Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark
Series: The Broken Empire #1
Publisher: Harper Voyager (April 12, 2012)
Author Information: Website | Twitter
Length: 399 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
I’d heard a lot about Prince of Thorns before I picked it up. Naturally, some of the reviews were positive and some of them were negative. After reading the novel, I can honestly say I understand both points of view, because I found myself mesmerized by Mr. Lawrence’s first-person narrative yet horrified at the person I was reading about. But, beyond any doubt, this is a book that every fantasy fan should read at least once — and many will read over and over again.
The bloody tale spun by Mark Lawrence centers on Jorg Ancrath. A ten year old who flees privilege to grow up with a band of highway men, stealing, raping, torturing, and killing everyone in his path, as he follows a convoluted pathway to revenge. Revenge against the man who killed his mother and brother, but also revenge against the world which has somehow failed him.
Now, Jorg is no hero, nor is he an anti-hero by anyone’s definition. In many reader’s eyes, Jorg will be evil incarnate, though I do not believe he views himself in quite that light himself. No, Jorg seems to picture himself above the petty, frailties of humanity, as if the hook-briars, which gave him his moniker, drained both his blood and his morality away at the same time. This allowed him to see life for what it really is, for as Jorg himself explains:
“When they killed him(Jorg’s brother), Mother wouldn’t hold her peace, so they slit her throat. I was stupid then, being only nine, and I fought to save them both. But the thorns held me tight. I’ve learned to appreciate thorns since. The thorns taught me the game. They let me understand what all those grim and serious men who’ve fought the Hundred War have yet to learn. You can only win the game when you understand that it IS a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him loose them all.”
Life is one huge chess board to Jorg, filled to the brim with pieces he can cast aside as he sees fit. Those you love or care for or feel responsibility toward are merely weaknesses, holding you down. “Anything that you cannot sacrifice pins you. Makes you predictable, makes you weak.” Indeed, to our young Prince of Thorns’ thinking, there is only one expectation placed upon any leader: “not to kill too many of your men. Or who’re you going to lead?” This is Jorg’s world view, which he pursues with a relentlessness seldom seen in fantasy novels.
But he has other endearing qualities though, right?
Nope. Not any that I recall.
In Jorg’s defense, his is an esoteric view of reality, which justifies all his moral faults, because his cruelty and heartlessness are merely the true state of man’s nature, not the lies people tells themselves about honor or love or being a “good man.” (Survival of the fittest on steroids, if you will.) No, those antiquated notions of “civilized” people are the lies . . . the deceptions to Jorg. Only he truly appreciates men and the world they have built for themselves, the untruths people have plastered upon the true face of reality to make themselves feel better. Life is about surviving and obtaining what you desire. The truth is that “pride” is what drives man, makes him reach for something higher than himself, and forces him to sacrifice anyone and everything in order to achieve it.
Jorge explains this view of reality to his peeping toms (readers) throughout the book. His thoughts laying out a framework that points to each man deciding his own fate. No god controls Jorg Ancrath. No divinity or morality defines him. He is a primal force of nature, exhibiting to all around him that man is the god of this world and can live his life however he chooses. The evils, which he metes out against his fellow human, merely an expression of his divine right to set his own rules, master his own fate, and play the game the way it was meant to be played – unless you have the strength to stop him from doing so!
That is the reality Jorg Ancrath demands that you look at and understand. Many times, it seems he is standing over his next victim yelling at the reader to take a good look, because this is what awaits you when you set yourself up as gods. For when every person is their own god and can define their own morality, there is nothing left to stop a Jorg Ancrath except brute force. Might makes right!
Now, it is no easy task to write a character as devious, blood-thirsty and committed to his world view as Jorg. Most times an author who tries, fails due to the believability factor. A few too many rapes or people tortured, and the character ascends into the land of fairy tales, where witches live in ginger bread houses and cook lost children in their ovens. However, Mr. Lawrence never crosses that imaginary line into unbelievability. Jorg’s mixture of philosophical musings and absolute viciousness creates a character who seems as real as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin on a History Channel documentary.
Even the constant flashbacks between present and past Mr. Lawrence uses to tell Jorg’s tale doesn’t detract from this book. Normally, I cannot stand an author jerking me from place to place, and especially from present to past, but here Mr. Lawrence does it so seamlessly that it never disrupts the natural flow of the novel but actually adds another element of enjoyment, as a reader is allowed to put the jig-saw pieces together to understand how Jorg Ancrath became this monster you are reading about.
But the cherry on top of all this is Mr. Lawrence writing slight of hand, as the standard, medieval fantasy setting is turned on its head and turns out to be so much more than a reader initially expected. This mysterious history only adds to one’s desire to explore, discover and learn about this world, which has birthed and nurtured a Prince of Thorns.
Now, there are always thing about a book that do not work no matter how good it is. Prince of Thorns had it share of those like every other novel. I’d feel remiss if I did not point out my few criticism of the novel.
