Emperor of Thorns review

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In 2011, Mark Lawrence was discovered as a promising new voice in Fantasy.  His debut novel, Prince of Thorns got press from the 'grimdark' atmosphere and the supposedly too young and violent protagonist but the community, and myself along the way, adopted Jorg fervently and spread the word. It was my runner up for the best debut of the year and in 2012, the follow-up King of Thorns became my favorite novel of the year.  For a third year in a row, Jorg makes an appearance in the much awaited final volume of the Broken Empire trilogy, Emperor of Thorns.
The path to the throne is broken - only the broken may walk it. 
To reach the throne requires that a man journey. Even a path paved with good intentions can lead to hell, and my intentions were never good. 
The Hundred converge for Congression to politic upon the corpse of Empire, and while they talk the Dead King makes his move, and I make mine. The world is cracked, time has run through, leaving us clutching at the end days, the future so bright that those who see it are the first to burn. These are the days that have waited for us all our lives. These are my days. I will stand before the Hundred and they will listen. I will take the throne whoever seeks to thwart me, living or dead, and if I must be the last emperor then I will make of it such an ending. 
This is where the wise man turns away. This is where the holy kneel and call on God. These are the last miles, my brothers. Don't look to me to save you. Don't think I will not spend you. Run if you have the wit. Pray if you have the soul. Stand your ground if courage is yours. But don't follow me. 
Follow me, and I will break your heart.
Indeed, you'll break it and what a ride it was to witness it!

For Emperor of Thorns, the same narrative structure is used by Lawrence, alternating between the events of the present and a flashback storyline.  Judging by the fact that it was masterfully handled in the two previous books, I'd say that the idea must have been a no-brainer.  So the story picks up when Jorg's getting ready to finally attend his second Congression in Vyene, but this time, his motivations and dedication to sit the all-throne seem boundless. Accompanied by the Gilden Guard, he takes the road with a few advisors.  As for the flashbacks, the story of Jorg's quest given him by the mysterious AI Fexler Brews resumes, sending him to Africa and back.

At first, I thought that the flashbacks would have a lesser impact on the present story but I was happily deceived.  The whole plot doesn't revolve around a mystery as intriguing as the memory box in King of Thorns but the experiences and discoveries of Jorg are paramount to some events from King of Thorns and to several circumstances influencing what's happening toward the end of the book.

Jorg's focus switch from his father and entourage to the whole Emperor purpose. The whole endeavor toward the rulership of the hundred kingdoms is seen with a completely different perspective in Emperor, Jorg never follow the conventions.  Back in King of Thorns, Jorg seemed more mature in his goal toward power and when I say mature, I mean it Jorg's way.  He was less frustrated but more committed and relentless to prove to everyone who had a key role in his growth that he was an avenger of blood coming back at them. But now, Jorg's life is different and whole new perspectives have been presented to him. His wits are sharper than ever and he has moved forward again but remains Jorg Ancrath and who can now stand in his way?

The answer is several of the people Jorg angered over the years. Sadly for them, he's at the top of his game and to remain breathing after facing him, you ought to have a useful part to play or a serious advantage.  He's not mighty in term of military power, but an incarnation of dedication directed toward a goal can be devastating and he's ready to do everything that needs to be done in this unforgiving world (I wish you could read about more of what's outside the Broken Empire).  Among the protagonists given the spotlight, Chella's back with a couple of chapters of her own to further the Dead King's thread.

Before trying to fight for votes at Congression, Jorg has to tie up some loose ends.  It's the last book in the series and I thought that Lawrence wouldn't leave much in term of unresolved business.  He doesn't but for some threads, the explanation behind the denouement isn't shown directly from Jorg's perspective. He sees the impacts more than the course of it. In retrospect, I think that it was essentially a wise decision by the author and it probably kept the narrative tighter (certainly to the disappointment of some readers).

As the tale of Jorg following Fexler's marked spot and travelling to Africa went on, my interest for the flashback storyline quickly grew to a page-turner even if the pace remained smooth. Without knowing it, I was probably more immersed into Emperor than I was in King of Thorns. And then, the meaning behind our bitter protagonist more recent actions surfaced, he took things into his own hands and my expectations for Congression went sky high.

There was also a flashback where I felt that Mark was trying to add another layer to the reasons behind the portrait of terrible doom that is Jorg and I think it was not necessary (the scene at the Monastery). At this time in the story, we don't really need more but at least, again in hindsight, this particular event was part of the reasons I couldn't put the book down.

At the top of the list of elements I enjoyed the most in Emperor of Thorns is the persistence and perspicacity of Jorg, he doesn't compromise his corrupt principles.  Even if at times he seems to become someone else, to care freely, to invoke a conventional conscience or to act like a human should when put into his situation, he always remains himself and Lawrence put us back in place with some shocking actions, bringing a devilish smile or creating a gut reaction.  They can be stretched a bit but the twisted antihero, acting like it ought not to be considered, is what Jorg's all about.

Then, there's the ending (don't worry, I won't spoil anything). I'm still not sure about my feelings for the conclusion of Jorg's trilogy.  It was such a ride, I mean, with such a powerful character, expectations flew in every directions.  And that's probably the problem for me. These expectations lead me nowhere since I didn't see it coming. Not that it's the revelation or shock of the century but with a touch of weirdness involved, I had not expected something like this, which is a good thing.  My feelings are still all over the map about it and I had a heavy case of book hangover... and still have!

Some readers may have struggled with Jorg at first but I can assure you that Lawrence's writing will make it more than worth it. You would be missing on some amazing cracks coming out of the mouth of an unforgettable character.

Technically, third time's the charm for Jason Chan, he delivered again and the three books together look amazing. The Ace hardcover edition stands at 448 pages and a nice looking map of the Broken Empire is included. Mark announced a new series set in the same world, The Red Queen's War, with a first book coming out next year under the Prince of Fools title.

Emperor of Thorns review rating :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


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