Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
.
.
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The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.
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