I’m not in a good mood. My personal life is full of PO'ed people, I’m PO'ed by work, I’m stressed out, and I’m too distracted to read or sleep. I want something to tear apart, to grind to pieces, to throw into the inferno and cause great weeping and gnashing of teeth. I want to shatter a DVD, to burn a cartridge, to tear a book from its binding and tell its creators and publishers to go screw themselves.
So it is to my great chagrin that I do none of these things, because the book I am reviewing today is Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. I might be able to burn down one or two trees, but the forest is so damned solid I’m liable to take an arrow to my neck before I get the chance to set it ablaze with a torch made of bone and tar. A reference to something, I’m sure, but why anybody else would use such a poor choice of torch is beyond me.
Prince of Thorns is about the teenaged leader of a group of bandits of the worst sort. He also happens to be heir to the throne of a small kingdom- one that happens to be one of a hundred fighting over the scraps of what used to be a great empire. If you haven’t quite pieced it together, this is a piece of Medieval Fantasy. Prince of Thorns makes use of the Fantasy aspect of its setting to set aside a new era of history, new kingdoms and fiefdoms to fight over. It’s historical fiction without any of the boring details, not the least of these “sacrifices” being the distinguishing between English, French and Spanish. We’re very clearly somewhere in Europe, somewhere between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance… or are we?
When Jorg- the titular Prince- sets off an atomic bomb with the expectation of releasing a poison among the inhabitants of a great castle- we find ourselves in that odd category that’s not quite post-apocalyptic, but only because after the great, thriving civilization was wiped out, enough time passed for an entirely new and somewhat familiar one to take its place. Give up trying to place this on our own timeline yet? Good, because that’s precisely the sort of attempt this book denies you.
The existence of empowered shamans, necromancers and monsters (later proved to be the result of radiation-poisoned water), provide the Fantasy setting, one that plays little role in the beginning of the novel (other than that I’ve mentioned earlier) but one which it becomes very clear is going to play a much greater part when Jorg discovers its true extent himself. It’s sort of like a story where Boba Fett spends his life looting and pillaging and killing those such as Jabba the Hutt, until he realizes Darth Vader and the Emperor are really out there pulling strings.
As for the characters, well, Prince Jorg isn’t quite as noble as the aforementioned bounty hunter, and he’s had an even more tragic past. I mentioned he led a group of bandits- by the tender age of thirteen, he turned himself from his quest of vengeance for the rape and murder of his mother and brother to become the most vicious and deadly of a group of bandits that includes a man that could take Hagrid in a no-holds-barred hand to hand fight- and was previously led by his bigger, smarter brother.
The novel opens off with a shock-value sequence designed to tell you exactly what you’re looking at. If you can’t stand to see Jorg glory in the murder of innocents, the pillaging and burning of their village, and the raping of their daughters, this novel isn’t one for you. And it’s not one for your kids. No, seriously… your fifteen year old isn’t ready for this, no matter what he or she just told you.
I partially say this because of the glorification of violence. It’s very clear that nobody thinks Jorg is a good person- not the author, not Jorg himself, not even his love interest, who wishes to see him publicly disemboweled. Nevertheless, Jorg is a tragic figure, and his tenacity is of the sort that you empathize with him and want to see him succeed. The problem here lies with any reader who starts to emulate characters who have admirable traits such as Jorg’s unlimited tenacity. To put it frankly, this novel in the wrong hands could turn a small town into a blood bath. If you found yourself buying a red lightsaber because Darth Vader was an inspiration to your aspirations of badassery, you’re liable to be taken in by this character more than is healthy. This is a testament to the author’s skill, and I don’t hold that against him- I just advise actual restraint from the consumer, a commodity that is rarely found in modern days.
Descriptions are vivid, and characters are, if not fleshed out at the very high level that I prefer, very distinct. More often than not, you’re very vividly aware who it is that Jorg is killing. Because more often than not, characters die, and more often than not, Jorg is what kills them. Some characters survive, after a fashion, and some characters are killed by other people, but by and large, you’re reading this book to see Jorg killing people. It’s a cathartic novel, that just happens to have some quiet messages about free will, determination, enough morals to make you ask a question, and so forth. Our anti-hero is a learned man, but he doesn’t have the patience to deal with most of this; like most protagonists used to action, his response to the possibility of somebody manipulating him is to kill. Since the story is told from his point of view (first person, in fact), it’s no surprise that the narration is much along this same path. The only downside to this approach is that one or two issues are touched upon in only the most shallow manner: mainly the fact that Jorg doesn’t bother to make a connection between the rape of his mother and the ones he commits and permits (thankfully off-screen), and the fact that racial relations are touched on, but Jorg doesn’t really have any thoughts on them.
Prince of Thorns is a fast read, and if you grew up listening to Slim Shady and other forms of likable horrible people, it’s your kind of book. There’s nothing redeeming about it, but that’s where the fun lies. Obviously, the appeal of this book lies only for a very specific subset, mainly adult males who can overlook horrendous actions on the part of their protagonist, but for this specific subset, I think you’re going to be looking forward to the rest of the trilogy when you finish this.
The Man in Black is a regular reviewer at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews. More of his content can be found at Man in Black Reviews.