I stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly ChiI stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly Chickens was mentioned in glowing terms, so of course, I had to temporarily set aside that book in order to find out why.
Through a lucky coincidence, a buss passenger recognizes in the depiction of the long-extinct dodo, the ugly chicken she grew up with. The main character, a Master's student in ornithology, embarks on a quest to unravel the mystery of the dodos and to unearth the history of the family linked to them.
The richness of this story, a Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner, comes from the attention to detail for (re)building the family's history. As I read it, I was under the impression that I watched a show on the History Channel. The fact that the ornithologist has always been obsessed with dodos—he used to have dreams involving royal families and dancing dodos—only adds to the illusion of reality. Here we have the (overly) passionate scientists, in search of academic glory, who forgoes sleep and food, in order to pursue the mystery of a (literally) stupid bird.
The best part—the ending, which had me laughing out loud. Brilliant!
The very short summary is this: cowardly, lying, and womaniser Prince Jal is forced to undertake a journey to the far North in order to break the spell that links him to a brave, honest, faithful, and, most important, desperate savage, named Snorri. Both of them are nothing but pawns in a war that they don't understand. As with any book of this kind, the journey is one of self-discovery, yet, this novel doesn't resemble any high-fantasy I have ever read. For one, the main character is exactly the opposite of what we would expect from a hero.
Strangely, I learned about this novel from ACE Books' campaign on Twitter. Everyone was tweeting how funny it was and, because at the time I was in a burned-out state, I considered it a suitable relief for stress and overwork. During the first day, I went to bed past 2 a.m. because I couldn't put it down. Yes, Prince of Fools is funny, no one argues against this statement, but what won me over was how judiciously Mark Lawrence employs the humor in order to build his character and to highlight the tension. Prince of Fools is not a comedy. The humor doesn't represent a purpose in itself, but a tool to consolidate an intrinsic feature of the main character, namely cowardice. Because of this, the flippancy is not consistently spread throughout the novel. The more Jal grows into a more valiant less cowardly individual, the less witty his outlook of life. The thinning of the humor not only marks Jal's progress towards (real) adulthood, but also augments the tension. Because, when your prospects of survival taper off, the penchant for joking tapers off as well.
What's more important than the humor is how Mark Lawrence contrives the inner tension that drives the characters. The spell that affects Snorri and Jal has a dual nature—good and bad, day and night, light ans shadow—and each of them is the recipient of only one aspect. Naturally, we would expect that the negative side of the magic is drawn to the depraved individual and the positive one, to the upright man. That would have been the easy way! But that is not Mark Lawrence's way. Instead, he devises a situation in which the darkness lodges into the righteous man and the light into the wicked one. Now, both of them are throw out of balance, because the spell conflicts with each of their natures. Would the shadows conquer the goodness and the light win against vice. While Prince of Fools is an action and adventure story, IMO, what makes it shine is this inner struggle of the two characters.
The second aspect that charmed me was the actual world. In the beginning, while Jal is interested only in getting into women's beds and paying his gambling debts, the scenery is only sketched. However, the more his journey transforms him, the more colorful and detailed the world becomes. Jal and Snorri live in a post-apocalyptic environment, in which the trains are only a legend, but the tracks still exist. For a night, they nest in what appears to be a skyscraper, while another they rest in a dried-up reservoir, which still shows the signs of a hydroelectric power plant. The quirkiest detail of all is the army of plasteek mannequins, which he misconstrues as warriors. Did I mention that they sail on a Viking ship called Ikea? The idea that a high-fantasy world could exist after the destruction of our present civilizations fascinated me!
At last, I'm only going to mentioned that Mark Lawrence's writing is well above the average. His choice of words is creative and the turn of phrase, sure-handed and elegant.
To wrap up, this is a very fresh take on high-fantasy, benefiting from unorthodox characters, good mastery of the tension, a strange world, and strong writing. If you want, you could call this a beach read for fantasy readers. * * * Also posted at Medley | Andreea Daia...more