Some readers look for a selfless hero in their epic fantasy reads. Prince Jalan Kendeth of Prince of Fools is not that hero.
Mark Lawrence, fresh off his Broken Empire trilogy starring Prince Jorg of Ancrath, succeeds in creating a very different prince for this brand new series. The Red Queen’s War trilogy is set in the same world as the Broken Empire, revisiting past characters and locations with fresh eyes and a humorous nod to those familiar with his previous books. Prince Jalan of Red March is tenth in line to the throne, which means he’s got enough royal blood to have an ego but not much else to show for it. Prince Jalan’s problems start with things as small as evading a vicious debt collector to taking on a necromancer and an army. To say “that escalated quickly” is an understatement. Luckily, fate has intertwined his life with that of Norse warrior Snorri, so he has a competent ally to go along for the ride.
There’s an undercurrent of magic throughout the story. It’s not overdone—these characters can’t solve their problems by saying a few well-chosen words. It is dark magic, a spell cast by the mysterious Silent Sister, that initially binds our two would-be heroes on their quest to the frozen North. Snorri is already headed in that direction, intent on saving his wife and child from the barbaric Viking Broke Oar, while Jalan has been unwillingly scooped into the adventure due to the Silent Sister’s spell.
The Sister’s spell consists of two parts, both light and dark. Inexplicably, Jalan is chosen for the light side, and as a result is nagged by the angel Baraquel and gains the ability to heal others. Snorri, the obviously better man, is plagued by the demon Aslaug, and can burn his enemies by touch. It’s an interesting play to have Jalan cursed with the good side. Healing others is not something he really wants to do, especially since it requires a physically demanding cost.
There’s something very refreshing about this book. It could simply be the way it was written—easy enough prose (but not dumbed down) with short chapters and enough action to keep even the most hesitant reader intrigued. Prince of Fools gallops along at a good pace, and although you’ve got the traditional journey here, it’s not the same old story. A cast of unique characters and locales combined with the great contrasting traveling partners of Jal and Snorri keep the reader hooked.
I really enjoy the way it was written. Even disgusting scenes, like Jal landing in human dung during an escape attempt, are composed beautifully. That said, it’s not too lofty and ornamental. Each sentence serves a purpose and you aren’t stuck reading a description of a place for paragraphs without end. The descriptions that are there are a pleasure to read, original, and show Jal’s unique perspective of his world. The action scenes are very clearly written, so there’s no confusion as to what is happening.
Lawrence made the undead creepy again. The Dead King, an unseen enemy who haunts our travelers, reanimates the villains that Jal and Snorri cut down, and uses his dark power to create monsters called the unborn. These are perhaps the creepiest of all the challenges our characters face. They are reanimated dead brought back to life by twisting the unused potential of unborn children. I told you it was creepy.
For its darkness, the book is not all doom and gloom. In fact, you get the feeling that this prince is mostly on an inconvenient journey and would rather slack off than do anything remotely heroic. Since the story is told in first person, we get right up close and personal with Jal’s thoughts as he experiences a world outside his home city of Vermillion. His perspective is humorous, from his thoughts about those tempting bar women to how he feels men shouldn’t have to walk great distances since God created horses. Jal is a sinning, duty-dodging and entitled (yet broke) jerk, but we know there must be some kernel of good in him. Plus his conversations with Snorri are often a delight.
Like the Broken Empire series, this story remarks on the Builders, the people who came before Prince Jalan’s time (in other words, us). Jal and Snorri comment on ancient things like trains, which Jal naively assumes are monsters because of the giant paths left behind. I do wonder if the Builders in the past will have more of an effect on Jal’s story. By the end of the book I’m left with several questions, but the good kind that make me want to read the next two installments.
Actually, let’s see what the author has to say about some of my questions.
Did you know when you started the Broken Empire series that you’d write another in the same universe?
When I started the Broken Empire trilogy I thought it was a short story, and I didn’t know the beginning, middle, or end of even that.
There are details in both series that clearly point out this world is like ours but takes place many years later. Are the references to the Builders going to be plot-related later or is that just part of your world building?
The references in the Broken Empire books are definitely plot related, and the Red Queen’s War books can’t really occupy the same place and time as Jorg’s tale, yet not be affected by that plot, as it does grow to be over-arching.
In Prince of Thorns you have a marauding, power-seeking teenager. Here you’ve got a man who avoids battle and cheats the system whenever he can. Why do you think readers enjoy your protagonists who don’t fit the mold of the classic “hero” character we typically see in fantasy?
Everyone likes a bit of variety. I’m sure none of my readers only want to read about anti-heroes or villainous protagonists any more than they only want to read about square-jawed heroes doing the right thing. I just write characters than entertain me and hope they’ll be ones that other people want to read about too.
What is one of your favorite quotes from the book?
“Humanity can be divided into madmen and cowards. My personal tragedy is in being born into a world where sanity is held to be a character flaw.”
That one seems to sum Jal up for me.
What do you hope readers will take away from Prince of Fools?
The firm intention to immediately pre-order the second book in the trilogy and then go off to read all three of the Broken Empire books.
What are your favorite “geeky” obsessions? (TV, movies, books)
I may have to hand my geek card in – I just don’t have time for obsessions these days. It’s all writing and doing ‘author stuff’ on facebook/twitter/forums. I manage to read about one book a month, all fantasy these days. Every now and then I’ll mainline a TV series. I’m on Dexter now. Before that it was Breaking Bad.
What would you like to see more of in fantasy/science fiction?
My books breaking sales records. Other than that … I’m pretty happy with what’s out there. I only get to read a tiny fraction of it, but that fraction turns out pretty good on average.
Would you like to plug your website?
Sure. I have a slightly crap blog where I opine on anything that occurs to me and run the occasional silly competition. I’m nearly half way to a million hits, so I guess it’s not all bad.
Mark Lawrence, thank you very much! Mr. Lawrence’s blog can be found here.