Her grandson Jalan Kendeth is a coward, a cheat and a womaniser; and tenth in line to the throne. While his grandmother shapes the destiny of millions, Prince Jalan pursues his debauched pleasures. Until he gets entangled with Snorri ver Snagason, a huge Norse axe man, and dragged against his will to the icy north.
In a journey across half the Broken Empire, Jalan flees minions of the Dead King, agrees to duel an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath, and meets the ice witch, Skilfar, all the time seeking a way to part company with Snorri before the Norseman’s quest leads them to face his enemies in the black fort on the edge of the Bitter Ice.
Experience does not lend Jalan wisdom; but here and there he unearths a corner of the truth. He discovers that they are all pieces on a board, pieces that may be being played in the long, secret war the Red Queen has waged throughout her reign, against the powers that stand behind thrones and nations, and for higher stakes than land or gold.
Mark Lawrence’s debut novel Prince of Thorns is still one of my favourite debuts I’ve read since starting A Fantastical Librarian. And while it took me a while to get to reading King of Thorns, I loved that as well, so much so that I’ve yet to read Emperor of Thorns; partly because reviewing obligations, but also because I’m not sure I want Jorg’s story to be over. But as I unlocked it as one of my unstretch goals last month, sooner or later Jorg’s journey well have to end for me too. So I was really excited to start a new adventure set in the world of the Broken Empire, this time focusing on a different part of it, but set concurrently with Jorg’s tale. And to be honest, I might be even more reluctant to finish this one when book three comes out, because Jalan is just a wonderful narrator and his story is great.
Jalan definitely is not Jorg. They certainly have things in common – both are princes, both have lost their mother – but where Jorg was angry and rather sociopathic, Jalan is a hedonist and a coward, though I suspect perhaps the latter is more by choice than disposition. Because while Jalan certainly talks the talk, he doesn’t quite walk the walk; in fact, in those cases where it really counts he’s far braver than he gives himself credit for. He prides himself on being shallow, because being deep is too much work, but he has to work really hard to retain his veneer of shallowness. He doesn’t want anyone thinking that he cares about anything in any way, except for of course Prince Jalan. This mind-set made his utter shock when he refers to Snorri as a friend, even funnier, as he really didn’t (want to) see it coming.
Like Jorg, Jalan has a boon companion, but Snorri is no Makin. Both are amazingly-skilled fighters, but where Makin is dedicated to Jorg out of a strained sort of loving duty, Snorri has his own goals and, at least at the start of their association, Jalan is all but incidental to these. Snorri is a tragic hero; a good man driven to darker deeds through circumstance. We get his story relayed through Jalan, who recounts them when Snorri occasionally tells parts of his story at night by the camp fire. This did make me wonder about the details of the story, because Jalan’s world view is bound to colour his recounting of the story. Snorri’s tale is wrought through with grief and vengeance and it’s painful to read, but I also admired that Snorri sets his despair aside once he sees the larger picture and puts the greater good before his shattered heart.
The world building remained wonderful. I enjoyed seeing more of the Broken Empire and seeing more clues to our own world spring up. The narrative intersects with The Broken Empire books, both geographically and in the form of what can almost be called easter eggs, even glimpsing Jorg and Katherine in passing. There is a section of the book set in Ancrath where Jalan, Snorri, Jorg and Makin pass each other like ships in the night, but where we know exactly who they are. That section was so cool and I loved how Lawrence set it up. I also liked that when I went back to Prince of Thorns, I could find the scene easily and in there Jalan and Snorri’s presence can only be glimpsed in one sentence, but it is there. That’s just the sort of detail that makes a book so much richer in texture and depth to me. I also loved the bit of Katherine we saw in the book! Her handling of Jalan’s wandering eyes and hands was brilliant. This does lead me to my least favourite passage in the book: Jalan’s encounter with the Queen, Jorg’s stepmother. I really didn’t like how she tried to get Jalan to do what she wanted by making him think with his little head instead of his big head. I thought it demeaned both her and him, even if for most of the book Jalan is set up as a ladies’ man with appetites—it just felt like an easy choice.
Lawrence’s prose has always been a draw for me. I love how he can find beauty in the most awful things. In Prince of Fools, he not only gives us some more wonderful descriptions, he also litters his text with amazing aphorisms, some of them philosophical, some of them humorous. He also once again includes some great allusions to our own world in the narrative, such as Snorri telling Jalan they’ll take a train – not really a carriage on tracks, but a road following the ancient railway, which cleared a pretty straight track through some rather mountainous terrain – and weaving in the first few lines of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. This tickled my inner English student and also made me reconsider the text in a different light. All of this makes Lawrence’s writing compelling, but what makes it even more enjoyable is that the dialogue and Jalan’s observations are also often freaking funny. Jalan has a similar sense of wit as Jorg has, though he’s less dark – dare I say grim? – about it.
In short, I loved Prince of Fools. With Prince of Thorns Mark Lawrence captured my attention, King of Thorns made him a must-read, but Prince of Fools captured my heart. Snorri’s love and grief for his family broke my heart and the slowly, but surely, growing friendship between Jalan and Snorri went some way to repair it. I can’t wait to return to Jalan and Snorri in the next book, but in the meantime, I’ll have to just go read Emperor of Thorns to catch up with Jorg. Prince of Fools is a great start to the Red Queen’s War and a great entry point into Lawrence’s world of The Broken Empire. For those of you who were put off by the gritty and dark flavour of Prince of Thorns, Prince of Fools might just be the book to reel you back in. While Prince of Fools is classic Lawrence, it is somewhat lighter on the grit and so perhaps somewhat more accessible than its predecessor. One of my favourite reads so far this year and highly recommended.
This book was provided by the publisher.