Book Review: King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

king of thornsFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2014

Pages:  449

Reading time:  about 11 hours

One sentence synopsis: King Jorg takes several big risks in order to defy attempts to bow before the would-be Emperor, but it could cost him his newly-won kingdom.

 

This series continues to polarize people, although in fairness those who despised Prince of Thorns were unlikely to read the sequel, and I don’t think they really picked up on the plot and what Mark Lawrence was going for. It’s been almost a year since I’ve read Prince of Thorns, but I feel like I still recall most of the details. So now it’s time to review the sequel, with one big spoiler embedded in one of my paragraphs, but first it’s time to see what others had to say…

 

David Stoit of Fantasy Book Review opines: “Sometimes it is hard for a sequel to meet its expectations. ‘King of Thorns’ met mine and convinced me again of Lawrence’s brilliance. Not by doing more of the same stuff, which I would have loved anyway, but by evolving the story into something with even more depth. Where book one was mainly a brutal, action-packed ride through a plot that surprised me at every turn, book two takes a slightly different route. The focus of this story is mainly about the inner workings of Jorg. The mental conflict and the change from the black and white prince into a slightly older, more developed king. As in book one there’s the overwhelming enemy force, but next to that and even more important Jorg has to fight himself at every step. He still is not buggered by any conscience but he comes to an understanding that every evil committed comes back around in some way. In other words, Jorg changes. He grows up, evolves into a young adult. An exceptional one, still being able to function without much of an conscience but one that slowly acknowledges emotions. Acknowledge actually isn’t the right word for it, because Jorg seems to do his best to convince himself and us the readers that he’s the same. That he doesn’t care in who he puts his blade, as long as it takes him closer to his goal and if he gets it back of course.

Jared at Pornokitsch states: “On its simplest level, the primary narrative (Jorg defending his kingdom) is punctuated with ‘flash-back’ style looks at his travels from four years before – when he essentially set up the groundwork for his tiny country’s innovative defense. His ‘strategic’ flashbacks also come with more personal ones, and as Jorg fights a physical battle on the mountains, he’s also fighting a deeper, more emotional one internally. What did he do four years ago? And why is it haunting him? And what is really at stake in this battle? It is all intricately planned and executed…Ultimately, the theme I gathered out of King of Thorns was one of freedom. Jorg consistently rebels against anyone telling him what he can or cannot do, and his own goal is to be in a position where he – and he alone – is is own master. If nothing else, this is a fantastical exploration of Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”. On the largest level, this is core to the plot. Jorg’s opposition to the “inevitable” victory of the Prince of Arrow is based on his refusal to submit to another’s control. In fact, his entire quest for the Imperial throne is one that began purely because people dared to tell him otherwise. In smaller scenarios, whether Jorg is doing “good” or “evil” (note the scare-quotes in both cases), he’s quick to react to situations that would impose on his individuality or that of others. He’s anti-church and frees witches, anti-prophesy and kills soothsayers. He goes on a ridiculously convoluted quest with Gog because, otherwise, Gog’s destiny will be dictated to him…Women are represented badly. Katherine is the only female character with a major role… as a sex object. Her diary (another way of dehumanising her) is filled with complaints about her lack of agency – everyone only sees her as a beautiful woman and a prize (…and she tells the reader that she kind of likes it). King of Thorns is littered with third-party characters that tell us that she’s amazing and fiery and important, but we’re never shown a reason why. Her romance with Jorg is equally flimsy. Their actual interactions with Jorg mostly consist of our ‘hero’ gazing on her with ferocious lust and the two of them yelling nonsense at one another (either false accusations or actual nonsense)…The one woman that is a character (of sorts) is Jorg’s child-bride Miana, who is precociously clever and completely desexualised…I also don’t – as noted above – appreciate the twist at the very, very end. (Reiterating the spoiler warning.) The model of King of Thorns is that of a “prolonged boss fight”. If you imagine the primary narrative as one long battle (because, well, it is), the rest of the book is Jorg travelling around collecting usable resources, just in time (narratively speaking) to expend them. Everything he does in the battle comes a result of something else he’s achieved. Except – the very, very last thing, a pan-dimensional explosion where all the evil forces haunting Jorg run amok and devour his enemies. How Jorg contains and then unleashes (under his control, no less) the apocalyptic wrath of multiple demi-gods is never explained. It is dramatic and cinematic, but also nonsensical. In a book that’s been predicated on Jorg’s intelligence and self-reliance, it is frustrating to have his last, critical act come screaming out of left field.

