This is the beginning of a highly regarded fantasy series that opens when Jorg – prince and heir apparent of Ancrath – is quite young. The narration by Jorg alternates between when he is only nine and when he is all of fourteen.
At age nine, Jorg witnesses the murder of his mother, who is the Queen, and his younger brother. He vows to get revenge against Count Renar, whose men were behind the assassinations. Five years later, at age fourteen, Jorg has wreaked a lot of havoc as he and his “band of brothers” murdered, raped, and burned their way through the Empire, but he still hasn’t managed to get close to Renar.
By the end of the book though, he at least knows what has been holding him back, and is ready to commence the next stage of his journey.
WARNING! Spoilery Discussion Follows! Skip to Evaluation to avoid all spoilers.
I had several problems with this book. My biggest complaint is that what Jorg does and accomplishes not only at age 14 but at age 9, really, really stretches the limits of believability for me. I’m not just talking about Jorg’s personal behavior, but about his influence over others, all of whom are grown men and are criminals, fighters, and knights. Yet at both ages, Jorg is regarded as their leader, and this is even before they know that he is prince and heir to Ancrath.
In addition, yes, this is a fantasy, but there are a bit too many magic elements for my taste. Not only are there ghosts, necromancers, dream-witches, and other monstrous creatures, but there is the matter of the mages. It turns out that Jorg behaves as egregiously as he does because he is being manipulated by an evil mage. His nemesis is being manipulated by a rival mage. “We’re all pieces on someone’s board…” (i.e., “game of ‘thorns’”). This is all very much in the tradition of classic stories of the chaos and bloodshed resulting from interference of the Greek gods, but I don’t much like it in that context either. I prefer characters to have self-determination.
This book is gory and full of grotesque images, which would be bad enough, but it is also full of amazingly bad attitudes toward women. There is nary a good thing said about any of them except for Jorg’s mother, the Madonna in this world full of whores. Even when Jorg finds a young woman his own age attractive, he considers her a threat to his independence and strength. Thus he prefers “painted whores” to satisfy his physical needs. In any event, none of these women receive more than cardboard treatment.
On the other hand, a rather cleverly-constructed surprise is the discovery that this medieval world is actually the result of the previous nuclear destruction of civilization – the Day of a Thousand Suns – some 1100 years in the past. Thus this is a post-apocalyptic story set in the future, rather than a story that looks back to ancient times. At least some of the monsters then become explainable as genetic mutations. Similarly, this twist explains the various “Builder” artifacts Jorg occasionally encounters, as well as the references to Western literature.
END OF SPOILERS
Evaluation: This is a brutal, bloody story replete with many disturbing images. The main character is as shockingly charismatic as he is cold-hearted, but the author does supply a reason for his pathology. It is possible his nature will “improve” in later volumes.
Note: This book and the two that follow it (King of Thorns and Empire of Thorns) have garnered a great deal of acclaim, received nominations and awards in the field of fantasy writing, and have resulted in a devoted fan base. It happens not to be my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean a lot of other people aren’t enamored of this series.
Published by Ace Books, 2011