Review: Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire 01) by Mark Lawrence

Book info:
Format: e-book, mobi
Genre: dark fantasy
Target audience: adults


Summary (mostly from Amazon.com):

A young prince like no other but hardly a Prince Charming. When he was nine, he watched his mother and brother brutally killed before him. One year later he ran off his father’s castle, freeing some men condemned to death and joining their band. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of that band, a group of bloodthirsty thugs calling each other “brother”. By fifteen, he intends to be king and by twenty – emperor…or better.

Before it happens, it’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he was hung on the thorns of a briar patch and forced to watch Count Renar’s men rape his mother and slaughter his young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him- and it seems he has nothing left to lose.

But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce, can the will of one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?

What I liked:

The book is told from Jorg’s point of view (the first person narration) and I consider it a huge asset, although normally I prefer the third person variety. We get to know this unusual prince’s inner turmoil and find out that many scars on his psyche seem to reflect only too well what he’s been through and what’s happening around him. He is simply haunted with darkness and speaks with the voice of a man twice his age, peppered with a wry sort of humour. Jorg might be one psychotic teenager but, as his story unravels, you understand why and you find the maniacal killer’s personality is just one of many masks he’s wearing. He doesn’t beat about the bush what sort of person he became since leaving his father’s castle and his honesty is sometimes chilling to the bone but we are shown glimpses of his softer side as well. He says:

“Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother’s tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.”

And one more, much darker quote:

“For the longest time I studied revenge to the exclusion of all else. I built my first torture chamber in the dark vaults of imagination. Lying on bloody sheets in the Healing Hall I discovered doors within my mind that I’d not found before, doors that even a child of nine knows should not be opened. Doors that never close again. I threw them wide.”

A sweetie, isn’t he? Warped but also relatable, taking everything into account.

The narration is solid, fast-flowing, logical and incredibly dynamic with some flashback chapters now and then. I usually don’t like flashbacks but, as the author kept them germane to the main narration and, as they are still told from Prince Jorg’s POV, they didn’t distract me too much, helping to understand the main storyline better.

It is definitely not one of those high fantasy novels where good characters are beautiful, chivalrous and noble (preferably with blond hair, many interesting trinkets and nice clothes on) and bad characters are mendacious, ugly, flesh-eating monsters. Don’t expect much romance and love either – there is a hint or two, but no more. It is an advantage – romance doesn’t fit this story at all. Overall the book is a gritty, momentarily very dark read. Small wonder – the author, not unlike George R.R. Martin (the author of ASOIAF series), clearly modelled some parts of it on the Hundred Years’ War – a series of battles waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet (also known as the House of Anjou) for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings. These were truly horrible times – only in France that conflict, along with deadly epidemics, famine and marauding mercenary armies, which often turned to banditry, reduced the population by about one-half.

Accordingly, something is rotten in the state of  Ancrath, a small kingdom surrounded by many other petty realms with their own petty rulers and tyrants. Without any real central government the land, apart from the main cities, is basically fair game for villains of different sorts. Small wonder our young hero is as cold as a steel dagger and he thinks nothing of plundering, burning, raping, beheading and torturing mostly innocent people as long as it furthers his aims. In fact he can be easily called an anti-hero – you might pity him but you can’t condone the bloodthirsty violence he decided to employ just to settle his score with Count Renar and the world at large. He craves vengeance not justice because he no longer believes in the latter.

The world building I found very original although a bit puzzling too. Magic is one part of it but not in usual way – don’t expect mighty wizards hurling balls of fire at each other. Also if you think that the book is set in a kind of Medieval Ages alternate reality, you will be forced to rethink that assumption from time to time. Prince Jorg tells us that he was taught Latin and Greek and has read Plato, Socrates and Euclid but he also quotes Shakespeare and Nietzsche… he fights with a sword and a crossbow but he has been taught Japanese martial arts as well. The world around him is supposed to reflect the material culture of the 14th century but at the Red Castle we are shown some surprisingly advanced AI technology along with a device which might be an equivalent of an atomic bomb…

What I didn’t like:

Almost no major issues but there was one thing which made me seriously wonder – how can a boy of just 12-13 lead a group of very adult and very nasty bandits? How can a sheltered child of ten, even after a very distressing and ground-shattering experience, turn into a cold-blooded psychopath and a charismatic leader during just a year or two? I would have less doubts if Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath wasn’t castle-born and bred; it would also help if he was a tad older. I must admit the way it was presented, the whole premise sounded a bit preposterous. Seeing the raising wave of crime perpetrated by children I am perhaps wrong and/or overly optimistic, though.

Final verdict:

I recommend it to every dark fantasy fan. It was a truly spectacular book and I loved it very much but if you don’t feel comfortable with violence and killing in every chapter you might find it too gritty for your taste. Still it is definitely worth reading. I only hope the second installment will be as good as this one or even better – I am looking forward to the solutions of some mysteries left intact so far (Jorg’s daddy is a shifty customer and those dream-witches!).

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23 Responses to Review: Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire 01) by Mark Lawrence

  1. Tracy says:

    I love the title, but it sounds too dark for me. Think I'll pass.

  2. Anachronist says:

    As you wish Tracy. I know it is not a novel for everybody, like the ASOIAF series.

