PRINCE OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns

By Mark Lawrence
Hardcover
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Release Date: 08/02/11
ISBN: 0441020321

EXCERPT

On page five of Prince of Thorns, I almost stopped reading. By page 12, I went to my computer to read a few reviews from some trusted bloggers/critics to reassure myself that it was a book I truly wanted to give a chance. By page 40 of Prince of Thorns, I couldn’t put it down.

So, why’d I hate it?

The novel begins in such a caustic, morally insensitive way that I was almost instantly reminded of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book to bring me such ire that I almost literally threw it into the fireplace. I finished Lord Foul’s Bane, on the strength of two trusted readers, but ended up hating the novel so much that I haven’t touched Donaldson since. That experience rang though my head as I began Prince of Thorns. The protagonist/narrator, Jorg, was just such a little fuck, so insensitive and hard to relate to, that I couldn’t fathom reading an entire novel centred around him.

So why’d I continue?

Where the actions of GRRM’s most atrocious characters can often be justified and accepted with a certain sense of reality, Lawrence’s characters are black all the way to the pit of their core

Just like Lord Foul’s Bane, I went to some trusted readers and reviewers for an opinion more informed than the one I’d come to after reading only 12 pages. Reviewers with tastes similar to mine love the book, often citing it as one of the top Fantasy debuts of 2011. Heady words. Also scattered amongst those reviews were comparisons to some of my favourite writers: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin. Comparisons to Abercrombie (for unleashed violence and nihilism) and Lynch (for wit and an easy black humour) are fair, though such comparisons perhaps do Lawrence’s work a disservice by pigeonholing him into a style of Fantasy that he breaks away from with some interesting plot developments mid-way through the novel, but comparisons to GRRM are silly. There’s certainly a high level of high stakes politicking and a penchant for killing characters, similar to what you find in some of Martin’s storylines in A Song of Ice and Fire, but where the actions of GRRM’s most atrocious characters can often be justified and accepted with a certain sense of reality, Lawrence’s characters are black all the way to the pit of their core and their actions reflect this in a way that often tore me away from my sense of belief and reminded me that I was reading a piece of fiction.

So, why’d I fall in love?

So off-putting at first, but central to the success of the novel, is Jorg (not pronounced “yorg,” apparently, but “george.”) He begins as a reprehensible bandit, torching a village and acting like a villain for little-to-no reason other than that he’s angry, young and enjoys the mayhem. (And to allow Lawrence to establish the essence of his character) But as the novel progresses and Lawrence delves into the past of the young prince through a series of flashbacks, the reasons for his actions and his shattered psyche become more clear and, almost without realizing it, the reader begins to see Jorg not as a sociopath without hope, but a boy damaged by a traumatic childhood experience that once forced him to become the demon he hated so as not to be overcome by the fear, anxiety and anger that fills him. By the end of the novel, Lawrence has taken the little shithead to great depths and his actions are explored thoroughly. Prince of Thorns is a dark novel and often hard to read, but by the end it’s not dark for the sake of shock value, or dark simply to allow Lawrence to explore some sick part of his soul; rather, it’s dark because exploring those lightless depths is central to the core themes of Jorg’s story.

“There is no evil, Makin,” I said. “There’s the love of things, power, comfort, sex, and there’s what men are willing to do to satisfy those lusts.” I kicked the ruin of the necromancer’s corpse. “You think these sad creatures are evil? You think we should fear them?” (p. 248 of Waterstone’s ERC)

Jorg is Doogie Howser as written by Joe Abercrombie, and it’s sometimes hard to swallow.

