Recommendation thanks for this one go to Agent Churchill, who's been singing its praises to me for quite a while now. Starkiller (who previously recommended The Age of Ra) did me the favor of checking this over for spoilers and is plotting a worldbuilding debate at our next encounter.
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Thorough but concise (336 pages)
Publication: August 2, 2011 from Ace Books
Premise: Prince Jorg was nine when he was strung up on a thorn bush to watch his mother and little brother die. Now he's fourteen and in command of a group of ruthless mercenaries who he keeps under control by being more dangerous than they are. When he returns to his childhood home, he rejects comfort in favor of more brutal challenges.
Warnings: torture, threats of torture, non-graphic rape (both present and in backstory), mass murder, gore, cannibalism.....Look, the main character doesn't rape or murder children, or cross the line from massacre into genocide, but this is grim stuff. Make sure you have a strong stomach if you're going into this.
Recommendation: If you're looking for an antihero and are done having patience for the ones who angst, Princes of Thorns manages a tightly-paced and grim adventure with digressions into "so, that just went there." It's dark and uncompromising and just works once it gets going, though the first few chapters are a little rough.
What makes this one very different from anything else:
Antiheroes as protagonists or secondary leads have a long history of being fascinating, but Mark Lawrence seems to have realized that, doubled down enough times that we're getting into exponents, and created Prince Honorous Jorg, heir to the throne of Ancrath. He even manages to make the stale old life-is-chess philosophy interesting again: "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 lose them all." He's stayed alive on the road for so long only because he doesn't have scruples or know how to hesitate; it's his overwhelming strength, but also a realistic flaw when he carries it too far. Having half his family murdered in front of him while he hung on a hook-briar that tore his flesh apart was the defining moment of his life, and he thinks that he understands how that shapes his motivations. It would be easy to set the book down because his action are unconscionable or to pity him for becoming so lost that he won't allow himself happiness or comfort, but Lawrence blends the potential views of him together so closely that they're impossible to separate.
Jorg isn't admirable, precisely, but it's hard not to be drawn into some of his more elaborate schemes with the way he presents careful planning as luck and magic to observers. And then once you're in a groove of respecting that iron will and sharp mind while hating the uses to which he puts them, he falls into a situation from which he can only be rescued by luck. He has a five-year plan that puts any ambitions short of Alexander the Great's to shame, but he comes to it via the determination to be the master of his own destiny. Sometimes it makes him contrary in a way that shows how young he still is, and he shoves asides things that he wants simply because he doesn't want to be predictable or give into someone else's wishes, even on so trivial a subject as getting a hot bath. In other places it takes a more serious turn and he is offered enormous rewards, everything from a home and a throne and maybe love to a true redemption for what he's done....only to turn it down because of the pride that is all he has. He's arrogant and a terrible person, but he's such a force of nature that you admire him anyway a lot of the time. There's no room here for a soft-focus attempt at goodness as occurs in The Way of Shadows, but there are just enough hints at character growth that it's impossible to write him off as just one thing, either.
Jorg's external conscience of sorts is Sir Makin, the former captain of his father's guard. He was sent to recapture Jorg when he ran away, but Jorg was not in favor of that plan and instead Makin became one of the road-brothers. Each chapter has a brief opening statement about one of the road-brothers, and Makin's features him being amused at how many places he's burned and sacked....which is, to say the least, odd for someone who used to be working strictly on the right side of the law. It's a testament to his loyalty to Jorg that he stayed and helped as he did, and he's always good at timing his arguments or understated pleas for humanity (in one particularly memorable instance) to serve as a guardian and friend of sorts. He's clearly unnerved by Jorg's choices and thinks that the boy is far too ready to kill for a man of any age, let alone fourteen, but their rapport is one of the best elements of the book. Lawrence excels at packing a large amount of wordless emotion into short scenes, particularly when Jorg is exploding with temper or too far gone to express anything in a coherent sentence. Jorg's regard for the Nuban, one of his first guardians on the road, falls a little flat because Jorg explains it in the same way (a problem of wanting the Nuban to approve of him and not think that he's a terrible person) too many times, but the bond with Makin more than makes up for it. Makin is intelligent and oddly honorable and loyal, but he understands exactly how much of a psychopath Jorg is and is very willing to punch him unconscious if he deserves it, and really, that's what Jorg needs most in a best friend.
