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Fantasy Review: ‘Emperor of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence

It’s a strange thing, but I had ‘Prince of Thorns’ sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I’d read the reviews, I knew something of what it was about, I knew it would be good, but I kept putting it off. Part of me felt: well, it’s probably not as good as the rumours have it, I’ll only be disappointed so no point in rushing. Eventually, when not just the second but the third book in the trilogy was imminent, I grudgingly made the time for it. And it blew me away. The second part, ‘King of Thorns’, was a spottier affair with some creakiness, but I loved it despite those weaknesses. And here I am with the final part of the story, and I already know it really is final. The author has said there will be no more.

A brief recap, with spoilers for books 1 and 2: Jorg is still king of the tiny mountain kingdom of Renar, but since his defeat of the Prince of Arrow, he’s acquired several more kingdoms. He’s married to Miana, an alliance which secured the help of his maternal kin in the battle against Arrow. This book has moved on a year or two, and Miana is now pregnant. The primary timeline is the journey to Vyene, the seat of the emperor, for the four-yearly congression where the petty kings and their ever-shifting allegiances try to agree on a new emperor. To vote on the matter, no less. I really like the idea of electing an emperor in a world of swords and castles and constant border wars. You’d think it would be settled on the battlefield, and to some extent it is (that’s how Jorg acquired some of his votes, after all), but in the end everyone gets together and negotiates. The secondary timeline carries on with the flashback sequence from book 2, with Jorg ambling about at the behest of the ‘ghost in the machine’, Fexler Brews (is that an anagram?), and grubbing around in the almost-but-not-quite-functional left-overs of the long-ago Builders’ world. There are other occasional flashbacks tossed out here and there, as appropriate. And instead of the strained device of Katherine’s diary, we get the journey of Chella, the necromancer.

For almost half the book, I was just a little disappointed. Many of the complaints I had about the second book are here again: the disjointed timeline that hops about, the seemingly random traveling through the landscape. The writing is not exactly lacklustre, the author is too adept for that, but it’s very repetitious in places. I’d like a pound for everyone who spat, or for every time giving birth was described as squeezing out a baby. Meh. But then suddenly everything cranks up a gear and we’re back with lots of glorious Jorgness and all’s right with the world again.

Jorg is a much more mature person now, although still prone to outbreaks of kill-everything temper. But he’s beginning to think more carefully about the consequences of his actions, and when he goes walkabout, he takes care to leave the rest of the crew behind out of harm’s way. When he does kill he has a reason for it (although yes, sometimes it’s pure revenge), and he takes care to leave the minimum of blameworthy mess behind him. He has more than just himself and his fellow road-brothers to consider – there’s the imminent arrival of his firstborn, and that’s an interesting challenge for him and no mistake. How will Jorg take to fatherhood, given his dire relationship with his own father?

None of the other characters quite rise to three-dimensional roundedness. He still has his sidekicks, Makin, Rike, Marten and so on, who have developed a solidity through familiarity, and a variety of lesser characters pass through his life, but they are no more than momentary glimpses. That’s appropriate, however, since this is entirely Jorg’s story, told in the first person, so we see these people as he sees them and when he moves on, they’re gone. This being our world in some future time (a thousand or more years in the future), it’s disappointing how much cultural baggage seems to have been carried along. The Catholic church, the African man who was an ex-slave, the Muslim Arab world – given the enormity of the ‘Day of a Thousand Suns’, the apocalyptic event a thousand or so years ago, and the number of people who must have died, and the turmoil since, it’s astonishing that any cultural norms survived unscathed. A thousand years is a very long time.

A word about women in Jorg’s world. It’s striking that all the dynamic characters are men. Men run most of the petty kingdoms, and beyond that there are few women even mentioned. Just occasionally a woman turns up where a man might be expected (a female Pope? Really? Even a thousand years from now? Did hell freeze over in the interim?), but generally speaking the female characters are an insignificant part of the plot. The men run kingdoms or wave swords about, but the women, not so much. Miana, a truly strong, proactive female, is only there as a single strike get-out-of-jail-free card in book 2, and to produce the son and heir in book 3. There is a moment at the very end where Miana is the blindingly obvious choice for one specific role, but no, Makin is chosen instead. Disappointing. Katherine does better, at least having an agenda of her own (even if I wasn’t always clear why she did certain things), but she is also sexual fantasy and motivation for Jorg, and her magic, cool as it is, is not much more than a convenient plot device. I would have loved her to do something truly worthwhile in the big finale, but no, she seems to have just as little purpose in this book as in book 2. And Chella? More sexual fantasy and plot device. As for the female Pope, I’m not sure whether that was a random gender-neutral choice, or whether Lawrence is actually making a point about organised religion here, but whatever the reason for it, I loved how Jorg dealt with her. Way to go, Jorg!

