Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

thornsLet me start with a personal bias. Post-apocalyptic fiction is like catnip to me — the further out in the future, the better. I will tolerate even pretty bad books (hello, Dreamsnake) so long as they take place in a fallen future littered with the remnants of high-tech civilizations. Give me a good series in the same setting, like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrology, and I am in heaven.

This is all by way of explaining why I feel particularly tolerant of the flaws in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, the first volume of his Broken Empire trilogy. It becomes apparent pretty early on that the setting is a far-future fallen Earth. (The first hint is when the psychopathic protagonist, Jorg, starts reading a book by a man named Plutarch who is very clearly our Plutarch.) I’m sure others would roll their eyes and think, “Here we go again” — and indeed I’ll acknowledge that the dying Earth subgenre is far from novel. And yet! For a true end-of-days romantic like myself, who came to this novel thinking that it was nothing more than a straight-up, orcs-and-elves fantasy, the whiff of nuclear winter was like a breath of fresh air.

The actual story in Prince of Thorns concerns young Jorg’s quest for vengeance. When he was only ten he had the misfortune of seeing his mother and young brother brutalized and slaughtered by an enemy of his family’s. The violence was political, rather than personal — Jorg is a prince, the heir to one of a hundred kingdoms in the broken lands — but that doesn’t stop Jorg from taking those deaths to heart, signing up with a depraved mercenary band, and boosting his way through adolescence and puberty with murder, pillage, and a little bit too much rape for my comfort.

Lawrence’s storytelling is direct and brutal, and the plot is correspondingly dark. The book begins in the aftermath of a killing, while the mercenaries hunt for loot and for any women still unfortunate enough to be alive. And Jorg’s voice, which narrates the book, is filled with tough-sounding declarations about how badass he is, how much his enemies will wail, etc. It’s the type of voice that I imagine would appeal to powerless adolescent boys (Jorg is not quite fifteen when the book ends), but I found it a bit wearying.

What was very enjoyable was Jorg’s travels through the wasted lands he calls home. The thrills go beyond simply seeing the massive ruins of a golden past — such as the broken skyscraper that serves as the castle for his father, the king. Lawrence also maintains a palpable sense of weird dread throughout the story, an intrusion of dark fantasy into what could have been a straight-up science-fiction story. Some of it doesn’t really make sense (like the rising of the dead), but Lawrence presents every grotesque revelation with a straight face, and somehow it all hangs together.

The intriguing atmosphere of Prince of Thorns hides the fact that not very much happens. This is the entire plot: (1) Jorg goes home; (2) Jorg attacks nearby, impregnable fortress; (3) Jorg attacks neighboring kingdom. (Interspersed is some back story about how Jorg ended up leaving home in the first place, but this background is a lot more abbreviated than I expected.) Now, these pieces of the story are not without interest, but there are a lot of holes that Lawrence doesn’t address — such as, for instance, why Jorg so blithely accepts the mission to destroy the fortress. More fundamentally the plot feels as small as the setting feels large; in part because the POV remains firmly affixed through Jorg’s eyes, there is no sense of the epic in what Jorg is doing, even though much of what he accomplishes should have significant effects.

The other major fault to this book is that it is so unrelentingly violent. There is blood everywhere, typically gushing from newly created orifices in some unfortunate human’s body. Deaths occur regularly. Rot is endemic. And both Jorg and his merry band revel in this chaos. You’ve got to like your fantasies dark, and your anti-heroes even darker, to really enjoy this book.


Complications, by Atul Gawande

complicationsAtul Gawande’s Complications is an outstanding collection of essays about medicine from the doctor’s point of view. There are a couple of throwaway pieces in the book that are best ignored, including a very silly essay on the superstitions surrounding Friday the Thirteenth and a bizarrely self-pitying one about medical conferences. But for the most part the book provides a compelling picture about “how fundamentally human an endeavor” the practice of medicine is.

