Book Review: Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

emperor of thornsFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  434

Reading Time:  about 11 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Jorg journeys with his family to Congression, battling the minions of the Dead King along the way, in order to restore the Broken Empire under one ruler – and Jorg intends to be that ruler.

 

I have finally completed the journey that many others finished long ago: I have come to the end of the Broken Empire trilogy. After being intrigued by Prince of Thorns and experiencing mixed feelings regarding King of Thorns, did this final installment swing me one way or the other? Read on to find out, but as always, beware of spoilers. First, however, let’s have a look at the guest reviews from around the Web…

 

Jared at Pornokitsch has one of the most incredible, thoughtful reviews I have ever seen in a fantasy book review. In it, he says: “I’m repeating myself, but I’m doing so on an annual basis, so forgive me: there’s so much right about this book. For one, the split narrative is a lovely piece of literary trickery. In previous books, most notably King, ‘past-Jorg’ was running about gathering power-ups for present-Jorg’s use in the book’s boss fight. Emperor is a bit more subtle about it: Jorg is still arming himself, but he’s doing so, if you’ll excuse the wank-word, philosophically…The result is that Jorg is enlightened with the Big Picture of what’s at stake: possibly the universe, probably the world, definitely humanity. And here we have the critical path of Jorgism: does he sit back and let the real chosen one handle it (the Prince of Arrow) or does he take care of it himself? In effect, we’re led to believe – as Jorg often recites – sometimes you need a bad person to do the right thing. Jorg is motivated (ostensibly) with the believe that he’s the right wrong person to save the world…The balance of big picture, little picture and the active subversion of the epic fantasy ‘destiny’ trope is incredibly compelling. The elements are woven together so that Jorg has both free will and predestination, he himself is not chosen. Instead, the universe requires a very specific person for a very specific task, and Jorg is determined to claim that role for himself. He is molding himself into a Platonic form. Does it make him a hero (he’s keen to save the universe, right?), a monster (he embraces the ruthless things it will require of him) or merely a flawed and selfish human (Jorg doesn’t care about the universe or the ruthlessness, he’s just determined that the bigger ‘story’ be all about him). That’s the big good of Emperor of Thorns, and it is both very big and extremely good…Emperor also left me with the sinking suspicion that, as far as the text is positioned, Jorg was forgiven. Redeemed, even.

Phil at A Fantasy Reader states: “At first, I thought that the flashbacks would have a lesser impact on the present story but I was happily deceived. The whole plot doesn’t revolve around a mystery as intriguing as the memory box in King of Thorns but the experiences and discoveries of Jorg are paramount to some events from King of Thorns and to several circumstances influencing what’s happening toward the end of the book…He’s not mighty in term of military power, but an incarnation of dedication directed toward a goal can be devastating and he’s ready to do everything that needs to be done in this unforgiving world (I wish you could read about more of what’s outside the Broken Empire)…It’s the last book in the series and I thought that Lawrence wouldn’t leave much in term of unresolved business. He doesn’t but for some threads, the explanation behind the denouement isn’t shown directly from Jorg’s perspective. He sees the impacts more than the course of it. In retrospect, I think that it was essentially a wise decision by the author and it probably kept the narrative tighter (certainly to the disappointment of some readers)…There was also a flashback where I felt that Mark was trying to add another layer to the reasons behind the portrait of terrible doom that is Jorg and I think it was not necessary (the scene at the Monastery)…I’m still not sure about my feelings for the conclusion of Jorg’s trilogy. It was such a ride, I mean, with such a powerful character, expectations flew in every directions. And that’s probably the problem for me. These expectations lead me nowhere since I didn’t see it coming. Not that it’s the revelation or shock of the century but with a touch of weirdness involved, I had not expected something like this, which is a good thing.

Finally, Redhead at The Little Red Reviewer surmises: “Jorg’s future lies at Congression, but every person he’s killed along the way becomes another corpse for the Dead King’s necromancers to raise up…Pacing, again, was an issue for me. This is more of an introspective book, so there was far less action, and far less character interaction and banter. As in King of Thorns, much of the narrative was Jorg’s questioning his own actions. Did he do the right thing, should he have done this other thing, or listened to this other advisor, or spent more time on whatever, and it got repetitive. I did appreciate the handful of chapters from Chella the necromancer, and it was interesting to see her point of view, as she’s the only person who has had interaction with both Jorg and the Dead King. As the end of the book got closer, and some hints were dropped as to the identity of the Dead King, I began to get very worried. We do learn the identity of the Dead King, and while the timing made sense, I simply could not for one second buy into the Dead King’s identity. I could accept the timing, but from what I knew about this character, their transformation into the Dead King made no sense to me. Unless of course, the only reason for that person to have become the Dead King was so that the very last scene could occur. Was the Dead King then, nothing more than another clunky plot device? Suffice to say, I was incredibly disappointed with the conclusion of this series. Mark Lawrence is ever the risk taker, it’s earned him well deserved applause and attention. The risks he took with this entire series worked for a lot of people, as can be seen from the many glowing reviews. But when it came down to it, the further down the road I went towards the conclusion, the less satisfied I was with the journey.

 

My Thoughts:

There are plenty of other reviews that talk about plot, pace, characters, dialog, etc. Many of these other reviews are spot on in terms of analysis, and I don’t think I have anything new to add. In fact, all that I can really add are my feelings about this book, its place in the series, and the complete series as a whole.

The book itself is a bit plodding, and I initially found the flashbacks annoying. But a funny thing happened on the way to Congression…I began to enjoy the story any time the Dead King or Chella were in play. There is particular scene where Jorg is stomping around in a bog, half-delusional and with enemies closing in. I though that this scene was one of the finer moments of the whole series. Unfortunately, the sex scene in the coach with Chella is one of the worst moments in the entire series, as I find the reasons behind it utterly implausible.

SPOILER! As all the pieces fall into place to get Jorg where he needs to be, with the allies and votes he has to have, it almost feels a little too scripted to have everything come together in his favor. If it wasn’t for Fexler, the pre-apocalypse AI that is responsible for manipulating events from afar, it would be damn near impossible.

The most difficult part of the series was always going to be the ending. Did Jorg earn redemption? Did he deserve it? Was he capable of humility? Or was he going to be a jerk to the end? The root of the problem is that Lawrence has painted the reader (and himself) into a corner. It isn’t crazy to think that no ending is going to be satisfying, no matter how you feel about Jorg’s character. Lawrence does an admirable job and and takes the only real option available: confusion (the questions above aren’t really answered). There can be no happy ending for Jorg where he gets everything he wants – that would leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. On the other hand, you could root for Jorg to die horribly without getting what he wants, and while you might justified in thinking that, it means the entire journey was a waste of time. Jorg takes the only good path available, but all of the people he killed to get there makes it hard to swallow. Not only that, but I agree 100% with Redhead – the Dead King’s identity made absolutely no sense, nor did his motives in targeting Jorg. Which kind of undermines the entire plot.

In conclusion, although I was captivated by parts of Emperor of Thorns, the flashbacks simply weren’t interesting enough and a little gratuitous, and the ending, although fitting, wasn’t particularly memorable. It wasn’t something that resonated with me and had me thinking about it long after I had closed the book. In looking at the series as a whole, I still feel it was well worth the dark and twisted journey it took me on. However, I loved the plot most when it was a battle between court wizards who moved people about like chess pieces. When it became something different, it was a bit disappointing for me and as a result I will always feel like Prince of Thorns was the high point in the series.

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.

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.