Monday, January 02, 2012

Review: "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

At the age of nine, Prince Jorg of Ancrath watched, trapped in hook briars, as soldiers tore his mother and brother from their carriage and brutally murdered them. By the age of 13, Jorg is a hardened and heartless killer looking for a throne in “Prince of Thorns” ($25.95, Ace), the impressive debut novel from Mark Lawrence.

Jorg, found by his father’s men, is returned to the Tall Castle and nursed back to health, though he should have died from the infection of the hook briars. But the experience and the bargain his father cuts with the nobleman responsible for the murders leave him bitter and in search of vengeance. He flees the castle with a band of men freed from the dungeons, and four years later, finds himself the leader of a bloodthirsty group of bandits, stealing, killing and burning their way across the countryside as he follows his secret vow to be king by 15. When Jorg’s band once again comes near his father’s lands, he feels an irresistible pull home, but what’s waiting for him there is not exactly what he expects.

Lawrence’s debut novel is a fascinating study in the villain-as-hero concept. You can’t call Jorg an anti-hero, because usually the anti-hero has at least some redeeming qualities. Jorg has none. He’s cold, brutal and heartless and will destroy anyone and anything in his path without a pang of guilt or regret. Every time a thought that’s sympathetic or almost human enters his mind, he crushes it immediately. Lawrence even offers him an excuse for his villainy late in the story, but Jorg refuses to take it, confirming the character’s dark nature.

I’ll admit that I love a good villain and often feel some sympathy for them, but even I was surprised by how compelling I found Jorg’s character and Lawrence’s tale given the utter lack of humanity or compassion. For some reason, though, I simply couldn’t put the book down.

Lawrence’s world also holds a secret that the reader will soon discover through clues that begin with the map at the beginning of the book. Though I don’t really think it’s a surprise, I won’t spoil it here. The angle is not, I believe, as fully developed as it could be, but offers a different dimension and plenty of possibilities for future volumes.

“Prince of Thorns” certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, but reading the first chapter should be enough to clue you in. It is, at times, quite ugly and disturbing, and there’s definitely no hero to cheer on as you read. The book is a fast-paced, page turner, though, and for those of us who are fans of the villain, it offers a chance to get into the head of one of the most blackhearted you’re likely to come across.

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