Few SFF series in recent years have been as divisive as Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire turned out to be. As a dark and brutal tale devoid of compassion featuring a bloodthirsty teenager as the main protagonist, Jorg's story managed put off quite a lot of readers looking for more likeable characters and heroes. Nevertheless, fans of the grimdark subgenre found a whole lot to like about Lawrence's first trilogy, myself included.
When it was announced that the author's new series, which still takes place in the Broken Empire universe, would be "lighter" and would feature the first-person narrative of what could only be a more endearing protagonist, I had some concerns about Prince of Fools. With Jorg's tale, Mark Lawrence established himself as one of the prominent grimdark writers out there. Hence, I wasn't sure if Lawrence, by trying to "tone it down a bit," would manage to wow his fans the same way he did in the past.
Well, I stand corrected. Prince of Fools is Lawrence's most accessible and fun-filled novel to date! Indeed, it's the sort of work Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch would come up with if they ever collaborated on a project.
Here's the blurb:
The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all. The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong. After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.
As was the case with Lawrence's debut, Prince of Thorns, worldbuilding doesn't play a very important role in this first installment in The Red Queen's War trilogy. Once again, he doesn't let the setting intrude on the storytelling. As a matter of course, a lot of groundwork has already been laid out in the original series and hence Lawrence doesn't have to focus too much on this facet, at least early on. Still, the author keeps his cards pretty close to his chest in Prince of Fools. It would be easy to say that, insofar as this first volume is concerned, the tale isn't as complex and multilayered as The Broken Empire was. Yet if Lawrence's other series is any indication, chances are that forthcoming sequels will demonstrate that The Red Queen's War will resound with as much depth as its predecessor. It appears that Prince of Fools is somewhat of an introduction meant to establish the characters and the various plotlines which will make up this new tale.
I've always said that writers like Joe Abercrombie, with their witty and humorous writing styles, can often get away with cruel and graphic scenes of wanton violence. The problem with Mark Lawrence's first series was that it featured mostly the first-person narrative of Jorg, far from the most endearing of fellows at the best of times. Enter Prince Jalan Kendeth. A heavy drinking coward, a gambler, and a womanizer, Jalan is a world away from Jorg, who was always a bit too cunning and too badass for his own good. If you enjoy flawed characters, Jalan is easy to root for. Not always the sharpest tool in the shed and with a knack to turn most bad situations into even worse episodes, following Jalan's misadventures is a joy! First-person narratives have a tendency to make or break a book, and it was not always easy to root for Jorg. However, Jalan doesn't need to grow on you the way Jorg did. A little like Lynch's Locke Lamora and Jordan's Mat Cauthon, Prince Jalan wins you over from the very beginning. He is as entertaining as he is engaging, and witnessing events through his eyes makes for an enjoyable reading experience! I also liked how the author sort of reversed the traditional roles associated with his characters by making the violent and imposing Viking Snorri smarter and more cultured than the spoiled aristocrat. No matter how disparate they are, Jalan and Snorri make quite a pair!
The pace is fluid throughout the novel, with not a single dull moment between the covers. All too soon the end is reached and one cannot wait to discover what will happen next. Prince of Fools shares the same dark roots which gave The Broken Empire its flavor, yet it's not as dark and grim in its execution. Grimdark fans will get their fill, as there is enough blood and violence to satisfy anyone. And yet, à la Abercrombie Prince of Fools' narrative is filled with wit and humor, which makes for a much "lighter" read. I have a feeling that most readers who were put off by Jorg and gave up on the first series might find a lot to like about this new trilogy. And all the Mark Lawrence fans out there need not fear! Prince of Fools delivers on all fronts!
Definitely one of the fantasy books to read this year!