Prince of Thorns, Mark Lawrence’s 2011 debut novel, was not well received in all corners, occasionally offending reader sensibilities. Jorg, the protagonist and narrator throughout the series, is a self interested often bloodthirsty teenager who’s ruled equally by his emotions and lack thereof. Those hoping for a redemptive tale, or an ultimately apologetic tone from the author, found themselves woefully bereft. Deeply disturbing, and written with a haunting elegance, I called it the best fantasy debut of 2011. To say I was eagerly anticipating its sequel, King of Thorns, would be an understatement akin to George R.R. Martin sells a few books.
Jorg, no longer a wandering prince in search of revenge, has taken a throne. Not his father’s or the Empire’s, but it’s a start. The path he carved has made him visible to those who share his lust for power, and now a six nation army marches toward his gates, led by a man far more suited to rule than he. An honorable man would lay down his sword and join the fledgling Empire in peace, leaving his kingdom whole and his people alive. That doesn’t sound like Jorg, does it?
While Prince of Thorns was structured with frequent flashbacks, jumping between the past and present, there was a pace and direction to the novel that was clear, concise, and full of intent. The recollections merely filled in the back story, without directly participating in the primary narrative. King of Thorns is murkier. Instead of showing Jorg’s past and how it influenced his future as he did in Prince of Thorns, Lawrence opts to merge two time periods into a single narrative with the present influencing the past and vice versa.
It’s all too easy in a first person narrative to fall into the trap of hiding information from the reader. If the narrator reveals all he knows, the narrative tension is robbed. It’s accomplished through phrases like, I whispered my plan into his ear, without actually giving the plan to the reader. This lack of openness gives the narrative voice a dishonesty. If I’m riding in his head, why don’t I know what he knows? Trying to accomplish a dual narrative that connects, Lawrence was very much in danger of having to dupe his reader dishonestly. Instead, he solves the riddle through a plot device that hides information from his narrator and reader simultaneously. To reveal more would spoil some elements, but it creates a mutual revelation that’s incredibly rewarding.
In that regard King of Thorns is a much more complex novel than its predecessor. It makes for a rocky beginning as Lawrence jumps between now, then, and occasional diary entries from Katherine, Jorg’s object of infatuation from Prince of Thorns. As the narrative progressives Lawrence establishes a rhythm, as well as a baseline of knowledge that peels away the opaqueness of preceding events. By the end, I found myself blown away by the deftness of Lawrence’s pacing and structure, ranking it on par with Empire Strikes Back for greatness in second installments of trilogies I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming.
And consumption is the right word. In genre reading I tend to look first to story or character, pushing aside the need for beautiful prose and clever structures. I want to be transported to another world, to experience the impossible. King of Thorns does this, but it also does so much more,
‘It wasn’t for Maical that I killed those men, or for the joy of slaughter, or the proud legend of King Jorg. Like Gog I have my own fires banked and burning, and on some days the right spark can set them blazing beyond my control. Perhaps that was the true reason I had come traipsing over half a dozen realms to find this fire-mage for my pet monster. Perhaps I wanted to know that such fires could be contained. That they didn’t have to kill us both.’
Beyond these casually brilliant moments of writing, Lawrence structures every chapter, every paragraph, and every sentence with purpose, concluding with a turn of phrase that always cuts to the quick. It makes reading it as much relevatory as it is transportative.
There will be detractors. King of Thorns suffers from the same social miasma that offended the progressively sentimental with Prince of Thorns. There is no redemption to be found in Jorg, and even less compassion for the pain visited on Katherine. I could argue that a new character, Miana, is a robust female character, more than an object to be moved around in a world of men. But, that’s not really the point.
Mark Lawrence has written grim tale in a grim future. Jorg Ancrath’s nature is to dominate, to win. He’s an insatiable tyrant. A cruel and capricious villain. I don’t care. He has a story to tell and I really need to hear it.