One of the things that I always admired about the late David Gemmell was that, unlike many fantasy authors, he seemed to understand the truth of heroes – that they are usually men and women forged in the fire of a single moment, not people that scamper about committing one act of heroism after another for their entire lives.
Gemmell probably could have made a good career for himself writing book after book about his hero Druss the Legend, but gave us only a handful. Instead, he moved around the Drenai world both in time and location to give us glimpses of the rise and fall of other heroes.
It’s that same approach that Mark Lawrence uses as he begins his second trilogy, the Red Queen’s War, with “Prince of Fools” ($26.95, Ace), though I’m not sure that anyone would call Prince Jalan Kendeth a hero. But then, Jorg Ancrath was hardly a hero either.
“Prince of Fools” is set in the same world and time as Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, and we do indeed bump into Jorg and his band of road brothers for a brief moment. But this book focuses completely on Jalan and his unlikely Norse companion Snorri ver Snagason (and speaking of Gemmell, how’s that for a nice tip of the hat?).
Jalan Kendeth is an unabashed coward. In the same way that Jorg was often very philosophic about the darker side of life, Jalan offers the same insight into the heart of the coward. He’s a drunk, a womanizer and a general no-good lout – everything you’d expect of a spoiled and privileged younger prince.
When Snorri, who is much more of the heroic type, shows up as a prisoner of Jalan’s grandmother, the Red Queen, the prince sees a chance to put to rest a debt that he owes a shady and dangerous money lender by entering the Norseman in the pit fights. Snorri, though, proves more resourceful than Jalan gives him credit for, escaping from the pits with quite a bit of flair.
A dark alley meeting a bit later in the story, as Jalan flees a curse cast by his grandmother’s confidante, the Silent Sister, binds the two together, for better or worse. Against his will, the pampered prince gets dragged into the harsh world of the Norseman, on a quest of rescue and vengeance.
Though still dark and gritty, “Prince of Fools” doesn’t quite reach the same level of disturbing that Lawrence’s previous trilogy did. Jalan is certainly not a nice guy, but neither does he have the darkness, an often fascinating darkness, that Jorg displayed. Where Jorg was a man of action, Jalan gets pulled this way and that, showing flashes of what he might become if he weren’t such a coward.
At least in the first book, Snorri, seen through the prince’s eyes, seems to be the more fascinating character – a tortured soul who, you feel, knows deep down that his quest is doomed, but refuses to give up or allow himself to fall into despair. The positive attitude he takes in the face of almost certain tragedy makes him almost the anti-Jorg.
Lawrence also brings his trademark dark humor to “Prince of Fools,” and there are moments when, as unlikeable as Jalan can be at times, he leaves you laughing with some of his inner thoughts.
And that, I suppose, is what I like most of all about Lawrence’s work. It takes a rare talent to present readers with characters that are not likeable – people who are evil or despicable and seemingly without a shred of decency – and make them care about what happens and want to read more.
Though I was always fascinated with Jorg and his demons, by the end of “Emperor of Thorns,” I found that I actually liked him despite myself. I have faith that Lawrence can bring about the same transformation with Jalan over the course of the coming books. I also get the feeling that the Red Queen’s War and the Broken Empire trilogy will end up being far more connected than it appears at the moment.
“Prince of Fools” gets things off to a very good start in Lawrence’s second trilogy with some intriguing possibilities that my mind is already running through. I look forward to what revelations are to come.