A lot has been said about Mark Lawrence's fantasy debut, Prince of Thorns. Voyager are obviously excited about this title and they are pushing it aggressively in the UK and the rest of Europe, and Ace acquired the US rights for the highest advance in the last seven years. Still, numerous SFF debuts failed miserably to live up to the hype in recent years. Which begged the question: Would Prince of Thorns be the next big thing, or would it just be next?
Advance reviews have been quite positive thus far, raising my expectations somewhat. Hence, I elected to bring the novel with me for my trip to the Balkans. And after nearly losing patience with China Miéville's slow-moving and lackluster Embassytown, Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns was just what I needed!
According to Voyager, Lawrence's debut is the British answer to George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Or so the back cover of the ARC claims. Nothing could be further from the truth. Other than the grittiness, Lawrence has almost nothing in common with GRRM. No, Mark Lawrence is probably the new Joe Abercrombie. Indeed, if Abercrombie and Glen Cook ever teamed up to write a fantasy book, they would probably come up with something akin to Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns.
Here's the blurb:
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."
Once a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg's bleak past has set him beyond fear of any man, living or dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father's castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.
The worldbuilding is interesting, although the author doesn't let the setting intrude on the storytelling. The action occurs on a distant future Earth which has been destroyed by weapons of mass destruction. Little is known about the Day of a Thousand Suns, and Lawrence only offers a few brief glimpses of the world's past. There are several references to our collective past, which at first was a bit odd, and I'm curious to see how much information will be unveiled in subsequent installments. I would have loved more depth, as there is more to Prince of Thorns than meets the eye. But I have a feeling that worldbuilding was left aside in order to maintain a more fluid pace.
The book features the first-person narrative of Jorg Ancrath, a young noble turned rogue without scruples. Not the most likeable of fellows, Jorg probably won't be for everyone. 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 Prince of Thorns. You see, ruthless doesn't even begin to describe Jorg. À la 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. Fans of Cook and Abercrombie will undoubtedly find Jorg endearing, while some fans will doubtless despise the main protagonist. With this being a first-person narrative, everything hinges on whether or not Jorg grows on you. It is Jorg's tale through and through, and the supporting cast, other than Makin, remain second fiddles from beginning to end. Dark, brutal, devoid of compassion, it will be interesting to see how people react to Jorg's story.
The only problem is that Lawrence worked so hard to make Jorg as badass as humanly possible that at times it felt like a bit of a caricature. To think that a teenager of fourteen can be this smart, this strong, this cunning, this everything, stretches the limits of realism to their breaking point. So much so that sometimes I felt that the tale was a bucket that couldn't hold any water. The good thing is that by that point, Jorg's story was fun, entertaining, and compelling enough that I didn't care.
Let's get one thing straight here. Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns is by no means the kind of work that will shake the speculative fiction world. It probably won't win the Hugo or the World Fantasy Awards. And yet, it just might be one of the most fun and exciting fantasy books you'll read this year!
It's too early to tell if Prince of Thorns will turn out to be the fantasy debut of 2011. But it will be a definite contender for that crown. Fans of Abercrombie, Cook, and Lynch, this one's for you!
You can read an interview with Mark Lawrence here.
The final verdict: 7.75/10