Mark Lawrence And The Importance Of Never Writing Off An Author

So, I have been buried under work recently and have had almost no time to make a post, or even read a book. However, this month I read a book that I felt I had to take time to write about. Many of you know who Mark Lawrence is. For those of you who don’t, he is the author of two very popular series that some would describe as some of the ‘darkest’ and ‘edgiest’ fantasy out there.

His first series, The Broken Empire Trilogy, follows an absolutely terrible human being named Jorg as he murders his way to success in a bubble of self absorption. Now I am sure you can sense from the tone that I did not enjoy The Broken Empire Trilogy. I am not saying the books were bad, I am simply saying I did not like them. But, something weird happened while I was reading the trilogy. I found the first book, Prince of Thorns, completely forgettable and the third book, Emperor of Thorns, completely unenjoyable. However, the second book, King of Thorns, I really enjoyed. The structure, character development, and plot all hit a really good place for me and I ended up rating King of Thorns as one of my favorite books for the year I read it. That being said, the third book left a very bad taste in my mouth. While I can see why many like it, it was just truly not my kind of story. Many of my close friends (who share similar tastes) agreed with me and they all swore off Mark Lawrence as a talentless hack. I was not convinced.

It is always important to try and understand why you didn’t like a book. Sometimes it is because you thought the book was poorly written, sometimes it is that the style is off, and sometimes it is simply that you do not like the plot or subject matter. As many of my companions wrote off Mark Lawrence, I continued to think about King of Thorns. So after Prince of Fools, the first book of his second trilogy, came out I considered it. I did not immediately grab the book, but I picked it up a few months ago on the cheap thinking it might be worth consideration. Multiple people told me I was wasting my time and money and that I would regret picking it up. They were all wrong.

While The Broken Empire follows Jorg as he murders his way to the top of a food chain, The Red Queens War (of which Prince of Fools is the first book) follows Jal and he tries to avoid all responsibility and enjoy life. This soon proves to be impossible as he is unwillingly set on a hero’s quest, something he is extremely unhappy about and looks for every opportunity to back out. With him is a viking companion named Snorri who is driven by noble virtues and motives on the same quest. These two characters have an incredible juxtaposition and Mark’s manipulation of both their emotions is masterfully done. While Jal is still not a good person, I found him infinitely more relatable and enjoyable to read than Jorg and his thorns.

My problem with Mark’s original trilogy is that I simply did not enjoy reading about the main character and that there were many elements of the plot I was not a fan of. On the other hand, I felt that he is an amazing world builder, is great at character development, and has a real talent for dialogue and pacing. It turns out that removing Jorg (and in fact making him a side character) cut the heart out of all my problems with the work. Prince of Fools continues Mark’s tradition of an incredibly well built world, clever dialogue, and character growth; but this time I love both the characters and plot. As a result, the book turned out to be one my the most enjoyable reads I have had in a while and will be picking up a copy of the sequel, The Liar’s Key, soon.

Authors wear many hats and it’s important to remember that a single book is hopefully not a good representation of their entire work. My experience with these books has inspired me to consider other authors I have written off over the years and think about why I stopped reading them. To Mark, I know you read almost everything on fantasy sites and that you are a great force in the fantasy genre, and I want to thank you for writing a book for me.

Rating: Prince of Fools – 9.0/10

Sorcerer To The Crown: Magic Isn’t Just For White Men Anymore

Today I am going to review the upcoming Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, a book that filled me with mixed emotions. The book is a historical fiction set in a period that is very similar to the famous Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, namely, England during the Napoleonic wars. However, while the two books share a setting and a similar English charm, that is where most of the similarities end.

Sorcerer to the Crown is about two characters, Zacharias and Prunella, as they navigate all sorts of twists and turns in the plot. Zacharias is the adoptive son of the previous Sorcerer to the Crown, a title held by the head of England’s magic group, and at the start of the book has just become the Sorcerer to the Crown himself in the wake of his adoptive father’s death. He has just begun a two fold task of trying to prove himself as deserving of the esteemed title, and to solve an increasingly large problem; that England’s magic supply from the fae is slowly disappearing for an undiscovered reason. However, there is also the fact that Zacharias is African and the first ever black magician in society in a time where that is frowned upon (to put it lightly). This adds a really well written element of dealing with racism to his character and for me did a great job of providing a POV of a character struggling to be judged on his merits instead of his skin color. On top of this, Zacharias is just a likable character. He is quiet, thoughtful, clever, wise, patient and generally a good human being. I enjoyed every moment with Zacharias and wanted to read about him all the time.

