Mark Lawrence is one of my favorite fantasy writers today. It's not because he's good, though he is. It's not because he's grimdark, though he is. No, it's because Mark Lawrence does a wonderful job of creating strong characters which are just entertaining to spend time with. It doesn't matter what Jalan, Snorri, or other characters are doing in his books, it's just fun to hang around with them for a time and watch how they play off of one another. You could easily do a series of books about his characters just traveling about, having fun in their grimdark world. Which is, honestly, what 90% of his books are about.
The premise centers around the titular Liar's Key. Created by the A.I. which believes itself to be the Norse god Loki, the Liar's Key can open any door both metaphorical and otherwise. Both Jalan and Snorri are still recovering from the events of the previous novel but have the (very) small consolation of possessing this immensely powerful object. Snorri, half-insane from grief, hatches on an insane scheme to use the Liar's Key to go to the underworld and bring back his dead family. Jalan, unwilling or unable to say know, reluctantly goes along with him. Their group is also joined by Kara, a beautiful volva who wants the key for herself. The three of them and a few others set out to follow Snorri on his quest to find the doorway to the underworld even as no one (not even Snorri himself) thinks its a good idea.
Much like its predecessor, Prince of Fools, The Liar's Key is fundamentally a road trip. The characters go to a variety of locations, experience a wide selection of cultures, and meet interesting people. We have a section of story set underground, we have one in a fantastic version of Renaissance Italy, and we also see how life has changed in Jalan's home kingdom. There's even a section which takes us back in time, metaphorically, as we discover how the Red Queen got her fantastic moniker. Some of the best parts of the book are flashbacks to when she is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep her kingdom against conquest with no regard to right or wrong.
Newcomer Kara is an interesting addition to the story and adds the possibility of a love triangle without ever actually doing anything which might indicate such is in the offing. Jalan is interested in her and Snorri, though he would never admit it, but she's interested in the Liar's Key instead. As a developing mage, we get to see what they're like before sorcery has completely warped their mind beyond all reason. I loved, for example, the revelation she's a power hungry megalomaniac in the offing but hasn't really got the nastiness to go with the unbridled ambition. It leads to an interesting dynamic as she wants to be what most people are glad she's not.
My favorite part of the book is, undoubtedly, the section set in the Red Marches. Jalan has grown immeasurably, albeit not to the point of gaining actual maturity, so watching him return to a country which barely cared about his death is entertaining. It becomes doubly amusing every time we find one of Jalan's ex-lovers having moved on with the same level of uncaring dispassion he showed them. I got quite a few laughs at his discovery the woman he was going to marry has not only already married but married above (or at least aside) his considerable station.
Sadly, there are some slow parts to this story. The part taking place in what-was-formerly-Italy where Snorri is apart from Jalan for much of the storyline is rather boring. Unfortunately, without someone to play off of, Jalan's selfishness becomes more than a little bit insufferable. Even the more humorous bits where he's trying to portray himself as a hero or master businessman don't quite detract from Snorri's absence. Jalan, for example, fancies himself a great businessman and genius at making money when he's really only good at avoiding paying taxes and cheating people. In the modern day, he'd be a Ponzi scheme manager and wonder why he's going to white-collar prison.
Interesting, a lot of the book deals with the cataclysmic collapse of magic which was introduced (and resolved) as a plotline in Emperor of Thorns. It, like the Dead King, served as a finale for Jorg's story so it's interesting to see it play such a major role in Jalan's story even though we know he'll have nothing to do with the resolution of either. Instead, it feels like we're reading a side-story in Jorg's narrative which isn't aware it's a side-story. All of the Red Queen's preparations for the end of the world and her machinations to prevent it are dramatically ironic, for lack of a better term, since it will all be resolved by someone she's never met.
In conclusion, The Liar's Key continues to expand the strange and wonderful world of Mark Lawrence's 100 Kingdoms. It's not always perfect but it's a place where there's a million possible adventures and I'm looking forward to have many more with his heroes.