Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: "Emperor of Thorns," by Mark Lawrence

We're fashioned by our sorrows -- not by joy -- they are the undercurrent, the refrain. Joy is fleeting. -- Jorg Ancrath

It’s finally time for Jorg Ancrath to claim what he’s been working toward – or at least try – in “Emperor of Thorns” ($25.95 , Ace), the finale of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy.

The story finds Jorg on the road again, but this time in slightly different company than he’s used to, though there are plenty of his old road brothers on the trip with him. He’s being escorted to Vyene by the Gilden Guard. He’s joining the Hundred, the leaders of the lands of the Broken Empire, at Congression, where they will once again vote to try to name an emperor to reunify the lands.

If you’ve been following the tale of Jorg thus far, you know where his vote will be cast and you also know that it will likely be cast violently.

As he has in previous volumes, Lawrence weaves together several threads. There’s the current storyline with Jorg traveling to Vyene and what happens there. There’s a storyline from five years earlier that shows some of the moments that shaped Jorg’s future and set up the events of the main storyline. There’s also a third thread focusing on the necromancer Chella, who still has an important role to play in the outcome of the story. And as always, he handles it well, with the transitions never being jarring or off-putting.

The trilogy as a whole stands as one of the most interesting works that I’ve read in the genre in quite some time. The books are exceptionally well-written and quite thoughtful. There’s even a deeply philosophical thread that runs through the series, and it seems particularly present in this book. For all of his darkness and emotional instability, Jorg is quite the thinker, and though I wonder what this says about me, I often find myself identifying with his views on life. Well, you know, not the kill and destroy to get what you want part of him, but his thoughts about what shapes people and their lives.

Jorg himself presents an intriguing character study. In him we have not a hero, not even really an antihero. He’s a villain, plain and simple, but for some reason he is a compelling character, and you can’t help but want him to succeed, no matter what that means for the other characters in the book – and it’s often awful. He’s dark, evil, selfish and brutal. He has very few, if any, redeeming qualities (he does find one notable one later in the story, but I won’t spoil that), but still you like him. Maybe there’s something in him that calls to that darker part of ourselves, the one that most people keep hidden and in check, the one that wants to lash out at the wrongs of the world and do what we want no matter the consequences. Jorg also provides an object lesson in why listening to that voice is a very bad idea.

(WARNING: The rest of the review contains some slightly spoiler-ish information. There are no specific details, but if you don’t want to have even the slightest inkling about how Jorg’s story ends, you may want to stop here. If you do, just know that I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the trilogy and highly recommend it. For everyone else, read on.)

As much as I love the character that Lawrence created, I’m also happy that the story comes to a pretty clear end with this book. As the author himself points out in the afterword, it’s fairly common for writers in the fantasy genre to keep a popular character going long after that character has run out of life and readers, at least ones like me, often wander away, forgetting at some point what they once loved about the character. I could rattle off at least a half-dozen examples without even thinking about it. With a definite ending to the story, I’ll remember the things that made Jorg such a fascinating character, rather than moaning about the watered-down thing he became in book 12.

The Broken Empire, overall, was a very satisfying series with a slightly different tone than anything else that’s out there – even the authors that Lawrence is often compared with. It’s an intriguing world full of great characters and plenty of possibilities. And there’s no need to worry just because Jorg’s story is over. Lawrence returns to the world with a different story in his next project, “Prince of Fools,” tentatively due out next year.

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