Well, this is less ambitious of me than the time I tried to review an entire five-book series all in one go. This is just a three book series this time! (Also, because I have chosen to review the books this way, there will be minor spoilers)
I’ve started reading two of Mark Lawrence’s trilogies so far. Of those two, I would highly recommend The Book of the Ancestor series, starting off with Red Sister. They were one hell of a package: I loved both the characters and the setting, and Lawrence’s writing was impressive.
The other series by the same author that I’ve tried—prior to Book of the Ancestor, actually— is the Broken Empire series, starting with Prince of Thorns. And while it became clear to me very early on that Lawrence was a skilled writer, I really, really struggled with the protagonist. He was such a hugely evil shit that I was driven to apathy. And as a result of that, I have not yet completed that particular trilogy.
But I did recognise that it was mainly just that one character that was giving me grief. So when I read that there was another of Lawrence’s trilogies (Look, man is fairly prolific, he’s got a few) set in the same world as Prince of Thorns but with a protagonist that was not Jorg Ancrath, I was game enough to try it.
The Red Queen’s War gives us an entirely different breed of protagonist and my god, was I thankful for it. Our Not-Jorg in Prince of Fools is Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March, and he’s a bit of a spoilt hedonist. And selfish. And a coward. And he’s not at all afraid to to admit it:
“I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play or bravery.”
He is also annoyingly charming.
Jalan is only able to live the spoilt life he does because he is a grandson of the powerful Red Queen, and only number ten in line for the throne. But The March is not a peaceful place and the Queen’s reign is troubled, and when Jalan escapes from what can really only be described as a magical terrorist attack (by running away with his tail between his legs), he accidentally finds himself magically bound to the huge Norseman Snorri ver Snagason.
This is where half the entertainment in Prince of Fools comes from. Snorri is an honerable man striving to do the right thing while Jalan… is not. When Snorri sets out to find his missing family and free Jal and himself from their entanglement, our prince is forced to travel north with him to the Bitter Ice. Because if the two were to be physically seperated, they would be torn apart.
The banter written between them is perfect. Snorri might look like your more typical dark fantasy protagonist, but he has warmth and heart. Jal might be a bit of a cowardly little shit, but he is very witty. Additionally, as a consequence of their accidental tangling, Snorri is in possession of ‘dark’ magic while Jalan is is possession of ‘light.’ By pairing them together and getting the balance between everyone and everything just right, Lawrence really delivers, and you’ll soon find yourself zipping through their travels to the north; chased by the followers of the Dead King.
The balance between grim and light is not restricted to just Jal and Snorri either. Being set in the same world as Broken Empire, you expect to come across some rather dark phenomena, and one of the most chilling of these is the necromantic nightmare known as the ‘Unborn’, which can be made after an infant dies in the womb. But this is frequently balanced out by more humorous and light-hearted goings on. Often, but not always, involving Jal.
Both sides are running for The Liar’s Key, which gives its name to the second book. This mysterious object, made by Loki himself, can open any portal or door. I can’t go too far here without spoiling too much, but of the two, it is Snorri, not Jalan, who is more driven to make bad choices with regards to what to do with the key. He’s a good man, but he has his blind spots, and it’s on Jalan to make sure he does not cause his own destruction.
It’s in this book that Jalan really starts getting some more development. I would just like to clarify here that while Jal is far from stupid, or even lacking in common sense, his first instinct is often just to hightail it out of there when things get rough. And while this is not always a bad thing when you are being chased by magic or the undead, he does give off “Rincewind dropped into a grim-dark world” vibes. But there is a point where Jal does stop and think whether he could do more than just look out form him and himself only, and starts acting more actively and pushing back against the world around him, rather than just reacting.
It also helps that he has a chance to interact with more than just Snorri—they are joined by Kara, a trainee witch, and Hennan, a young orphan found far too close to the mysterious Wheel of Osheim. While the interactions between Snorri and Jal are engaging, it is good to see them broken out of their ‘buddy-cop’ dynamic once in a while and given a chance to develop other relationships.
The Wheel is hugely important for the third book, which starts rather dynamically with someone being spat out from Hel! As the final part of a trilogy, there is a lot that need to be tied up. Jal gets dragged back closer to his family, and his role as one of the Red Queen’s dependents, while we learn how his family history ties into current events. Snorri has to get closure as to what happened to his family. And we also learn how the Wheel of Osheim speeding out of control ties into certain crazy aspects of the world they inhibit; one big one being how Jal’s Christianity and Snorri’s Norse religion are somehow managing to be both tangable and also able to coexist?
Back to Jal’s family, while both the Red Queen and her Silent Sister have been bobbing around in the background for most of the series, it here in the final book that really cements why the series is named after The Queen and not her errant grandson.We also see their brother—Jal’s great-uncle—take a more active role as well. Which was welcome, because I love him.
And while both things are hinted at in earlier books, it becomes clearer in The Wheel of Osheim that firstly, just like The Book of the Ancestor, there’s a more science fiction bent to the world than initially met the eye. And secondly, there are so many little motifs and little references between the two that they might just be linked? Either that or there are just some names and fantasy tropes that Lawrence really likes. (Also, one of my favourite little clues as to what’s going on with regards to the world-building in the first books: Nelly the elephant? “Ah, what else would she be called?”)
This is an overall excellent series that is perfectly written and engaging—much like the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. I still don’t know whether or not it’s going to spur me to try and finish the original Broken Empire books. But it has encouraged be to start reading another one of Lawrence’s trilogies—The Book of the Ice—which was completed a few months ago.
Mark Lawrence should be happy—he’ll be getting more money from me. And I should have mentioned at the start; this is a review of a three book series. Unless we start to loosen the definition of a series. Because I really am starting to think Lawrence’s multiple trilogies are linked…
So for Bingo, I was going to use series, but I have started a number of those recently. I will instead go with Elephant, because Nelly WAS a clue really.
And with that, I think I have a bingo.