Prince of Thorns: Sarcastic, action-packed, and economical

fantasy book reviews Mark Lawrence The Broken Empire 1. Prince of ThornsPrince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

CLASSIFICATION: Prince of Thorns is R-rated epic fantasy that combines Robert E. Howard/Glen Cook-like sword-and-sorcery action with George R. R. Martin-inspired court intrigue and a revenge-driven plot that would make Joe Abercrombie proud. Because of a young protagonist whose accomplishments defy his age and abilities, and a fantasy world that seems to be a different version of Earth, I was also reminded of Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God, while the novel’s dark tone and gritty atmosphere evoked thoughts of David Keck and Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains.

FORMAT/INFO: Prince of Thorns is 336 pages long divided over 49 numbered chapters. Narration is in the first person, exclusively via Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath. Prince of Thorns ends at a satisfying stopping point, but is the first volume in The Broken Empire trilogy. August 2, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Prince of Thorns via Ace Books. The UK version (see below) will be published on August 4, 2011 via Harper Voyager. Cover art is provided by Jason Chan. More information, including a Map and a Cast of Characters, can be found at Mark Lawrence’s Official Website.

ANALYSIS: Neal Asher is an author whose opinion I admire and respect. So when he wrote on his blog that Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was “the best fantasy read I’ve had since Alan Campbell’s Scar Night”, I immediately added the book to my wishlist. After all, I read Scar Night because of Asher’s recommendation, and since then, Campbell has become one of my favorite fantasy authors. With Mark Lawrence, it’s too early to say whether he’ll become a favorite of mine, but Prince of Thorns certainly left a strong first impression.

Speaking of first impressions, Prince of Thorns had me worried initially because of its young protagonist who acts and performs feats that seem impossible for his years — the novel features Jorg at ages nine and fourteen. More troubling, however, was the world of Prince of Thorns, which is like an alternate version of Earth, or a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has evolved back to medievalism. Personally, I prefer fantasy that is as far removed from the real world as possible — there are exceptions, as long as the names are changed and a creative effort is made — so it was disappointing to see God, Jesus, the Devil, Euclid, Plato, Sun Tzu, Socrates, Aristotle, Robin Hood, Nietzsche, Gog/Magog, Hercules and Shakespeare all make appearances in a novel that I consider epic fantasy. Fortunately, compared to how much I enjoyed the rest of the book, the setting and Jorg’s young age are minor complaints.

Surprisingly, Prince of Thorns’ greatest asset is Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath himself. Jorg may be ruthless, immoral, and way too young to be accomplishing the things that he does in Prince of Thorns, requiring a strong suspension of disbelief, but he’s also incredibly fascinating. A tragic past, supporting characters that are even more ruthless than Jorg — King Olidan, Sageous, Corion, Rike, etc. — and contemporary fantasy novels that celebrate antiheroes (Monument, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Malazan Book of the Fallen, ASOIAF, The Steel Remains, anything by Joe Abercrombie) all contribute to the prince’s appeal, but the main reason Jorg captured my sympathy is because of a compelling first-person narrative rife with revealing insights, interesting observations about his ‘brothers’, and amusing words of wisdom:

  • The pain became my enemy. More than the Count Renar, more than my father’s bartering with lives he should have held more precious than crown, or glory, or Jesu on the cross. And, because in some hard core of me, in some stubborn trench of selfish refusal, I could not, even at ten years of age, surrender to anything or anyone. I fought that pain. I analysed its offensive, and found its lines of attack. It festered, like the corruption in a wound turned sour, drawing strength from me. I knew enough to know the remedy. Hot iron for infection, cauterize, burn, make it pure. I cut from myself all the weakness of care. The love for my dead, I put aside, secure in a casket, an object of study, a dry exhibit, no longer bleeding, cut loose, set free. The capacity for new love, I burned out. I watered it with acid until the ground lay barren and nothing there would sprout, no flower take root.
  • Most men have at least one redeeming feature. Finding one for Brother Rike requires a stretch. Is ‘big’ a redeeming feature?
  • War, my friends, is a thing of beauty. Those as says otherwise are losing.
  • You got responsibilities when you’re a leader. You got a responsibility not to kill too many of your men. Or who’re you going to lead?
  • Hangings, beheadings, impalement, oh my!
  • You soon learn there’s no elegance or dignity in death if you spend time in the castle kitchens. You learn how ugly it is, and how good it tastes.
  • On the road, shit has the decency to stink.