The worldbuilding seems a little flat at first, since we're looking at alternate-Europe with more kingdoms in the same amount of space, but details slowly unfold to reveal that this society is resting on the bones of a much older one. The Builders made perfectly smooth roads that don't yield to age, had durable poured-stone technology that can't be replicated in the present day, created books with pages that can last over a thousand years....in short, all the hallmarks of the previous group being elves or aliens or this world being a post-apocalyptic setting. And then the classical philosophy starts making its way into the text, and time layers on itself in a way that works weirdly well. I don't want to give too much away here, since Lawrence is playing with this trope for higher stakes than most books do, but suffice to say that the way Jorg handles the remnants of the past goes a long way toward establishing him as the genius that people call him. Magic is unquestionably real, but so is technology, and Jorg will use absolutely any tool that looks like it has a chance of being useful, regardless of its source or whether he fully understands what he's doing; that flexibility is to the benefit of both the world and Jorg himself.
The red pen:
Once Jorg settles into himself and starts to think of the larger world as something more than a place to conquer, his internal struggle is compelling. In the beginning, however, his ruthlessness comes off as trying too hard to make the book gritty. At thirteen going on fourteen, he's already a mass murderer, rapist, and accomplished torturer. As discussed above, Lawrence is doing a good job of doubling down on the concept of an antihero, but the way Jorg goes on about the noises that different girls made when he raped them, or what it was like to stab a peasant, has the odd effect of playing up how young he is, like he's boastful of his performance in a sport. His madness and ruthless persistence and utter lack of empathy blend together well, but this gloating over what a dark person he is makes his crimes seem less serious and more like points in a bizarre and somewhat pitiable game. He establishes himself as unforgiving and dangerous right from the start, so harping on the specifics feels like an intrusive hand of the author establishing what sort of book this is rather than the natural progression of Jorg's thoughts.
Most of the novel is unusual enough that the predictable pieces stand out with a vengeance. There's a short bit of backstory wherein the ten-year-old Jorg challenges a much larger and better-trained boy to a duel and demands that the older boy not hold back. After only a few seconds of combat, he wins by punching the boy in the throat hard enough to potentially kill him and lectures the armsmaster about how the boys need to be trained for real threats or they'll only get killed. It's not a bad scene, but it has stencil-marks on it because it's so generic. There are a few similar scenes with Kylar in The Way of Shadows, with Jezal nearly losing in The Blade Itself, with Eli Monpress in The Spirit Thief, Atticus in Hounded....and that's just out of things I've reviewed for this blog recently. There's a loose format of the protagonist getting into a fight that he or she shouldn't be able to win and then triumphing by subverting the system, thus demonstrating creativity and lateral thinking. While the setup has a lot of potential and will blow your mind the first few times you encounter it and have your own assumptions shaken, it gets stale quickly; I first ran across it in the Song of the Lioness quartet when I was maybe ten. If this sort of scene going to work, it has to either flesh out the worldbuilding, provide a crowning moment of excellence, or explain something about the character that is not demonstrable via other means. This falls down on all counts-- Jorg is so intelligent and disdainful of rules that it's a touch scary, so watching him win a fight with essentially no stakes by attacking in a different way feels like a tame-verging-on-insipid episode of his history.
