The Liar’s Key: A fun second novel

The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsThe Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence epic fantasy book reviewsThe Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

For better or for worse, The Liar’s Key (2015) — the second novel in Mark Lawrence’s RED QUEEN’S WAR series — is in large part just a second helping of the first book. Readers who enjoyed Prince of Fools will probably find a lot to enjoy this time around as well. Those who might be reading this review in the hopes that I’ll tell them that this one is so much better will probably be disappointed.

Not to say that The Liar’s Key is a bad book by any means. Indeed, it’s rather a good one, filled with the same charm and wit as its predecessor. Jal and Snorri remain engaging leads and Lawrence continues to prove himself a very dab hand at action scenes and wacky hijinks, pivoting from one to the other with effortless ease. It’s a very entertaining ride.

On the other hand, this book is probably the weak link of the trilogy. That’s not a particularly big deal given that the quality is pretty consistent (and pretty high) throughout the series, but if I were going to compare THE RED QUEEN’S WAR to the oldest Star Wars trilogy, The Liar’s Key is its Return of the Jedi. It’s a solid and satisfying piece of work and it certainly gives you more of what you’ve liked before, but it’s also just a little too silly and frenetic at times.

The Liar’s Key picks up where we left off last time. Jal and Snorri have defeated their enemies and claimed Loki’s mystical key (capable of opening any lock), but failed to save Snorri’s family. That should be that — is that, in Jal’s opinion — but Snorri is not so sure. Legend tells of a mystical door leading into death itself, and the Viking finds himself newly in possession of a way to pass through it. And so, once again, our heroes (of both classical and reluctant varieties) set off on an impossible quest, with death dogging their every step.

THE RED QUEEN'S WAR by Mark Lawrence

THE RED QUEEN’S WAR by Mark Lawrence

As in the first book, Jal is cowardly and selfish but extremely funny (at least provided the reader likes him — he will be a divisive figure, but I think, overall, a popular one). He has undergone development since the beginning of the series (a fact that Lawrence makes clear by dropping him back into a few familiar locations for contrast with his behavior last book), but he has a tendency toward backsliding and prevaricating. This means that the Jal of The Liar’s Key is often not so very different from the Jal of Prince of Fools. Snorri’s development is more consistent, and though he is still something of a paragon, he is also forced to admit to his own buried selfishness now and then. Several supporting cast members join the central duo more prominently this time around and add a new dynamic all their own. This means that there’s less of the dynamic duo material, but Lawrence’s character interactions remain fresh and lively, his dialogue expressive. He’s also still very good at imagery, and his prose is well-crafted and evocative.

The plot is again the weaker side of the book. Even more so than last time, the storyline feels like a series of set pieces bound together with fishing twine and sheer charm. The beginning and the ending of the book are very solid, and there’s a portion in the middle where Jal returns home that feels equally focused, but the journey surrounding these three points is wandering in places. Jal, Snorri, and co. zig and zag their way south in pursuit of one ultimate and numerous temporary goals, and while Lawrence is good at managing suspense and creating fun scenes, he’s not so good at keeping his eye on the ball. There’s a fantastic scene midway through the book where Jal encounters hirelings of one of his old enemies, and the whole thing devolves into a lengthy but hilarious slapstick encounter between the various groups of colorful people he has managed to annoy. It’s a fun, effervescent little encounter, it sparkles with wit and character, and while it’s going on the plot completely stalls.

That’s not to say that every book has to have a laser-focused plot with no room for fun or random encounters, but The Liar’s Key has so much of this kind of thing that it starts feeling a little overplayed. The group teleports into a cave at one point and encounters trolls. Why? Uh… because trolls are cool, I guess. They certainly don’t come up again, nor are they enemies. One gets the impression that they’re mostly just there to give the reader something shiny to look at. Then there’s the time Jal burns down a barn in a seduction gone wrong and must squirm out of reprisal. It’s a great scene and well-written, but again it’s just kind of there, another peripheral misadventure in the life of our hapless prince.

Indeed, if not for the charm of the characters and the skill of Mr. Lawrence, the book might be in danger of getting lost in the middle. Fortunately, Lawrence is an excellent page by page and line by line writer, and so my tendency was to forgive him his occasional tangents. If it feels like our heroes occasionally lose sight of the main goal (and I occasionally forgot what exactly the next step was), at least the goings-on were amusing me.

Overall, The Liar’s Key is very much a fun and entertaining read, though the plot could use some more focus in places. It may not be as strong a novel as its predecessor or its successor, but many trilogies have a bit of a middle-novel slump, and this particular example doesn’t even slump very far. For the most part it’s lively, funny, and well worth reading.

Published in 2015. From the international bestselling author of the Broken Empire trilogy comes the second book of the Red Queen’s War… After harrowing adventure and near death, Prince Jalan Kendeth and the Viking Snorri ver Snagason find themselves in possession of Loki’s key, an artefact capable of opening any door and sought by the most dangerous beings in the Broken Empire—including the Dead King. Jal wants only to return home to his wine, women, and song, but Snorri has his own purpose for the key: to find the very door into death, throw it wide, and bring his family back into the land of the living. And as Snorri prepares for his quest to find death’s door, Jal’s grandmother, the Red Queen, continues to manipulate kings and pawns toward an endgame of her own design…

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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One comment

  1. The trolls are from his “Broken empire” series , so that’s fan service :)
    Nice review!

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