I'm reading and reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can follow along here. Voting has ended, but the prize isn't announced yet, so I'm forging on...
Prince of Fools (2014) is the start of a brand new series from Mark Lawrence. Lawrence's previous trilogy, The Broken Empire, picked up last year's DGLA with its concluding volume - Emperor of Thorns.1
Prince Jalan Kendeth is a noble and a jackass - and he would, I think, be the first to admit it. Born to privilege, but not responsibility, his primary concern in life is avoiding his creditors. And when Snorri Snagason - a captive Northerner - is hauled into court, Jalan thinks he's found a way. Snorri's a scary bastard, and, after pulling a string or two, he's Jalan's scary bastard - a pit-fighter that can get Jalan out of debt.
Except Snorri doesn't quite behave to plan. He escapes and, after an unfortunate magical incident, Jalan's dragged off with him. The two are linked together by a backfiring magical spell - one that's been kept from completion by Jalan and Snorri being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now they're two halves of an occult whole, a broken circuit. They can't bear to be together, but, magically linked, they can't stay apart. The heroic Snorri and the unscrupulous Jalan are off in search of a cure - a search that will take them through all the broken kingdoms of the land, and eventually, to a deep dark horror lurking in the frozen North.
There are four layers of conflict in Prince of Fools. First, there's a big traditional quest at the heart of this. Snorri and Jalan's vs The Big Bad - a heroic/suicidal bid to stop an ancient evil from creeping into our world. As expressed by going to a Dark Tower and smacking horrors with swords. That's the simplest conflict, and, although perfectly enjoyable, probably the least interesting.
Secondarily, there's a greater political scheme underfoot - Jalan's family matriarch, the Red Queen, is making her move, but what that is, we still don't know. Behind the scenes, other players are moving their pieces around the board - other 'wizards' (for lack of a better word) and their pawns. Although very intriguing, not much of this is fulfilled in Prince of Fools; these are seemingly hints towards the trilogy's greater plot.
Thirdly, there are Jalan and Snorri - the snotty noble brat and the Viking's Viking. The two make for a strange pair, and an undeniably appealing low fantasy road trip. Superficially, Jalan has everything - family, wealth, power, a home that's not covered in permafrost and ghouls. But Snorri has honor, dignity and, most of all, purpose. As much as this fantastical odd couple can't stand one another, Jalan can't help but be drawn to Snorri's determination. He may not share it, but he's (secretly or not) impressed by it.
Fourthly - and finally - there's Jalan vs himself. Again, there's a superficial level: a coming of age story, as the reader follows Jalan's journey to self-actualisation. He needn't be a pawn, or a fop, or a complete waste of carbon. He can set his mind to things; he can achieve. He can do what he wants, and those wants can be meaningful. With his discovery of agency, Jalan also discovers sacrifice and heroism, sharing and, well, goodness. This is a fantasy story - a redemption arc - we've read before, and we can bask in the light of how familiar and comforting it is.
Except, maybe it isn't.
When Jalan and Snorri interrupt the spell at the start of the book, they 'internalise' its energies.2 As a result, the broken halves of the spell - the light and the darkness - live within Jalan and Snorri. Snorri gets the Bad Goofy, a demon who has a lot of unpleasant suggestions. Jalan gets the Good Goofy, a pompous (in Jalan's eyes) angel with persistent demands on Jalan's behaviour. There are some perks that come with angelic/demonic possession, but, for the most part, it just involves a lot of whispering and unasked-for advice. As Prince of Fools develops, Jalan matures - or, well, maybe he doesn't. How much of his coming of age is the simple Disney dream of a Boy Learning His Lesson And Becoming a Man? And how much is the result of uncontrollable external forces? What begins as simple character development is actually something much more nuanced.
Returning to the very first line of this review - 'brand new' is deliberate phrasing. Lawrence's previous series was (and still is) a challenging collection of books. Jorg was an unusually provocative protagonist, as its anti-hero, Jorg, was defined by his actions in the opening pages - acts of shocking, callous violence. As the series went on, Jorg did more evil, more good and, ultimately, it would be left to the reader to judge if he were redeemed or not. An interesting series, to say the least, but what's also fascinating is how a few words on the opening pages of Prince of Thorns defined the series' entire tone.
