Prince of Fools is the first of a new series set in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire world, and it brings us another young man rather fundamentally different from the last one. Filling in the gaps which surround the previous trilogy, Prince of Fools introduces Jalan Kendeth, a young man about as different from Jorg Ancrath as it is possible to be and still get anything done. Some exceptionally witty dialogue and one or two call backs to the other trilogy really tied them together, but Prince of Fools also stands alone as the introduction to this world even if you never read the other series.
The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.
The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumour—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.
After escaping a death trap set by The Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.
I feel like Prince of Fools is a novel that is very keenly aware of what series it ties into. While I appreciated the callbacks to Prince of Thorns, their effectiveness as scenes on their own fell a little flat if you happened to not know what they were referencing. As criticisms go, ‘your inside jokes were inside jokes’ isn’t exactly a damning one, and let’s make sure I’m clear: they in no way made the book any less great. Jalen is a fantastic character, and falls into that category of protagonist that I really enjoy sometimes. He feels like he is intensely realistic and pragmatic, and not at all above looking out for himself first, but when it comes down to it, he’s actually very effective, and eventually, very loyal. You may only grow on him like a fungus, but when you do, he’s a good guy to know. In spite of that, I still felt like there were just one or two too many nods and nudges to the people who’d already read the other books.
With that criticism out of the way, I can get on to the good stuff. Mark Lawrence has somehow managed to write what is basically a buddy cop Fantasy Epic. Snorri the viking is a big bluff warrior, he’s on a quest, he’s not stopping for anything, and he likes to do things by the book. Mind you, the book he’s referring to generally says ‘just break everything between you and where you’re headed’ but even so. Then Jalen is the snarky, sarcastic junior detective who thinks the rules are just a good way to get yourself killed. He gets pulled along on the mission in spite of himself, and manages to grow a little as a person. They all have beers at the end. It’s fantastic stuff. The pacing of Prince of Fools bears this out. Just over 350 pages in hardcover, yet covering a huge amount of ground. There are some phenomenal establishing shots that really succinctly capture the essence of these characters, and then they’re off to the races.
Lawrence has done that great balancing act that seems rare in fantasy these days: keeping the scale small enough around the characters that the novel is more about them than about the larger events in the world, while still keeping those larger events large and looming. There’s a sense of foreboding when we can see how there are bigger things coming than they realise. Watching them celebrate a victory when you can see how little that victory is going to mean any day now really adds a touch of darkness to what might have otherwise been a fairly typical ‘All home in time for supper’ story. Of course, knowing what’s coming from the Broken Empire series might have something to do with it, but I do think that the effect isn’t lost reading this one first.
Altogether, I was quite happy with Prince of Fools. It had an interesting and far more relatable protagonist (This one’s just a coward, not a sociopath), an engaging and very well-paced plot, and some of the best pull quotes I’ve ever read in any novel ever. All folded in around a really interesting world with awesome things happening. The second book in the series The Liar’s Key is slated for a June 2015 release, and I’m quite interested to see where Lawrence brings our foolish Prince next. A great read and one I highly endorse!
Dan received a copy of Prince of Fools from the author.