I had a blank post ready for a review of Prince of Thorns a short while ago, and before I started writing that review of the first book of The Broken Empire, I found myself voraciously gobbbling up King of Thorns, and ultimately couldn’t stay away from Emperor of Thorns long enough to pen any thoughts about the spectacular books that make up Mark Lawrence’s incredible first offering to the fantasy genre. And they are truly wonderful. They had come highly recommended by several friends, who stated time and again that these books were “badass,” “brutal,” “hardcore,” and the highest praise of all: “dude…”
By day, Mark Lawrence is a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence. By night, he writes some of the best fantasy fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Caution, dear reader. There be spoilers ahead.
The Broken Empire takes place in a world of quasi-medieval fantasy with a splash of science fiction, which raises some fascinating questions about the nature of artificial intelligence, the implications of far-developed technologies and, of course, the inexhaustible human capacity for destruction. The trilogy follows Jorg Ancrath as he pillages his way across the broken empire–remnants of Europe after the “builders” destroyed much of the face of the earth with their “suns” (read: atomic weaponry). It is a world in which “magic” is real, too, with some interesting scientific explanations behind it, that becomes a major plot point of the stories. Suffice it to say, when the first bits of the sci-fi elements reared their heads in the tale, I actually exclaimed aloud in delight. To be honest, that happened several times while reading these books.
Each of the books happens across multiple timelines, the “current day” and the “4 years earlier” plot. This makes for some satisfying revelations of plot points from previous books once you get to King and Emperor, but there were times when reading that I wished the books bounced around a little less. At the end of the day, the multiple timelines were exceptionally well executed, and my qualm with them came from that place in every reader’s heart, where suspenseful moments drive us to silly levels of frustration and excitement.
In the first book, Jorg is a ruthless boy of fourteen who sees very little except his goal–to avenge the death of his mother and brother, which he had to witness from his horrific prison of thorns, in which he landed when he was thrown from their carriage when it was attacked. This moment informs the spearpoint of his motivation in the book, though there are other goals in mind. For instance, he wants to be acknowledged by his father–and even more brutal man than Jorg–as the rightful heir to the Ancrath kingdoms. The problem: Jorg ran from home at nine, joining a band of Road Brothers (bandits) with whom he ravages and pillages the countryside, exploring hither and yon, leaving a deep river of blood in his wake. The book establishes the world and characters beautifully, and gives the reader a taste for fantasy without lofty and overbearing description. It is the surprise gut-punch of the fantasy world.
King and Emperor find Jorg looking higher than acknowledgement, since Jorg has been able to identify that there are more complex players in the great game than him and his father. He encounters “data ghosts” (projections of AI that have lingered in machinery buried beneath the surface for 1000 years) and learns that there’s more than his greed at stake. Early on, Jorg makes it clear that to work to save people individually is a waste of time. In his words, “you have to save all of them, or none.” These ultimatums drive Jorg who, while he may seem two dimensional at the surface, is a very well thought-out character, who is compelling to follow, capable of surprising the reader over and over again, and generally an unstoppable badass who whose victory seems impossible to achieve, yet inevitable.
The Broken Empire was intoxicating. I found myself spreading the gospel of Jorg to friends who like fantasy, and annoying Mark Lawrence on Twitter by constantly informing him that yes, he is an incredibly skilled writer. He had the grace to respond kindly to every single one of my obnoxious tweets. Talk about a gentleman.
Caveat Emptor: these books are brutal. Make no mistake. There’s violence, then there is violence. These books shy away from certain types of violence (they have earned a reputation, completely without merit, for containing extravagant and horrific rape scenes. I’ve read all three, and I can say that there are two sections which contain reference rape. The first is about 6 words long, and contains no graphic imagery. The second is important to the plot, but is only present by allusion. There’s no actual description of the process. Game of Thrones, well-liked as it is, is far more brutal in that arena.) They are, however, not for the squeamish. I can’t speak highly enough of these books. They are the work of a brilliant mind. Thank you, Mr. Lawrence, for these fantastic books. Some day down the road, I’ll have a pet named Jorg in your honor. 5/5