King of Thorns is the second in Mark Lawrence‘s Broken Empire Series, following on from Prince of Thorns (which I reviewed here). It tells the continuing story of Jorg, now a king as the title implies, showing two stories running parallel – one set only months after the end of the preceding book, where Jorg sets out once more on a quest for answers and hope, and finds more than he bargained for; the other about four years later, and centres around a battle in which one of Jorg’s rivals for the Empire’s throne seeks to defeat Jorg at his castle, and Jorg and his followers do their darndest to stop them.
Like its predecessor, this is not a book for the faint of heart, or those who believe that protagonists should be towards the white end of the shades of grey spectrum.
Lawrence’s greatest strength in both Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns is definitely character voice. Jorg’s personality shines through just as strongly, if not more strongly, in this book. And in the second book of the trilogy, Jorg is starting to learn; there is some character growth which feels natural, but it is clear that Jorg hasn’t learned every lesson there is to learn. There is a greater depth to Jorg’s morality too, a rounder understanding of what lengths he is truly willing to go to.
A criticism I have heard of both Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns is that besides Jorg, there is little characterisation for the side characters. This is perhaps true in some respects. A lot of what the reader knows about characters like Brother Sim (to take one at random) is told to the reader by Jorg, rather than shown in action. They don’t tend to actually do or say much. However, whether intentional or not, I feel this fits with Jorg’s character. He is the narrator, and he is demonstrably self-centred; he even says, more than once, that to achieve his dreams he will sacrifice them all. He is also the character who drives the action, and the Brothers know not to cross him, so it could be said that lack of characterisation on the part of side characters is in fact a strength in characterisation of the protagonist.
I would add that, for the more important side characters like Makin, characterisation is far stronger than for others. There is a point at which Jorg makes an observation about Makin in his narration, and this fits with what we’ve seen of Makin in both books. Other characters with important roles, however, could do with a little additional fleshing out – notably Miana, who perhaps needs a little more depth considering her significance.
Pacing is certainly a strength of Lawrence’s too. The way the two stories run parallel, with the addition of found pages from another character’s diary, means that information that is part of both storylines is revealed precisely when it is relevant, while keeping the tension and flow right. Jorg’s narration frequently goes off on tangents, but they are kept sufficiently brief and interesting that the pacing does not suffer.
The plot weaves around a bit; sometimes there seems to be a lack of direction. It isn’t always clear, particularly in the part of the story set months after the end of Prince of Thorns, what Jorg is aiming for. The goal is far clearer in the older Jorg’s storyline, and the parallels between the two stories are strong. One comment I made in my review of Prince of Thorns was that the seeds of the conclusion are well sown earlier in the story. Here there are still seeds, but it is not done quite so well.
Lawrence still manages to surprise, however, again without leaving gaps into which Fridge Logic (warning: TV Tropes) can squeeze. He takes the reader on a journey, not just through the events of the story but through Jorg’s psyche, his past, and the world he lives in.
Overall I can little fault with King of Thorns. Characterisation of side characters is, perhaps debatably, a minor weak point, but in general the story holds together strongly and I certainly devoured it quickly enough – and on more than one occasion found myself reading a little late at night and requiring additional coffee at work the next day. I rate it 9/10. I heartily recommend King of Thorns.
P.S. I would like to thank Mr Lawrence for sending me a signed (and doodled) paperback of King of Thorns. I very cheekily asked over twitter and was both surprised and delighted to get a yes; doubly so when the book coincidentally arrived in the post on my birthday last month.