Jump to content



Book review: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence


Recommended Posts

A hundred petty warlords are struggling to carve their own pieces out of the Broken Empire, the divided remnants of a glorious, high-technology society obliterated in a monstrous war. Little has survived from before that time aside from a few books of philosophy and war, and religion.


Prince Jorg, the son of King Olidan of Ancrath, is a boy of nine when he sees his mother and brother brutally murdered by agents of Count Renar. When Olidan makes peace with Renar in return for a few paltry treaties and goods, Jorg runs away from home in the company of a band of mercenaries. As the years pass, Jorg becomes cruel, merciless and ruthless. He sees his destiny is to reunite the Broken Empire and rule as the first Emperor in a thousand years, and nothing and no-one will deny him this destiny.


Prince of Thorns is the first novel in The Broken Empire, a trilogy which was fiercely bidded over by several publishers before HarperCollins Voyager won the publishing rights in the UK. It's being touted by Voyager as 'the big new thing' for 2011, to the extent where they are even giving away copies to people who have pre-ordered A Dance with Dragons from certain UK bookstores.


This faith is mostly justified. Prince of Thorns is a remarkable read. Well-written and compelling, it is also disturbing. Anyone who's ever bailed on reading Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books because of a horrific thing the main character does a couple of chapters in will probably not enjoy this book either. Jorg is a protagonist with the quick wits of Locke Lamora, the charm and resourcefulness of Kvothe but the moral compass of Gregor Clegane. The book has the protagonists (the word 'hero' is completely incompatible with Jorg or his merry band of psychopaths and lunatics) doing things that even the bad guys in most fantasy novels would balk at, and for this reason it is going to be a challenging sell to some readers.


Lawrence writes vividly and well. The dark and horrible things that Jorg and his crew get up to are mostly inferred rather than outright-described, which is just as well. Lawrence also avoids dwelling on Jorg's physical actions too much in favour of delving into his psyche, working out what makes him tick, presenting these ideas to the reader, and then subverting them. As the book unfolds and we learn more about Jorg's hideous experiences, we realise why he is the way he is, though at almost every turn Jorg also chides the reader for thinking he is trying to excuse himself or beg for forgiveness. He is simply presenting the facts and the context and leaves them to decide whether he is the logical result of circumstance or someone who could have saved himself from this dark path if he had chosen to do so. Lawrence's aptitude with the other characters is no less accomplished, with deft strokes used to create vivid secondary roles concisely and with skill.


Outside of the excellent characterisation, Lawrence paints a vivid picture of a post-apocalyptic world. The ruins of an earlier, technological age (probably our one, though the map suggests that if it is, the geography of the world has been radically transformed, at least in the area the story takes place) litter the landscape, and it's interesting to see references to familiar names and places. The works of Plutarch, Socrates and Sun Tzu have survived, as has the Christian faith, and in the distant east place-names sound more familiar (Indus, Persia). This evokes the feeling of a world broken and twisted, the new rammed in with the old, the effect of which is unsettling (I think it might be what Paul Hoffman was going for in The Left Hand of God, but Prince of Thorns does it much better). I assume more about the world and the history will be revealed in the inevitable sequels. Whilst Prince of Thorns is the opening volume in a trilogy, but also works well as a stand-alone work. Whilst there is clearly more to come, it ends on a natural pause, not a cliffhanger, which is welcome.


This is a blood-soaked, cynical and unrelentingly bleak novel, but it also has a rich vein of humour, and there are a few 'good' (well, relatively) characters to show that there is still hope in the world. There are some minor downsides: a few times Jorg seems to 'win' due his bloody-minded attitude overcoming situations where he is phyiscally or magically outclassed, and there's a few too many happy coincidences which allow Jorg and his men to beat the odds, especially right at the end. There's also an event about three-quarters of the way through the novel which is highly impressive, but may be a bit hard for some fantasy fans to swallow.


Prince of Thorns (****½) is a page-turning, compelling and well-written novel, but some may be put off by its harsher, colder aspects. Those can overcome this issue will find the most impressively ruthless and hard-edged fantasy debut since Bakker's Darkness That Came Before. The novel will be published on 2 August in the USA and two days later in the UK.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm really interested in this one. I saw you describe this as "darker than Bakker" over on Westeros Werthead, and that got me really interested.


