Having just finished Emperor of Thorns which brings the Broken Empire trilogy to a close, I’ve decided, given the breadth and scope of the series, as well as the equally large breadth and scope of reactions to the series, to bypass the standard review I might have written for this book. Instead, I will combine equal parts review, rant, and discussion about the series as a whole to sort of bring together all of my thoughts about this troublesome series. I understand that I might be saying a few things that provoke a bit of a reaction from our readers. Good. Reaction and discussion are what books are supposed to engender. Please don’t hesitate to comment whether you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, but as always, keep it civil. Well, lets go. NOTE: Obviously there is a blanket spoiler warning for the contents of Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, and Emperor of Thorns.
When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him–and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?
So since this is at least part a review, I should probably address the core elements on which I base my reviews. I’ll start with the setting. There’s always a danger when you do post-apocalyptic Earth. If humans survived to keep a civilisation, you’ve got to deal with the troublesome problem of surviving technology. Almost no end to modern civilisation is going to leave nothing behind, and it’s hard not to end up with a Mad Max style mishmash of outback and auto parts factory. Lawrence does a fantastic job here. Just enough of the old world has survived that people know about it (and give us place names like Vyene, and Maroc, and probably my favourite, Port Gull) but what little technology survived is hidden or lost such that most people have never seen more than a little bit of plastic. Certainly the acquisition of just a single pistol by Jorg makes a massive difference in his quest, and it’s fired all of what, once? Instead we have an almost entirely medieval level of technology, with a few odd things that might as well be magic cropping up now and then, and that’s about where it should end up. I was a big fan of the 1632 series by Eric Flint, which basically goes to the opposite extreme and plops some modern day Americans into 17th century Europe complete with trucks, machine guns. and a big pile of history, chemistry, and economics textbooks. But the discovery by Jorg or anybody (except maybe the Prince of Arrow, nice guy that he is) of some big cache of Builder tech would have pretty much ruined the entire story and made the quest more of a doddle.
Plot-wise, once again Lawrence comes in strong. Revenge and Empire-building make for some solid goals with which to drive a plot, and both are here in spades. Jorg’s attitude that he has his goals, and he is simply going to pursue them until they are met makes for an excellent pacing and flow. It did get a little confusing towards the end, switching between the present day and five years ago in Emperor of Thorns, especially considering that Prince of Thorns itself took place such that we’re basically dropping back to events which I think took place between Prince and King? I’d almost rather have had another book fully detailing that process, than get what ended up feeling like 33% backstory in my final book in a series. If Lawrence felt that enough questions were left unanswered between Jorg’s 15th and 20th birthday, that they needed filling in here, one wonders why they didn’t justify their own book. They were certainly interesting enough events. Of course the main thing which seems to need saying about the plot is that it is dark. It is grim. I’m not going to say it. But yes, very little good happens to, from, or around Jorg throughout his entire life, and the story reflects this. It is unabashed about the fact that this is not a story about a hero. In fact, there was a bit of a Monty Python’s Life of Brian After Dark vibe about Jorg and the Prince of Arrow, where you sort of get the idea that maybe the actual book is over there, with the traditional Paladin-type, and we’ve somehow just gotten sidetracked and are watching the villain.
That’s the market these days is it not? We love Dexter, and The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. Anti-heroes are supposed to be in! Immoral bad guys that nevertheless have the charm and charisma to make you like them in spite of yourself? That’s Prime Time these days. So why is it then, that this series seems to attract a very virulent and passionate negative reaction from a lot of readers and reviewers? Because Jorg, perhaps, goes a little too far down the villain line for everybody to be comfortable. He pushes some bad buttons on people, he puts some very uncomfortable things out there for people to see and experience and share in. A few months back, I published an article called Ranking, Rating and Reviewing as a bit of an open letter which was actually inspired by the practice of author Joe Abercrombie to publish an excerpt each day from a different 1-star review that his books had received. I had the same objection to the content of most of those reviews as I do to the negative reviews accruing around Mark Lawrence with the speed that Jorg acquires Kingdoms, or enemies.
You see, Jorg is such a bad person, so immoral and villainous and gross that he apparently makes the book bad, makes Mark Lawrence a bad writer, and depending upon whom you ask, a bad person. Completely aside from the utter absurdity of conflating an author with their characters, this really brings up a question to me that I think people need to think critically and if possible, unemotionally about. Just what kind of character IS Jorg? And having decided that, does he make the book bad?
Let’s not mince words. Yes. Jorg is a bad person. Immoral, sociopathic, villainous, murderous, abusive, you could certainly use all of those words to describe Jorg and there’s an argument for each. He kills, he rapes, he murders, he steals. He’s gained his kingdom through deceit, military conquest, cheating at duels. He is driven towards his goal with a desire that occludes much else. But don’t think it’s a passion which drives him. He strikes me, above all, as a sociopath. The thing which makes him so villainous to the reader’s eye is that he really just does not seem to care, at all, about anything or anyone outside their use to him and his plans. Even in the end, he is killing consecutive captains of his guard, having determined that their oaths don’t actually protect themselves from his actions, just to bring somebody into his presence that he can manipulate into getting killed, because he can’t safely kill him on his own. He wins his imperial throne by pretty much literally counting his votes, and then murdering enough other people that his votes are a majority. This is not a nice man at all.