The book’s central message is simple: medicine is more of an art than a science. The view of medicine that Gawande implicitly attacks sees the human body as a machine (albeit a complex one) and doctors as skilled mechanics. When your car breaks down, you may have no idea what is going on, but you expect your mechanic to be able to interpret every rattle and gurgle, to twist the right bolt or install the right part to get things working again — and for the most part that will be true. We civilians tend to see doctors the same way. But Gawande’s point is that this comfortable view is an illusion. In fact, Gawande explains, the human body is still fundamentally mysterious, despite centuries of scientific progress; and doctors make decisions based on intuition and outright guesswork more often than we would like to think.

Complications would not be a very long book if this were the only point that it made. (Indeed, Gawande essentially divulges the entire thesis in the introduction.) What makes the essays truly outstanding is how insightfully Gawande probes the implications of his argument, spinning out long and beautiful thoughts from simple beginnings. In the first essay on doctor training, for example, Gawande begins with the fairly straightforward notion that medicine’s inherent uncertainty requires trainees to practice their skills on actual patients, since book learning can only take them so far. But he is then able to tie this need for training into a broader conflict between patient safety (which is best served by doctors doing only what they know) and innovation (which requires experimentation and, inevitably, disastrous mistakes). And he is even able to touch on the sensitive area of economic inequality, noting that the patients most likely to be treated by inexperienced residents-in-training are the poor and uneducated, while the wealthy and privileged few — including those like Gawande — have the luxury of receiving treatment only from those doctors who have already “practiced” on the less fortunate.

The second half of Complications is a little different. Rather than discussing the internal view of medicine, the essays here describe common phenomena that, it turns out, are medical mysteries, including pain, nausea, and blushing. There is somewhat more of a rote structure to these essays: they are all framed by an individual’s anecdote and contain in the middle highly readable summaries about medical research. All of these essays reinforce the main thesis about medical science’s uncertainty, but they are best enjoyed as individual pieces rather than as part of the larger argument.


This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust

1283566This Republic of Suffering is a strange book, at once bloody and bloodless. It describes, in numbing detail, the lived experience of Americans with the carnage of the Civil War. As Faust makes clear, the scope of the carnage was sweeping:

The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The Civil War’s rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II. A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean six million fatalities.

Faust’s book takes two perspectives on this bloodshed. First, the book describes how Americans at the time saw death, and how that perception was reshaped by the realities of modern war. To give one example, Faust explains how the mid-19th-century ideal of “the Good Death” required the participation of close family in one’s last moments — a final communion that remote battlefields obviously made impossible. (According to Faust, letters and a social contract — even between enemies — to inform the family became the replacement.)

Second, This Republic of Suffering outlines how the brutal reality of mass death — in just one killing field, for example, lay “a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads” — forced political institutions to adopt new procedures for burial and identification of the dead, as well as vast governmental pension and healthcare systems for the survivors. “Execution of these newly recognized responsibilities,” Faust argues, “would prove an important vehicle for the expansion of federal power that characterized the transformed postwar nation.”

These are compelling points, and Faust backs them up with a wealth of research and reasonably clear writing. But despite the pathos of the subject matter, there’s just no music to this book.

Faust is an academic historian (also the president of Harvard), and the clunkiness of academic writing pervades This Republic of Suffering. The internal structure of the book — the research outline that I assume Faust used — is disconcertingly transparent: every chapter announces its thesis at the outset; and every paragraph begins with a summary of the evidence to follow. (Indeed, the book scans reasonably well if you just read the first sentence of every paragraph.) Moreover, the stitching language that academics use to transition between and organize disparate areas of research is incredibly obvious. That stitching language is more than just stylistically unattractive; it also highlights the underlying superficiality of Faust’s arguments. Rather than building on her points, Faust instead moves between them — a subtle distinction that, for me, distinguishes outstanding academic work from one that merely amalgamates a concededly impressive amount of research.

