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Monday, 14 October 2013

Review: 'Prince of Thorns' by Mark Lawrence

(Courtesy of Goodreads)

'Prince of Thorns' by Mark Lawrence

Warning: Contains Spoilers

When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king...
It's time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what's rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar's men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him--and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father's castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

 Personal Rating: 5/5

There's a lot to be said when an author tries to make the main character of his series the bad guy. A lot of people have tried, a lot of people have failed. Fortunately, that means that a precious few who try succeed, and even if no one else ever does, let Mark Lawrence be named a success. To add a little context, the Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, sometimes known to his brothers as 'Little Jorgy', is the runaway crown prince of Ancrath, a murderer, oftimes a mass murder, thief, arsonist, torturer, whore-taker, blasphemer, and occasional rapist. He's the leader of the group of killer, thug-like wanderers called the Thorns, respected and feared by his brothers. His reservations are few, his weaknesses hidden, his fears arguably non-existent. His sword is red with the blood of the guilty and the innocent, and his heart is black as his cloak.

The catch? He's younger than me.

The book starts out with Jorg and his Thorns, some from respectable pasts and others true criminals, while they are ransacking the village of Mabberton, raiding its valuables, killing its residents, and having its daughters. A lot of people lose their desire in this book during those first few pages for some of these, particularly the part wherein the currently fourteen-year-old prince muses over which of the farmer's daughters he liked better, (if memory serves, he preferred the one who had been quieter.) The very first line sets the dark and dangerous tone for the book: 'Ravens! Always the ravens.' These acts of violence and pillage seem to be almost every day activities for the Thorns, as shown by Jorg's observation: ''Water! Water!' It's always water with the dying. Strange, it's killing that gives me a thirst.'

In between the chapters of Jorg's story, in which he returns home with ambition in his heart and revenge on his mind, we get glimpses into the young prince's past and learn just why he is the murderous bastard that Lawrence has made him. We learn that the two people precious to him were taken from him by their land's enemy, Count Renar, while he was left hidden in hook briars, possibly to die. These 'thorns' return as a resounding memory in the main part of the storyline, and over time we come to learn that the 'voice' of the thorns is most likely the trauma of being left in such agony while watching his brother and mother be murdered by the Count's men. If the reader has survived all the darkness until that point, they may come to identify, in some way, with Jorg; if I was put in that sort of situation, I would probably want a little revenge as well.

Even more stunning is the way in which Lawrence writes this 'bad' protagonist's story in the first person. As most writers will tell you, writing in the first person is hard. Really hard. I mean, it's harder than rocks to write well in the first person. You have to keep solely to the character's perspective, make sure they don't know or see anything that they usually wouldn't, and the whole thing is written as if recanted from memory; there's no narration, only dictation. It's like writing a very detailed autobiography of a guy who never existed. Yet somehow, Lawrence has slipped into the mind of this demented serial murderer, (slightly worrying, considering how well he does it,) and penned a masterpiece; it's described as being the English answer to 'Game of Thrones'! The whole story is told through Jorg's eyes, including his thoughts, actions, speech, and philosophical musings that make the reader rub their chin and ponder.

Progressing through the story, we see Jorg returning to meet his father, the king, and it's very easy to see that there's a massive void between them. He muses about killing his father, and his father has his best knight try to kill him. The king's pagan court mage plays several mind games throughout the course of the book, which left me about as confused as Jorg, (though not in a bad way! It was rather fun to figure it out!) And, perhaps from returning to the castle in which he lived his rich, effortless life before he left with the Thorns, perhaps he starts to fall back into that innocence that he thought had died long ago. One hint about this: there's a girl he actually likes rather than wants for pleasure. Then, through an arduous trek through dead mountains filled with strange monsters and necromancers, they move onwards to get Jorg's revenge on Count Renar.

The biggest surprise, however, came about halfway to two thirds through the book. Take a look at what you've read so far in this review alone. What sort of fantasy genre does it strike you as? Celtic? Roman? Neolithic? Arthurian? Not even. Big spoiler alert ahead! The clues are subtle at first: ruins of old castles and buildings, authors and philosophers like Euclid and Shakespeare sneakily mentioned in Jorg's love of books, talk of the Romans building roads, et cetera. But what really hits it home is when you come across a vault with a 'spirit' in the door locks that talks about 'biometrics' and the like. The 'spirit' of the door, when asked how long it has been asleep, tells Jorg that it has slept for more than eleven hundred years.

It's not historical fantasy: it's a post-apocalyptic setting in which society has regressed to a stage resembling a fantasy era. With the mention of pagan magic and dream wizards, necromancy, ghosts and monsters, it's hard to imagine that this is meant to be the world that has yet to come. That fact alone raises questions: are the monsters really monsters, or are they just mutated people? What happened to drive the world to this desolate state?

I'll admit it. With all of the good stuff in this book, the story and the storytelling included, I had to look closely to try and find anything to comment on for criticism. My findings? Nothing. I literally found nothing wrong with this book, as far as my own reading experience was concerned. I noticed no spelling errors or continuity flaws. I wanted there to be some room for improvement, but honestly I could find nothing. I have a new favourite book, plain and simple. I know that this review may sound biased, but I did approach it objectively; I was even thrown in the first few pages when the references to farm girl rape came up. But, once I progressed through that, I was wowed.
All in all, I can barely believe that a book this good exists. With more surprises than I can count and then some more to keep you going, 'Prince of Thorns' is a must-read, which makes me even more anticipated to start 'King of Thorns' as soon as I get a free moment! If anything, the only thing that concerns me about this book is that the author so easily managed to write from the perspective of a homicidal, vengeful teenager... Someone keep an eye on him.

Well done, Mr Lawrence. Well done.

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