Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Emperor of Thorns & Breaking Down Fantasy into Six Tiers

Being the third in the Broken Empire Trilogy (shouldn't that be Borken Empire), by Mark Lawrence, EMPEROR OF THORNS continues the story from 'Prince of Thorns' and 'King of Thorns', following Jorg Ancrath toward an ending that was...well. I really want to tell you what I think of how Mark wrapped up this fascinating and probably divisive (in terms of love/hate from readers I mean), but I feel like this is the kind of wrap-up that you want to experience yourself, completely spoiler-free. Not saying there's a massive migraine-inducing plot twist or anything - all I'm going to say is that I liked it and I didn't like it. That helped, I guess. But I liked it more than I didn't like it. And it's an ending that I am still thinking about a day later.

So, the trilogy is done and I know Lawrence has already begun a new tale, starting with Prince of Fools, and I have to admit I am anxious to get back to the setting, which is Lawrence's second best achievement with his story. I really don't want to comment too much on the setting either, as it is another part of the story that I suppose is very satisfying to figure out on your own, but it works wonderfully well and with a little more detail and expansion (possibly in Prince of Fools, which features the same setting) it could very well be the next big role-playing game setting license. Lots of fun ways to be creative with this setting as a game master, I suppose.

The best thing about this series is, as I have mentioned before, of course, the main character Jorg. Throughout the story you will feel all kinds of things about this guy, from loathing to curiosity to fascination and everything inbetween. If you find the Prince of Thorns a despicable fellow while reading the first novel, don't give up - this is a character that needed three volumes of text to be seen from a variety of angles and perspectives. I've seen (on Amazon) people quitting the series because Jorg is such a prick (closest comparison in some ways is Joffrey, but where Joffrey is fairly one-dimensional, Jorg is anything but). 

I think A Game of Thrones: Light is a fair way of describing the Broken Empire trilogy. It is not light in its exploration of themes or anything; it is light in the sense that the focus is mainly on one character, Jorg, who is properly explored, and the rest of the cast are not given very deep characterizations (whereas George RR Martin gives so many characters the full treatment); it is lighter in the sense that we don't get intricate/complex plots and there isn't as much reading between the lines; and the plot itself is fairly straightforward (though with a few neat little twists) whereas Ice & Fire sprawls. The pace is quicker; Jorg travels from the far north to the deep south in the time it takes Jon Snow to take stock of the Night's Watch inventory. Another thing that makes comparisons to Martin almost required is the grit, with dialogue and unflinching brutality being similar. There's this same sense of dark humor, also shared by Joe Abercrombie. It is certainly edgier than, say, Rothfuss. 

Having finished, I feel I have a new series to add to my top ten list of fantasy series/novels, though I am not sure where I would rank it among my other favorites. It is not as good as the very best - Martin, Erikson - it almost reaches that second tier - Rothfuss, Abercrombie - and it is better than other recent good tales like Blood Song  so I think I'm wedging Lawrence onto Tier 3 (along with Richard K. Morgan, who perhaps is another good comparison to Lawrence's work), and then on Tier 4 we have the more recent novels in the genre like Blood Song and The Emperor's Blades. Yeah. Something like that. 

So here's what my ranking of fantasy novels looks like right now. I haven't added everything I've read yet, let's call this a preliminary sketch. By putting these tales in tiers, I don't have to decide which ones are the absolutely best, which feels all right. I know I placed The Stormlight Archive on Tier 4, which is probably too low, but it still not grabbing me. Technically, it is a very impressive work (I'm talking about the first book now) and so perhaps should be moved up the tiers. But for now, I am placing them just by personal taste and not evaluating other aspects).

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Steven Erikson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country
Patrik Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles

Mark Lawrence, The Broken Empire Trilogy
Richard K. Morgan, A Land Fit for Heroes
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms
Ian C. Esslemont, The Malazan Empire

Anthony Ryan, Raven's Shadow
Peter Staveley, The Emperor's Blades
Scott Lynch, The Gentlemen Bastards
Brandon Sanderson, The Stormlight Archive
Grey Keyes, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time (I admit I stopped during book four)
R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms books & other Dungeons & Dragons novels

TIER 6 (almost, and in some cases, actually unreadable):
Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress

Agree? Disagree? Any obvious titles I should've read? Feel free to recommend me something!
(I have Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, and Guy Gavriel Kay on my to-read list already)


  1. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, Low Town by Daniel Polansky and Grim Company by Luke Scull. Give them a try.

  2. whoops. I see Esslemont now. Must have missed that earlier. Tier 3 eh? Well, I already ordered night of knives. I'll let you know my impression.

  3. Not sure if this comment made it before - so just quickly:
    Esslemont - wondered where you put him. check.

    C.S.Lewis. Chronicles of Narnia. Best fanstasy prose. Wonderful world - through the eyes of children. Leaves much to the imagination, in subtle and fantastic ways. Tier 1.

    Atwood: Check out the MadAdam trilogy. Apocalytic speculative fiction of the highest caliber in the hands of a living master wordsmith. Handmaids Tale is as good as 1984 in that genre.

    Erickson - thanks for 8 incredible books. I forgive you for 9,10. Maybe a break now and then would have helped.

    Martin - adolescent excesses, and the creative fire burning out after book 3 leave him at tier 1, instead of Tier unmatched peerless god of fantasy.

    Rothfuss and Hobb - very similar in my opinion. Endless droning on in the mind of the protagonist. Not a lot of show. Hobb gave Martin some of his ideas for Warging. Tier 3 at best. Unreadable for me unfortunately after about 1/2 of each first installment of their signature series. Maybe they get better?

  4. Try the Iron Dragon's Daughter by Swanwick, Codex Alera by Butcher, the Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan, the Lightbringer Series by Brent Weeks, the Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett, the Second Apocalypse Series by R. Scott Bakker. There is a lot of very good fantasy out there, even if high fantasy is a lot less popular than urban fantasy nowadays.

  5. Thanks for the responses, I really appreciate it!
    I will check into your recommendations. I see I have forgotten two that Unknown mentioned that I have actually read - Peter V. Brett (liked the first one, liked the first half of the second one, then lost patience with it; at its best a Tier 3 IMHO) and R. Scott Bakker - how could I forget Bakker, he was one of the first "discoveries" I made after l had to get a new gritty fantasy fix. If I could stop time, I'd do it to re-read those books. Tier 2.

    Of the other recs I have heard of some of them, and some are completely unknown to me, so thanks again :-)

    Oh, and as for Ian - at his best he's on Tier 2 (but I may be biased since this is Malazan material), it's just that he's not as strong a writer as, say, Erikson, so while the setting and the scenes are as epic at times as Erikson's, it is never conveyed as convincingly. If that makes sense.

  6. Here's another one you will definitely enjoy - The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski. Only a couple of books have been translated into English, however (and I forget if you're Norwegian or Swedish), they have all been translated into Swedish.

    1. Ah, yes, I've been meaning to get to Andrzej's books. I have played the first game ("The Witcher") and when I - sometime in the 2050s - finally get a good gaming rig going I'll buy Parts II & III. Thanks for the tip.