Here be Dragons

Anachronist’s Review (14/1/2013):

Summary (mostly from Amazon.com):

A young prince like no other but hardly a Prince Charming. When he was nine, he watched his mother and brother brutally killed before him. One year later he ran off his father’s castle, freeing some men condemned to death and joining their band. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of that band, a group of bloodthirsty thugs calling each other “brother”. By fifteen, he intends to be king and by twenty – emperor…or better.

Before it happens, it’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar’s men rape his mother and slaughter his young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him- and it seems he has nothing left to lose.

But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce, can the will of one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

What I liked:

The book is told from Jorg’s point of view (the first person narration) and I consider it a huge asset, although normally I prefer the third person variety. We get to know this unusual prince’s inner turmoil and find out that many scars on his psyche seem to reflect only too well what he’s been through and what’s happening around him. He is simply haunted with darkness and speaks with the voice of a man twice his age, peppered with a wry sort of humour. Jorg might be one psychotic teenager but, as his story unravels, you understand why and you find the maniacal killer’s personality is just one of many masks he’s wearing. He doesn’t beat about the bush what sort of person he became since leaving his father’s castle and his honesty is sometimes chilling to the bone but we are shown glimpses of his softer side as well. He says:

“Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother’s tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.”
And one more, much darker quote:

“For the longest time I studied revenge to the exclusion of all else. I built my first torture chamber in the dark vaults of imagination. Lying on bloody sheets in the Healing Hall I discovered doors within my mind that I’d not found before, doors that even a child of nine knows should not be opened. Doors that never close again. I threw them wide.”

A sweetie, isn’t he? Warped but also relatable, taking everything into account.

The narration is solid, fast-flowing, logical and incredibly dynamic with some flashback chapters now and then. I usually don’t like flashbacks but, as the author kept them germane to the main narration and, as they are still told from Prince Jorg’s POV, they didn’t distract me too much, helping to understand the main storyline better.

It is definitely not one of those high fantasy novels where good characters are beautiful, chivalrous and noble (preferably with blond hair, many interesting trinkets and nice clothes on) and bad characters are mendacious, ugly, flesh-eating monsters. Don’t expect much romance and love either – there is a hint or two, but no more. It is an advantage – romance doesn’t fit this story at all. Overall the book is a gritty, momentarily very dark read. Small wonder – the author, not unlike George R.R. Martin (the author of ASOIAF series), clearly modelled some parts of it on the Hundred Years’ War – a series of battles waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet (also known as the House of Anjou) for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings. These were truly horrible times – only in France that conflict, along with deadly epidemics, famine and marauding mercenary armies, which often turned to banditry, reduced the population by about one-half.

Accordingly, something is rotten in the state of Ancrath, a small kingdom surrounded by many other petty realms with their own petty rulers and tyrants. Without any real central government the land, apart from the main cities, is basically fair game for villains of different sorts. Small wonder our young hero is as cold as a steel dagger and he thinks nothing of plundering, burning, raping, beheading and torturing mostly innocent people as long as it furthers his aims. In fact he can be easily called an anti-hero – you might pity him but you can’t condone the bloodthirsty violence he decided to employ just to settle his score with Count Renar and the world at large. He craves vengeance not justice because he no longer believes in the latter.

The world building I found very original although a bit puzzling too. Magic is one part of it but not in usual way – don’t expect mighty wizards hurling balls of fire at each other. Also if you think that the book is set in a kind of Medieval Ages alternate reality, you will be forced to rethink that assumption from time to time. Prince Jorg tells us that he was taught Latin and Greek and has read Plato, Socrates and Euclid but he also quotes Shakespeare and Nietzsche… he fights with a sword and a crossbow but he has been taught Japanese martial arts as well. The world around him is supposed to reflect the material culture of the 14th century but at the Red Castle we are shown some surprisingly advanced AI technology along with a device which might be an equivalent of an atomic bomb…

What I didn’t like:

Almost no major issues but there was one thing which made me seriously wonder – how can a boy of just 12-13 lead a group of very adult and very nasty bandits? How can a sheltered child of ten, even after a very distressing and ground-shattering experience, turn into a cold-blooded psychopath and a charismatic leader during just a year or two? I would have less doubts if Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath wasn’t castle-born and bred; it would also help if he was a tad older. I must admit the way it was presented, the whole premise sounded a bit preposterous. Seeing the raising wave of crime perpetrated by children I am perhaps wrong and/or overly optimistic, though.

Final verdict:

I recommend it to every dark fantasy fan. It was a truly spectacular book and I loved it very much but if you don’t feel comfortable with violence and killing in every chapter you might find it too gritty for your taste. Still it is definitely worth reading. I only hope the second installment will be as good as this one or even better – I am looking forward to the solutions of some mysteries left intact so far (Jorg’s daddy is a shifty customer and those dream-witches!). Four solid stars.

Pauline’s Review (2/8/2013):

I’m late to this particular party and no mistake. Not just fashionably late, but so late that the lights are out, everyone’s moved on, even the next party’s winding down and the champagne’s on ice for the one after that. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the third part of the trilogy is upon us and here I am just getting round to reading the debut. And what a debut it is. When this was released in 2011 it caused a furore. Jorg, the lead character, was too young, too misogynistic, too murderously violent, too heartless, too psychopathic, quite simply too unredeemable. Maybe so, but he is also utterly compelling. Jorg is surely one of the great characters of fantasy, and his story grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for an instant.

