Necromantic rituals, murderous ogres, battle-scarred rangers: not a typical Saturday detention for unsuspecting teaching assistant, Petra, and her delinquent teen charges.
The Beaverton High School Breakfast Club show up for what they thought would be cleaning the locker room with a toothbrush when the morning goes horribly wrong, and they fall victim to a deadly, dark spell.
Some jerkwad moon mage shoves the consciousness of Petra’s three-year-old into the body of a musclebound barbarian, and she is transformed into a halfling. The kids get stuck as a cleric, fire mage, and other stalwarts of your typical fantasy gaming party.
Now they must quest through a land of pissed-off warriors, angry giants, a pompous vampire, and a necromancer out to kill Petra and her child.
Despite being in a world where everything threatens to shuffle off her mortal coil, the hardest part is convincing a hulked-out man that the battle axe is not a toy, the undead are not cuddly, and he should use the potty.
I have always enjoyed fantasy — and portal fantasies in particular. Stories where people from the modern days are whisked into a book or movie and forced to live out their days in a world where they think they have the upper hand due to modern advancements or being familiar with the source material, only to realize that things aren’t always as simple as they seem. Bonus points for satire. This book references not just portal fantasy, but Lord of the Rings, Monty Python, Terry Pratchett, Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, Magic the Gathering … all fun things. However, I stopped reading this book at 82% because I realized I wasn’t having fun and I wasn’t enjoying anything about the reading experience. There’s a tone throughout the portion I read, not only of misogyny (of which there’s quite a bit), but also a feeling of contempt for fantasy readers, for nerds and dweebs who play DnD, who read those silly fantasy books, who care about the difference between a gnoll and a goblin. I found more than a little off-putting and very unwelcoming.
Before I get too far into my review of the book, I would like to say that the author did manage to portray the parenting of a toddler with some humor and grace. Those moments, when Petra is reflecting on having a child, on the times that make it worth it and those that don’t, feel very well done. Petra and her son, Jonathan, when they’re interacting, are very cute. A book with that relationship in mind would have been far more entertaining than what I read in this particular story.
First, the characters. Every single character I encountered — from a barmaid or a goblin servant, let alone the wise-cracking drug dealer, the influencer, or the DnD ‘nerd’ — seems aware of the unreality of the world they live in, from the tropes to the hackneyed attempts at jokes and meta commentary. There’s no weight of believability to the story, because there are no consequences for anything; no one is taking anything as real and it leaves the book feeling hollow and tired. I found it neither funny nor clever. No character seems afraid; no character feels happy or mad or anything but wearily confused. The characters don’t feel like they care, and if they don’t … why should I? For example, a male character — ‘Jock’ (Jack) ‘McItch’ (McDougal), boyfriend to Sissy Buttworth — is now in the body of a woman. Other than a brief comment on having a vagina, he has no reaction. Later, the group gets into a fight (one of several) and kills people. While standing over dead bodies, Jack makes a comment about how he’s decided that he’s going to try out for the musical when they get back, even if it annoys his dad. Then they move on to their adventuring, wandering into the forest. Jack doesn’t seem to care about being in a girl’s body, about killing people, about sleeping on the ground or eating rations, because neither he nor the world(s) he exists in are treated as if they’re real.
And then there’s the humor.
“Helfra borders the NoManOrWomanOrPersonOfAnyGenderIdentity’s Forest. Most people call it the Woods of Volunar.” Daniel said.
“The what forest?” Jenny said.
“It’s the place you should skip on your tour of Carnt.”
“Why do they call it that?”
“My dad was replaced by a more inclusive Throne Person.”
“You mean king?”
“Don’t say that word in Helfra! It will get you killed. It’s Throne Person. Tavern Person, not wench. And Sexual Laborer, not whore.”
There are a lot of jokes like that, where the use of pronouns is treated as the punchline of a joke that never came across as all that funny. The story also has hints of a less than subtle misogyny — the wife haranguing her husband, sniping that she won’t be cleaning up the mess of his slaughtered body; the mother who can’t stop cleaning up after her grown son, even if he is the Dark Lord, nattering on, mocking him, and deriding him in front of company; or Danelthor, an ex-prince, blithely commenting that it’s no skin off his nose that an army did “gods know what” to his mother because she was manipulative and borderline abusive. There are also multiple comments like “She wasn’t a dweeb like her brother, who devoured fantasy, but she had seen Lord of the Rings and all the zeitgeist movies,” or the token DnD player having feelings about being shooed off to go play Magic the Gathering because he wasn’t good enough for sports. Add to this the teenage girl using her organization of a Black Lives Matter protest to make her college application look good, and a villain getting belligerent about the proper use of pronouns and it all made me very aware that the book has a decided point of view and — like the jokes — repeats it again and again and again until I get it.
In my opinion, this book didn’t feel like a celebration of fantasy, or a gentle poke at familiar tropes or the meta humor, or a look at the sometimes chaotic communal world building of DnD. It feels cynical, colder, and dismissive, with a slight air of contempt for the fantasy genre and people who enjoy it. Add to that, it just isn’t a well put together story in the portion I read. You have five different groups — the modern day kids, the necromancer, Sir Grey and his men, the influencer, and the fantasy heroes now in the modern world — and they all feel the same. They speak with the same voice, have the same humor, tell the same jokes, and seem to care not at all for the world they live in. They’re paper thin characters being pulled along by a very loose plot, but the pacing is slow, giving ample room for the jokes and their many repetitions and rephrasings. I didn’t enjoy the reading experience at all up to where I stopped and, for me, this book is a solid pass.