Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own.
This book was fun! It was a bit bipolar it moments, switching from being light and cheerful to being dark and dreadful, but overall it was fun. If I were to compare this to other books/IPs, I would compare the author’s narrative/writing style to Tad William’s ‘The Dragonbone Chair’ or ‘The Sword of Shannara’ by Terry Brooks, but with the fairy-tale humor of Shrek or ‘Dealing With Dragons’ by Patricia C. Wrede. It also had a few appealing political sub-plots reminiscent of ‘Twelve Kings in Sharakhai’ by Bradley P. Beaulieu, which I thought was handled well. Even the characters in this book were fun, but I have to say they were not very ‘realistic,’ if you catch my drift. Check out this book if you’re a fan of any of the above books, or something like Riyeria. This is a traditional, trope-y fantasy book, but told with style and humor and a bit of darkness.
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
Let’s start this discussion by talking about tone. This is a book about Good vs Evil in the classic vein, but with the twist of being told in a fairy-tale world. There’s an evil dark lord, an evil forest, evil demons and monsters, but contrasting with these evils are drama-queen goblins, a put-upon unicorn, a butterfly-collecting dragon, and a princess who will shank a b*^&#. The story’s whimsy reminded me of Shrek (and my initial google searches suggested that Shrek was in part based on this novel) or an Adult Dealing with Dragons, or Bridge of Birds.
At the same time, the author balanced this humor by staying true to the standard 1970’s/80’s Tolkeinesque fantasy style- namely knights in shining armor, heroic deeds, mildly fancy prose. This duality of whimsy and tradition struck a careful balance, with neither outweighing the other. The whimsy provided humor and loving parody of the tradition. Meanwhile the tradition provided weight and meaning to give the whimsy depth.
…Or at least that’s how it worked for the first 3/4ths of the novel. After a certain point (specifically when they return from the Warlock’s demense), the story trips and falls into the traditional good-vs-evil narrative, losing a lot of the humor which made it great. More on this in Pacing below.
Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (A-)
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
The characters in this book were fun! And they were superunrealistic. The hero was motivated by True Love and Chivalry. The heroine was motivated by a desire to be strong and independent from the forces who strove to control her. The anti-villain/anti-hero Harald’s entire personality was pure smugness. The unicorn’s personality was the aggrieved snark of a put-upon butler. I could go on, but most of the primary characters were good fun, a blast to read, and completely artificial.
In recent years there’s been a move in the Fantasy genre to write deep characters, who’s internal struggles mirror our real-world internal troubles. Kaladin in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ struggles with depression. Theon Greyjoy in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ struggles with PTSD. Seyonne in ‘Transformation’ struggles with standing up for himself after being beaten down. I could go on, but you get the point. Authors want to give their fictional characters more depth, so they add that depth by giving them mental disorders.
The characters in this book lack that depth. They are by-and-large one-note-wonders. The princess’s first response to anyone opposing her is to throw a fist. Harald’s first response to anyone opposing him is to twirl his mustache and cackle pompously. The hero’s response to opposition is to confront it head-on, because he’s looking for a warrior’s death. Of all the main characters, I’d say only the princess and the king had any nuance or depth to them. And you know what? I’m perfectly happy with that. These characters were more archetypes than people, and they were fantastically fun to read. The author wasn’t trying to create real people, he was trying to tell a wildly entertaining story, and he succeeded.
My biggest characterization problems had to do with some of the villains. They needed to chew on the scenery more.
- Here’s an example:
- I loved Harald as a villain because he was so unrepentantly petty and stupid, chewing on the scenery every moment he was given the stage. Harald was suuuper hateable, which meant his ultimate beatdown at the climax of the book was satisfying.
- The Demon Prince, on the other hand, got barely any limelight. He was a Sauron-esque villain, hanging around off-screen for most of the book, working through catspaws the entire time. When he finally showed up, he was generic. He needed to show up earlier, and chew on the scenery more.
