Tag Archives: grimdark

Festivus Book Pimping – The Nevernight Chronicles by Jay Kristoff

All right folks, I’m cutting it fine with recommendations and the looming of Festivus so I’m going to try and pump these pimps out… okay, could have worded that a little better, but onward!

First Festivus Pimpus for today is the first two novels of Aussie author Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight ChroniclesNevernight and Godsgrave. I came late to the party for these novels, yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it meant I got to read the two in quick succession. The only drawback being the third in the series, Darkdawn isn’t due for release until late next year. But don’t let that hold you back from diving deep in the darkness that is these chronicles.

Nevernight follows the life of Mia Corvere from child to assassin for the Red Church in all things murder. Vengeance is the driving force behind Mia’s assassin schooling, having watched her father executed and her mother and little brother exiled to an island prison. It’s Mia’s travelling companion, Mister Kindly – a shadow cat that allows her to slip between the shadows and bend them to her will… of a kind. The world-building is intricate, and the characters (first and secondary) are brilliantly fleshed out. Kristoff makes you care for them, and as the self-named bastard that he is… well, I’m not going to spoil that for you.

Blurb for Nevernight:

In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?

So Nevernight leaves off on a hell of cliffhanger, so I couldn’t wait to dive into Godsgrave to see how further Kristoff could fuck with my emotions – I think it’s like sport for him. And I wasn’t disappointed. Now a fully-fledged assassin, Mia is thrust into the world of the gladiatori, where she must fight on the sands for the truth and the chance for revenge upon those who destroyed her familigia. Godsgrave ramps not only the tension but the stakes. Giving you more to care about and thus more to lose. Truths are revealed and paradigm shifts are made (and all the while, I’m sure Kristoff is laughing his arse off).

Godsgave blurb:

Assassin Mia Corvere has found her place among the Blades of Our Lady of Blessed Murder, but many in the Red Church ministry think she’s far from earned it. Plying her bloody trade in a backwater of the Republic, she’s no closer to ending Consul Scaeva and Cardinal Duomo, or avenging her familia. And after a deadly confrontation with an old enemy, Mia begins to suspect the motives of the Red Church itself.

When it’s announced that Scaeva and Duomo will be making a rare public appearance at the conclusion of the grand games in Godsgrave, Mia defies the Church and sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium for a chance to finally end them. Upon the sands of the arena, Mia finds new allies, bitter rivals, and more questions about her strange affinity for the shadows. But as conspiracies unfold within the collegium walls, and the body count rises, Mia will be forced to choose between loyalty and revenge, and uncover a secret that could change the very face of her world.

These books aren’t going to be for everyone – they are dark and brutal and don’t shy from violence or sex (there is a lot of sex happening, I’m just sayin’, and the descriptions of said sex can go on for pages). There are footnotes throughout both books that provide a greater understanding of the world and what’s going on. Most of the time this works, but not so much when the tension ramps up – at time it did take away from it, especially in those moments where the info wasn’t necessary to the forward momentum of the story. But I found you could skip some of these without losing anything from the story.

Oh, and the covers are beautiful.

Recommended for lovers of dark fantasy, grimdark, horror, assassin tales, vengeance/revenge stories, subterfuge, great world-building.

Not recommended for those who struggle with in-your-face violence, graphically-depicted sex scenes (of all iterations), swearing/cursing (although, that worked a treat for me).  

Festivus Book Pimping — We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

Jingle Bells, mofos! It’s Festivus Booking Pimping time again, and up on today’s humble stone is Devin Madson’s epically awesome We Ride the Storm, the first in her Reborn Empire tetralogy. And it’s a hell of a story – one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read. Like ever.

In my last Pimpus, I spoke of killer opening lines, and Madson more than delivers with hers: It is harder to sever a head than people think.

That should give you some idea of the tone of the book, but you’d be mistaken in thinking the act of beheading is barbarous, cruel in its intent. Far from it. And that’s the thing with Madson’s work, it’s beautiful in its storytelling, the language and imagery a joy to read, and her characters burrow deep beneath your skin and take root.

