Although a very good novel, Mark Lawrence's fantasy debut, Prince of Thorns, wasn't everyone's cup of tea. As a dark and brutal tale devoid of compassion featuring a bloodthirsty teenager as the main protagonist, Jorg's story probably put off SFF readers looking for likeable characters and heroes.
And King of Thorns, though more complex and interesting on many levels, continues in the same vein. Those hoping for redemption where Jorg is concerned will be sorely disappointed. Praise be to Lawrence who didn't fall into the trap of trying to make his principal character more appealing to the masses, just to hopefully sell a few more copies. This second installment remains a grim and uncompromising tale of violence and Jorg Ancrath, its narrator, remains true to himself throughout the book.
Hence, those who didn't care much for Prince of Thorns need not apply. . .
Here's the blurb:
The boy who would be King has gained the throne...
Prince Honorious Jorg Ancrath vowed when he was nine to avenge his slaughtered mother and brother—and punish his father for not doing so. When he was fifteen, he began to fulfill that vow. Now he is eighteen—and he must hold on by strength of arms to what he took by torture and treachery.
King Jorg is a man haunted: by the ghost of a young boy, by a mysterious copper box, by his desire for the woman who rides with his enemy. Plagued by nightmares of the atrocities he committed, and of the atrocities committed against him when he was a child, he is filled with rage. And even as his need for revenge continues to consume him, twenty thousand men march toward the gates of his castle. His enemy is far stronger than him. Jorg knows that he cannot win a fair fight.
But he has found, in a chamber hidden beneath the castle, ancient and long-lost artifacts. Some might call them magic. Jorg is not certain—all he knows is that the secrets they hold can be put to terrible use in the coming battle...
The worldbuilding was more fascinating in this second volume. We already knew that the action occurred on a distant future Earth which has been destroyed by weapons of mass destruction. And though little is known about the Day of a Thousand Suns, Mark Lawrence is a bit more forthcoming with information regarding the world he created. Not necessarily with information concerning that distant past, but at least with the current state of the world. There is a map that reveals the state of Western Europe and which allows readers to realize that the bulk of the action takes place in what used to be France. The narrative takes readers to several different lands, and it appears that new incarnations of cities such as Hannover and Barcelona are visited. Visually, the map helps a lot in terms of following what is going on and gives us a general idea of what the continent looks like following a devastating nuclear war. Once again, the author offers a few glimpses of the technology from that forgotten epoch, but once more I felt that he keeps his cards too close to his chest in that regard. . . Still, in terms of worldbuilding, King of Thorns manages to really make you beg for more.
As was the case with its predecessor, this second installment features a high number of fashback scenes. In Prince of Thorns, the flashbacks were mostly meant to offer Jorg's back story and didn't truly play an active role in the narrative. The structure of King of Thorns is much different in the sense that both the present and the future influence one another throughout the entire novel. I have to admit that it felt odd at first, as the structure can be a little confusing. Indeed, the various chapters are broken into sequences featuring Jorg's wedding day and its aftermath, the four years which led to Jorg's wedding, as well as a number of journal entries by Katherine. It takes a while to get used to the structure of the narrative. But once you do, I have to say that structuring the novel in such a way makes for a very satisfying reading experience. By merging the past and the present together in such a manner allows Lawrence to unveil the truth regarding what is taking place in "real time" by revisiting the past.
As a matter of course, the book features the first-person narrative of Jorg Ancrath. As I said before, goody two-shoes SFF fans who hate GRRM and Abercrombie for their despicable characters and praise Brandon Sanderson for his black-or-white protagonists who don't swear, have sex, or use obscenities, may find it hard to get into this book. Heroes you can love and root for, you won't find any in King of Thorns. As is often the case with Joe Abercrombie, I have a feeling that Lawrence's witty and humorous writing style allows him to get away with cruel and graphic scenes of wanton violence. As always with a first-person narrative, everything hinges on whether or not Jorg grows on the reader. And since he's far from the most endearing of fellows, I doubt that anyone who couldn't get into Prince of Thorns will find something to like about King of Thorns. On the contrary, if you enjoyed Mark Lawrence's debut, then buckle up for another wild ride! And though it remains Jorg's tale through and through, the supporting cast plays a much more important role in this second volume.
Again, the novel's main problem is that Lawrence worked so hard to make Jorg as badass as humanly possible that at times it felt like he was a bit of a caricature. To think that he can be this smart, this strong, this cunning, this everything, stretches the limits of realism to their breaking point. The author offers us a couple of scenes in which we see that Jorg may not always be the sharpest tool in the shed, but for the most part Jorg remains too smart for his own good. . . And yet, as was the case with Prince of Thorns, the good thing is that Jorg's tale is fun, entertaining, and compelling enough that I didn't care.
The pace is pretty fluid and the story moves forward once you get used to the book's structure. However, the "out of left field" ending, although unanticipated, could be construed as a deus ex machina sort of way to bring the story to a close. And though I was expecting Jorg to outsmart the opposition and come out on top, this seemed to be taking things a bit too far. I don't think it takes anything away from the overall reading experience, but I figure that some readers might find it offputting.
All in all, Mark Lawrence passed the second volume challenge with flying colors! Looking forward to discover how he will close the show with Emperor of Thorns!