One other thing bothered me. Americans have long seen the Civil War as exceptional. In many ways it is — but not when it comes to the dead. Faust notes, for instance, that

More than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants were dead as a direct result of the war—the approximate equivalent of the population in 1860 of the state of Maine, more than the entire population of Arkansas or Connecticut, twice the population of Vermont, more than the whole male population of Georgia or Alabama.

That’s bad. But the world had already seen worse. The Taiping Rebellion, which occurred at roughly the same time, claimed twenty to thirty million deaths. And centuries earlier the Thirty Years’ War had essentially depopulated vast swathes of Europe

So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population in the German states at about 25% to 40%. Some regions were affected much more than others. For example, Württemberg lost three-quarters of its population during the war. In the territory of Brandenburg, the losses had amounted to half, while in some areas an estimated two-thirds of the population died. The male population of the German states was reduced by almost half. The population of the Czech lands declined by a third due to war, disease, famine and the expulsion of Protestant Czechs.

This isn’t meant to diminish the awfulness of the American Civil War, or its cataclysmic effects on American life, culture, and politics. Nor did I really expect that Faust, in this slim volume, would touch on or even recognize all of the other killing that has long been a hallmark of human civilization. But reading Faust’s painstaking, even exhausting, analysis of the human costs of the Civil War made me uncomfortably aware of how every problem she highlighted was probably exacerbated in other, more brutal conflicts. America suffered grievous wounds in the fight to end slavery, but at least we got something beautiful at the end of it. Other peoples, in other places, and from other times, were far less fortunate.


Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden

13604229I have thought for a long time that the modern world’s toleration of North Korea’s atrocities will be seen in hindsight as an abdication of moral responsibility greater than the Allied Powers’ lengthy refusal to respond to the Holocaust in World War II, or the U.N.’s reaction to the Rwandan genocide. Blaine Harden’s extraordinary Escape from Camp 14 shows the human cost of this abdication.

Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Donghyuk, who was born and raised in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. His life in the camp is a nightmare that almost beggars belief. There is of course the appalling torture meted out by sadistic guards; the public displays of cruelty, such as the execution that is Shin’s first memory; and the endless deprivation of food, water, and sanitation. But what is worse is the near total absence of personal warmth — or indeed any real human relationships at all. Shin’s parents display little affection for him; he was the product, not of love, but of a sexual liaison “rewarded” to two compliant prisoners. Growing up he saw his mother primarily as a competitor for food, not as a caretaker (he rarely saw his father). And due to the snitching encouraged by camp guards, Shin treated his fellow prisoners, and was treated by them in return, as potential betrayers, never as friends.

As the title of the book indicates, Shin is able to escape from this nightmare, in a daring expedition that is only less horrible than his confinement because of its promise of freedom. But Shin’s ending is hardly a happy one. Adjusting to a life of relative plenitude (in China) and then actual comfort (in South Korea) has been understandably difficult. But learning to like and trust others, and to come to terms with his earlier, brutal self, has been even harder. In many ways Camp 14 made Shin into a sociopath. That mindset was essential to his survival in the prison camp, but it is alien to the circles where he now lives and travels. Harden is sympathetic to Shin’s plight, and makes much of his attempts at reform, but I think it is clear that Shin still struggles to feel much guilt for what he did — including informing on his mother and brother, who were executed in front of him.

It is strange to live in a world where I can type these words in a climate-controlled skyscraper, surrounded by more food than I can eat, and supported by friends and family whom I would trust with my life; while not so far away hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings suffer and struggle and despair in an endless gray existence without even a glimmer of hope. I suppose that has always been true. And I suppose too that even a regime as entrenched as North Korea’s cannot last forever; within my lifetime, I anticipate, we will see its worst excesses quashed, whether by external force or internal reform. But that happy ending is at best years, more likely decades, away. And for the millions who have already suffered — and even for those, like Shin, who have escaped — any change may be too late.