Jorg, and Lawrence’s handling of him, is not without a few missteps though, and the most egregious comes from something so simple, so small and easily changed, that it’s a wonder no editor or early reader intervened along the way. It’s his age. As a character and a narrator, Jorg is compelling and likable despite his heinous acts; he’s intelligent, ruthless and sly, commanding a band of dozens of hardened bandits, criminals, murders and rapists who bend to his will; he’s fifteen years old. Too often, I was ripped out of the story because Jorg acted in a way that defied his age (which is implicitly concrete in the story, given the chain of events that leads to Jorg’s self-imposed exile). He has the mental and emotional capacity of a person much, much older than himself and there’s little reason given for why he is able to act in such a way. No matter how hard a life a child’s had, or how grisly his companions, a fifteen year old is still a child in the teetering transition into adulthood, and should act as such. Think of a fifteen year old savant coaching the New York Yankees. Or taking control of a company of soliders. Or an inner-city gang. It’s just not going to happen, no matter how brilliant or charismatic he is. Jorg is at times impetuous and acts rashly, which rings true for a teenager, but then at the drop of a pin he’s a ruthless and calculating political genius. Jorg is Doogie Howser as written by Joe Abercrombie, and it’s sometimes hard to swallow.

If the young boy is prince, then the setting is king in Prince of Thorns. Taking a page from an idea touched upon by authors such as Walter M. Miller Jr. (A Canticle for Leibowitz) and Terry Brooks’ (lightly in The Sword of Shannara and then more obviously in The Druid of Shannara), Lawrence builds a Fantasy world out of post-apocalyptic Europe. Throughout the novel are scattered tantalizing hints at the end of our world, referred to at the “Day of a Thousand Sun,” and, along with Jorg, are the most compelling aspect of Lawrence’s creation.

“There’s a door to death, a veil between the worlds, and we push through when we die. But on the Day of a Thousand Suns so many people had to push through at once, they broke the door. The veils are thin now. It just takes a whisper and the right promise, and you can call the dead back.” (pp. 217)

The way Lawrence draws a compelling post-apocalyptic wasteland full of skyscrapers-turned-castles, rogue AIs and biological warfare from a seemingly generic fantasy wold is a feat to be lauded. Most interesting is that through the end of the world, religion and myth have both persevered among society, though technology and political lines are long shattered and forgotten. From Robin Hood to Plato and Socrates, Lawrence has weaved the mythology of our world into his post-apocalyptic society with an easiness and logic that feels natural, allowing the world to seem alien and familiar at the same time.

From my encounter with Sageous in the West Yard I went straight to mass. Meeting the pagan had left me wanting a touch of the church of Roma, a breath of incense, and a heavy dose of dogma. If heathens held such powers, it seemed only right that the church should have a little magic of its own to bestow upon the worthy, and hopefully upon the unworthy who bothered to show up. Failing that, I had need of a priest in any case.

We marched into the chapel to find Father Gomst presiding. The choir song faltered before the clatter of boots on polished marble. Nuns shrank into the shadows beneath the brothers? leers, and, no doubt, the rankness of our company. Gains and Sim took off their helms and bowed their heads. Most of them just glanced around for something worth stealing.

“Forgive the intrusion, Father.” I set a hand in the font by the entrance and let the holy water lift the blood from my skin. It stung.

“Prince!” He set his book upon the lectern and looked up, white-faced. “These men . . . it is not proper.”

“Oh shush.” I walked the aisle, eyes on the painted marvel of the ceiling, turning slowly as I went, one hand raised and open, dripping. “Aren’t they all sons of God? Penitent children returned for forgiveness?” (pp. 194-195)

Prince of Thorns is further bouyed by some beautiful writing. Eloquent amongst the chaos, Lawrence’s prose is simple and fast-moving, with just enough of a hint of poetry to lend and air of realism to Jorg’s narrative voice and royal upbringing. In such a grim story as Prince of Thorns, Lawrence is able to find a certain sort of beauty in his grim world. One of my favourite passages comes during a fight in the latter half of the novel:

I cleared scabbard and followed the arc of my family blade to face the necromancer. It’s one of those swords they say can make the wind bleed. Appropriately the edge found only empty air, which hissed as if cut. (p. 228)

Also of particular note are the precise descriptions of Jorg’s fellow bandits scattered throughout the novel as chapter breaks:

Brother Row you could trust to make a long shot with a short bow. You could trust him to come out of a knife fight with somebody else’s blood on his shirt. You could trust him to lie, to cheat, to steal, and to watch your back. You couldn’t trust his eyes though. He had kind eyes, and you couldn’t trust them. (p. 218)

Most men have at least one redeeming feature. Finding one for Brother Rike requires a stretch. Is “big” a redeeming feature? (p. 236)

Without wasting narrative space, these little vignettes and observances achieve a depth for Jorg’s bandits that allows the reader to connect with them and understand something of their nature without intruding on the story itself. It also reveals more of Jorg’s introspective nature, something that he often stifles in the main narrative.

