Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mark Lawrence's THE LIAR'S KEY

The first book in this second/concurrent Broken Empire series, Prince of Fools, confounded my expectations a bit, presenting us in Prince Jal with a hero way more likeable than the sort-of-psychopath Jorg Ancrath of the original series and showing us a completely different part of these princes' shared post-apocalyptic fantasy universe -- a latter day Scandanavia teeming with nu-Vikings and necromancers and other monstrous delights, oh my. So it was quite a delightful read.

So, I'm happy to say, is this second volume. The Liar's Key is named for an artifact that Jal's bound-by-magic traveling companion and sort-of friend, Snorri, wrested from enemies at the end of the Prince of Fools. The titular key, ostensibly created by Loki, yes, that Loki, the god of mischief/evil/etc, can open any door, anywhere, even the doorway to the land of the dead. Where Snorri very much wants to visit, since he wants to pull an Orpheus and get back his dead wife -- and children, including an unborn son that died when his wife was killed. To mix mythologies a bit, as one does.

As we might imagine (shades of that fantastic miniseries The Lost Room), lots of entities want that key, including the Big Baddie from the original trilogy, the Dead King (and no, it's not Marius Helles, though wouldn't that be fun?). So now Jal and Snorri and the last surviving member of Snorri's Viking clan, the marvelously un-stereotypical Tuttugu, are on the run even as they follow a trail of clues that purport to lead them to death's door.

But... this is the middle volume of a trilogy, and so Lawrence is still more interested in deepening, rather than explaining/solving his mysteries. And mysteries do abound, as Jal and company leave Scandinavia and head south and east to Jal's homeland and beyond, with everybody chasing them, Hallelujah Trail-like, and setting traps for them.

In the process, we learn more about Hal as he learns more about himself -- literally -- through the magical efforts of one of his new traveling companions, Kara.* Anytime he tastes his own blood (which is fairly often, what with all the fighting he and his little crew get up to), he either flashes back to forgotten-but-shocking events from his own childhood (he witnessed his mother's murder when he was seven! And he knows the guy who killed her! It's very fishy that he forgot this!), or from his grandmother's, the Red Queen's, and that of her uncanny siblings, Garyus and the Silent Sister. The Silent Sister being the witch who's spell bound Jal to Snorri in the first place...

So, like Jorg before him, Jal is even more complicated than he seemed. Like Jorg before him, Jal's mind has been tampered with. Another unreliable narrator, another red herring of a story. Because it looks like all of what we've been watching in both Broken Empire series has really been a distraction. Don't look at the mages in the corners. Look at the princes, Psycho and Chickenshit. Aren't they fascinating? Pay no attention to the creepy half-blind woman behind the curtain...

And hurry up with the next volume please, Mr. Lawrence!

*The other is a fierce little red-haired Viking orphan boy, Hennan, who serves as this novel's hook into this hero's conscience. Mark Lawrence always thinks of the children.

Monday, June 1, 2015


We've all played those fantasy games. The ones where we loot every corpse in sight (because why not, it's not like we can smell them, or feel the slimy grossness), break into every provisions barrel, crack open every chest, perform every quest in the promise of loot, glorious loot, as much as we can carry, LOOOOOOOOOOT.

But then we get overburdened. We start having to pass up some loot, or to get rid of loot to pick up better loot. And we don't have any place to store our loot because we're still saving up for a house. A house we must buy for gold.

So what we need to do is, we need to turn that loot into gold. And for that we need to visit the Store.

Ah, the Store, whereat arcane algorithmic calculations of varying complexity (depending on the game) and fairness calculate how many pieces of gold each piece of loot is worth. And we sell and trade and unencumber ourselves. Maybe we improve our equipment a bit. Maybe we get rid of a weapon or piece of armor or object that we can't use because we're the wrong class or don't have high enough stats or whatever.

Ever thought about what happens to the stuff we sell and trade after that? Ever wonder what the NPC behind the counter does when we're not haggling with him?

Patrick McLean did, and he decided he'd find out, and thus we have The Merchant Adventurer, a novel that celebrates all of the silly approximations we play through in fantasy games but sends out a fat old man with a Bag of Holding full of all of the best stuff from his store, on a quest of his very own!

Boltec, our titular hero, reminds me more than a little bit of another fat old man hero whom I loved a lot, Adoulla from Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon. In his youth, he was as starry-eyed and keen to be a hero as Relan, the eager young farmboy he has sort of backed into befriending; now he is tired and cynical and keen on nothing but his wealth -- or almost nothing.

Turns out, and he's as surprised as anyone, he also loves one Asarah, the supremely confident, competent, and beautiful in that "mature" way owner and operator of the tavern across the street from his shop.*

The tavern that gets burned down when an evil wizard and his orc army sack the village and make of with Asarah, not for prurient purposes, but because the wizard needs somebody on staff who can make 
a decent sandwich.

Don't worry, it gets addressed.

But lest you think this is going to be a story involving a lot of training and work to recover lost fighting skills, or to train up a new generation... Nah! Boltac knows his skill set. Boltac is going to use his skill set. Boltac is going to make a deal.

Along the way we encounter lots of other amusing archetypes from the fantasy game world, including a shifty thief and the aforementioned wizard (who has really had it with all of these adventurers interrupting his studies to try and steal his stuff), but there is also, of all things, a sympathetic orc character, Samga.

I kind of love Samga almost as much as I love Boltac, you guys.

The resulting novel is a fun little romp (though yes, it could maybe have used one more whack from the Claymore of Copy-Editing) , one that was obviously even more fun for MacLean to write than for us to read. Fun for everybody!

Except maybe that poor troll trapped under the Mace of Encumbrance. Poor fella. So confused when his dinner offered him a big shiny toy to hold for a moment.

Hee hee!

*So, yes, cast Alex Kingston as Asarah and be done with it. Maybe Ian MacNiece as Boltac while you're at it.