Stunning. Vivid. Intense. Deceptive. Cruel. These are some of the many descriptive words that can be used to describe Mark Lawrence's book, the Prince of Fools. In short, I recommend you read the first book in The Red Queen's War. In the not-so-short, I will try to share my thoughts on Lawrence's work, without spoilers.
To set the stage for my review, understand that this was my first forray into the wild mind of Mark Lawrence. I had a good understanding of what to expect, if I were to ever read through the Broken Empire trilogy, so anything that I might read in the Prince of Fools wouldn't surprise me. I was firmly grounded with an understanding that our protagonist would very likely be an unlikable bastard to some Nth degree, but I was prepared for that.
Now Jalan Kendeth was no Jorg, but he was a slimy character indeed. I hated him from the start. I even told my wife from the begining, "Yeah, not sure I'm gonna like this one. I'll finish it, but—yeah..." I was determined to read it, for no other reason than the fact that Mark Lawrence had come so highly recommended by—well, everyone. So I just dug in, and let the story take me, and take me it did!
Jalan's self-seeking nature and absolute lack of a moral compass for the majority of the story was irritating. So often I wanted him to get the comeuppance that he narrowly escaped so often. You hoped that if his honorable (at least by Viking standards) counterpart Snorri ver Snagason couldn't rub off on him, that at least the mighty angel who frequented his dreams would at least convict him to alter his course. Interstingly, it is this thread of hope that runs throughout the story of Jalan's adventures and misdeeds, that Lawrence is able to pull on to keep you closely knit to, even endeared in some strange way to, this spineless weasle of a man.
One of the greatest sections of that thread that Lawrence penned was at the end of chapter 11. I will spare you the details, as to avoid the spoiler, but for the very first time in the story, Jalan actually shows the tiniest ounce of compassion for another human being. As he listened to Snorri's tale of woe, something inside him stirs. Jalan calls it Snorri's magic. The Norseman's tragic tale of sorrow is the first thing to conjure this magic called compassion, inside the prince's heart. When reading these passages, you also realize, that perhapse our narrator is onto something. It is magic. What I mean, is that Lawrence's writing, especially as he details Snorri's bitter memories, are masterfully written. Lawrence has many poignant moments of prose, his shortest often being the most evocative, and the following line from said chatper is one of the best.
“Death was kind.” He drew a sharp breath. “But no father should have to give such kindness to his child.
Perhaps it is only due to my sensitivities as a father, but this simple line hit me like a ton of bricks. It also made me love our Viking hero even more. Speaking of Snorri, I must say he is one of my favorite characters that I have read about, ever. Physically, he is the epitome of the Viking warrior, a giant, axe wielding barbarian. I love that he continually shows he is more educated than our spoiled prince, and his honor, according to his customs, is impeccable. He always seems to be one step-ahead of the prince, in just about every regard. Add his internal battles with Aslaug to the list, and you have this wonderful character, that you can't help but root for.
Another one of the things that I really appreciated about the Prince of Fools is the magic that bound them together. I won't spill the details, but the inventiveness of the light and dark was just awesome. Light versus dark is certainly not a new concept, but the deployment here is really cool (Well done my friend). I also loved the waffling that we experience with Jalan as we travel deeper into his psyche. I began to wonder if I had been had all along, and if he was truly just an unreliable narrator, who was believing his own lies. a victim to his own ruse. Maybe, maybe not. You will have to read it to decide. The final thing that I really liked, was the cameo of Jorg. Now I don't know Jorg, but his brief inclusion into the story added a certain depth to the world, along with a great deal of mystery. It let me know that this world was much bigger than this story, and I loved it! Will I read the Broken Empire trilogy? I don't know, but now I am more inclined to do so.
Now, like with any book, there are pieces that we don't love. These are usually just a matter of opinion, and they very well could be the very things that another person loves. Here is my (very) short list.
Jalan was a horny, self-centered scumbag. I get it. I just wish his narrative wasn't so sexually driven. He was worse than the thirteen year old boy who produces the Game of Thrones tv show. At least it isn't graphic.
My only dislike regarding Snorri was his speech pattern. I would have liked for a more unique voice, or dialect, for all the Vikings actually. However, having a more common speech pattern was probably a blessing, considering the amount of dialog he has. Overall, not a big deal.
This next gripe probably could have been cleared up by having actually read the Broken Empire trilogy, but I was confused when I read the world trains. Up until that point, I was honestly oblivious to the fact that we were in some far-future that had returned to more primitive ways. So the train bit confused me. Then I was curious why there were so few "artifacts" left behind by the "builders". There is probably a reasonable explanation, but I missed it.
The final thing that I had a hard time with in the book, was Mr. Lawrence's writing style. Now I want to be clear, the book is wonderfully written. I just found that on occassion, I would run across a sentence that would cause me to stumble. I couldn't always put my finger on it, but the lines just did not flow naturally to me. It seemed that they were either disjointed or inverted. They were not exactly Yoda lines, but they didn't flow well. If it were in dialogue, no one would think twice about it. However, when it is not in dialogue it feels clunky. My only thought is that since Jalan is our narrator, it is his internal dialogue. If that is indeed the reason, then it makes sense. That being said, maybe it's just me, picking on things that don't need to be picked on.
Overall, I really liked the first installment of the Prince of Fools. The few issues noted above were not enough to steal my enjoyment., and I look forward to continuing The Red Queen's War, by reading The Liar's Key.