But is Jorg completely irredeemable? Honestly? I sort of think he is. He’s done too many horrible things to ever be ‘good,’ even if his overall goal could be determined to be ensuring the survival of humanity. Everybody’s best chance was Arrow, and from a perspective where Arrow is the hero of the story, his death was utter bullshit. But here’s where it gets important: Jorg being bad does not make this series bad, and it does not make this series an advocate of anything Jorg does. People get too deep into this “Well he’s the protagonist, so clearly we’re supposed to like him and what he does, I don’t, so he’s a bad protagonist,” mindset, and seem to miss the real point that is going on here. You are not supposed to like Jorg. You are supposed to occasionally catch yourself chuckling at something he says, or cheering for one of his victories, and then stop, realise what you’re doing, and actually look inward and think about what is happening. Far be it from me to ever think to speak for Mark Lawrence, but it seemed pretty clear to me, and thus reading the negative press he gets all the time was so flabbergasting, that AT BEST, we were supposed to occasionally like Jorg in spite of ourselves. He’s not a hero, and was never meant to be seen as one.
All the proof you need that Jorg’s villainy and casual criminality are not supported or encouraged by either the series or the author is to examine how his actions are received within the context of the world which he inhabits. Nobody writing about the pre-war South is going to be criticized if a protagonist owns slaves. Nobody is even necessarily going to criticize it if such a character is, within the narrative, roundly praised by his neighbours as a great man. The reason is because that’s how it was then. To do otherwise would be a disservice to historians. But this is fiction you say, speculative fiction even, the world is whatever world Lawrence decides it is! That’s true. But that’s also the failure of this argument. And the reason for that is because, and I’ll use caps here for emphasis, EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD ALSO THINKS JORG IS A BAD PERSON. Let’s just say that again: Within the bounds of the world which Jorg inhabits, nobody except a few of his fellow sociopaths and psychopaths think he is anything but horrible. Because nobody around him actually condones the rape or the murder or the thievery, or the betrayals, it is impossible to suggest that the world Lawrence has built glorifies or even encourages Jorg’s behavior. I mean, by and large he is successful, but that’s also because when it comes to war, the person who will go fastest to the brink generally wins.
There are far more examples of what I’d call bad or troubling behaviour in fantasy than anything Jorg does, because the rest of the world around him thinks so poorly of his actions. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is FULL of all kinds of morally questionable through outright reprehensible things, but because they don’t cross a few specific lines, or they do so more offstage, nobody seems quite as upset by them. Certainly the rest of Westeros is more inclined to be onside for things that nobody around Jorg was happy with him doing. The point is: nobody was actually asking you to like Jorg or anything he did. You failing to like a murderous psychopath says more good about you than it ever would bad about Mark Lawrence. If you accept that Jorg was not supposed to be liked, or identified with, or sympathized with, what you’re actually left with is a very effective job by Mark Lawrence crafting a character that did exactly what it was supposed to do. Be horrible, be successful, and see if maybe, just maybe, the same superficial charm and personality that got Jorg where he was with the other characters of the world might manage to make you forget, even once, just what kind of person he was.
Which brings us to the reviews. If anybody followed the link to my earlier article about reviewing, you already know what I’m going to say, but I’ll reiterate it here about The Broken Empire specifically. If you had a difficult time with Jorg, you were supposed to. It is the mark of effective writing by Mark Lawrence. If you were so repulsed by Jorg that you either couldn’t finish the book, or finished but did not enjoy the book, the issue here is not that it was a bad book. It was that it was an effective book which did its job. For some people, either due to a level of sensitivity or, and I sympathize deeply if this is the case, some past trauma has caused them to react strongly in the negative to this series. That or they just plain old don’t like books about anti-heroes. That’s completely understandable and I don’t think anybody would ever fault you for having a bad experience with the book. I base a few of my ratings of books on fairly subjective ‘what did you think of X’ concepts. But I also strive for a certain amount of objectivity which can sometimes be difficult to bring to bear. It is important now and then, to be able to acknowledge that a book may just not have been for you, or to your taste, but that doesn’t make it bad. Don’t always believe a review, as the personal experiences and biases of a reviewer are always going to colour it, and don’t always decide, if a book wasn’t to your liking, that it’s a bad book and needs to be publicly described as such.
The Broken Empire was a great series, with an intriguing setting, well-paced plot, and characters which are certainly interesting and definitely provocative. While anybody who has a hard time with the darker elements might find it hard to get through, those same elements were, I feel, a deliberate authorial choice and well executed with that intent in mind. If you can get past, or through, Jorg’s darkness, what is behind that darkness is an excellent story which is well worth the read.