The Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence – Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns
I actually read Red Sister before this series and was a bit ‘so where’s the grimdark, Mark?’
Having read this series I’m ‘Ah, I see. It’s here.’
One of the great things about this series is the differing and extreme reactions to it, and surely the author must be proud of that. Personally, I find some of the criticisms unwarranted. But this is a dark world and not to everyone’s tastes.
This is largely because the anti-hero, Jorg Ancrath, is a bit of a naughty boy. Perhaps understandably so. The series is largely written from his first-person perspective and he is one of the great fantasy characters – thoroughly unpleasant, and yet we are made to root for him nonetheless. He has his problems. He is a bit of a BadAss Stu, young in years but able to resolve every problem with a spot of violence and a clever quip. Although surrounded by an interesting support cast, especially the Road Brothers, they are never really given the space to grow as much as I would have liked. It’s a bit of a one man show.
Another strength of the series is the writer’s prose, a sort of melancholic, philosophical commentary on life. Plus, the series can be wickedly funny. To my mind this is a prerequisite for grimdark to work, and Lawrence and Abercrombie are the masters. I’ve seen other attempts where the author notches up the body count, torture scenes and sexual violence as if the more the better, with a complete absence of the cynical humour-and I think to myself, you just don’t get it. Anyway.
Another I think underappreciated part of the series is the worldbuilding. The Broken Empire is post-apocalyptic, but people have regressed to a world based on medieval Europe/North Africa. It’s simple enough I suppose but cleverly done and provides an accessible setting for the story, as well as a realistic environment that grimdark literature needs. As it goes on, the sci-fi elements grow without really adding much and for me this detracted a little.
Plot-wise the story is strong, certainly for the first two books. Again, just like Abercrombie’s first trilogy, the author shies away from a truly epic finale, and the series peters out a little after such an explosive start. And I get it, he’s not writing epic fantasy as such, it’s a character driven piece. But when you set up a massive conflict amongst a hundred states for the imperial throne, and that conflict never really comes, it feels like a bit of a damp squib. Lawrence and Abercrombie might say they are all about subverting tropes but here, for me, they are perhaps being too clever for their own good. And let’s put it out there, sprawling epics are not easy to write. Those who take them on, like GRR Martin, should perhaps be cut some more slack. But I digress.
Lawrence has a great, distinctive voice, and I’m looking forward to reading more from him. This is one of those must-read series of modern fantasy. He has produced a truly memorable character and has written some truly great lines.