Our favorite debut of last year was unquestionably Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, a dark, brutally captivating tale of epic fantasy—or low; opinions on that were divided. This August will bring us King of Thorns, the second volume in The Broken Empire and sequel to Prince of Thorns. What he started in his debut, Lawrence expands in King of Thorns. Again, this is a breathtaking, captivating, and violent venture into a wonderful world filled with morally ambiguous characters and compelling world-building.
Little Jorg, all grown up
Four years after the events in Prince of Thorns, Jorg is all grown up. He’s no longer a prince, but the king of the Renar Highlands. With an invading army at his doorstep, the King of Thorns is about to marry the daughter of an ally. King Jorg is a new person, smarter and more tranquil, yet still his old, cruel self. Lawrence did an amazing job bridging four years and bringing us a new character that still retains so much of who he was before. Of course, the way this story is told provides aid in reconciling the old and new Jorg. It is again from the viewpoint of Jorg, but with shifting timelines—facilitated by flashbacks to the four years between then and now and by pages from the diary of his love interest.
No man is born evil
This is no fairy tale filled with cheesy fantasy tropes; it is instead a dark type of realism. A character isn’t just evil, but evil for a reason. That element was present in Prince of Thorns, but with a dash of sympathy, it is perfected in King of Thorns. Where Prince Jorg was mostly just a morally ambiguous, cold-blooded murderer, King Jorg is growing up and his brutality has become more reflective. In King of Thorns, we get acquainted with Jorg’s backstory, which is no longer limited to the repulsive kind of violence we saw in Prince of Thorns, but instead the kind that makes you want to shout out and end the injustice done to the young prince. All of a sudden, it becomes very clear that Jorg wasn’t simply born the warped boy he was in Prince of Thorns, but he became who he is today by his own poor choices and the evil acts of others.
An example of this is a flashback scene at the beginning of the book, where young Jorg’s father, the king, has noticed the boy loves his dog—ironically named Justice. Jorg is forced to harm the animal or watch it die at the hands of his father. When Jorg chooses the first, it isn’t enough for his father, who then murders the helpless dog in front of Jorg. The injustice done to Justice is heartbreaking and the prose in this scene is both compelling and repellent. Scenes like these will haunt you long after finishing King of Thorns, proving once more why Mark Lawrence was last year’s best debuting author.
Darn it, Lawrence, I don’t want to love this guy!
Somewhere through all that, in the story of a boy that lost everything he ever cared for—the dog he once loved, his family murdered before his eyes, friends lost, the woman he loves hating him—I began to identify with Jorg Ancrath.
Actually, in an unnerving way, Jorg was always relatable. Throughout King of Thorns however, I didn’t just relate to him; I began to care for him as well. He is still the horribly evil boy he was in Prince of Thorns, the focus of so many concerned reviews. Yet, this time, there is another side to him. He is a human being who’s been through worse things than any man deserves. I both pity and admire him. More than that, I admire Lawrence for writing a character both so awful and lovable whom I wish to hate with all my heart but have come to love instead. This sympathetic angle is a brave step away from the successful formula of Prince of Thorns, but Lawrence pulls it off brilliantly.
Science fiction-esque fantasy
Another step onward from his debut is Lawrence’s world-building. In Prince of Thorns, he started dropping hints about the origin of his world. The attentive reader could soon come to realize that the fictional world of Prince of Thorns was rooted in our own. King of Thorns goes above and beyond mere hints. If it were debatable whether Prince of Thorns was low or epic fantasy, I don’t think anyone will disagree that King of Thorns is most definitely epic fantasy of the very best kind. The world, unfamiliar last time, is fully fleshed out now. The Broken Empire is a post-apocalyptic version of earth, where science has breached the veil between magic and reality and a nuclear holocaust has brought us back to the dark middle ages. Somewhere underneath the soot and dirt of this fantasy is an entire world of science fiction, and King of Thorns shows us the tip of the iceberg. Somehow, Lawrence gives me the impression that the backstory isn’t just intriguing—I really hope he will write it someday—but has a lot to do with where the story is now, and where it is headed.
This science fiction-esque approach to fantasy world-building gives King of Thorns a unique flavor. Magic—of which we see a lot more than in the first book—isn’t what it seems. Somehow, there is a scientific foundation to it, hidden behind the lack of understanding by the characters. Tools left behind by The Builders—the more developed former civilization on earth—twist and spin this story around. With such elements at Lawrence’s disposal, the obvious trap would be to use them as a deus ex machina, but proper foreshadowing serves us explosive battles in a surprising yet inevitable style. There is just one exception, a key element of the story’s shifting timelines—a magical box in which Jorg’s most horrible memories are locked away—that feels like a cheap narrative resource to add suspense. However, while I feel Lawrence could have handled this better, it never subtracted from the reading experience.
Why should you read this book?
King of Thorns reads like a landslide rolling down a cliff. Undiscriminating, it carries everything in its path along a trail of destruction, taking the lives of innocent bystanders and reducing whole villages to rubble. There is no stopping this landslide. All you can do is follow it on its set course until the spectacular ending and the silent void that follows. Like that landslide, this savage, vicious, and dark story rushes onward with a pace that takes a reader’s breath away. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns, I suggest you do so soon, because this sequel comes out this summer, and it’s even better than the first part! After the horribly amazing ending that changed everything, I am left stunned, panting, begging Lawrence for more.
Stephan received a review copy of King of Thorns courtesy of Ace Books.