Book Review: Prince of Fools – Mark Lawrence

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Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Fools is the first novel in ‘The Red Queen’s War’ series. Introducing Jalan Kendeth, a more or less shameless ne’er do well that also happens to be of royal blood, and Snorri, a fierce and extremely capable warrior, Prince of Fools is an assured fantasy novel that’s vastly entertaining, exceedingly well written, and gifted with particularly interesting characters of any and every variety.

What’s not to love?

War is coming (sooner rather than later), and the various players are moving into their starting positions. For many, it’s just a theory – and not a particularly good one. For Jalan Kendeth and Snorri, however, it is all too real, and they are destined to face it head on. Obliged to abandon his regular Princely duties – whatever they might be – in favour of a destiny he neither likes nor understands, Jalan and his companion depart on a wild jaunt to Snorri’s homeland, where they take their first stand against the terrifying forces arrayed against them.

I found Prince of Fools to be extremely enjoyable. The plot was well crafted and intriguing, developing naturally as the tension built, the setting was immersive and vibrant, brought to life by Lawrence’s detailed prose, and the characters were excellently put together and profoundly entertaining. With multiple threads to the plot, and a steady increase in scope and a breadth, this is a novel that requires the reader to concentrate very seriously on the details.

(If I give you any advice, dear reader, it is to always concentrate on the details)

The setting was equally impressive, and, due to the vivid imagery and exquisite attention to detail employed by Lawrence, fully immersive. It’s extremely well crafted, and not only has Lawrence taken care to outline the highly relevant aspects – such as the money lending business, and the popularity of the opera (trust me, they’re relevant) – the smaller details are not left to fall by the wayside. This is a fully fleshed-out setting that allows the reader to feel fully involved, and the perfect backdrop to the unfolding action.

The characters are richly detailed, with positive qualities, flaws, clear motives, discernible patterns of thought, and even seemingly genuine opinions as to what might constitute an enjoyable evening. This doesn’t sound like much, but Lawrence doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of one-dimensional characters, and that is worth mentioning. They occasionally veer into recognisable tropes, but Lawrence handles their character development so well, and with such aplomb, that it simply isn’t the case that they are in any way predictable or dull.

Jalan Kendeth, one of the two main characters, is the typical loveable rogue with a side dish of self-serving cowardice, and, over the course of the narrative, he manages to discover his suspiciously MIA conscience, and, would you believe it, some heroic tendencies. His is an extremely recognisable character arc, but Jalan doesn’t miraculously transform into a good person. He changes, but he still has flaws. He still has issues. He still isn’t the golden-haired hero of the hour and the day. He’s still Jalan Kendeth, he just also happens to get the job done, which is far more than can be said for the Jalan Kendeth that we begin the novel with.

That, folks, is the kind of character development I live for.

Similarly, Jalan’s travelling companion, Snorri, who, due to a decidedly unfortunate series of events (yes, I went there), ends up bound to Jalan for the foreseeable – and not so foreseeable – future, is the epitome of the warrior trope, preferring physical solutions to high-brow discourse whenever they happen to run into trouble. He even has a Tragic Backstory ™. Throughout the novel, however, he learns not only to trust Jalan, and to respect his (occasionally ridiculous) opinion, but also that however much he’d prefer to go it alone, he needs the support, and that the war that he intends to fight is much, much bigger than one person – however tough. Again, this is development, and not the kind that ends in a drastic change of personality.

Finally, then, it would be remiss of me to end this lengthy review without some consideration of the narrative voice. Jalan leads the charge on this one, as it is his perspective that the reader occupies, and it is through his voice that we take in the story. Jalan is entertaining, endearing, and endlessly clever, a self-confessed coward, and from the very beginning the reader is encouraged to sympathise with his plight – or, at the very least, to laugh, in a kindly sort of way. I think it’s particularly convincing, and by the end of the novel, at which point the reader is able to discern the significant change in Jalan’s personality, I was a firm believer in his good qualities – while still being aware of the not-so-good ones.

Arguably, this is the masterstroke.

I often talk at length about writing style, and the influence it has on any piece of work, and Prince of Fools is a good example of why. Prince of Fools is an exceptionally detailed, exceptionally well written fantasy novel, with many fine qualities, but it is not the only one. There are many fantasy novels out there that have those good qualities too, and maybe even more of them. Arguably, what sets Prince of Fools apart is the narrative voice. Instead of knowing all alongside the omniscient narrator, we learn as Jalan learns, and, arguably, that is one of the many ways in which Lawrence encourages us to take his side.

