Prince of Thorns is simultaneously a grimdark fantasy, a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller, and an epic revenge narrative told from the point of view of a first-rate sociopath. The sociopath in question is Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a brutally violent prince-child whose actions are not guided by any accepted sense of morality. As we learn more about the tragedies of Jorg’s childhood, we recognize how he became so twisted and understand his motivation for revenge.
Jorg Ancrath has become one of the most iconic characters in grimdark fantasy. Mark Lawrence paints a very compelling portrait of a physically and emotionally scarred protagonist who is full of pride and consumed by rage. Telling the story from the first-person perspective of Jorg is the perfect way to get into his mind and understand the origin of his cruelty. Somehow, we also develop sympathy for Jorg throughout the course of the narrative. This is a testament to Mark Lawrence’s excellent characterization of Jorg in all of his complexity.
Some readers have been turned off by Jorg’s seemingly irredeemable penchant for violence. But this is nothing new in literature. One of the greatest novels of all time, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866), is also a first-person narrative told by a psychotic murderer who seeks to rationalize his acts of homicide. A more modern example is A Clockwork Orange, the 1962 classic by Anthony Burgess. Alex, the main character from A Clockwork Orange, served as inspiration for Mark Lawrence when he crafted Jorg, although Alex is even more viciously evil than Jorg, committing horrendous acts of violence for his own perverse amusement.
Jorg’s childhood is full of failed father figures. With young Jorg’s thirst for knowledge, Tutor Lundist could have filled the void left by Jorg’s own cruel father, King Olidan, but Lundist failed Jorg when he needed him most. As someone in a position of moral authority, Father Gomst also could have fostered a healthy father-son relationship with Jorg. However, his own moral backbone is not strong enough to compete with Jorg’s uncompromising personality. Father Gomst is a rather tragic figure: he is not a bad person, but he lacks the strength of character to live up to his own ideals and help Jorg grow to be a better person. One of the most amusing scenes from Prince of Thorns is when Father Gomst hears Jorg’s detailed confession, aghast with horror.
Jorg’s healthiest relationship is with the Nuban, whom he sets free from his father’s prison. Jorg recognizes the Nuban’s strong moral character, embodying the ideals of brotherhood that Jorg has tried to create with his band of Road Brothers. After being rejected by his father, only the Nuban is able to provide some sense of a moral compass for Jorg. Jorg seems to take these lessons to heart in the friendship that he later develops with Gorgoth, another outcast from society, and the way he readily adopts the young brothers Gog and Magog as his own.
A large part of what makes Jorg so compelling as a main character is the voice that Mark Lawrence has created for him. He is disturbed and illogical, but also darkly comic and even naïve in some respects. Jorg’s dark humor keeps the prose vibrant and the reader engaged throughout the novel, as we experience a combination of repugnance and wicked delight. All of this is balanced by Jorg’s deep-seated sadness, which reveals itself gradually throughout The Broken Empire trilogy.
The worldbuilding in Prince of Thorns is limited by Jorg’s own tunnel vision. Nevertheless, Mark Lawrence does a compelling job building layers of political intrigue in the neo-feudal land of the Broken Empire. Readers will be treated to more complete worldbuilding in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in the companion Red Queen’s War trilogy.
Prince of Thorns is not a magic-heavy book, but it does include scenes of necromancy and dream- and fire-magic. The magic system is not explained in Prince of Thorns. Mark Lawrence leaves it to the reader to piece together the magic system across his five trilogies, which ends up being more science fiction than fantasy.
One of my favorite aspects of Prince of Thorns is the way Mark Lawrence blends grimdark fantasy with elements of post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi. The hints are there throughout the book. As a reader, the most surprising and rewarding aspect of this novel is when we discover the true nature of the world in which Jorg is living.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Prince of Thorns several times. This is the special type of novel that gets better each time through, revealing its hidden layers and connections to the greater universe of Mark Lawrence’s writing. Jorg’s viciously dark humor also becomes more hilarious upon each reread. Most recently, I enjoyed reading the new Prince of Thorns Limited Edition, published by Grim Oak Press in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of this grimdark classic. The Limited Edition is a gorgeous bonded leather-bound volume with a sewn-in black satin bookmark, also featuring new full-color artwork by Jason Chan.
Prince of Thorns is one of the best and most influential books in grimdark fantasy, authored by one of the founding fathers of the genre. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns yet, what are you waiting for? Come, brethren, and hear this Grimdark Gospel according to St. Mark.