This trilogy (consisting of Prince of Fools, The Liar's Key and The Wheel of Osheim) was written after The Broken Empire reviewed here on 10th April. One interesting aspect of the story which is only gradually revealed is the connection with The Broken Empire, which it transpires is set in the same world at the same time. In fact, in one scene in Prince of Fools, the principal characters of both series (who are princes of different states) are in the same bar at the same time, but do not know each other. It also gradually becomes clear that that their world is our very own, a thousand years after a catastrophic thermonuclear war ("the Thousand Suns") has changed the landscape of Europe, our civilisation (remnants of which still remain) being known to them as the "Builders".
The Red Queen's War has another first-person narrator, this time Prince Jalan Kendeth of the Red March, but he could hardly form a greater contrast with the ruthless Prince Jorg of The Broken Empire. He is a self-acknowledged coward and liar whose main aim in life is to seduce as many women as possible. His title is useful in helping with these endeavours, even though he is only tenth in line for the throne. However, in Prince of Fools he gets caught up in lethal sorcery and has to flee his home in the company of Snorri ver Snagason, a giant Viking warrior. This ill-matched pair face various trials and tribulations as they travel northwards to try to rescue Snorri's family from renegade Vikings using evil magic, during which Jalan learns more about himself and his world than he really wanted to know.
This is one of the best traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasies I have read. The characterisation and plotting are both excellent, and the principal character is an engaging and often amusing rogue. The author allows himself the odd joke – a wooden viking ship they travel on is called the Ikea – and this is much more fun than Prince of Thorns. I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this kind of fantasy.
The Liar's Key follows straight on from the events in Prince of Fools. Jalan is happily living in a Viking bar, his main problem being trying to keep his three mistresses from knowing about each other. However, Snorri is driven to search for the key to the door of the afterlife so he can recover his wife and children, murdered by Viking enemies. The key was made by Loki, and will open any lock. Locating it is only a part of the problem, however; many powerful people want it and Jalan and Snorri have many adventures as they try to fight off their enemies and find the right door to open. The book ends with a huge cliff-hanger.
This is well-written and engaging as usual. The main reservation I had is with the length: 650 pages is a lot for the middle of a trilogy and, thinking back over it, I find it hard to remember the sequence of events. A more focused tale with a clearer structure would I think have been better.
The Wheel of Osheim starts, somewhat unusually, with Jalan escaping from Hell and finding himself in a camel goods train in the desert of Liba. From the start, two plot threads run in parallel using alternating chapters: in one thread, we follow Jalan's adventures as he tries to return home; in the other, he recounts what happened to him in Hell. One notable event is the one and only (accidental) meeting between Jalan and King Jorg (from The Broken Empire trilogy), who spend an evening draining a flagon of whisky between them. A meeting which is to have significant consequences later. The tale is laced with the author's sardonic humour, as in: "The Broken Empire never had a big demand for slaves. We have peasants. Much the same thing, and they think they're free so they never run off."
Once back in his home city of Vermillion, Jalan is forced to take on a more important role as the city is besieged by a vast horde of zombies and other supernatural creatures, in a titanic struggle which goes on for nearly 100 pages. Despite his earnest wish to spend his life lazing around and fornicating, Jalan, reunited with Snorri, sets off on a quest to the fabled – and highly dangerous – Wheel of Osheim, a vast Builder machine which has the power to alter reality. The story finishes with yet another unexpected twist as Jalan finds himself in a situation which he had never imagined.
That concludes the two trilogies set in the Broken Empire, and it is a landmark achievement. At something around 3,000 pages it makes The Lord of the Rings seem like a novella. However, I haven't finished with this author yet: as well as the third volume of the very different Impossible Times series, another trilogy awaits: The Book of the Ancestor.