Broken Empire Review

Another new author and another mild disappointment.  Lawrence has by far better writing chops than the author of The Lives of Tao.  He also has far more interesting ideas for his setting and how to subvert the tropes of modern fantasy.  Unfortunately, he runs out of steam about halfway through this trilogy and the ending is not germane to what came before.  The final book feels like it comes out of the blue, like he didn’t know where Jorg was going until he sat down to write it and the entire series suffers retroactively for it.

The first book is marvelous stuff.  It’s an intoxicating mix of the Fallout games, the exotic journeys of Tales of the Dying Earth and an extreme version of the anti-heroic exploits of Elric of Melnibone.   The genius is that Lawrence makes Jorg, the main character, utterly despicable, but still manages to put us on his side.  Part of that is a setting so vile and inhospitable that it almost excuses Jorg’s actions.  Furthermore, every time the weight of Jorg’s misdeeds threaten to overwhelm you, his father shows you how much further he can fall.

The setting is post-apocalyptic where castles are made out of parking garages and relics of the Builders, the pre-apocalyptic civilization, litter the landscape.  Technology is back to medieval levels, as is society.  In fact I think that is a weakness of the setting.  It is exactly like medieval times despite taking place two millenia later.  There are Moors south of Spain and Europe is dominated by monarchies once again.  Italian city-states specialize in banking and Saracens occupy the Middle-East.  Somehow all knowledge of the Builder’s language and knowledge is lost, but in remarkably short order technology reached medieval equivalents and promptly stagnated.  It’s a clever idea to create a typical fantasy setting from a post-apocalyptic scenario, but it’s simultaneously implausible and shackles the world too closely to reality.

The book is also a bit clunky in its prose.  It’s not Tao levels of awful as much as the fluency rises in the two following books.  It is clear he is new at this, but not untalented.  It has the feeling of each word being overthought rather than flowing naturally onto the page.  If one thing improves in later books it is this.

I also dislike that he made Jorg so young.  It stretches belief to see him manhandling grown men at the age of 14.  I guess he wanted to shock us with a teenager committing such shocking deeds, but mostly Jorg acts very mature so that point is mostly moot.

However, what the book does is invest you in the setting and Jorg’s rise to power.  Lawrence does an excellent job sketching out even the minor Brothers that follow Jorg.  Jorg himself is a bit one-dimensional in his malevolence, but there is an interesting dichotomy between his cunning and his young impulsiveness.  He instinctively rebels whenever someone nudges him in a direction or looks at him funny for that matter.

The book ends with the knowledge that he has been strung along this entire time by a mage.  He kills the mage and gains a kingdom while learning that there are powers behind all the thrones playing out their own ambitions.  Riveting stuff to explore in the follow-up.

The second book is where things start to come apart.  Again he has multiple timelines.  In the present his new kingdom is under siege.  The other timeline is 4 years earlier and mostly consists of a poorly motivated journey by Jorg and company.  I really disliked the shifting timelines in this book.  It robs the tension out of the past events since we know who lives and as I said it feels motivated only by a desire to provide background for the miraculous things that help Jorg in the present.  Also it detracts from the more interesting storyline which is that of how the hell is Jorg going to defeat an army 20 times his size?

The entire thing could have been told linearly.  It would have ruined the big reveal of the misdeed Jorg had wiped from his memory, but that ends up being such a minor plot point that it hardly matters.  Even as it is things happen that are not accounted for in this book like Jorg having a handgun (he finds it in the next book), so what exactly was the point of mixing timelines?

Jorg himself is a confusing mess as well.  Or maybe Lawrence is just brilliant, because Jorg seems to be gaining a semblance of a conscience but is quick to deny it with words and with actions.  One moment you see a spark of light in him and then he dashes it with some new horrible action.  The main problem is that Jorg of the third book does not cleanly follow from the schizophrenic Jorg of the second.  Instead he seems to have grown out of evil for evil’s sake and nothing he does in the third is not mitigated somewhat by circumstances.

Finally, we get to the capstone of the trilogy and it is clear Lawrence has no idea what he is doing.  The plot here is a complete mess.  Instead of sinister mages at work behind the scenes they are replaced by AIs from the time of the Builders who either want humanity to maintain them or just wipe out humanity so they stop using magic (which is a product of the Builders meddling with reality and using it threatens its very fabric).  While the shadowy mage cabal was only vaguely used in the previous book, it certainly had a bit more heft than the AI plot.  The only AI we meet is interested in a third way where Jorg repairs reality.  A very short interaction occurs between one of the bad AIs and Jorg, but it doesn’t dwell on the weighty matter of this philosophical battle in the AI ranks.  We are merely told that the AIs are behind everything, unleashing plagues and uniting empires when they wish.  I guess we are supposed to assume they are behind the mage cabal and the attempt to reunite the Empire?  Either way the threat of the AIs is never made explicit which saps the plot of any meaning.

The other major plot introduced here is that of the Dead King, which is easily puzzled out to be Jorg’s brother.  Again the threat of the Dead King is barely elucidated, you are just told that he is wiping out kingdom after kingdom.  The reunion of Jorg and his brother at the end is quite bland, as is Jorg’s heroic sacrifice to save his brother and humanity by repairing reality.  Though one wonders how you determine what the “real” reality is?  Why is one with magic so much worse than one without?  My hypothesis is that it was straining under the will of too many divergent views of what the world should be, but that is not explored at all.  Instead of expounding on this he creates inconsistencies by introducing people with magical affinity which seems at odds with the first book where magic is mostly “superstition” rather than accepted reality.

Finally, we come to the characters.  I already talked about Jorg, but the rest of the cast is pretty awful.  Katherine follows Jorg around despite ostensibly hating him.  We get a bunch of Chella and in fact she is the only other viewpoint the books are written from other than Jorg’s.  Sadly, she is boring and really does nothing interesting in the third book to warrant even existing, let alone getting her own chapters.  Jorg’s father dies off-screen despite his interactions with Jorg being the best part of an already awesome book one.  Makin is abusing painkillers, but it is never explored as to why.  The Dead King’s motivations are murky, his entire character resting on the fact that he is Jorg’s brother rather than because he is intrinsically compelling.  In short, it’s a far cry from the amazing characterization he showed in book one.

The plot itself leaves a lot to be desired as well.  The present day storyline (yes the timelines are split again) is mostly a carriage ride to the meeting of all the rulers followed by a quick denouement with the Dead King.  In the past, he ventures into the radioactive wastes at the AI’s beckoning and discovers nothing of importance except the handgun he used in the previous book.  Then he has a trip into Africa where I guess you see him thwart the AI’s first strike on humanity, but it feels irrelevant to the plot.

Finally, a note on his writing in all three books.  He hates describing things.  I am not one for overwrought description, but he takes it too far.  Many writers have described detail as the soul of writing and in that case Lawrence is soulless.

It’s hard to recommend this series.  Yes, the first book is promising and Jorg’s constant twisted wisdom is always entertaining, but Lawrence’s plotting leaves a lot to desire.  He seems to think his ideas are much cooler than they actually are and therefore he can ignore the hard tasks of characterization and description.  Nevertheless, I hope he improves as he shows remarkable promise.

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