“Emperor of Thorns” Book Review

When Evil Grows, the Pious Pray, and the Wise Run

    If you’re looking for an epic journey of an unscrupulous man in a world of magic and battle, you have just stumbled upon an analysis and great praise for just such a thing. Emperor of Thorns, the last fantasy novel in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy, is a fantastic and incredibly appropriate end to the story of Jorg Ancrath. The story takes place in a medieval setting, amongst an Empire that has been broken for hundreds of years. Jorg is, after taking castles and nations in the other books, finally reaching for the throne of emperor. He goes to Congression with seven votes, the rest of the Hundred unconvinced of his right to the throne, and a tight schedule to become emperor before the Dead King shows up to kill them all. Emperor of Thorns is intricate and provoking to the point that this article was almost a novel itself. Lawrence pushes realities through these shining works of strong diction and dry humor. Those realities include: death, the overpowering “evil” in people, and the ugliness of battle. This last book, however much it follows these overarching themes, shows us a change in the ruthless, ambitious, cleverly resourceful protagonist. This is Jorg’s final evolution of growing up.

    Among many things that have happened in the previous books — gaining power and getting married — one of our first hints that Jorg has gotten older and matured in Emperor of Thorns is the introduction to his child’s impending birth, and his concerns about being too much like his father. This is an overall factor in the plot, of course, but in subtle ways tells us that he’s going through a certain process, or will be, of becoming a father. Jorg even expresses that he doesn’t know how to be a father, and doesn’t want to make the same mistakes his own father did, after discussing with his wife the matter of his father’s near presence. “I wanted to understand how it all worked, this business of living and of raising children. I wanted to do the job better than he had.” “He,” of course, is Jorg’s father in this passage. After the child is born, the reader even gets a glimpse of Jorg being gentle (and dare I say it — affectionate) with the newborn, allowing the babe to give his knuckle “a vicious gumming.”

    In many passages, he shows how he’s matured even in the way he views people and previous prejudices, and not just with his phases of life. Near the beginning of the middle, we find him faced with a bishop who he’s always had some disdain for, and Jorg says, “Gomst stepped closer, from shadow into lamplight, and it seemed that I saw him for the first time, set against the memory of another bishop, one more certain of his path and his entitlements. I wondered how long Murillo’s shadow had hidden Gomst from my sight. He was at worst guilty of loyalty to bad kings, of a mind narrowed by a life at court, and of pompisity.” In this passage, he comes to accept that Gomst is not someone who has wronged him, and allows his prejudice to pass. Moreover, we have a taste of Lawrence’s diction and cleverness as he compares Gomst stepping into the light to finally seeing Gomst as he is, and not as someone else. Similarly, he shows maturity when he disappoints his wife, and feels “less than a king,” whereas, in his youth, he wouldn’t have cared at all.

Thus far, we’ve seen how growing up has done positive things for Jorg and those around him, but many things weigh on him because of his growth. For example, in the beginning, he notes, “The time when I could just slip away had… just slipped away.” The tone in just this sentence is a subtle way to show us the time that had passed between books. It also has a weight to it, that hints his desire to be able to slip away from his duties and be back on the road again. He adds to that weight throughout the book, when he repeats at least three times that he is “past playing games.”

    He also discusses past sins and the scars he bears quite a bit, even going so far as to regret past actions. One night, Jorg, his wife, and his aunt by marriage discuss a death that rests almost entirely on Jorg’s shoulders. Jorg tells his aunt, who places the blame solely on him, “If there were any justice, lady, God himself would reach down and strike me dead, for I am guilty as you say.” He tells her that he deserves her scorn, and even a smiting from God.

    He shows also that he’s tired, and wants to leave things alone, whereas he used to pursue challenges even when advised not to. “I’ve been known for bold moves at times, for daring the challenge even when I’ve known I shouldn’t. Under that grey sky though, with a cold wind blowing wet from the north, I felt no inclination to catch up to the carriage labouring ahead of us and demand an accounting for the past. My chest ached along the thin seam of that old scar and for once I found myself wanting to let something lie.” This passage refers to his father, whose carriage is ahead of his own, but otherwise, it speaks for itself.

