Disclaimer: I do not own the books in their original language (English). I did my best to try to find the actual quotes, but it is entirely possible that some weird sounding/paraphrasing ‘quotes’ of the books find their way in here. This is merely myself, a non-native speaker, trying to retranslate a book in it’s original form… I am sorry for the bastardization of Mark Lawrence style and for the inconvenience.
The Broken Empire trilogy is a series of fantasy novels written by Mark Lawrence between 2011 and 2013. It follows the adventure of Jorg Ancrath, prince of Ancrath, whose mother and little brother had been assassinated in front of him when he was 9. It details his resulting quest for Revenge™ while becoming Emperor. Said like that, it seems like your generic fantasy story: quickly read, quickly forgotten. The typical one-night stand of books.
Well, that couldn’t be more wrong. The Broken Empire trilogy is a wild ride grounded in solid and interesting world-building, and an unforgettable protagonist: Jorg Ancrath. And here I am, your humble servant, killing 2 birds with one stone by introducing you to a good read and rambling about my fave.
Mark Lawrence Knows How to Write Good Fantasy
One of the great things about the Broken Empire trilogy, despite what looks like a fairly common plot, is that it is a good work of fantasy written by someone who obviously loves the genre. There are epic battles, quests, monsters, wizards, and necromancers. But there is also mystery, things that go beyond appearances, moral dilemmas, and a lot of learning to grow up. In short, there is something for everyone. Except maybe for the people allergic to violence, because Mark Lawrence’s world is violent and merciless. Even if the story ultimately wants and manages not to be nihilistic.
Speaking of, let’s have a look at the world building.
What if we weren’t in an England-inspired world?
I’ll just spit it out right now: The Broken Empire trilogy takes place in Europe. I am not going to explain you why; I will let you discover that for yourself. Simply put, when you discover the world of the Broken Empire trilogy you will be both more and less knowledgeable about it than the characters living in it are. And it’s kinda fun.
It seems that the European continent and Northern Africa used to be part of an Empire, which exploded something like two or three centuries before the story. Now what remains is divided between different kingdoms (or duchies or whatever goes with the title the local lord has), who are constantly competing and attacking each other in order to gain legitimacy. Legitimacy for what you might ask? Well to become the next emperor, of course. This nice political climate is called the “One Hundreds’ War” and in terms of stability, we are close to “Western Europe just after the fall of the Roman Empire of Occident”.
This explains the overly-violent ambiance of the trilogy. However, the fact that we see that the common people are among the ones suffering the most from it prevents the books from becoming a gore fest.
The fact is, as it is, Mark Lawrence’s world is incredibly diverse (and not in the “but I got 40 non-human species!” way). Jorg, who is our primary point of view character, travels from Northern Europe to Northern Africa while passing through what we could call Spain, France, and Austria. And every of one of those locations is treated with respect. Of course there are some cliches, the Northerners having some kind of Viking culture for example. But it is a little cliche, not a cask with horns cliche.
It is particularly striking with Jorg’s Northern African adventure. Rather than having the usual exotic, sexual, and morally-backward orient, Jorg discovers a kingdom where knowledge and scholars are respected, and where the power structures are much more interested in protecting their people than in being the Dangerous-Mysterious-Sexy-Stranger™. The trilogy also recognizes that cultures mixed with each other. What a nice world to navigate as a reader!
What if Mark Lawrence acknowledged that not only dudebros read fantasy?
When the author seems to think that only hyper-masculine dudes are reading fantasy and obviously writes for them and only for them will hands down make me stop reading a fantasy novel. In books like these, the protagonists are violent and physically strong men. Women exist merely as prizes. Niceness is frowned upon and considered a weakness. Basically, such authors agree completely with the typical mindset of the One Hundred Years War’s knight.
Honestly, reading the synopsis and meeting Jorg, I believed I was about to read that kind of fantasy book. And before I go on, I have to say, you are more than welcome to like that kind of fantasy book. I’m not here to judge, it just isn’t my cup of tea. So when I picked up the Broken Empire trilogy I fully expected to put it back down again. But, there is a reason I am talking about this trilogy today. Yes, the Broken Empire’s world is violent, and yes, it is misogynistic. However, Mark Lawrence is not misogynistic, and I don’t think he likes violence.
As I said, Jorg is our main point of view. However, the series has two other perspective characters (technically three but since the last one only appears in the prologue of the last tome I decided not to take it into account), and both are women. They’re very different women actually. One of them is undoubtedly one of the good guys (Katherine); the other one is a necromancer working for the bad guy, who tries to kill our hero on day 1 (Chella).
