Format: hard cover, first edition, 2011
Reading Time: about 5 hours
I suspected when I ordered this book that it was going to contain material that I normally don’t go for. A story about revenge, a 14 year old boy as the protagonist, and a group of looting, murderous associates is not one I’d normally look forward to. However, I like to think I have enough of an open mind to give it a chance, especially when considering the high praise it has received. Also, I feel as if I owe no small amount of gratitude to Mark Lawrence…his Self Published Fantasy Blog-Offs have turned up some great titles that I had no idea existed and might not have made it into my collection otherwise. He also backed Courtney Shafer’s kickstarter to publish The Labyrinth of Flame, the final book in her trilogy, which I was able to track down in paperback before all copies had disappeared completely. Buying and reading (at least) the first book in his series feels like a way to repay Lawrence for the sum of his efforts. So on with the review, and expect a few spoilers along the way.
I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to crack open this book and discover a first person narrative…my favorite style! My mind immediately went to The Black Company and I wondered if there would be similarities. The answer is not really. Lawrence’s work stands on its own, especially his narrating protagonist, Prince Jorg Ancrath. Where the Black Company featured the camaraderie of a mercenary group that looked out for each other and had their own code of honor, Jorg’s group has a loose camaraderie that is held together only by Jorg’s whim and strength of will. In fact, it is a constant, internal battle for Jorg not to kill the men he travels with when he feels disrespected, or when he suffers a foolish statement or an argumentative response from one of them. To him they are just tools, a means to an end that allow him to achieve his goals.
Although there are only 324 pages, there is a lot of adventure (and darkness) packed within this book. From castles and dungeons, to shanty towns and bogs, to underground caves and even a combat tournament, Jorg and his crew venture to several locales, each with a believable motivation. And the darkness! Various murders and incidents of looting, Machiavellian schemes, dark impulses and genocide…as I mentioned above, not something I would normally invest my time in. But Lawrence has accomplished something brilliant here, and even after finishing the story my head is still swimming.
(SPOILER ALERT! Move along to the next paragraph if necessary!) What I’m referring to here is something that stumped me early on. How does a ghost encounter a 14 year old boy and run away frightened? How is it that this same boy, who left home determined to have revenge against a rival baron, spent 4 years pursuing other interests and then decide to head home instead of pursuing that revenge? How does he command the respect of thugs and outlaws, and make decisions that only someone twice his age would be seasoned enough to reason out? Feel no guilt over committing genocide? Recognize that caring for anyone is a weakness that enemies can exploit? I thought it all too unbelievable, and had I given up, I would not have known the truth: that Jorg did not control his own thoughts and actions. It is a brilliant concept that once revealed, explains so much, and still leaves me wondering if any of Jorg’s actions were his own? If so, which ones? It also explains the title Prince of Thorns, going beyond the simple explanation of a child trapped in a thorn bush; instead, I believe it refers to Jorg being trapped and not able to exercise his own free will, as well as symbolizing that whenever Jorg even considers that he cares about something, the pain of loss (potential or realized) causes him to bury his feelings and not expose himself to “weakness”.
I loved the concept of court wizards using/advising kings and barons as chess pieces in a game only the wizards know is being played. I also liked that the scoundrels that follow Jorg around continue to do so after he murders one of them, or doesn’t deliver loot as promised, simply because they have no other prospects and Jorg generally lets them be as nasty as they want to be. A lot of characters are killed off during the story, including my favorite character, although as the story progresses, new characters are added. There are fantasy elements such as ghosts and magic, but it’s not clear what the source of that magic is. There are also references to ancient technologies, which become part of the plot, and some cultural references suggest that this may our own world, or perhaps a parallel one. By the end of the story I was “hooked” enough by the Prince of Thorns that I felt the need to order King of Thorns, the sequel. Well played, Mr. Lawrence, well played.