Prince of Thorns is quite the controversial piece of fantasy fiction and before I approached reading it, many people had informed me that it was violent, gratuitous and possibly steps over a line. I don’t generally read violent novels but I’d heard so much about this novel that I had to give it a go. This may not be a particularly standard review as I want to approach the subject of controversy as well as talk about the books quality.
It’s within the protagonist Jorg that much of the controversy falls. In the opening of the book we meet Jorg an adolescent prince of Ancrath as he and his “brothers” assault (in various ways), pillage and burn their way through a town. The bone of contention here is that Jorg is very young at the time and his actions are utterly deplorable. It’s clear from the first few pages that you’ll either drop the book there and then or push forwards.
Thankfully, I did indeed push forwards and found that while the opening sequence and some later moments are disgustingly brutal, they at least revolve around a main narrative point. Lawrence isn’t writing gruesome travesty for the sake of it, nor is he doing it to cause a reaction. Mark states that part of his original inspiration was A Clockwork Orange and within Jorg, you can certainly see that comparison.
The actions of Jorg and his band of outlaws are horrendous and they are certainly difficult to read – often turning the stomach. It’s only later in the story that we find out why Jorg acts the way he does. And the thing is, once that plot point is revealed the story takes on a different edge. His acts are still not excusable, but the earlier moments are given a reason to exist.
In fact, Lawrence is very clever in spinning a story that can entertain despite the central character being such an utter bastard. This isn’t Catcher in the Rye where we have a confused and depressed youngster; we have a young man who survives by dealing death in the most grotesque ways possible. He is angry and bitter after watching his Mother and Brother murdered as he hung in a thorn bush. Now, he is swearing vengeance on, Count Renar, the man who gave the order to have his family killed.
The story follows Jorg as he travels his homelands tracking down Renar and along the way he battles his own father and many men. Jorg is, despite his bastardness, a great multi-faceted character that opens a wealth of options for storytelling. Before we see Jorg’s reasoning behind his attitudes I thought that he would become dull. I mean, why do these men follow him, often into death, when he has no redeeming feature. But, he grows into something very different by the end and changes from a deplorable bastard into an almost camp, roguish and over the top, anti-hero.
The supporting characters are rather forgettable, to be honest. They are a standard fantasy trope, which isn’t a bad thing, but I sit here two weeks after reading and can only remember one of them with any clarity. This character is the Nuban, who is a rather mythological style of character and the only significant character of colour in the novel. He is often philosophical and carries a sense of burden that makes him rather endearing.
What Lawrence does brilliantly well is construct a world as brilliant as Jorg is bad. He throws a massive curveball that truly knocked me for six and made me want to read faster than ever.
*VERY MILD SPOILERS AHEAD*
His world, while on the outside seems medieval is actually our world after an apocalyptic war. There are smatterings of hints from the very beginning as we hear Jorg reference philosophers and books such as The Art of War. We meet deformed creatures who hide inside mountains and when tasked with taking down a town for his father, Jorg uses strange chemical weapons in an attempt to do so.
*VERY MILD SPOILER ENDS…*
Once this new revelation transpires you realise you are dealing with a very different beast altogether. Suddenly you can’t trust anything; Lawrence is seemingly a master at sleight of hand. I walked away from Prince of Thorns with more questions than any other book I’ve read. Yes, the book has an incredibly dark opening, but once past that suddenly you’re dealing with a fantasy book that is very refreshing.
While I was overly impressed by Prince of Thorns, there were a few gripes for me. While I read past the violence, I wondered whether it could have been toned down a little, it does get a little tiresome reading about that much gore. Also, I wanted more depth all around, from the characters to other aspects of the world. For example, when Lawrence reveals the truth about the world Jorg inhabits it brought up logical questions that felt almost like plot holes.
This is a new style of fantasy book that can impress, but only if you want to read further than THAT opening. It may be detriment that Mark saw fit to write the story in such a way as many people will miss the moments of brilliance later in the book. I enjoyed the novel despite the violence and actions of Jorg and as I say, I’m not a fan of ultra violence. I can’t wait to see what Lawrence does with the sequel where Jorg has changed and the world can be explored further.
Published by Harper Voyager. This book was read on Kindle.