The debut of British writer Mark Lawrence, Prince of Thorns is the first book of a projected trilogy, The Broken Empire. Narrated by fourteen year old prince and leader of bandits, Honorous Jorg Ancrath, this introduction into the post-apocalyptic medieval world shows Jorg’s journey from prince to thug to king.
Having witnessed at the age of ten the murder of his mother and brother at the hands of Count Renar, the prince Jorg runs away with bandits to pursue a quest for vengeance. However, four years on, his quest has degenerated into a life of violence, rape and pillage with his gang of “brothers”, until he is drawn back to the castle of his birth. There, he confronts his newly remarried father, King Olidan, and the King’s new advisor, the malevolent pagan, Sageous.
Soon, Jorg discovers some truths about his nature and history, and who has been manipulating him for the past four years. Finally his quest culminates in a pitched battle with his outlaw brethren against Count Renar’s forces.
In many ways, Prince of Thorns feels like a very old-fashioned book, as if the last 30 years had slipped quietly past the fantasy genre. There is something very bold in writing a novel like this with no apparent self-awareness, which ignores all post-modern trappings or realist bells and whistles.
However, in writing so earnestly, the narration of the book is its undoing. In Jorg, the author has presented us with a teenager and an anti-hero, both of which are hard to get right. To get behind an anti-hero of this type, the protagonist ideally needs to be fighting someone or something worse than they are. And teenagers are themselves fraught with difficulty: how do you balance immaturity with a compelling voice? I don’t believe the author got either of these points right, and Jorg’s narration ends up becoming so arch that you can’t help but laugh. His temper tantrums reach such atomic levels with such frequency that it often reads like passage after passage of excessive hormonal turmoil. Despite the author’s intentions, Jorg struck me as less an homage to A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, and more a tedious medieval Holden Caulfield (if, instead of calling someone a “phoney”, Holden just couldn’t stop stabbing them in the face). It’s a grand guignol of teen angst, and the villains of the piece are never more evil than Jorg is irritating.
If Jorg is tedious, then the supporting cast is lazy. I felt the author wasn’t trying hard enough, that the characters were all familiar tropes. You have Lundist, the enigmatic oriental tutor, skilled in martial arts and philosophy; Sir Makin, the fallen knight; The Nuban, the noble “savage”; Rike, the overweight, obnoxious thug; Sageous, the sinister manipulating mage; King Olidan, the overbearing, cruel father King… These are all stock characters and, crucially, nothing new is really done with them. They could have been lifted wholesale from other books and movies.
And the women: Women don’t have a real place in this book except as victims, virgins or shrews. Badly written and badly treated, they’re little more than tatty window-dressing – to show how evil Jorg really is (and presumably, how edgy the book wants to be), the opening chapters present him participating in the (off-page) gang-rape and burning to death of a farmer’s daughter. No amount of charm or wit would make you want to get behind him after that: but that’s a moot point, as Jorg has neither wit nor charm.
The world building of the Broken Empire of the novel is frustratingly vague. A feudal world that arose after some kind of nuclear disaster – there are potentially some interesting ideas that could come of this. But I did not feel the author knew his world very well, or at least, did not show it to us. The plot of the book is supposed to be a personal journey for Jorg, which is fine, but the background feels only sketched. What clues we get to the nature of the world are of the scattergun kind: a little bit of sci-fi technology here, a bit of fantasy necromancy there… Honorous Jorg Ancrath lives in a world where the writings of Plutarch, Shakespeare, Sun Tsu and Nietzsche are still available, but nobody can lay their hands on a gun (or any feminist literature). It’s all a bit underwhelming.
Much of the story takes place in the bleak internal musings of Jorg, but it is when actual events happen that the book really begins to get going. Two thirds of the way through, Jorg is requested by his father to overcome and conquer a nearby kingdom at Castle Red. These chapters, where Jorg leads his men beneath the mountains and discover “monsters” and necromancers, zip along at a good pace and I felt the author really hit his stride. It felt like it should have been the climax of the book. As it is, the actual climax of Jorg defeating Count Renar reads like an afterthought, tacked on at the end.
Overall, it seems to be more for hard-core fans of the genre, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with a passing interest or who has just watched a few episodes of Game of Thrones.