Mark Lawrence is probably one of the best fantasy writers out today. He's also one of the most polarizing. It's weird, but the man invokes incredibly extreme reactions in people and he's probably divided the fandoms *I* frequent more than any other author save Stephen Donaldson. The reason for this, at least from what I observed, is simple: his heroes are bastards. I confess, I have only two novels to draw from, both starring the same character, but lack of information has never stopped an academic from making a snap judgement before so why should it now? His hero, Jorg, is a brutal antihero whose young age and somewhat black comedy crimes grates on certain readers badly.
Personally, I find him hilarious. Which should probably disturb me.
The premise of the novels is there's a hundred kingdoms spread across post-apocalypse Neo-Medieval Europe ("The Broken Empire"). Teenage Jorg Ancrath is the prince of a minor nation of these, blessed with a child prodigy's intellect and thorough education. He's also blessed with an immense ruthlessness and sociopathy (helped along by unnatural forces) which allows him to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. These goals include: avenge his mother's murder, get revenge on his father, kill his uncle, and take over the Empire in no particular order.
King of Thorns picks up after he's accomplished two of these goals and taken over his uncle's kingdom. Unfortunately, the book opens with Jorg's position worse than before with an immense foreign army bearing down upon him, a hopelessly outmatched army in his castle, a child-bride waiting to wed him in his chapel, and (worst of all) no decent clothing to wear. The rest of the book's anarchic ordered series of events explains how Jorg got into this pickle and how he's going to try to extirpate himself.
I like Jorg, I do. He's actually, to be perfectly honest, not nearly as bad as all that. I mean, yes, he's a murderous bastard who does something nightmarish with a lion but Jorg is only slightly worse than most fantasy heroes aside from this. The vast majority of his worst actions were done under mind-control or by accident. I mean, yeah, he activated a nuclear bomb which destroyed a city but who hasn't wanted to do that? Mark Lawrence does a wonderful job of making it always apparent Jorg is someone seriously messed up but always redeemable.
Well, except for the lion bit.
Bad evil genius prince!
One element I strongly liked was the increased role of Princess Katherine, a character I strongly liked in the previous volume. Here, we get many of her journal entries and watch her develop into a character who is equal and opposite to Jorg in almost every way. There's a number of moments which amount to, "wait, that scene didn't happen that way?" However, that's just part of the story. Who can trust memory, really?
If the book has any flaws, I'd have to say it's the fact it's full of a lot of seemingly aimless wandering. The strong central core of revenge from the previous book is absent and Jorg is floundering somewhere with no one to direct his attention. I was also troubled by the constant back and forth between flashback and present-day chapters even if I came to appreciate how it all came together. Finally, I very much was annoyed by the fact there was a conflict between the heroic Prince Orrin and the not-so-heroic Jorg being set up throughout the entire book which didn't get, in my humble opinion, a satisfying payoff.
Despite this, I've got to say this is an even better book than Prince of Thorns and that's a book I loved despite its psychotic protagonist (or because of it--I write The Rules of Supervillainy after all). Newcomer characters Miana, Prince Orrin, and Prince Egan are all entertaining. Miana reminds me of Swedish Princess Christina, daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, which is a rare character to be compared to. She's a young woman, wise beyond her years, but intelligent and aware in the way nobles daughters probably were more than fiction tends to portray them as. One of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks to Jorg about their kill/death ratio in the coming battle--heady stuff for a twelve-year-old.
I also liked the fact Prince Orrin is the kind of character who would be the protagonist in a more idealistic series but he's dealing with an environment far too treacherous for his Stark-like honor to triumph over. Despite what Jorg says, I don't believe for a second he'd have ever opened his gates (i.e. surrendered) to him. Is it better to be the doomed moral victor or the victorious evil one? Is it too much to ask for both? In this series? Probably.
In conclusion, if you like grimdark and antihero protagonists then you could far-far worse than this series. Those sensitive to such things, though, should note that it has a woman dealing with sexual assault as a major plot point as well as copious graphic violence. Jorge, even if he's not responsible for all of his actions, is still a jerkass who just so happens to have the brains of Batman, the wit of Spiderman, the lust for carnage of the Joker, and the body of a teenager.