This is pretty brutal. Relentlessly brutal, right from the opening paragraphs:
Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled in the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallows post and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.
The town-square ran red. Blood in the gutters, bloom on the flagstones, blood in the fountain. The corpses posed as corpses do. Some comical, reaching for the sky with missing fingers, some peaceful, coiled about their wounds. Flies rose above the wounded as they struggled. This way and that, some blind, some sly, all betrayed by their buzzing entourage.
“Water! Water!” It’s always water with the dying. Strange, it’s killing that gives me thirst.
And this the ostensible hero talking in Prince of Thorns, the first in a (you guessed it) projected trilogy collectively called The Broken Empire. So, we’re clearly in anti-hero land, in the “shit and blood” sub genre of sword and sorcery that aims to rub your face in what rusty blades, poor sanitation and disease actually do to people living under medieval conditions, in stark contrast to high fantasy depictions of noble quests in which divinely provident good triumphs over corrupt and therefore ultimately doomed to fail evil.
Now, it’s been awhile since morally ambiguous characters bring anything new to the genre (and, really, if you look at some of the source material for epic fantasy, it’s really nothing new). Nor, for that matter, is the notion of a medieval-era protagonist who cracks wise like the stereotypical smart-ass kid in a modern sitcom. In fact, maybe it’s getting a little tired.
That said, Mark Lawrence still manages to shake the dice a little differently in presenting a highly learned though thoroughly unlikable character (well, almost, as we’ll shortly see) as a first person narrator (which I don’t think is done all that much). Consequently, the focus here is entirely on Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a mere boy of 13 (Barbara Tuchman in her A Distant Mirror makes the point that one reason that might account for the senseless cruelty and barbarism of the Middle Ages is most of the ruling lords and kings were barely out of adolescence), who kills without thought or remorse those who needlessly irritate him or get in his way, willing to sacrifice a loyal friend if need be, who must constantly modulate his rage so as not to slaughter everyone within his sight who manages to displease him in one way or another. All the other characters are largely secondary and, from the viewpoint of the storyteller, largely superfluous to the world as Jorg perceives it.
So, if this is the “good guy,” what are the “bad guys” like?
Well, they’re not very nice either. However, this isn’t a completely amoral universe, though Jorg would like us to think it is. There are extenuating circumstances, which brings us to the “well, almost” part that renders Jorg not entirely unsympathetic. To begin with, when he was only nine he witnessed the murder of his mother and brother while pinned on the thorns of a briar patch, thrown from his coach by thugs under the employ of Count Renar and thought literally left to the wolves, helpless to move let alone intercede (though that probably saves his own life). Worse, his father remarries and forges a truce with Renar as a matter of strategic convenience, leaving only Jorg operating on his own as a rogue to avenge the deaths of his family. So, you get where his anger management issues stem from.
Thorns, of course, are highly significant mythological archetypes, most notably the crown of thorns worn by Jesus during the crucifixion, which in turn signifies the fall of man. Lawrence is probably thinking primarily of the latter; it would be hard to conceive as Jorg as any kind of Christ figure. The cover arguably has some Christian symbolism in that the various swords appear as crosses in what could be seen as a cemetery, though the symbolism in the book is perhaps rooted more in pagan notions of the union between the planes of the supernatural and physical worlds. Without knowing how much direction Lawrence had in the cover art, this may be overanalyzing. Suffice it to say that there is very little of the Christian, let alone the divine, in Lawrence’s world building. It is worth noting, perhaps, that Sam and Frodo take shelter of sorts in the briar vegetation during their journey through Mordor and in mythology thorns are frequently forces of magic intending to draw a blood sacrifice from interlopers; in nature, thorns serve little purpose but to inflict pain on trespassers, witting or otherwise. The latter is probably more what Lawrence has in mind.
Jorg’s philosophical worldview is that of the chess board, in which minor pieces must be sacrificed in order to capture a bigger prize. However, there are hints that Jorg himself may be a chess piece unaware of a larger game, rendering him more sympathetic as he struggles to rein in seemingly uncontrollable murderous desires he barely comprehends and that possibly is compelled from some supernatural realm. Whether that game is devised by the gods or by men will undoubtedly unfold in subsequent volumes. Without wanting to give too much away, there are more than a few suggestions there may be some literal game playing going on here, both in a rather funny scene in which Jorg and his companions attempt to breach a magical defense, along with continuing anachronistic references to ahistorical figures such as Nietzsche and Sun Tzu. I’m hoping this isn’t going to resolve to a cliche that’s about as original as two stranded astronauts named Adam and Eve. Or, at least if it does, Lawrence has some twist in mind.
The next volume in the series is called King of Thorns (let me guess, the final volume will be Emperor of Thorns?), potentially set for August publication, and Lawrence’s blog promises an evolving Jorg who is older, wiser and more sophisticated. Whether more likable, remains to be seen.
Then again, literature is full of unlikeable protagonists (Richard III anyone?) who nonetheless hold your attention, if only because they personify unfortunate tendencies that nonetheless are, alas, part of human nature. Lawrence maintains that he’s not trying to write any great exegesis about humanity, but is just trying to tell an entertaining story.
At that, so far at least, he has succeeded.
Read an exclusive excerpt of Prince of Thorns right here at Black Gate.