Title: The Prince and the Program
Author: Aldous Mercer
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Humor
Length: Novel (340 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by jeayci
Review Summary: A book that hit so many of my buttons I should have LOVED it, but it didn’t quite work for me, even as it did, which made rating it challenging.
Blurb: The Mordred Saga: Book One
Mordred Pendragon, the Bastard Prince, has done a Bad Thing—again. Exiled to Canada for seven years, he has to find a job to pay his bills. For reasons he refuses to reveal, Mordred decides “Software Engineer” has a nice ring to it. And though experience with “killing the Once and Future King, my father” and “that time in feudal Japan” makes for a poor résumé, he is hired by a small tech startup in Toronto.
In the midst of dealing with a crippling caffeine addiction and learning C++, Mordred thinks he has finally found someone to anchor him to the world of the living: Alan, the company’s offsite lead developer. Except that Alan might not be a “living” entity at all—he may, in fact, be the world’s first strong AI. Or a demon that mistook a Windows install for the highway to Hell. Or, just maybe, the ghost of Alan Turing, currently inhabiting a laptop.
Mordred’s attempts to figure out his love life are hampered by constant interference from the Inquisitors of the Securitates Arcanarum, corporate espionage, real espionage, a sysadmin bent on enslaving the world, and Marketing’s demands that Mordred ship software to the Russian Federation. Then Alan gets himself kidnapped. To save him, Mordred must ally himself with the company’s CEO, who will stop at nothing to rescue her lead developer so he can get back to work. But the Prince doesn’t just want to rescue Alan, he wants a Happily Ever After—and he will travel beyond Death itself to get one.
Too bad Alan is perfectly happy as a computer.
Review: It was the best of books, it was the worst of books. Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic in both directions, but the fact is there were a lot of ways this book really worked for me and several in which it didn’t. It variously fascinated, confused, and bored me. You might want to get a drink and get comfortable, this is going to be a long review. I should have loved this book, because if you were to draw the various elements that comprise it as a Venn Diagram, I would be at the intersection of many of them.
Aldous Mercer read and loved Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, or I’ll eat my hat. It would be one heckuva coincidence if he hadn’t, since stylistically this book reminded me of it a bit. Goedel, Escher, Bach (GEB) makes my short list of possibilities to consider if I were stuck on a desert island with only one book for the rest of my life, so that comparison should be a good one. In some ways it is, but toward the end of this book there was a lot of repetition that obviously represented recursion, a frequent element in GEB. While I loved it in GEB, it really didn’t work for me here. Maybe if it had been done to a lesser extent, I could have gotten and appreciated the point without feeling like, “Yeah, yeah, I got it already, can we move on?” Granted, I suspect that feeling was deliberately evoked to fit the story, and it did. It just didn’t make for fun reading here the way it did in GEB.
Mercer has probably also read Dennett, at the very least his “Where Am I?” essay. This story was full of philosophical questions about such things as who am ‘I’? What is a soul? Can a soul be man-made? I’ve read a fair bit (though nowhere near enough!) on the philosophy of mind and the mind-body connection, and I find these fun questions to play with. So for the most part, that was one element of this book I really enjoyed.
However, although Mordred was the first-person narrator for roughly the first 80% of the book, I was confused by the narration for much of the last 20% or so. There were many moments I had absolutely no idea who was narrating, while other times it was clearly Alan, some it was clearly Mordred, and yet others I suspect were someone else entirely. Since it’s a first-person narrative, that means there was a lot of time spent wondering, “Who am I?” Which, again, I suspect was intentional. I’m just not sure I liked it in this sort of story, as it made following the plot a bit challenging.
Around the last quarter or so was also the point at which I started having difficulty keeping track of when I was. The first three quarters of the story were told in past tense. Or at least consistently enough in past tense that if there were shifts, I didn’t notice them. But suddenly around three-quarters in, I noticed it was in present tense. Then back to present. Past. Present. Etc. Again, I’m pretty sure it was intentional on the author’s part, and I suspect there was a rhyme or reason to it; I just couldn’t figure it out. So while it probably works on a meta-level, it interfered with my enjoyment of the book rather than enhanced it.
