One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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Publication date – May 1, 2019

Summary: Prodigy son of a famed mathematician, Nick Hayes is not your average fifteen-year-old. Especially when you consider that he has just discovered he is dying of leukaemia. But there is a part of Nick in all of us, and I immediately empathised with the struggle at the heart of his story.

Nick knows that his time on this planet might be near its end. But when an alluring new girl, Mia, joins his group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends, he realises that life might be giving him one last throw of the dice. Just then, however, his world is turned upside down when he meets a strangely familiar man whose claims about Nick’s future are too harrowing—and unbelievable—to ignore. Soon everything he thought was true, from the laws of physics to the trajectory of his own life, is proved otherwise.

One Word Kill is a story that we’re familiar with: a boy with nothing to lose, forced to put what little he has left on the line. But it’s also the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, because we’ve all dreamed of being like Nick, playing a game with the highest real-life stakes and the world on our shoulders. This time, though, it’s not imaginary.

So, what would you do in his position? What else can you do?

Roll the dice.

Thoughts: I initially saw One Word Kill pitched as something that those who enjoyed Stranger Things would also appreciate, and it’s very easy to see that comparison. You’ve got a group of teens in the 80s, all varying degrees of geekiness, all getting together to play D&D, and things change when a girl enters the picture, breaking down the group’s idea of reality as they know it. I wouldn’t say that One Word Kill is a rip-off of Stranger Things, though, since beyond that initial premise, the two definitely diverge into their own stories and run with their own ideas. Lawrence’s new series might take some inspiration from the popular show, or have some aspects in common with it, but it’s a distinct entity.

The protagonist, Nick, is newly diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and in the 80s, you can imagine just how much fun that is. He wants normalcy in his life, or at least a level of normalcy that he’s comfortable with, and cancer doesn’t fit into that picture. What does fit into the picture is his group of friends, his new friendship and budding relationship with Mia, regular mundane stuff. Not cancer. And definitely not a man who claims to be from the future and who starts asking Nick to do all sorts of strange things in an attempt to save a loved one further down the timeline.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction that brings multiverse theory into the mix. As much as pondering the implications can bring on a headache, I love thinking about the possibilities of timelines, of different universal rules. Lawrence has a grand time playing with those concepts in One Word Kill, talking about diverging timelines and branching points and closed time loops and all sorts. If someone, for instance, remembers meeting their future selves one day, that future self must also go back in time to meet their past self in order to keep the timeline consistent. Lack of doing so would create another timeline, a branching point in which something either did or didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a paradox, because the timeline in which you did go back would still exist. You, in your current awareness, just wouldn’t be on that timeline. An infinity of selves can play out over the multiverse, none of them contradicting another because their timelines are their timelines.

Get me started on this tangent and it’ll be a while before I shut up about it.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading One Word Kill. It involves concepts I find fascinating to contemplate. The story itself may be fairly short, but it contained a whole lot, at least when it comes to thought experiments and quantum fuckery.

It also asked some of the big questions, the kind that can make people freeze up. How much sacrifice is acceptable? How much wrong should be done in the name of doing something right? If someone does a terrible thing but then all the effects, including memories, are erased, then was that terrible thing still terrible? None of these questions really have answers, there is no right or wrong way to answer them, but that’s what makes them so difficult to tackle. Lawrence doesn’t seem to use this story as a way of taking a stance on rhetorical questions or thought experiments. He just… tells the story, and those questions are a factor.

I’m curious to see where the story goes, because as of right now, there are two other novels in the same series, and I want to see if the concepts started here will continue through the rest of Nick’s story. The delightful geeky nostalgia peppered throughout One Word Kill makes me smile (and makes me wish I was more familiar with D&D, to be honest), and the blend of mundane life with quantum multiverse conundrums is very compelling. It’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which these books wouldn’t appeal to me.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

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Publication date – August 2, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…

It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him–and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

Thoughts: It’s difficult to describe this book properly. Dark fantasy, check. Rogue prince trying to claim what he believes is his rightful place, check. Brutality, rape, and pillaging, check. This isn’t the most comfortable of books to read, and it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to tell the story of a Prince Jorg, leading a horde of bandits and miscreants, making a name for themselves and more importantly, taking those incremental steps to get Jorg where he wants to be.

Or so it seems on the surface. For all that the plot of the novel seems fairly standard, a classic fantasy tale (albeit from a vastly different perspective than we normally get), there are enough twists and turns to keep a reader interested even when things get a little slow. There are many layers to this novel, and nothing is quite what it seems. Indeed, where it first comes off as fantasy, or a sort of alternate history heavy with fantasy themes, it is, in fact, post-apocalyptic, and post-apoc fantasy is rarely done. It’s compelling to see things unfold as the story goes on, little pieces of the world and history and characters unfolding, little by little. Everything falls into place at the end and you ca’t help but sit back and go, “Whoa,” when it all comes together.

Part of the darkness of the story is what makes it so difficult to read sometimes. Some part of me instantly recoils from characters talking of raping women, and with good cause, but I can’t deny that for the characters in question, the talk and the acts were frighteningly in character. Lawrence doesn’t shy away from betraying sheer disgusting cruelty in his debut novel, and Jorg, young sociopath that he is, ends up being one of those characters you love and hate at the same time. Biting wit, incredible insight, and a little shit you want to smack upside the head more often than not.

The way the story’s told takes a little getting used to, jumping back and forward from present to past, so that the events leading up to Jorg’s current situation get slowly revealed over time. It was effective, and allowed Lawrence to tell a complete story without bogging the reader down in short and heavy backstory, or making the whole thing linear. Both of those options sound considerably less appealing than the way it was actually done, so I applaud the choice.

This isn’t the book to read if you like your fantasy brainless and fluffy. This isn’t even the book you want to read if you want something familiar and comfortable, unless your ideas of familiar and comfortable involve stark gritty reality with no soft edges in sight. It’s the kind of book you read when you want something new, something rich and meaty, something a little disturbing, a little psychopathic, where there’s an antihero instead of a hero, someone you can root for while still disliking. It’s an odd mix, but it works, and I, for one, am eager to read the rest of the books in the series to see what Jorg does next.