I'm a big fan of puns. The more I groan, the better I like them. Peter David must feel the same way, because he's been responsible for a great many of the best groaners around. In fact, I haven't seen anybody make a pun like he has, because he not only makes the joke, but then he makes something useful out of it. It's a rare talent, and one that really makes his books worth reading.
Which brings us to Tong Lashing (see what I mean?), the third book in the Sire Apropos of Nothing series. The first book introduced us to the wonderful but extremely self-centered Apropos, a man who won't stick his neck out for anybody. David followed up with The Woad to Wuin, which brings Apropos to the land of Wuin, where he learns that he can sink to even further depths. David says in the acknowledgements that Apropos's future is up in the air. If that's so, it makes me sad, because he unfortunately didn't end it on a great note. Tong Lashing is still a very good book, but the tone is wildly variable, ultimately making for a disappointing finish.
Poor Apropos can't catch a break. The book starts with him drifting on a piece of wood out in the middle of the vast ocean. He thinks back to how he got to this predicament, when a woman whom he was starting to think he may be able to spend the rest of his life with, the woman who has shared many of his adventures (though she's been wanting to kill him a large portion of the time) just decides to leave and go on a quest with an old friend of hers, taking their friend Mordant (a drabbit, basically a small dragon) with her. So Apropos sets sail to go somewhere else. A confrontation with a fantasy game master who uses black magic to make his games a bit more real than mere dice and paper results in his current problem. He soon finds himself in a foreign land. Its people speak a strange language, have strange customs of honor and sacrifice, and look totally different. Chinpan is its name, ruled by the Imperior and his family.
Apropos finds himself in a peaceful village and is happy for a time. But he knows that fate won't leave him alone, and circumstances force him to leave Hosbiyu and go to Taikiyo to face off against the criminal gang the Forked Tong, run by the Skang Kei family, which is led by the great Ho. (See what I mean again, about the puns?) Alternately joining forces with the Imperior and the Tong (along with sometimes being hunted by both), Apropos must dance his way between them and keep himself alive, even as he finds that he is finally thinking of someone else. He is out to avenge the death of his teacher, Chinpan Ali. That's something that Apropos has never done before; he usually doesn't care. But he's suddenly learning that there is more to life than just himself, and if he wants to try and bring all the bad guys down without himself getting in the line of fire, so much the better. Will he be able to save the people who have been so nice to him, including Double Chin, Cleft Chin, Kit Chin, and little Kit Chinette?
I find myself with completely mixed feelings about this book, and I'm not sure if it's just me not getting the ending or what. The book is wonderful -- colorful characters, wonderful dialogue and witty asides. It's everything I loved about the first two books, and the jokes are even better than in those. Up until the last hundred pages, I was going to call this the best of the three. Everything was just clicking, and I couldn't stop laughing but still being touched as Apropos learns even more about himself. He's always been unlikable, mainly because he is the complete anti-hero. In Tong Lashing, however, he starts moving beyond that, and showing that he can actually care for somebody.
But then the climax starts, and the book suddenly turns very dark. This is a pivotal moment in Apropos's life, and it's very well done. He's brought down to the ultimate level of self-loathing as he realizes that he has brought this death and destruction upon his friends. He's determined to avenge them, and he hatches a plan to bring down everybody in Chinpan. This is fine by itself. While the tone is dark (there are no real jokes by this point), it is very effective. Then things go even worse, with a literally explosive climax that completely ruins the mood and tone of the book. I think David went way too far in this one, and if he's trying to make some point, it went completely over my head. This change in tone almost made my teeth clap together, it was so sudden.
I can't say enough about how wonderful the rest of the book is, though. Apropos is his normal self but he has grown, and the change is welcome. He is still cynical, knowing that every time he is happy something's going to happen to ruin it. Mitsu is the daughter of the Imperior, impulsive and headstrong in a society where women are not even second-class citizens. She is a product of her upbringing, though, and one of the sticking points between Apropos and Mitsu is her willingness to sacrifice her handmaidens when she is being punished. We find out the secret of Mordant, and how he is able to talk. The Imperior is suitably insane, and just when you think he's being stereotypically dumb, David pulls a twist out of his hat and shows us a villain who's both insane and kind of smart, too.
And then, of course, there are the jokes and puns. You've seen a couple of them in this review, and I don't really want to reveal any more. Probably the best one is a take-off on the Ninjas of old Japan. Peter David has a wildly humorous way of writing, though he is definitely somebody you'll either love or hate. I can say that if you like puns, you will love his writing. The jokes come fast and furious, and I loved reading about Apropos's feelings on life in general. He talks directly to the reader, writing this in his old age (so yes, it's obvious that he survives everything). Apropos often expresses his amazement that he still has readers, which can be a dangerous thing for an author to do. But David handles it with aplomb, knowing that he's got his reader hooked.
The best part about his puns is that they are more than just puns. He makes the Forked Tong a legitimate (and dangerous) criminal organization. The Ninjas could have been used for a joke and then discarded, but they become an integral part of the plot and characters in their own right. Minor characters, to be sure, but still at least with two-dimensions. The joke becomes part of the plot, rather than just a rim-shot. Even the mad Scotsman Ronnell McDonnell actually gets a mention after he has strutted across the stage. In fact, any gamer will love the sequence with McDonnell and the magical role-playing game.
Still, we have to get to the end, and I felt very unsatisfied. It hit me like a two-by-four to the head, but not in a good way. David had better write another Apropos book to wash the taste of it out of my mouth. It is effective in one way, however: Apropos ends the book truly as Sir Apropos of Nothing. And he's finally satisfied with that.
I'm not, however.