Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I bought Prince of Thorns back when it was relatively new on the market (a few years ago?). I read the first chapter, didn’t particularly care for it, put it away, and moved on to something else.

Recently I found it again in my Kindle library after I wrote that bit about the grimdark genre, remembered that I’d only read a single chapter, and decided maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot. It’s at least popular enough to have spawned two sequels, so somebody must like it.

So I went back into it using my patented “read the first sentence of every paragraph until something catches my eye” method, which is a surprisingly fast way to read, if not entirely comprehend, a book. (Then again you might be surprised how often the first sentence of a paragraph summarizes the whole paragraph. It’s a trap I fall into myself quite often.)

This time I got to Chapter 24, the 49% mark, before I reached the same conclusion as the first time I tried to read it. (Actually I had reached that conclusion at about the 10% mark but I kept skimming through it because I had nothing else at hand to read.)

It’s a first-person narrative where the narrator is kind of a bastard (figuratively, not literally). It’s set in a medieval-Europe-like setting during the “Hundred Wars” which presumably is supposed to resemble The Hundred Years War (by most accounts one of the worst times in European history). It’s heavy on dialog and light on description and exposition, so it’s a fairly fast read. The story begins with our hero (cough cough) in the middle of a rampage of vengeance for something that happened earlier.

In the interest of learning to be a better writer, I’ll try to diagnose why I don’t like the book.

I don’t mind the grimdarkishness of it. I don’t mind that our character is a bastard. The problem I think is that it’s shoved into my face so fast that there was no time to get accustomed to it. We are introduced to our main character in the first chapter and the author tells us through this character’s actions and thoughts that he’s consumed by hate, bent on single-minded, bloody revenge.

Um. Cool?

The classic story of revenge doesn’t bother me. But the author fails to give us any time to get to know our main character and develop any kind of sympathy for him before we see him rampaging. Revenge stories are supposed to start out by showing our hero being a great person who doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him or her. This book does not start that way. It starts out with, “Eww, this guy’s a creep.”

Compare with Arya from The Game of Thrones. She launches into a classic tale of (albeit slow-motion) revenge, too, but we root for her because GRRM gave us three-quarters of a book to get to know and like her before bad things happened to her. Compare also with that guy Glokta from The Blade Itself. He was kind of a bastard, but Abercrombie was able to make him sympathetic enough (through humor and crippling injuries) that we could turn a blind eye on his monstrous behavior.

Our main guy Jorg in Prince of Thorns is just a straight-up monster. He says monstrous things without a trace of humor. He thinks monstrous thoughts. He doesn’t struggle with the moral implications of his monstrousness. He doesn’t wish he wasn’t a monster. He just jumps up and declares, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I want things, so don’t get in my way.” Even his companions are scared of him. And not only is he a monster, but he’s a teenaged monster. (Redundant, I know.)

Now it’s true that Bad Things happened to him when he was younger. His behavior is partially a product of his time and his upbringing. (His father is also a monster.) It’s the kind of thing you might see in a supervillain origin story. In fact, the author is doing a decent job of building up Jorg as a complex villain.

Except, you know, he’s the protagonist.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these books. “What if there was a book where the protagonist is the evil villain? Ha ha! The joke’s on you, reader! Trope subverted!”

Well unfortunately it’s not really working for me. I’m all for subverting tropes but this either goes too far or it isn’t executed well enough for me. It’s not very satisfying to read a book and root for someone to kill the main character the whole time. It’s destined to end in disappointment. (Because there are two sequels.)

The worldbuilding falls a bit flat for me, too. It’s some sort of alternate Earth I guess where some things are the same (the pope, Jesu, Roma, the Hundred Wars) but some things are different (place names). I think there might be some kind of magic but it seems unimportant. It feels a bit lazy to me.

On my precisely-calibrated rating scale, I give Prince of Thorns a “meh.”

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