Prince of Thorns, Broken Empire 1, by Mark Lawrence
I’ve waited longer than I usually would between finishing Prince of Thorns and writing its review as I’ve struggled with my thoughts on the book. The Broken Empire series comes highly recommended pretty much everywhere you look, but from reading the first book, I found it difficult to see why. I just couldn’t find anything in Prince of Thorns that really set it above the competition – sure it’s an ok enough read, but that’s hardly high praise and if that’s the overriding feeling about a book then it can’t be good news.
My own personal tastes steer me away from any “real world” references in a fantasy novel – locations, technology, even character names – so I know a degree of my dislike for Prince of Thorns will come from there. I’d heard whispers of the series having some connection to our own world, but was persuaded to give it a go with the understanding that it was just the odd mention here and there of old philosophers and their writings, things like that. Unfortunately for me this turned out not to be the case. The Broken Empire series is set in some sort of post-apocalyptic Europe, and once that became apparent from the multitude of references, I was unable to view it as fantasy at all.
The one section that really killed my chances of supressing my preferences and enjoying Prince of Thorns was around Castle Red. I began with a vision of some great hulking castle, but as I continued reading this swiftly distorted to a view of some regular building with a bank vault in the basement, watched over by a computerised voice and filled with nuclear weaponry that our main character randomly knew how to operate. Every other setting then changed in my mind, so that castles became nothing more impregnable than skyscrapers and I was left picturing a bunch of misfits wandering around the financial district with swords and crossbows.
The part that irked me about all of this, is that there’s no warning of it prior to reading the book. The cover, blurb, even the map in the front of Prince of Thorns all point to this being a fantasy novel, but it’s just not. I remember reading James Maxey’s Bitterwood and finding the same unpleasant surprise – everything is normal run of the mill fantasy, there’s castles and dragons and sword wielding warriors, and then all of a sudden they’re talking about European licorice, Atlantis and stainless steel and the whole thing turns into some sci-fi mashup. In both books, the effect on me was the same, it took a read that was ok but not great and turned it into a disappointment that I was only able to finish because after 300-odd pages I was too stubborn not to read the last hundred.
Moving aside from the non-fantasy reality of this fantasy novel, there were other parts that didn’t quite seem right to me. Our main character, Jorg, is seen as a bloodthirsty, ruthless and fearless leader of a band of mercenaries. He’s tough, an accomplished swordsman able to take a beating as well as he gives one, and he’s respected and a little feared by those who follow him. Nothing really unusual there. What I find hard to picture though, is that Jorg is all of this but only fourteen years old – and he’s been doing this for a good three to four years by the time we join the story, as the many flashbacks show us.
These flashbacks take up a good portion of the book, the past and present stories at some points alternating almost chapter by chapter. Many of the other chapters are preceded by a short paragraph about one of Jorg’s ‘brothers’ in his mercenary band, and while this is good in giving a bit of insight on the characters, I feel we’d have been better served if this was in the actual story rather than something tacked on in addition to it. The story jumps straight in at the deep end and then… nothing much actually happens. The band trudges from one town to another, heads to the castle (skyscraper), then off to the other castle (bank), blows it up and walks off again. Although there’s a little more in the flashbacks, there’s still a fair bit of missed opportunity to properly get to know these people. This means the little passages at the beginnings of various chapters are about the only way we learn anything about many of the characters.
Although a little too liberal with the swearing that seems to be becoming a staple of fantasy novels, the writing itself was fine enough. The pages did turn probably quicker than my enjoyment of the book would suggest, but then there’s also a lot of white space, with those character passages having a page each devoted to them, and at about 82,000 words Prince of Thorns is maybe a little on the light side for a fantasy novel anyway.
Overall: Readable, but with too many parts that go against my tastes to make this a high scoring novel.
Dominish rating: 57%