Damn, but this was one hell of a book!
Opinions of the entire Broken Empire series seem to be strongly divided, with most readers falling into either the love it or loathe it camp, and very few counting themselves indifferent. I've seen reviews that bemoan the character of Jorg, asking how we can be expected to follow such a damaged protagonist, and others celebrating the daring chances Mark Lawrence has taken with the series.
Well, you can definitely count me in the love it camp, at least as far as Prince of Thorns is concerned. This is a book that struck me in much the same way as Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon or Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné once did, just completely playing against all expectations of the genre, and surprising me with something original. Lawrence doesn't necessarily do anything new with the core motivations of vengeance and conquest, but he makes some interesting choices in terms of his protagonist/narrator, along with the supporting characters, that are really exciting.
This is fantasy that's dark and epic, following the bloody march towards destiny of a young man and the ragged band of mercenaries with whom he's surrounded himself. Jorg is a ruthless killer who has no problem playing dirty, and who doesn't give a damn how anybody else feels about him. He's not out to make friends or win followers, and certainly isn't worried about charming his way through the byzantine world of royal politics. Many readers have complained he isn't a likable hero, but you have to admire his tenacity, and you have to feel a bit of sympathy for his origins. Cheering him on is a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
Getting back to that Erikson comparison, this is a book where nobody is safe. Lawrence kills off characters I was sure would be with us for a while, including one who I fully expected to remain at Jorg's side until the very end, and does so with unimaginable cruelty. Hearkening back to the Moorcock comparison, this is also a book where absolutely power is allowed to corrupt - and destroy - absolutely. To say that the climax of this first volume is explosive is a ridiculous understatement, but it's refreshing to come across an author who isn't afraid to make the big sacrifices.
Of course, I would be woefully remiss if I didn't mention one last comparison, and that is to Stephen King's Dark Tower opus. Lawrence has done a masterful job here of subtly setting his fantasy saga in a post-apocalyptic future that defines the story in some areas, but never overwhelms it. Early on, it's not even clear whether we're post-apocalyptic or alternate history, but once you start reading about the Builders, plasteek sheets, and the Day of a Thousand Suns, you begin piecing it all together. The climax beneath Castle Red is very evocative of King's confrontation of past demons, and strong enough to be worth mentioning in the same breath.
Bring on King of Thorns, because I need to know where Jorg goes from here.
Published April 12th 2012 by Harper Voyager
Paperback, 399 pages