Friday, April 17, 2015

Mark Lawrence's PRINCE OF FOOLS

I absolutely loved Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy, so there was no way I was not going to dive right into this sidequel pretty damned soon. The world created around the story of Jorg Ancrath begs to be further explored, and Lawrence is a master at creating unique character-narrators to lead one's expeditions. So I had very high expectations heading into Prince of Fools, first of a new series titled The Red Queen's War.

They weren't entirely met, but I didn't really notice that as I was reading, because my expectations were beside the point. Lawrence was revisiting his world but doing so in a completely different way from what I'd come to expect, and doing it brilliantly. So Prince of Fools, for all its familiar settings and cameo appearances by characters from the other books, is very much its own thing, and its sort-of-hero, Prince Jalal Kenreth, is very much his own man. Well, at least as much as Jorg was. I mean, look how problematic Jorg turned out to be!

Jalal, or Jal as he wishes people would not call him, is also problematic, but not quite so much so as was Jorg. Jalal is relatively simple (or at least seems so, so far): he is a self-professed and unapologetic coward, and tells us so clearly and distinctly every few pages. He's proud of what a good coward he is, very good at making fun of what a really almost perfect coward he is, and very entertaining and droll on the general subject of his mastery of the finer points of cowarding.

Except, of course, he isn't. Because one thing that he never seems to have noticed about actual cowards is that they never admit to being cowards. Far from it. They always have very high-flown, high-horse riding reasons for their actions that are actually quite noble and brave and necessary, thank you very much. And if you use the C word in their presence, they might just slap you with a glove and demand you meet them on the field of honor. At which they'll not show up because they had some highfalutin' duty to perform. Yeah, that's it.

No, Jal is really pretty much a hero, but doesn't want that to become known, because then people will expect things of him. Jal, can you rescue this maiden, Jal, can you solve this dilemma, Jal can you fend off this invading army that threatens our very existence, Jal can you marry this homely but rich maiden for the good of the Realm. If there's anything he fears, it's that. Far more pleasant to drink and gamble and whore around, leap from noble bedchamber window to noble bedchamber window to have a go at the sister, etc.

Until plot things happen that bind him magically to a by-gods Viking whose very involved backstory has left him a prisoner of Prince Jal's grandmother, the Red Queen. Said Viking due to be released until Jal gets a load of his overwhelming brawniness and diverts him into the fighting pits instead so that Jal can make some money off him. And then magic.

The tale thus becomes a different kind of road narrative from that we enjoyed with Jorg and his Brotherhood. Jal and Snorri (well, of course the Viking is named Snorri. Read your sagas!) must travel north to do battle with evil forces that have destroyed Snorri's family and realm, forces that he at first just thinks are rival Viking bands but turn out to be closely related to the Big Evil that so warped Jorg's tale and against whom Jal's grandmother and her eerie and witchy Silent Sister are subtly arrayed.

The resulting book is a bit less complex than the Broken Empire books (or at least seems so thus far!), a bit less uncomfortable to enjoy, but compensates for all this by being a lot more fun. Snorri is a hilarious hero straight out of the sagas (he'd sweep all the categories except maybe Outlawry if the guys at the Saga Thing podcast were for some reason to take on this story), whose many notable witticisms manage to keep things amusing even when Jal stops cracking wise as narrator. Their story and the weird magic that binds them is compelling and occasionally hair-raising. There were plenty of undead/necromancy encounters in the Broken Empire books, but the walking dead in Prince of Fools are much scarier, even if they do maybe owe a lot to A Song of Ice & Fire's White Walkers. Or do they?

This is how you do a sidequel, kids. Now I'm seven kinds of psyched for the sequel to the sidequel. Sesidequel? Sedequel?

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