Children are cruel.
This is an undeniable fact for anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with them. The whole idea of the young being innocent is a polite fiction of those who I, assume, either do not work in the teaching profession or have children of their own. There are no greater individuals with the potential for evil than those in the thirteen-to-fifteen-year-old range who have the selfishness of a child combined with the uncontrollable urges of developing adulthood. I can think of no potential worse dictator than a child of that age, which fits with my theory that the majority of the world's nastiest come from those who never developed beyond their early adolescence.
Want. Take. Have.
Prince of Thorns is about such a child. The easiest comparison to make would be to A Song of Ice and Fire's Joffrey but this is a poor one since Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is every bit as competent as the former is stupid. If I were to choose a better candidate, for geek culture, I'd compare him to Lelouch Lamperouge of the anime Code Geass who brought down an empire before the age of sixteen or Alex from A Clockwork Orange who was as cultured as he was evil and young.
Indeed, Alex is an inspiration for Jorg as I understand it. This makes sense as the original ending for A Clockwork Orange was expunged from both the Stanley Kubrick movie as well as the American edition of the novel. What happened in the original? Alex grows up. Yes, his selfish psychotic self was simply a sign of immaturity rather than a deep inborn malignancy we can point to and say, "that's evil!"
Prince of Thorns, the first book in the Broken Empire Trilogy opens with a scene which is likely to turn off half of the audience which is absolutely essential to establishing the book's premise: Jorg leads his band of raiders to rape, pillage, and slaughter a village of innocent civilians. At the end of the opening chapter, Jorg reveals to both his final victim as well as the audience he is only thirteen years old.
Already a genius.
Or is he?
The setting is an indeterminate time in the future after an apocalyptic war between advanced humans has reduced humanity back to the Dark Ages. The Catholic Church has reasserted its dominance, humanity has degenerated to its most racist as well as xenophobic roots, knowledge of the Pre-War world is almost nonexistent, and Europe is divided into a hundred feuding feudal states.
In fact, I'm not entirely sure its Europe since it could just as easily be the United States with the in-universe Rome referring to a city renamed such. The big difference is, due to reasons unknown, magic seems to be quite real with zombies as well as other other critters wandering the land.
Post-Apocalypse fantasy settings are nothing knew as they were quite popular well before I watched Thundarr the Barbarian in my childhood. Mark Lawrence, however, avoids the fundamental cheese of the premise by playing everything dreadfully straight. This is a horrible time and it has removed almost all decency from the planet. As Wolverine says in the X-men: Days of Future Past movie, "only the worst of humanity remains."
How I love you.
Jorg is not exactly the kind of character you root for but I started doing so despite myself. He is a product of his environment, warped and twisted by both his upbringing as well as the tragedies of his life. This doesn't excuse his behavior, indeed, he's given several opportunities to turn away from his path (which he refuses), but it does make me willing to walk alongside him for the duration of his journey. Much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, Jorg's admirable qualities shine despite the fact they're put to evil ends. He is ambitious, intelligent, passionate, driven, and self-aware in a world which drowns in its own hypocrisies.
The novel follows his repulsive but interesting gang of followers as Jorg decides, after three years of failing to accomplish his vengeance against the Count who murdered his mother and brother (Jorg having decided it wasn't worth it), to return home to meet his father. This is problematic since his father has since remarried and his new wife is pregnant with a male heir. Jorg, despite his keen intellect, is still very much a boy and believes all that is required is to illustrate to his father just how good he really is (at being bad, at least).
What follows is a dark, seedy, and fantastic adventure I quite enjoyed. Once which has a number of twists, some of which I saw coming and others I did not. Mark Lawrence's style is very-very good at getting you in the depraved-but-all-too-human mind of Prince Jorg. A figure who has no desire to be good because, well, he has only had some very-very off-kilter role-models to tell him what good is.
This isn't going to be a novel for everyone. I normally take off a point for sexual violence in books but I'm going to forgo that for once because, for once, it's actually a vital part of the story. There is no titillation factor or attempt to generate easy hate via misogyny, only the sad reality this world is awful. Likewise, some individuals are going to loathe the racism present in the books. This is, again, meant to signal what sort of vulgar society it is. I'm kind of iffy about the presentation of one character, one who Jorg never seems to bother to learn the name of, but I also understand we're having his perception filtered through the mind of a product of the land's culture.
I enjoyed the presentation of the world, magic, supporting cast, and the terrors which inhabited it. The presentation of necromancy is too often done in a hokey Voldemort-esque style which rarely conveys proper scares. This book rebuttals that point by presenting sorcerers who, having power over the dead, are terrifying. I also fully understood Jorg's father who is, once you meet him, a person you instantly comprehend as the kind of seed-giver who would produce someone like his son. A person so capable and ruthless that Jorg living with a collection of murderous scumbags for three years can only have improved his moral disposition.
This is a crackling but uncomfortable read which, honestly, is something that some people like.
Such as myself.
Give it a try if you're willing to enjoy a hero who is anything but.