The Broken Empire is the trilogy that started it all for Mark Lawrence, who has published sixteen novels since Prince of Thorns debuted in 2011. To this day, the Broken Empire series remains one of the finest achievements in grimdark fantasy. The Broken Empire also features several outstanding short stories beyond the main trilogy. Here, it is my pleasure to review the series in its entirety, with the goal of giving you a complete travel guide to the Broken Empire.
Review: Prince of Thorns
Prince of Thorns is simultaneously a grimdark fantasy, a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller, and an epic revenge narrative told from the point of view of a first-rate sociopath. The sociopath in question is Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a brutally violent prince-child whose actions are not guided by any accepted sense of morality. As we learn more about the tragedies of Jorg’s childhood, we recognize how he became so twisted and understand his motivation for revenge.
Jorg Ancrath has become one of the most iconic characters in grimdark fantasy. Mark Lawrence paints a very compelling portrait of a physically and emotionally scarred protagonist who is full of pride and consumed by rage. Telling the story from the first-person perspective of Jorg is the perfect way to get into his mind and understand the origin of his cruelty. Somehow, we also develop sympathy for Jorg throughout the course of the narrative. This is a testament to Mark Lawrence’s excellent characterization of Jorg in all of his complexity.
Some readers have been turned off by Jorg’s seemingly irredeemable penchant for violence. But this is nothing new in literature. One of the greatest novels of all time, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866), is also a first-person narrative told by a psychotic murderer who seeks to rationalize his acts of homicide. A more modern example is A Clockwork Orange, the 1962 classic by Anthony Burgess. Alex, the main character from A Clockwork Orange, served as inspiration for Mark Lawrence when he crafted Jorg, although Alex is even more viciously evil than Jorg, committing horrendous acts of violence for his own perverse amusement.
Jorg’s childhood is full of failed father figures. With young Jorg’s thirst for knowledge, Tutor Lundist could have filled the void left by Jorg’s own cruel father, King Olidan, but Lundist failed Jorg when he needed him most. As someone in a position of moral authority, Father Gomst also could have fostered a healthy father-son relationship with Jorg. However, his own moral backbone is not strong enough to compete with Jorg’s uncompromising personality. Father Gomst is a rather tragic figure: he is not a bad person, but he lacks the strength of character to live up to his own ideals and help Jorg grow to be a better person. One of the most amusing scenes from Prince of Thorns is when Father Gomst hears Jorg’s detailed confession, aghast with horror.
Jorg’s healthiest relationship is with the Nuban, whom he sets free from his father’s prison. Jorg recognizes the Nuban’s strong moral character, embodying the ideals of brotherhood that Jorg has tried to create with his band of Road Brothers. After being rejected by his father, only the Nuban is able to provide some sense of a moral compass for Jorg. Jorg seems to take these lessons to heart in the friendship that he later develops with Gorgoth, another outcast from society, and the way he readily adopts the young brothers Gog and Magog as his own.
A large part of what makes Jorg so compelling as a main character is the voice that Mark Lawrence has created for him. He is disturbed and illogical, but also darkly comic and even naïve in some respects. Jorg’s dark humor keeps the prose vibrant and the reader engaged throughout the novel, as we experience a combination of repugnance and wicked delight. All of this is balanced by Jorg’s deep-seated sadness, which reveals itself gradually throughout The Broken Empire trilogy.
The worldbuilding in Prince of Thorns is limited by Jorg’s own tunnel vision. Nevertheless, Mark Lawrence does a compelling job building layers of political intrigue in the neo-feudal land of the Broken Empire. Readers will be treated to more complete worldbuilding in the next two volumes of the trilogy, as well as in the companion Red Queen’s War trilogy.
Prince of Thorns is not a magic-heavy book, but it does include scenes of necromancy and dream- and fire-magic. The magic system is not explained in Prince of Thorns. Mark Lawrence leaves it to the reader to piece together the magic system across his five trilogies, which ends up being more science fiction than fantasy.
One of my favorite aspects of Prince of Thorns is the way Mark Lawrence blends grimdark fantasy with elements of post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi. The hints are there throughout the book. As a reader, the most surprising and rewarding aspect of this novel is when we discover the true nature of the world in which Jorg is living.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Prince of Thorns several times. This is the special type of novel that gets better each time through, revealing its hidden layers and connections to the greater universe of Mark Lawrence’s writing. Jorg’s viciously dark humor also becomes more hilarious upon each reread. Most recently, I enjoyed reading the new Prince of Thorns Limited Edition, published by Grim Oak Press in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of this grimdark classic. The Limited Edition is a gorgeous bonded leather-bound volume with a sewn-in black satin bookmark, also featuring new full-color artwork by Jason Chan.
