Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Book Description:

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.

There is a new contender for favorite fantasy duo.  Jal and Snorri, the main characters in Mark Lawrence’s newest novel Prince of Fools, book one in The Red Queen’s War, are as mismatched and ultimately complementary pair as you are going to find.

Jal is a minor royal, far enough from the throne not to take anything seriously, close enough to use his connections to further his favorite pastimes of drinking, gambling and seducing women. Snorri is a fierce norse warrior with a strong sense of honor and a single-minded purpose.  When the Queen’s Silent Sister, who appears to be seen by few except Jal, sets a deadly trap that nearly kills Jal, the resulting magic binds Jal and Snorri together.  As the pair quest north, it’s unclear if they will stop a war, or if they are merely pawns in a battle long in the making.

Lawrence’s writing has greatly matured and the narrative in Prince of Fools flows smoothly from beginning to end.  The characters are dynamic, the plot moves forward rapidly and the book is filled with humor and powerfully descriptive, memorable phrases, such as ripping a bear “from groin to growl.”  

While Snorri is an immensely likeable character, it is Jal who is the more complicated one.  He studiously avoids both responsibility and heroism.  He is an accomplished liar, but the person he may be lying to the most might be himself.  There are depths to him and not all the lessons he was taught growing up went as unheeded as he likes to pretend.  His journey with Snorri, and Snorri’s unflagging confidence and sense of purpose, give Jal a sort of confidence or excuse to be a better person.

There is a lot going on in Prince of Fools, a magical binding, a potential war, an undead army and unscrupulous and formidable foes both in front and behind Jal and Snorri.  The battle scenes are fun and intense, but the strength of this story is the characters.

I listened to the audio version of this story.  The narration by Tim Gerard Reynolds was incredible.  The character of Jal walks right up to the edge of obnoxious and unlikeable, but is ultimately endearing.  That sort of character takes great skill to write and equal skill to narrate.  Reynolds does it brilliantly.  The character voices are distinct and he perfectly captures the flow of the narrative, enhancing the enjoyment of the story and never getting in the way of it.

Mark Lawrence is one of the best writers of fantasy working today and I think Prince of Fools is his best book yet.  I am eagerly looking forward to the next installment.  Highly recommended!

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the audio recording of this book.