Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Ace, August 2011
Hardcover 978-0-441-02032-4
Book One of The Broken Empire  


Prince Jorg was forced to watch his mother and brother tortured and killed as he was entangled in the thorny briar, unable to move or tear his eyes away from the carnage. This happened when he was nine years old.  Fast forward a few years and he’s left the confines of his father’s kingdom and is leading a band of cutthroat bandits and mercenaries extracting coin; questing for revenge upon Renar, the ruler who killed his mother and brother; and pretty much doing whatever they want.  As the title of the series, The Broken Empire, implies, the world is not whole.  Scattered kingdoms, and that word applies quite loosely, vie for power against the Hundred, the dark powers seemingly in control of the world.

Told in a first person narrative, Prince Jorg comes across as an unapologetic, contentious, cruel, spiteful, and angry young man.  Think Thomas Covenant with a healthy dose of teen angst and a sword and you might be halfway to getting a feel for the protagonist.  First person narrative can be a tricky method for telling a novel-length story for the entirety of the thing rests on the shoulders of the protagonist, and the writer’s ability to generate a charismatic and compelling voice.  The maturity of Jorg’s voice, along with the smooth almost matter-of-fact delivery makes it very easy to forget the protagonist is only 13/14 years old for a majority of the novel. Jorg does not mince words and at just over 300 pages, Lawrence’s novel is powerful and packs a great deal in a concise and powerful package. In other words, Lawrence has created a compelling storyteller in Prince Jorg.

History and fiction have shown us that such a youthful person can lead men and show the level of maturity present in Jorg.  A great deal about Jorg and his leadership qualities are revealed along the path of the narrative in a fairly impressive manner. The chapters are short and some are preceded with an anecdotal sentence or two about one of Jorg’s crew.

                Assassination is just murder with a touch more precision.  Brother Sim is precise.

The short chapters make for a quick and addictive read, while chapter intros such as the above whet the appetite for what’s to come.

While Jorg takes center stage, the world in which Jorg and his companions live is harsh, bloody, and uncompromising. There’s a subtlety in the way Lawrence peels away the layer of this world which initially seems to fit into the fairly typical pseudo-medieval fantasy vein.  Proverbial sign markers along Jorg’s journey hint at a greater depth to the world and is just one instance of Lawrence skillfully eroding this reader’s expectations. Little has survived the events that have broken the empire save for random bits of technology, tomes of history or philosophy, and turns of phrase that hold ambiguous meaning. Conversely, that was part of the fun of the novel.  I got the sense that, to compare this novel to a card game, Mr. Lawrence is only revealing the first card in the hold, but the hand at which he’s hinting could be even more impressive. To divulge more of these hints and narrative implications would take away from the fun of discovering and playing along with Lawrence.

I used words like uncompromising and unapologetic to describe Jorg and the world in which he lives, and which in turn, made him who he is.  That’s a long way of saying this book is not for the squeamish or the light of heart.  What is most refreshing about Jorg is that he makes no excuses for the things he’s done. He only hints at these things, and along the path of the narrative, the horrible things are implied more often than not. 

… On the road I did things that men might call evil. There were crimes…I’ve grown, but whatever monster might be in me, it was always mine, my choice, my responsibility, my evil if you will. …

The cover, by Jason Chan, is eye-catching and evocative.  Although the piece follows the trend of the hooded character that’s been popular in the fantasy genre in recent years, it is effective.  The image is even more so effective with the stark red font standing out against the muted grey and earthy background.

Since I can’t get out of a review without comparing the book under review to books/writers I’ve read in the past, the book I’ve read that Mark Lawrence’s breathtaking debut resonates with the most is Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains.  Similar characters, similar harshness, similar shattered feel to the milieu, but Lawrence’s prose connected with more strongly and is perhaps somewhat more inviting.  I also felt Fritz Lieber vibe for the roguish characters thrown in with a bit of Jack Vance and Peter V. Brett for the milieu.

2011 is turning into another year for impressive genre debuts, but at this point Prince of Thorns is arguably the most impressive and stunning. The book ends with satisfying closure following a superb climax, but there is a great deal of promise for the next volume. I for one cannot wait to hear more from Jorg.

Highly recommended.

© 2011 Rob H. Bedford

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