Humorous fantasy — or, more accurately, putatively humorous fantasy — is a genre that’s filled with an awful lot of crap. For every Terry Pratchett, there’s a Craig Shaw Gardner and a Piers Anthony. Sadly, Peter David’s Sir Apropos of Nothing and The Woad to Wuin just add to the pile of suck.

It’s particularly sad, because they don’t need to be so awful. David is a capable writer, and even one who’s written some genuinely humorous stuff. Even in these books, there are frequent moments of genuinely engaging writing and plotting (which is why I read both books, rather than stopping at the first). But two things in these books — things that, for whatever reason, he did deliberately — end up dooming them.

The first problem is all the damn wordplay, which you can get a sense of from the titles. I don’t know if Piers Anthony is the inventor of the notion that humorous fantasy must have puns, or merely the most prominent popularizer, but either way David appears to have been terribly influenced. But here’s the weirdest thing: A cover blurb from Locus actually says “The Woad to Wuin is ... driven by a spirit closer to Jonathan Swift than to modern fantasy’s airy punsters.” I keep re-reading that blurb, trying to figure out how anyone wrote it with a straight face.

The second problem is the protagonist. David’s trying to do the cowardly and selfish antihero thing, which leads to two difficulties. The most obvious of those is, if your character is uninterested in adventure and wants just to be left alone, how do you keep a plot going with him? Answer: Contrivances! Really hokey. The other difficulty is that it’s really hard to write an unlikable protagonist, because if you dip just a bit far off the other end (by, for instance, having him maim a lifelong friend and genuinely good guy in a fit of jealousy, and then making that friend into the “villain” when he gets mad about it), all reader sympathy with the protagonist dries up. It’s hard to read a light first person narrative in the proper tone when you keep hoping the protagonist will be killed.

(Oh, plus there’s a special bonus bit of horribleness at the beginning of The Woad to Wuin, when David inexplicably does a “bawdy send-up” (as the back cover says) of The Lord of the Rings, which is some of the most wincingly awful unfunny anti-humor it’s ever been my pain to have to read through. It has nothing at all to do with the main plot of the book, and is so off in tone and pacing that, even if it had been genuinely hilarious, it should have been excised. As thoroughly unhilarious at it is, it should have been cut out even faster. And yet, there it sits, aggressively sucking, right at the beginning of the book.)

Anyway, I don’t recommend these. If you want some humorous fantasy, it turns out Terry Pratchett’s written like 300 Discworld novels, and they’re all — every single one — much better than this. Or if you absolutely demand anti-hero adventures, go find Vance’s Cugel’s Saga, which is also better in every respect.


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