The Broken Empire trilogy comes to a Shakespearean end in Emperor of Thorns, which finds Mark Lawrence soaring to new literary heights as Jorg Ancrath deepens his understanding of this post-apocalyptic world and seeks to use that knowledge to ascend to the emperor’s throne.
Before becoming one of the pioneers of grimdark fantasy, Mark Lawrence earned a PhD in mathematics from Imperial College London and had a highly accomplished career in artificial intelligence (AI). Lawrence’s deep knowledge of AI permeates Emperor of Thorns, even while most inhabitants of the Broken Empire can’t see past their own immediate reality.
The Broken Empire trilogy is set in Europe about a thousand years after a technology-driven apocalypse. Evidence throughout the trilogy suggests that the apocalypse was induced by a combination of nuclear war and global warming. The humans from our time are referred to as Builders. The people of the Broken Empire are unable to understand or recreate the technology or architecture built during this bygone era. Only echoes of this previous civilization remain. Remnants of the Builders’ technology are scarce, and their powers are attributed to magic.
One of these technologies is the data echo, which is basically an AI clone of a human. Although humans die, a data echo can live forever, artificially replicating the memories and thought patterns of the original human being. Physically, data echoes appear as holograms or “ghosts” to those who don’t understand what they are seeing.
The story of Emperor of Thorns is again told on multiple timelines from the point of view of Jorg Ancrath, but now with an additional perspective from the necromancer Chella. Jorg has already established himself as king of nine principalities in this feudal post-apocalyptic Europe, and the present-day timeline revolves around Jorg’s quest to become emperor of a united Broken Empire.
There is no better way to unite a fractured empire than to face a grave, imminent threat from a common enemy. Enter the Dead King and his army of undead soldiers, who make Jorg seem like the lesser of two great evils.
In Emperor of Thorns, we learn of another horrific event from Jorg’s childhood that scarred him emotionally and contributed to his anger, demonstrating how violence and abuse inflicted on one person can propagate forward to others. Emperor of Thorns also features a brutally detailed torture scene that would make even Joe Abercrombie squirm. No wonder Jorg is so messed up.
Jorg has grown impressively over the course of the Broken Empire trilogy. In Prince of Thorns, young Jorg was consumed by anger and had a single-minded focus on revenge. In King of Thorns, this anger was tempered and balanced by a profound sense of sadness and regret. Now in Emperor of Thorns, Jorg has come to an acceptance of the role he must play in this epic saga.
Emperor of Thorns also finds Jorg becoming a father to young William, named after his deceased younger brother, whom he was unable to save from a gruesome death in the first volume of the trilogy. As a father, Jorg feels a deep sense of love and makes decisions based on something beyond his own self-interests and desire for revenge and power.
Mark Lawrence’s writing is precisely crafted, as always. The Broken Empire trilogy can be read at the surface level for its story alone. It’s a story full of dark wit, violent action, and unpredictable plot twists. But for me, the greatest enjoyment came from considering the important philosophical and scientific questions hidden just beneath the surface, which are only partially conveyed by Jorg as narrator.
Emperor of Thorns has a myriad of connections to all of Mark Lawrence’s other series. The most obvious of these is the common thread provided by Dr. Elias Taproot, who appears in every one of Lawrence’s trilogies. Taproot reminds me a bit of Hoid from the Cosmere universe of Brandon Sanderson. Fexler Brews, the data echo of a long-dead Builder, also provides key information about the nature of the Broken Empire and its magic system, which is not magic at all, but rather based on AI and quantum physics and shared across all of Mark Lawrence’s literary universe. There are plenty of more subtle connections as well, which will delight the careful reader.
There are so many layers to the Broken Empire trilogy. It is a psychological study of a deeply disturbed individual coupled with a thought-provoking treatment of the interrelationships among technology, the environment, global politics, religion, and the nature of human memory. The Broken Empire trilogy is also a story of redemption, how even the darkest soul can learn to love and put other people’s wellbeing ahead of his own.