Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is almost something I loved. I made it all the way through, and it more than kept me amused on my flights and waits in and out of Denver. Ultimately, however, it came across as a talented author pursuing a gimick first, and a story second. Or something like that. I'll try and clarify. Minor spoilers ahead.
Prince of Thorns is set in a Post-apocalyptic version of Europe, in which humanity has returned to a medieval dark fantasy setting. This is a very good start as far as I'm concerned; my love of things post-apocalyptic, and my love for dark and low fantasy, are both well established (See Fallout, The Black Company, and more). The kingdoms are engaged in a long-running war with constantly-shifting alliances, and after over 100 years, no Emperor.
Our "Protagonist" is Jorg Ancrath, Prince, but leading a band of outlaws. Little more than 14 years old as the book begins, Jorg is on his way home, after several years on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge. He and his band of outlaws defy kings and armies, conquer nations, and fight against sinister sorcerors and ancient technological ghosts.
This sounds like the sort of thing I'd be all over. And in a way, it was. Lawrence is a fantastic writer, and kept me turning pages all the way through. The problem was, while I enjoyed the story and the writing, I hated every character.
This is a major problem. Part of reading is inserting ones self into the story, through a protagonist with whom one can identify, and I found it impossible to identify with so vile a protagonist. I don't demand that everyone be a saint, but a redeeming factor, a touch of humanity, is important to making a character sympathetic and believeable.
Jorg, however, comes off as a teenager's first self-insert character, created imediately after he has learned about the word "anti-hero." Mean and brooding, with no regard for human life, even that of his comrades, Jorg is a military genius with a tragic past, who leads a band of equally vile men, who rape and murder for fun. In spite of this, he is of noble birth, and inspires fear in the hearts of courtiers, commands the loyalty of good men, and everything seems to work out for him, regardless of how reckless, callous, and thoughtless his decisions are.
This could not be more frustrating for me. The setting is something I am all about. The writing is incredibly well executed, and I kept turning pages out of a desire to learn what happened next. But, and this is important, the protagonist could have died, and I would not have minded. I would have even been happy about it. And this is a problem for me.
I had no one to root for, and therefore, no emotional investment. I had an intellectual investment in the continuing series of events, but no emotional attachment to a character.
[ACTUAL SPOILERS] And then we get to the idea of mind control. It's yet another thing that stops a character from being relatable. Over a short period of time, this can work. If we observe a character behaving different from how they have been established, then we know something is wrong, and when mind control is revealed, we understand, and furthermore, we feel the violation, as someone is forced into doing things they don't want to do. But when mind control is revealed after a longer period of time, it does not have the same effect, especially if we have never gotten to know the real character. If their actions don't truly represent the content of their character, and never have, then what is the point? How are we to be invested in such a fascimile of a person?[/ACTUAL SPOILERS]
All in all, I'd really like it if Lawrence would apply his obvious skill to a better set of characters. I do not think I will be continuing this series, but I may look into something else that Lawrence has written, in the hope that somewhere there is a sympathetic character.
But hey, you might like it. You could certainly do worse.