All good stories must come to an end. With a heavy sign, I reluctantly turned to the last page in The Wheel of Osheim, waving goodbye to Jalan and Snorri, whose epic sagas, known as The Red Queen's War, have spellbound and dominated much of my spare time in the past two weeks. I do not know when a story of such excellence will come knocking at the gate to my reading world again, but I know brilliant authors of the fantasy genre are busy at work to bringing us quality novels. Meanwhile, The Red Queen's War trilogy is entering my ever-growing list of favorite fantasy series. I tell you, The Wheel of Osheim brings a sublime ending to, in my opinion, one of the best fantasy trilogies of the 21th century.
Prince Jalan slogs in a desert wasteland under a scorching sun. In his pocket Jalan carries an ancient gift from Loki, The Liar's Key, which he bore out of hell itself to be delivered as a price to his cunning and fearsome grandmother, The Red Queen. But where is Jalan's friend, the fierce viking warrior, Snorri? As the fate of the Norse warrior lies in mystery, Jalan tries to leave the nightmare of hell behind. He toils to journey north, back to the kingdom of Red March, where he can finally exchange The Liar's Key for the return of his debauched life; a life of wine, women, and wagering.
The mind of the universe, however, does not cooperate with the plans of men. Deep in the bowels of The Broken Empire sits The Wheel of Osheim, an ancient, powerful device from the time of Builders. It mounts Builders' dooming magic as its wheel spins faster and faster, threatening to crack the world and bringing an end to all things. That is, unless someone or something can stop the wheel. This is when a key that can unlock any door becomes very handy, such as Loki's strange gift.
Just like that, the survival of the world suddenly depends on the actions (or inactions) of a craven prince and his trickster key. But how can anyone trust the fate of the world on someone as selfish and spineless as prince Jalan? Well, if the world cracks then there is nowhere to run and hide, so perhaps when push comes to shove, the certainty of doom may yet force a coward into performing deeds of wonder?
My thoughts on this book:
I wish the story of Jalan and Snorri never ends. Had The Wheel of Osheim been longer by 500 pages I would nevertheless read it gladly. This novel is marvelous, and I don't think anyone can ask for a better ending than this book.
The Wheel of Osheim picked up the story from the cliff-hanger finish in The Liar's Key. The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of Jalan, who found himself trapped in a desert wasteland. The reason for Jalan's predicament is not given to the readers initially, but it is revealed gradually at the progression in this book. In this novel, Jalan is still a coward. He is still far from being a paragon of virtue. Jalan would still lie to save his own hide, and he would still hold a child in front of him as a shield. But in this book, I could clearly see that Jalan is not the same person from Prince of Fools - the character development is amazing! By this book, Jalan has traveled a perilous road and he has grown in wisdom if not in courage. Meanwhile, I continued to smile toothy grins at Jalan's misadventures. Despite his many flaws, Jalan's cowardly thoughts greatly amused me, and I found Jalan a relatable character because his moral compass points to a murky gray.
The story of Jalan exemplifies the genre of grimdark fantasy, because just like the real life, this story is set in a world where nothing is black and white. Its protagonists are also not as simple as good and evil. Jalan, like the rest of us, is just a human being limited by the human condition. He does what he thinks is the best under the circumstances he was given, and his choices and actions are neither good or evil. I mean, before you want to judge Jalan, you should ask yourself if you could have done better under the same circumstances. Grimdark fantasy has a realistic way to do characterization, and it is far superior to the “all or nothing” worldview painted in Tolkien and C.S Lewis novels where characters are often caricatures of real people (I mean, Odin's beard, don't get me start talking about my objection to The Chronicles of Narnia, where, through the character of Eustace, C.S Lewis grossly vilified informed skepticism. I hate those books because of it). This is also why grimdark fantasy remains the champion in my reading domain.
Snorri is the second protagonist in this sweeping saga. For a large portion of this book, however, our fierce Viking warrior is missing in action. So a reader may have questions about Snorri's whereabouts. I do not want to spoil the story, so let me just say this unstoppable Norseman, along with other characters from the earlier book, did rejoin Jalan's final adventure to stop the breaking of the world. I also believe most readers will be very satisfied with the way this book tied up the story of these characters at the end.
In my reviews for The Liar's Key and Price of Fools, I mentioned the story of Jalan is set in a post apocalyptic world, where humanity has spent centuries in recovery after a disastrous event wiped out our civilization, and mankind has once again, reached a civilization level of the medieval equivalence. Jalan's world has “magics”, and there are also traces of remnant technologies from the bygone era. In the previous books, the author did not fully reveal the history of Jalan's world, and no explanation was provided for the origin of its “magics”. The Wheel of Osheim, being the conclusion of this trilogy, provided all the missing pieces in the puzzle. Readers of this book will finally have a complete picture of what happened in Jalan's world, and where its magics are coming from. I was very impressed by the way Mark Lawrence brought together these things. Yes, setting a fantasy story in a post apocalyptic world has been done before (such as Jack Vance's timeless work, The Dying Earth), but in this book, it is a wonderful and creative transition from fantasy to science fiction, and the premise is convincing. In my opinion, Mark Lawrence has demonstrated why he is among the best fantasy novelists of our era.
The last paragraph in The Wheel of Osheim made me grin from ear to ear. It was hilarious! At the same time, I felt a bit sad at bidding Jalan and Snorri farewell. The Red Queen's War trilogy is great and I want to read it again in the future. Gentle readers, I heartily recommend this black gem to you. If you are fond of fantasy novels akin to A Song of Ice and Fire and The Farseer's trilogy, then I believe you will love The Red Queen's War.