    Jorg isn’t the only one, however, who feels the effects of getting older. He says of Gomst near the beginning, “Gomst never wore his years well and now they hung from him like invisible chains.” A quick, simple simile within Lawrence’s ingenious style. He speaks similarly of his guardian-turned-servant, Makin. “Makin looked older now, a little iron in the black, worry lines across his brow… Since we came to wealth and fortune and castles he had taken to worry.” This might be his young twenty-one-ish mindset of how to view older men, but I’m partial to thinking that this is his way of worrying about Makin.

He demonstrates that concern in a rather humorous comment, but his wit doesn’t stop there. “He had seemed happier when murdering and robbing than he did thinking back on it in his vaulted halls. Perhaps he just needed something to worry about again, so he could stop worrying.” Well, a little contradiction is nothing new to Jorg. He also shows humor when speaking of another subordinate (Riccard) just a few pages later. It rains, so Riccard yells for a tent for Jorg, and Jorg tells him it isn’t necessary. Jorg then notes, “A good swordsman, Riccard, and brave, but rather too taken with his rank and with shouting.” And, this one needing no context, is another witty comment that has to be shared. “People who talk about the weather would be better served by admitting they’ve nothing to say but like the sound of their own voice.” Classic Jorg.

    In any case, Lawrence also accents Jorg’s growth with his tone, in which he draws the reader to the end. He does a good job of it, helping the reader feel the end approaching along the entire ride. In Jorg’s comments about no longer “playing games,” there is a simple finality to it — the games are done. Over. Many of the characters also talk about death, which is another overarching theme, but in this last book emphasizes the fact that this is the end. Gomst comes to Jorg to tell him about an army of the dead approaching, and even his aunt later talks about the dead coming for Jorg and his father, and the inevitability of meeting a character known as the “Dead King.” After all, what is more signifying of an end than death? Lawrence even draws us to an end in more subtle ways, even by simply saying, “the last echoes of the empire,” or in a conversation between Jorg and his wife when his wife says, “The story that will be told is not yet written.” Admittedly, the latter passage implies that there is more to the story, and yet there is a finality to the statement.

    Another more obvious pull into the end is nearer the middle, when he begins to talk about an old prophecy told in a previous book. “I may not have taken his advice –” that would be Coddin’s advice, an advisor left at his castle “– but fate seemed to disagree with my decision, pushing the Ancraths one step further along the path of the old prophecy.” Through Lawrence’s diction, the reader feels that same push Jorg does, and can feel themselves being sucked into a vacuum of an inevitable end.

    Similarly, I am drawing to a close. I want to say, before my own goodbyes, that I am not without criticism. Lawrence switches from his usual first person point of view to a third person view, following the storyline of a different character (although, of course, imperative to the plot) as if he had had information and foreshadowing to add, and decided hastily that Chella’s story be inserted, even though there is no way Jorg would have known about such things to write it down. The foreshadowing was beautifully done, aside from that. For example, Jorg knocks down both king pieces on a chessboard to signify that games are over, and to foreshadow the end of the book. Every detail ties in with the storyline, and each detail is beautifully written. Jorg’s character, which I fell in love with instantly, has grown into something even more loveable. This ending, and Lawrence’s draw to a close, was the perfect way to end a spectacular and intricate story.

    The story of this unscrupulous character draws to a close in this magical, violence-ridden world. Jorg grows and develops enough to regret some of his decisions, and feel remorse. He reaches a new phase in his life — fatherhood — and we watch this amazing transition through Mark Lawrence’s fantastic diction and wit. Moreover, he completes his trilogy with originality and a sense of an impending finale. Everyone should read this wonderful piece of work — even if they didn’t like the first two books!

By: Emily Mullaney