King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
|Book Name:||King of Thorns|
|Publisher(s):||Ace Hardcover / Voyager|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / eBook|
|Release Date:||August 7, 2012|
This review contains spoilers for book one. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns yet, then read this review with caution. You can read Fantasy-Faction’s review of Prince of Thorns here. You will also find that the review is split into three sections. A reflection on Prince of Thorns, a recap of book one, and a review of book two.
What’s all the fuss about?
Without doubt, Prince of Thorns was the most talked about debut of 2011. It may not have been everyone’s favourite book, it may not have won every award it was nominated for, but for those who it struck a chord with – it struck damned deep. As a result, King of Thorns is hovering around the top of every fantasy blogger’s most anticipated 2012 list.
Prince of Thorns was a book that pushed boundaries. All renowned literature does this is one way or another. In fact, you could argue that if you do not challenge a reader’s beliefs, test their boundaries and evoke strong emotions, you will never write a book that can be considered great.
So, what was it about Prince of Thorns that ticked these boxes and made it great? Well, firstly: Jorg Ancrath. He was a unique character in epic fantasy. We’ve seen dark characters before, but we’ve never had a protagonist so dark that he’ll slit the throat of an infant, rape a defenceless woman, or order a village burned without a moment’s hesitation. What made book one so damned special was that you never knew what Jorg was going to do next, because he had absolutely no conscience, no moral compass. As a reader, you couldn’t rely on restraint, disgust or fear to hold him back. Now, typically, within a novel, there are only so many terrible acts you can take before you say ‘too much’ and put the book down. However, a wondrous juxtaposition was woven in by Lawrence in the form of Jorg’s charisma and charm – it was enough to grip readers and pull them deep into the story. I think the negative reviews of that first book have come from those who genuinely couldn’t handle the atrocious acts of Jorg and found that Lawrence’s fiction had crossed their moral boundaries.
The second element that really made this book was the ongoing question: is Jorg evil? Certainly, he does terrible things. He rapes and kills people! But, look at Jorg’s life. As an infant, he was forced to watch his mother raped before seeing her murdered alongside his brother. He is then brought up alongside a father who was cruel, treated him as a disappointment and sought no kind of revenge for his mother and brother. Was this child evil or was he made evil by the things he had witnessed? If he was indeed made evil, does he deserve a shot at redemption? Even if he was, would he ever take it? Jorg was cold, but he was articulate and as we have said, he charmed us as readers. You have to stop and ask yourself during the reading of that book: If I was in Jorg’s position and in Jorg’s world, how would I have grown up?
For me, the most chilling thing about Prince of Thorns was that I found it very, very difficult to hate Jorg. I didn’t like the things he did – but I could understand him. Something about that shook me and I think that is what makes the book so powerful.
I can’t actually remember how book one ended!?
Never fear! Because book one was very much a standalone book and because it reached a pretty satisfactory conclusion, it is relatively easy to remind you where we left off (if you’re too lazy to re-read book one – *TUT*).
Nearing the end of the book, Jorg learned that it was in fact his uncle, Count Renar, who had his mother and brother killed in order to sever an alliance between his mother’s and father’s kingdoms. His father, King Olidan, actually knew about the hit and was paid to let it slide (i.e. why he sought no revenge). Knowing that his father, the King, is too strong to take on right now, Jorg decided that taking his uncle’s castle and declaring himself King of that kingdom would be the perfect first step. Jorg did just this – he defeated his uncle with the help of his brothers and the fire creature Gog, before taking his place on the throne. From the highest tower, where he resides, Jorg can see the mountains and knows that beyond them lies his father, his father’s new wife and son, and Katherine, the woman that Jorg has a strange sort of infatuation with. As the novel ends, Jorg says, “I’m telling you that by twenty I’ll be Emperor.”
Yes-Yes! I know this! Tell me about Book 2!!!
Today is a glorious day. His highness Honorous Jorg Ancrath, King of the Renar Highlands, heir to the lands of Ancrath and the protectorates thereof is getting married. He stands beside his beautiful bride, fresh and perky as the lilies on her head, in a chapel. Once they’ve said their vows and made the marriage official they leave hand in hand to the applause and hoorahs of his people, the nobility who believe that he will save them and bring peace to their domain.
Woah! Hang on one damned minute! Who- What- Where- But- Jorg?
Yeah. I know. I know! The fact is though, there are great differences between being 14 and being 18, having a kingdom and not having a kingdom, being a prince and being a king. There is also that fact that Jorg has seemingly released himself from the telepathic-like control of Sageous and Corion, whilst gaining the power of necromancy from Chella. Jorg admits to us very early on that whereas, when a child, he could see only black and white, he now sees the shades in-between. In many ways the Jorg we see in book two is different from the Jorg we see in book one.
So, Jorg is good now?
NO! Jorg is not good. He has just had to change his tactics and realise that if he does evil things he is going to feel them.
Book two begins with the 18-year-old Jorg’s wedding, but well over half of the book is dedicated to events that occurred four years ago, just months after book one finished, when Jorg was 14/15. The chapters are split into sections labelled “Wedding Day” and “Four Years Ago”. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of time shifts in novels when done well. Lies of Locke Lamora and Babylon Steel are two modern examples that really pull this off. Mark Lawrence has some tricks up his sleeve too – but I’ll spoil far too much by revealing those.