It will make you think and wonder, it will stick in your gut and twist itself around while you’re not reading it.

Prince of Thorns is not an easy novel to read, despite the fast-flowing prose and short chapters. It’s caustic and hard to swallow; it won’t wish you off to sleep with pleasant dreams, nor greet you in the morning with a smile on its face and a kiss on your lips. But it will make you think and wonder, it will stick in your gut and twist itself around while you’re not reading it. I almost put Prince of Thorns down in its first few pages, but on turning its final page, I had discovered one of 2011’s finest Fantasy novels. Prince of Thorns comes with my highest recommendation, but be warned that it’s not for the weak of heart, mind or taste.

37 thoughts on “Review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence”

  1. Grim, dark, yes – but does it have whores? It seems like too much of fantasy, especially the dyed dark in the wool type, must have a heaving superabundance of whores. And this 15 year old sociopathic leader of Brothers – does he have any Sisters? While you mention in your review that it’s “dark” how’s the rape quotient? I mean, it must have it. A little rape-y, a lot?

    Is there a band of sisters or any other female characters involved in the plot? Or is it more a Boy’s Own Adventure with extra lashings of ultra violence? Is there a surrogate mother character/female character, to which our young narrator is desperately seeking some love and tenderness from, however incorrectly this quest is handled, like many real boy-soldiers who are torn out of their family lives prematurely?

    I’m curious, because I haven’t read the book (yet) and you mention none of the above, other than the general grimness, nor in fact any female characters, but it sounds like a book esp. if it has a15 year old protagonist which will be very, very important to be careful with how it handles thorny issues like possible violence towards women, the aforementioned whore issue, and a general trend towards misogyny in this sort of thing.

    Any of these issues, were issues for you while reading Price of Thorns?

  2. Antonis M. says:

    Great review! I have yet to read Prince of Thorns but after your review it has moved higher in my To-Read list. I find it to your credit that after that initial impression you decided to continue reading. As for Jorg’s age, I also think that 15 is a bit too young for today’s standards but maybe that’s a “first-world” misconception we have. Maybe in a medieval setting and age, take for example a thousand years ago, 15 would be an acceptable or even expected age for an exceptional (as the protagonist I guess that he’s better than your average Joe, or George in this case…) young person to accomplish such things.

  3. Er, “Prince of Thorns.” The Price of Thorns is apparently another book. Less costly than sending roses however, or so I’m told.

    After asking around, I’ve been directed over to another review of this book on Tor’s blog: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/08/qpeople-who-like-this-sort-of-thing-q-being-a-review-of-mark-lawrences-prince-of-thorns

    I bring this up, because it seems to touch directly on my questions and on the issues not covered by your own review. It’s interesting too, because the author shows up some ways down the comments, which can be good or spectacularly bad. But always interesting.

    I also followed the breadcrumbs to this review, which may or may not balance the one on Tor depending on how you read it: http://leocristea.wordpress.com/tag/prince-of-thorns/ Personally, I think this one is even more, if unintentionally, damning of PoT’s possible blindspots to some unpleasant realities of genre and literature in general. That’s as far as I care to comment on it, having not yet read the novel.

  4. Anon says:

    Oh E.M Edwards, what a performer you are. Bravo!

  5. The novel begins in such a caustic, morally insensitive way that I was almost instantly reminded of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book to bring me such ire that I almost literally threw it into the fireplace

    I stopped reading that series after book one. I only read the Mirror duology because I was assured that it wasn’t as…well you know.

