King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
King of Thorns is the sequel to Prince of Thorns, telling the story of teenage mercenary turned ruler Jorg Ancrath, in a post-apocalyptic fantasy Europe, and it’s a good example of a concept for a story being better than the story itself.
The concept behind the Thorns series (technically The Broken Empire Trilogy) is brilliant: 1,000ish years ago, a massive nuclear war took place, reducing the world to a pre-industrial state, with only small bits and pieces of “modern” life remaining and parts of the world heavily irradiated.
Following said apocalypse, Europe (and the outlying areas) was eventually split up into a 100 city-states. Some of these retain recognisable names and characteristics, so you’ve got places like Roma, Normardy, Andaluth and so on. This gives some pithy links to the world that was (i.e. our world), and sort of establishes a feeling of folk history surviving the apocalypse without ever having to actually spell that out.
Jorg’s family seat is Ancrath (which appears to be somewhere around central or southern Germany). Jorg doesn’t spend too much time in the family seat, following the falling out told in Prince of Thorns (medium-sized story short: attempts to kill Jorg have been made by both Jorg’s father and uncle. Jorg has reciprocated, and struck out on his own). Instead, King of Thorns sees the 18-year-old Jorg ruling the region known as Highlands, which, with references to places like the mountain range the Matteracks, appears to be a small, alpine region, vaguely akin to what would have been the French/Swiss/German border. It was his Uncle’s land, until Jorg killed him and claimed it as his own. Jorg loves a good fight.
Which is lucky, because he’s getting one at the outset of the book. A chap called the Duke of Arrow has decided that he wishes to reunite the Broken Empire (that’d be all 100 city states), and has turned up at Jorg’s doorstep (along with a very large army) to demand that Jorg either pledge fealty or die. The novel then tells the story of Jorg’s plans to do neither of those things, while interspersing it with flashbacks to the previous four years that fill the gap between Prince and King, and set up Jorg’s strategy for dealing with Mr Arrow. Sorry, Duke Arrow.
The problem I had with King of Thorns was largely the same one I had with Use of Weapons – with a flashback heavy structure (it’s roughly a 50/50 split between present day and flashback), if the flashbacks aren’t very interesting it makes the story as a whole less interesting. And the flashbacks in King of Thorns aren’t particularly interesting.
The main attraction in Prince was watching Jorg’s desperate attempts to outwit (and out-ruthless) his opponents, and that’s still present in King, with Jorg’s attempts to defeat Arrow. But not at all during the flashbacks. During the flashbacks we tend to just get Jorg moping quite a bit. The action sequences in the flashbacks rarely have much feeling of peril simply because we know by their presence in the present day plot which of Jorg’s allies will survive. The characters that won’t survive, by and large, are ones whose absence you hadn’t missed in the present day anyway.
It isn’t really like the flashbacks serve too much of a purpose in terms of character either. The purpose of the journey that Jorg goes on in the flashbacks is, broadly speaking, to learn how to be a ruler, but honestly the main skills that he uses are those that he brought with him from Prince. He does gain a couple of very useful Builder artifacts, but that seems more by accident than design. There is a mystery with a missing memory of his, but it isn’t a compelling mystery, and the reveal doesn’t add much to Jorg’s character – he’s already portrayed as ruthless to the point of being bloodthirsty, and the reveal of his hidden memory is… that he’s ruthless to the point of bloodthirsty.
The one interesting aspect of the flashbacks is talk of The Dead King, who is exactly what he sounds like – a King of the Dead, and who is dead – and there’s talk that he’s a-coming. But there’s no payoff to this in King – it’s a foundation being laid for Emperor that does little more than kill time in King.
The idea behind the Broken Empire series is excellent. On the surface a fairly standard, gritty fantasy setting, but with an interesting twist. The bits and pieces of modern-day tech and infrastructure knocking about and their uses are usually a highlight (I swear Jorg’s father’s castle is a multi-storey car park – that’s how the description sounds), and the addition of a main character who is utterly ruthless (and would be hard to like if he wasn’t charismatic) works really well.
But the actual story told within King of Thorns just isn’t that interesting. It feels like at best it’s just setting things in place for Emperor, allowing Jorg to gain sufficient power through learning to be a King to give him a shot at reuniting (and ruling) the Broken Empire in Emperor. Maybe in that case the flashback material will be more relevant to the story overall. As it is, it feels like there’s half a good book here, and half a boring one. I’ll definitely read Emperor at some point, but it isn’t like King made me want to rush out and read it straight away.
Rating: 6/10 (consisting of 8/10 for the current bits, and about 5/10 for the flashbacks)
Why you should read it: because Jorg is an interesting character, and the setup for Emperor is potentially interesting. I’ll hold off a recommendation until I’ve read that one though.
Why you shouldn’t read it: because it’s a fairly mediocre book all in all.
Next up: Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch.