Prince of Thorns

Mark Lawrence
Prince of Thorns Cover

Prince of Thorns



Well, that was fun!

I’ve liked the idea of ‘grimdark’ ever since I heard it was a ‘thing’ and a couple of years ago decided to get into ‘Game of Thrones’ and loved it. My affection for one roleplaying game in particular (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition) makes grimdark a natural fit. Who’s interested in epic heroes and kings, queens and dragons? Not me. I want my hero to fail due to a dagger being slipped between their shoulder blades, or even better to stand on a rusty nail and fall down some stairs – the bump doesn’t kill you but the septic infection caused by the nail does….

So, all this slogging through sewers has finally brought me to reading something from the genre. I knew Lawrence’s books were recommended (I think it’s yet another series where publicity claims it’s ‘like Game of Thrones on….’insert psychoactive drug’). Therefore I was quite excited to jump in, had some inclination what I could expect and was ready to go.

I was not disappointed – this book is brilliant! I just lapped it up and yes I got what I asked for. Lots of killings by a bunch of bastards, some political machinations and a lot of mud. Lawrence has delivered big time with this novel and although I am late to the party I know I’m going to read the rest of his work.

So what works in it? First of all the central character Jorg is crafted really well. Jorg is a prince in a kingdom who after witnessing a series of brutal murders absconds from his home and leads a band of brigands. His purpose? Revenge and power! Jorg is also still a child (aged 13 at the start of the book). Not only is he a child, he’s an amoral bastard. Within the first few pages you realise what an absolute scumbag he is. He is a proper fucked up kid!

I won’t list his crimes here, but in his quest for what he wants he is unstoppable and it is very rare that he has a twinge of conscious. Nothing is sacred, not the peasants trampled and killed underneath him, not his companions, not his family. For much of the book I felt it was inappropriate to refer to him as an ‘anti-hero’, more I felt he was just the protagonist of the novel. However, what Lawrence does really well, is not redeem Jorg but actually allow the reader to understand why he is the way he is. It doesn’t exactly excuse his crimes but at the end of the novel the reader is asked to question whether it was the events from his ninth birthday that led him that way or was he just ‘born bad’.

I think it’s quite masterful that I actually felt quite sad and sorry for Jorg, for a happy little boy’s life warped and destroyed the way it had been, for a little boy who was totally incapable of feeling love and empathy. Although Jorg has ruined the lives of countless people he is also a victim too. When one views his relationship with his mother and father one can’t help but think there is a little boy screaming for his father’s acknowledgement and recognition, desperate to feel the love of his mother again. In this high octane, bloodthirsty novel there is space for reflection and to feel sadness at this boy’s empty soul. Did I say Jorg was a little shit?

I think it’s important to discuss the first few pages and the potential triggers in it. It is strongly implied that Jorg is a rapist. I have read a number of reviews discussing this as a plot device, I can fully understand why a number of readers have either poorly rated this book because of it or just immediately gave up. No one has to read a book they don’t want to or are not enjoying. No one should be expected to read a book that covers subject matter they find distasteful and no one should read a book if they hate the characters. Life is too short to read things that are not working for you and also we need to recognise the rights of others to criticise.

I have to be honest, I think some of the comments from some readers defending the book and criticising other reviewers are particularly unhelpful and prove the critics right. If someone is critical of how rape is used in this book as a plot device it does not equate to being a ‘feminazi’. Some readers inability to understand why someone would be critical of this book comes through as base misogyny. I also find the defence that ‘this was how it was in the Dark Ages’ is ridiculous. Lots of things may or may not have happened in the Dark Ages, however we don’t have to look to far back to see systematic rape as a war crime. Ask the women of ‘liberated’ Berlin how they felt when the Red Army raped thousands of women and girls. Ask the women and girls of Bosnia what it was like when the Serb army used rape as a form of genocidal ethnic cleansing. The Tutsi women in Rwanda. Rape as a war crime isn’t something from ‘back in the day’.