Four Years Ago
We see that just days after Jorg takes his first castle, he is approached, on the road, by a champion, the Prince Of Arrow, he is an honourable sort and loved by his people. This prince is looking to end The Hundred War that rages through the Broken Empire, take the throne and name himself Emperor. That of course doesn’t fit too well with Jorg’s plans. Confident as ever, Jorg challenges him to a sword fight – stating that if he, Jorg, yields then he will not stand against the Prince Of Arrow when he comes knocking on his door. The fight unfolds and the champion batters Jorg. The prince stands over him and tells him to yield, but he will not. The prince sees no point killing him yet, it won’t have enough impact. Instead, he will return to take his castle when he is ready and behind him will be an army, twenty-thousand strong. He means what he says and for the first time in his life, Jorg doesn’t feel confident in winning.
So, this is a novel very much about Jorg growing up and having to become even more devious. As a child, he was able to use his brothers to run straight through things. Everything that stood in front of him fell. But, how does he react and adapt to a foe that is stronger and comes straight at him? From an outsider’s perspective, the obvious thing to do would be to cut a deal, take a place within the Prince Of Arrow’s new empire and leave him to rule. Jorg isn’t willing to do that though. He still has his eyes on revenge and the Emperor’s throne by his 20th birthday. The main plot-thread of this novel, keeping his newly won castle, is the first step to doing this.
So is it any good??
The question on everyone’s mind will be: does it live up to book one? I’m happy to say that yes it does. BUT – this is a very different novel. Whereas book one was an action packed ride through a truly brilliant plot, book two is more integrated and has the character of Jorg very much as its focus. In fact, at times the story seems to become secondary to the inner-conflict going on within Jorg’s head. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. Actually, it’s a a very, very good thing; because what makes Prince of Thorns so unique, so intriguing, is Jorg. Within these 140,000 words, compared to the 85,000 words of Prince Of Thorns, Mark Lawrence takes us deep into the mind of his character; showing us his brutality, but at the same time giving us an insight into his reasoning and mental conflicts. I think, for people who thought Jorg was just too brutal in book one, this book will introduce you to a more authentic-feeling character.
“Once upon a time perhaps I might have thought two women running around on fire was a free show. Rike would laugh that laugh of his even now. Row would bet on which one would fall first. But of late my old tastes had grown sour. I had grown to understand this kind of pain. And whatever enchantments might have staged this show for me, these people had felt real. They had felt kind.”
What I found most interesting about this closer look at Jorg was how Jorg seems to be in denial. This new, older Jorg is mature enough to feel empathy and comprehend the things he has done in his past. This may not sound overly important, but it changes everything. Jorg as a character was who he was because he was capable of being so cold. Yes, Jorg is still an evil bastard, but now he feels emotion as he watches people die. To admit that to himself, though, would be a sign of weakness and it’s great to watch Jorg try to convince us, the readers, that he isn’t actually feeling any emotion – when just moments ago he has told us that he was. For example, at numerous times throughout the novel Jorg decides not to kill people that he probably should and then will try to justify this as something other than compassion and value for human life. As you read it – try and catch Jorg out from time to time. Is he telling you what he is really feeling or what he wants you to think he feels? Just the fact you can do this shows you how deep into the mind of Jorg Mark Lawrence was as he wrote this novel.
Again, I think that’s important. As much as Jorg’s charisma is used as juxtaposition to his brutal behaviour, Mark Lawrence’s prose serve as a tantalising contrast to a novel that will disturb even the most seasoned readers. For example:
“Blood on snow is very pretty. In the deep powder it melts its way down and there’s not much to see, but where the snow has an icy crust, that dazzling white shines through the scarlet and makes the blood look somehow richer and more vital than it ever did in your veins.”
An interesting addition to this series is the new view point of Katherine. Katherine is Jorg’s step-aunt, the sister of his father’s bride. She has been affected more than most by Jorg’s atrocities and we see that she is traumatised by the belief that Jorg raped her after knocking her unconscious. Through journal entries we get an outsider’s perspective of Jorg and we really begin to feel how evil he is in the eyes of a ‘normal’ person. The genius in this new entry though is how Mark Lawrence shows Jorg’s desire for this woman as a contrast. Jorg doesn’t like many people, let alone love them and so watching their reversed opinions of each other is interesting and you have to wonder where it will lead.
The setting also becomes more realised in this book. In book one, things felt very traditional. You could have quite easily taken Jorg and his story and dropped them into Westeros (The world of Game of Thrones) for example. But this isn’t the case in King of Thorns. Mark confirms quite early on that this is indeed post-apocalyptic Earth and that lying around are remnants of technology and books that explain their usage. I won’t spoil things by telling you how important they get to be in this novel, but just knowing that this technology exists adds another unique element to the series.
Can I think of any negatives about the book? It’s tough. If forced, I guess I could say that the first half of the book moves along fairly slowly because of the time shifts and remoulding of Jorg’s character. There are times when you’ll be four years ago and wanting to be at today. But then, these aspects of the novel got me through it in just over two days. The fact that you are tearing through pages in anticipation of what comes next surely can’t be a bad thing?
By the end of the book , you’re left with as many questions as when you tore open that front cover. What are Mark Lawrence’s aims for this series? Does he want to prove that even the most evil person can achieve redemption? Does he want to show the opposite – that an evil person can never truly achieve redemption. Are The Broken Empire novels a study into the dangerous effects of a child witnessing a traumatic event and not getting proper guidance through it? I’m really not sure – but I wish he’d hurry the heck up and get book three done so I can find out!
(Note: I know how much you guys hate me for being able to say that before you’ve even read book two!)
Essentially, King of Thorns is a novel that solidifies Mark Lawrence’s place as one of fantasy’s most talented authors. Rather than follow a proven formula, Mark Lawrence has taken a risk by introducing new concepts, new characters, evolving the protagonist’s abilities and throwing a dash of empathy into his profoundly evil character. And you know what? He pulled it of and then some. Best of all; it’s all told through prose that flow with such poetic beauty that there are times you find yourself shaking your head, mouth agape whilst mumbling ‘wow’.