Prince of Thorns is one of the best and most influential books in grimdark fantasy, authored by one of the founding fathers of the genre. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns yet, what are you waiting for? Come, brethren, and hear this Grimdark Gospel according to St. Mark.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.
Review: King of Thorns
King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is one of the greatest masterpieces of grimdark fantasy, a towering literary achievement that takes us into the darkened mind and heart of Jorg Ancrath as he comes to terms with several of the most tragic events of his young life. In this second volume of the Broken Empire trilogy, Jorg has matured compared to the impulsive, rage-driven youth of Prince of Thorns. In King of Thorns, Jorg’s unbridled anger is balanced by an unshakeable sorrow, a deep sadness which only grows throughout the novel.
With Jorg’s newfound role as the self-declared King of Renar, we see much more of the Broken Empire compared to Prince of Thorns. The world of the Broken Empire is a post-apocalyptic Europe devastated by nuclear war and living in the aftermath of global warming. From the map at the beginning of King of Thorns, all the European lowlands have been flooded, distorting the geography compared to our present world. For example, the rising sea level has caused the northwestern French province of Brittany to separate from the European continent, becoming the island of Brit, and Italy has narrowed so much that Roma is now on the coast. The map also reveals a drastically different political order in the Broken Empire. Our modern country boundaries are gone, as Europe has returned to the days of feudalism with each region under control of a local king or prince.
Jorg’s main competitor in King of Thorns is Prince Orrin of Arrow, a traditional Prince Charming-type good guy. Orrin is blond, handsome, and courting Jorg’s beloved aunt Katherine. The Prince of Arrow is prophesied to unite the kingdoms of the Broken Empire and bring an era of peace and prosperity through mutual understanding and dialogue. Orrin is everything that Jorg is not. He has the love of his people and an army that vastly outnumbers Jorg’s.
King of Thorns is a brilliantly constructed novel told on four different timelines/perspectives. The two main timelines follow (1) Jorg in the present day during his battle with the Prince of Arrow and (2) four years prior, immediately following the events of Prince of Thorns. There are also (3) flashbacks of Jorg’s suppressed memories and (4) the perspective of Katherine from her journal. All four of these timelines/perspectives are cleverly interwoven by Mark Lawrence in the telling of the story.
The epic battle with the Prince of Arrow also coincides with Jorg’s wedding day to the precocious Queen Miana. Miana is one of my favorite characters in the novel, an intellectual equal to Jorg who has a couple of surprises up her sleeves.
The timeline immediately following Prince of Thorns largely focuses on Jorg’s quest to help Gog, the leucrota child adopted by Jorg who possesses powerful but uncontrolled abilities in fire-magic. Although Jorg is advised that Gog is too dangerous to keep alive, he is committed to helping Gog master his incredible powers. Gog is another one of my favorite characters in the book. Although he appears monstrous on the outside, Gog is just a little boy and brings out the humanity in Jorg.
Jorg is literally haunted by his dark past, including a dead child that is always there, watching him. To gain some respite from his unmitigated sorrow, Jorg’s memories are stored in a memory box, one of the sci-fi elements of the book, which also connects to Mark Lawrence’s excellent Impossible Times trilogy. Flashbacks occur throughout King of Thorns as Jorg cannot resist the urge to open the memory box and understand his past. The flashbacks are supplemented by what we learn from Katherine’s journal. There are a number of surprising revelations throughout King of Thorns that will leave the reader’s heart as broken as this post-apocalyptic world.
Fortunately, Jorg’s dark humor is also in peak form throughout the novel. There are plenty of clever Easter eggs and witticisms throughout the book, including references to Star Trek, American Pie, and various aspects of our modern technology. The technological understanding of our age is long gone. The people of the Broken Empire refer to us as Builders based on our impressive but now-decayed architecture left behind. I’m convinced that the Tall Castle of Ancrath is simply the remains of an old Parisian skyscraper.
King of Thorns also marks the first appearance of Dr. Elias Taproot, who provides a unifying thread throughout Mark Lawrence’s five trilogies, giving the sci-fi backbone to books that may seem at first like pure fantasy. Here we also meet Fexler Brews, a data echo who provides another key element of worldbuilding in the Broken Empire.
As always, Mark Lawrence is precise and methodical with his writing, giving his readers clues to build the greater picture of his universe. We are hearing the story from a possibly unreliable narrator who has limited knowledge about the world in which he is living and a lot of suppressed memories. Although the story is infused with magic, much of this is simply remnants of our modern science that people in the post-apocalyptic future no longer understand.