  3. A hundred years ago, you could join the army at 12. I don't have a problem with a royal 12 year old leading troops. I think it would feel natural for the peasant class to obey nobility. Plus as an educated person he would command awe and respect. Remembers books were seen as magical, not just for their contents and a person who had books possessed these objects of power.

  4. Rowenna says:

    Fantasy usually isn't my thing, mostly because the perfect-hero-thing bugs me–so this might be right up my alley! Thanks for the rec!

  5. Aurian says:

    Great review, and I can agree with your critique point. And yes, I do think this one is to gritty for me. And then all those time periods mixed up, would make me nuts.

  6. Anachronist says:

    The Red Witch – there's just a little snag: when Jorg joins that criminal 'company of brothers' nobody knows he is a prince or any royalty at all…and he stays incognito most of the time, not even revealing his full name.Rowenna – thanks for your comment, the hero of this novel is anything but perfect!Aurian – nice to see you here; if a book is not for you it's nice to know that fact beforehand!

  7. Blodeuedd says:

    I just could not go on after he went to rape that girl, I just felt sick. Sorry if he had gone and killed someone then fine, but I do not want to read about a rapist

  8. Anachronist says:

    The actual rape wasn't described but I understand your repulsion. It was one of the less pleasant scenes and it wasn't repeated. I bet the author got sick as well.

  9. Blodeuedd says:

    I know I read that far and he was just so fine about it, nope I could not read it. I have a boundary and that is i. Even if it does happen again it happened once and I am a very quick throw it at the wall reader. it happened even with a HR book, but then it was an 80s bodice ripper and I got so angry. My friend also got angry and we planned to burn it.A girl gets raped…a lot, then she marries him cos she realized she loves him. That is romance in the 80s

  10. Anachronist says:

    A girl gets raped…a lot, then she marries him cos she realized she loves him. That is romance in the 80sPlain stupid 😦

  11. Blodeuedd says:

    I think it is something seriously messed up with romance from the 70s and 80s, really f*ed up

  12. First… Blodeuedd… what 80s books ARE you reading??? I'm glad I didn't read those. :PAlso, the rape scene might bug me, but otherwise I think I could handle the dark twisted stuff. I'm just not sure how you handled it when it hardly had any romance at all! Poor thing! ;D

  13. Anachronist says:

    Blodeuedd, I would never touch any romance book from that period. Not without a good recommendation anyway.Melissa, there was no description of that rape so yeah, you can survive if the book is worth it. The lack of romance was, as always my huuuuuge disappointment ;D

  14. The idea that women want to be raped we can blame on Ayn Rand.In the other case, yeah why would a band of outlaws follow someone young and unproven.

  15. Anachronist says:

    The idea that women want to be raped we can blame on Ayn Rand.Following the same logic we can say some men want to be raped as well. :pIn the other case, yeah why would a band of outlaws follow someone young and unproven.That's why I wondered ;).

  16. Blodeuedd says:

    MelissaIt was about a pirate..lol, like that explains it all. But they do seem to be darker, and what I have read it seemed to be ok if the guy was abusiveAnaYes stay far away from them or they will scare you away from HR for all time

  17. Anachronist says:

    Blodeuedd – thanks for a fair warning. Contemporary HR is bad enough…but at least no abusive characters the heroine falls in love with.

  18. Bryn says:

    Jorg doesn't lead an outlaw band at 12 and the fact he is leading them at 14 is explained in the book, but the answer is a spoiler.

  19. Anachronist says:

    @ Bryn – if you glance at my summary you can notice I wrote thirteen, and the same (roughly) I repeated in my dislikes. Thirteen is still pretty young. Care to spoil me btw?

  20. Bryn says:

    @Ana well you said 12-13 & Red Witch said 12. But we meet Jorg 1 day before his 14th birthday. And we see that Jorg is not leading the band when he joins it, so it's unclear at what point he starts to lead it. As to HOW he leads it (not that there aren't modern day examples of children leading adult mercenary/guerilla bands) SPOILER:He has the captain of a king's guard to back up what he says, plus the Nuban, plus it's made clear that Corion is exerting influence at some points to ensure he wins out (as in the killing of Price).

  21. Anachronist says:

    You certainly have a point here – we are not told when exactly Jorg started to be a leader. I assumed it was at least one-two years after joining in (he had to prove himself) that's why I wrote 12-13. Anyway he started to be their leader before he revealed his true identity so the fact that he was a prince wasn't a factor. The degree of Corion's influence is still rather unclear but I agree there were hints of that. As to HOW he leads it (not that there aren't modern day examples of children leading adult mercenary/guerilla bands) I am sure there are such examples but still that fact remians rather mind-boggling… I got an impression he led them by proving that he can kill/rob/choose their targets better than any of them. He also had to show time and again that he could defeat any mutinous 'brother'.Great discussion and thanks for answering, I wasn't sure what spoiler you meant!

  22. I actually prefer 1st person points of view. Although, it seems quite a bit of adult books are in the third person, especially dark fantasy. I'm glad to hear this one isn't and I'm glad to hear you liked it. I like me some dark and twisted, so I think I'll pick this one up.

  23. Anachronist says:

    If you like dark and twisted you should read this one for sure!

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