Mark Lawrence – Prince of Fools (2014) Review

  • Genre: epic fantasy
  • Series: The Red Queen’s War, 1
  • Pages: 355
  • My Rating: 7.5/10

Mark Lawrence is the current master of the first-person narrative in epic fantasy. His first series, The Broken Empire trilogy, made great use of this perspective because it showed the rise of a despicable, violent young man to the throne of empire, and we could follow along all his outrageous actions. Prince of Fools is the first novel of a follow-up trilogy, set in the same world and again deploys a first-person narrative, but this time we follow a man who is despicable in a completely different way. Prince Jalan is a coward. He is a liar, a charlatan and smooth talker. Something closer to what Scott Lynch gave us in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Jalan is less honorable and more cowardly than Locke.

Can you read this book before having read the Broken Empire trilogy? Probably, but part of the fun is knowing what has happened. Prince Jalan is not paying any attention when Really Important Stuff is explained to him, but we know, oh oh oh, what is going to happen. He’ll learn soon enough.

The Lies of Locke Lamora isn’t the only novel that comes to mind when reading Prince of Fools. Jalan the sneaky and clever is paired up with a big, strong barbarian Viking named Snorri, who is the muscle of the two and the straight man. So, a bit like Locke and Jean Tannen, or a bit like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The Viking Snorri also reminded me of Cnaiur in R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series.

The first quarter of the novel did not impress me that much. Lawrence’s prose is again excellent, but so far the novel felt derivative of other – and dare I say better – novels (such as those mentioned above). The event that bonds Jalan and Snorri together is not very inventive. It involves some handwavey magic reasons that were invented by Lawrence just for that reason. And Jalan as a mischievous character only works up to a point. It is always fun to read about a scoundrel, but it starts to get old when he boasts again and again about how many women he has bedded. The worst thing is: he isn’t that funny.

For most of the novel, Jalan and Snorri are traveling across the continent, ending up in one adventure after another. As a story, it doesn’t really move fast. The scenes are snippets that have little connection to a tight moving plot, except that they all have to do with the looming threat that we already know from the previous trilogy. The story of Jorg was told in a similar way: loose moments of adventure. But in Jorg’s case, all those moments had a clear goal: they showed Jorg’s rise to power, like a biography. In Prince of Fools, the story is much closer to a travelogue.

Some highlights are those moments when the route of Jalan and Snorri intersects with that of Jorg from the first trilogy, and some events in this novel occur in tandem with what has come before. But it is a bad sign for a book when its highlights rest on the success of an earlier work. Prince of Fools so far feels like an addendum to a story that was much more exciting the first time around. Jalan and Snorri do make for a nice couple, but I can’t help feeling that the most important story has been told already.

I will just say again that Mark Lawrence has a very strong and pleasing writing style, is very good with action scenes and has a knack for witty dialogue. His novel is a pleasure to read. But the only thing holding Prince of Fools together is the banter between Jalan and Snorri and Jalan’s cowardly inner thoughts, and it misses tension, it misses exciting world-building and forward momentum; in other words, it misses what a first novel in a trilogy needs to truly stand on its own legs.

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