I'm not fond of angsty teenage punks at the best of times. Give me one who's an unrepentant, murderous sociopath, and you will, to put it mildly, have your work cut out for you in making him sympathetic. It can be done, of course, and in his debut Prince of Thorns, British AI researcher Mark Lawrence puts forth a valiant effort. He is, for one thing, an excellent writer, favoring clean prose unencumbered by showoffy stylistic flourish. But his story offers us darkness without depth. His teen antihero, the displaced prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, is a one-note character, lacking the kind of substantive development that would make his emotional dysfunction the stuff of memorable human tragedy. Knowing that much of what's wrong with him is the result of having his brain magically tinkered with makes the whole affair even less worth any emotional investment.
At the age of ten, Jorg watched his mother and younger brother butchered by henchmen of the nefarious Count Renar, while he lay helpless in a thornbush. He then had to face the humiliation of his father, King Olidan, accepting a settlement rather than avenging the deaths. Now at 14, Jorg, tall and strong for his age at six feet, leads a band of ruthless cutthroats rampaging across the countryside. At one point, he isn't sure why, he abandoned his own vendetta against Renar, settling into a life of brigandry and crime.
But circumstances bring him back to his father's castle, where he learns the king has taken a new wife, and that a gestating stepbrother may well be Olidan's chosen heir. The king has no use for Jorg, and likes him even less. But it soon becomes clear to Jorg that his father's heathen sorcerer Sageus is the one really in control. Olidan sends Jorg on a certain suicide mission to take a heavily fortified border castle. But Jorg is determined to beat his father, and this sorcerer, at their own game, and sit on the throne by his 15th birthday.
I got the impression — verified by checking out Lawrence's website FAQ — that what he was after here was an epic fantasy version of A Clockwork Orange. Occasional hints in the story, such as the way Jorg often addresses his gang as "O my brothers," point to Burgess's influence. But that story's antihero Alex — arguably better known to far more people through Malcolm McDowell's legendary performance in the Kubrick film than through the Burgess book — was a truly tragic figure not because he wasn't really in control of himself. Alex was all about control, and the black heart of A Clockwork Orange's theme was that Alex was nothing more or less than the inevitable end product of a society so comprehensively morally corrupt and bankrupt. That social commentary, with all its cultural context, is what Lawrence doesn't have to work with.
There are moments when you can almost feel for what Jorg has been through. He has observations about the injustices of life that are the result of hardships no one so young should have to have endured. The darkness plaguing his mind is so bleak that it even frightens the undead. But try as I might, I felt myself neither liking nor hating the boy to any meaningful degree. In part, this is due to Lawrence's faithful adherence to revenge-story formula, in which a person suffers an unconscionable wrong, spends the whole story getting his own back, and we are invited to bask in the cathartic glow at the climax. But here, there's really no such glow. With one possible exception, all Lawrence's supporting characters are one-dimensional ciphers. Whenever Jorg encounters an obstacle in his journey, an obstacle — as in, plot device — is all it feels like. For instance, there is a group of necromancers living underground near the castle Jorg is sent to invade, and there's no indication that they are at that spot for any reason other than to present the protagonist with the challenge he must overcome at that point in the plot, in order to progress to the next point in the plot.
In short, the book doesn't hit the emotional marks it needs to, to become a wholly involving work. Jorg goes through the motions of fulfilling his personal journey, which he does efficiently, with little sense of danger for the reader (after all, if the kid is so psychologically borderline that he runs laughing towards any foe who confronts him, why should I fear for him?) and some help from the occasional lucky coincidence. As for Lawrence's world-building, he offers the intriguing notion that this may not be a completely imaginary fantasy realm, but in fact our own world in some distant post-technological future. But again, this feels like a gimmick inserted simply so that readers will avoid dismissing his world as no different from those in every other medieval fantasy.
Lawrence's publishers (Ace in the US, Harper Voyager in the UK) are betting quite a lot on him, releasing this debut in hardcover. (Ace fan favorites Patricia Briggs and Jack Campbell had to hit the bestseller lists before they got that kind of consideration.) But while I can see potential in him, the best I can say about Prince of Thorns is that, while it doesn't exactly lack for sharpness, I really wanted it to pierce me much, much deeper.