Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence (Red Queen's War #1)

This review contains minor spoilers.

"I'm a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play or bravery."

Prince of Fools, the first story in The Red Queen's War trilogy is set in The Broken Empire and introduces readers to Prince Jalan. He is the Red Queen's grandson, just out of his teenage years and his main interests are gambling, lying, drinking, whoring and running away from any form of confrontation, at high speed.

The start of the tale sees Jalan being chased by a disgruntled brother whose sister he has just been 'involved' with. After scampering away comically and finally finding solace, The Red Queen, to his exhausted dismay, calls an assembly in which she discusses the threat of recent sightings of the dead rising and wreaking havoc, perhaps controlled by the Dead King's necromancers and being raised in opposition against Red March and the whole empire. It is at this early scene that we are introduced to arguably, the novel's most important character, Norse warrior, Snorri ver Snagason.

Snorri, as he is known to his friends; at first seems like he is nothing more than a well-chiselled warrior brute. Magical circumstances make it so that Jalan and Snorri, an unlikely traveling duo, have to work together to achieve a prophesied goal they do not truly understand. Secondary to this in the grand scheme of things yet, Snorri's main focus is to rescue his wife and child from the notorious Sven Broke-Oar, and Snorri divulges information about his mission to Jalan as the story progresses through late night campfire stories of his past. Snorri is like an epic warrior hero straight out of a Norse or Icelandic saga. He reminded me a bit of Egill Skallagrímsson. Still relating to the similarities to the sagas, I have to applaud Lawrence's knowledge and research of this age which is present throughout the tale. Nice simple touches such as revering the Gods Odin, Loki, Thor etc... but if you look a bit deeper, there are a few gems such as the fact that his namesake, Snorri Sturluson wrote the Poetic Edda which was a collection of Old Norse poems, and Snorri's horse is named Sleipnir. This just so happens to be the same name as Odin's legendary eight-legged steed in mythology.

The map of The Broken Empire is highly reminiscent of Europe. The tale takes our duo from Red March, which is approximately Greece, up to the Black Fort and The Bitter Ice which is the equivalent of Northern Sweden or Finland. It is quite a trek. A large amount of action happens across the journeying, such as hanging out with circus entertainers, fighting Undead, running through a fiery forest that seems to be alive and also, chilling in an inn in Ancrith whilst some young Prince has returned to his homeland after many years absent.

This tale is set concurrently with Prince of Thorns. I won't say too much but, Jalan and Snorri do cross paths with a few of the Road Brothers, mostly drunken banter with Snorri, and we hear actions described that we know from the above-mentioned story such as Jorg's duel with Sir Gallan. This story definitely works as a stand-alone if someone had not read Lawrence's prior works, but layers are added if you have read Prince of Thorns.

Now bear with me here, the world of the Broken Empire is not as well envisaged as certain fantasy worlds created by some of the genre's heavyweights. The reason for this is that the world is so similar to our own with the Gods, philosophers and map layout as already discussed. This adds to the charm of the world so actually works in the author's favour. Sometimes in fantasy, you lose yourself in a world, here, we always have one foot in our world and one foot within Lawrence's creation, The Broken Empire. I hope that makes sense, but it is definitely a positive. This story is littered with cool lines that relate to our world in this fantasy opus. My favourite was an elephant called Nelly to which Jalan responds something along the lines of, what else would it be called?

Like the majority of first novels in an epic trilogy or more, flashback sections are frequent to add weight and depth to the characters. These are presented in two distinctive ways. Jalan, as our first person narrative, reminiscent of Jorg's internal monologue, talks about his past through his thoughts when an event makes him take a walk down memory lane. Snorri's backstory, as briefly mentioned is him spinning his tale of tribulation late at night to Jalan over the warmth of the campfire with the stars as the backdrop to his tragedy.

Jalan and Snorri are one of the finest duos I have had the pleasure of reading about. They are so different. Jalan, the majority of the time is scheming, thinking of a way to run away, however; against his self-centred better judgment, he and Snorri do become great friends. Their relationship is up there with Tehol and Bugg and Legolas and Gimli.

