Although quite divisive, with The Broken Empire trilogy Mark Lawrence established himself as one of the most prominent grimdark writers on the market today. His next series, The Red Queen's War, was meant to be "lighter" and would feature a more endearing main character than Jorg Ancrath. With Prince of Fools, the first volume chronicling the misadventures of Prince Jalan Kendeth and Snorri Ver Snagason, the author came up with what turned out to be his most accessible and fun-filled novel to date. And in the sequel, The Liar's Key, Lawrence definitely upped his game and the book was his most solid effort thus far.
Question was, could Lawrence close the show with style and aplomb, the way he did with Emperor of Thorns when he brought his first trilogy to an end? Though The Wheel of Osheim does indeed bring this series to a close with a satisfying ending, I would say that the grand finale of The Broken Empire was better. Having said that, this third installment was everything fans could have hoped for and then some!
Here's the blurb:
All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan Kendeth, getting back out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jalan’s fortune back in the living world. Jalan plans to return to the three w’s that have been the core of his idle and debauched life: wine, women, and wagering. Fate however has other plans, larger plans. The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers. Jalan and Snorri face many dangers, from the corpse hordes of the Dead King to the many mirrors of the Lady Blue, but in the end, fast or slow, the Wheel of Osheim always pulls you back. In the end it’s win or die.
Worldbuilding didn't play much of a role in Prince of Fools and I found that a bit disappointing. But The Liar's Key was Lawrence's longest work to date and it did flesh out most of the plotlines and the back story. There were several flashback scenes that elaborated on the Red Queen's past and the death of Jalan's mother which did wonders in that regard. Not only did these scenes provide more depth for the entire series, it also confirmed that the overall story arc of The Red Queen's War was as intricately plotted and multilayered as the one which made The Broken Empire such an awesome read. Once again, the author expands on the legacy of the Builders. Revelations are made regarding the Wheel of Osheim and why reality is unraveling and the end of the world might be coming. Secrets concerning the Builders and their plans for humanity are also disclosed, which helps tie The Broken Empire and The Red Queen's War together. I particularly enjoyed how the truth behind Loki's key plays such an important role in the endgame of this series. Quite a few things that didn't necessarily make sense or feel important in the first two volumes turn out to be of capital importance in The Wheel of Osheim. Mark Lawrence has a few surprises up his sleeve, so expect the unexpected.
The structure of the novel is a bit unusual and takes some getting used to. I'm not sure exactly why the author felt the need to screw around with the timeline like that, but it does work well once you get accustomed to it. Readers will recall that Snorri dragged Jalan into Hell with him at the end of The Liar's Key. Hence, one would have thought that their journey through that realm would have made for a sizeable chunk of this book. And yet, Jalan escapes from Hell in the prologue, and the rest of that plotline is conveyed through flashback scenes as Jalan embarks on a long journey home. The back-and-forth occasionally breaks up the momentum of what is occurring in real time, but this stops being an issue as you get used to going from present to past and vice versa. As a matter of course, the entire gang will get reunited at some point, together in the end to try to stop the Wheel of Osheim from turning and bringing about the end of all things.
I've said numerous times that Prince Jalan Kendeth is a heavy-drinking coward, gambler, womanizer, and is a world away from Jorg. Being such a flawed character always made Jalan easy to root for. Not the sharpest tool in the shed and with a knack to turn most bad situations into even worse ones, following his misadventures continues to be a veritable joy! Inevitably, he does cross paths with Jorg Ancrath during his long voyage back to Red March and that drunk conversation will have unanticipated repercussions when he returns to Vermillion. I loved how Lawrence brought his two principal protagonists together like that and how that meeting would have such an impact on Jalan. Also, I liked how Jalan needed to face his father and brothers upon his return and how those meetings will influence him. Having crossed Death's door to be reunited with his family, Snorri attempts to find peace in Hell. That ordeal will change the giant Norse warrior in a profound way. Yet again, there is a lot of character growth for both Jalan and Snorri in this book.
Few fantasy authors can pace a novel as adroitly as Mark Lawrence. While The Liar's Key was a true page-turner, the rhythm in The Wheel of Osheim is decidedly uneven. I feel that way too much exposure was given to the battle of Vermillion and its aftermath. Unfortunately, it kills what momentum the novel had going from the get-go and I'm not sure the author's writing style is best suited for such drawn-out battle sequences. These chapters act as one prolonged interlude that gets in the way of Jalan finally making his way to the Wheel of Osheim and try to do what needs to be done. This felt undeniably incongruous with Lawrence's usual style, as he has not accustomed readers to such protracted action scenes that bring very little to the tale itself. As such, this third installment features a nice beginning and ends with a bang. But it suffers from a middle portion that drags for no reason and pretty much gets in the way of what readers really want to see happen. That being said, once they embark on that final journey, the author knocks it out of the park and the novel is impossible to put down!
With over a million copies sold and two quality series under his belt, Mark Lawrence now deserves to be ranked among the very best fantasy authors out there. With each new book, the author continued to make a name for himself, pushing the envelope a bit further with storylines that grew in depth and scope. "That thorn guy," as George R. R. Martin referred to him at a convention a while back has come a long way since the release of Prince of Thorns. I'm a bit sad that his forthcoming series won't be set in the Broken Empire universe, yet I'm looking forward to reading it. In this house at least, Lawrence's name has become synonymous with enjoyable and gripping reading experiences.
If you have yet to do so, give that thorn guy a shot! These two superior trilogies are well worth your time and are highly recommended!