Do you think the author has enough material to cover two more books? I hate it when trilogy's have a great first book, mediocre second book, and third book with some awesome scenes but not an overall great story.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In epic fantasy terms this is a fairly short book: 350 pages, or less than half the size of a lot of modern epic fantasy novels. It moves quickly but there's a lot more of the world to see and a lot more things 'to be done' in the plot, so yes it can sustain a trilogy quite easily.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 years later...

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence


Jorg of Ancrath has seized the throne of Renar and now rules the Highlands as a king and a sworn enemy to his father. When one of his companions is consumed by fire magic, Jorg resolves to take him across the Broken Empire to a distant volcano where he might find help. But this is the beginning of a longer journey across the continent as Jorg seeks new allies to stand against another king who may be able to unite the Empire...a king more noble and honourable than Jorg.

King of Thorns is the middle volume of The Broken Empire trilogy and the sequel to 2011's Prince of Thorns. Like its predecessor, it is an at-times uneasy and bleak read but also one that is interesting, broodingly atmospheric and fairly well-written.

As with before, the focus is on Jorg and his band of not-so-merry cutthroats and pillagers. The events of Prince of Thorns have, if not mellowed Jorg, than certainly caused him to re-appraise his life. The result is a less amoral and ruthless Jorg than before and one who is more introspective. Whilst there's still plenty of mayhem in the book, Jorg is less likely to cause it (at least not without more convincing need than before).

The book is structured as two narratives unfolding simultaneously: a flashback set four years in the past (picking up just after the end of Prince of Thorns) and a present-day storyline focused on a massive battle as Jorg's kingdom comes under attack. This structure is the book's biggest weakness: the battle takes place over a short period of time but the flashbacks are much longer and dozens of pages pass between each present-day interlude. Each interlude also relies on events from the flashback to make sense, meaning that we are in the dark about Jorg's plans until he reveals a new weapon, tactic or group of allies that was explored in the preceding flashback sequence. The structure means that the battle feels like a sequence of amazing coincidences and turns of fate which have only just been set up a few pages earlier (so whilst not technically a series of deus ex machina, they do feel a bit like them). What would have worked better (and fortunately the book can be read this way) is if the flashbacks had been one continuous narrative, followed by the present-day storyline taking all of the revelations from the flashbacks and letting them unfold in one go.

Moving beyond that issue, King of Thorns is mostly a success: the characterisation is stronger, the prose is better and the book is more nuanced than its predecessor in terms of morality and consequences. There are also some outstanding sequences, such as a creepy encounter with the undead in a swamp and what appears to be a typical heroic quest which goes rather badly wrong at the end. The book asks some hard questions about rulership and ambition, but on occasion the novel feels like a retreat from Prince of Thorns's hard-edged ruthlessness. A key conflict in the novel is that Jorg's enemy is, in many ways (well, almost all ways), a better man than Jorg and Jorg himself wonders if he should be opposing him or become allied to him. This conflict is all-too-neatly undone by a plot twist revealed quite late in the novel that confirms if this other force wins, the consequences will be horrendous. This feels like the author giving his character too easy of an 'out' of his moral dilemma. The novel also handles its main female character, Katherine, rather oddly. After giving her quite a lot of development through the book (her letters are the only part of the novel not from Jorg's POV, giving her an interesting perspective on events) she vanishes in a rather confused and muddled way in the finale. Hopefully this will be clarified in the final novel in the series.

King of Thorns (****) is a highly intriguing novel, though it can be bleak and hard-going. The structure is problematic and some character arcs are better-handled than others. Those who had a hard time time believing that a 14-year-old could do all the things he did in Prince of Thorns won't find much more plausibility here (though Lawrence amusingly subverts Jorg's occasionally-threatened Gary Stuness several times). However, the novel is also well-written with some excellent turns of phrase and features some memorable setpiece moments. The overall direction of the series remains compelling, even if this is a slight step back from Prince of Thorns in quality. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...