We Ride the Storm is told through the eyes of three point-of-view characters, each told in first-person narrative. A symbol at the beginning of each chapter marks through whose eyes you’ll be viewing the world for a time, but the voices are distinct, individual, unique. And you will have favourites (yup, in the plural).

Here’s the back-cover blurb:

War built the Kisian Empire and war will tear it down. And as an empire falls, three warriors rise.

Caught in a foreign war, Captain Rah e’Torin and his exiled warriors will have to fight or die. Their honour code is all they have left until orders from within stress them to breaking point, and the very bonds that hold them together will be ripped apart.

Cassandra wants the voice in her head to go away. Willing to do anything for peace, the ageing whore takes an assassination contract that promises answers, only the true price may be everyone and everything she knows.

A prisoner in her own castle, Princess Miko doesn’t dream of freedom but of the power to fight for her empire. As the daughter of a traitor the path to redemption could as easily tear it, and her family, asunder.

As an empire dies they will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

We Ride the Storm has also just become a finalist in the ‘Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off’ (SPFBO), gaining a top ten spot out a whopping three hundred entries. That’s the quite the feat, and a testament to the brilliance of this book.

Yes, this book is self-published, and for those who think SP-books are of lesser quality, you couldn’t be more wrong. We Ride the Storm is self-publishing done right. And that divine cover is original artwork by the uber-talented John Anthony Di Giovanni, with layout and cover design by Shawn T King (the two officially known as the ‘dream team’). As you can probably tell, the setting for the book is non-Euro centric, and the descriptions of the lands of Kisia and Chiltae are superb. And there are horses, lots of horses.

The magic is low-level, and there are hints at a greater magic that underlies those such as Cassandra and secondary character, Leo. But as the first in the Reborn Empire, the intrigue of what’s at play carries damn well throughout the story.

I cannot recommend this book enough (GO BUY IT! NOW!), and for those waiting on the next instalment in the series, We Lie With Death is on schedule for a March 2019 release.

Recommended for (everyone) those who love dark fantasy, political machinations, grimdark, epic fantasy, clash of cultures, and just damn fine writing.

Not recommended for those who have an aversion to violence – war is not filled with rainbows and unicorns… although unicorns do come with their own weapon…

Festivus Book Pimping – Godblind & Darksoul by Anna Stephens

As promised, Festivus Book Pimping is here! And first cabs off the rank are Godblind and Darksoul by Anna Stephens. Yes, this is a two-for, and if you’re looking at hitting some grimdark, then buckle-up, grab your sword or axe (or both) and get ready for battle.

WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS

The first in Stephens’ trilogy, Godblind, is a story of gods, sacrifice, political machinations, and no little amount of bloodshed.  It’s a brutal story, no bones about it, and it doesn’t shy from the horror of war and those caught up in it. Told from multiple points of view, the chapters are short, pushing you through the book at a cracking pace as we’re introduced to the main players – and even with those, everything is not as it seems. The Red Gods are rising, and they will drown the world in blood.

Here’s the back-cover blurb:

The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbours deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?

Godblind Darksoul

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although there’s one scene that, even as a seasoned horror reader, had me wince, but there are no rules in a war between gods, and sacrifices must be made… the torturous the better.

It had me clamouring for the next in the series, Darksoul. The war is in full swing, and the kingdom of Rilpor is under heavy siege. Like, shit is really hitting the fan at this stage. This is hardcore battle here, with some pretty gruesome deaths, and a whole lot of sacrifices to please the Red Gods and bring about their victory, but hidden in plain sight is the Fox God, and the moment he comes to the fore… well, there are two scenes within this book that ripped out my heart and handed it to me. Stephens quite happily puts all your feels on an emotional rollercoaster. As a second book, it hits all the right notes. It’s a tough read in places because you feel for certain characters and are invested in their plight, and Stephens takes full advantage, as a great writer should.

