Prince Jalan Kendeth is the black sheep of the family. A self-confessed untrustworthy scoundrel and coward who has taken every advantage of the life of luxury that comes with being royalty, he is perfectly content with his life as it is and has no plans to change or inclination for greater things. However, when he crosses paths with a courageous Viking named Snorri, Jal discovers that he may have been destined to stand against an undead evil. Snorri is returning north to rescue his family and, despite his unwillingness, Jal is bound by mystic forces to accompany him.
For those (like me) who are already die-hard Mark Lawrence fans, Prince of Fools, the first book in the RED QUEEN’S WAR series, is just what we expected — pure awesomeness and then some. But for those of you who found Jorg of Lawrence’s BROKEN EMPIRE TRILOGY too bloody hard for your tastes, give Prince of Fools a try. This book will make you a Lawrence fan too, guaranteed. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to decide which series I like better. Just like Prince of Thorns, Prince of Fools grabs you by the guts from the first page and doesn’t let go. The ending wraps up nicely so that this book is self-contained, but it will leave you anxious for the next one.
Speaking of the BROKEN EMPIRE trilogy, even though Prince of Fools takes place in the same world, you don’t need to read BROKEN EMPIRE to enjoy Prince of Fools. The events of these tales take place at the same time, but they are totally different stories. There are cameos of Jorg, and some other BROKEN EMPIRE characters play a minor part, but they blend into the story in such a way that BROKEN EMPIRE fans will be like “there’s my boy-ee, Jorg” and readers new to this world will be intrigued and want to go back to see what they missed.
I love Mark Lawrence’s characters. The dynamic between Jal and Snorri brings to my mind the classic western movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Jal’s instinct for self-preservation and his criminal mind is the perfect balance to Snorri’s fearlessness and code of honor. Lawrence drops well-placed breadcrumbs that eventually lead to the truths behind Jarl’s and Snorri’s characters and motivations… well, mostly. The reader will still wonder about what has not yet been revealed.
The plot and characters are so solid that even in the hands of a less talented author, Prince of Fools would still be a great read, but Lawrence takes it to the next level. He’s just a natural born story teller. His writing comes across like he’s a regular everyday guy that just happens to have a head chock full of great tales to tell. While many authors push — sometimes not so subtly — their own beliefs or philosophies in their fiction, Lawrence seems to say I don’t know and don’t really care but here’s a good story for you. He is so quotable that I found myself wanting to commit lines to memory and he also has a sarcastic humor that is riotous. What really stands out in Prince of Fools is how Lawrence brings out the stark beauty of dark things.
Fantasy as a genre is interpretable in a number of different ways. On the one hand, it’s probably the genre with the broadest selection of potential settings and out-there stories to tell. Its province is as broad as the imagination itself, at least in theory. On the other hand, Fantasy often tends to be interpreted as “personal” fantasy, and can be more than usually susceptible to barely concealed daydreams of power, romance, and adventure. While I don’t have numbers on this, I would hazard a guess that the unlikable protagonist turns up far more often in Literary and Science Fiction than it does in Fantasy. There’s a vague presumption that, while they’ll of course have their flaws, many heroes of Fantasy will tend to be more aspirational figures, somehow, or at least be less prone to petty little foibles like cowardice, envy, and selfishness.
Mark Lawrence is probably aware of this expectation, but to all appearances he simply doesn’t care. He wrote his first Fantasy trilogy (THE BROKEN EMPIRE) about an outright sociopath, and now he’s written another starring a self-professed coward and lickspittle. He’s not an author afraid of risk, apparently, and I’m glad to say that he makes it work. Prince of Fools is an exciting, swashbuckling, and surprisingly hilarious book, the kind of story that may convince even the most dubious reader to cheer for its lily-livered protagonist.
Said lily-livered protagonist, Jalan Kendeth, is a prince of the kingdom called Red March and grandson to its stern and iron-willed monarch, the Red Queen. Jalan has apparently inherited little of his grandmother’s warlike nature, preferring to spend his days on womanizing, gambling, and fleeing from a string of creditors, angry brothers, and anyone who wants to make him do actual work. Though a prince, he’s far back in succession and seems mostly content to be a redundant royal idling away his life. But Jalan also has a dark secret: he can see what no one else at court apparently can, the mysterious sorceress who lurks behind his grandmother’s throne. When Jalan accidentally gets in the way of one of her spells, he finds himself cursed alongside a Viking warrior named Snorri ver Snagason, each of them bound to one half of a spell that will force them into the far North and a confrontation with the forces of darkness.
Mark Lawrence has written deeply flawed characters before, and maybe it’s that experience that gives him such a light touch with Jalan. The character is just witty enough that I overlooked his selfishness and just loyal enough that I forgave his constant bluster and cowardice. Lawrence is very clever at teasing character development for Jalan just enough that it’s difficult to fully give up on the character.
This being an unlikable protagonist story, there are going to be readers who won’t enjoy Jalan’s antics and might become frustrated with him as time goes on. Fortunately, Mr. Lawrence has seen that particular obstacle coming and Snorri ver Snagason is on hand to be everything classically Fantasy-hero that Jalan is not. The Viking is brave, kindly, and noble to the extent that if he were the main character, he’d almost be too much. As a foil for Jalan’s selfishness, however, he fits in nicely, and indeed the dynamic between the two men becomes Prince of Fools’s major selling point (for me, at least). It’s not a new dynamic by any means — Lawrence is obviously spinning off of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, for one, and that’s only the start of his influences — but the subtle web of tensions and loyalties between the two men becomes very compelling. By the time Jalan and Snorri reach the ice sheet to confront their nemeses, I felt deeply invested in their friendship. Neither is a perfect protagonist on his own, but their camaraderie is a magnificent thing.
That’s fortunate, because the book largely runs on the central relationship. The plot hangs together more or less, but events often have that episodic, monster-of-the-week feeling of a bunch of set pieces cobbled together rather than that of a strong, overarching narrative. There are events here that, sitcom-like, seem to serve no real purpose other than to give the dynamic duo opportunities for wacky hijinks. There’s also a substantial section in the middle of the book where Snorri and Jalan encounter characters from Lawrence’s previous trilogy that basically feels like fanservice, the equivalent of the Batmobile driving by in the background of a Wonder Woman movie just so that Batman fans can nudge each other and tip heavy winks.
If the plotting isn’t particularly elegant, though, it at least gets the job done, and it’s always fun watching Snorri and Jalan fall headfirst into one misadventure after another. Lawrence’s character voices are distinct and compelling, and his writing style is crisp and evocative with occasional bursts of rich imagery. The pacing doesn’t noticeably flag, our two leads complement each other very well, and overall Prince of Fools is just a very slick, well-crafted example of the buddy adventure fantasy. Recommended.