Concise storytelling is the second best attribute in Prince of Thorns, with brisk pacing, short chapters and a slim page count highlights of the novel. Factor in a story that boils down to an age-old tale of bloody revenge, and it’s no surprise that Prince of Thorns is a remarkably fast and intense read, especially compared to most epic fantasy. Of course, there’s more to Prince of Thorns than simple vengeance. Well-timed flashbacks — the assassination of Jorg’s mother and brother, his recovery, meeting the Nuban and his ‘brothers’ for the first time, etc. — court intrigue that references GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire (“a sacrifice to the iron will I needed to win the game of thrones”), and dark magic all work together to flesh out the book’s content, while keeping readers on their toes. The novel’s ending is a bit predictable because of Jorg’s first-person POV and the nature of the book, but Prince of Thorns will leave readers hungering for more.

World-building may be sparse — Builders, the Day of a Thousand Suns, the Broken Empire — but this works to the novel’s advantage, keeping the page count lean while providing a sense of mystery. This is also true of the characterization, which is minimal apart from Jorg, although the camaraderie between the prince and his ‘brothers’ is skillfully executed. Magic, meanwhile, which includes lich, dream-witches, leucrota, an oracle, necromancers, etc., is not very original, but it does add various layers of danger and intrigue to the book.

CONCLUSION: In a year teeming with fantasy debuts — Among Thieves, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, Of Blood and Honey, Songs of the Earth, The Desert of Souls, The Unremembered, The Whitefire Crossing, The Winds of Khalakovo — Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is one of the year’s best thanks to a captivating antihero in Prince Jorg, Jorg’s compelling first-person narrative, and a story full of brutal sword-and-sorcery action, treacherous court intrigue, and cold-blooded revenge.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book reviews Mark Lawrence The Broken Empire 1. Prince of ThornsTrapped in a thorn bush, ten-year-old Prince Jorg watches in horror as his mother and brother are savagely murdered. A mere few years later, Jorg is the ruthless leader of a band of cold-blooded outlaws, raiding village after village on a path to vengeance through a land plagued by feudal wars.

If you’re a Joe Abercrombie fan, I’ll give you Greg’s bona-fide 100% guarantee you’ll love Prince of Thorns. I’m not implying in any way that Mr. Lawrence is an Abercrombie clone. Lawrence’s writing is definitely all his own but his dark tone, cleverness, and realism make a perfect match to Abercrombie’s stuff.

Prince of Thorns is written as a first-person narrative told by Jorg. It’s a grim revenge story that, except for a couple supernatural elements, reads just like medieval historical fiction. In fact, as I read it, I struggled to figure out what made this book fantasy. Then, just shy of halfway through, in only a few sentences, Lawrence turned the whole thing upside down. Actually, he really did it with one word, but at the time, I was so wrapped up in the story that I missed that word for what it was. Maybe other readers are smart enough to catch on sooner than I did. Regardless, get a good grip on the arms of your favorite reading chair before you get floored. I don’t want to give any more away because discovering where and when this story is set is a huge part of the excitement. So I’ll leave at this: in the span of a few paragraphs, this book went from a standout debut to shining genius.

The violent deaths of Jorg’s mother and brother, his torturous recovery from a fever brought on by the poison of the thorns, as well as the cruel upbringing in his father’s castle, all seem to have made Jorg into a monster. Or maybe those things just brought the monster to the surface. Jorg is more merciless than his marauding cohorts, maybe even more than his enemies. And he’s just barely in his teens. Usually, I can’t buy into a child character that acts more like an adult, let alone be a military leader of hardened men. Not only did I buy it this time, I ate it up. I’m always amazed when an author can create such a connection to a villainous character. It’s a little disconcerting, but I can’t deny that I like this guy. With Jorg, it’s always all or nothing. Most times, he hasn’t a clue what he’ll do until he does it. He is so defiant that sometimes he even feels compelled to go against his own plans! This line defines Jorg in a nutshell: “I don’t like to get angry. It makes me angry.” Call me sick, but not only do I find that hilarious but I just get it.