Brilliant though the worldbuilding is in terms of unfolded backstory, it's hard to believe that society would fall into a pattern that so closely resembles medieval Europe, complete with knights and nobles and courts. The world as roughly the present day might understand it collapsed on the Day of a Thousand Suns; roughly eleven hundred years later, the world (at least in Europe) is in a somewhat feudal arrangement. The problem is that it seems to fall a little too closely into the past rather than a projected future. For example, a Nuban, large and with extremely dark skin, travels with Jorg's band. Nuban is clearly a modified form of Nubian, but that term hasn't been in circulation for quite some time. It makes sense to have a mostly-intact form of the Catholic Church survive the intervening time, given its staying power, but less sense that people are using terms like Nubian or Saracen and haven't attempted large social change when many of the foundational texts of the Renaissance and Enlightenment are likely still preserved on the near-magical ancient paper. And then it seems like almost everyone is white except for the Nuban and magicians from distant lands, but present-day Europe (trust me, this continent is a fairly smashed-up Europe; just take a close look at the river names and placements on the map at the front) is becoming more of a melting pot with immigrants, particularly from the Middle East. There are explanations that would smooth out some of this, I'm sure, but as it is, the world comes across as having taken too direct a step backward rather than shifting forward in a disorganized fashion as life tends to do.
Keeping the story entirely from Jorg's point of view is a good decision, but it tends to mean that very few people feel fleshed-out and real. The road-brothers work as a collective, certainly, but the new queen of Ancrath in particular is nothing but shrill and spiteful; this might work if the king's reaction to her was ever explained properly, but she just sits there as a target for Jorg's hatred. Renar, the man who ordered the deaths of Jorg's mother and brother, is worse, in large part because he demonstrates no personality traits other than implied ruthlessness and doesn't even have a proper speaking part. Jorg hates him, but he's so empty of selfhood that he comes off more as a sketched-out bogeyman than a real person. Katherine, Jorg's potential love interest (and I use the term loosely) is perhaps the most promising; she flirts at first and then hates him, but the way she is ready and willing to stab him (while he finds that beautiful) could bode well for future volumes. Right now she's still too one-dimensional and presented a little too much as a potential quest reward with bonus vagina, though. Jorg's father, King Olidan, also has potential, but he's still so defined by Jorg's childhood fear and hatred of him that he's hard to understand via the very few scenes where he appears. This seems like the kind of thing that might clear up as we see more flashbacks or meetings in the second book, but for the most part the book is so far inside Jorg's head that other people don't really register with any nuance.
On the whole, Prince of Thorns makes a shaky first impression and then builds itself into an exploration of a problem with no easy answers and a character who sets himself apart from the sea of misunderstood-but-intelligent protagonists in this genre. The worldbuilding background and secondary characters could be better, certainly, but Jorg's narrow view doesn't leave much room for wide-angle historical shots or attention to others, let alone empathy for them. This book make itself memorable, and I plan to read the rest of the series when I have free time and all the books have been published.
Prospects: This is the first book of The Broken Empire, which continues in King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns, which is slated to come out this August.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself is probably the closest match in tone; both authors excel at portraying bad people who are humanized in slow pieces until you admire or like them almost against your will.
~The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold is a large sideways step into science fiction and several rainbows' worth lighter in tone, but the two works are oddly similar in some ways. Miles has a mirror of Jorg's intelligence, resourcefulness, and mental dexterity, but he sees the game more as the best possible form of fun than as a stark battle to prove that you're capable of sacrificing anything.
~If you're looking for something more dense and wrapped in ancient scheming, try Brent Weeks's The Way of Shadows. It's not as cold or streamlined as Prince of Thorns, but it spends a lot of time talking about identity and what can be forgiven.
~I hesitate on this one, but try John Ringo's Ghost, the start of his Paladin of Shadows series if you want a similarly ruthless protagonist in a less serious world. I personally enjoy the series because it darts between military grit, over-the-top wish fulfillment, and the most hilariously awful sex scenes in existence. It's like watching a train crash while devouring popcorn and being completely unable to look away because it's inexplicably riveting. The OH JOHN RINGO NO review summarizes this much better than I can.