First, Jorg routinely accomplishes physical feats at nine, ten and fourteen that seem impossible. Perhaps I feel this way because I have an 11 year old and 9 year old son, but it is true nonetheless, because no child – no matter how mentally deranged – would have the brute strength to do many of the things Jorg supposedly does when he is so young. Even at fourteen years old, the believability factor of many of Jorg’s physical accomplishments just seems ridiculous.
Two, Jorg’s descent into madness seemed a bit too quick. He is shown as a normal, well-adjusted child of royalty; all the privileges of life accruing to him before his mother and brother’s tragic killings. Hell, he himself says his mother would leave their home before criminals were executed to spare him from such atrocious events. So, I believe it is fair to say Jorg Ancrath was “sheltered” in his world’s context from the true horrors of life. However, our normal, nine year old becomes the poster child for sociopaths everywhere over night basically. It just was too much of a stretch for me, even though I enjoyed reading about it.
Third, Jorg constantly rolls the dice of chance, counting on his deviousness and pure luck to allow him to win every encounter he finds himself in. And throughout the book, he makes wilder and wilder decision; many with no real plan at all, yet it always works out for Jorg. He wins time and again against impossible odds, where no one would have been able to overcome the fundamental difficulties of what he was attempting, but which poses little hindrance to Jorg’s inevitable triumph.
[spoileralert] To those who do not understand what I am referring to, I’ll give one example, though there are many throughout the book. At one point in the tale, Jorg ends up at his childhood home with his father the king, has a confrontation with dear old dad, and is then stabbed by his father. Of course, even though dad wants Jorg dead, he doesn’t kill him or have him killed. Nope, the man who stabbed Jorg has him taken and throw on his mother’s sarcophagus, where he is left to die. Not even a guard to make sure he dies. Nothing like that. Dear old dad just forgets all about his son, whom he wanted dead.
Jorg lays in this state near unto death for days if not weeks until he amazingly recovers. The Prince of Thorns has overcome the laws of nature, recovering from a wound that nearly pierced his heart, overcame dehydration, lack of food for days or weeks, and the onset of infection in said wound, even though he obviously had no medical care. And when he finally awakes, Jorg is seemingly in better shape than one of his companions, who has been imprisoned the whole time but presumably was given food and water occasionally. All this without magic or divine intervention. At least, if either of those had been present, it would have made sense, but as it was written, Jorg is just superhuman I suppose.
Four, Jorg and everyone else in the book are basically not worth killing. No good guys at all here. While it was refreshing to read about a truly evil character like Jorg, I also had nothing to contrast his despicableness against. I personally find it more interesting when there are two sides in a confrontation, where I can “root” for someone. Here, Jorg is basically killing other people who act as viciously as he does or people who happen to be around when he wants to kill someone, so I never really “cared” about the outcome, because I did not have anyone to “root” for or against.
To sum up, other reviewers have hailed Mark Lawrence’s book as “a breath of fresh air in a genre where characters often fall flat.” I won’t go that far, but I will say it is an interesting twist on the traditional, fantasy genre. The story of a sociopath, wielding a sword to destroy his fellow humans while espousing his own brand of morality, was an interesting read. No matter how distasteful Jorg is – and believe me he does not have a single redeeming quality to salvage his soul in this book – you find yourself wanting to read more about his story, hoping that somewhere along the line he has an epiphany that reveals his erroneous morality, or that a true hero shows up and cuts his heart out. Neither happens in this book, but there are two more books to read. Hope springs eternal as the old saying goes.
Buy Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire Book 1) at Amazon.
[spoiler] You rather missed the point. Jorg’s wound was obviously fatal, so no guard was needed, and it was Katherine who had him taken to the tomb. He survives because he ate the necromancer’s heart and, yes, is literally superhuman.
I totally understand your point, but I will respond with the obvious: Jorg’s father is not a “good” man by Jorg’s own descriptions, wants Jorg dead, and has attempted to kill him publically. The probability of dear old dad not “finishing” the job, cutting Jorg’s head off and putting it on the castle wall or something such as that is zero. This is especially true since dear old dad didn’t care that his wife or other son were assassinated. Lawrence also has made such a big deal of showing that in this reality atrocities are common place and done without batting an eyelid, so why would Jorg’s body not be cut into pieces and publically displayed as was common place in real life medieval society. With all that being the case, a king isn’t just going to allow someone he views as a threat to not be completely eliminated. Jorg’s dad is not written as being either naive or stupid. Allowing Jorg any chance of recovery would be absolutely stupid, which dear old dad was not.