Back-cover blurb below:

The Wolves lie dead beside Rilpor’s soldiers, slaughtered at the hands of the Mireces and their fanatical army.

The veil that once kept the Red Gods at bay has been left in tatters as the Dark Lady’s plans for the world come to fruition. Where the gods walk, blood is spilled on the earth.

All that stands between the Mireces army and complete control of the Kingdom of Rilpor are the walls of its capital, Rilporin, and those besieged inside.

But hope might yet bloom in the unlikeliest of places: in the heart of a former slave, in the mind of a soldier with the eyes of a fox, and in the hands of a general destined to be king.

It’s clear Stephens knows how to weave a tale and weave it well – her characters are well-drawn, fully fleshed out individuals, the magic is both awful and beautiful, and gods that pluck the strings of those major players are some harsh taskmasters.

These books aren’t going to be for everyone, no doubt, but if you’re looking for fantasy on the darker side of the reading spectrum filled with unique characters going through shitty things (and good things, too – yes, there is balance), then these books are definitely worth the read.

And the covers, oh my those covers. Mine are in beautiful hardback, and they are divine.

The third in the trilogy, BloodChild, is set for release next year, so why not grab the first two and in the lead-up for the release – you won’t be disappointed.

Recommended for those who like some grim in their fantasy and aren’t afraid to wade into bloody battle for their fix.

Rated for: blood, gore, violence, torture scenes, sex.

Review: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

As I’m recovering from the long weekend of Supanova, and I’m not in the right headspace for work… review time it is!

I finished Nicholas Eames’ much-hyped Kings of the Wyld last week, and while it took longer for me to finish than it should, it was more that I was time poor than a reflection on the novel, which I’ll break down in a moment.

But first…

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. LIKE BIG, SPOILER SPOILERY SPOILERS. READ ON AT YOUR OWN SPOILERY RISK. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Kings of the Wyld

Right then.

As I said, Kings of the Wyld has been much-hyped, earning rave reviews and high star-ratings so I was looking forward to stepping into this world. Over-the-hill mercenaries getting the band back together for a final quest to save the daughter of one of their own? Great premise, and big yay for having older protags – something sorely missing and not often explored in fiction.

It starts well, if a little slow (pacing is an issue with the storytelling, but I’ll get into that a little later), and we’re introduced to the first two of five protagonists: Clay Cooper (our storyteller) and Golden Gabe (whose daughter, Rose, the band is off to rescue). After collecting the three others: Moog (the wizard), Matrick (a despondent king grown fat), and Ganelon (a man turned to stone for the last twenty years), the band sets off to cross the infamous Heartwyld… but a lot happens before that. Like… a lot. There’s monsters of all kinds (so many, I lost count), the Silk Arrows who continue to rob Clay’s band whenever the chance arises, fighting a chimera, faking Matrick’s death, keeping ahead of bounty hunters Matrick’s wife sent after them… Like I said, a lot.

However, the humour does shine through – some of the one liners had me laughing out loud, and others had me groaning, but it is part of the charm of this book… and at times, saves it. That’s the thing with Kings of the Wyld, when I got to it’s end, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I enjoyed it, yes, it was fun, and there is a lot to like about it… but there are issues. Some big, some not so big but important nonetheless.

I mentioned earlier that the pacing is off; we begin with the urgency of getting to Gabe’s daughter to save her – surrounded by a horde of unimaginable size, time can’t be wasted. But there are so many side-quests, interruptions, meanderings… the intensity and urgency are lost in what is the basic premise of the story. So many monsters are introduced and described – especially in the middle of the book ‒ that Rose barely rates a mention.

That can be forgiven because Eames’ prose and his narrative style does work to pull the reader in, and there are some truly beautiful lines and moments in this middle section. It’s also where we get to meet Dane & Gregor – the two-headed Ettin. The relationship between the blind and grotesque Dane, and his seeing brother who describes a hideous and shit world as beautiful and wondrous was a joy to read. It’s clear Eames has the skill to write complex characters with depth and a wealth of emotion.