  6. Debbie Haupt says:

    Great review and I couldn’t agree more. I happened to review this for RT Reviews magazine and the only thing I regret is that we have to wait to see where Mark takes us and his story now.
    Here’s a link to what I thought about it http://www.rtbookreviews.com/book-review/prince-thorns
    deb

  7. aidan says:

    @E.M. Edwards — Whores in one chapter. Jorg has no sisters. Rape is never directly shown, but does happen off-stage near the beginning of the novel.

    Spoilers:

    There are a handful of female characters in the novel: the dead queen (who has very little screen time), the new queen (who seems to be there as a villain and roadblock to Jorg’s success), the Queen’s sister, who acts as a ‘love interest’ for Jorg (though, really, more as an infatuation and a channel for his lust), and a necromancer (who seems like she will be more important in later volumes). Women touch on the storyline in small ways, but all the major players are male. It’s obviously not an issue that I’ve touched on in this review, and one that only really occurs to me now, on reflection of the novel, but it’s certainly a valid concern and an interesting discussion. Do you plan on reading the novel any time soon? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about it.

    I linked to the Tor.com review in my own (and understand Bourke’s criticisms of the novel, even if I enjoyed it more than she did), but I’ll head off and read that second review.

  8. Anon says:

    Trail of breadcrumbs E.M Edwards? RequiresHate gave you both the links in the same stream of tweets where you discussed your mutual hatred of Leo Cristea and she opined how much she’d like to feed him alive to a crocodile.

  9. Thanks Aidan,

    Excuse the double linkage – I must have missed your own nod of the hat to the other review. I can vaguely recall it and hearing about Prince of Thorns, but never got around to adding it to my list – possibly because of these very issues. I’ll give a read v. soon, however.

    I asked initially in relative innocence, not recalling the Liz Bourke review until reading yours and then re-reading her review over on Tor.com. I asked because I just started off on book 1 of a Big Fantasy Series and was struck right away, in the first few pages, and again, and er, again, in the first few chapters, how there wasn’t a female in sight or even in the frame of reference which wasn’t a prostitute. And quite a few similes comparing unlike things to this other thing, in case I suppose, we hadn’t noticed the real whores hanging about. I’m not going to say this says more than it does on the tin until I’m done with the book, but your review made me wonder about Prince of Thorns, as Very Big Thing in the fantasy universe of the moment. And then I wondered a lot more after I followed the links down their rabbit holes.

    It is of course, not a new thing, this predominance of problematic female representation in the fantasy genre, new and old, but it’s on my mind at the moment so thanks for the review and the forum of your comments. Will definitely check back in again later, once I’ve finished the book.

  10. Look, Brave Anon,

    If you’re some creepy lurker shifting through my tweets, then you’ll know I tweeted my questions to Aidan first. And then glommed them here, along with some more thoughtful questions which were related *to the review* after asking about for thoughts and other reviews of the book.

    If you have a bone to pick with this, why not uncloak and join in the discussion rather than tossing bits of meat onto your toes. It may attract hungry monitors. You never know.

  11. Anon says:

    ah yes, I’ve just looked up ‘creepy lurker’ in the dictionary and you’re right, it does say ‘people who follow you on twitter’.

  12. aidan says:

    Okay, boys and girls, let’s keep the discussion on Prince of Thorns.

  13. @Anon

    If you’re going to Twitter stalk you should at least get your lines right. I said that LJC’s “post on race… made me choke.” I’d suggest this is a perfectly normal reaction to reading it. And the only person discussed being chopped up and fed to a nile monitor, was moi! By the time things had moved on to trap doors and crocodiles, we were if I recall correctly, discussing *authors* of these things called *books.*

    But hey, I hear there is a new “world award” being presented for the most amazing anonymous commentator. If you could just stand over there, a little more to the right…

  14. Anon says:

    dear EM Edwards, for someone calling me a troll you’re doing a poor job of letting this go :) I’d call you a liar but Aiden has asked us to stop so I shall. And yes, you were discussing authors. You wrote: Perhaps you need a crocodile then. Pool +trap door +invite to grimdark authors for “world award”. I don’t feel we need to hear any more than that to understand all your subtext.

