King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

12891107Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns is a good sequel to Prince of Thorns, but it suffers from some grievous flaws. The book picks up right where Prince ended, with the sociopathic Jorg sitting on the throne of Renar, but it then immediately launches into an aimless travelogue through much of this far-future Earth. I’m not sure that much of what then ensues is essential or even helpful to the story — including a drawn-out zombie attack in the swamps, and a pointlessly violent episode in a town called Endless. The reason for all of this traveling is also never made clear, nor the reason for all of Jorg’s many stops. At one point, for example, he even spends some time with a circus, and for a moment I thought I had been unpleasantly transported into the worst parts of The Wheel of Time series.

The other major problem with the book is how confusing it is. Like the first book, King of Thorns follows two main plot threads spaced four years apart. But, like the infomercials, there’s more! Early on there is a major disruption to Jorg’s memory, which means that another storyline is told in flashbacks. Running parallel to all of this is a diary kept by Katherine, the object of Jorg’s amorous obsessions. And churned into the mix is Sageous and other wizards, who can alter reality (or at least people’s perceptions of reality) in ways that really mess up both the characters’ memories and the author’s narrative.

It’s actually a clever structure, and who doesn’t love an unreliable narrator, but for whatever reason — lack of signposting, poor pace, misplaced red herrings — Lawrence isn’t able to organize these competing threads in a clear way. There is for instance a major twist near the end that I’m pretty sure is not forecast at all. I read most of the book feeling disoriented, and not in a good way.

All that being said, King of Thorns is still a good read, if a macabre one, and Lawrence’s writing of Jorg’s voice hits all the right notes. Although the first two-thirds of the book is basically straight fantasy, by the end there is a heavy dollop of the far-future science fiction that I love so much — including (spoiler alert) a very talky but revealing AI. And after the book’s aimless beginning the ending itself is pretty fun.

What’s especially good about King of Thorns is its development of Jorg’s character. Make no mistake, the dude is still a bloodthirsty killer, but he definitely has his softer moments in this book, and it rounds out the more one-note persona from the first book. What stands out to me the most are Jorg’s surprisingly civil visit to his mother’s family, and his first feelings of regret over a killing — two affecting but convincing episodes. Naturally the book ends with yet another of Jorg’s macho declarations of wading through blood and making his enemies’ women wail etc. etc. but the more complex portrayal of his emotional life gives his toughness a pathos that elevates this book above its predecessor.

(Though not enough to give it a better score!)

★★★☆☆