With the emergence of any cultural phenomenon, there is the natural, human inclination to develop it as much as possible. (In the publishing world, ‘develop’ often becomes ‘milk’.) One of the easiest, most natural, and most obvious iterations is to go extreme—to take to the limit whatever key ingredients made the phenomenon a success to begin with. Rock-n-roll began innocently enough, but one branch of that tree has become the cavernous, guttural death metal. Blue jeans were once a workman’s clothing, yet now are a highly commoditized (sometimes shockgun blasted, sometimes acid soaked, sometimes intentionally frayed) article of high fashion. Thus, when readers and writers of epic fantasy with gritty operatic undertones finally got together and agreed ‘grimdark’ had emerged as a thing, it was only natural that some of the next gen of writers tried to evolve it to the max. Mark Lawrence’s 2011 The Prince of Thorns is that cavernous, shotgun-blasted extreme.
That intro perhaps longer than my actual ‘review’, The Prince of Thorns is an ambitious work of epic fantasy only in that it attempts to push upon the reader the most malevolent anti-hero possible, which, given the familiarity of everything else in the novel, comes across as a gimmick. The most violent acts of dishonor and disloyalty committed in the name of daddy issues/victimhood, Lawrence says “Pshaw, so that’s grimdark, eh? I’ll show you G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K.” and throws an uber-Machievellian, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal teen killer male the reader’s way. Everything else about the novel rendered in standard epic fantasy form (Medieval-ish setting, sword fights, random bits of magic, monsters, massive battles, yawn…), the novel makes its mark only in that it is essentially a never ending parade of antipathetic scenes. Little to no character development or emotional depth, bog-standard action scenes, and a whole world of take-that characterize the remainder. Lawrence’s prose is clean, quite readable, and retains tight focus, but it struggles to keep afloat what seems reaction to the larger epic fantasy cultural phenomenon rather than any story with substance or depth.