Maybe if I were more of a programmer or more of a mathematician, the pattern would have been obvious. I have dabbled in each, but specialized in neither. But I didn’t think I’d have to in order to appreciate this book. I was able to appreciate GEB, even with skimming the parts where the math was clearly beyond my experience. For those who do specialize in math and/or programming, Mercer has a codebreaking challenge for this book, with easter eggs scattered throughout it. I didn’t try to solve it or to find them, but there were times I felt like the obvious eggs detracted from my ability to enjoy the story. But, eh, I decided to just ignore that, skim those parts, and get on with the story (as I did with the parts of GEB above my knowledge level).
However, I was frequently lost and confused throughout the story. More at the end than any other part, but there were not infrequent moments scattered throughout the book when I’d be reading merrily along and suddenly stop and think, “Huh?” I’d go back a few paragraphs or pages to try to figure out what I’d missed. Sometimes that worked, more often I just shrugged and continued on, hoping the thing I’d missed wouldn’t be crucial later. And it wasn’t just (or maybe even mostly) the math that confused me, it was world-building details or conclusions Mordred reached, that sort of thing.
Despite my various confusions, the humor usually worked for me and I laughed out loud several times. I worked Tech Support at a startup when the movie “Office Space” came out, and my co-workers and I all agreed it could have been filmed at our company. So I enjoyed and related to the obvious allusions to it in this book, right down to the mention of demanding TPS reports. And who that has seen Monty Python could not laugh at this?
“Espresso or latte or cappuccino?” Emma asked, twiddling with the knobs on the machine.
“American cappuccino or European cappuccino?”
“European cappuccinos are nonmigratory,” said Emma.
The humor and overall style of the book were also obviously influenced by Pratchett. I’ve read and loved several in the Discworld series, though my favorite Pratchett book remains the one co-authored with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. But I digress. My point is that while I’ve enjoyed Sir Terry myself, the Pratchett-esque elements of this book didn’t quite work for me, though I’m struggling to articulate why.
I did, however, love seeing the “what if” for Alan Turing. Mercer’s depiction of that potential was brilliant and I really enjoyed it. I also loved the Arthurian connection and “what if” for Mordred, though Mary Stewart remains my favorite re-telling of Arthurian lore. That legend was a favorite of mine in childhood, and I’ve read many variations and adaptations of it over the years. It was the Arthurian legend cum (not that kind, get your mind out of the gutter!) computer geeky that made this book irresistible to me in the first place, and it lived up to that promise with beautiful imagery such as, “It was like walking into a mangrove forest; asynchronous chirping from hundreds of hard drives filled my ears.”
There was an unpleasant surprise near the end with the sudden introduction of zombies and some rather gruesome scenes. The extent of my zombie-love pretty much begins and ends with Jonathan Coulton’s song “re: Your Brains”. Which was very much going through my head, especially the refrain, “We’re not unreasonable, I mean no one’s gonna eat your eyes.” I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers, but much of the last 10% or so seemed to be inspired by that song. However, I did love the scene where everything suddenly clicked into place and I understood so much that had puzzled me before, like why Mordred would choose to be a Software Engineer.
The end will not please those reading this for a romantic HEA. In fact, if that’s what you want DON’T read this book. I disliked the gore and the zombies, but the end didn’t otherwise bother me because I wasn’t particularly emotionally invested in the story or most of the characters. I did get teary for one moment near the end, but that was in sympathy with a wonderful secondary character. I liked Mordred, and Alan, and a few other characters, but they stimulated my intellect more than my emotions. In fact, Mordred and Alan’s relationship was almost purely intellectual, and I enjoyed it as such. “Seduction via Euclidean transformations by proxy. More reliable in the long run, perhaps, than chocolate.”
I should have loved this book. But I didn’t. And I really struggled with how to rate it. There were times it was absolutely a 4-5 star book, and other times it was more like 1-2 stars and I was wondering why I was still reading. So I averaged it out to 3 stars with a half-star bump because any book that gets me thinking about so many of my favorite things deserves it. And despite all my confusions and frustrations and emotional distance, the book fascinated me enough that I’ll probably read the sequel. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.