The Liar’s Key is the second in Mark Lawrence’s ‘Red Queen’s War’ trilogy. In summary, it’s a really well done character piece, focused on Jalan – the dissolute, cowardly, crafty and self-serving protagonist that we last saw, at the end of the previous volume in the series, settling down for a long winter, after barely surviving the retrieval of ‘Loki’s key’, an artefact with the potential to open any door.
This book kicks off effectively where the last one finished; Jalan and Snorri, the Prince and the Viking, are briefly settled in the town of Trond, recovering from their adventures. As the ice thaws, however, Snorri becomes determined to leave, to take the artefact which the two of them managed to retrieve, and use it to open the door into death, in an effort to rescue his wife and children – but first he needs to find someone who can tell him where the door is. Jalan initially goes along with this, somewhat out of loyalty to Snorri, but also because it fits with his own desire – to get away from the frostbitten north, and back to his southern home – a case where absence has definitely made the heart grow fonder.
We get to see a bit more of Lawrence’s Broken Empire setting as the characters journey south. It’s wonderful to see the contrasts here – after the frozen howling of the opening, there’s a sea voyage, leaving our heroes lashed with salt and spray. There’s a tour of dark forests, laced with trolls and dead men. Then there’s the South – a warmer climate, the dangers less obvious, the lines between truth and lies less clear. Jalan drags us from the stark deadliness of the North into the cloying venom of the South, from Great Halls to halls of finance. There’s a sprawling scope to the geography, a feeling of the breadth of the Empire. It makes the world feel larger, and at the same time, more real. Lawrence shows us snow covered icecaps and urban areas, thronging with different cultures – and the feeling of familiarity blended with the unusual is expertly done. The Empire really comes alive on the page. There’s some interesting new locations this time as well – I won’t give any details, for spoilers sake this close to release, but there’s certainly one or two that I wasn’t expecting, where the descriptions absolutely scintillated – Lawrence has always excelled at giving us the mysterious, the wondrous and the terrifying in equal measure, and there’s no change here.
From a character point of view, there’s a shift in focus from the first volume, which focused on the relationship between Jalan and Snorri. Now there’s a larger supporting cast of characters, several of whom have key roles to play – though the core relationship remains that of the Viking and the Prince. That said, despite the larger cast, it feels like this narrative is more focused on Jalan than the overall ensemble. The Jalan of the previous volume was a narcissist, a coward, and a pragmatic opportunist. He changed over the course of that book – though perhaps not as much as one might expect – and his transition continues here. It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a redemptive arc, per se. Jalan’s character shifts, by degrees, but where it will end up - which of the many people he could be that he’ll actually become – remains opaque. Still, it feels like our protagonist is growing up, gradually seizing hold of parts of a world where the consequences of his actions are starting to have a larger impact.
We also get to see a swathe of Jalan’s family history, giving us insight into his immediate ancestors – including his deceased mother, and formidable grandparent, the Red Queen, as well as Jalan’s childhood. The latter sections are excellent, giving us another view on Jalan, as a boy with appalling courage, scarred and bent into shape by the events that occur around him. The Jalan of today is likeable, but the boy of yesterday is downright fierce. His history shapes the man we thought we knew from the previous book, and gives us a new perspective on his underlying motivations – and at the same time, the memories of his past soak back into Jalan, and help shape the character of the individual he’s becoming. Quite what the result fo this will be, I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating to watch.
Alongside Jalan’s past, we get a look at further back, at the rise of the Red Queen. A remote, stark power in the present, the more intimate view we’re afforded here, of her and her siblings, is both intriguing and horrifying. Unlike Jalan, the Red Queen seems to always know who she is. She has his drive, but focused on other goals than his. There’s some great stuff in here – some wonderful past scenes that hint at the shaping of some of the larger forces in the Broken Empire, and a general likelihood that things are going to get messy, breaking up the character driven tension of Jalan’s journey nicely.
I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers, but it’s an excellent adventure. With the focus on Jalan, there’s a lot of opportunity for humour, which wraps around and through the darker themes in his development wonderfully. The journey south is well presented, and there’s an excellent set of obstacles and goals, both internally and externally. Adventure and danger go hand in hand, and Jalan runs away from all of them in a manner that left me rapidly turning pages just to see what happened next – how he was going to get into or out of trouble this time, and who he’d be at the end of each escapade.
In summary then, The Liar’s Key is a worthy sequel to the excellent Prince of Fools. We get another fast paced adventure; we get some wonderfully crafted characters, with believable motivations and personal journeys that affect both our perception of them and theirs of themselves – and we get it all in the Broken Empire’s unique setting. Is it worth treading? Absolutely. If you haven’t read Prince of Fools already, do that first; if you have, then you owe it to yourself to pick up this scintillating sequel.