It’s the Ettin that shows the flaws in the characterisation of our five main players…except, perhaps, for Ganelon ‒ my favourite of the band. This is where I struggled with this book, because there are some exceptional moments Eames has created. The conversation between Clay and Ganelon where they’re discussing the twenty years Ganelon’s been trapped in stone is one of the best of the book, with Ganelon wondering what kind of monster he must have been for his friends to not come for him. It’s moments such as these that lit the book for me, that showed the skill Eames has for conflict and character depth. But it didn’t flow through to all.

Yet there came a moment, when Clay lost his hand, and where I thought here we go, now we’re going to get some real agency. As shocked as I was (I’m pretty sure I gasped aloud) that Clay had his hand severed, it was that struggle to remain valid within the band, to continue to help his friends regardless I was so looking forward to seeing. And we do see a little of it; that determination and struggle to climb back up that mountain and rejoin the band was excellent.

And then…

And then…

I can hardly say it.

Ta-da! His hand regrew.

Why? Why do that? Why rob the reader of that moment? Of the moments to come from this game-changer? It felt like a cheat. That I didn’t need to worry about Clay’s or the rest of the band’s fate – everyone was going to be just fine. And if not? Magic was cure-all.

It just didn’t work for me.

Look, I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people who say I just didn’t “get” the book, and that’s fine, maybe I didn’t. But I need to be invested in the outcomes of the characters, to worry over them, to hope and cheer and yell at them because I want them to survive. Give me that threat of character death, the implausibility of survival, make me fate-invested. I see the scope of facing insurmountable odds and the ridiculousness of it that Eamses did show, but when balanced against those moments of depth… it was almost (at times) a tale of two authors.

Thing is, I did enjoy Kings of the Wyld. The fight scenes were on point, the humour was excellent, and some of the characters just shone. There were moments of brilliance within, but the hand… man, that hand.

On a Goodreads scale, I gave it four stars but it’s probably sitting just under that.

Festivus Book Pimping: Red Queen’s War trilogy by Mark Lawrence

Hear ye! Hear ye! Second in the most Festivus of Book Pimping is Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War trilogy. It was The Wheel of Osheim, the last in the trifecta, I read this year. This book also has the honour of being the first story I read on my kindle (I have the paperback also, because having only two books of a trilogy sitting in my bookcase makes me twitch – it ain’t pretty).

The Red Queen’s War trilogy is the second in Lawrence’s grimdark series – the first being The Broken Empire trilogy, but there’s no need to read that first as while there is a most excellent crossover in the second series, each trilogy stands alone.

Right then, trilogy equals three books: Prince of Fools, The Liar’s Key, and rounding it out is The Wheel of Osheim ­‒ a hell of a tome. Like, doorstop size. Makes sense, there’s a lot to tie up in the final book of a trilogy.

So, what’s this about? I mentioned grimdark earlier, and while there’s always some debate as to what that is, I think the most simple explanation is a story that doesn’t pull punches when it comes the darkest depths of human behaviour. Unapologetic characters who do what they must to survive, to thrive, and let the consequences fall where they may. Redemption? Pfft, spit that from thy mouth!

Don’t ever go into Lawrence’s books looking for a rainbows and unicorns and elves and shit – fantasy this may be, but these worlds are filled with darkness and the dead. It’s really kinda cool. The Red Queen’s War trilogy borrows heavily from the Norse mythos, especially with one of the two main characters: viking Snorri ver Snagason – warrior bard. Snorri holds his own (and then some) with Prince Jalan Kendeth – craven tart. They make quite the pairing. It’s magic that tethers the two together, and ultimately what may tear them, and the world, apart.

the-wheel-of-osheim

I could go on, but here are the back-cover blurbs for each, which are far more succinct than my ramblings above.

