Hold on to your butts, my friends, this one is going to be a doozy…
The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence is an adult dark fantasy series that I have been wanting to read for a long time. I finally sat down and read through the first instalment, Prince of Thorns, and unfortunately it was a frustrating reading experience, to say the least. The novel had plenty of potential to become a wonderful story with an antihero protagonist, yet the execution left it a jumbled mess.
The story follows a young boy named Jorg Ancrath, in the first-person perspective, who after seeing the brutal murder of his mother and brother from the agonising shackles of a bramble bush, abandons his royal position and embarks on a brutal quest for vengeance.
When I first read about the premise, I was at once interested in it. I am an enthusiastic fan of antiheros, especially those who have revenge on the mind. If written well, they make for fantastically complex character examinations, particularly regarding development. Antihero stories also tend to have dark and dreary atmospheres to match, which I also admire. As a person who focuses heavily on character driven stories, or character growth in the books they read, I was looking forward to seeing what Jorg’s tale would show me. Regrettably, I spent more time questioning the qualities of the novel rather than enjoying what it had to offer, what little there was to offer.
The world-building was virtually non-existent. Through the violent atrocities that Jorg commits, I definitely felt the presence of a gritty, dark, and twisted setting. I got a deep sense of it within the first few pages of the book, which hooked me into it quickly. However, the more that I read, the more I realised that aside from the violence, there is not much else that contributes to this atmosphere. You have two specific kingdoms that are mentioned numerous times, but aside from their respective names, the author did not provide any differentiating information about them. I was never able to picture what set Kingdom A apart from Kingdom B. No unique city traits. No information about the rulers, aside from what Jorg provides regarding his father. Nothing.
The novel mentioned a group of people who have the power to control others via dreams, even using their abilities to kill. This fascinated me, yet beyond their encounter with some of the characters for plot progression, I learned absolutely nothing else about them. I felt frustrated by this because they are powerfully influential in terms of the political climate. By the end of the book, I questioned if their involvement in the narrative was simply for a “wow” factor, or as a means of adding that touch of “fantasy” that it needed to set the series apart from others like it.
In another section, our protagonist has an intense fight with some magical creatures. I will not reveal what they are to prevent spoilers, but the lead up to this specific scene was random and out-of-place. I understand that inevitably it was supposed to be a surprise, due to some cues given prior to the battle, nonetheless it was not fluidly written or incorporated with everything else that had occurred up to that point. I suspect if it was written differently, then it might have worked well and successfully pulled of that “surprise” factor it was going for. But as it stands, it was boring and uninteresting.
The storytelling is more than likely the biggest issue with Prince of Thorns. It is a simple tale of revenge that is built up to be unnecessarily complicated with poorly written plot twists, underdeveloped political intrigue, and character interactions that were incongruent with our protagonist’s persona and motives. Most, if not all, of the plot twists were there for their shock value. They provided very little contribution towards actual plot development. It is like the book did not know what it wanted to do next, so it thought of something outrageous on the fly and went with it time and time again. It creates a divide between the reader and the narrative because it becomes utterly unengaging and highly questionable.
Jorg as an antihero was also just as inconsistent as the rest of Prince of Thorns. He is sensationally unlikable, impolitic, immature, and abysmally constructed. Within the first half, he is painted as a brutal young boy who just does not have a single fuck to give about anything or anyone. He kills without remorse or conviction, has no qualms about raping women, and does not seem to have an ounce of affection for his comrades. He is built to be this terribly damaged child who is extremely immoral. Nevertheless, in the second half he feels a surge of compassion towards a group of friends he would otherwise have killed himself, in the most uncharacteristic ways. In the first half, he is described as hating romance and all affiliations with love, yet in the second half, the moment he meets a specific young woman, he atypically has flowery feelings? It cannot even be qualified as insta-love because, following the theme of everything else in the book, there is no context or progress whatsoever. It just is.
This brings me to my last flaw of the book, and something I suspect will be relevant in the other titles within the series, is the way that women are portrayed. I have one question to most male authors out there: is it really so fucking hard to write a woman character? I mean, are you fucking serious? I apologise for my crude frustration here, but I am immensely frustrated!
There are two women in the entire three-hundred-some-odd pages of the novel that are given speaking roles, and both of them have short-lived existences on-screen, so to speak. You have Katherine who is portrayed as flippant and perfidious, then you have her sister, who barely has enough lines to be able to quantify the effort of giving a persona to. Women are constantly abused or belittled. There are many references to how Jorg and his merry band of criminals all participate in raping women. They are nothing more than sexual objects or baby-birthing machines. I was appalled. I cannot understand why it is do damn difficult to write a strong woman into fantasy. It is not impossible, and it does not detract from the overall quality. I can provide a list of books with kickass women in the genre. With Katherine specifically, if she was given proper attention and more depth, she could have been one of these women. Then the prince’s ridiculous attraction to her would have at least made some semblance of sense.
Overall, eleven-hundred words later, I do not recommend Prince of Thorns. It is a terribly written book that has little to nothing to offer its readers. If you are in the mood for a dark and violent fantasy, then you will have to look elsewhere because you shan’t get it here. It is a narrative that is an unengaging and inchoate fantasy with weak bureaucratic climate, and a super basic story made more complex by its incessant focus on shock value and disjointed plot twists. There two other books in the trilogy, and I honestly do not know if I will be picking them up. At the very least, it will not be any time soon, that’s for sure.
2 thorns outta 5!