Friday, November 14, 2014

[Spoiler-free review] Mark Lawrence's Prince of Fools

All right, so I finished another fantasy novel last night. Like Half a King (Joe Abercrombie) before it, I ripped through it with a speed and dedication that I often lack. Now, I know, some of you read a slim novel like this in a day, but I really don't have that kind of time. Still, the point is that Prince of Fools, then, is a good old yarn with a drive to it that makes me want to read. It's not the kind of novel that lingers on the nightstand for fricking years (I'm looking at you, Sanderson's The Way of Kings, among others), it has a direct, immediate and fast pace with a narrator of dubious morality that just draws you into his world and demands attention.

In that sense, Prince of Fools is quite similar to the trilogy that precedes it. In The Broken Empire Trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, Emperor of Thorns) we saw Lawrence's world through the eyes of a narrator with dubious morality - Jorg of Ancrath - but the main character in this new trilogy in the same world - Prince Jalan of Red March - is a different enough fellow from Jorg to become his own distinct lead.  Where Jorg leaned toward violence, Jal is of different cloth, yet the two aren't entirely dissimilar either.

Without revealing too much, I can say that I really like how Mark Lawrence chooses to use grey characters for the main point of view. No cut and clear heroes here, and it makes for more believable narration, and, perhaps most importantly for this series to work, is that the main character's outlook on life provides comedy amidst the grit of a strange setting.

Like the trilogy preceding it, the setting is a character unto itself in Prince of Fools, but I am quite sure that to really appreciate it, you had better read the stories about Jorg of Ancrath before you read this one. Even so, Prince of Fools *is* an entry point into Lawrence's world, you're just thrown into a deeper end if you start here. Where the setting was gradually revealed through the previous trilogy, here it already is. If you have read any of these books you'll know why the setting merits a mention, and why I'm not going into specifics. One problem with the setting in this book - in my opinion - is that it becomes, at times, a little too obvious. Whereas the previous trilogy kept a certain mystique, here it's fed us more bluntly. 

Plotwise, the story is similarly structured and told; there's some strangeness going on that doesn't get fully explained, there's journey, there's grit and there's comedy and banter, and there are a few nods to the previous trilogy. These nods are, in my opinion, the weakest parts of the book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I kind of lost the thread halfway through the novel, when Jal makes a stopover that seemed only to function as a nod to The Broken Empire Trilogy and felt disconnected from the main plot. Maybe any consequences of that stopover will have an affect on the next books in the series, but in Prince of Fools alone it felt unnecessary, partially because I really enjoyed the adventures of Prince Jal and his forced-to-be-companion, the freakishly strong Northerner, Snorri. 

Their tale is relatively straight-forward / linear, but with some nice twists toward the end that made the whole story seem a little more clever when looking back on it. 

I really like Lawrence's style of writing. If you like Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin, you are pretty much assured a good time with Prince of Fools. The novel also makes me think of Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains. Lots of fun dialogue that, while reading it, makes me go "Oh I have to remember that one" (and then I forget them), 'eminently quotable' is the expression. Some nifty original ideas in there, too. Stuff that I want to steal for use in tabletop role-playing. That's always a good sign. Some ideas are quite grotesque really, straddling close to Erikson's darkest visions, perhaps. 

I'm going to pull out my "Tiers of Fantasy" again. In it, I have placed Mark Lawrence on Tier 3, but I have to say that I'm this close to moving him up to Tier 2. I am not sure Prince of Fools is better than the tales of Jorg of Ancrath, but I do feel that Lawrence is upping his game in terms of plot movement, characterization, and description. I still think Joe has the edge over Mark, but I feel that reading Mark is more enjoyable than reading Patrick who, while technically a fantastic writer, doesn't engage my sensibilities as much. So, in an unprecedented move, I'm putting Pat down on Tier 3 and moving Mark up to Tier 2. While I'm at it, I'm moving Ian C. Esslemont down to Tier 4, because I feel I placed him highly because, you know, the setting he writes in instead of considering my enjoyment of his writing.

So here it is, my updated list.

I want to go straight ahead and buy/read Steven Erikson's Willful Child now, but I have decided to wait for the price to go down and finish some of the books I'm halfway through but struggle to finish: R.A. Salvatore's The Companions, George R.R. Martin's The World of Ice and Fire, Sanderson's The Way of Kings (again), Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and a slew of other books I am barely aware I own). Cue me caving in and buying Willful Child any time soon.

George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Steven Erikson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country
Mark Lawrence, The Broken Empire Trilogy, Prince of Fools

Richard K. Morgan, A Land Fit for Heroes
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms
Patrik Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles

Ian C. Esslemont, The Malazan Empire
Anthony Ryan, Raven's Shadow
Peter Staveley, The Emperor's Blades
Scott Lynch, The Gentlemen Bastards
Brandon Sanderson, The Stormlight Archive
Grey Keyes, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time (I admit I stopped during book four)
R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms books & other Dungeons & Dragons novels

TIER 6 (almost, and in some cases, actually unreadable):
Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress


  1. Thanks again for this tiered list. You read somewhat faster than I do, so I never run out of engaging fantasy novels to read :)
    (About 85% done with Emperor of Thorns, so I might just dive right into Prince of Fools)

  2. It's interesting to see you say that Jorg of Ancrath had a dubious morality, since I saw him as quite evil until well into Emperor. :P

    They were good books, sure, but nothing to knock your balls to the ceiling about; partly that is because I prefer/enjoy likeable main characters, and partly because some of the writing felt somewhat cliché. Since I'm not enthused about the setting either, I'll say that, for me, Lawrence is Tier 3. Of course, since our tastes vary somewhat, my tier list wouldn't look at all like your tiers. :D

    PS: Should I be worried about you wanting to use ideas from Thorns in our tabletop campaign? :S

  3. You're welcome, Nisses. Thanks for reading :)

    Well, mr Gamsgrø, it depends on your definition of "evil" I suppose. To me, Jorg is a boy broken by a number of experiences (which, as you rightfully point out, aren't that clear until book three). I agree they are good books and I agree, for health reasons, that I don't want to knock balls to the ceiling, but the setting - or rather, they way it is presented - I find refreshing and somewhat original.

    I don't think you'll have to worry about too much Thorns influence as we are kind of past adding too much new flavor now (nine years into the campaign... :P) but I *did* like one particular way of using dark powers in "Prince of Fools" don't read that one ;-P