- The twist traitor who appeared at the final chapter had barely any foreshadowing about his evil nature throughout the book. Him switching sides to being Evil didn’t work for me for the same reason that Hans in the first Frozen movie didn’t work for me, because the author/movie director didn’t do enough to foreshadow him being evil. Again, he needed to chew on the scenery.
- In a lot of ‘realistic’ books, I find chewing on the scenery to be tacky. Not here. The author isn’t striving for ‘realism,’ so chewing on the scenery is how you make your villains stand out.
Now I’ll talk about a few of the characters.
- Rupert: On one hand, he’s a generic Knight in Shining Armor, Questing for his Lady’s Hand in Marriage. On the other hand, all the characters around him really made what personality he did have shine. I liked him.
- Julia: She is the prototypical ‘Princess who doesn’t need to be rescued, thanks.’ I think she’s the Patient Zero of the trope. The first time we meet her, she’s bullying the dragon who’s holding her captive, and later she goes on to grab a sword and save Rupert’s lives on multiple occasions.
- Harald: My favorite character in the book. He’s so delightfully smug and self-absorbed, it really made it easy to hate him.
- The Unicorn: I listened to the audiobook, and the voice actor gave him a delightful, put-upon Irish accent for this guy. He is Rupert’s reluctant servant/steed, and constant source of comic relief.
- The traitorous minister: After a lifetime of oppression by Harald and the king, this minister has sworn allegiance to the Demon Prince. He was fine as a point of view character, but Harald stole the show every time he was on screen.
- The goblins: Were a fun running joke, which paid off very well in the end.
- And finally, the Chamberlain: He was a hoot. Totally unrealistic (no one is that passive aggressive), but super entertaining.
Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A-)
PACING AND STRUCTURE
And here is where the book falls a bit flat. To be blunt, it was too long, and the last 25% of the novel dragged. This book was at it’s best when it was whimsical; the last quarter of the book lacked that whimsy and randomness which made the first three quarters so fantastic. The first three quarters were the wacky adventures of our heroes Rupert and Julia- where fairy tale whimsy combined with Arthurian politics to give the story a cutting knife-edge of wit and humor, with the threat of death only a few inches away at any moment.
When this book lost both the whimsy and the politics, leaving just the good-vs-evil narrative, I got bored. This book has one of the biggest cases of tonal whiplash I’ve read in a book since ‘The Poppy War.’ In the Poppy War, the first half of the book is a high-school drama, while the second half is all about genocide.
Structure-wise, I think this book follows the 5-act format.
- The Status Quo
- The first Act is the most whimsical of the acts, where Rupert and Julia meet, we’re introduced to the unicorn, goblin, and dragon, and are first introduced to the demon threat.
- The status quo is ‘Standard Fairy Tale Adventure, but with Humor”
- Challenge to the Status Quo
- The second Act begins when the hero’s party (consisting of Rupert, Julia, the unicorn and the dragon) return to court, are attacked by more demons, and are promptly sent back out to fight still more demons.
- It is revealed that the demons are the main antagonists of this story/the status quo.
- The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials
- The narrative splits in two at this point, with one plotline starring Julia and the other Rupert.
- Rupert, the unicorn and The Champion venture out in an attempt to recruit the Warlock. They must fight through goblins(again), fight an ancient terror sealed in an underground mine, and fight yet-more demons.
- Julia and the dragon stay in court, where Julia is responsible for helping unravel a political scheme which threatens to destabilize the nation mere months before a prophesied demon attack. Harald proves that he’s not evil by backstabbing the backstabbers. However, Harald is still a giant asshole. Oh, and they have to fight demons.
- The book gets progressively darker and darker throughout this act, with less and less whimsy being evident. This change in tone represents the demons triumphing over the status quo.
- Escalation of the Challenge
- Rupert and the Champion rescue the Warlock. They return to the castle, which is now surrounded by (you guessed it) demons. Of the fifty soldiers they started out with, only 10 remain.
- This is when the darkness sets in, and the whimsy disappears entirely. The demons are clearly winning, with disease running rampant in the castle and no one can flee because demons are outside of the castle. Oh, and the sun has gone black and it’s snowing in the middle of summer. No fairy tales to be found here.