Steve the Bookstore Guy at Elitist Book Reviews says: “There really isn’t any way to easily describe THE KING OF THORNS. The opening chapters introduce an older Jorg. He is still the same violent, snarky individual I loved in the first book, but he also seems to be learning that all his actions have consequences. Let’s be honest here, Jorg is not a good guy. Never has been, never will be. That’s why he’s awesome. He’s just sick of being yanked around and being told how things are destined to play out. Screw that. Jorg makes his own fate. The novel jumps back-and-forth between the events following the first book, and four years later where King Jorg’s castle is under siege…Much of my love for THE KING OF THORNS comes just from Lawrence’s prose. The way he describes things, the way he transitions from segment to segment, his conversations…they are all so well executed. From that point, the tone of the novel is just fantastic. We actually get two distinct Jorgs. One, more world-weary, four years in the future (which is actually the novel’s “present”), then the more blood-thirsty version we are used to from the first novel. That contrast is really what makes this book work, and what makes it distinct from the first novel. As I always say when reading a series, I like to see progression with characters…Now, there are a few areas where THE KING OF THORNS, to me, isn’t quite as good as THE PRINCE OF THORNS. Some of the things that happen (remember, no spoilers), just don’t feel connected to the actual story. Many of Jorg’s adventures feel more like a piece of short-fiction that was spliced into the novel. The effect is a somewhat more scattered feel to the narrative. It’s not game-breaking, but there are times where the direction and momentum of the story get lost. I also feel that Katherine’s role could have been a tad clearer in the end.

 

King of Thorns is a story consisting of three separate tales: the exploits of young Jorg immediately following the events in Prince of Thorns; older Jorg’s attempt to defend his throne 4 years later; and Katherine’s diary, which spans the gap between that 4 year time frame from her perspective. I will admit to being a little distracted by the different timelines. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I’m not thrilled with the use of flashbacks, and that is what the 14 year old Jorg tale feels like, thanks to the use of the “magic box” (as Jared describes above). At the beginning of the story we are dropped in the middle of younger Jorg’s narrative after the memory box is acquired. Not only does this cause a bit of initial confusion, it also slows the pace, and for some reason I struggled with Lawrence’s prose during this early section.

The further I got into the story, however, the harder the book was to put down. Despite the young Jorg flashbacks, which I agree with Steve the Bookstore Guy in that they had the feel of short stories from some other source (like an anthology) that were shoehorned into the narrative, I managed to take great interest in Jorg’s quests and what memories the box would reveal. I guess you could say this reminded me quite a bit of a video game on rails, where Jorg follows a path, collects items and allies, and then makes his stand at the end in what Jared appropriately refers to as a “boss fight”.

There are a couple of problems here, though. First, Jorg is seeking out these items and allies without knowing he will actually need them. In other words, 4 years is a long time to worry about the Prince of Arrow coming to knock on his front door. Anything could happen in that 4 years, including someone else defeating the Prince of Arrow. In a way, Jorg has been given a bit of omnipotence when it comes to what he will need and what memories he needs to store away in the box. But probably the biggest problem – SPOILER ALERT – is that the “final boss battle” is largely derivative. The scene might as well have put a disclaimer that read “borrowed from Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and as I read it, I just shook my head in disappointment. All of the sword training and ability that Jorg developed in the lead up to the final battle, promising something epic, was instead nothing more than a smoke screen. The end result is an anti-climactic finish.

There are a few other inconsistencies, such as Jorg’s bride, Miana, launching a destructive weapon simply by attaching it to bricks and then hurtling it an implausible distance for a 12 year old girl. She’s also just a bit too much savvy and astute for a 12 year old. There’s also plot points where Jorg is aware of and uses his necromatic touch, but forgets about it later, and the forgetfulness had nothing to do with the magic memory box or being controlled by Sageous, Jorg’s adversary from Prince of Thorns, although the wizard does claim responsibility. These are pretty minor quibbles, however.

I remained unconcerned about the “darkness” of Jorg’s character. I’m amazed at how many readers still don’t get how Jorg’s mind was controlled by one of these Machiavellian-like wizards, and that many of the distasteful acts he committed in Prince of Thorns were done at someone else’s behest. In King of Thorns, when we see Jorg free of the mind controlling influences, his character takes on a different light. Is he stubborn? Yes. Selfish? Yes. Willing to sacrifice people in order to “win”? Yes, just like many other characters in countless stories. However, in this story, although some of those sacrificed (like the Brothers) have little impact – rightly so given their nasty character – others leave both physical and emotional scars on Jorg, and contribute to the evolution of his character, as David describes above.

In conclusion I remain conflicted by this book. Once I got past the confusing beginning, I didn’t want to put it down – until I reached the end, when implausibilities and a derivative ending served to undermine everything Lawrence had achieved to that point. Yet I enjoyed the growth of Jorg’s character. I’m certainly going to press on with Emperor of Thrones and conclude the trilogy, because I’m curious to see where the story will go and how Jorg’s character will evolve even further.

Advertisements

Book Review: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

prince of thorns

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2011

Pages:  324

Reading Time: about 8 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.