The Thorns Taught Him A Lesson In Blood.
A Precocious, Vengeful Prince Indulges In Wanton Atrocities In Pursuit Of Revenge And His Ambition To Claim The Throne.
Prince Of Thorns
(The Broken Empire Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: High Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
Date: 12th April 2012 (First Published 2011)
Survivor; royalty; bandit leader; petulant murderer; callous rapist; and quite possibly deranged. Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is all these things and more, yet only fourteen years old. Though his immoral behaviour is impossible to justify, Jorg is, nonetheless, a damaged, vengeful personality whose motives go beyond a burning desire to exact a terrible revenge. He harbours ambitions to become king by the age of fifteen, and he might just pull it off. But is the path he walks one of his own choosing? Or is Jorg merely a puppet on someone else’s strings?
Prince Of Thorns is one of those novels that has become synonymous with the grimdark trend that has dominated fantasy literature over the course of the past decade or so. While it is certainly a dark tale that makes for uncomfortable reading at times, Lawrence’s debut has a number of qualities that separates and elevates his story above the typical grimdark offering. One of the most obvious and notable of these attributes is how the depictions of violence, and general unpleasantness for which this sub-genre is known, neither feels gratuitous or done for shock value; the scenes are a means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. That being the case, the inclusion of such “niceties” as rape, torture and cold blooded murder can legitimately be said to be in service of the story―particularly with regard to the portrayal and development of the protagonist.
It’s fair to say that this first instalment of The Broken Empire Trilogy is more nuanced than the average grimdark novel which has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In some ways it almost feels like a character study, thanks in large part to the style and quality of Lawrence’s writing.
From beginning to end, the writing throughout the book is impressive, demonstrating what a wonderful way with words the author possesses. It cannot be overstated how much this contributes to making a character as despicable as Jorg is, a much more sympathetic protagonist than he has any right to be. The story is narrated in the first person, so the insightful prose with its frequent clever turns of phrase really helps to convey not only the sharp intellect of the character, but also a level of maturity in advance of his tender years, making it very difficult to view him as an irredeemably mindless thug―irrespective of his instability and eagerness to maim and kill on the flimsiest of pretexts’. It’s probably not saying much, but Jorg isn’t nearly as hate-worthy as the unrepentant, criminal scumbag that is Locke Lamora.
It’s not easy to apply the anti-hero label to a character like Jorg. Most conventional anti-heroes in fiction possess likeable characteristics that make it easier for people to accept the logic of doing bad things for good reasons. But it’s impossible to make a case for this being applicable to Jorg. On the surface his thoughts and conduct are that of an unhinged, homicidal sociopath; his despicable actions guaranteed to cause many readers to view him as hopelessly irredeemable. However, beneath the repugnant surface, it is perhaps possible to find mitigating factors to elicit understanding, and maybe even sympathy for the character without absolving him of guilt for his depredations. The most obvious of these extenuating circumstances is Jorg’s young age. He is only fourteen years old, and teenagers aren’t exactly known for their ability to think about the consequences of their actions, or the ability to make wise decisions given their lack of good judgement. But more crucially than the matter of his youth, there is a strong argument to be made that Jorg is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on account of a tragic event during his early childhood, which would go some way to explaining what a damaged individual he is. Nevertheless, however readers choose to view the character there’s no denying that Jorg is an intriguing protagonist, one who eclipses the book’s other most intriguing facet: the setting.
Though it never fully comes to the forefront of the story―being very much overshadowed by Jorg’s journey―Lawrence’s world building proves to be fascinating. Initially, it appears as though Prince Of Thorns takes place in a completely fictitious world in the mould of the archetypal medieval European inspired fantasy setting. But frequent mentions of real historical figures quickly muddies the waters, raising the likelihood of an alternate history medieval Europe. Yet this possibility is confounded by the fact some of these name-checked personalities lived after the medieval period. It eventually transpires that the story is set in a distant future Europe when the world has reverted back to a medieval state after an unknown cataclysmic event. Little is revealed about how this state of affairs came to be (as it’s ultimately not important) but there is certainly potential for this to be expounded upon in the remaining instalments of the trilogy.
Prince Of Thorns is by no means an action driven story, making it difficult to describe as exciting. Any reader who approaches the book hoping for and expecting an action-packed narrative will likely be disappointed. This is a much more character driven tale, focussed on a troubled and (inevitably) polarising protagonist. In some way’s Mark Lawrence’s debut novel reads a lot like the dark fantasy equivalent of J.D. Salinger’s modern classic, The Catcher In The Rye. And much like that novel, opinion of Prince Of Thorns will be wholly dependent on how readers react to the depiction of the central character of the book.
In conclusion, Prince Of Thorns is a novel that will have greater appeal to readers who prefer character driven stories over action driven ones―assuming they can look past some of the less savoury subject matter. And it’s literary style gives it the potential to also find favour with with those who wouldn’t ordinarily deign to pick up and read a fantasy title.