All that said, I think it is appropriate for art to present protagonists whose actions are reprehensible. Fantasy / and other literature shouldn’t just present protagonists as heroes. We are not supposed to like Jorg, we are supposed to find him vile. It is what makes the novel powerful when the reader begins to sympathise, or at least understand what drives him (and as an aside I find that very uncomfortable when I reflect that by the last third of the novel I was rooting for him). Some people have tried to suggest that rape didn’t happen. It is true, it is off-screen and it is not described in any detail at all. It is certainly not intended to titillate and it doesn’t convey the terror of the victims.

I’m a fan of Italian giallo cinema that isn’t shy in exploring the links between sex and violence (and that is often intended to titillate or at least shock or thrill as well as terrify). Psychosexual art can be transgressive as well as explore the deepest corners of the basest desires. There is none of that here – and for me, this is what gives Jorg’s actions power. We don’t feel the terror of his rape victims, we don’t feel his power or desire. It is so fucking THROWAWAY. I totally get why people hate this as Jorg’s opinion of his actions are just so casual. He doesn’t care whatsoever about his victims – they are less than human, they are totally insignificant and for me that is what is terrifying. From Jorg’s point of view his actions are insignificant and that’s just horrible. Yes, it’s used as a device to get you to instantly hate Jorg. Yes, it works.

You know what emphasises how empty Jorg is? Later in the novel he has sex with a prostitute and he is amazed how much better sex is when he doesn’t have to force himself on others. He is that empty and unaware of love and sexual attraction that paying for a prostitute opens a whole new world for him previously unknown. I want to say ‘help Jorg if he ever feels real love and affection’ but actually we should wish help on the other party.

One criticism of the book is character development. It’s important to note that this is Jorg’s story and in his world few others matter. The other characters, including his warband are incidental. Jorg doesn’t value them, so they are little more than caricatures. I don’t see an issue with limited development of supporting characters. Indeed, the only characters who Lawrence tells us more about are the ones Jorg does seem to care about. There is a ‘band of brothers’ feel to the novel but if there is twenty in Jorg’s group only two matter.

What I do find a stretch is Jorg’s capabilities. He is an excellent strategist, leader and fighter. There is a sense of his skills being pre-ordained (which links in to his driven, wicked actions) but sometimes I was thinking, ‘I call bullshit’. No 13 year old is that good!

The female characters in the novel are quite invisible. The character of Katherine is totally ineffective, indeed all the women in the book are useless and little more than cardboard cutouts.

There is an awful lot of violence in the book, it’s quite graphic and grubby. We’ve examples of mass executions, and lots of pillaging. Lawrence writes well, his pacing is excellent when the action kicks in. He manages to convey the action and danger of medieval battle, there are plenty of sharp objects in eyes, blades pulled out of chests covered in gore. The book is absolutely mental in places. There is one action in particular by Jorg which I was thinking ‘holy fuck!’ when he did it (it’s one of those, ‘he’s not going to do that is he? Oh yes, he is!’). The most ridiculous thing is for all the discussion of sexual violence and all the indiscriminate pillaging of villages that isn’t close to being the most obscene thing Jorg does in the book. For all readers, try and think of the absolute worst thing a human being could do. Jorg’s actions almost certainly top what you thought of.

The setting is very clever. I won’t spoil it for others but I was glad I did not know anything of the setting of the ‘Broken Empire’ trilogy before it started. Early on you raise an eyebrow about the setting, but like layers of an onion it gradually shows more and more. It’s very effective once you work out what is going on.

So, my first literary dip into ‘grimdark’, I want more. It has it’s predecessors (Lawrence uses the phrase ‘game of thrones’ three times in the book – once was enough!) but the book felt very fresh to me. I’ve hardly touched on the plot in the book because I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. Every chapter you learn a little more about Jorg and what has happened to him, there is violence and political machinations which is what I wanted but the story is very good. Jorg isn’t especially deep but the presentation of him is complex and Lawrence does a great job in making us understand him.