Here be Dragons

Nathan’s review [23rd December 2012]:

While I try to keep them at a minimum, this review may contain some spoilers to ‘Prince of Thorns.’

What a difference fifty pages makes.  I had almost put the sequel to ‘Prince of Thorn’ down as a DNF, a slow start that just didn’t grab me up to a hundred pages in.  I decided to give it another fifty pages, and was rewarded for my patience.   But first a little background.
‘Prince of Thorns’ was a worthy debut novel, a book I called “a tight and focused sprint to the finish.”  It was the story of Jorg, a true villain (not an anti-hero, an actual villain) telling his incredibly dark and nasty story.  Set in a post-apocalypse Europe, it dealt with revenge and ascension in a land broken into hundreds of small kingdoms.   Any recommendation of the book had to come with some warnings though.  It was the poster child of GRIMDARK, with all the trappings one would expect.  Being seen all through the eyes of Jorg, it included casual murder, rape without consequence, and even a small holocaust.  While I keep a watch out for these things, and point them out, it was still a read that had me wishing to continue the story.

Which leads to why I had so many issues with the first third of ‘King of Thorns.’  The quick pace of the first book is gone, replaced by unexplained questing around the world.  In addition, the new Jorg is given a much more human face that doesn’t really mesh with the villain from the first book.  When he gives a valuable pre-apocalypse toy to a sick child I am not overcome with emotion on the grand gesture, but rather laughing at the abrupt change in character.  And while magic crept into the narrative the first time around, in ‘King of Thorns’ it was a constant companion.
The book was divided four ways; present day, four years ago, a long dream/memory Jorg is keeping in a box, and a memoir from Katherine, a character from the first book.   Katherine’s plotline truly added nothing, unless it is important for the third book I am disappointed by how much space it took to cumulate into nothing.  The memory box started off unexplained but eventually became an effective tool, allowing Jorg to keep the reader surprised with sudden bursts of knowledge.  The strength of the book came when the plotlines from the present day Jorg started meshing with the plotlines from 4 years past.  Suddenly the annoying travelogue has some purpose, and the book got to moving with the same pace that made the first book so compelling.
As long as a reader can separate new anti-hero Jorg from the first books villain, new Jorg is a pleasure to read about.  He is still a fairly ruthless man, but he does have some hints of compassion now, especially to longtime companions.  He starts to show himself as an almost genius tactician (perhaps a bit Gary Stu, but that carries over from the first book).  His long range battle plans were some of my favorite parts.  While this is the story of Jorg, a few of the other characters are pretty interesting as well.  The Prince of Arrow acts as the main competition to Jorg (though it is hard to call him the book’s villain).  He is smart, ruthless when he needs to be, and compassionate when he can be.  Jorg’s young wife also is a highlight (assuming you bought into a 14 year old Jorg in the first book, you should have no problem with her talents compared to her age). 
Past the first quarter or so the pacing of the book was a real plus.  Like the first book, it turned into a sprint in a good way, with a few exceptions.   Language and imagery were both strong.  An early scene involving a young Jorg’s dog was as brutal and hard to read as I have seen in dark fiction.  While the traveling slowed down the first section, Lawrence did a great job at bringing it all together near the end.  And for the most part, reference to “the builders” were clever, such as learning that an old parking garage is one of the fortresses Jorg visits.
A few other squabbles, what knowledge survived the unnamed tragedy that set the world back to feudal times is often too convenient.  Knowledge of steel folding and gunpowder is gone, but Mayan sports are remembered?  A character who says “watch me!” repeatedly seems to be a cheap trick to give him a memorable quirk.
I think the strengths of this book far outweigh my squabbles.  In many ways it is stronger than the first.  Jorg himself is certainly better rounded, my only problem was the abrupt shift of character.  I can and will forgive the slow pace of the first part, it certainly lead to an interesting conclusion.  I can’t overlook how incredibly inconsequential Katherine’s chapters were, especially as they got more and more space toward the end.  I hope the payoff from them comes in the last book, which is certainly going to be on my to-read list.
3 ½ stars.  This book really started to draw me in, and by the mid-point I was hooked.
Anachronist’s review: 

Honorous Jorg Ancrath has never exactly wanted to be a mere king but, as a mountainous strip of land falls into his hands he takes the crown and never looks back. A future emperor has to know his priorities, right? One step at a time…

Currently, in order to clear the path to his empire, he must defeat two Princes of Arrow, brothers Orrin and Egan. Many prophecies declare that a Prince of Arrow will be the next Emperor, able to unify the kingdoms and bring much-needed peace; the fact that one of the brothers marry Katherine of Scorron, Jorg’s beloved, only adds to his determination.Meanwhile Jorg himself has to marry for political reasons – without allies even he can’t dream of keeping his modest crown for long. He is surrounded by enemies, visible and invisible ones; one of them, Sageous, can even invade his dreams. Finally faced by an enemy many times his strength Jorg knows that he cannot win a fair fight. Fortunately playing fair was never part of Jorg’s game plan.