Jorg is still an evil anti-hero driven by revenge, but he grows so much in this book. He deals with the ghosts of his past, both literal and figurative, and he grows to care more deeply about other people, especially his Road Brothers, his aunt Katherine, and his wife Miana. Jorg is still a brutally violent psychopath. But he’s a brutally violent psychopath who cares.
Mark Lawrence is the Fyodor Dostoevsky of grimdark fantasy, eloquently combining an in-depth character study of a psychologically disturbed protagonist (Crime and Punishment) with layers of political intrigue (Demons) and complicated family dynamics (The Brothers Karamazov). Like Dostoevsky, Mark Lawrence’s writing is beautiful and poetic, especially as Jorg has grown as a narrator since Prince of Thorns. There are so many quotable lines in King of Thorns, some heart-wrenching and others laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a reader, I wanted to savor every word.
Mark Lawrence is known for the iconic opening lines of his novels, lines that will stick with you long after you’ve finished the book. But the most iconic lines in King of Thorns are at the very end, words that will haunt you for years to come. King of Thorns is one of Mark Lawrence’s finest achievements in a career marked by consistent excellence. If you haven’t already explored the world of the Broken Empire, Jorg is waiting for you.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.
Review: Emperor of Thorns
The Broken Empire trilogy comes to a Shakespearean end in Emperor of Thorns, which finds Mark Lawrence soaring to new literary heights as Jorg Ancrath deepens his understanding of this post-apocalyptic world and seeks to use that knowledge to ascend to the emperor’s throne.
Before becoming one of the pioneers of grimdark fantasy, Mark Lawrence earned a PhD in mathematics from Imperial College London and had a highly accomplished career in artificial intelligence (AI). Lawrence’s deep knowledge of AI permeates Emperor of Thorns, even while most inhabitants of the Broken Empire can’t see past their own immediate reality.
The Broken Empire trilogy is set in Europe about a thousand years after a technology-driven apocalypse. Evidence throughout the trilogy suggests that the apocalypse was induced by a combination of nuclear war and global warming. The humans from our time are referred to as Builders. The people of the Broken Empire are unable to understand or recreate the technology or architecture built during this bygone era. Only echoes of this previous civilization remain. Remnants of the Builders’ technology are scarce, and their powers are attributed to magic.
One of these technologies is the data echo, which is basically an AI clone of a human. Although humans die, a data echo can live forever, artificially replicating the memories and thought patterns of the original human being. Physically, data echoes appear as holograms or “ghosts” to those who don’t understand what they are seeing.
The story of Emperor of Thorns is again told on multiple timelines from the point of view of Jorg Ancrath, but now with an additional perspective from the necromancer Chella. Jorg has already established himself as king of nine principalities in this feudal post-apocalyptic Europe, and the present-day timeline revolves around Jorg’s quest to become emperor of a united Broken Empire.
There is no better way to unite a fractured empire than to face a grave, imminent threat from a common enemy. Enter the Dead King and his army of undead soldiers, who make Jorg seem like the lesser of two great evils.
In Emperor of Thorns, we learn of another horrific event from Jorg’s childhood that scarred him emotionally and contributed to his anger, demonstrating how violence and abuse inflicted on one person can propagate forward to others. Emperor of Thorns also features a brutally detailed torture scene that would make even Joe Abercrombie squirm. No wonder Jorg is so messed up.
Jorg has grown impressively over the course of the Broken Empire trilogy. In Prince of Thorns, young Jorg was consumed by anger and had a single-minded focus on revenge. In King of Thorns, this anger was tempered and balanced by a profound sense of sadness and regret. Now in Emperor of Thorns, Jorg has come to an acceptance of the role he must play in this epic saga.
Emperor of Thorns also finds Jorg becoming a father to young William, named after his deceased younger brother, whom he was unable to save from a gruesome death in the first volume of the trilogy. As a father, Jorg feels a deep sense of love and makes decisions based on something beyond his own self-interests and desire for revenge and power.
Mark Lawrence’s writing is precisely crafted, as always. The Broken Empire trilogy can be read at the surface level for its story alone. It’s a story full of dark wit, violent action, and unpredictable plot twists. But for me, the greatest enjoyment came from considering the important philosophical and scientific questions hidden just beneath the surface, which are only partially conveyed by Jorg as narrator.
Emperor of Thorns has a myriad of connections to all of Mark Lawrence’s other series. The most obvious of these is the common thread provided by Dr. Elias Taproot, who appears in every one of Lawrence’s trilogies. Taproot reminds me a bit of Hoid from the Cosmere universe of Brandon Sanderson. Fexler Brews, the data echo of a long-dead Builder, also provides key information about the nature of the Broken Empire and its magic system, which is not magic at all, but rather based on AI and quantum physics and shared across all of Mark Lawrence’s literary universe. There are plenty of more subtle connections as well, which will delight the careful reader.
