Make no mistake, Prince of Fools is indeed dark, but in a very different sort of way than its predecessor. Here, the darkness goes far beyond dark fantasy, beyond even grimdark territory, and into a realm that approaches pure horror. It's spooky, it's creepy, and it's entirely unsettling. There's the Silent Sister, a grizzled old sorceress, blind in one eye, whom everybody fears, but only a select few can see. There's a mysterious old Uncle, crippled and shut away in the highest tower, left there to slowly rot away. The Dead King figures prominently here, a sinister force in the underworld who is, as it turns out, is even more directly at odds with Jalan than Jorg. Then there are the Unborn . . . infant children, brought back from the grave through necromantic sorcery to serve the Dead King's plans. They are just as unnatural and unsettling as you might expect, but more fearsome and far more of a threat than you can imagine.
As for Jalan, he is an entirely new sort of character for Lawrence, a pompous, immature, debauched young coward who prefers his conquests in the bedroom or in the gambling halls. He's entirely aware of his own failings - to the point of being self-depreciating - and more interested in living in the moment than anticipating any grand sort of end-game.
"Humanity can be divided into madmen and cowards. My personal tragedy is in being born into a world where sanity is held to be a character flaw"
Having said that, there's a core of moral and emotional strength to him, a reluctant brand of loyalty that makes up for any of his failings. As exceptionally good as he is at running away, however, Jalan is not a man to be cornered. There's a hidden warrior, trapped deep inside, who gives lie to his modesty about being an accidental hero of Aral Pass. Immediately endearing, in a scandalous sort of way, he's many of the things Jorg was not, and all of them likable.
In terms of the story itself, this is less the epic conquest of The Broken Empire and more of a straightforward, personal quest. It's the story of two men, Jalan Kendeth and Snorri ver Snaggason, linked together by a dark curse, and propelled along by Snorri's need to avenge the betrayal of his clan and the death of his family. At times, it approaches the edges of a buddy comedy, with some genuinely funny moments shining deep within the overpowering darkness of the tale, as the two mismatched champions must fight their way across kingdoms - including Ancrath - on their way to the frozen north. Chased by the magic of the Silent Sister into the very arms of the Dead King's minions, these are two men quite literally trapped between a rock and cold, hard place.
For those wondering where Jalan's story fits into Jorg's original story arc, the two occur simultaneously. In fact, there are a few moments where their paths almost cross, including a fantastic scene where, after being brought to his knees by a well-placed kick from Katherine Ap Scorron, Jalan finds himself agreeing to Queen Sareth's request that he rough up this bully, this boy-prince named Jorg. All puffed up and proud of himself, sure that the stories will forget the fact that the man he bested was just a boy, Jalan quickly turns tail and flees the city the moment he learns that this boy killed the king’s champion in single combat.
I wouldn't say this is a happier book by any means, particularly given the fate of Snorri's family and the sense of doom hanging over our two protagonists, but it is a lighter one - at times. Lawrence sprinkles a little more easy humor throughout the tale, particularly in Jalan's narration and his conversations with Snorri, the barbarian from the north. It plays very well against the dark core of the tale, and serves to provide the reader with some much-needed emotional relief. Having said that, Prince of Fools demonstrates the same deft touch with combat and betrayals that readers will remember from The Broken Empire, with the standoff upon the ledge of a frozen mountain topped only by the final climax within the Black Fort in terms of thrills.
A different sort of read from Mark Lawrence, but still immediately recognizable in terms of style and storytelling. It's more of a straightforward fantasy tale, with little of the Builders influence that was so pivotal to Jorg's tale, but with that strong undercurrent of horror I mentioned earlier. It remains to be seen, of course, how Jalan will ultimately compare to Jorg, but Lawrence is to be commended for taking a chance, stepping aside from what (and who) readers know so well, and finding an exciting new way into his world. Some readers may find Prince of Fools doesn't have quite the same biting edge, but it may just be a stronger, more well-rounded tale. Highly recommended.
Expected publication: June 3rd 2014 by Ace