What will happen during King Jorg’s wedding day battle? Something spectacular, you might be sure of it.

What I liked:

I am glad to say young Jorg has matured a lot in the second installment. Compared to the previous part he became positively mellow. Not that he’s become a nice, flawless hero of course, but, compared to his previous self, that of a deranged, murderous child full of angst and something even darker, there was noticeable improvement.

There were several clever scenes in this book, most of them involving the clash of the “new-old” technology (like a nice Colt gun or a watch) with medieval artefacts. One of them reminded me strongly of Indiana Jones movies and therefore made me smile.

After reading this one I admit I am even more curious what happened to the Builders and why the humankind had to return to the level straight from the Middle Ages when it comes to material culture. Oh and little Miana, Jorg’s betrothed, is an interesting creature, definitely worth more place in the next book.

What I didn’t like:

I admit the whole story lost a bit of momentum. Constant jumps forward and backward in the plot line were a bit bothersome, especially at the beginning, before you get into the rythm of the narration.

Also the POV of Katherine was, in my humble opinion, not such a great idea; in most of her diary entries the girl simply didn’t have anything important to say and when she finally did, she disappeared (a spoiler, highlight to read or skip) most probably killed during the big blaze which consumed the Prince of Arrow’s army. I hope she will stay absent – she was getting annoying with her “I-hate-Jorg-I-love-hating-Jorg-so-much-that-I-almost-love-him” soliloquy.

Final verdict:

Not bad continuation of an interesting series but I found it weaker than the first part. Well, the ending will be decisive I suppose and I am still interested enough to continue reading. Three stars.

Pauline’s Review [7th August 2013]:

Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also setting up the climax of the third without being able to resolve the big questions. All too often it feels like drifting – there’s motion of a sort, but it’s slow or undirected. There’s an element of that here. What seems like the main plot, the massive army of the Prince of Arrows camped at Jorg’s gate, seems to play second fiddle to the flashback story which feels like nothing so much as a road trip. If it had a magic gizmo to be found or a Big Bad to defeat, we could call it a quest, but actually it just feels like ambling through the scenery. Look, a circus. And some Vikings. Here’s a swamp, and some ghosts, and ooh! zombies! And now let’s visit the family. Wait, now we’ve got a sort of murder mystery. It’s all a bit choppy. Of course, even a road trip is brilliant fun with Jorg.

To recap: the fourteen-year-old who grabbed a throne as part of his revenge plot in book 1 is now eighteen, getting married and simultaneously facing up to the massive army of the would-be emperor, the Prince of Arrows. Interspersed with that are flashbacks starting four years earlier, filling in some of the missing four years. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also snippets from the journal of Katherine, Jorg’s step-aunt, for whom he has the hots, which are also flashbacks and also reveal crucial information just when the author wants to. And on top of all that is possibly the most outrageous device ever for witholding information from the reader – the memory box. This is an ingenious twist on the old bump on the head amnesia trick; Jorg has done something so terrible that the memory of it has been taken from his mind and put into a box. So we get little reveals trickled out over the whole course of the book as Jorg almost-but-not-quite opens the box.

I have to be honest and say that I found these different threads confusing. In ‘Prince of Thorns’, there was a now plot and a four-years-ago plot, and the two wove together very well. Here, the multiple timelines meant that more than once I had a wait-I-thought-he-was-dead moment, and had to think quite carefully to work it out. It’s very disconcerting to grieve over the death of a character one moment only to have him appear alive and well a few pages later. Sometimes it felt like there was a page or three missing. At one point, Katherine turns up with the Brothers – why? How did that happen? And the calculated dribbling of those reveals felt quite contrived, especially the big one at the end, which borders on cheating.

The background to this world continues to open up in intriguing ways. When I read ‘Prince’, there was still room for a tiny sliver of doubt about this post-apocalyptic world, that perhaps it might be some parallel but freakishly similar world to our own, almost the same but not quite. Not any longer. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there can surely only be one world which has ‘American Pie’ in it. We get to see some of the Builders’ devices, and find out what the Tall Tower really is (or was, perhaps). I have to say, I’m not sure that I buy into the idea that such things could last a thousand years unscathed. I assume the Builders’ heyday was a little after our own, with technology just a bit more advanced.

