Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is straight-up swords and sorcery fantasy, with the emphasis on combat and the struggle of the central character to reclaim the birthright snatched from him as a boy.
So far, so typical, except that Mark Lawrence's novel is unusual in two key respects. For starters, Prince of Thorns is written in the first-person, which is something of a challenge for any author in terms of the complex narratives associated with fantasy.
Secondly, it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to involving the young hero in bloody and traumatizing activities. Both factors, in different ways, make for a very distinctive reading experience.
Jorg Ancrath is fourteen when the novel opens, and he pledges to the reader that he'll be king by the time he turns fifteen. He's been deprived of his royal position and forced to adopt the informal title 'Prince of Thorns' as leader of a band of grim outlaws. The book begins with a raid on a small market town, lead by Jorg who is apparently enjoying killing several hundred farmers to plunder just one single gold ring.
There are gold rings and gold rings in fantasy, obviously, but this is just a regular item without magic powers so the haul is pitiful relative to the cruelty involved. The book's cover shows Jorg triumphant on a field of battle, with the swords of his enemies stuck into the ground beside their corpses. This powerful image stayed with me throughout my reading of this novel.
Five years earlier, when Jorg was only nine, Count Renar murdered Jorg's brother and slit their mother's throat as they travelled along a lonely road. Jorg believes his father the king ordered their slaying, hoping to marry again. It's certainly true that his father demanded next to nothing in reparation for their loss.
The flashbacks to when Jorg's mother and brother were killed provide narrative variety in what could have been in danger of becoming something of a 'and then' story. That is always the risk with a first-person point of view, because although you can of course feature more than one plot strand, the single character is the viewpoint for every piece of information and every plot development that occurs.
I liked the flashbacks in Prince of Thorns immensely. They functioned as a great way to deepen the reader's understanding of what Jorg has been through, gradually building our sympathy for him despite his behaviour during the novel. A third plot strand is also provided via flashbacks set a year later than the fatal attack on Jorg's mother and brother, when he is ten. These tell the tale of how he chose to escape from his father and join the band of outlaws we see him with during the present-time action. These further deepened my appreciation of the relationship between the group, and these flashbacks were very deftly handled.
Mark Lawrence's choice of the first-person point of view gave Prince of Thorns something of a 'telling the story' feel that intruded into the flashbacks and made it hard to immerse yourself in them. They still felt a part of the present time of the narrative, when Jorg returns to his home to call out his father for his murderous acts. I was perpetually aware of Jorg as the storyteller and that he was aware of himself as a narrator, delivering a story to a rapt audience. That was a little more postmodern (self reflexive) than you tend to see in fantasy but it worked. Partly due to the regaling of the saga, and partly because the limits of the first-person made a more complex plot unfeasible, this was quite a short novel by the standards of the fantasy genre.
The consequences of childhood trauma, fighting for survival and bloodlust for revenge are portrayed in a way that is painfully honest. There's little that's likeable about Jorg, other than the fact that you admire his resilience and he may one day mature into a better person. However, I felt sympathy for his situation, which is not at all his fault, and the flashbacks helped me to understand precisely how he got to be this way.
Prince of Thorns has been subject to criticism on some review platforms for portraying so much violence being meted out by a child. I have to admit it shook me, too. However, in fantasy it is common for young people to be shown riding into battle, in fictional universes based on historical cultures where this would have been taken for granted. Our genre must examine its conscience in terms of how it routinely puts child fictional characters into combat.
Most compellingly of all, in the real world there are tens of thousands of child soldiers currently being forced into war across the globe, or who have escaped this particularly pernicious form of modern slavery but are completely traumatized by their experiences. It was a brave thing for Mark Lawrence to shine a light on that suffering indirectly by examining the psychological consequences of a child being forced into fighting and bloodshed within a fantasy universe. I appreciated very much that this had taken place and felt far more positive about the reading experience than some reviews I read online. The fact that something so ambitious and distinctive was attempted in a debut novel only increased my admiration for the writing, and this tale is one that I would heartily recommend.
Thank you so much for reading this Fantasy Friday review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. The next review from John C Adams Reviews is for Monday Musings. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts on fantasy books you've enjoyed and would recommend.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of Calenture by Storm Constantine here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Lost Fortune of the Tsars by William Clarke here.