Sunday, October 7, 2012

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is the first book in the Broken Empire series published by Ace. Prince is a deceptively simple book, incorporating many familiar fantasy cliches. Lulled into bland familiarity, Mark Lawrence ambushes you with his decidedly un-simple writing-- incorporating memorable characters, setting, and voice.

Prince is told primary through the point of view of Jorg Ancrath, the titular Prince, with regular flashbacks to Jorg's youth. The flashbacks serve as preparatory moments, providing backstory and motivation for the next major plot push. Prince of Thorns is a tale of revenge. Jorg's mother and siblings were murdered in front of him during his youth while he watched impotently. As his father, King Olidan Ancrath, refused to seek revenge due to political expedience  Jorg seeks it himself. By doing so, Jorg unknowingly launches himself into a larger plot, becoming as entangled as he was on the hook thorns as he watched his mother and siblings brutally butchered. Only this time, he is butchered by hands unseen; his childhood, his free will, and his memories are all mutilated.

It is this damaged boy that the reader follows. Without guidance he becomes cold, immoral, and impulsive. Combined with his raw intelligence, you are left with a dangerous and unpredictable character. Yet, Mark Lawrence couldn't leave well enough alone and throws more fuel onto the fire. The fuel is a band of degenerate outlaws that Jorg affectionately calls his Brothers. They are outcasts, adrift-- so they think-- seeking that which their desires drive them to seek.

What makes Prince of Thorns so engrossing is that Jorg isn't simply a cold-blooded killer. Mark Lawrence carefully lays down the motivation for the character. You get to see the events that build this broken creature. You experience a whirlwind mix of sympathy and revulsion. Jorg at his core is simply a child lashing out. He is a child who says "no" and simply refuses to obey.

What is particularly masterful is how Mark Lawrence tortures Jorg's character. In particular, the unseen players in a larger world-wide scheme-- the Broken Empire's resurrection-- have ensnared Jorg in their schemes. So even when Jorg thinks he is fighting back and denying someone else's desires, he finds instead that he helped them. Worse, Jorg finds that his own memories have been compromised, his own desires for revenge stolen. Every step of the story, Jorg reaches a goal, only to have it pulled out of his grasp. This drives Jorg to the point of insanity. His mind keeps folding in on itself, questioning who he is and what he wants. In Jorg's view, the entire world is his enemy that has taken from him everything, so he will take everything from the world.

Matching Jorg's unsettling character is Mark Lawrence's interesting take on a post-apocalyptic future. The world is green and beautiful but littered with the artifacts of a past age. Things familiar become twisted. Castles are in fact re-purposed concrete bunkers. 'Magical' swords are actually high technology relics. Christianity still thrives, if subtly changed. Yet, for all this quasi-realism, magic exists. It is a warning. For all the familiarity, the world is as broken as Jorg, and things are not as they should be. It is delightful and suspenseful.

Wrapping this whole beautifully damaged packaged is Mark Lawrence's voice. An author's voice is generally workmanlike, seeking to be unobtrusive, letting the plot, setting, etc. stand on its own. Occasionally, an author is gifted, such that his prose ascends functionality and becomes artistry-- a character unto itself. With such purple praise I declare Mark Lawrence an artist. Without his skill, I doubt Jorg would have been nearly as enjoyable a character.

The sarcasm, uncertainty, and pain within Jorg is found within the word choice and sentence structure of Prince of Thorns. Just as the characters love the ancient Classics, so too does Mark Lawrence. In particular, he uses the Latin-inspired device of delaying the main unifying clause to the end of the sentence. What opens as praise will quickly close as a barbed insult. This sharp poke jabs both the narrative's recipient and the reader.

I loved Prince of Thorns. It is simply a great novel. It is very well written, simple in structure and slavishly devoted to its characters. I also love it because it is a testament that cliches do not automatically make for a bad book. Mark Lawrence's writing elevates these cliches-- sometimes directly and sometimes with a nod and wink to the reader. It is gratifying to see an author breathe new life into the genre by showing what can be crafted from such mundane and familiar materials. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is worth a read for any fan of speculative fiction. It is one of the best books I have read in recent memory.

Memorable Quotes:

"The corpses posed as corpses do."
"Her voice flowed through the octaves, an echo of every kind word and every promise fulfilled."
"We paper over the voids in our comprehension with science or religion, and make believe that order has been imposed."

Penguin: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0441020324

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