King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is one of the greatest masterpieces of grimdark fantasy, a towering literary achievement that takes us into the darkened mind and heart of Jorg Ancrath as he comes to terms with several of the most tragic events of his young life. In this second volume of the Broken Empire trilogy, Jorg has matured compared to the impulsive, rage-driven youth of Prince of Thorns. In King of Thorns, Jorg’s unbridled anger is balanced by an unshakeable sorrow, a deep sadness which only grows throughout the novel.
With Jorg’s newfound role as the self-declared King of Renar, we see much more of the Broken Empire compared to Prince of Thorns. The world of the Broken Empire is a post-apocalyptic Europe devastated by nuclear war and living in the aftermath of global warming. From the map at the beginning of King of Thorns, all the European lowlands have been flooded, distorting the geography compared to our present world. For example, the rising sea level has caused the northwestern French province of Brittany to separate from the European continent, becoming the island of Brit, and Italy has narrowed so much that Roma is now on the coast. The map also reveals a drastically different political order in the Broken Empire. Our modern country boundaries are gone, as Europe has returned to the days of feudalism with each region under control of a local king or prince.
Jorg’s main competitor in King of Thorns is Prince Orrin of Arrow, a traditional Prince Charming-type good guy. Orrin is blond, handsome, and courting Jorg’s beloved aunt Katherine. The Prince of Arrow is prophesied to unite the kingdoms of the Broken Empire and bring an era of peace and prosperity through mutual understanding and dialogue. Orrin is everything that Jorg is not. He has the love of his people and an army that vastly outnumbers Jorg’s.
King of Thorns is a brilliantly constructed novel told on four different timelines/perspectives. The two main timelines follow (1) Jorg in the present day during his battle with the Prince of Arrow and (2) four years prior, immediately following the events of Prince of Thorns. There are also (3) flashbacks of Jorg’s suppressed memories and (4) the perspective of Katherine from her journal. All four of these timelines/perspectives are cleverly interwoven by Mark Lawrence in the telling of the story.
The epic battle with the Prince of Arrow also coincides with Jorg’s wedding day to the precocious Queen Miana. Miana is one of my favorite characters in the novel, an intellectual equal to Jorg who has a couple of surprises up her sleeves.
The timeline immediately following Prince of Thorns largely focuses on Jorg’s quest to help Gog, the leucrota child adopted by Jorg who possesses powerful but uncontrolled abilities in fire-magic. Although Jorg is advised that Gog is too dangerous to keep alive, he is committed to helping Gog master his incredible powers. Gog is another one of my favorite characters in the book. Although he appears monstrous on the outside, Gog is just a little boy and brings out the humanity in Jorg.
Jorg is literally haunted by his dark past, including a dead child that is always there, watching him. To gain some respite from his unmitigated sorrow, Jorg’s memories are stored in a memory box, one of the sci-fi elements of the book, which also connects to Mark Lawrence’s excellent Impossible Times trilogy. Flashbacks occur throughout King of Thorns as Jorg cannot resist the urge to open the memory box and understand his past. The flashbacks are supplemented by what we learn from Katherine’s journal. There are a number of surprising revelations throughout King of Thorns that will leave the reader’s heart as broken as this post-apocalyptic world.
Fortunately, Jorg’s dark humor is also in peak form throughout the novel. There are plenty of clever Easter eggs and witticisms throughout the book, including references to Star Trek, American Pie, and various aspects of our modern technology. The technological understanding of our age is long gone. The people of the Broken Empire refer to us as Builders based on our impressive but now-decayed architecture left behind. I’m convinced that the Tall Castle of Ancrath is simply the remains of an old Parisian skyscraper.
King of Thorns also marks the first appearance of Dr. Elias Taproot, who provides a unifying thread throughout Mark Lawrence’s five trilogies, giving the sci-fi backbone to books that may seem at first like pure fantasy. Here we also meet Fexler Brews, a data echo who provides another key element of worldbuilding in the Broken Empire.
As always, Mark Lawrence is precise and methodical with his writing, giving his readers clues to build the greater picture of his universe. We are hearing the story from a possibly unreliable narrator who has limited knowledge about the world in which he is living and a lot of suppressed memories. Although the story is infused with magic, much of this is simply remnants of our modern science that people in the post-apocalyptic future no longer understand.
Jorg is still an evil anti-hero driven by revenge, but he grows so much in this book. He deals with the ghosts of his past, both literal and figurative, and he grows to care more deeply about other people, especially his Road Brothers, his aunt Katherine, and his wife Miana. Jorg is still a brutally violent psychopath. But he’s a brutally violent psychopath who cares.
Mark Lawrence is the Fyodor Dostoevsky of grimdark fantasy, eloquently combining an in-depth character study of a psychologically disturbed protagonist (Crime and Punishment) with layers of political intrigue (Demons) and complicated family dynamics (The Brothers Karamazov). Like Dostoevsky, Mark Lawrence’s writing is beautiful and poetic, especially as Jorg has grown as a narrator since Prince of Thorns. There are so many quotable lines in King of Thorns, some heart-wrenching and others laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a reader, I wanted to savor every word.
Mark Lawrence is known for the iconic opening lines of his novels, lines that will stick with you long after you’ve finished the book. But the most iconic lines in King of Thorns are at the very end, words that will haunt you for years to come. King of Thorns is one of Mark Lawrence’s finest achievements in a career marked by consistent excellence. If you haven’t already explored the world of the Broken Empire, Jorg is waiting for you.