- Climax and Conclusion
- Rupert convinces all the heroes to go out and fight the enemy. They fight back the demons, forcing the enemy to reveal himself. The two traitors- both the obvious traitor and the twist traitor- reveal themselves, and with them come the Demon Prince. Good triumphs over evil, the disease is cured, and Julia+Rupert beat up that smug jerk Harald. They then flee the castle and go on to live Happily Ever After.
- The ‘Happily Ever After’ ending represents the restoration of the fairy tale status quo on a narrative as well as a meta-narrative level.
This structure is non-traditional for a book told in this style, but it is functional. When the tone is viewed in this format you can see that there is a sensible ebb-and-flow to it changing from Fairy Tale to Grimdark and back to Fairy Tale, coinciding with major story events. If you haven’t guessed from what I’ve written, there were too many demon attacks.
I think the main problem I had wasn’t with this ebb-and-flow of darkness, it was with the fact that the author COMPLETELY abandoned the Fairy Tale aesthetic in the final chapters in order to amp up the grimdark aesthetic. I would have preferred if the author instead used grimdark fairytale tropes at this point, to play up the darkness. For example, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ are cannibalism folktales. The author could have returned to the well, and played up the shadows in the Fairy Tales instead of the sunshine.
Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B)
PLOT AND STAKES AND TENSION
The plot’s some good, clean fun. The author uses deus-ex-machinas on occasion to get things done. I personally didn’t enjoy the tone swap in the last two acts of the novel, but that’s a matter of personal taste. All together, the story holds together, lacking any major plot holes.
There is one minor plot hole, though. Harald insisted his younger brother Rupert was a coward throughout the novel, despite all evidence to the contrary. This could be explained away as Harald as just underestimating his brother, but as Harald is presented as being very intelligent I’m left feeling there’s a plot hole in his behavior.
The book’s stakes are really good. Rupert, the hero, is the second son of the king. As a result, he’s a rival to the elder son of the king. Harald, Rupert’s older brother, wants Rupert dead. So the king sent Rupert off to go kill a dragon and rescue a princess (initiating the plot) in order to get Rupert killed so Harald won’t have a rival to the throne. Rupert’s adventures are *explicitly* a series of suicide missions meant by the king to kill his spare son. Raising the stakes still further, even if Rupert survives all the suicide missions Harald will just have Rupert executed anyway. This gives the build-up to the climax a great feel of tension, because even if Rupert manages to kill the Demon Prince he still has to defeat Harald and his executioner.
Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B+)
EVERYTHING ELSE (SETTING, WORLDBUILDING, PROSE AND THEME)
All good, and at moments great! The setting and worldbuilding were a mashup of Arthurian+Fairy Tale+Tolkein Clone Epic Fantasy tropes. The book didn’t do anything ‘new,’ but it did use the ‘old’ respectfully while at the same time treating the ‘old’ with the right amount of mockery/subverted tropes needed to make something fresh and exciting.
The prose had the old-timey aspect similar to early 70’s/80’s fantasy- an echo of the high prose used by Tolkien, but in a readable form. I did have a problem with the prose, though: adjectives and adverbs. I’m not usually one for nitpicking over adverbs, but good gods, this guy used some weird ones.
This book theme is ‘Friendship and Betrayal.’ The heroes form a true friendship with one another, while the villains rely on treachery and betrayal to succeed- and ultimately they betray one another in their quest to be the final villain left ruling the kingdom.
I give Everything Else: (A-)
This is a fun, light book with high stakes. This is good, traditional Epic Fantasy with plenty of Fairy Tale tropes, combining the two together like chocolate and peanut butter. If the author managed to stick the landing vis a vis the pacing this would have been one of the top 20 books I’ve ever read, but the last two acts were too boring for my taste.
STARS: 4.1 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)
JUDGEMENT: Light, fun book with high stakes.
Overall Rating: Highly Recommended (How I Rate Books)
Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Dragons, Humor, Fairy Tale, Adventure, Sword and Sorcery, Epic Fantasy
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