Prince of Fools

The Red Queen is old, but the kinds of the Broken Empire fear her as they fear no other. Her grandson, Jalan Kendeth is a coward, a cheat and a womaniser; and tenth in line to the throne. While his grandmother shapes the destiny of millions, Prince Jalan pursues his debauched pleasures. Until he gets entangled with Snorri ver Snagason, a huge Norse axe man, and dragged against his will to the icy north. In a journey across half the Broken Empire, Jalan flees minions of the Dead King, agrees to duel an upstart prince names Jorg Ancrath, and meets the ice witch, Skilfar, all the while seeking a way to part company with Snorri before the Norseman’s quest leads them to face his enemies in the black fort on the edge of the Bitter Ice.

The Liar’s Key

The eyes of the mighty are on the North. Loki’s key has been found and lies in the hands of a feckless prince and broken warrior. Winter has locked Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the luxury of his southern palace. The North may be home to the viking, but he is just as eager to leave. However, even men who hold a key that can open any door must wait for the thaw.

As the ice unlocks its jaws, the Dead King moves to claim what was so nearly his. But there are other players in this game, other hands reaching for Loki’s key. Jalan wants only to return to the wine and women of the south, but Snorri aims to find he very door into death and throw it wide. The warrior will challenge all of Hell, if that’s what it takes to bring his wife and children back to the living world. He has found the key – now all he needs is to find the door.

The Wheel of Osheim

All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan, getting back out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jalan’s fortune back in the living world.

Jalan plans t return to his debauched life of wine, women and wagering. Fate, however, has other plans. Larger plans. The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers. In the end, it’s win or die.

Look, I can’t recommend these books enough. I once described Mark Lawrence thusly: thief of slumber, time trafficker, broker of the dawn. Once you start with the man’s books, you’re so immersed in the story that your idea of half an hour reading before hitting the sack turns into hours that no amount of coffee can fix the next morning (adulting be hard).

If that isn’t a hell of a selling point, I don’t know what is.

Recommended for readers of fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, grimdark, stabby-stabby, and dead things – there’s a whole lot of dead things.

 

Book Review: The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

I once described Mark Lawrence thus: thief of slumber, time trafficker, broker of the dawn. Many a night I have sacrificed sleep and my ability to function as an adulting adult, so immersed have I been in Lawrence’s worlds. This holds true with his last book in the Red Queen’s War series – The Wheel of Osheim.

It’s taken me longer than I’d have liked to get to this book, but it was damn well worth the wait. The Wheel of Osheim continues the epic tale of Prince Jalan Kendeth of the Red March and gargantuan Viking Snorri Ver Snagason. Fated to stop the ‘Wheel’ and save the world, these two characters are polar opposites but more alike than perhaps Kendeth would care to admit. Snorri? I’m sure he saw the kindred in Jalan early.

While I bought this huge tome in its beautiful print edition, I read it on my Kindle (because I am in love with my Kindle, and that’s a revelation that still hurts sometimes, but what’s one to do?). And while my husband has adjusted to the dim reading glow from my side of the bed, I haven’t quite adjusted to his: “it’s two in the morning… it’s three in the morning… no amount of coffee is going to make you human.” (He’s wrong, so very wrong.)

Ooh, would you look at that. Three paragraphs in, it must be spoiler alert time.

SPOILER WARNING… … SPOILER WARN… … SPOILER… … … FIRE BAD, TREE PRETTY. (Shut up.)

the-wheel-of-osheim

 

So where to begin? Well, with Jalan being spat from Hell (or Hel) and back into a quest he wants nothing to do with. All he wants is to go home and forget about the whole sorry mess – those are the words he speaks, yes, but Jal is the quintessential character of juxtaposition – he is both brave and cowardly, cruel and kind, indifferent and devoted. Human. That’s his appeal; he’s tremendously flawed, but when push comes to shove (and that’s often a literal shove), he surprises himself by doing the right thing, because despite his protestations to the contrary, that sense of righteousness within has grown to a formidable force.

