Prince of Thorns: a book review

I just finished reading the manuscript of a debut novel by Mark Lawrence.

Prince of Thorns
The Broken Empire Book One
by Mark Lawrence

From Mark’s website:

“Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother’s tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.”

Once a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg’s bleak past has set him beyond fear of any man, living or dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father’s castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him. The thorns taught him a lesson in blood…

The Prince  of Thorns is the first volume in a powerful new epic fantasy trilogy, original, absorbing and challenging. Mark Lawrence’s debut novel tells a tale of blood and treachery, magic and brotherhood and paints a compelling and brutal, sometimes beautiful, picture of an exceptional boy on his journey toward manhood and the throne.

Due in August 2011 from
Harper Collins/Voyager – UK/Australia/New Zealand
Penguin/Ace – US

I first heard about this title back in late September and have been sweating to get my hands on it ever since!

When I first got the manuscript I was dismayed – it is written in first person. I don’t know why I dislike first person, and I don’t even know why I still feel I don’t like t when all the books I’ve read that have used it have been fine and enjoyable novels. But that is how I felt.

The second feeling that came over me reading the first chapter was hesitation.

This is Dark fantasy. Dark Fantasy.

The Prince of Thorns is an apt title for young Jorg – as a character he is not heroic at all. He is twisted and violent, calculating and merciless. Yet I couldn’t stop reading – regardless how many times Lawrence’s brilliant descriptions made me wince and clasp my hand to my mouth in disbelief. It was freaking awesome!

Lawrence has a very vivid style of writing. It is smooth and compelling and you literally see red on the pages as they become covered with blood from sudden and unexpected episodes of violence. It is gritty and full of wonder. Philosophy walks side-by-side with most base of human emotions, the courtly scent of rose and orange oil mingles with the repugnant odor of unwashed humanity and Machiavellian intrigue gets cut down by daggers punched through throats.

This book is brilliant – it is not at all the type of thing I would normally read (being a fan of the big fat fantasy saga’s of heroes and lots of magic) but it’s thorns hooked me well and good. I was pissy at the start thinking this was just a thinly veiled excuse for a reworking of medieval history but it is in fact set in a post apocalyptic earth and it is very cool to see Nietzscheanism referenced in the same pages that speak of Plato and Sun Tzu.

There are fantasy aspects to it as well as science – references to the Builders who crafted buildings from stone that was crushed and flowed like water around steel bones (nice!) – but it is subtle, more in the vein of Martin than Jordan. And for those of you who would like comparisons I would have to say Lawrence’ style runs to Joe Abercrombie, mixed with Steven Erikson by way of Tim Lebbon and a fascination with Vlad the Impaler. And much shorter in length than a typical Erikson or Abercrombie book.

Like I said, this book is not me at all – and possibly not you if you are squeamish – but it is very exciting, superbly crafted and the start of something fresh and original. And given how long I have to wait until book one is published next August – a lifetime until I can get my hands on book two! (I jest – but I really want the next book now!)

Seriously – buy this book! (US edition here)

Something to Sink Your Teeth Into

The Sun Sword Sequence
by Michelle West

1 The Broken Sword
2 The Uncrowned King
3 The Shining Court
4 The Sea of Sorrows
5 The Riven Shield
6 The Sun Sword
The Sun Sword books tell a complex and detailed story spanning the breadth of the Domain of Annagar in the south – a land of desert and tradition, harsh sun and rigid social courtesies that form a deadly dance of protocol in which the slightest misstep can cause the downfall of a Clan; and the Empire of Essalieyan to the North – a sprawling land of culture and civilisation, commerce and trade in which the Ten Major Houses wield authority second only to the god-born Kings who rule them.
It is a tale of epic narrative and detailed plotting set in a world of rich, vibrant and diverse cultural identities. It is the story of the daughter of a God who refuses to be a pawn in his plans, it is the tale of a woman who shows the world a face of acceptance, but works in secret to change the conventions that make her a slave. It is the story of a Prince who must fight immortal foes to lay claim to the crown that has been denied him and the tale of a young woman whose gift of Sight takes her from city slums to glittering palaces and a position of power that she never dreamed of. Magi battle magi and demi-gods plot for power, warriors fight flesh and blood and the dark sorceries of forgotten legends.
This series is a huge undertaking with a massive cast of characters whose complexity brings to mind the work of Steven Erickson, but is as different to Erickson as he is to Martin. And where readers are willing to forgive both these authors the crime of writing ‘fat’ fantasy I urge you to do the same for West’s work. She is a magical writer of rich and compelling prose and works brilliantly at revealing the history of the world she writes in through character experience, rather than large chunks of ‘info-dump’. This is epic fantasy at its best in which histories and customs collide and not all is as it seems in a world where expectations are confounded and transformation of both events and characters is a delight in a plot of twists and turns.
West writes with insight, thoughtfulness and guts, much in the tradition of Guy Gavriel Kay, Janny Wurts, Tad Williams and Jennifer Roberson and is one of the best fantasy writers I’ve read. And if you do like what you read, check out her work as Michelle Sagara, it’s a lighter read but just as good.

