Mark Lawrence writes grimdark epic fantasy the way Wes Anderson writes dialogue: with a wink and a nod. The wink is intense and the nod grave, bespeaking a hideous sense of irony underlying the story. It keeps you turning pages. This isn’t to say that he can’t be deadly serious–the three novels of The Broken Empire trilogy are some of the darkest, goriest fantasy I’ve read–or that he takes his subject matter lightly–his work questions the very nature of humanity and its tendency toward violence, drags its characters through the latrine pits of the human condition, and brings them out with all the baggage you’d expect. The horror might be knowing and darkly funny, but it’s never absurd. Absurdity connotes uselessness, and everything that happens in these books is useful to someone, if only someone’s inner demon. But for every horrific act his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, commits, there’s an unspoken meta-textual question. Dare I? the author asks. (He dares.) Do you want me to, dear reader? (NO! Don’t! Yes yes yes yes yes do it, please do it.)
The first two books of the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns, end with explicit challenges from the narrator, who tells the story in the first person: you want reasons, come take them. You don’t like what I’m doing, come stop me. It’s a powerful bit of dialogue, almost Socratic in its directness. Jorg Ancrath is the ultimate antihero–the villain, set not only on revenge but on acquiring power for its own sake, whom you root for even when he’s committing atrocities. For every person that stopped reading one of Lawrence’s books because they were too graphic or shocking, there were three others who found themselves inevitably drawn in by the sheer, bold humanity of Jorg’s voice. Evil is much more challenging to us when it’s self-aware: Jorg knows he’s a sinner, knows he’ll always take blood and chaos over peace and order whenever the choice is presented to him, sometimes because it’s necessary and sometimes simply because it’s his nature.
One thing that makes it all so much fun is the fact that Lawrence’s prose proves more than equal to the task at hand: these are some of the most quotable books I’ve read in recent memory. How can you not love a man who can write “The biggest lies we save for ourselves,” or:
“I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.”
The fact that the Hundred Kingdoms are presented as a far-future, post-apocalyptic version of future Europe, set a thousand years after a massive nuclear war, only serves to underline the point Lawrence seems to be making. Men are violent, apt to destroy themselves. Destruction comes in cycles. Sometimes it takes a violent man to end a destructive cycle.
To focus too much on the violence of the story would be to miss the point, however: the final choice Jorg makes in Emperor of Thorns, however violent in its own way, is fundamentally different from all of the others. It’s just as self-aware, but entirely unselfish. And it’s what ultimately makes him a hero, despite his tarnished soul.
I loved these books, loved the twisted future they portray, loved the extremity of the characters and the surprising magics they wield, loved the ghosts that haunt them and unchanging humanity at the heart of it all. Read them. I dare you.