There are so many layers to the Broken Empire trilogy. It is a psychological study of a deeply disturbed individual coupled with a thought-provoking treatment of the interrelationships among technology, the environment, global politics, religion, and the nature of human memory. The Broken Empire trilogy is also a story of redemption, how even the darkest soul can learn to love and put other people’s wellbeing ahead of his own.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.
Review: Road Brothers
Mark Lawrence welcomes you back to the Broken Empire with Road Brothers, a collection of fourteen short stories featuring characters from the Broken Empire and Red Queen’s War trilogies. Each story is followed by a brief footnote from Mark Lawrence that provides some additional perspective on the characters.
The short stories take place either before or in between events from the two trilogies. Most of the stories focus on side characters from the main books, especially Jorg’s band of Road Brothers. I really enjoyed getting to know them at a deeper level. Since the Broken Empire trilogy is told from Jorg’s perspective, we only learn about these characters from his point of view in the main books. With the collection of short stories in Road Brothers, we get many of their back stories, as well as their experiences dealing with Jorg and his…shall we say strong?…personality.
Still, my personal favorites were the stories told by Jorg “I’ve killed more men than cholera” Ancrath. There is a reason why he is such a compelling narrator in the main books of the Broken Empire, and that carries over to the short stories as well. My #1 favorite story from this collection is “Know Thyself,” Jorg Ancrath as a six-year-old boy with a propensity for violence. The highlights of the story are his interactions with Father Gomst, who is one of several failed father figures in Jorg’s life. The description of Jorg’s four-year-old brother, William, was even more chilling, especially when he declared what he wants to become when he grows up.
“Sleeping Beauty” is another standout story from the Road Brothers anthology. This story puts Jorg into a fairy tale setting, as a kiss awakens him from an extended fever dream which blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. This story pays homage to multiple fairy tales, including Goldilocks and Rapunzel, but it most notably parallels the story of Sleeping Beauty. The kiss that awakens Jorg, at least in his own mind, is from Katharine ap Scorron, the focus of his romantic obsessions. It is uncertain if Katherine is actually there, or if she is just a figment of Jorg’s imagination. Or perhaps Katherine is purposely manipulating Jorg’s dreams with her newly acquired dream-weaving powers.
The dream itself finds Jorg in a military medical bunker from the ancient Builder civilization, with a data echo threatening to enter Jorg’s body to give itself a physical form. Jorg is strapped down and subjected to various forms of medical experimentation, including the use of an artificial skin gel that can heal burns.
The story flows in and out of this dream-world, blending Jorg’s reality with his hopes and fears. It is unclear how much of the dream sequence is Jorg’s own fever-induced delirium versus a manipulated dreamscape planted in his mind. Mark Lawrence has a particular knack for writing fever dream sequences in several of his books, and this short story is another great example. The science fiction elements are especially well done as Jorg interacts with the data echo of the ancient Builder.
While the short stories focus primarily on the Broken Empire, there are also a couple of great stories featuring characters from the Red Queen’s War. In one of them, we learn about Snorri’s father. Another is told from the perspective of Jalan, who is always a hoot.
All of the stories is Road Brothers are very well written because, after all, this is a Mark Lawrence book, and he always pays close attention to style. I thoroughly enjoyed this chance to revisit favorite characters from both the Broken Empire and Red Queen’s War trilogies and to read the author’s notes after each story.
Now it’s time for some deep cuts.
Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire story, “Bad Seed,” was the first short story acquired by Adrian Collins when he started Grimdark Magazine back in 2014. In fact, the first issue of Grimdark Magazine proudly features a hatchet-wielding Red Kent on its cover.
“Bad Seed” gives the origin story of Red Kent, one of the bloodiest of Jorg’s Road Brothers. Beyond its historical significance, “Bad Seed” is also a bloody great story. And I do mean bloody. “Bad Seed” is the epitome of grimdark and a must-read for fans of the Broken Empire.
As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed watching Mark Lawrence’s video series on YouTube, “Perfecting the First Page,” it is a joy to see the master at work with his latest Broken Empire short story, “Solomon,” which is only the fourth short story that Mark Lawrence has published from the point of view of Jorg Ancrath.
“Solomon” takes place between the events of Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. Jorg’s dark humor is in peak form as he is presented with a baby purported to be his own illegitimate child. As usual for Mark Lawrence, “Solomon” is a perfectly crafted story, poetic in its style with a balance between levity and darkness.
It is always a thrill to return to the Broken Empire, and I hope Mark Lawrence will follow up with more Jorg stories in the future. “Solomon” is part of the recently published Unbound II anthology by Shawn Speakman. Read my complete review of Unbound II here.