And then we have Prunella. Now Prunella certainly wasn’t unlikable or poorly written, I just found her lacking when compared to Zacharias. Prunella is a young woman with a mysterious past who was abandoned at a school to help you women curb their ability to cast magic (which is seen as unseemly). She is unhappy with her lot, and has grand plans to make her way to London and find a husband. She quickly realizes that she is an exceptionally powerful magic caster and decides she would like to try her hand at being a sorcerer as well. There is a very easy comparison between both Zacharias and Prunella because they are both going through large trials where society is telling them they can be who they want to be. However, while I found Zacharias’s story empowering and thrilling, I found Prunella’s repetitive and frustrating. This is exacerbated by the fact that the book begins with a heavy focus on Zacharias, and slowly shifts that focus to Prunella instead, causing a noticeable drop in my love of the book as I went on.

That being said, even with the drop I still found the book very enjoyable. In particular, I think Zen Cho has a real talent for revealing new information. She works in twists and reveals in such a matter-of-fact manner, as though everyone other than you knew a side character was a unicorn the whole time, that they hit all the harder and made me laugh and grin with each twist. The plot of the book is interesting, and I thought the books usage of the fae world was standout compared to a lot of its competitors. In addition, despite my focus on Zacharias and Prunella, there is an impressive cast of side characters that are well developed, fun, and add a lot to the story.

While it ended up not being the story I thought I was, it was a pretty good story none the less. I will likely read the sequels and have already recommended it to a few friends. So if you like historical fiction, are looking for a fix similar to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, or want protagonists who aren’t white farm boys, I recommend checking out Sorcerer to the Crown.

Rating: 6.5/10

Perception – Judging A Book By Its Cover

First impressions are important. Unfortunately, we often judge people in the first 3 seconds we meet them. While many of our initial impressions are wrong, it does not change the fact that our first moments with a person can color how we see all subsequent interactions. I find that the same idea can be applied to books. In my mind, there are three major categories that color our initial impressions of books: the title, the cover art, and the blurb. Each has their own pitfalls and nuances, but at the end of the day their goal is to get potential readers to pick up and open the book.

Book Titles – Books are frequently either dismissed or picked up  based on their title. There has been a great deal of research (here, here, and here and good examples) about the redundancy of fantasy titles, and, as you can see, there are a group of words that appear frequently in fantasy titles. These words often seem to be picked because they are both descriptive of the book and because they seem “cool”. Unfortunately, lots of people have similar ideas of what sounds cool and it often results in situations like I found myself in last year where I was reading Promise of Blood, Blood Song, and A King’s Blood around the same time. In addition to making it hard to keep books straight, sometimes names sound so cliche that I am naturally inclined to avoid them. While it is important to pick evocative titles that represent the story well, authors should be careful to choose a title that doesn’t make people internally groan or roll their eyes when they read it.

Cover Art – The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because that is exactly what people do. I find books to read in a plethora of ways, but one of my favorites is to go to bookstores and look at the various book jackets  on display and pick up ones that look intriguing. I have read some truly terrible books (which will go un-named) because the author was smart enough to hire a great cover artist. Conversely, I held out on reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan for forever because of how ugly I found the covers to be (a mistake). Different art appeals to different people, but the most popular covers tend to make strong artistic statements. Some great examples of fantastic cover art are: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, The Expanse by James Corey and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. The First Law books are both incredible to look at and to touch with their textured covers that look like damaged parchment. The Expanse series is one of the few books I have seen to go with bold neon colors in their titles (on the spine) with beautiful sci-fi backdrops. Brilliance stands out with it unconventional minimalist design that just stands out among all the other titles on a shelf. The books do an incredible job of getting noticed and that goes a long way towards getting picked up and opened.

Descriptive Blurbs (scientific name) – It is interesting to me to see the various strategies authors undertake when describing their book. I find that a surprising number of books fail to talk about their unique hooks and angles in the small space provided. Learning that a book can offer me an experience unlike I have ever had is almost a surefire way to get me to pick it up (for example, see my post about Daniel Abraham’s books). However, when providing this information it is all about the showing and not the telling. Many books boldly claim to be one of a kind on their backside, but in practice that rarely holds true. On the other hand, authors like Daniel Abraham, who talk about how their books are about godlike poets, spark imagination and wonder. If you can show me something new, it goes a long way to picking up your book.

I will leave you with a story. I recently finished The Shadow of What Was Lost, by James Islington (an author I was unfamiliar with). The title, cover, and blurb did not impress me, but I got it for free from Amazon Prime so I picked it up anyway. After sitting on the book for a long time, I felt obligated to read it, no matter how bad it was. After drudging through a painful start I started to actually enjoy it. By the end of the book I was really loving it and ended the story thrilled and excited for the next installment. Upon finishing, I went back and re read the beginning hoping to figure out what was wrong with it. Doing so, I realized that the beginning was fine but my expectations that the book would be bad greatly colored my initial read through of the book. With more confidence in the author and a better mindset going it, I enjoyed the book a lot more.