Prince Honorious Jorg Ancrath—’Jorg’—is the nastiest bastard in the kingdom. He’s fourteen years old, and he’s led a brutal band of brigands since he was eleven years old and ran away from his father’s castle. Now he’s decided to go home and claim his rightful place as heir from his equally nasty murderous bastard of a father, a process complicated by dark magic and Jorg’s desire to kill a whole lot of people.
A whole lot of people.
“People who like this sort of thing,” as Abraham Lincoln is alleged to have said, “will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can think of no quote more apt for Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns: Book One of the Broken Empire.
Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I could also quote the Minstrel’s song concerning brave Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail — you know, the one that goes, “His head smashed in and heart cut out, and his liver removed, and his bowels unplugged, and his nostrils raped and his bottom burned off and his penis-”
Yep. It’s that kind of book. Sort of like Joe Abercrombie’s books, or R. Scott Bakker’s, except with rather fewer characters who approach decentness. Or sanity. Or anything like a single redeeming virtue. Before I was halfway through reading Prince of Thorns, I caught myself referring to it as “the bloody teenage psycho book.” Jorg is a rapist, an unconflicted murderer, a character who comes across as a sociopath dialled up to the max living in a world of (male) sociopaths.
And having said that, kudos to Lawrence for writing a teenage stone-cold rapist/killer with such a compelling voice that I did not throw the book against the wall and proceed to cuss him out with prejudice. Because, since the story is told from Jorg’s point of view, the reader ends up spending all their time in the stone-cold killer’s head. Lawrence succeeds in making his character — not likeable, nor, save occasionally, sympathetic, but in a bizarre, twisted way, understandable.
There were moments when I almost enjoyed reading Prince of Thorns. Jorg’s assault on Castle Red, which has oddly sympathetic monsters—monsters far more sympathetic than the protagonist—and some very effective, creepily-depicted necromancers. The necromancers under Castle Red are the best thing about the book, in my opinion. (I have to admit, I was rooting for them.)
“I guess the skull hit her in the bridge of the nose, because that’s where the mess was. No blood, but a dark stain and a writhing of the flesh as though a hundred worms wriggled, one over another...
“...The necromancer took a breath, like a rasp drawn over ironwork, rattling in her throat. ’That,’ she said, ’was a mistake.’” [p 228]
I also found it interesting that this is not, as it looked at first glance, a medievalesque world, but a post-apocalyptic one. And that the necromancers—and some other magic-users—have some unpleasant interest in Jorg’s fate.
I wanted to like the book. Decent premise, interesting setting — hell, I’m even willing to suspend my disbelief about a fourteen-year-old brigand leader. I’ve suspended my belief about less likely things, after all.
But. Goddamnit, but.
Not only is Jorg a son-of-a-bitch, without anything resembling a shred of honour or principle in his whole body, and not only is he surrounded by like-mindedly murderous sorts, but the whole book is — what’s that marvellous phrase? Oh, yes. Sausage fest. A complete and utter sausage fest. Women exist to be raped, used, or otherwise projected upon by the various demons haunting Jorg’s id.
There is one passage emblematic of this, which I found particularly disturbing. It concerns Jorg’s first experience in a whorehouse, and it’s creepy. Not in a good way:
“The combination of a woman and time on my hands wasn’t one I’d tried before. I found the mix to my liking. There’s a lot to be said for not being in a queue, or not having to finish up before the flames take hold of the building. And the willingness! That was new too.” [p 173]
In my experience, you have to be either especially clueless, or trying very hard, to achieve that level of misogynist creepy.
I’m not going to stand here and insist on high feminist standards in every work of fiction I read (much as I’d appreciate it if more books had them). I don’t have very high expectations to start with. But a certain indication that the author sees women as people, and doesn’t leave me trying hard not to throw up because I can’t see very much in his book that undermines his protagonist’s view of the world — from where I’m standing, that indication is a minimum requirement.
While I didn’t like Prince of Thorns very much at all, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book. Problematic, but not necessarily bad. If you like bleak, bloody, and gruesome novels about cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams, then this book will be perfect for you. I wish you joy of it, because for all its flaws, Prince of Thorns has some damn good writing.
Me, I need to go scrub out my brain.
Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She also reviews for Ideomancer.com.