Title: Prince of Thorns
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Paperback: 373 pages
Publication Date: 12/04/2012
I have always been a little wary when an author’s book is compared to another author on the cover of a book. I understand having an author quotation praising the book on the cover, but an author comparison – for me at least – runs the risk of colouring the reader’s perception of the work before they have even begun to read. For, whilst we are always told never to judge a book by its cover, that is invariably what we are prone to doing. So, the reference to Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns being “on a par with George R.R. Martin” did play on my mind as I began the novel.
As a fan of Martin’s work, having been reading his Game of Thrones series since my adolescence – when I first found my way into the world of fantasy, it affected my reading of the first few chapters of Prince of Thorns. Because, whilst there are definitely parallels between Lawrence and Martin – in the gritty, violent nature of their plots and characters, and the sprawling, epic scope of their worlds – they are also very different. And, ultimately, I would say that they are both very good, but in differing and individual ways. Whilst Martin’s Game of Thrones is peopled by an (ever increasing, nigh on exponential) cast of characters, Lawrence’s debut novel is far more focussed – with Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath at its heart.
Jorg was a boy of nine when he saw his mother and brother brutally murdered in front of him by agents of Count Renar. And when we first meet him only a handful of years later he has run away from his home and is the ruthless leader of a band of sell-swords. And when I say that he is ruthless, I mean it. He and his men are responsible for brutal atrocities and, whilst Jorg is occasionally charming, it is the charm of a sociopath. To use a Game of Thrones analogy, Jorg has a Joffrey-like quality to him. At least at the outset of the novel.
To be honest, his amoral violence and tendencies make Jorg a very difficult character to empathise with. And with Jorg and his band of (not so merry) men committing acts usually reserved only for the most villainous of fantasy characters, I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers were unable to continue beyond the first few chapters. But for those who do, they will find that, whilst the novel is frequently disturbing, and Jorg never becomes what could in any way be described as ‘heroic’, his backstory and choices mean that the reader sees him evolve over the course of the book.
Set in the Broken Empire, the divided remains of a former society destroyed aeons before (which, from the technology that is sporadically discovered, we are led to believe was once a very high-tech world), a hundred warlords struggle for supremacy. And amongst them is Jorg, heir to a throne, but with grander ambitions still. To play the game and rise to rule the Broken Empire.
Lawrence writes with vivid and clear prose, and generally avoids describing the atrocities that Jorg has committed – instead alluding to them and leaving them up to the reader’s imagination and pre-conceived knowledge to fill in the gaps. Eschewing over-description the scenes are generally pared back, creating both a fast-paced read, but also avoiding the trap of over-doing the world-building. Instead the focus is upon Jorg and his evolving psyche, showing us the conflicted nature of his decisions and his aspirations – and constantly subverting everything that we thought we knew about Jorg as each new part of his hideous backstory is revealed.
And whilst the focus is undoubtedly firmly on Jorg, Lawrence also skilfully paints the secondary characters who make up the tapestry of the Broken Empire. The world-building is equally skilfully done, with the technology – nuclear weapons, watches, etc. – blending with religions and literature that we know. Christianity is mentioned frequently, as are the works of Sun Tzu, Socrates and Shakespeare. And yet, for all of these elements, the landscape and geography is wholly alien to our world – suggesting that some cataclysmic event has changed the world that we know (although this is never overtly spelt out). This all fuses together to create an unsettling world that is part-known to the reader, but also completely new – which is reminiscent of the world that Paul Hoffman created in The Left Hand of God.
Blood-soaked, brutal and unrelenting, this is fantasy very much in the gritty mould of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Indeed, like Abercrombie, Lawrence seems to set some store in evidencing the brutality of the world physically on his protagonists through their scars. So Jorg, having fallen into a hook-briar bush when his mother and brother were being murdered, is covered in scars. And, in the second book in the series, King of Thorns, Jorg, like Abercrombie’s Caul Shivers, finds half of his face brutally fire-scarred.
Whilst I found it initially difficult to get in to the novel, due to Jorg’s amorality and actions, I ended up finding this a riveting and page-turning read. I can imagine that the harsher, nastier aspects of the characters and plot wouldn’t appeal to some readers – which isn’t a criticism as such, as it is what makes the novel so individual and different, but is certainly an aspect that will make this very much a book that some people will like, whilst others won’t. Similarly, I would imagine that the ‘technological’ aspects of the novel – especially in relation to a major event about two-thirds of the way through the novel – may strike some as a little coincidental and far-fetched (or, at the very least, a little un-fantasy-like).