Jorg has matured somewhat, which is hardly surprising. In the earlier parts, when he’s still around fourteen or so, he still has his let’s-just-do-this attitude, where he listens carefully to advice (“This is a bad idea, Jorg”) and then cheerfully ignores it. He’s still reckless and careless of his own (or anyone else’s) welfare. But by the latest time shown here (when he’s eighteen), he is definitely on top of his game, showing an astonishing degree of forward planning, and becoming quite philosophical to boot. He deals unexpectedly gently with his bride, Miana, and while he’s never exactly sentimental, he’s certainly less cavalier with his friends.

I have to say that Miana is one of my all time favourite fantasy princesses. She smart and resourceful and apparently just as likely to take the spectacular one-shot chance as Jorg, and she probably has the funniest lines in the book. Katherine, on the other hand – not sure what to make of her. I’m not at all sure what Jorg sees in her, except that she’s unattainable and therefore he’s determined to get her. Meh. The rest of the characters – I have to confess that I found the Brothers fairly undistinguishable. It’s not that they don’t have differences, it’s more that I can never remember which one is which. Plus Jorg sheds them like dandruff; no point getting attached to a character that could be dead two pages further on. Of the others, I liked Uncle Robert and Makin and Gog and the big guy (Gorgoth?). And the Vikings – gotta love the Vikings.

With book 1, I had very little to grumble about, and this review seems like a catalogue of complaints by contrast. Doesn’t matter. Jorg’s wild journey to the emperor’s throne is as compelling as ever. Lawrence has a wonderfully vivid writing style which makes even the craziest moments pop out into stark 3D relief, so that images linger unforgettably. In the cave with Ferrakind and Gog. The ghost in the basement. Miana and the ruby. The swamp. And the dog – ye gods, the dog. I’m sitting here trying not to cry just thinking about it. I rarely find books that have such emotional depth, and there’s also an intellectual depth, if I could only tear myself away from the racing story for a second to ponder it. I like Lawrence’s economical way with words, too; he never uses twenty or even ten words where four will do, but every one chosen with surgical precision.

I know not everyone approves of Jorg’s style. He’s basically a villain, a lying, cheating scumbag, and there’s a wonderful contrast here with the heroic Prince Orrin of Arrow, the honourable selfless leader that everyone likes. His meeting with Jorg early in the book is heart-rending. But this is not a story of heroes, and I loved watching Jorg’s progress. Yes, he cheats, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win, but he’s smart, he’s endlessly creative, he’s wickedly funny and he never hesitates to put his own life on the line. This book isn’t quite as smooth as the first book, but it’s still an astonishing performance. Five stars. And now on to ‘Emperor’… 

Books in the series.
Prince of Thorns
King of Thorns
Emperor of Thorns


Comments on: "Fantasy Review: ‘King of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence" (4)

  1. A great review, fairly reflecting my own impressions of this one.

    Katherine’s plotline truly added nothing, unless it is important for the third book I am disappointed by how much space it took to cumulate into nothing.

    Hear, hear. Unless she is not truly dead (and I hope she is because she was so boring) it was the most senseless feature of this part.

    In addition, the new Jorg is given a much more human face that doesn’t really mesh with the villain from the first book.

    It was quite a change I admit; it took me some time to buy into that new Jorg. On the one hand I was pleased that he started to have some positive feelings, on the other hand it was a bit spurious, like 'hey, I am a king now, I can afford being nicer especially to my people and some serving girls'.

  2. So good to hear. I always wonder when I get nit-picky if others see the same things I do or not.

    It really comes down to this, I like the character better in this book, and wouldn't have noticed the personality change at all if it all took place 4 years later. But as the “four years earlier” sections are immediately after the first book, it is like you said, “I am king, so new person!”

  3. I agree with nearly everything in your reviews. I had a very tough time getting into KoT, read half of it, put it down, waited 3 months to pick it back up again. I found the transition between the time frames and the dream/hallucination/memory in the box to be very disconcerting. more than once I didn't know where I was. memory? a planted memory? a flashback?

    there was more too it that King just suffering from “middle book” syndrome.

    I think this is one of those seires that works better if you read all three books in one fell swoop, not read one, wait a year. read the next one, wait 6 months. I have Emperor sitting here, and i should be excited to pick it up, right? right?

  4. RIGHT! Except I haven't jumped on it either…. I will get to it though, and I think Pauline is shotgunning the whole series, so she may let you know if reading all in a row is the way to go.

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