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.