There are various aspects of the plot which come together beautifully as the book develops. One is the straightforward political story – the fractured empire with the unremitting squabbling for supremacy amongst those who see themselves as entitled to claim the emperor’s throne. Then there is the slowly revealed world left behind by the Builders, with their high-tech gizmos, some of which have survived intact, even though their original functions may have been long forgotten. There’s a cool game observant readers can play – spotting which modern device is actually masquerading as an unfathomably mysterious Builder artifact. Finally, there is magic – inadvertently released into the world by a Builder-created catastrophe and over time spinning increasingly out of control, so that even the dead walk again, led by the mysterious Dead King.

Then there’s the ending. There are several shifts before things come to a final stop, and some are as expected, and some are predictable in one way or another, and some are moments where I thought: ah, yes, I see where this is going. Except that it didn’t. And then a final switch that I didn’t see coming at all, but it is utterly brilliant and entirely fitting. Ever since I finished reading, the story has been swirling round in my head. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. It’s rare for a book to get under my skin quite so much. Partly that’s due to the towering personality of Jorg himself, both boy and man. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s totally unforgettable. Partly, too, it’s the unusual combination of medieval-style fantasy plus magic, with the still fuctioning technology of the Builders playing a very active role in events. And partly, of course, it’s the author’s spare writing style and uncompromising approach to telling the story. It may have offended some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with Jorg’s personality.

I’m not going to attempt to describe what these books are ‘about’. Everyone who reads them will have a different take on it. For me, it was Jorg’s sheer bloody-mindedness which struck a chord. If someone told him he couldn’t do something, his usual response was: just watch me. Something in me just loves that about him. Yes, he was a mess, an evil bastard who slaughtered his way to the top without remorse. Yet there were occasional hints about the normal well-meaning person he might have been if life had treated him better. There’s a flashback to a point when he’s about ten or so, and to earn the respect of his road brothers he volunteers to spy out the thieving possibilities of an abbey by joining as an orphan. He’s set to work with the other orphans:

“It turns out there’s a certain satisfaction in digging. Levering your dinner from the ground, lifting the soil and pulling fine hard potatoes from it, thinking of them roasted, mashed, fried in oil, it’s all good. Especially if it wasn’t you who had to tend and weed the field for the previous six months. Labour like that empties the mind and lets new thoughts wander in from unsuspected corners. And in the moments of rest, when we orphans faced each other, mud-cheeked, leaning on our forks, there’s a camaraderie that builds without you knowing it. By the end of the day I think the big lad, David, could have called me an idiot a second time and survived.”

I don’t think it gives away too much to say that Jorg’s time at the abbey doesn’t end well (it’s a flashback, after all), but for me this scene is the most poignant in the whole trilogy.

For those who hated the first book because of the way Jorg is – his propensity to kill, rape and otherwise cause havoc wherever he goes – you might like to know that this book puts his behaviour in a different perspective. Yes, he’s done some terrible things, and he does a few more in this book, but in the end his willingness to cross lines and think the unthinkable, his determination, his inability to compromise and his desire to put himself on the emperor’s throne whatever the cost are exactly what’s needed to take the final step to mend the Broken Empire. It had to be done, and it took a long time for the right person to come along. If Jorg is an extreme example of humankind, it’s because he needed to be.

This book, indeed the whole series, isn’t perfect. Nothing is. It is lumpy in places, and slow in others, and sometimes Jorg is too over-the-top for words. But it’s also sharply funny and slyly clever, and written in an incisive, focused style that makes a refreshing change from a lot of rambling fantasy. And that’s another question – is it even fantasy at all, since it veers so close to science fiction? To my mind, it transcends genre classifications altogether, and enters the realm of greatness. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece of in-depth character analysis, with an ingeniously interwoven setting and a mind-blowing and absolutely right ending. A fine piece of writing. Five stars.

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

Fantasy Review: ‘King of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence

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.
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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

Fantasy Review: ‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence

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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