventually ends up being sold to a Fight Master, who fattens her up with a view to training her to fight for money. Her life is tolerable – the food is more than she has ever seen in her life! – and Nona actually makes a friend, a little girl called Saida: perhaps she will survive after all. Until an act of sadism towards her only friend causes Nona to wreak a terrible vengeance against the guilty one, the eldest son of one of the richest aristocratic families: she and Saida are thrown into prison, ready to be hanged.
It goes without saying that poor little Saida is sacrificed to the rope (and the plot); Nona’s rescuer in the nick of time is Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy convent: by fair means (and foul) she manages to bring Nona within the shelter of her convent’s fortress walls, there to harness and train for good the propensity to violence and murder that rage can provoke within Nona’s skinny frame – and to discover eventually that Nona has no need of weapons with which to kill: her hands and her anger are the only weapons she needs to vanquish whole armies, if need be. WOW!!
And again, Mr Lawrence teases us with his rocket science theories (well, he knows what he’s talking about) by intimating, despite the settings of medieval pomp and pageantry - not to mention squalor – that the world being overtaken by an inexorable Ice Age is not the original planet that existed; rather, it was the destination of everyone’s forebears who travelled through the heavens in great ships, looking for a world that still had a bright sun.
As always, Mr Lawrence leaves us all shouting for more – he simply cannot produce the sequel fast enough: I want to start it NOW! FIVE STARS
Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
You read it here first: What an adventure! Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops. If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed; instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss. Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak: he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy. ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories: a vastly altered central Europe might be the setting, but who can be sure? Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch! (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one. I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future: it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.
Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal. ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better. Roll out book three! Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one. Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow. FIVE STARS
Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence
Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches. He is young, handsome and filled with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive. He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate; he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown. Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’. They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares? Not him: he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice. Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses. Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey: his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them. Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite. Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
And, regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, and depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily - with his father, King Olidan. Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is victim of his thousand yard stare. No: it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns, the setting of his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy.
Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath; it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at. There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score: what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting. Mark Lawrence does it all. FIVE STARS