And so the adventures of Prince Jalan come to an end.
The Red Queen's War had a big set of shoes to fill following the events of The Broken Empire Trilogy. The trilogy of Prince Jorg Ancreth's road to becoming Emperor of the Hundred Kingdoms was a dark, gritty, twisty, and thoroughly engaging set of stories which culminated in a apocalyptic finale. By contrast, The Red Queen's War was a somewhat less grandiose and more character-focused work that followed a Harry Flashman-like arrogant fop and his nobler-than-thou Viking companion.
The Wheel of Osheim opens with Prince Jalan getting dumped in the middle of the Sahara Desert, having escaped hell with demons hot on his heels. It's a great opening and makes ample use of flashbacks to explain how our heroes got from Point A to Point Z. The world is ending because of there being too much magic in the world and it falls to our (anti)hero to use Loki's key in order to figure out a way to delay it. After all, the world is where he keeps all of his stuff.
So, is it any good?
Yes, but I have criticisms. It is a funny, entertaining, and, at times, moving work but it has the same flaws I saw in The Liar's Key. Too little Snorri and too little Mark Lawrence twistedness. There's also the fact the ending felt a bit too happy (?), I suppose for a series which was founded on subverting expectations. Heck, one of the heroes even gets the girl he pines for despite one of the best elements of the previous book being how he utterly failed to do it due to circumstance.
In a very real sense, the characters become somewhat stuck in their character arcs. Prince Jalan stubbornly clings to being the same selfish **** he's always been despite how much events have changed him, Snorri remains devoted to his insane quest to resurrect his family, and Kara never quite chooses between good or evil. In real-life, plenty of people never change and just fall back into old habits but it's a trifle disappointing here.
Despite this, I have to state that I devoured this book in the span of two days and enjoyed every minute of it. If the book felt a little too safe for the sequel to a series which opens up with Jorg sacking an innocent village, then it was safe in an entertaining manner throughout. For all my statements about Jalan never learning anything, that's half of the character's appeal.
Jalan really is a selfish **** and to become fully reformed would be the antithesis of what makes him enjoyable. Even so, there's a few genuinely impressive moments this time around like how Jalan confronts the fact he's a prince running away from a crime lord and the worst decision he has to make as the dragooned marshal of his kingdom. I also enjoyed his "heroic" solution to dealing with an ex-girlfriend getting enslaved.
Much of this book deals with the fascinating science-fiction mythology which underlies both of his series. It's a post-apocalypse world where humans created something akin to magic with quantum mechanics and generating reality from thought. Having the protagonists deal with such heavy concepts they don't understand occupies a good third of the book and I have to say, it was very interesting. It reminds me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's Sandman mythology and that's high praise for any author.
I like the character of Lisa DeVeers which has a bigger role in this book than in previous stories. While she doesn't play a very big role, she is hilarious in her short appearances and an excellent foil for our protagonist. I'm not sure what her relationship to Jalan is at the end of the book but it does lead to a great joke. While I wish we'd gotten more Kara, the fact she doesn't become the love interest of either Jalan or Snorri is almost unprecedented in fantasy fiction so I give kudos to Mark Lawrence for that as well.
The battle scenes throughout the book are amazing and Mark Lawrence is never at a loss for describing new and exciting locations. His twisted Fallout-meets-the Dark Ages setting is one that is a source of endless fascination to me and I can't wait for his third trilogy in the world. He also has a mastery of dialogue and short-but-memorable scenes that make him someone I wish Hollywood would produce the works of (or, at least, HBO).
Overall, this is a great book and if I had some problems with it then it was still something I am glad to have picked up. I actually regret there will be no more stories about Prince Jalan's travels and that's perhaps the best sign Mark Lawrence didn't wear out the character's welcome.