Prince of Fools has everything I loved about Prince of Thorns with a much more relatable protagonist than teen sociopath Jorg Ancrath, so readers with more delicate sensibilities can rest a bit easier. Lawrence's tersely elegant prose and well crafted characters are in full evidence and the world building is just as effortless as readers of The Broken Empire have come to expect. I suspect some of that is due to the connection to the previous series, Though my long gap in reading Lawrence as well as having not finished the previous series (a situation I expect to remedy in the coming months) rendered all but the most obvious connections meaningless to me. Even as a standalone, Prince of Fools is a joy to read and readers who haven't read the previous series can start here with no significant disadvantage. Just dive in and enjoy, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.
The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.
After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.
Based on the publisher's blurb, it's clear that Jalan is about as far from Jorg Ancrath as Lawrence could get. This prince is no warrior at all, prefering comforts of the flesh to conflict of any kind. A self proclaimed coward, Jalan is the last person anyone would call a hero, and yet this unlikely hero is what made this novel such a standout for me. Lawrence infuses Jalan with enough wit and easy charm that reader's can find him likeable in spite of his pathological need to take the easiest road available, His cowardice is far more relatable than Jorg's sociopathy and while he never quite manages to find enough spine to brush the surface of heroism there are glimmers of the man he could be. But as we all know, old habits are the hardest to break and most people only truly change when given no other choice. Luckily there are more of Jalan's adventures on the horizon.
Since a cowardly prince can hardly provide the action and bravado that is necessary to support a epic fantasy series, Lawrence wisely ties Jalan's fate to a hero after most fantasy fan's hearts. Snorri Snagason's very name means attack and the fierce and larger than life Norseman is the perfect foil for the yellow bellied Jalan. On a mission of vengeance, Snorri brings to mind the larger than life heroes of David Gemmell and gives the reader a hero they can cheer for as Jalan slowly finds himself becoming a better man for his forced, pants-wetting association. Snorri is the irresistible force in this story, but it's Jalan who shows the more compelling character arc. Whether he'll become a hero despite his best efforts to the contrary remains to be seen, but I'm certain the journey will be as full of breakneck pacing and internal tension as Prince of Fools.
If you like your fantasy with bloody battles, a touch of horror, and a generous helping of complex engaging characters you should definitely give the opening chapter of The Red Queen's War a place in your to read list. I'll be watching my doorstep for the second and third volumes of The Broken Empire to arrive.