When we last left Jorg Ancrath, Prince of a small feudal realm in a post-apocalypse Europe, he had unleashed the power of the Builders to complete an impossible task in humbling one of his father’s rivals. The author seemingly accomplished the impossible task of getting readers to care about and respect a character who is a Doogie Howser genius of a sociopath.
In King of Thorns, the second novel in his post apocalyptic Broken Empire sequence, author Mark Lawrence raises the stakes for Jorg. Like its predecessor, this novel has two time frames. The present is set four years after the end of Prince of Thorns. The flashback sequences are set a close 3 months after the end of Prince of Thorns.
In both time frames Jorg has become a King in his own right, taking not the crown from his father, but rather making good on his first novel promise to put paid to Count Renar and take his Highland realm for himself. Jorg is learning that uneasy lies the crown. Very uneasy.
In the earlier time frame flashbacks, we discover the sequence of events after Jorg becomes King, and in the present time frame, we discover King Jorg facing an overwhelming enemy, the army and the personage of the beloved and prophesied Prince of Arrow, a threat that seemingly even a young genius sociopath like Jorg has no hope of defeating. The odds are worse than Thermopylae. The world seemingly wants the Prince of Arrow to be the next Emperor. Against that, what can even Jorg do?
And once again, the dual time frame approach is used to great effect to develop Jorg’s character, and provide the materials and explanations on how Jorg is to deal with his present-day threat. I’ve been tepid on this approach as opposed to less extensive, shorter flashbacks, but like in its predecessor, Lawrence uses the form very well indeed.
In my review of Prince of Thorns here at the Functional Nerds, I talked about how the post-apocalyptic world that Jorg lives in is a complicated chessboard, even to Jorg himself. In King of Thorns, the chess metaphors, and indeed, much of the classical allusions are stripped away as the author takes us to a higher perspective. There is a pre-fall artifact Jorg acquires that, in a lovely bit, makes this metaphor explicit.
Even these metaphors are mostly gone, along with a fair amount of the shock value of Doogie Howser, sociopath, Lawrence smoothly switches gears in King of Thorns. In the flashback sequences, Jorg takes an extended tour of post-apocalypse Europe, and we get a swath of worldbuilding and filling in some of the mysteries of Jorg’s world at the same time.
In a conversation with Mark Lawrence as I was reading the book, I established that he did not attend the allusions, but for this reader, the change in the world from ours to Jorg’s is very strongly reminiscent of Fred Saberhagen’s Empire of the East. In point of fact, Lawrence has not (yet, I hope) read Fred’s work. And yet readers of both books (like myself) will not help but see the parallels between the two universes.
Beyond that, in King of Thorns we clear up one of my criticism of Prince of Thorns–the worldbuilding. As if responding to my review, we get a lot more perspective on the world and how and why it has changed.
There is more fantasy and the fantastic in this novel as compared to its predecessor. The first novel was parsimonious in the dollops of the outright fantastic, and was much more about the creation of a dark grey post-apocalyptic neo-medieval world. In King of Thorns, we see more explicitly magical things, for lack of a better term, as well as more technology from the lost age.
The writing is still bright and clear, Lawrence showing that he has a particular skill at description and evocation. The dark beauty and savagery of this work are convincingly and immersively invoked. One of my favorite bits was an amazing conceit about the nature of fire and flame that is both poetic and inventive.
Jorg is not the same character as he was in Prince of Thorns, and that’s a good thing. I won’t say he is completely and utterly different, but its clear he has started to grow into full manhood. He does still engage in, or is accused of doing, questionable acts, both directly and indirectly. The rawness of his character in Prince of Thorns that led some to decry the book is gone, but anyone who thinks he has gone soft do so at their own peril.
We have a slightly different set of ‘road brothers’ this time, as Jorg in the flashback narrative engages on a quest on behalf of one that turns into that aforementioned grand tour. It is in the flashback narrative that the heavy lifting of character development and growth is established.
Weaknesses in the book for me: In addition to the two time frames mentioned above, there is another, minor key of a third perspective. We get a glimpse into the diary entries of Katherine, the relative in Prince of Thorns that Jorg continues to keep in his sights in this novel. Those entries don’t always work as well as I’d hoped in terms of advancing the narrative and the world for me. For example, there is a subplot that develops in her entries, a skill she is trying to learn, that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Much better done and developed is the dynamic she develops between herself, Jorg and Jorg’s rival the Prince of Arrow.
And once again, in the denouement there is a “wham” that I was suspecting as I was reading the book but still surprised me when it came to light. Lawrence seems to be especially good at those twists in the tail that are not twists for the sake of twists, but are carefully set up moves in advance on the chessboard.
The ending of King of Thorns suggests at least one more go around for Jorg and his world, as what might be the *real* antagonist of the series, hinted and mentioned in the first book and more strongly invoked here (although not appearing directly), might be paying Jorg a call. I for one am looking forward to that confrontation.