A lot of that, I think, has to do with Snorri and the friendship the two have forged. While Snorri is quite open with his admiration (and remonstration) of Jalan, there’s a vulnerability in the Viking that perfectly balances the violence within. It’s that balance that’s slowly working its way through Jal. Though demonstrably different, the two are cut from the same cloth. Something Snorri sees far more than Jalan.

It’s an intricate world Lawrence has woven, and intricate players he’s put within. We see more of Jalan’s brothers – the two he’s hated most his life. But as with all relationships, it’s complex and we see the contempt Jal has had for his brothers superseded by the familial ties none of us can escape. In The Wheel of Osheim we see the depth and growth of Jalan more than in the previous books – we see the humanity he’s always tried to cover, to shield from the world. It’s achingly brutal.

The same can be said for Snorri’s ventures through Hel to find and rescue his wife and children. This melding of faiths – Jalan’s Christian Hell, and Snorri’s Norse Hel – showcases the layering Lawrence has put into each character. Snorri is a Viking on a mission, and nothing will stand in his way – not demons, not undead, not Hel’s warriors… that battle scene where Snorri finds his son is one of the best I’ve read. It’s bloody, it’s cruel, it’s heart-wrenchingly incapacitating – all that it should have been.

As with any final book in a trilogy, there’s much to tie up – both long game and short. This is a story that needs investing from the reader. You can’t half-arse it through this. The foreshadowing is there, and it’s subtle, but it all comes to play as you head into the final battle – the saving of the world… or rather, the saving of it for just that little bit longer.

Past, present and future all lay their cards on the table in The Wheel of Osheim, and fate, oh what a fickle mistress she is. The gods (whichever you choose them to be) have had their hands in this from the beginning. Which beginning? From the time of The Builders – the gods that never were – the world has been ticking so very quickly down. And magic, she is tearing apart the fabric of this universe faster than anyone realised.

It’s this urgency Lawrence plays to throughout this book, while still taking the time to address all that’s been built into the previous two books: the Red Queen, the Silent Sister, Garyus (by far one of the most interesting and underplayed characters), Lady Blue… it’s quite a cast. And while not everything is concluded (possibly leaving it open for more stories in Jalan’s world), there was enough to make the ending satisfying.

Look, I could go on and on about the different aspects, the plots and sub-plots, the narrative, mechanics, architecture of the book, but I’ve no time to write a dissertation on how good this book is. Yes, sometimes it does fall into cliché (the usurpation of the throne by the Red Queen’s brother, and the subsequent death), but this can be forgiven based on the prose alone. As with The Red Queen’s War, and The Broken Empire series, Lawrence can take and twist words into the most sublime of writing. When the ‘wordsmith’ is used, I’m sure Lawrence is one of the authors meant to wear this moniker.

Overall, The Wheel of Osheim is a dark, gritty, often humorous storytelling of a world in its dying days. Of political machinations, of haunting past deeds and the price one pays. And monsters, oooh, there be monsters. A totally immersive, roller-coaster ride to tie the series off.

On a Goodreads scale, I give it five stars.

Review: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

I don’t get anywhere near the amount of time to read for pleasure as I’d like. This hasn’t in any way curbed my book buying – that’s a joy in and of itself; it does mean the reading time I do have is so damn precious the book better be good. And by ‘good’ I mean convince me I can absolutely function as an adulting adult on two hours sleep.

Enter Mark Lawrence – thief of slumber, time trafficker, broker of the dawn. That’s him there, sauntering in with Prince of Fools in hand. Words, he offered, places brutal and beautiful. So I sold my sleep, my ability to reason, and any resemblance to something remotely human when the alarm screamed at me to wake up, dammit!

I should have known; enamoured as I was with Lawrence’s first offering of Jorg Ancrath in the Broken Empire trilogy. While Prince of Fools is told in the same first-person point of view, it travels (mostly) within a single timeline. There are flashbacks of a kind, moments of reminisce and rediscovery, but there is no real time-jumping as those from the Broken Empire.

