Fantasy Review: ‘Prince of Fools’ by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen’s War, #1)Maybe I just needed a fresh start.

Look, I enjoyed Prince of Thorns when it hit. Before it went viral I wrote a one paragraph review on Goodreads that still gets ‘likes’ three years later. It was different, it was sparse, it was fun in a way that makes no since to those who don’t like their stories dark.   I then completely ignored the series. Eventually I picked up King of Thorns way late, and while I struggled at first eventually came to love it as well. Yet I never picked up Emperor of Thorns, and I can’t explain it.

I promise I won’t lag behind on this new series set in the same world. Because while I enjoyed the first two books of Jorg’s story plenty, I can’t remember it ever grabbing ahold of me like Jalan’s has already. Fans of the first series are probably already convinced that they want to read this one, but for any that were not? Well, maybe you want to give the world another try. I sure am glad I did.

As a prince I’d been taught that good opposes evil… And always I wondered where I fitted into this grand scheme, little Jalan built of petty wants and empty lusts, nothing so grand as evil, nothing closer to good than imitation.

Jalan is a Prince of Red March, but far enough down the line of succession of live the life he really wants; gambling, flirting (and more), and having all the fine things in life without needed to do the work. He is a hero among his people for his role in battle, though he remembers running like hell and finding himself crowned hero when it was over. The Flashman of the Broken Kingdoms, Jalan’s little world is about to turn over on his selfish head when he becomes tied magically to a powerful Northman named Snorri.

Horror and fantasy mix just fine here. Zombies are not quite so silly when they are directed by a master and fed with the souls of the innocent. A mad cackling witch has absolutely nothing to Lawrence’s Silent Sister; one of the spookier characters I have seen on page. Even those showing the most kindness to Jalan are suspect. Just who is the Uncle no one talks about in the tower, wasting away and almost ignored?

What I read here was damn fine in its simplicity. A travel story; yet one where the protagonist never quite knows where it is going. Forced along by his tie to Snorri the reader is left wondering at the purpose of the journey as much as the Jalan is. There is a villain to be sure, but what purpose he has is not immediately revealed, nor will we be getting a clear answer on just what the threads of this story are coming too. Jaral is more worried about survival and his ‘curse’ than any larger picture, a very different ride than the focused drive we followed in Jorg’s story.

I rarely mention individual scenes because of the lack of context within the larger story. But Prince of Fools has one of the finest scenes I have ever read in the last third of its pages. While Jalan grows throughout the book, the petty selfish boy still gets to come out. So when he is upstaged in a bar his chance to do something good, while still getting some petty revenge, had me laughing loud. Scene then continues to build and escalate until Snorri cuts everything, leaving us with only a hint of what could have come next. Bar scenes are usually empty pages where backstory is filled in or a fight with no relation to the story happen; Lawrence instead made it one of the highlights of the book.

Those who don’t like clever references to old earth may not be impressed. I found myself wanted to research how long some of our constructed projects could last without upkeep, but presumable the author has done some diligence on this front and I would find fewer ‘gotcha’ moments than I would hope. I was a little dubious of Scandinavians reverting to ‘Vikings’ after a world breaking apocalypse; seemed a bit convenient. While I appreciated the uniqueness of the world I am not always sure I buy it completely. But this quibbles are quickly forgotten when reading; the pacing and style sucked me in and the great story held me.

Yes maybe I just need a fresh start. Or maybe the more humorous (though still plenty dark) approach grabbed my attention more. But I think Lawrence has another winner on his hands, and here is too the rest of the series making me feel like a fool for not finishing the last one.

4 Stars

Review copy received through Edelweiss