  15. sqt says:

    Thanks for the review Aidan. I’m one of those who couldn’t read the book and chucked it fairly early on (the same as I did with “Lord Foul’s Bane). I’m frequently told through the reviews I read that I should give this book another chance, but yours is the first that has enough depth for me to get a real feel for whether I should bother. And truth be told, I think the unrealistic characterization of a 15-year-old is as much a turn off as the rest of the story. I just think this one is not for me.

  16. aidan says:

    That’s a fair assessment, SQT. It’s certainly not a novel that I would recommend willy-nilly to any Fantasy fan. Glad I could help with your decision, despite the outcome.

  17. Justin says:

    That’s an excellent review, Aidan. Looking back on it, despite the way I talked about it, I still don’t think I’ve given Mark enough credit for his construction and prose. It’s just a really well put together piece of fiction.

  18. aidan says:

    Thanks, Justin. Your review was one of those that pushed me to continue reading, so thanks for that.

  19. Marduk says:

    Even though you hated the Thomas Covenant chronicles you really should read Donaldson’s Gap Series. By far his best work and a great sci-fi read

  20. aidan says:

    Yeah, I bought the Gap trilogy a couple of months ago. Haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it’ll be at the top of my list when I decide to head back into SF again.

  21. Diana moher says:

    Is lord foul’s bane donalson’ series on the fellow with leprosy? Since I actually loved that series, I’m intrigued to read prince of thorns just to see if the comparison holds true for me.

  22. Andrew says:

    Very good review, echoed my sentiments on PoT almost exactly. So far it is the best book I’ve read in 2012 and was one of the few books I’ve been unable to put down at night, that I’ve read in awhile.

  23. Very many thanks for reviewing my book, Aidan, much appreciated!

    To answer Mr Edwards questions:

    If one is a superabundance of whores then why yes it does have a superabundance. This particular superabundance is called Sally and puts in a brief appearance. Strangely (at least to me) she was cited by one lady in a ‘favourite incidental character’ thread as her favourite incidental superabundance! (*)

    The rape quotient (the sole driver for a small but vocal section of the blog-sphere) is laid out in its entirety here: http://mark—lawrence.blogspot.com/2011/11/that-book-with-all-rape.html

    By my calculation 0.06% of the book is concerned with rape.

    As to your concerns about the “general trend towards misogyny in this sort of thing” – well I’m pleased that later on you were able to discover Liz Bourke’s review of “this sort of thing”. Many thanks for reposting the link. I do try to retweet and link that review myself as much as possible but there’s only so much one man can do.

    As far as ‘sisters’ go, no, none of those. I’ve never felt that every fantasy book should be compelled to set out a balanced modern view of how we’d like the world we live in to be, or even how the world we live in is. I see books as a place to explore rather than to politic. There’s a huge range on offer and if you’re looking for a book with equal numbers of male & female characters, an entirely female cast, or perhaps some mix of hermaphrodites and asexual jellies, it’s all out there to be discovered. For my part I go where my story takes me.

  24. Fantasizer says:

    Lord Foul’s Bane is the most detestable book I have ever read. It is everything a fantasy novel should not be. But somehow I did’nt hate Prince f Thorns quite like that, I had problems with the book, lots of problems but I enjoyed it too.
    Stephen Donaldson is a writer I will never touch again, but I might just pick up the King of Thorns.

  25. Aiden, and hello Mark Lawrence,

    Just a progress report. I’m roughly half-way through the book. Should finish soonish – tonight’s reading may be derailed by a need to construct and consume pancakes, followed by a trip to the gym to smash some bags around in order to burn off perhaps, one, out of a superabundance of pancakes.

    So far, rape is low, whores are plentiful but only as as sort of background radiation, but then no one expects whores on the Lich Road. Nor Little Chefs, it would seem.

