Let me start with a personal bias. Post-apocalyptic fiction is like catnip to me — the further out in the future, the better. I will tolerate even pretty bad books (hello, Dreamsnake) so long as they take place in a fallen future littered with the remnants of high-tech civilizations. Give me a good series in the same setting, like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrology, and I am in heaven.
This is all by way of explaining why I feel particularly tolerant of the flaws in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, the first volume of his Broken Empire trilogy. It becomes apparent pretty early on that the setting is a far-future fallen Earth. (The first hint is when the psychopathic protagonist, Jorg, starts reading a book by a man named Plutarch who is very clearly our Plutarch.) I’m sure others would roll their eyes and think, “Here we go again” — and indeed I’ll acknowledge that the dying Earth subgenre is far from novel. And yet! For a true end-of-days romantic like myself, who came to this novel thinking that it was nothing more than a straight-up, orcs-and-elves fantasy, the whiff of nuclear winter was like a breath of fresh air.
The actual story in Prince of Thorns concerns young Jorg’s quest for vengeance. When he was only ten he had the misfortune of seeing his mother and young brother brutalized and slaughtered by an enemy of his family’s. The violence was political, rather than personal — Jorg is a prince, the heir to one of a hundred kingdoms in the broken lands — but that doesn’t stop Jorg from taking those deaths to heart, signing up with a depraved mercenary band, and boosting his way through adolescence and puberty with murder, pillage, and a little bit too much rape for my comfort.
Lawrence’s storytelling is direct and brutal, and the plot is correspondingly dark. The book begins in the aftermath of a killing, while the mercenaries hunt for loot and for any women still unfortunate enough to be alive. And Jorg’s voice, which narrates the book, is filled with tough-sounding declarations about how badass he is, how much his enemies will wail, etc. It’s the type of voice that I imagine would appeal to powerless adolescent boys (Jorg is not quite fifteen when the book ends), but I found it a bit wearying.
What was very enjoyable was Jorg’s travels through the wasted lands he calls home. The thrills go beyond simply seeing the massive ruins of a golden past — such as the broken skyscraper that serves as the castle for his father, the king. Lawrence also maintains a palpable sense of weird dread throughout the story, an intrusion of dark fantasy into what could have been a straight-up science-fiction story. Some of it doesn’t really make sense (like the rising of the dead), but Lawrence presents every grotesque revelation with a straight face, and somehow it all hangs together.
The intriguing atmosphere of Prince of Thorns hides the fact that not very much happens. This is the entire plot: (1) Jorg goes home; (2) Jorg attacks nearby, impregnable fortress; (3) Jorg attacks neighboring kingdom. (Interspersed is some back story about how Jorg ended up leaving home in the first place, but this background is a lot more abbreviated than I expected.) Now, these pieces of the story are not without interest, but there are a lot of holes that Lawrence doesn’t address — such as, for instance, why Jorg so blithely accepts the mission to destroy the fortress. More fundamentally the plot feels as small as the setting feels large; in part because the POV remains firmly affixed through Jorg’s eyes, there is no sense of the epic in what Jorg is doing, even though much of what he accomplishes should have significant effects.
The other major fault to this book is that it is so unrelentingly violent. There is blood everywhere, typically gushing from newly created orifices in some unfortunate human’s body. Deaths occur regularly. Rot is endemic. And both Jorg and his merry band revel in this chaos. You’ve got to like your fantasies dark, and your anti-heroes even darker, to really enjoy this book.