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!)

★★★☆☆

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Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

thornsLet 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.

★★★☆☆