Red Queen's War: Book One & Two - Mini Review

So I know, last month the Red Queen's War officially came to end - with the third book in the series, The Wheel of Oshiem having got released. And this was the one series where people were raving that put Mark Lawrence on a pedestal, higher than what he achieved with his first series, the Broken Empire. And you know, how much of a scream that kid, Jorg Ancrath was. I had grown to like him.

Here's where I will let you in on a secret - I love Mark Lawrence simply because he is one of the few authors who inspires me to write better. His writing chops are top notch. Be it the razor-sharp story-telling or the brilliant characterization or the lucid narrative that is so riveting and compelling that you cannot help but be amazed and carried away in the flow - and you overlook the fact that perhaps, the story is a bit too dark and grim. With his second series, Mark's definitely taken care of that aspect, the complaints around grim-dark.

Prince Jalan Kendeth, the prince of fools story is much lighter in its tone and is unlike, Jorg's story dotted and splotched with that dreary darkness. It's almost a happy story. But hey, it's the Broken Empire we are speaking of. Where there is always a war going on. And this time, the womanizer and sybarite prince who loves nothing better than his wine, women and wagering gets unwittingly dragged into something way over his head. A fight - that has his grandmother, the terrifying Red Queen ( Mark - Refer to Alice in Wonderland, much?) pitted against the mysterious Lady in Blue and an old foe, we've encountered before, the Death King. The stakes are much above his measly pay-grade as the prince, tenth as heir-in-waiting to the throne. But Jalan's fate is tied up with that of a Northman, Snorri Ver Snagasson, a man hell-bent on avenging the death of his wife and kids at the hands of another set of vikings, perhaps at the bidding of the Death King. It so happens that the Silent Sister, a sorceress whom nobody can see (except Jalan!) and who advises the Red Queen on matters of the rule, has woven a magic that binds Jalan with the light and Snorri, with the dark, and them bound to each other. Which means they've got to be together to ensure they survive beyond this sorcery.

But of course, this is all a ploy in a much larger wheel that has been set in motion. While book-one focuses on the long and perilous journey Jalan and Snorri undertake, to go to the icy freezing North to bring the fight to the Red Vikings who had raided Snorri's village and killed his family, the larger plot of Red Queen versus Blue Lady is held at bay. However, Book Two is where Mark really unfurls the larger conspiracies that are turning in the background. A set of well-placed flashbacks reveals the Lady Blue's hand in moving against everything that the Red Queen is trying to protect. And of course, secrets about the Silent Sister's past come spilling out. Highly entertaining stuff, absolutely mesmerizing story-telling - Mark hits the strides pretty well, fleshing out this series so beautifully.

Jalan makes for a wonderfully entertaining first person narrative - coward, cad and utterly selfish, his revelations and philosophies in life are simple and straightforward. Its the honesty that made him appealing to me as a character. And of course, the humor lightens the tone and kept me in splits throughout. His constant misadventures were a delight to read. But Jalan, who in the beginning, comes across as a uni-dimensional 'tool' of a man, slowly reveals his stronger character towards the end of book-one. Berserker, a name that rests uneasy on his conscience, about how in the face of fear and danger, he could transform into a wrecking machine. But of course, in typical Jalan fashion, he remembers nothing of this and prefers to cloud over his memory about events that he is uncomfortable associating with. This trait of Jalan is a crucial plot-point as several things about Jalan's past gets revealed slowly through Book-two and we know, that Jalan is in fact, the right choice by the Silent Sister to carry her magic and perhaps, be up to the 'task' that Red Queen and her 'advisors' are looking to get done.

That brings us to Snorri - a fiery and fearsome Viking who bellows for the gates of Valhalla every time and whose response to any kind of danger, is to heave up his axe and run headlong into it - is a full-blooded hot-headed warrior, alright. He lives up to the repute of a typical viking in the beginning chapters. But as things slowly turn from bad to worse, (And this is the genius of Mark Lawrence!) we creep under the blanket of bravado to know the real man. A loving husband and a doting father, under the influence of the darkness that surrounds him because of the magic/curse, we sense changes in the big man. He's a man with the big heart and I absolutely loved his characterization in book-one. In spite of being called the Prince of Fools, the first book really belonged to Snorri. His raw anguish at having lost his loved ones, the no-holds barred charges straight into the mouth of danger, be it necromancers, the unborn or the red vikings fortress - all of it paints the picture of man who has loved and lost everything he has treasured in life. And we understand his burning desire for revenge.

Jalan and Snorri make for a merry pair, they play off each other really well and this kept the tone and pace of the story going at a steady clip. We hit a rough note by the middle of the second book, when these two part ways - and I thought, this was where the pacing fell off the wheel. When Jalan alone makes off for the City of Umbertide, having washed off the sins and the magical curse of the Silent sister and wants to make his fortune with the trade assets assigned to him, by his grand-uncle, the Red Queen's brother. We get entangled in the murky debts of bankers and the fear of clockwork soldiers who protect the assets (the legacy of the Builders still at large!) and I thought Mark had lost his plot a bit. But fear not, as several plot points converge after that. Book Two is chiefly about Loki's Key that Jalan and Snorri capture, at the end of Book One. And Snorri's obsession with bringing back his family from beyond the door of Death, is tied up with this Key. a key that is said, to be open any door.

Several new players enter the fray - Karra, a dark-sworn sorcerer, Tuttugu the jolly viking who's the last of the Undoreth tribe of Snorri and Hennan, a kid whose life gets turned upside down when Snorri and Jalan turn up at his doorstep. ( Near the Wheel of Oshiem, no less!) They only add to the crackling dynamics of the story and kept it on the boil, throughout.

The story is headed for a dramatic finale - with The Wheel of Osheim and I cannot wait to get behind that Door ( you know which one!) The second book is more brooding - and darker, not just keeping in with the conspiracies thickening and the multi-layered plotlines now becoming visible, but also keeping pace with Jalan's character development. More mature, serious perhaps and focused. Yes he is Jalan and so he dithers from committing full fledged to any course of action that doesn't see him safe and sound, but there is hope yet. The story is heading off a cliff - and Mark's masterful turn of the phrase keeps us turning the pages even faster. The Wheel is turning, aye - and the world is headed for a big fall but it may be a fall that tests the strength of one such as Jalan. And I would definitely want ring-side seats to watch that turn of events.

Seriously guys - if you haven't read the Red Queen's War, you don't know what you are missing, as a fan of this genre. Mark is doing something scintillating to the Fantasy genre - and you must experience it. Red Queen's War maybe, a better series than even the Broken Empire. It's an absolute berserker scream of a sequel to a book, that carried the weight of expectations after a thrilling debut series - and then heaves it all away, in a show of masterclass. Mark Lawrence, take a bow. You've stamped your class in this world with this series.

(P.S: I would give up my right hand to write like this thorn guy. but then I'm right handed, and then I couldn't write huh? ) 


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