Brief synopsis for the three people who don’t know the premise: Jorg is the eldest son and heir to a petty king in a land of innumerable such petty kings, who spend their lives scrabbling to get to the top of the heap on the backs of others. The always out of reach prize: a winner-takes-all seat as top dog of the broken empire. Jorg’s mother and younger brother were slaughtered by another king, and Jorg only survives because he was tossed into a thornbush and overlooked. When he learns that his father dealt with this assassination by making a pragmatic trade agreement and taking a second wife, he vows bloody revenge. His journey to achieve that revenge, told in flashback to the time of the murders, when he’s nine/ten, and later, when he’s thirteen/fourteen, is the story of this book.

The genius touch is that it’s told in first person, from Jorg’s point of view. So no matter how vicious and conscienceless and reckless he is, the reader can always understand what drives him at that particular moment. Even when he has no rational reason for his actions, when he seems to be randomly poking sticks at powerful and dangerous people just to see what happens, it’s perfectly believable – the what-if curiosity of a boy pulling wings off butterflies, the reckless trail of destruction of an adolescent who doesn’t care about the consequences because he has no reason to care.

Many critics have said Jorg is too young to be the credible leader of a group of battle-scarred outlaws. I don’t agree. Jorg has been raised from birth to be a leader of men, in an environment where children grow up fast, and besides, all the outlaws owed him their lives and freedom. They chose to follow him, and he was smart enough to give them whatever they needed to keep them happy enough to (ultimately) do what he wanted them to. Is he misogynistic? Well, duh – teenage boy, of course he’s misogynistic, he’s at an age when he sees every female as a walking tits-and-vagina. What thirteen year old boy wouldn’t fill his life with guilt-free rape and pillage and mindless slaughter if he could just shed the cloak of civilisation?

Of course Jorg is psychopathic, but who can help sympathising with him after all that’s been done to him? He’s been at the receiving end of so much evil, even from his own father and uncle, that it’s not surprising he’s become evil himself. Frankly, I totally enjoyed some of his least glorious moments, the times when he couldn’t win by any straightforward and honourable means, so he cheated. I cheered and punched the air at that brilliantly underhand fight with Galen in his father’s throne room, for example. Because no matter how bad he is, I was rooting for him every step of the way.

The author doesn’t go into much detail with the background. It’s not clear to me whether this is our own world in a post-apocalyptic distant future or some parallel but eerily similar world, although it probably doesn’t matter. The hints of long-lost technology, of magic and ghosts and demons, of (perhaps) post-nuclear mutations are fascinating, and I look forward to finding out more. There’s enough here to support the plot, although it takes some suspension of disbelief to accept that a post-advanced-technology world would descend into quite such a quaint medieval castles-and-swords scenario. But – whatever. It works for me.

If Jorg is drawn in vivid fluorescent colours, the supporting cast is painted in much more muted and murky shades, occasionally illuminated by a sharp flash of light. The outlaws could have had depth if they weren’t discarded one by one when their usefulness was spent, like a trail of autumn leaves littering the plot. Just when you get to know one, bang, he’s gone and with barely a second thought on Jorg’s part. Which is, of course, entirely in line with his personality at this point. Life is a game, and if you get too close to the playing pieces, you only get hurt. Use them however you have to and don’t waste time agonising over it.

The most interesting character to me was Jorg’s father, a king who never showed the slightest care for or interest in his eldest son and heir. That’s an unusual position to take, since the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is to nurture your offspring well enough to take over the running of the kingdom. I’m not sure how much of that was his own twisted personality and how much was outside influences affecting his judgment. Not sure I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, so let’s just say he’s a total bastard and be done with it.

There were one or two other places where I wondered about motivation. Katherine, for instance, was a bit of a puzzle. She dislikes Jorg because of Galen, yet she unaccountably decides to help him. Sounds suspiciously like ‘because the plot required it’ to me. Sometimes the magic seemed a little bit convenient too, but that’s in the nature of magic so I can let it go. For those who like ghosts and monsters and necromancers and all-round creepy things, there’s enough here for all tastes, flitting in and out of Jorg’s life like glow-in-the-dark moths.

This is not a book for everyone. People seem to love it or hate it, and the very first chapter is as polarising as anything in the book. We first see Jorg and his pals joyously slaughtering the men of an entire village, scavenging the bodies for valuables and collecting the heads as macabre souvenirs. Then, just as cheerfully, they set about raping as many of the women as they can, before burning the village and all survivors. And it’s not merely what they do, but the cheerful, joky way Jorg relates the tale that will either horrify or, frankly, amuse. I loved the humour, but obviously not everyone responds that way.

For those who find it reprehensible to portray a main character who is not merely unheroic but so wicked that he seems unredeemable I would say: this is exactly what fantasy is for, to explore the otherwise unthinkable. Not every book has to portray an Enid Blyton world view, where bad people get their come-uppance and good people always triumph in the end. Sometimes the story of one abnormally evil person, however it ends, is more illuminating than a hundred more balanced portrayals. This is an utterly compelling portrait of a young man growing up in a society which seems to reward the dishonourable. It will be fascinating to see where the author takes Jorg and how much wisdom he gains in maturity. And whether he even survives, of course. A brilliantly conceived and written book. Five stars.  

Books in Series

Prince of Thorns
King of Thorns
Emperor of Thorns

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Comments on: "Fantasy Review: ‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence" (2)

  1. I liked this book overall, but I agree with your “what you didn't like” assessment. Jorg was a bit too much of everything for someone so young. But I liked the story, kept reading, and got even more intrigued as the whole Red Castle episode unfolded. I'll probably read the next book, but not right away. It was that sort of read for me.

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