Prince of Thorns (2011): Mark Lawrence


The Broken Empire: Book I

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus on the blog (The Silent Companions was a scheduled post and rather took me by surprise). I’m in the middle of a frantic time at work and so I’ve neither been reading nor writing as much as I would like. However, I have managed to work my way through a few non-art-related books recently and wanted to share them, because they’re rather good. I’m starting off with my first encounter with Mark Lawrence, the godfather of grimdark, whose name has come up repeatedly since I started reading Joe Abercrombie and Anna Smith Spark. And the recommendations have been absolutely spot-on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gripping, bleak and brimming with black humour, it’s a classic revenge story and features a teenage antihero so twisted he’d send Joffrey Baratheon running for the hills.

I’ve said before that I dislike the word ‘badass’. It smacks of laziness, but on certain occasions no other word will do. And that’s the case with Jorg Ancrath, who witnesses the murder of his mother and brother at the age of nine, flees his father’s castle with a band of criminals at the age of ten and, by the age of thirteen, has made himself one of the most amoral and terrifying commanders on the wrong side of the law. It’s not so much that Jorg lacks morals. He understands exactly what people believe to be wrong and right. He just doesn’t see the point of playing the game, when following the rules mean that you’re fated to lose. Jorg means to win. Of course, a not-quite-fourteen-year-old boy can’t really avenge his mother and seize a kingdom all by himself, but Jorg has his fellow bandits (his road-brothers), a band of men as vicious as unprincipled as any you could hope to meet. They’re going to help him.

From the minute you meet Jorg, musing over the ruins of a village his men have just sacked, with the slaughtered villagers all around him and their daughters screaming off in the barns, you know this isn’t going to be the fluffy, happy kind of fantasy. Indeed, there’s precious little fantasy at all, unless it’s of the dark necromancy kind. Even the monsters, such as they are, exist not as fantasy races but as some twisted, deformed race of men. More on that in a minute. The odd thing is that Lawrence has taken a story which should, by rights, be the most miserable thing you’ve ever read, and actually made it amusing. Jorg’s a fantastic narrator: precocious, arrogant, formidably shrewd and bound by absolutely no code of honour whatsoever. He’s living in a world where people care about things like honour, nobility and chivalry, and he just shrugs, tears it all up and gets on with getting what he wants. This often involves bloodily removing the people who have what he wants at the moment. The only way this story works is if we see it through his eyes, I think. We have to understand things from Jorg’s perspective because it stops the novel being a slaughterhouse and turns it into some strange twisted quest for his birthright – and one with a dash of humour, for that matter.

Spoilers ahead, so take care with this paragraph. This book reminded me very strongly of Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, in that it gradually becomes clear that Jorg’s world is actually our own, or one very much like it. I had my suspicions right from the start, when I found myself trying to plot modern-day Europe onto the map. Normardy sounded a bit like Normandy; and here were towns called Limoges and Lion; a River Sane running through Crath City (which looked to be in a suspiciously similar position to Paris); and Reams up in the northeast. There were differences in coastline and mountains, but I began to think that we were dealing with some kind of alternate France here. Similarly, Jorg refers casually to familiar names, which gave me a little shock of recognition when they cropped up: Plutarch, Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare; even Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Jorg reads Latin and Ancient Greek. What was going on? Was this a fantasy other-world that just happened to share a lot of ours? Or was I looking at something which was actually well-disguised sci-fi set in a far distant future after the nuclear annihilation of the earth? Atom bombs and radiation sicknesses crop up too… as does a curiously durable material known as plasteek, which is when I began to realise that I was onto something here.

Despite its very bloody storyline, this is a clever book which plays with expectations and manages to make you almost fond of its homicidal protagonist. I could have done without some of the necromancy, but that’s probably just me. I’m definitely going to be following Jorg’s later adventures, in the hope of finding out more about how this world came to be, and in order to enjoy more of Lawrence’s lucid, light and snappy writing. An absolute joy, ironically.

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