Prince of Fools review

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Prince of Fools is the first book in Mark Lawrence's new series/trilogy, The Red Queen's War. The novel by the successful and critically acclaimed author of the Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns) was released back in June 2014.  The follow-up, The Liar's Key will be out in June 2015.
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.
Great, great, great expectations. With three books among my favorites in the last few years, I admit that, indeed, the degree of anticipation I felt for Mark Lawrence's Prince of Fools was almost unfair, if it can be.

Lawrence's new work is set in the same universe as the Broken Empire trilogy and follows the same timeline, Prince Jalan's introduction taking place around the same period as Jorg's debut. Moreover, the narrative is, again, presented through the perspective of the main protagonist himself, a slightly older fellow, who should attract fewer comments. Is this the recipe for success for the author? It all depends on the character involved and his adventures.

First, it's clear that Jalan isn't Jorg and I believe that's a good thing, even if I loved reading about the Ancrath boy. Still, as the title explicitly mentions, he's the prince of Fools. He lives an easy life, far from having to face serious responsibilities. The young man is not dense, he's actually quite clever but as he's fond of pointing out, his cleverness is mostly associated with the degree of danger he's throwing himself into when women are involved and all the skills a coward has to develop to flee from the consequences of such activities. For the sake of comparison, I would say that Jalan's at breaking away as Jorg's to impulsive reactions and unrestrained bloody resolutions. That leads to several glorious lines like my latest kick-ass moment (here) or this example:
[...]I’m a good runner any day of the week. Scared shitless I’m world class. Two years ago, in the “border incident” with Scorron, I ran from a patrol of Teutons, five of them on big old destriers. The men I had charge of stayed put, lacking any orders. I find the important thing in running away is not how fast you run but simply that you run faster than the next man.[...]
Even if Jalan's initial presentation should rally the troops, he couldn't possibly remain idle. His life is turned inside out when he accidentally ''trips'' on a spell and the result is a new bond with none other than a huge northern barbarian who believes in the rise of the dead and happened to be a short term slave-gladiator for the prince. Snorri is the complete opposite of Jalan and will remain at his side for the whole book. Strangely enough, talk about a nice coincidence, his goal is to return to his family which happens to conveniently lead them to a convergence of 'undead' power attracting the force that should have died with the spell Jalan perturbed.

As soon as they depart, a long trek will take them from the Red Marsh all the way to the bitter ice of the north, the land of the Vikings, whose customs the people of the north have returned to since the day of the Thousand Suns. Snorri and the bunch of 'brothers' they stumble upon eventually fall head first into the stereotypical pattern associated with battle hungry Vikings. These types of characters are always colorful but their fervent nature makes them quite predictable. Jalan's forced companion (they are bound together by the spell...), ends up as a more compelling protagonist with the help of two of Lawrence's trademarks from the Thorns books, flashbacks and the 'elementally' sworn magical binding.

Three of four times during the long, but far from uneventful, trip to free themselves from the spell, Snorri opens up his inner self to Jalan when stopping at camps and recounts parts of the abduction of his wife and children by the Jarl Sven Broke-Oar and his necromancer friends from the infamous Drowned Isles. That's where much of the development of Jalan's personality takes place.  The carefree seducer is light sworn and inhabited by an angel while Snorri, the proud and righteous warrior, is dark sworn and visited by a demonic daughter of one of his gods. If you take the Red Queen's offspring initial identity and reshape it with his sworn opposite and his new-found sympathy for Snorri's story, you will find a nice evolution for a character that doesn't remain the prince of Fools forever (but isn't completely redeemed). Even Snorri felt more compelling afterward.

Still, Prince of Fools isn't the "paradise of introspection" that the Thorns books were. Jalan is almost breaking the fourth wall to speak his mind on some matters but that's less insightful than Jorg's observations on life as he sees it, excessive as it may be. Less serious might mean less fierce and inflamed but besides the occasional grins, under the pretense of a tale of survival lies an interesting story of unlikely friendship that we have seen before but not punctuated by Lawrence's direct approach and boldness.

For the readers of the Broken Empire trilogy, some cameos are included (like Taproot or brother Malkin to name a few) and some names are thrown in here and there (like Chella).  That's a nice touch, but what's even better is the two days the duo spends in Ancrath, right after the homecoming of the prodigal son. Awesome. However, I also noticed that the author seems to assume that the reader has already read the Thorns books. Prince of Fools doesn't include substantial greater scale world building. Everything is about the immediate threat or the surroundings of the journeyers. The world doesn't feel as deep and I wonder what a newcomer to Lawrence's universe would think...

To summarize, I would say that Prince of Fools is less provocative than the Thorns books, more straightforward, is lacking in term of feminine protagonists and circles around preconceived notions and worn-out characters but is also a great source for smirks, delivers a good dose of action and near death fighting, uses well the setting presented in the Broken Empire and its magic without showing many new sides of it, is written in a satisfying pace and offers an impressive character development curve significantly and skillfully raising the degree of 'compellingness' to a very high standard weaving a legitimate story.

I'll pick up the follow-up without a second of hesitation but this time, I'll strike some 'greats' from my expectations, while being fully aware that Mark Lawrence is a damn good writer and will certainly shock me in the future!

Cover:  Chris McGrath did a nice work but I still prefer Jason Chan covers for Lawrence previous books and the upcoming Liar's Key.
Release date: June 3rdh 2014
Map: Yes, of the Broken Empire
Number of pages: 355 pages hardcover edition
Acquisition method: My own e-book purchase
Other: No...

I liked...Was disappointed by...
Jalan and Snorri friendship evolutionSome parts of the long trek
The Thorns books crossingThe stereotypical Vikings
Jalan's observationsThe scaled down world building
Lawrence's writing

Prince of Fools review rating :


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