Without incurring the wrath of the Jinx Faerie *invokes sign*, my reading for pleasure is going well this year, and it really has been pleasurable reading. While I have a few other reviews to write, I’m jumping ahead here with Prince of Thorns as the book is still very fresh in my mind.
This is the first of Mark Lawrence’s work that I’ve read, and I want to thank my pal, Tracy, for nudging me toward it. Prince of Thorns is the first book in the Broken Empire Trilogy and sits well within the ‘grim-dark’ of fantasy, and it’s a sub-genre in which I’m happy to spend a lot of time. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ‘grim-dark’ is, as it sounds, a story that is grim and dark in tone and doesn’t shy away from the realities and brutality of such themes. Lawrence hits the ‘grim-dark’ mark with Prince of Thorns.
Now before we get into this, it’s spoiler-alert time, now while I haven’t gone into too great detail with the plot (this really is something you need to experience in all its awful glory), I’m warning you all the same:
SPOILER ALERT: *clanging of bells; blaring of sirens* READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK. REPRISALS WILL OCCUR TO ANYONE BITCHING OR COMPLAINING ABOUT READING SPOILERS. (I have an angry cat and I’m not afraid to use him. Grim is his name, and he lives up to his moniker.)
Prince of Thorns is told from the first-person point-of-view of main character, Prince Jorg Ancrath, heir to the kingdom of Ancrath, we begin in the aftermath of a village plunder. Right from the outset the reader is plunged into the blood and death that surrounds Jorg, and it’s unapologetic in its telling – as it should be. The first surprise for me, which came at the end of the first chapter, was Jorg’s age – just shy of his fourteenth birthday, his savagery is something a reader would expect in one much older.
Jorg has been on the road with his outlaw ‘brothers’ since he fled from his father after an ambush that killed his mother and younger brother. Jorg, held firm within the thorns of a hook-briar, could do nothing to help his mother and brother, nothing except watch. The betrayal by his father to not seek vengeance on the man who orchestrated the ambush, pushes Jorg to seek vengeance on the mastermind on his own.
Slowly, the story unravels, but just when you think you have a hand on what’s at play, Lawrence manages to turn it on its head, and does so adeptly. There are connections with everything, foreshadowing done so well that it’s not until a revelation appears that those connections shine through.
The cast of support characters, especially Jorg’s band of brothers, are a motley crew, and by ‘standard’ fantasy tropes, not a good one amongst them (apart from Sir Makin and the Nuban – both favourites of mine), but in keeping with the grim-darkness of the book, they’re a perfect fit for not only Jorg, but the story as well. These are interesting, quirky, yet disturbing characters that I was more than happy to get to know better.
But it’s Jorg who commands the story here, and while he embraces the doing of evil deeds with much gusto and little-to-no conscience, there’s an honesty about him I liked. Hell, I was rooting for the kid the whole way. With Jorg, there’s no half-measures, and in a story such as Lawrence’s, there can be no half-measures, for those who lack commitment live very short lives and tend to die horribly.
Jorg is driven by the murders of his mother and brother, but there’s more at play in Jorg’s choices and ‘non-choices’ than meets the eye – another revelation that sat well with me. Magic – there is much of it – and yes, dark magic it is. You expected different? And the monsters, aaah, the monsters, they’re plentiful and unique – the scenes that take beneath Castle Red are some of my favourite. Gog, you scamp!
There’s a revelation in this section (no spoilers – it’s well worth the wait) that puts a lot of Jorg’s… learning into perspective – at times I was pulled toward the alternate-universe theory, but this revelation was punched right out of me and I was glad for it.
Right from the beginning you know, Jorg is bound for home, for a confrontation with his remarried father. Another queen sits on the throne, one who bears the king’s preferred heir. Jorg, torn between present and past, finds himself vulnerable in ways he hasn’t been for four years – a dangerous place for him. He’s a wily fellow, Jorg, resourceful and ruthless, and the more I read the more I liked this ‘wholly unlikeable’ character. That’s the thing, I can see why some would find him unsympathetic, soulless, reaping of all that befalls him, but for me… well I liked him. Is he a sociopath? Odds kinda head that way. Is he a monster? To those who get in the way of his goals, yes. Or, is he a product of his environment and history? Aren’t we all. And it’s that honesty, the not shying away from the darkness that lives inside Jorg that makes him wholly likeable for me.
The structure of the storytelling took a little getting used to as Lawrence jumps from present to past and back again often during the storytelling – but this is clearly marked by the different fonts (and the fact it’s signposted: Four years earlier). It’s also how Lawrence gives you the breadcrumbs to Jorg’s story, his history, and the why of his nature.
I have the next instalment of The Broken Empire Trilogy – King of Thorns, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where Lawrence takes Jorg and his ever-dwindling band of brothers.
For those who are looking for more standard fantasy fare, this might not be for you. And for those who don’t like the blood, gore, death and torture that comes with war, then this probably isn’t the book for you either. But if you’re looking for a story that doesn’t shy from the vulgarities of conquering lands and kingdoms, that is as dark as it is twisted, and has characters who have less redeeming qualities than those you find in most fantasy epics, then this is definitely the book for you.
On a goodreads scale, I give it 4.5 stars.