Series: The Red Queen's War #3
Published by Harper Voyager on June 2nd 2016
Our reviews of this author: The Liar's Key, Red Sister, Grey Sister
Like any great story, The Wheel of Osheim is a book of lies . . . a story of lies . . . a very mythology of lies. Names, people, places, memories, histories – all damned lies. I’m treading on the edge of spoiler territory here (I can see the gaping chasm to my left) but, as we come to discover late in the tale, the entire story of Jalan Kendeth actually hinges on a single lie that’s too painful to even contemplate here.
In wrapping up his third and final chapter of The Red Queen’s War, Mark Lawrence has truly outdone himself. I would actually go so far as to say that this is his best book, hands down, and that is no lie.
While he’s used a number of different framing devices in spinning his tales of Jorg and Jalan, Lawrence’s approach here is perfectly suited to the shaping of lies. The book opens with Jalan’s comic escape from the bowels of Hell, seemingly robbing us of a resolution to the cliffhanger that ended The Liar’s Key. It’s several chapters later before we get the first fragment of Jalan’s journey through (and escape from) Hell. As for Snorri’s own journey, his is a tale that must wait until the closing chapters of the tale, a story to be shared as a distraction from the living lies that surround the Wheel of Osheim itself.
There’s a lot of overlap here with The Broken Empire, with some of Jorg’s darkest acts there having a major bearing here – not just on Jalan’s journey, but on the world around him. Even more so than in the first two books, we really get to see Jorg’s influence on the world from a different perspective, one that’s shaped by the lies of those who would interpret his methods and motives for themselves. What we know to be entirely human acts of Builder brutality are reimagined here as divine acts of the gods, who are themselves an entirely different sort of lie . . . but I won’t say any more on the score.
A big part of what sets this book (and this series) apart for me is the character arc of Jalan. Here is a character who has grown, evolved, matured, and emerged from his own lies as the story has progressed. We still get the drunken, cowardly fool of the first two books, a young man who repeatedly resorts to liquor-fueled lies to hide from the cruelties of the world. He’s just as amusing as he was before, but much less exasperating. At the same time, we also get the hero of Aral Pass, a soldier and a leader who overcomes the lies Jalan used to shield himself from responsibility. He’s still largely a reluctant hero, but also a motivated one.
Once again, Builder technology plays a significant role in the story, but it’s the lies told about it and the mythologies created to explain its magics that really drive things. Lawrence throws a lot of gadgets and set pieces at the reader, veering closer to the edges of science fiction than ever before, but it’s the slow unveiling of the truth that makes this so exciting. It is story that’s as clever as it is exciting, with the climax surrounding the Wheel of Osheim entirely worth the three books that it’s taken to realize. There are so many little details in the last hundred or so pages, it’s worth rereading to see how carefully Lawrence constructed the lies of Loki and his key.
While I won’t say much about them (at risk of spoiling things), the Red Queen, the Silent Sister, and Lady Blue finally get their moments to shine here. They’ve been built up so much over the course of the books that I really wondered what Lawrence could possibly do with them, but it all pays off. As for Snorri, he doesn’t get a lot of page time here, but the role he plays in Jalan’s quest, and the way his own is finally resolved, will satisfy even the most jaded of readers. Lawrence isn’t an author who indulges in needless sentimentality, but there is significant emotional impact to Snorri’s last, lonely steps through Hell that will resonate with even the most jaded of readers.
The Wheel of Osheim is an epic book in every sense of the word. In terms of scope, imagination, and significance it actually feels bigger than the trilogy that came before it. It’s a book that captures the spectacle that Lawrence does so well, but also the human aspect. Even as we face off against some of the biggest, darkest monsters we’ve seen yet, those lies are slowly unraveled, allowing us to see the true face of danger . . . and the man destined to end it.