Review: The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence, with covers by Jason Chan. UK on the left, US on the right.
The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence, with covers by Jason Chan. UK on the left, US on the right.

Okay so here’s the thing. It’s no secret I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. I read his first book, Prince of Thorns, and I was hooked. I’ve reviewed every book as he’s released them – beforehand, in one case, since I managed to get hold of an ARC. I pre-ordered The Liar’s Key in September last year. Mr Lawrence has got a great voice to his prose, one that keeps me reading – this time round til 1:30am two nights running – and fantastically fun protagonists. There was never any doubt in my mind that once again he’d pull it off and I’d of course review his book and say it’s great. Which it is.

And therein lies the problem. There’s only so many ways you can say “this author’s great”. But I’ll see what I can manage.

Let’s start with what this book is all about. Book Two in The Red Queen’s War trilogy, The Liar’s Key follows on from Prince of Fools, wherein Prince Jalan Kendeth, a lover of pleasure and leisure and not getting killed, got himself magicked into a connection with a determined Norseman, Snorri ver Snagason, and dragged off on an adventure into the far north, where there was no leisure, little pleasure, and lots of opportunities to get killed.

The Liar’s Key starts with their journey south beginning as Snorri sets off on a fresh quest, and Jal finds himself running from the family of a lady friend (and the threat of a wedding to said ladyfriend), along with Tuttugu, Snorri’s kinsman. Their journey south, accompanied by a witch called Kara, proves just as dangerous as their journey north. The dangerous Edris Dean is in pursuit and the Dead King sends the undead to try to get hold of the key. There are also insights into the past, the earlier life of Jal’s grandmother, the Red Queen of Red March, showing where the seeds of conflict were planted and revealing some of her character.

The book is full of action, adventure, twists and turns, and witticisms from the very quotable Jalan that add a touch of lightness – balancing out some of the revelations of the story which bring down the darkness.

Jalan is a fantastic character, relatable and human. A man built primarily of vices which he is very aware of and honest to himself about, he finds he has to justify himself against that view of himself when the time comes to act with bravery and for the sake of friendship. When “it’s the right thing to do” sounds like a poor reason to do something, he seeks for a selfish reason and does the right thing anyway. That’s part of what makes him such a fun character to follow on these adventures.

The Liar’s Key adds depth to the story of the world so far, giving content stretching back decades not just to Jalan’s story, but to that of the world at large, the Broken Empire for which the first trilogy is named. And while that first trilogy was fairly confined to centre around one character, Jorg – his ambitions, his past, his family, and his actions – in The Liar’s Key we see the world blossom. This isn’t a story about two men connected by magic, seeking out their own personal goals. This is just their view, their part within a story that began long before they were born and which is being played out across the Broken Empire. While Jal and Snorri take centre stage, there’s a lot more going on in the wings, and backstage, that we see hints of. Just enough to see it’s there, but not so much it distracts from Jal and Snorri’s story.

From one chapter to the next, I was never able to guess where things would turn next. That’s one of the things I love about Mark Lawrence’s writing: it is unpredictable. And yet there is a smoothness to it, a naturalness; the plot moves forward in a logical manner, consistent with the characters’ actions and the mechanisms of the world, but never in a way that can be guessed at in advance. It’s set up clearly at the beginning where the story will end – the location, that is. How the characters get there, and how things turn out at each stop along the way, right to the very last sentence, is a constant surprise. It made The Liar’s Key a pleasure to read – a journey of discovery and wonder.

I find that I am without options here: I cannot rate this story as anything less than 10/10. From the humour to the action, the touching moments, the moments that made me curse my eyelids for closing without my permission at 1:30am because I wasn’t done reading yet, this was a fantastic book, a brilliant book.

A further note:

I said in my obituary piece about Terry Pratchett that when I read Nation, I found myself in a state of being nothing more than a Reader – unaware of self and of time and place, until the end of a chapter reminded me of all that. This has only happened once, with that book. But if it ever happens again, I will not be surprised if it is Mark Lawrence’s writing that gets me there.

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