I was lucky enough to read Mark Lawrence's  Red Sister as an advanced review and rated it highly. This is different, but in my opinion, it is just as good for an opening to a trilogy. I thought this was stunning and cannot wait to read The Liar's Key.
James Tivendale, 9.4/10

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence is the first book of a new trilogy set in the same universe and at the same time as The Broken Empire trilogy. While it is not necessary to have read any of The Broken Empire books to read Prince of Fools, I think your experience will certainly be enriched if you have read at least Prince of Thorns and can identify the moments where the two stories cross paths.

The story follows Prince Jalan Kendeth, a scoundrel of loose morals who uses his station to his advantage. When a magical terror attack is made against the royalty of Red March attending an opera, Prince Jalan (or Jal) escapes with his life by doing what he does best, running as fast as he can away from danger, with the powerful magic snapping at his heels the whole way. The thing with Jal is that he's often too focused on where he is running from, and not where he's running to, and in this case he runs into the Viking Snorri Snagason, the magic catches up, and the two men become magically bound to each other. Jal wants to break the bindings as fast as possible, but Snorri is headed north to rescue his family, and he will drag the Prince all the way if he has to.

The first thing you will notice with this book, and what will probably carry through for the entire trilogy, is the lighter tone of the book. While Jorg is a deadly serious man with a dry scowl to match his dry wit, Jal is the joker, the fool, the happy-go-lucky Prince who will lie, cheat and steal because it’s fun. It is a refreshing change of scenery that contrasts well against the grim background of the Broken Empire, and while Prince of Fools is not without its serious and dark moments, it is not the defining feature of the story. I would say that even if you didn't like Prince of Thorns because of the content and how grim it is, you should still try Prince of Fools because this lighter tone may work better for you, and you will get to experience Lawrence's excellent writing.

The next thing you will notice, if you have read The Broken Empire trilogy, is that Lawrence is much more generous with the magical aspects of this story. It is a very European / Norse style of magic with undead, ghosts, liches, gods, trickery, and fortune telling, all with some very vague explanations. In an environment where Brandon Sanderson has set the trend for highly complex scientifically explained magic systems, it is refreshing to have magic with an intangible essence that is hard to explain, but that has very tangible real world effects. It is very Arthurian, and that really appeals to me.

Finally, just go ahead and read Prince of Fools. It is a fantastic book that does so many things right, and that I have really struggled to find fault with. The Liar's Key cannot come fast enough.
Ryan Lawler, 9.8/10

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.

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.

Told through the eyes of Prince Jalan, a womanising, self-centred coward who uses his title to fund his lifestyle, we are taken on a journey to the frozen North where men are raising the dead and unborn to fight. Teeming with Vikings, mercenaries, circus folk and witches, the plot itself is undeniably enthralling and will keep you hooked from early on in the book, and the pace is certainly set quick enough that you feel yourself swept up in the excitement and danger of it all.

Jalan’s companion, a Viking warrior named Snorri, is a fantastic character and it’s difficult not to be entranced by his boundless enthusiasm when approaching both life and battle. You learn his backstory as you go and I found myself drawn to him far more than I was to Jalan. There are stark contrasts between them, Jalan is royalty while Snorri is just a commoner, Jalan is a coward while Snorri is a fierce warrior, etc., and they are bound together by some unknown magic. You accompany them as their unusual and involuntary friendship blossoms, straining at many points as the magic threatens to devour them, turn them against one another. The prince is presented as your typical anti-hero, and sometimes it reads more like a ‘Mary Sue’ than serious writing, and he occasionally grates because of it. It’s not the fact that Jalan is afraid at pretty much every point in the novel - he’s actually a bit more relatable than Snorri because of it - it’s the fact that every single page will have some reference to the women that Jalan has bedded, is bedding or intends to bed at some point.

Fortunately, this is the only thing that mars an otherwise fantastic book with heartfelt, honest characters and a fast-paced plot which is intriguing, amusing and in places rather chilling. I eagerly await the next instalment in the Red Queen series, rumoured to be coming out at some point in the next few months. I just hope Jalan begins to develop more as a character, not necessarily changing his ways but perhaps just growing in maturity!
Jo Fitzpatrick, 9/10

9/10 A fantastic book that does so many things right.

Reviews by and Ryan Lawler and Jo Fitzpatrick

Mark Lawrence biography

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Prince of Fools reader reviews

9.4/10 from 1 reviews

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