Prince of Fools

Prince of Fools is the first in the Red Queen’s War series, and while it’s set within the Broken Empire (and runs parallel to Jorg’s story, with a nice little crossover that kept this reader happy), don’t for a minute think you’re in for the same thing. Here, it’s Prince Jalan Kendeth, womaniser, gambler, coward, and tenth in line to the throne who tells the story. While he’s not a ‘likeable’ character in the true sense of the word, I couldn’t help but like him and his wit (he has some of the best pieces of dialogue I’ve ever read).

When you add the huge Norseman, Snorri ver Snagason, with whom Jalan’s fate is tied, you’ve got two sides to the one coin. Light and dark, coward and hero, honourless and honour-bound. The Silent Sister’s magic has bound the two and set them on a path across the empire to the Bitter Ice, to the place Snorri lost his family to one of the Dead King’s minions, to where both hope to break the magic that binds them, and be rid of the ‘angel’ and ‘demon’ that ride the magic with them.

At the beginning of their journey, it’s clear Snorri is Jalan’s conscience (despite the ‘dark’ side of the magic he holds) – he instructs him in the ‘right’ of things, lures him with the honour of familial bonds that transcend death, and dig into that part of Jalan that is good, despite Jal’s thick veneer of shallowness rooted in self-preservation (oft in the form of running away). The closer the two get to the north, however, the more Snorri retreats into silence and the darkness of his magic, and the less Jal is able to resist the pull of the ‘light’ side of the magic he carries. He’s resistant, of course – doing the right thing often ends in losing more than Jal’s willing to give. Both hold magic, and both can use it, although neither tends to do this well, or with any true understanding of what it is and how it works.

There’s so much more at play here – and a game it is. Jalan and Snorri are both pawn and player, each drawn to their own paths, but so intrinsically entwined, there has to be stronger forces chipping out those paths.  Simpering though Jalan is, and a self-confessed coward (and happily so), when push comes to shove (despite his ‘better’ judgement), he becomes quite the warrior… although much of it within an almost fugue-like state.

jalan

Prince of Fools is very much a character-driven story, and Lawrence delivers two vastly different, fully-fleshed out two in Jalan and Snorri. But there’s no phoning-it-in when it comes to the secondary characters either, and I was especially taken with the characters of the North (I’m a sucker for Vikings). But it’s moving through these lands, that we see not only Lawrence’s ability to weave lands and peoples with an almost ease of believability, but both Jal and Snorri’s understanding that this is the long-game. Paths again diverge with Snorri now hunting for Loki’s Key, the only thing that will open the door (any door, anywhere) to Hel, and to his murdered family. Jal just wants to be rid of the magic and to go home to the warmth of the Red March.

Loki’s key is… well, key. It’s the driving force behind all the players in this game – those who’ve been in the long-game and those who’ve just sat down at the table. Jal and Snorri’s isn’t an easy journey, not by any stretch of the imagination. The Dead King wants them (and Loki’s key), and sets monsters, Unborn, mercenaries and necromancer on their tail. (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) There are battles and skirmishes pretty much the whole way to the Bitter Ice, but those pale in comparison to the combat at the Black Fort. It’s all or nothing here, and while this is Snorri’s way, it sure ain’t Jal’s but… nah, you’re just going to have to sell your own sleep to Lawrence to find out.

Lawrence has interwoven many a sub-plot, but take note of the word ‘interwoven’ – the foreshadowing for future… events is often a subtle nudge but it all comes together nicely, and there’s no doubt some of these will be continued in the next book. The Red Queen’s War is the long game, and so too is Lawrence plotting – there’s… stuff to be resolved, big stuff, and questions that need answering and secrets to be divulged. There’s magic, both dark and light, and not all is as it seems… at least I think not… or maybe I do…

All I know is that Mark Lawrence is waiting in the wings, a copy of The Liar’s Key in one hand and my hours of sleep in his other.

On a Goodreads scale, I give this five stars (and my supposed sanity).

five stars