I opened my review of Prince of Thorns, book 1 of The Broken Empire saga, by saying:
"Damn, but this was one hell of a book!"
I would like to begin this review in a similar spirit, by saying:
"Damn, but this was one hell of a book to review."
I've let it settle and digest for a few days, but I'm still very conflicted in my thoughts regarding King of Thorns. Mark Lawrence has improved upon many aspects of that first book, particularly in the areas of character development and world-building, but the converging paths of the narrative structure didn't work so well for me this time around.
Generally, I'm not a big fan of stories that jump back and forth in time, balancing flashbacks with the 'current' or 'present day' narrative. It's just not a device that works for me. Having said that, it did work for me in the first book, largely because Jorg was such a unique sort of protagonist that I was truly interested in just what happened to place his feet upon such a path. Here, the 'present day' narrative jumps ahead four years, forcing a gap that allows for the same device to be used again. The problem is, with my curiosity about Jorg's origins already sated, the flashbacks here lacked the same drawing power. As much as I appreciate what Lawrence attempted to do with the copper box - I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which his banked memories altered the course of battle - I didn't find the 'big' memory a compelling enough mystery to justify taking us away from the events of his wedding day.
Of course, it doesn't help that the story of Jorg's wedding day is such a strong story on its own. Taking place over the course of a single day, it develops his character, advances the plot, and resolves several key conflicts in exemplary fashion. Here we have a few moments of courtship, a rushed marriage, a siege, a quest, and a battle - more than enough to carry a tale. Once again, Jorg and his band of brother face impossible odds, but find novel and exciting ways of stealing the upper hand. This is fighting dirty, as we'd expect, but it works.
Speaking of fighting dirty, the climax is another aspect of the tale about which I'm conflicted. It's completely in keeping with Jorg's character, and brilliantly resolves some of the larger challenges facing his march to the ultimate throne, but once again it relies upon artifacts of Builder technology. I'm honestly not sure whether I like that pattern. It intrigues me and excites me, and I love the Dark Tower way in which the ghosts of the past have both a significance and an enduring sense of peril, but it just felt a little to convenient here, a little too much of a stretch. Ultimately, whether it's a clever device or a bit of a cheat is something I really can't say until I see how Emperor of Thorns is resolved. I would actually be disappointed not to see it attempted again, but the 'how' and the 'why' of it will mean everything.
I would, of course, be remiss not to say a few words about the women of the world. While her diary entries didn't necessarily add anything to the narrative for me, it's clear that Katherine is being pressed into a pivotal role. Not only is she quickly becoming a key piece in the overall game of thrones, but the significance of her thorn in Jorg's side continues to grow. As for his child-bride Miana, she was a pleasant surprise, worthy of not just her place in the story, but also of a place as Jorg's side. I expected very little of her going in, but began to like her early on, and definitely respected her contributions by the end. Chella, as we might expect, continues to play a role in events, haunting Jorg's thoughts and driving him into confrontation with the dead. The scene in which she forces a confrontation with the ghosts of his genocide amid the marsh and the mud is just awesome, and almost enough to redeem my conflict about the dueling narratives.
Overall, King of Thorns is a strong read, and a worthy sequel to Prince of Thorns. Despite my conflicts with the telling of it, I enjoyed it immensely, and actually stayed up late to read the final 200+ pages. The cast of characters has grown, Jorg has grown, the world has grown, and the stakes have grown. A bigger book than the first in every respect, this is a tale that leaves even bigger expectations for Emperor of Thorns.
Published August 7th 2012 by Ace Books
Hardcover, 449 pages