I am going to start this review off on a note and structure rather different than other book reviews of mine you’ve read of mine at the Functional Nerds and say this right up front:
Prince of Thorns, a debut fantasy novel by Mark Lawrence, is a contentious novel with a mostly unsympathetic sociopathic and psychopathic protagonist, complete with a dark and savage feel that makes it a book that many fantasy novel readers are going to intensely dislike and probably should give a pass on. For other readers, however, the story of said protagonist turns compelling, with plotting and writing that belies the author’s experience.
Still here? Good.
Prince of Thorns starts the story of Jorgath, Prince of Ancrath. Jorg is a nasty piece of work in a rum world that we slowly uncover is a post-apocalyptic version of our own world where the fall of our Age has ushered in a nasty welt of feudal principalities and baronies at a medieval level of technology, with some leftovers from our age here and there.
Jorg is unexpectedly young, and unexpectedly a prodigy in matters of tactics and strategy. Events turn Jorg into the head of a group of outlaws on the run, and while his target and goals appear clear, the way he goes about them slowly starts to realize that the chessboard Jorg is on is more complicated than the reader, or even Jorg, first realizes.
With an amoral protagonist, and the author unwilling to shy away from what he and his band of outlawds do, Prince of Thorns has come in for a lot of criticism in fantasy circles, and has acquired a number of defenders as well. I have not read a more polarizing novel in many years.
So why the defenders? Because Mark Lawrence is, like his protagonist, a prodigy of a writer, that’s why. The book is told from Jorg’s point of view in a first person past tense, within two time frames, the novel’s present, and four years ago. In the present we see Jorg with his band of outlaws, running around Ancrath and the dominions around it. The thread four years ago reveals to the reader just how Jorg became the head of this group of outlaws. I admit that for most of the novel, I wondered at the author’s choice of this flashback structure. My patience in this regard was rewarded with a “wham” that suddenly clarified a lot of things about Jorg’s character and actions.
Beyond this, word choice, atmosphere and feel remain on target throughout the novel. As I said above, its a savage and dark feel that the author doesn’t pull any punches on. It is so encompassing in that way that I’ve seen reviews of the book that attribute actions to the protagonist that he doesn’t actually do. The author’s craft in terms of atmosphere and setting the table is deft and a lot of first time writers could do well to study what he has done here. The combats never drag on overlong and turn into long running battles, but feel brutal, and right.
The plotting and character development are uniformly excellent. The theme of chess runs through the novel, a game that not only Jorg plays and uses as metaphors, but the structure of the plot, to a careful reader, reveals itself as a game as well. Its not quite the level of John Brunner’s Squares of the City (a personal favorite) but I would not be surprised if the author was a chess enthusiast. I hesitate to tell you more about the plot, because it unfolds so well that to give away what’s going on would spoil some of the pleasure I had in reading the book. Jorg’s quest for revenge, in context, turns out to be far more complicated than it appears.
A few more words about Jorg. Yes, he is a nasty piece of work, a psychopathic sociopath that I was never quite able to identify with, but I grew to not only respect, but wanted to actively follow his story as I went on. As mentioned above, it takes a good writer to get me to do that. And yet, perhaps a little too subtly, it was clear to me that Jorg is not a one note character. That gang of outlaws is his family, and its clear that for all of Jorg’s nature–he depends on them for more than mere survival.
Still, I’m not sure that Jorg had to be as young as he is in the book. He feels a bit *too* young by modern sensibilities, even given that in more primitive societies, such as the one in the novel of course, this is much less of a problem. It might be facile to call him “Doogie Howser, sociopath” but that does contain some truths to it.
The weakest part of the book is the part of the book that a younger version of me would have been more annoyed about: the worldbuilding. The book takes place in a post-apocalypse northwest France, based on the map and debased place names. But things niggled at me about this setting. For one thing, while as an enthusiast of the classics, I was mystified at the strong classical focus of Jorg’s education and vocabulary. Why so much Plutarch and Socrates and only a smidgen of Nietzsche? (And I think that Jorg should definitely be a Will Durant enthusiast) There are a couple of references to the modern day, but they are far fewer than Jorg’s classical education.
While I could potentially see how this might occur (a Canticle for Leibowitz scenario, or simply only the old books remained and the artifacts of the digital age faded away), it would have been nice to have more information on how this occurred. Too, I think, especially after reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, I am not sure that some of the things that do survive into this last age in the novel would have survived long without a modern civilization to keep them up.
Even given these criticisms, the plot, character and language are overwhelmingly strong in comparison, enough that, overall, the book worked for me. I don’t think that I can give it a star rating, and I am glad that in this space I am not required to do so. It’s a slippery bit to pin down, like a complicated line of a chess opening that is fraught with the potential for pins, forks and blocked pieces.
I recommend strongly that you read one of the online samples, say at Amazon, before going out and buying Prince of Thorns. Even then, that said, it took me some time to warm up to the book. I am usually not one for sociopathic and psychopathic characters, I usually prefer my protagonists to be much more of a white hat. Even characters such as, say, the assassin Caim from the Jon Sprunk Shadow’s series does have a heart. Jorg? No, he has no such heart. And yet the author managed to endear him to me. Well played, Mr. Lawrence, well played. Rematch? I’ll play Black this time.