Sea Beggars

From the Archives:

The Mark of Ran
Sea Beggars Book One
By Paul Kearney
The world is dying, seemingly forsaken by its creator. Mankind schemes, plots and wages wars across it, forgetting that another race once dwelled here. To some they where Angels, exiled for a long-forgotten crime; to others they were demons…
So starts the first book in Kearney’s new series, a tale woven with an eloquent style that is hard-edged and gritty. Set in a decaying world filled with legends and fragments of a glorious past, Kearney introduces his readers to fantasy on the high seas, the continent of Umer being a collection of islands, large and small – rather than the forest filled land masses we are typically presented with, although there are those too – separated by huge tracks of wild oceans and brutal seas.

In Rol Cortishane veins runs the blood of the Elder race. Driven from his home, Rol seeks refuge in the ancient citadel of Michal Psellos, where he is trained to be a killer of men, an assassin without pity. After years spent mastering the art of murder, Rol defies Psellos and returns to the high seas.

Kearney is one of the best writers of British fantasy around. His prose is consistently of the highest standard. His use of language is concise, yet vivid – in one paragraph he can paint a picture that would take another author a page to describe. His dialogue intelligently adds to world building, scene setting and distinctive characterisation. In a story set over a period of years, Kearney’s character development is dynamic, clear and, most of all, realistic. The plot itself is tight and never stagnates or wastes pages on unnecessary sub-plots; it is completely driven by character action and resulting consequence that meld together in a snowball effect, taking you on a breathless ride that avoids ‘traditional’ fantasy quests.

This is the beginning of Cortishane’s story. A tale in which he journeys across the breadth of this teeming, wicked world and finds a legendary Hidden City where the desperate and the dispossessed fight for survival. This is the first of the chronicles of Rol’s great voyages, and those of his compatriots; a band of outcasts who took to the wide oceans of the world when every nation of the earth set its face against them. Ussa’s Orphans they were called, the Beggars of the Sea…

Though it is a comparatively short novel for the epic fantasy market, so much happens you could swear you’d read a book twice its size. It’s fun, original and enthralling, and sure to appeal to fans of Steven Erikson, R Scott Bakker, Glen Cook and even George R R Martin. This book is a must for serious readers of fantasy fiction.

Urban Fantasy – noir

Jack Nightingale Book One
by Stephen Leather

‘You’re going to hell, Jack Nightingale’: They are words that ended his career as a police negotiator. Now Jack’s a struggling private detective — and the chilling words come back to haunt him. Nightingale’s life is turned upside down the day that he inherits a mansion with a priceless library; it comes from a man who claims to be his father, and it comes with a warning. That Nightingale’s soul was sold at birth and a devil will come to claim it on his thirty-third birthday — just three weeks away. Jack doesn’t believe in Hell, probably doesn’t believe in Heaven either. But when people close to him start to die horribly, he is led to the inescapable conclusion that real evil may be at work. And that if he doesn’t find a way out he’ll be damned in hell for eternity

I loved this book Loved it.

At the height of my untreated sleep apnoea I was given a proof of this to read by my (then) Orbit rep Amy and i practically read it in a night – was a big deal for me at the time because I was barely able to stay awake for more than five minutes if I attempted to read.

Mix some Harry Dresden with John Taylor, add a dash of Felix Castor and you come close to the type of character that is Jack Nightingale – and the secretive world of magick he inherits from a father he didn’t know he had. This is a tightly woven novel with a high-speed plot that kept me up very late; Leather offers urban fantasy packed with devil worshippers and the darker side of the Occult, grounded in solid police procedure and told with a fine flair for dramatic tension.

My current Orbit rep Robert was foolish enough to tell me that book 2 – Midnight –  will be out soon and that he will have an ARC for me. I’ve already called him about that once since he said it… i wonder how much of a nuisance I will make of myself *looks innocent*.