Lawrence’s style is so much fun to read. He’s a master at one-liners and I found the entire book quotable. It’s sarcastic, action-packed, and economical. Lawrence is one of those writers with an exceptional talent for saying a lot with few words. The story reads fast and the reader ends up in a totally different place than he or she ever expected.

Prince of Thorns is the first book of THE BROKEN EMPIRE trilogy, but it stands just fine by itself. It’s a book with a real conclusion instead of an installment with a cliffhanger. But Jorg definitely has more tales to tell and I’ll be there to hear them. However, as exciting as hanging out with Jorg is, I’d never trust him enough to turn my back to him.

~Greg Hersom

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

View all posts by Robert Thompson (RETIRED)


  1. I ran across this the other day and thought it looked good. After seeing your review, its got to go onto my TBR list.

  2. I think Prince of Thorns is right up your alley Greg :)

  3. I am reading this right now and rather enjoying it. I am glad I splurged and bought a copy!

  4. I just placed a hold on this at my local library, especially since it’s the October selection for the Fantasy Book Club at GoodReads. Excellent review, Greg.

  5. Can’t wait to see what you think.:)
    I really loved this one. Can’t wait until the next book.

  6. I’m curious to see how much this compares to Abercrombie (although I have yet to finish the last book of his series, or the two stand-alones). I forgive you for slaying the vocabulary beast. :)

  7. I’m anxious to see where/when you think this story takes place, at least after the first few pages.
    Abercrombie and Lawrence could be brothers or at least, drinking buddies. :)

  8. I will definitely be reading this one!

  9. Had the pleasure of reading this pre release, one the of the most enthralling reads i’ve had in a long time. Buy this and you’ll struggle to put it down.

  10. What Rhino says!!
    Kat, it’s awesome! Lawrence is a new favorite author of mine.

  11. I have this one my TBR shelf and wish I had the time to get to it sooner. I was very intrigued by the review on, which was rather negative but in a way that made it sound like something I’d like (and also got some rather harsh criticism from a representative of its publisher). I hope I can get to it sooner rather than later.

  12. Stefan, me too. It was one of those negative reviews that made me more curious about the book, rather than less. I believe that writing a sexist setting or character isn’t necessarily the same thing as promoting or condoning it. It’s all in what you do with it.

  13. I read that same review and it also did the same thing. I can’t remember much of what it said though other than me thinking maybe the reviewer should go read, Wheel of Time or something.
    I’m really anxious to see what all your thoughts are about it. I really enjoy reading your reviews of books that I’ve reviewed.
    FanLit reviewers just rock!!! \m/

  14. I finished this at lunch today. Compelling read. I believe I nailed down when (if not where, since the landscape has been altered) this novel occurs. I noted in my status updates at GoodReads the spots where I began to suspect and where I confirmed it.

    This world and protagonist reminded me of Brett’s The Painted Man. The drinking-buddies comparison between Lawrence and Abercrombie seems apropos, but I still think Abercrombie has the edge for raw, visceral, riveting battle scenes. But Lawrence’s Jorg pulled at my motherly instincts, where the Bloody Nine appalled me so much I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the page.

  15. What kept throwing me was references to “Hundred Year War” conflicting with the map at the beginning.

    I need to give Brett’s stuff a gander myself.

    Awesome assessments of Abercrombie and Lawerance. :)

  16. If you read carefully, I don’t think Lawrence actually ever wrote ‘Hundred Year War’ … I think he always said ‘Hundred War’ (with the explanation in the closing section of the book). I also fell for that trap and refreshed my memory on the famous Hundred Year War started by William the Conqueror.

    You’ll enjoyed Brett’s novels, I predict. :)

  17. You are absolutely correct Jon. In fact now that you mention it, when I first ready “Hundred War” I was thinking that Lawrence was eluding to “The Hundred Year War” and was just putting a twist to it. Jorg even comments a few times that the war had started long before they were born.

    Very slick of Mr. Lawrence.


  1. Mark Lawrence - Page 8 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums - [...] Originally Posted by I, Brian I think I probably will - The Judge linked to the Tor …

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