I rated Prince of Fools highly for all of the reasons listed above, but ultimately it is because of the narrative voice that I felt obliged to bequeath it five stars, and it is because of the narrative voice that I will be dedicating myself to finishing this series.

There is plenty to enjoy in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Fools, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Book Review: Irenicon – Aidan Harte

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“The river Irenicon was blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347 and now it is a permanent reminder to the feuding factions that nothing can stand in the way of the Concordian Empire. The artificial river, created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave, runs uphill. But the Wave is both weapon and mystery; not even the Concordians know how the river became conscious – and hostile.

 But times are changing. Concordian engineer Captain Giovanni is ordered to bridge the Irenicon – not to reunite the sundered city, but to aid Concord’s mighty armies, for the engineers have their sights set firmly on world domination and Rasenna is in their way.

 Sofia Scaglieri will soon be seventeen, when she will become Contessa of Rasenna, but her inheritance is tainted: she can see no way of stopping the ancient culture of vendetta which divides her city. What she can’t understand is why Giovanni is trying so hard to stop the feuding, or why he is prepared to risk his life, not just with her people, but also with the lethal water spirits – the buio – that infest the Irenicon.

 Times are changing. And only the young Contessa and the enemy engineer Giovanni understand they have to change too, if they are to survive the coming devastation – for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again.”

 

This is a novel about a river.

No, really.

Decades ago, the river Irenicon tore through Rasenna, effectively dividing the city into two, and thoroughly terrifying its citizens. The feuding factions occupying the city more or less carried on with business as usual – working during the day, and attacking each other at night – but the river, a huge, relentless force that had torn so easily through their city, couldn’t be ignored, and their daily lives had to adjust to accommodate it. Since then, Rasenna and Concord have maintained a complex relationship, and even at its most cordial, the danger and the threat presented by that strong city linger.

This premise certainly does not suffer from being overly simplistic. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. There are enough distinct, and, dare I say it, intriguing threads to satisfy even the most demanding reader, it provides a clear indication of what direction the novel is likely to travel in – without spoiling the ending, which shouldn’t be as rare as it is – and more than adequate space for a great plot and brilliant characters.

However.

(Drumroll please)

I’m still, sometime after finishing Irenicon, not quite sure how I feel about it. To put it absurdly simply: I opened the book expecting one thing, and what I found was entirely different. While that was not necessarily bad – and, for many reasons, it was very good – I was ultimately faced with a narrative that, instead of meeting or exceeding my expectations, somehow circumnavigated them to run wildly in the other direction, leaving rose petals drifting in its wake.

The problem with the plot was twofold. On the surface, Irenicon is a particularly interesting succession dispute. Sofia, heir apparent, is faced with a whole host of enemies, several long-standing and frankly rather ridiculous traditions, and seemingly ironclad internalised prejudices on her way to success. It’s a long, uphill battle to the top, and the odds are certainly not in her favour. But Irenicon is also about the man that falls in love with her, an Engineer – not the usual sort, might I add – sent from Concord to build a bridge that will enable them to continue taking over the world. And, reading it, I wasn’t quite sure which I was supposed to be more interested in. They are the two obvious main characters, but their narratives do not combine well, and that damages the cohesion of the novel.

On the other hand, the world building in Irenicon is, in a word, exquisite. Everything from the widest concept, to the smallest detail, shows evidence of being considered at length. It’s incredible work, and really brings the novel to life, vivid enough to draw the reader straight into the action. I almost felt as if I could really be there, peering around a building to spy on the action, and that is not something to be taken lightly.

Additionally, the characters are vibrant and exceedingly well crafted, without a stereotype in sight. They’re three-dimensional enough to feel realistic, and they fit their world to perfection. Sofia might easily have turned into the archetype ‘strong’ female devoid of all feelings, but she doesn’t, and it is the combination of her sympathetic, quick-thinking outlook and her fighting prowess that arguably enables her to save the day.

However, Sofia’s narrative quickly turns into a Romeo and Juliet snoozefest that we know and loathe. Star-crossed lovers are a perfectly respectable narrative trope, but I expected her character development to arise from the actual plot, not from her inexplicable interest in the Engineer sent from Concord. To add insult to grievous injury, said Engineer’s character development arises from the plot developments that exist alongside the realisation of his all-consuming love for Sofia.

There’s a clear imbalance, and it’s not one that I liked.

Ultimately, then, I liked many aspects of Harte’s Irenicon. It’s well written, the world building aspects are exceedingly admirable, and there are many excellent characters, all of which undergo significant development throughout the course of the narrative. For the problems mentioned above, however, I was unable to give it 5 stars.