As for the superhuman trait you pointed out, did Lawrence really ever say exactly how Jorg was “superhuman.” I mean, am I to assume he has turned into Wolverine with a healing factor that allows him to almost instantly recover from every wound, disease, or illness that he now receives plus survive dehydration or caloric starvation. Because that is what you are suggesting, and if that is the case then Jorg is now a supervillain right out of a cartoon. He is impervious to anything that would harm him. Hell, Wolverine doesn’t age either. Does Jorg? Wonder why? Guess no one has needed that in the story yet; I’m sure he will have that ability next. It reads like an old Superman comic, where every time Superman encountered a new kind of villain he discovered a new superpower to save the day. Not very realiztic even in a fantasy, dystopian story.
Like I said, I enjoyed this book, but Jorg was written as superhuman before he ever ate the heart. At nine/ten, he is outsmarting and killing battle hardened men who outweigh him by 200 hundred or so pounds. Really? I mean, shit like that happens every day doesn’t it? Thats why they let ten year old fight in the UFC or MMAs in general. Also, every fight Jorg gets in he basically runs in, tells everyon “I’m going to kill this man, and if you interfere I will eat your heart out” then he kills one person and the other ten do nothing and run away. Really? Every stinking fight he intimidates battle hardened warriors into not trying to kill him and basically lets him kill their captain, lord, or whatever. Hell, talk about factually impossible.
Honestly, it’s an interesting book to read. It also reads like a comic book. Not realistic worth a damn. No one says you can’t dig Jorg, but I would caution you not to try any of Jorg’s devious battle tactics in real life (which obviously I know the book was not real life). I deal with gangs and murderers all the time in my profession, and you don’t ever see someone run into a gang of street mean gangster while screaming “You better not shoot me while I kill your gang boss, ’cause if you try to stop me I’ll eat your heart out.” That is called suicide, not outsmarting anyone. An idiot who acted like Jorg would get about a dozen gunshot wounds, because there is zero probability at least 1 person isn’t going to shot at you. Just like there is zero probability one warrior wouldn’t have helped their leader when Jorg attacked solo. And remember you are suppose to do this when you are ten to fourteen years old too. Important fact there.
Honestly, I enjoyed the characterization of Jorg by Lawrence more than the story. I personally had to jsut ignore the “cartoony” aspects of the novel and focus on reading such a great portrayal of a sociopath. Jorg is a classic sociopath, his every philosophical comment making it more and more obvious, but even knowing all that, I highly enjoyed him rationalizing every horrid thing he did. Of course, in real life, there are numerous examples of sociopaths like Jorg; you can read about most any Roman Emperor, and you will see exactly the same sort of behavior. I mean, Caligula comes to mind, but his dear grand-uncle Tiberius was probably worse. Read about some of Tiberius’ psychotic behaviors here. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-401321/Romans-palace-deparavity.html
I would imagine you should judge his ‘powers’ by what you see. If someone shoots wolverine in the head the bullet pops out 20 seconds later.
Jorg is stabbed and spends a day or more unconscious then comes to very weak. It’s all there.
I don’t see why Lawrence should have Jorg’s father butcher his son because you think he should. The fact is that he didn’t and that tells us where he draws the line in the business of killing his children. (There’s a big difference between not going to war over a child being killed and actually killing that child yourself. Another big difference between stabbing someone and dismembering their body).
Those are very good points, and I totally understand what you are saying. However, as I explained, my feelings about how Jorg’s father would behave are based upon how Jorg himself describes his dad. (Forgive me not quoting the passages, but I don’t have the book with me).
By Jorg’s words, his dad cared not one wit for him, sets him up to be killed by the swordsman whom Jorg kills with the crossbow and then stabs his son himself in public. Dear old dad also refers to Jorg as “the boy” instead of son does he not?
So – no disrespect intended – I don’t really see why a guy like this would become squeamish or sentimental and draw a line about not displaying his son’s body or dismembering it or making sure “the boy” is dead. Doesn’t sound too realistic to me, but like I said numerous times, it is just my opinion.
As for Jorg’s “powers” I still argue that Jorg was mortally wounded, received no medical attention, no food, or water yet miraculously recovered. He also was in far better shape after wakign up than his friend in the dungeon who was not “mortally” wounded and had – more than likely – received some small amount of food and water. Just seems unrealistic. I believe most people die within 3 days without water, but the time is much shorter if they have lst massive amounts of blood and are “mortally” injured. Just saying. . .
When I said I don’t understand Jorg’s powers, what I am suggesting is that Jorg never had these “powers” until he just need them to overcome a problem, and then they miraculously appeared. That is why I pointed out the old “It’s great to be Superman in a Superman comic because you always get a new power to beat the villain with” argument. I hope Jorg doesn’t become taht, because he is too “unique” a character to do that for every problem in the next two books, which I do intend to read soon.
Great arguments guys, really enjoyed thinking them through. 🙂
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Thanks for the awesome review. Prince of Thorns sounds like a uniquely dark read. While I do love heroic fantasy, I’m interested to give this book a go and explore some of the more twisted minds in the fantasy genre!
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