It’s been a while since I’ve read a straightforward fantasy comedy (as opposed to Terry Pratchett, whose books are comedic fantasy with a point), so maybe that’s why I was definitely in the mood for John Moore’s Heroics for Beginners. This story is so light that it would blow away with a stiff wind. Yet it’s oddly enjoyable with a lot of silliness, poking fun at almost every fantasy convention that’s out there. Evil Overlord? Check. Dark castle with air vents for easy Heroic access? Check. The cover tells anybody who picks it up that “this will be a silly book.” I really liked it, though whether or not you will depends on how much silliness you can put up with.
Prince Kevin Timberline of Rassendas, is one of the four finalists to woo the “Ice Princess” of Deserae, not to mention her father and the other councilors who must agree to any wedding. His main adversary is Prince Logan of Angostura, a military genius and veteran of many wars. Then, the unthinkable happens when word is received that Ancient Artifact Number 7 has been stolen by Lord Voltmeter (He Who Must Be Named) for whatever Diabolical Plan he has cooked up. Whoever rescues the artifact will probably win the girl, too, so Prince Kevin is determined to beat Logan to the punch, especially after reading Robert Taylor’s Handbook of Practical Heroics. Will Kevin be able to do it? What is Lord Voltmeter’s Diabolical Plan? Is it different than any other Evil Overlord’s Diabolical Plan? And will it involve an Evil Overlord’s Assistant for Kevin to seduce? And just how will they get out of the Fortress of Doom’s gift shop?
Many things in Heroics for Beginners made me laugh out loud. Some others made me groan the way a good pun makes you groan. And then there are bits that made me groan in pain. This book is very self-referential, using fantasy stereotypes as sources of comedy, as when Valerie, Voltmeter’s assistant, is told to dress more like an Evil Overlord’s Assistant with high leather boots and spiked heels. Lord Voltmeter is all prepared to tell the captured Logan his plan, as all Evil Overlords do just before leaving the hero to die, but he doesn’t feel that Kevin’s worth it when he discovers that Kevin is not Logan. A lot of these jokes work by catching you off guard, though they do grow tired after continual use (such as Valerie’s clothes, said joke being used multiple times). One that didn’t grow tired, because Moore uses it in different ways each time, is the ventilation shaft joke. It’s introduced in the opening scene with Thunk the Barbarian, but is made even funnier as the Fortress guards try to convince Kevin to use it to get into the castle (a sign says “LOCKED OUT? TRY OUR EXTENDED HOURS. VENTILATION SHAFT OPEN UNTIL 10 P.M.").
However, the original bits of comedy are often funnier as they hit the reader and then go on their way. Some of these bits are short while others are long. I found the safety posters in the torture chamber especially amusing. A longer sequence in the middle of the book, detailing the rise of Lord Voltmeter, is even better. He kills the current king of a fairytale kingdom and then tries to figure out how to kill all of the heirs and thus assume absolute power, as the king had seven siblings and each one of those siblings had many more children. An edict to kill all children won’t work as some are in their twenties. Watching Voltmeter and his minions try and do the math was priceless.
Of course, there are some faults with the book. As stated before, some of the jokes are run into the ground a little bit. Others fall flat right at the outset (unfortunately, one of those is a horrible pun at the beginning of the book, making me wonder about the book for a moment). Like a Mel Brooks or a "Naked Gun" movie, the jokes come fast and furious, so even if one falls, another one will be right around the corner. Oddly, the beginning is the slowest part, and it takes a few pages for the book to become truly funny. The ending, while somewhat predictable, doesn’t turn out quite the way you would believe, which is another plus.
Don’t expect anything deep out of Heroics for Beginners, as you won’t get it. Moore obviously wrote this book to entertain, and he does his job. There is no commentary on the fantasy tropes that Moore uses. Instead, he just takes them and makes fun of them. The characters in the book are either twists on these stereotypes or people outside the stereotypes who are aware of them and trying to circumvent them. Kevin is a good protagonist, as is Princess Rebecca, but neither one is given a lot of depth. We get no real reason why Rebecca has the “Ice Princess” persona, but Kevin has a masterful scene that shows off his character and intelligence in the early part of the book. He’s the only one who gets even close to three-dimensional. This weakens the story a little bit but not enough to really detract from the reader’s enjoyment. The purpose is the jokes, right?
Heroics for Beginners is the perfect light read for fantasy fans who are not only tired of the clichés but also the brick-like books that contain those clichés. You’ll even laugh some too, which can’t be a bad thing.