MARK LAWRENCE The Liar’s Key: The Red Queen’s War, Book Two. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Magic, blood and even trolls – this is engaging picaresque fantasy with a feckless hero.
The Liar’s Key is Book Two of The Red Queen’s War series. It continues the adventures and misadventures of Prince Jalan Kendeth, grandson of the Red Queen of the Red March, begun in Prince of Fools – which I thought could have been called ‘Prince of Tools’, as Jalan is a thoroughly feckless, self-indulgent, louche, selfish, cowardly, arrogant and sexually irresponsible man-boy.
In the first book he is forced to go on a quest to the north, yoked to a morally virtuous and physically strong Viking named Snorri ver Snagason, as the result of a powerful spell invoked by his great-aunt, the Silent Sister. After many violent and complex adventures amid the vast icebound snows of the north, Snorri has gained Loki’s key, which he hopes will unlock Hel, enable him to defeat the Dead King – thus restoring his wife and children to life – and Jalan has had many scrapes and close escapes involving vicious fights and lusty women.
In The Liar’s Key, Snorri, Prince Jalan and another Viking named Tuttugu slowly make their way back south. Snorri still wishes to use Loki’s powerful key to open the Dead King’s door. Jalan wants to return to the Mediterranean comforts of the Red March and Tutturu is loyal to Snorri. On their way they encounter an orphaned boy, Hennan, and Kara, a young trainee witch who is, at last, a female character who is not just an a object provided to illustrate Jalan’s lusty behaviours, but one who reveals intelligence and a trajectory of her own. As Jalan says:
Despite the obvious negatives – being scary clever, knowing far too many things, seeing through me on almost every occasion, and being more than happy to skewer straying hands – I found her excellent company.
There are several powerful movers who also covet the key. The Dead King is one, the Lady Blue another, and Jalan’s relatives – the Red Queen, the Silent Sister and Garyus his great-uncle – appear to be using him to protect the empire of the Red March. Several witches, including Skilfar, who is perhaps Kara’s grandmother, and a necromancer are in the mix and various creditors, affronted husbands and fathers are after him as well. This makes for a wonderful, fast-moving tale, where new and surprising events occur rapidly.
The travellers slowly sail back from the icy north in a series of small boats, crossing wild seas and calling in at some of the northern towns, where many adventures occur; adventures which sometimes require a fast getaway. The descriptions of these journeys are at times very lyrical and evocative of the cold oceans of the north:
Before long gulls spotted the craft, circling about it on high, their cries added to the wind’s keening and the slap of waves. Snorri drew the deepest breath and smiled. Beneath a mackerel sky with the morning bright around him it seemed that even a sorrow-laden man could know a moment’s peace.
Lawrence uses the first-person narration very stylishly. We learn much about the characters through Jalan’s thoughts. He is such a jerk, but we know somehow that he must change, for his self-assessments make him rather charming. Perhaps the book could be called ‘The Education of Young Jalan’. So many of the adventures and insights into the characters of his companions should make him think – but he doesn’t, at least not yet:
The only good reason to let dawn find you awake is that the previous night’s wine has not yet run out, or that a demanding young woman is keeping you up. Or both. Being cold and wet and seasick was not a good reason, but it was mine.
He does have a great deal of self-knowledge. He makes frequent self-deprecatory analyses of himself and his wishes and it is this that makes the book ironically funny. He often seems very brave yet it is usually a mistaken assessment. He admires Snorri and his fellow travellers but clearly doesn’t let this admiration get in the way of looking after his own interests first:
It proved a long and miserable test of endurance, there in the unbroken night of the cells. I moaned and sighed about it, until I remembered Hennan had endured the place alone before I arrived, much of his time starving and parched. I kept quiet after that, even though I thought it had probably been easier on him, raised as he was to the hardships of peasant life.
Lawrence departs from Jalan’s unrelenting point of view occasionally by describing Snorri’s adventures without Jalan’s commentary and this makes the tale even richer and more complex. There are also flashbacks, possibly a hint of future technology, illuminating palace intrigues and stylish battles.
The possibility of opening the Dead King’s door is the fulcrum of this story but there are no certainties in this splendidly picaresque tale. The travellers have continual adventures involving magic and blood and even trolls. Prince Jalan may not be the usual lower-class hero of such tales but he is certainly a rogue. This is a fast-moving and engaging story. Book Three will be welcome.
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
Mark Lawrence The Liar’s Key: The Red Queen’s War, Book Two Harper Voyager 2015 PB 416pp $27.99
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