Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David is a wonderfully funny fantasy novel that takes potshots at most of the clichés in standard fantasy fiction, turning them on their heads. It looks at the roles of the hero, sidekick, and villain and asks “What if the sidekick isn’t happy with his lot in life and wants to be the hero instead?” The narrator, Apropos, is very self-aware, especially of his role in the proceedings -- and he’s not happy about it. The tale becomes a comedy of coincidences, missteps, and derring-do told wonderfully by the ever-talented David.
Apropos doesn't know who his father is, being born of the gang-rape of his mother by a bunch of knights of the realm. She has been working at a tavern when they come in for a “celebration". When she was disowned by her father earlier, she struggled to get by, but stumbled onto a phoenix going through a rebirth and decided that this was a sign that she, or her offspring, has a great destiny, to do great things. This belief is what gets her through the rape and the subsequent pregnancy, as well as the child’s youth.
As Apropos grows up, his mother constantly reminds him of this, to the point that he doesn’t want to even hear the word “destiny” anymore. He’s grown up self-centered, arrogant, and with a lame right leg that makes things difficult. Events transpire that force Apropos to go on the road and discover just what destiny has in store for him. He finds out that it’s not quite what he was expecting, so he decides to take destiny and throttle it until it does what he wants it to -- instead of the other way around.
On this road, Apropos finds love, heartache, fear, action, and other typical fantasy tropes. Fortunately, Peter David doesn’t give in to clichés, and anytime you think you’re going to recognize what he’s doing, he’ll give you a little twist.
This book starts with one of the greatest opening lines I’ve read in awhile: “As I stood there with the sword in my hand, the blade dripping blood on the floor, I couldn’t help but wonder if the blood belonged to my father.” Thus Apropos is introduced, along with his tragic lineage. I know it seems strange to call a book with something as horrific as a gang-rape a “comedy,” but David writes with such a deft touch that you will find yourself laughing at the appropriate times and being horrified at the appropriate times. He’s that good of a writer, as he’s shown in his other books and the comics he writes. Apropos narrates the tale as if he’s speaking to the reader, and when he’s talking about both his being conceived and his childhood in general, he relates the tale in a very offhand way, as if he’s repressing his emotions about it a little bit. Because of that, you don’t get just a narration of the events as they take place. Instead, you also get a bit of a psychological insight.
Apropos is not a very likable character. He’s self-centered, looking after his own skin when the going gets tough and getting involved in things because they will benefit him, not because it’s “the right thing to do.” Oftentimes he ends up doing the right thing anyway, or at the very least hiding the fact that he was looking after himself when he did it. When his boyhood friend Tacit jumps into a clearing to save a weaver (wizard) from being burned at the stake by twenty villagers, Apropos holds back because that’s suicide. When Tacit is about to meet a heroic death, Apropos comes up with a plan that has as little risk to himself as possible -- yet he’s deemed a hero when it works. If you’re the type of reader who has to actually like the protagonist, then you may have to go elsewhere.
The most important secondary characters are Entipy, the princess whom Apropos must rescue, and Tacit, Apropos’ boyhood friend, whom he drives away and then meets again later in his life. Tacit and Apropos’ destinies are intertwined, and it’s interesting how Apropos deals with that. It also isn’t very likable, so see the paragraph above if that bothers you. However, it’s fitting, not only because of Apropos’ personality, but also because it’s about time a fantasy novel was written where the protagonist isn’t all sweetness and light.
Entipy is a possibly psychotic arsonist who is suspected of burning down the convent where her parents had placed her. The relationship that develops between her and Apropos on their journey also bucks all fantasy conventions. Entipy is not a damsel in distress -- she's a tough but spoiled young woman. She develops a love-hate relationship with Apropos: he thinks she’s insane; she thinks he’s an idiot and beneath her. Not to mention the fact that she’s waiting for her place in destiny to fall into place. She doesn’t realize that Apropos has hijacked it. It’s entertaining to watch Apropos slowly fall in love with her, even though he can’t tell her that it all shouldn’t be happening as it is.
Since Apropos is narrating the book directly, it is filled with wry asides and observations on life, people and society. David is one of the best writers of this sort of thing. You may find yourself laughing hard and then agreeing with what Apropos is saying. Or maybe you won’t, but you’ll still be laughing. There are a couple of atrocious puns to watch out for if you hate that sort of thing. Personally, I like them even when they’re cringe-worthy. There’s a military general saying “You all know my motto: Live fast. Die young. And leave a good-looking corps.” Fair warning.
The other problem with the book, though, is something that David usually handles well. I say above that he handles the combination of horror and comedy very well. That is usually the case, but at times the juxtaposition is a little too jarring. It’s a bit understandable when Apropos is discussing his childhood, because you can tell he’s repressing a bit, but certain events later on are pretty horrific and they conflict with the light tone of the novel. It doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the book, but it does make you stop for a few seconds before continuing.
For the most part, though, Sir Apropos of Nothing is a wonderful book. It makes great summer reading, as it doesn’t feel very deep (even though when you look at it, it is). If you already like Peter David, you will love this. If this is your first introduction to him, I think you’ll still love it. And it’s a definite must-read for sword and sorcery fans everywhere.