Friday 10 April 2020

The Broken Empire trilogy, by Mark Lawrence

Last year I reviewed the first two volumes of Impossible Times, a contemporary urban fantasy series by Mark Lawrence: One Word Kill (24 August) and Limited Wish (7 December). These impressed me considerably, so I decided to explore some of his other work, starting with Prince of Thorns, the first of The Broken Empire trilogy published 2012-2014.  This is a more conventional fantasy set in the usual medieval-like world plus some magic (it gradually becomes clear that the world is our own in a far, post-apocalyptic, future). The plot features Prince Jorg Ancrath, the heir to the throne of one of the states which make up this land. At the start of the story he is just 13 years old but leading a group of bandits on a trail of death and destruction, part of his long-term plan to take revenge on the ruler of a neighbouring state who was responsible for the deaths of his mother and younger brother. Jorg is a phenomenal fighter and leader of men, and over the next two years achieves his ambition in dramatic style.  The story is well-written enough for me to finish it, but it did not fully engage me as much as Lawrence's other work as it is relentlessly dark and brutal, and despite being narrated in the first person by Jorg, he is too murderous a character for me to empathise with.

On to the sequel,  King of Thorns. I was impressed by the high quality of writing in the first volume but I found it difficult to relate to the ruthless brutality of the hero. Fewer reservations with the sequel, as Jorg has grown up and matured into a more reasonable person (relatively!). The action begins four years after the first volume, although a lot of the chapters jump back four years to the immediate aftermath of Jorg's elevation to kingship after a ferocious campaign. Fortunately the throwback chapters are signalled in the heading. However, understanding the sequence of events is made harder by the inclusion of many pages from the diary of one of the other characters (which is one way of working in a different viewpoint) plus some magical dreams which seem to concern events which might happen. At any rate, by the end of this volume Jorg has overcome colossal odds to further advance his ambition, by a mixture of forward planning, the recruitment of key allies, and his usual ruthless ferocity; a single-minded determination which compels a certain reluctant admiration.

The finale of The Broken Empire trilogy is (inevitably) Emperor of Thorns, which continues the author's practice of switching between different timelines; one thread picks up soon after the conclusion of the previous volume, the other looks back five years to the key events which have shaped Jorg's life. This volume also features a third thread running in parallel with the main one: Chella's story, giving the viewpoint of one of Jorg's enemies, a necromancer.  Jorg's violent adventures continue as he aims to achieve the height of his ambition and reunite the broken empire – under his leadership, of course.

All credit to the author for getting his hero into impossible situations from which his bloody-minded ingenuity extracts him – most of the time. At the cost of a minor spoiler, an illustration of how Jorg manages this is given in an altercation he has with a massively muscled blacksmith. He challenges the man to a competition, and gives him a free choice of contest. The blacksmith chooses lifting his massive anvil over his head, something which Jorg could never manage, and instantly agrees that there would be no rules. Jorg waits until the man has the anvil over his head, then picks up a hammer and brains him – no rules, right?

These books are packed full of appealing writing. To pick just one example:

The road led like a causeway through a sea of flooded pasture, the waters broken only by half-drowned hedgerows. Hours later, the rain failed and the sky cracked open along a bright fault line. The still waters all around became mirrors, every lone tree reflected, bare fingers reaching below as well as above. So much of the world is about surfaces, the eye deceived, with the truth in the unknown and unknowable depths beneath.

Lawrence's writing strongly reminds me of Michael J Sullivan's Riyria Chronicles. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy two such excellent fantasy writers at this time, both developing their imagined worlds over many volumes. The main point of difference between the authors (at least, as far as I can see) is that Sullivan writes in the third person - no choice, really, given that he has two heroes - so there is an impersonal narrator filling in the gaps between the speech. Lawrence writes in the first person, his hero (or occasionally other characters) providing the narration, which I think encourages greater involvement with the character. 

One word of warning: the trilogy runs to nearly 1,600 pages, requiring the commitment of a substantial chunk of time to read (I hate to think how long an audio version might take).