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 wrecking 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 achieved a prophecised 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 saga’s, 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 God’s 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 dual with Sir Gallan. This story definitely works as a stand-alone if someone had not read Lawrence’ 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 1st 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.