These women face the misogyny of their society. They’re not able to hold a title, have to get married to whomever their father sees fit, are basically prevented from holding any form of power despite suffering the consequences of the war as much as men do, etc. They actually express discomfort with it, and aren’t blamed for their position by the author, the narrative, or even by the ‘good’ intelligent characters. Here’s what Katherine has to say about her life.
Katherine: “My life wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. (…) I wasn’t supposed to become the stakes of the rivalry between princes, a baby maker. For Gods Sakes. Would you like to be a trophy? To have your sole purpose be to make children and raise them?(…) Do I have to be a monster? Do I have to become a new Queen of Hearts…?”
Speaking of Queen of Hearts, this is actually interesting. The Queen of Hearts is one of the official participants of the One Hundreds’ War, and the only woman. It is explained that she had done monstrous things to manage to hold the title in her name. However, even if she is not liked and has a disastrous reputation, she is now considered as seriously as any other participant. The fact that she is mentioned at all when she has little to zero impact on the actual story and only appears at the end of the third volume is not only interesting in terms of world building, it is also interesting on what it says about Mark Lawrence.
In the trilogy, the kings and lords who have no impact on the story are rarely mentioned—there are, after all, one hundred of them. However the mention of the Queen of Hearts actually teaches us that women holding the same amount of power as men is a possibility in this world. They just have to be as bad (or as good…it varies with the point of view) as their male counterparts. Good job, Mark Lawrence.
Kindness and goodness are also not frowned upon. Even if it is a quality that our hero is somehow lacking, other characters display it and are not punished for doing so. Katherine, Coddin, Orrin, Jorg’s grandfather, Maladon…all of them display kindness at a moment in the story and are regarded both by the story and by Jorg himself as good people. Hell, the narrative even rewards them for their kindness. If he had not be a good lord and generous man, Jorg’s grandfather would have been poisoned. Once again, good job, Mark Lawrence.
But now it’s time to speak about the most interesting and most conflicting part of the Broken Empire trilogy: it’s protagonist, Jorg Ancrath.
Jorg Ancrath Flirts with the Concept of an Overly Problematic Fave
Let’s be perfectly clear. As a character, I love Jorg Ancrath. As a person, I would probably try to punch him and get badly hurt for my efforts. However, I am forced to recognize that with his lack of morality, his dark sense of humor, his propensity to violence, his apparent disregard for the consequences of his actions, and the fact that we are supposed to root for him even after he has done terrible things, Jorg Ancrath is dangerously close to being a typical problematic fave, endorsed by the narrative. But, as you might have seen coming from miles away, after careful reflection about him, I have to preserve his honor. Jorg Ancrath is actually a morally dark grey character done right.
Who is Jorg Ancrath?
Jorg Ancrath is the first prince of the Ancrath Kingdom (Northern France) and the first son of the current King Olidan Ancrath and his first wife Rowen, from the Horse’s Coast. Jorg uses to have a little brother, William. Unfortunately, when Jorg was 9 he, his mother, and his brother fell into an ambush set by his uncle. He was saved by being thrown into a patch of thorns, which kept him hidden from the assailants and prevented him from trying to save his mother and brother. He saw them both die, and got a huge infection from the wounds the thorns gave him (wounds that leave him with scars on his entire body).
When he finally woke up from his fever, he discovered that his father had decided not attack his own brother in retribution. It will be of no interest to him, so he only asked for tactical lands as a punishment. Of course little Jorg didn’t take that well and ran away from the castle. He entered a band of thieves. There he learned to do terrible things and to manipulate people. This where we join him 4 years later, plundering a village when he is 13.
Jorg’s goal is to avenge his mother and brother. To do so he wants to kill his uncle and get revenge from his father for his inaction. In the mean time, he gets it into his head to take his revenge on the world by becoming the next emperor.
He is deeply intelligent. While he starts the story as kind of a pretty boy, it does not remain the case; the left-side of his face becomes badly burned later. He is also physically competent and funny (for the reader), but he has the worst moral compass I have ever seen, as he is prone to anger and violent. Long story short, Jorg is more than ready to leave a trail of bodies behind him to achieve his goal. Even people he calls his brother. And he hates being treated as unimportant. Also, he brings misery to people who follow him. Sure, Jorg is a problematic fave. However there is more to him than just that.
Jorg is a better person than he appears
Let’s just begin by saying that right now Jorg looks like a better antagonist than protagonist, but trust me. Jorg is self-aware of his faults and by god it’s refreshing.
