There’s a lot of talk about the “game of thrones” in Prince Of Thorns, but Mark Lawrence’s debut novel seems to owe more to Dexter than to George R.R. Martin. Both title characters are sociopaths, left emotionally dead as children after witnessing their mother’s brutal death. Unfortunately, Prince Of Thorns’ narrator lacks any of Dexter’s humor or good intentions, so he comes across as an irredeemable monster who’s hard to care about.
Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is introduced at age 13 when he’s leading a bandit band in killing all the men in a poor farming village, then raping their women and leaving them to burn alive. Ambitious and cruel, Jorg is convinced that by being willing to sacrifice anything and anyone, he can win a war for the emperor’s throne raging between a hundred nobles. He conveys this via a series of tired chess metaphors, and by killing anyone who second-guesses him.
Lawrence works to make Jorg somewhat sympathetic by drawing him as an underdog, pitting him against villains equipped with dark magic he can do little to resist. Jorg isn’t a nuanced character, but he feels developed next to the shallow supporting cast. The few characters who do show promise don’t stick around long enough to shine; their time in the book is cut short to show Jorg’s uncompromising nature.
What it lacks in character-driven plot, Prince Of Thorns makes up in nearly nonstop murder and mayhem. It’s a fast read filled with clashes with knights, necromancers, and witches who can kill people in their dreams. The sparse description is mostly devoted to the stink of corpses, unwashed bandits, and horse manure. Most of Jorg’s internal monologue focuses on whether he should kill whoever he’s currently interacting with. As he says early on, “You’ve got responsibilities when you’re a leader. You got a responsibility not to kill too many of your men. Or who’re you going to lead?”
The most intriguing part of Prince Of Thorns is the setting. Lawrence gradually drops hints that the book isn’t set in some fantasy world or even an alternate medieval Europe, but in a new age of sword and sorcery that rose from the ashes of modern civilization. This is just the opening of the Broken Empire series, and it leaves much to explore on the book’s big world map. If Lawrence picks a better protagonist, or if Jorg shows any real growth, that world tour could be an enjoyable one.