    I’m finding it an interesting book. Deeply wrong, but for reasons unrelated to whores or rape for the most part. And very smooth.

    As for linking to the review. I like the reviewer, Liz Bourke, and I don’t think it’s any sort of hatchet job. I also agree with Mark here, that this sort of thing can only be Good for Mark Lawrence. It’s like a shot in the chest with one of those needles of adrenaline. Nothing can be better than a big fuss, and it’s been a little while since I heard about this book, so another shove can only bring in more people reading it, talking about it, and that’s surely good, isn’t it?

  26. Aidan! My apologies. Your avatar can look askew at me again for that.

  27. Mishell says:

    As a woman, I do not object to the lack of women in the book, because it is a book about men who don’t have much use for women. Just because a book is written in the 21st century, its characters are not required to have 21st century attitudes. I would say that the characters in the book are sexist, perhaps even misogynistic, some of them, but since this isn’t held up as some kind of example for society to aspire to, I’m no more concerned about it than I am with the scads of modern books and TV shows that feature various sorts of addicts as protagonists. I guess it’s okay to spend an hour watching a show about junkies and serial killers, as long as there are enough ovaries in it? Eh, whatever. It’s an old argument and no one listens to crotchety old me.

    My only objection to Mr. Lawrence is his tendency to respond to his own reviews. :-P

  28. Stefan says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this, if only because it’s generated so much discussion. If there are so many extreme opinions about a novel, it must be doing something right. I’m going to dig out from my pile of ARC’s any day now and read this. And then I shall review it and add my voice to the choir.

  29. A great review, Aidan!
    I’m one of those people who loved the book, despite how much Jorg could make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Mark’s writing is just so good, and I devoured the book quicker than many shorter novels.
    Can’t wait for King of Thorns.

  30. axe says:

    @Mishell

    > My only objection to Mr. Lawrence is his tendency to respond to his own reviews.

    Aah, I remember a time when people used to hanker after a author response to a review. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. :)

  31. Scott says:

    Good review Aidan (as usual :D ), and makes me even more interested to read the book. I’ve not gotten around to it yet, but I have heard good things. You seem to join the consensus of “it’s not for everyone, but you may like it” crowd. Above and beyond that, you and I share quite similar tastes in books, up to the point where I KNOW if you liked a book, I will as well. Thanks sir!

  32. Good review…while I’m pretty well known for not liking “gritty and dark” I could appreciate this for what it was, and found it a worthwhile read. I too was put off by the “age of Jorg” – I don’t think a fourteen year old could have pulled off much of what he did, and there really wasn’t much reason for not making him older (well, as far as what we know now – maybe it will be clearer in a sequel).

    Anyway, glad you “stuck with it” and found something of value in the end. I think you are right it’s a good book – but not one that will fit everyone’s tastes.

  33. Reuben says:

    As far as being remarkably productive for a fifteen year old, let’s keep in mind that Alexander the Great was regent of Macedonia at the age of 16.

  34. aidan says:

    Sure. But who was Alexander surrounded by? Political and strategists geniuses? Or the dregs of society? You can’t claim that Rome was built on Alexander’s back alone.

  35. Miriamele says:

    Thank you for your review, you encouraged me to give this book a try. I’ve just started reading and it’s interesting so far. I don’t mind the lack of women that much, there are so many feisty heroines in fantasy these days it’s refreshing not to have one:).
    As for the Jorg’s age:
    The coming-of-age in the Middle Ages occurred at the age of twelve. At twelve, people could legally get married. Apprentices could run their own shops, and aristocrats could ride to war. The famous leper-king of Jerusalem (as seen in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven”) accomplished all his great feats in battle before the age of fifteen.

    This whirlwind childhood didn’t allow people to lead a glamorous life, but many people didn’t live very long. War and disease claimed many lives around an average age of thirty. Society forced children into adulthood at an early age simply to maintain order. Only later–much later, at the end of the Victorian era–did they allow children to be kids.
    (http://jplaj.hubpages.com/hub/medievalchildren)

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