I can well imagine him saying, “The Prince of Arrows would be a better emperor than me? Yeah of course, but I want to be emperor. People don’t like me? Well I am not very likable in universe so… Am I too hot-headed and put people in danger with my behavior? Well,”
“Those people waited until I saved them. They thought that I could keep the Haunt with my handful of soldiers and be victorious. I was almost tempted to tell them the truth, to tell them what the ones who know me know. There’s something brittle in me that will break before it bends. If the Prince of Arrows had brought a smaller army I would probably have had the common sense to run away. But he had overdone it.”
Isn’t he absolutely charming? Knowingly jeopardizing the life of his unsuspecting subjects because of his shitty temperament?
There is also the fact that sometimes Jorg is ashamed of himself. And for us to be fully aware of it, the first person narration helps.
“(Her eyes) weren’t black. They had a spark of green, a leafgreen in the moonlight. I had never noticed before. It’s amazing, those ideas that you have sometimes. (…) If she said nothing, a quiver at the corner of her mouth showed me her disappointment. I left feeling less than royal.”
Let’s also add that Jorg ages well. Having a 13 years-old protagonist could create doubt about the series. Is it some kind of gory young adult book? No it’s not, but the story follows Jorg growing up. The 20 year-old that we leave at the end of the story is not the same person we met at 13. For one, he is less angry. He understands that other people have hopes and dreams and realizes what he represents for them. He cares about the people he loves and has some compassion for others. Actually, he even defeats someone angrier than him by comforting him.
Let’s also have a look at his backstory. I know it’s the principle of most problematic faves to have a tragic backstory, but Jorg brings that to a whole new level. His tragic backstory has multiple tragic backstories. Jorg has been repeatedly abused by strangers, but especially by his father. Olidan Ancrath is the worst father I have ever seen in fiction. If Tywin Lannister knew about him he would be like,
However Jorg doesn’t use his backstory as an excuse; it is merely an explanation. An overly problematic fave would say, “I was badly abused so I am not terrible”. Jorg Ancrath says, “I was badly abused so I am terrible.” Honesty. Again, this is valuable.
Last but not least, Jorg, despite all his bravado, doesn’t love himself. This is made crystal clear by the scene where he ends up killing a child. Jorg loves children; if he ends up killing or harming one, it is never entirely voluntarily, expect in this case. He is entirely proactive about it. And this is what he says to the girl while stabbing her.
“You and I, we look a lot like each other. (…) If someone had done that for me when I was a child it would have spared a lot of trouble to a lot of people.”
It’s chilling when we consider the situation, but never excused or whitewashed.
The story reminds us that Jorg doesn’t have a desirable behaviour
Another thing I appreciate about Jorg is how the story doesn’t let him go away with his behavior. The narrative punishes him. Sacrifices a child? Gets a really bad burn on his face.
Other characters hold him accountable for the corpses he leaves behind, too. Gorgoth withdraws from his friendship after what happen with Gog. Even the bad guys remind him that he can be a really terrible person. In the first volume, he ends up destroying a fortress and the region around to take it.
By doing so he causes the death of hundreds, even thousands, of people, a fact that he sort of refuses to acknowledge. In the second volume, Chella confronts him about his actions.
Chella: “You are upset because I have shown you your ghosts? I am not the one who birthed them, Jorg. (…)”
Jorg: “I didn’t know…”
Chella: “You didn’t know a sun would burn them. You thought a poisonous cloud would devastate the earth, didn’t you? So if Ruth, her mother, and son, had choked with their own guts, bleeding from their eyes and from their anuses while screaming, it wouldn’t have bothered you?”
The story also shows us that Jorg would have been way more happy living another life. On several occasions, Jorg is shown as book-smart and actually enjoying reading. When in Northern Africa, he stays there several months after his ‘quest’ to study math with other scholars. This leads him to be more at peace with himself than he has ever been in the entire story.
So yes, there is little doubt that Jorg would be more happy if he hadn’t become the violent young man he is. If he had been a scholar with a family, Jorg would have been content and at peace. In the end, his abuse and tragic backstory didn’t make him badass, it made him miserable and robbed him of his happy ending.
So yes, Jorg is not a good person. But he is goddamn good character written by an author who knows how not to glorify terrible behavior.
I can only advise you to read the Broken Empire trilogy. It features one of my favorite protagonistss in a long time and it is well-written and catching. It also features some memorable secondary characters (I can’t believe I didn’t talk about Miana she is my daughter) and a fascinating world. If you read it, chances are you will be positively surprised.