Book Review: Prince of Thorns
Author: Mark Lawrence ~ Length: 373 pp ~
Publisher: HarperCollins Voyager ~ Year: 2011
Reviewer: Laure Eve (aka @LaureEve)
The Low-Down: A younger, snappier twist on the epic fantasy game, Prince of Thorns may not rock your world, but it’s still an impressive work from a debut author, and marks the arrival of a gutsy new talent on the fantasy scene.
What’s it About?: Prince Jorg of Ancrath, young heir to one throne of many in a brutal and broken kingdom, spends his time raping, pillaging, and brooding over the day his mother and younger brother were murdered in front of him. But as he moves through his determined and bloody journey to become emperor over all, is he really in control of his savage destiny, or is someone else pulling the strings?
The Story: Things are full steam ahead for epic fantasy at the moment. Sean Bean’s craggy grim face and Northern twang dominated screens very recently in HBO’s A Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin is now a name pinging recognition in even mainstream critics’ brains. And good thing too, because of all fantasy genres, sword and sorcery is the one in most danger of stagnation. It’s hard to innovate when the setting and environment are in general so rigidly structured, so hats off to a debut author having a pretty decent stab at it. If you’re looking for originality in your epic fantasy, don’t let the one-size-fits-all cover of Prince of Thorns put you off. The appearence of yet another mysterious cloaked figure may just be enough to make the eyes of a large swathe of readers roll and look elsewhere, but try this out for size– you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The thing that has gotten people all abuzz over this book is the controversial angle of having a young protagonist who seems right from the off to be a psychopathic bastard. He gets the urge to kill people in the same way others might have a sudden, biting need for sugary confection. It’s an immediately intriguing set-up and one that really drives the narrative forward: why is he this way? Why is he this way at fourteen?
Perversely, the worse Jorg acts, the more interested you become in him and his ultimate purpose in life. It’s a hard trick to pull off, persuading the reader to care about a truly nasty protagonist, and it’s one that Lawrence tackles well, raising that most fascinating of debates over nature and nurture. Perhaps it’s understandable why someone could become such a cold, broken killer when it’s revealed what happened to him as a child, but it’s also true that people make choices; where one person is horribly wronged and turns sadistic murderer to cope with his scars, another, with the same experiences on his soul, would never even dream of raising a hand to a dog. How much choice do you have if you’re born into such a violent, uncompromising environment as Jorg is, with a father who seems to have a large, sucking hole where his heart should be?
The second thing that really lifts this book out of the ordinary masses is the prose itself. Lawrence has a way with words – at turns funny, cruel, sharply witty and downright lyrical, his turn of phrase keeps you locked right in. This is spare storytelling and no mistake, but words are used in just the right way. From the casual, morbid poetry of the opening paragraphs to the resolute, aggressive set up line for the next book at the very end, this is a writer confident with both voice and language. Jorg in particular has a great tone, his witticisms tinged with the faintest air of Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
This isn’t a perfect work, however, and the structure in particular feels pedestrian. A scene at one location happens; a new chapter starts; lo, we are at another location. At times it feels as if the story moves on in stiff jerks, with no time for the reader to absorb and pause with the characters. Keeping it fast and jagged, reflecting the nature of both the people and the world, is one thing; having no sense of journey, and thus no sense of achievement or even believability in the extraordinary things Jorg does is another.
Makin is another puzzle. Makin is Jorg’s supposed best friend – a knight, and clearly a man with a strong moral code. Why does he pad around after Jorg like a faithful dog? What drives him? Sometimes it’s plain that he doesn’t like or approve of Jorg’s behaviour, though you suppose he may be able to understand where it comes from. At other times, the moment he is first introduced in fact, he seems to enjoy the rape and pillage as much as the worst of Jorg’s motley ‘road brothers’. We’re shown Makin has a strong sense of honour, but then he continually disproves it with his actions. He isn’t clearly written as a conflicted character, so unfortunately this comes across as jarring. However, it is clear that his story is very much in the middle, so perhaps we’ll see a more clearly drawn picture of him in the books to come.
Now to magic. There’s plenty of the stuff in Prince of Thorns, and a recognisably distrustful view of those who wield it. Magic in this world is for weird, powerful figures with secretive end games and twisted agendas. Set in conjunction to this, and fascinatingly so, is the history of the world itself. Small nuggets of clues are dropped, and no more – thankfully, there is no ponderous exposition to tackle. It’s nice and light, but unmistakable in its intentions. Without getting too spoiler-tastic, the time and place of this world is important, and when taking into consideration the existence of magic in this setting, things start to get very interesting.
Lawrence has created a world that feels, for the most part, real and dark and dripping with Shakespearian intrigue. The short, vibrant prose makes it young and fresh, and in Prince Jorg the book gives us the rare gift of a conflicted, damaged protagonist who you end up rooting for, even if you then feel a bit odd about doing so.
The Verdict: Some haphazard pacing and too much character work left hanging make this less than perfect, but overall Prince of Thorns is a short, sharp shock of epic fantasy and a really impressive debut.