Prince of Fools is the fourth novel by Mark Lawrence, and the first of the new Red Queen’s War series. It takes place concurrently with the Broken Empire series, which I’ve reviewed previously (here, here and here). Prince of Fools follows Jalan Kendeth, one of several princes of Red March, a self-confessed coward and womaniser, who finds himself at the mercy of mysterious spell which magically binds him to a Viking named Snorri ver Snagason, who is on a rescue mission northwards. They battle mercenaries and undead beings, as Jalan seeks ways to break the spell and run away home. They even – briefly – encounter the Broken Empire protagonist Jorg on the way, along with a few other characters from that series.
It is difficult to review this book without comparison to the Broken Empire series. Where Jorg was violent and ambitious, the narration of Prince of Fools via Jalan’s point of view has more fun to it. Wittier and with a lively frankness at times. For those who frowned at Jorg’s darkness, Jalan’s morality may be more appealing; he is no golden paragon, but he does not have Jorg’s murderous ambition. That’s not to say he’s any less driven – just in different directions. I find Jalan an enjoyable character to follow, fun in many respects, with a depth to his personality that lends him interest and promises that the remainder of The Red Queen’s War will be just as good.
While Jalan himself doesn’t match Jorg for darkness, the book overall does. Lawrence has developed some very sinister undead beings that inspire horror on more than one level. Their inclusion lends the plot great menace and reiterates what was revealed in the Broken Empire trilogy, that the world in which these stories are set is a very dark, broken one indeed.
With a smaller core cast and a strong secondary character, I felt that Lawrence did better than he did in the Broken Empire series in showing the personalities of characters beside the protagonist. Snorri’s personality came through very well, both the highs and lows of his character – such that it’s clear that he has as much depth to him as Jalan.
The plot was strong, with a sense of direction from the outset that gave the story the feeling of there being a definite goal, even if it wasn’t initially clear what or where the goal was. The events that paved the plot’s path were neither predictable nor dull, but made sense in the context of the story and kept things moving, while revealing character for both the key figures. The story ended well, with action and menace, darkness and lightness, and the promise of fresh adventure and different kinds of challenges in the next book.
For someone who has read the Broken Empire, there were some references back to that series, without taking the story off course to allow for them. A few little references to things outside that series, too, gave reward to wider readers of fantasy, or even anyone aware even of general culture, again in a manner which did not detract from the story or characters but which would produce a laugh. I won’t spoil them, but I did enjoy the circus sign and the name of the longboat they travel on.
Overall I rate Prince of Fools 10/10. I cannot find fault with it. Well paced, populated with interesting and varied characters and in particular a protagonist with depth, a plot with adventure sometimes exciting and sometimes dark – and occasionally both. A world which grows in depth and darkness with every chapter. And promise that The Red Queen’s War will continue to possess the same strength and enjoyment as it continues.