With Prince of Fools, we have a new series. A new beginning, and another chance to make a first impression. A new brand, as the case may be. And, for the most part, it succeeds - and admirably. Fools maintains the moral complexity, the compelling characters and the layered storytelling of the previous series, but also has a certain sense of, well, humour. Certainly Fools is still a dark book, but has a slightly brighter emotional palate. While Thorns began with unconscionable violence, Fools begins with farce - a series of pratfalls. And similarly, while Thorns then spent a book adding shades of gray to an 'evil' protagonist, Fools adds seriousness and depth to someone initially presented as a shallow fop. Which is to say, in a long-winded fashion, Fools is entirely its own thing, and a good thing at that.3
Yes, but is it a GEMMELL thing?4
Is it fantastic? Yes. On a spectrum of magicky magic, Prince very much falls on the hand-wavey end. The core McGuffin of Prince of Fools is the broken spell - a plot hook that sends Jalan and Snorri on their rambling quest to the top of the world. Despite a few cursory attempts to make sense of it, magic is very magic in this world: an inexplicable, all-powerful force that deliberately defies rationality. It is fearsome and scary, and Jalan, with good cause, doesn't want to learn more about it. Hell, even the magic-users are difficult to pinpoint: some seem like they possess genuine sorcery. Others are - possibly - merely sneaky. And at least one might be a complete charlatan with a good nose for gossip. It is a magic 'system' that's non-systematic, and that's to my personal taste.
Just as the initial blast of magic serves as the plot's go-juice, the lingering effects of the spell serve as walking, talking metaphors for the ongoing character development. Jalan and Snorri wrestle with their good and evil impulses throughout the book - a struggle that's embodied, literally, by the spell. Where does the magic begin and the person end? How much of Jalan's heroism is a result of the geas, and how much is him growing as a person, and actually being himself? The fantastic is used here to provocative effect, as it deliberately undercuts the traditional narrative of the hero's journey.
Is it entertaining? Yes. There's a slow start, but once Jalan and Snorri start their quest, things warm up quickly. The structure of Prince of Fools is peripatetic - we jump from one scenario to another, with the transitions between left largely to the imagination. Unlike the books in Lawrence's previous trilogy, there's no narrative trickery here: this is an entirely linear tale, although not a wholly progressive one. Although the core conflict - resolving the curse - is established at the start and resolved in the final chapters, the fun of the book comes in the middle. Jalan and Snorri wander (destructively) through the world, ostensibly in search of a cure, but - surprise! - really just bonding, and developing, as people.
Is it immersive? Not really, no - at least not in the sense of world-building. As noted above, the world really only exists as a series of barely-linked set-pieces for Jalan and Snorri to encounter. Each location is certainly interesting enough, but Prince of Fools is focused on people, not places. Even the brutally bleak environment of the polar wastes plays second-fiddle to Jalan's introspection. But it is hard to argue with the results: this is a compellingly character-focused narrative.
Is it emotionally engaging? Yes. Jalan, who narrates throughout, has a charmingly self-absorbed tone of voice, which isn't, thankfully, pushed too far. He is snarkiest (and least likeable) in the opening chapters, but his growth - due to the spell, Snorri or his own maturity - happens quickly, and makes him a more nuanced protagonist.
Snorri is held more at a remove from the reader, at least, we only see him through Jalan's eyes (and Jalan has very firm opinions that cloud his judgement of the man). Arguably, Snorri is also less interesting - he's our Viking/Knight character with a simple quest, transparent motives and a wee bit of high fantasy naivete. He's a good influence on - and a good pair with - Jalan, but Snorri qua Snorri isn't all that exciting.
Is it embarrassing? No. Jalan's scummy, there's no question - but he's also presented as such. He's no role model. Interestingly enough, Fools has a really strong moral compass, the question is whether or not Jalan has the fortitude to follow it.
Is it different? Noooooooyessssssss... Not really, no. My argument against difference is that, well, it is a pretty straightforward quest. Dude gets a quest, a companion and some magical go-juice. He encounters wizards, learns his destiny, hikes to the lair of evil, and confronts said evil with a combination of destiny and mojo.
My argument for difference, is that Prince... um... does it well? I think what makes Prince of Fools smart is the way it investigates heroism and agency: what's it mean to be Chosen? And how much is you and how much credit goes to the external forces that are swaying your fate? But smart (and interesting) isn't different, so I'm afraid this, a bit like Half a King, goes into the "very well-written, but not 'different'" camp.
All in all, a very good, very thoughtful book that's both challenging and entertaining in equal measure. Highly recommended.
2. No idea. If you're looking for a detailed explanation of how this stuff works, go read Sanderson.↩
3. A grouse that's small enough to be footnoted - oh, also a small spoiler, I guess? - the one part of Fools I didn't like was the moment where Jorg appears. Unlike Jalan's other encounters (several of which include characters from the previous trilogy), this is the only one that doesn't stand on its own - it doesn't have particular dramatic weight unless you already know who Jorg is. And nothing really happens to develop either of their characters. I suspect we get more Jorg later on, as the politics come to the forefront, but for now, this is a nod for the sake of nodding. A splash of fan-service in an otherwise very literary fantasy novel.↩
4. Well, above and beyond the name 'Snagason'. Naming one of your primary characters after Gemmell's major character's axe (or, arguably, Gemmell's most compelling character, which also happened to be an inanimate object) is pretty Gemmelly.↩