REVIEW: PRINCE OF FOOLS / AUTHOR: MARK LAWRENCE / PUBLISHER: HARPER VOYAGER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Prince of Fools kicks off Mark Lawrence’s highly anticipated new trilogy The Red Queen’s War, introducing us to a new narrator in the shape of Prince Jalan Kendeth. His previous antihero Jorg Ancrath was always going to be a tough act to follow, but fortunately Lawrence has created a character who is sufficiently different.
Jalan is more Jack-the-lad than Jack Carter: he’s a gambler and ladies man, isn’t the greatest of sword-fighters, and relies mainly on his wits and a keen sense of when to turn tail. This time, he’s in serious trouble, up to his neck in debt and forced to pair up with Snorri ver Snagason, a huge Northern axeman and all-round killing machine.
The novel draws on the usual buddy trope – they work together only because they have to, forming an initially reluctant bond that blossoms through their mutual adversity – but by placing it in the fantasy realm of The Broken Empire, Lawrence creates an interesting spin on it, having the pair bound by a magic that forces them on a quest. Jalan’s narration gives a one-sided view of events, and keen readers may begin to wonder if he’s as much of a coward as he claims to be, as if he’s playing with the reader as much as he does with the other characters. As with Jorg, the narrative voice is so well-defined, it’s like listening to someone telling the story, drawing the reader deeper into the book.
It’s a good tale, too, moving quickly from one scene to the other while scarcely pausing for breath. Be warned: once you’re in, you may find yourself still reading a hundred or more pages later, if you even stop at all. In his previous novels, Lawrence has proved adept at manipulating emotions, and that skill flourishes between the covers of Prince of Fools. There are moments of suspense, fear, hilarity and gut-wrenching sadness throughout, all ending in a final line of only two words that have enough impact to set up the second book very nicely indeed.
While Jalan is a more ‘accessible’ narrator than Jorg, it’s debatable if Prince of Fools is the best place to start reading Lawrence’s work. There are several in-jokes that would fly over the heads of new readers, such as guest appearances from characters, and the pace is such that the Broken Empire itself doesn’t feel as richly described as it has been in previous novels.
Being a damn good fantasy writer, Lawrence has inevitably been compared with George R.R. Martin, but a more apt comparison would be with the late David Gemmell. Lawrence’s characters display similar self-doubt and eventual courage, and Snagason – “son of the axe” – smacks of affectionate tribute to Druss the Legend, all of which makes Mark Lawrence a worthy heir to Gemmell’s crown.