The opening volume of Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War trilogy, “Prince of Fools,” didn’t grab my attention immediately in the way that his debut, “Prince of Thorns” did. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t as engrossed as I had been in his first three books.
Lawrence quashes my doubts about this story, though, in the second volume, “The Liar’s Key” ($26.95, Ace).
Following his reluctant adventures in “Prince of Fools,” Prince Jalan Kendeth has found something of a home among the Norsemen in Trond. He’s running an inn … sort of … and in general being the same ne’er-do-well layabout that he’s always been. A tryst with the local Jarl’s daughter changes that, though, as Jalan is chased out of town and ends up in the last place he wants to be – on a boat again.
He flees with the same man he arrived with, Snorri ver Snagason, who now owns an artifact known as Loki’s Key, which gives him the ability to unlock any door. But it’s not just any door that Snorri wants to unlock. It’s the door to death itself, which he thinks will allow him to bring his family, murdered by the Hardassa, back into the world.
They’re joined by the portly Viking Tuttugu, the only other living member of Snorri’s tribe, and will pick up another couple of unlikely companions as they make their way back toward Red March – Snorri on his quest and Jalan only wanting to return to his comfortable home and life in Vermillion. Neither will get quite what they hope.
Like all of Lawrence’s stories so far, “The Liar’s Key” manages to be, at the same time, quite dark and very funny. Jalan’s philosophies on life and cowardice will keep you in stitches, even as he and Snorri battle necromancers, the darker side of humanity and their own personal demons.
One of the reasons I didn’t quite connect as much with “Prince of Fools” was the fact that Jalan is not a very likeable character. He’s a spoiled prince who generally thinks only of himself and only as far as the next woman he can bed. Slowly, but surely, we see a transformation taking place in him, and by the end of “The Liar’s Key,” we find ourselves more in his corner. He’s not really any less a coward or cheat, just a much more likeable coward and cheat.
Snorri also goes through a transformation in the book. The Viking warrior, I felt, was the true hero of “Prince of Fools.” But in this book, we see a darker side begin to emerge as he becomes more and more obsessed with finding death’s door. At times, there’s almost a role reversal between he and Jalan.
There are also a few nice nods to Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy, including guest appearances from a few characters. The events of these books are happening parallel to those of Jorg Ancrath’s story, and in the end, I’m guessing the events of the final volume, “The Wheel of Osheim,” will have a big impact on Jorg’s tale as well.
I began “The Liar’s Key” wondering if Mark Lawrence would find a way to again draw me in as deep as he did with the Broken Empire, and he answered that question almost immediately with a resounding yes. I found a connection with Jalan in this book that I couldn’t quite make in the first one, and in the end, I think it’s easily the equal of any volume in that first trilogy.