Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Prince of Thorns Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher: Ace
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Grimdark
Series: Broken Empire Book One
Pages: 319

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Oh the lack of humanity! Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath – simply called Jorg – is almost 14 when this story begins, and author Mark Lawrence wastes no time in establishing the fact that Jorg is a complete sociopath. Told in first person from Jorg’s point of view readers get to see the immorality of his thoughts and actions. He murders with little thought, he rapes because he feels like it, and he considers his fellow man to be nothing more than pawns on a chess board.

Although exceedingly violent, The Prince of Thorns brings more to the table than a lack of morals and humanity.  It brings an unconventional fantasy setting and incorporates a lot of philosophy into its tale, and by philosophy I mean readers can expect to find quotes from Plato to Nietzsche interspersed. An excellent, albeit bloody debut, Prince of Thorns will satisfy any readers craving for a dark violent story.

Set in Ancrath and the surrounding regions, a war called the Hundred War, has been ongoing for decades as over a hundred rulers have been vying for power.  Although it’s never explicitly stated the setting of Prince of Thorns appears to be in a futuristic version of Western Europe, with the land being warped by a calamitous war hundreds of years ago.

Despite a futuristic setting, this is strictly a medieval fantasy. Prince Jorg of Ancrath was 9 when he saw his mother raped and killed along with his younger brother.  After witnessing these horrible events, and his father’s lack of action to bring justice to the perpetrator, Count Renar, Jorg sets out with a band of mercenaries – learning about war and fighting – wishing one day to avenge the deaths of his mother and brother.

This is a dark, dark story that will undoubtedly invoke comparisons to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy … there is a lot of nihilism here. The Hundred Wars is symbolic of the meaninglessness of violence, and the characters throughout the story are so apathetic towards it that it never seems to bother them when some moral atrocity is committed.

For about the first 50 pages I began to get worried that this story wouldn’t be able to get out of the gorefest it had started.  Fortunately a lot of the violent aspects start switching over to Jorg’s thought process about why he is so violent, and once the focus switches, the story becomes a lot more interesting.  Additionally, Jorg’s back story gives the character some sympathy but it never comes close to absolving his actions.  Either way this helps make the character somewhat likeable – which is near impossible in the first 50 or so pages.

The setting is one of the most unique aspects of this story.  Jorg will mention occasionally some of the philosophies he’s learned from – Plato and Aristotle for example – making the reader think that this some sort of alternate middle ages timeline.  Eventually he’ll start talking about Nietzsche and more modern day philosophers.  Realizing that this is our world in the future, with surviving ideas like Christianity from our time, allows for modern social commentary in a medieval fantasy setting.  This is one of the most engaging aspects about Lawrence’s story – past, mixing with present, mixing with past/future.

Another aspect that really works is Lawrence’s setting of parts of the story four years in the past.  These parts of the novel occur shortly after Jorg’s mother and brother are killed. It outlines the beginning of his relationship with the mercenaries he works with, and it shows the start of his violent tendencies.  These chapters of the story are interspersed into the present plot and provide breaks from the main action, and are instrumental into bringing the novel to its conclusion.

A few issues with pacing arises towards the end.  It feels like Lawrence is rushing to a quick finish come the end of the second and third acts.  Besides these issues though, the quick pacing otherwise works – it’s certainly possible to finish the book within a day.

Lawrence also utilizes a dark sense of humor that I found enjoyable.  As a fan of dark fiction, it really doesn’t get much darker than this.  And as a character, Jorg of Ancrath is one of the darkest major fantasy narrators a reader can find.  If you have a strong resistance to cynicism and can stomach the violence, then Prince of Thorns comes highly recommended.

Score: 9.0

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