Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence
The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire fear her as they fear no other.
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.
Jalan Kendeth follows that finest of literary traditions, that of the scoundrel. You know the type, those platinum rogues who you should despise due to their looser than loose morals, but who manage to raise a smile every time they appear. I can’t help but cheer whenever I find a new name to add to that list. What of Prince Jalan then? Why does he deserve inclusion in this most select of clubs? Much like my personal favourite rogue, Sir Harry Paget Flashman, Jalan is a hedonistic cad who will actively avoid anything remotely resembling hard work, effort and more often than not, thought. Also in common with dear old Flashy, Jalan is a stone cold coward. He lives by the axiom that it is far better to run away so he can live to fight another day (as long as it is implicitly understood that the other day in question is somewhere off in the far, far future).
Helping others? Being a productive member of society? Making a difference in the world? Hell’s teeth, that sort of nonsense is for other people. The good prince would much rather spend his time indulging in his latest, in a long line of, debauched activities. He would happily wallow in sleaze all day every day if he got the opportunity. It’s ironic that your literary scoundrel often expends far more effort and energy avoiding a task than they ever would if they had just done a job in the first place.
In order for our fictitious rascal to suitably flourish, they require a ying to their ever-disreputable yang. The Viking warrior Snorri ver Snagason is everything that Prince Jalan is not – honourable, heroic and a stable family man to boot. Circumstance throws these two opposites together and the resulting relationship between them is one of the novel’s many highlights. Snorri is, at least initially, blissfully ignorant of Jalan’s true nature and views him as something akin to an equal. As a grudging respect builds between both men they slowly begin to bring out the best in one another.
The lands that Jalan and Snorri travel through have a wonderfully evocative feel. I love how they mirror our own world, large chunks of historical Europe appear to be represented in some form or another, but also manage to be completely different in other more fundamental respects.
A quick Internet search also reveals that some of the characters from Lawrence’s previous series, the Broken Empire trilogy, appear in Prince of Fools. I’m sure this will please existing readers and if, like me, you’re a recent convert will entice you to seek out more.
As their quest continues to unfold, the Prince learns more of how Snorri lives his life and it forces him to confront his own failings. He slowly begins to question his behaviour as well as examine the nature of what real heroism and cowardice actually mean. The plot gives Lawrence ample opportunity to ponder some pretty lofty topics. I don’t think I was expecting such introspection, but it’s a welcome inclusion and adds some genuine depth to both of the main protagonists. There is some fantastic writing on display, often insightful and also dryly humorous. I was impressed by how the plot is sprinkled with many of these little philosophical moments.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still also plenty of action to get your teeth stuck into. Snorri is from a seafaring warrior culture so fighting is always on the agenda. As the book builds towards its climax, Jalan and Snorri fall in with a larger group of Vikings and the scene is set for confrontation between the forces of good and evil. Blood will flow…
If you’ve never read this author before, Prince of Fools is a damn near perfect introduction to his work. On the evidence presented by this book alone, Mark Lawrence is obviously an author well worth any fantasy fan’s time.
Once again it appears, in a move probably worthy of Prince Jalan himself, I am more than fashionably late to this particular party. I can only apologise for my tardiness. I fear I have made an outrageous faux pas by overlooking Mr Lawrence’s body of work thus far. I shall endeavour to rectify this scandalous oversight as quickly as is humanly possible. I look forward to reading more as soon as my schedule will allow, in particular, book two of The Red Queen’s War.
Prince of Fools is published by Harper Voyager and is available from the 5th June. Highly recommended.