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King of Thorns

by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)

We find the young Jorg Ancrath shortly after where we left him at the end of “Prince of Thorns”. He’s still ill-tempered, a murderer, destructive, sly, and entirely ruthless. He often seems to act at random, and at best his loose goal might be avenging the deaths of his sister and brother, but mostly he’s just rebelling against being told he can’t do things, or he’s expected to do other things. That’s how Jorg works – instinctively, brutally, reflexively, but still somehow brilliantly:

‘Is this going to be one of those times when you pretend not to have a plan until the last moment?’ Makin asked. ‘And then turn out to really not have one?’

Jorg is a king, now, but it hasn’t quietened his nightmares, which are now haunted by a mysterious copper box. And it hasn’t smoothed one iota off his sharp tongue- we’re sarcastic about everything, if it deserves it:

The bladder-pipe, a local Highlands speciality, is to music what warthogs are to mathematics. Largely unconnected.

Meanwhile, Jorg finds himself opposed to the man who would be Emperor across the whole continent. It’s not that Jorg doesn’t like him, or see why he might be a great Emperor, it’s mostly just his innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to bow down to others, ever. So Jorg finds himself in his castle, with his very young new bride, poorly defended, with twenty thousand of the would-be Emperor’s troops marching towards him. Only his wits – and maybe a handful of peculiar artifacts – might help him.

Occasionally, you get glimpses of the broader setting of this book, from which these artifacts derive – we find that we’re in a long post-apocalyptic future:

When a game cannot be won, change the game. I read that in the book of Kirk.

These kind of “Easter egg” insider nods to the broader science fiction/fantasy genre are delicately done, and a delight to find.

The book is told through two intertwining timelines, one taking only a few hours, while the other takes months, until eventually they come together. I thought this was very well done, and a great narrative device. It’s a form that works very well for other genres, but I haven’t seen it used here, and I rather like it – fantasy as smart fiction, even if it still takes in some of the tropes on the way.

But it’s not all smart asides and clever references. Some of Mark Lawrence’s writing here, as in his other books, soars high above us:

Still the music, the deep slow melody, the high and broken counterpoint, as if the mountains themselves had become the score, as if the glories of hidden caves and secret peaks had been wrapped around the ageless majesty of the ocean and turned into the music of all men’s lives, played out by a woman’s fingers, without pause or mercy, reaching in, twisting, laying us bare.

Five stars, very well deserved.

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Book review

Prince of Thorns

The Broken Empire, #1

by Mark Lawrence

This is a book that I can imagine some people really aren’t going to like at the start: the protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, seems to be more than usually disturbed young man – sociopathic is the word that sprang to my mind.

But as you read on, and as the complexity of his background is uncovered, his behaviour becomes explicable, and one begins to understand more. Eventually, one can perhaps begin to move from understanding to empathy. You learn what he has seen and how he felt – the death, the brutality, the guilt. Together with the environment he grew up in, how else could he have survived? And indeed, in due course, the layers of the true motivation of his actions begin to appear.

Jorg is still a bit of a sociopath, though. Here he is on the game of life:

“You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.”

In this view of life as a game without rules, and a game to be won, you find the key to his character:

“Anything that you cannot sacrifice pins you. Makes you predictable, makes you weak.”

Which gives you Jorg’s philosophy on how to play – you push, you cheat, you stab them in the back, but you never, ever, stop:

“In the end it’s about staying power. They should put that on headstones, ‘Got tired’, maybe not tired of life, but at least too tired to hold on to it.”

The world in which the book is set is also an important element here. Jorg is – or at least was – the heir to the throne of one of many competing kingdoms. War is everywhere, and has always been. Again, expectations are confounded, and we gradually learn more about the history of the world, just as we do about Jorg’s personal history. It’s a world like our own medieval times, with some limited magic thrown in. Although, like Jorg, there’s a backstory which you slowly learn, and which tells you more.

Finally, we see hints of a strange politics in this world. Jorg’s ambition is to regain his throne and end the hundred years of war. But is that his ambition, or is he a pawn in a larger and more sophisticated game? Lots for me to look forward to in the rest of the trilogy!

Four stars here. Excellent writing, intriguing world building, and a nuanced main character.