Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

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Note: I have tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but have not been 100% successful. If you have not read Mark Lawrence’s “The Broken Empire” Trilogy, then read forward at your own risk.

“Dark times call for dark choices. Choose me.”

This single quote provides perhaps the best possible summary of the book I can give. I will, however, endeavor to add a little detail to this review, as well as a brief background on the series for those unfamiliar with it.

In 2011 Mark Lawrence released his debut novel Prince of Thorns, thereby propelling himself into the upper echelons of fantasy authors. Readers are all over the world were entranced by his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, his not-so-merry adventures, and even less merry band of adventurers. We forgive him his many flaws, as his charisma and dark humor shine through beautifully in the first person narration. The book is brutal and uncompromising, full of grittiness and harsh reality. Jorg’s ambition and cruelty form a picture of a fascinatingly three-dimensional character, one who a reader would admire and support, even if they do not necessarily like him.

2012 saw the release of King of Thorns, which I consider one of my favorite books of all time. In addition to the classic “villain” character that Jorg would be if the book were told from any other perspective, Lawrence introduces a classic “hero” character, with whom Jorg clashes over several issues. The reader (as well as Jorg himself) must decide who to root for in this conflict. And no one chooses the good guy. It is a masterful piece of writing, truly exemplary.

And now 2013 has come, and with it, Emperor of Thorns, last in the best debut in recent memory. Though I did not find it quite as good as the other two in the series, it is still a worthy conclusion to the acclaimed Broken Empire Trilogy.

The story is told in three ways. The first two are familiar—The first being Jorg in the present, as he travels to and reaches Congression, an event occurring every four years, where an emperor would be picked if the squabbling lords could ever agree on anything. The second is Jorg five years ago, as he travels around the lands he one day hopes to rule. The third, and most risky on Lawrence’s part, is from the POV of the necromancer, Chella. Though I thought her perspective dragged a bit in the beginning, I found it to be, in general, a good addition to the story.

As always, Lawrence’s writing is masterful. The only reason Jorg is such a compelling character is because of the sheer brilliance of the writing. Lawrence develops all the charisma and humor (I rarely laugh out loud while reading, but to make me do it multiple times in such a dark book is quite an achievement), and I feel almost in awe of the ability to evoke such powerful responses from his readers.

In general, the rest of the supporting cast is either hit-or-miss. I liked Katherine (Jorg’s love interest, although she’s really much more than that) in the first book, but not so much in either of the other two. Miana (Jorg’s wife and queen) is entertaining and smart, but she never really develops past bit-part player. I have always loved Sir Makin, and he is no different in this book. A grounding influence on his brooding lord, his humor and charm is far lighter than Jorg’s and he provides a much-needed lightening of the atmosphere. Jorg’s group of travelers, Rike, Kent, and Gorgoth are all two-dimensional, but they serve a purpose, the same as Kai Summerson, who has a far different impact on proceedings. Chella has been a major player since the first book, and even with the addition of her own POV, I never really developed any strong feelings for or against her inclusion. She was just there. And then, of course, there’s Jorg’s adversary, “The Dead King”. The subject of one of the least surprising plot twists I’ve read in a while (it is hinted at so much I’m surprised Lawrence doesn’t just come out and say it), but even so I never found him a particularly compelling villain. I vastly preferred the villains of the first two books (Olidan and Orrin), who I found to be far superior characters.

The place where I thought the book ran into the most trouble was the worldbuilding. Where previously it was only hinted at, this book reveals the true sci-fi nature of the trilogy, and, unfortunately, it fell very flat. A lot of the hocus-pocus technological explanations for things fell very short, and rarely did they make any sense. I do like the semi-Europe that Lawrence has set his world in, and the African lands that Jorg spends some flashback time in, but that was about it for setting. This series has never really been about location, anyway.

The other main flaws of the book were in the conclusion. I found the motivation of the Dead King to be entirely unrealistic and unlikely, especially considering everything we’d heard about him in the previous two books. I also found the resolution to be very weak, far far too easy for such a complex problem. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but those who have read the book will understand what I’m talking about.

Overall, the book was very good. It did not quite live up to the hugely high standards set by the first two books, but still absolutely worth a read. Jorg remains one of my favorite characters, and the second plot twist at the end (this one entirely unexpected, and actually rather genius) served to end the series in a rather satisfying way, and one wholly in keeping with the theme of the rest of the series. If nothing else, this book and series serve as a warning to the rest of the fantasy community: Mark Lawrence is a fantastic author, and he is (I’m fairly sure of this) going to be the next “big” fantasy author.

Final Rating 7.5/10