The Last Stormlord

In celebration of the release of Stormlord Rising in the UK this week, here’s my revew of the preceeding volume:

The Last Stormlord

Watergivers Book One
By Glenda Larke

It’s rare that a fantasy novel sets itself up in a world so obviously influenced by the idea of climate change. Usually such issues are left for science fiction. Yet in her latest blockbuster, Larke sets herself firmly in territory that few fantasy novels have dared to tread. Rather than traipsing through a ‘medieval’ past, she reveals a bold, original world that could possibly be our future, albeit one without technology.
In a world where water is more precious than gold, the men and women who can sense its presence, and manipulate it at will, hold the ultimate authority and political power in the land. The Stormlords are an aristocracy of Rainlords of varying ability who administer the distribution of water and rule by right of water-sensitivity, rather than talent for government. The Cloudmaster, the highest ranking Stormlord, has powers that enable him to draw water vapour from the ocean and send it across the desert, where the clouds it forms break upon distant mountains and rain down into massive cisterns, sending water back to the cities on the coast. When the current Cloudmaster lies dying, without an heir to bring water to the desert land, he sends his Rainlords out in search of any child who shows the potential of a ‘water sensitive’, even if it be a child of the poorest of Quarters. But not every Rainlord wants to bow to another Cloudmaster, and so starts a power-play that will change the face of the Quarters and their Rainlords forever.
Shale, an uneducated Gibber boy who displays a powerful water talent, may be the Quarters’ best hope for survival. But before he can be found, he is stolen away and his whole village slaughtered – man, woman and child. Terelle, a slave girl purchased to be a handmaiden in a brothel, runs away to discover she has talent with water that not even the Rainlords understand. As water becomes increasingly scarce, the coastal cities are threatened by drought. The tribesmen of the Red Quarter see a chance to finally rid the Quarters of Rainlords and bring back the time of Random Rain.
The common link in Larke’s novels is her ability to craft worlds that are vibrant and vivid, immersing us in a world that has depth and substance in a way that few writers can match without bogging down in ‘info dump’. This story is no different and I think is her best work to date. That she can also tell a sweeping saga that runs the gauntlet of human experience, immersing us – quite disturbingly at times – in that white water rapid of joy and despair, unmistakeably marks her as one of Australia’s best speculative fiction writers and one you should not miss.

And this was only the beginning!

The Innocent Mage
Kingmaker, Kingbreaker #1
By Karen Miller

Enter the kingdom of Lur, where magic is wielded by few and others are imprisoned if they dare try. The Doranen have ruled Lur with magic since they arrived centuries ago after fleeing Morg, the mage who started a war in their homeland.

To keep their lands safe the Olken – Lur’s original inhabitants – are forbidden to use magic. Any Olken who breaks the law will be executed. Gar has come to Lur’s capital city to make his fortune. He finds himself working in the royal stables and in time becomes a mediator between the Olken and the Doranen. Soon, he will have enough money to return home and set up his own fishing fleet.

But there is unrest among the Olken. It has been prophesied that the Innocent Mage will be born, and the Circle is dedicated to preserving the magic of the Olken until the saviour arrives. The Circle have been watching Gar, and as the city streets are filled with Olken rioters, his life takes a new turn…


Ms Miller weaves a delightful tale, bringing a distinct style, flare and sense of drama to her first fantasy novel.

In the Kingdom of Lur the Doranen, an elegant, magic-wielding race have brought an age of peace and harmony to the native inhabitants, the Olken. But while they use their gifts and more advanced society to rule for the benefit of both the simpler Olken and themselves, the Doranen hide in their history a dark secret. The kingdom they left behind was devastated by a war of black magic’s and the survivors, who have taken refuge in Lur, seek to forget the legacy of the evil mage Morg that stains them. In an effort to protect themselves and the Olken, the ancient Doranen constructed a wall of glistening magic and light, cutting off all access to the outside world and the horrors they left behind. In return for the protection of their kingdom, the Olken have abandoned their own traditions of magic; but the Olken have secrets of their own.

A secret society known only as ‘the Circle’ holds safe the forgotten Olken magic, and a prophecy awaits the coming of the one called the Innocent Mage; destined to save their world from destruction if he retains his innocence, or to herald its doom if he falls.

From the sweeping vistas of Restharven Harbour, the tale unfolds as a young man, Asher, leaves home in search of his fortune, only to find himself saving a prince and taking a position in the royal stables. This is traditional fantasy at its best as Miller masterfully weaves Asher’s struggle with his own self worth, and his practical nature against the demands of prophecy and magic. While Asher rises to fame and fortune, the Circle watch him from the sidelines.

Abounding with vivid characterisations and contemporary dilemmas, Miller adds a strong human touch that is lacking in many books of more standard fantasy fare, while marrying the tale to a forward-moving plot with a momentum that carries the reader into the small hours of the morning as they find themselves having to read ‘just one more chapter’. (I write from experience!)

Miller’s debut is a blockbuster story crafted with a strong sense of wonder and told with whimsical charm. I have no doubt that all readers will be left wanting more when Book One reaches its astounding conclusion.