Book Review: John Moore’s Heroics for Beginners
John Moore and Christopher Moore are two different people.
I had to do some googling just to make sure, but considering they’re both writers of comic fantasy, I’d say a minor mix up was entirely justifiable. I wasn’t even looking for a Christopher Moore novel when I picked up Heroics for Beginners, but now I kind of want to track one down so as to compare their writing styles.
As John Moore’s style is very silly.
Of course, with a title like Heroics for Beginners, that’s pretty much to be expected.
Heroics for Beginners introduces itself as a fairy tale pastiche- which isn’t exactly accurate. It’s closest in style to specifically 1980’s-ish fantasy movies- The Princess Bride, Willow, Excalibur, and so on. Of course, a lot of the source material didn’t take itself too seriously in the first place, but I digress. The generalities of the plot, of course, are bog standard. Prince Kevin is out to win the hand of a the beautiful Princess Rebecca by stealing an Ancient Artifact away from a Fortress of Doom before the Dark Overlord can use it to power his Diabolical Device. Those capitalization are all from the text itself, which should hopefully give you a general idea of the book’s tone. And if that’s not enough, I’ll reference the anachronistic gags (like a turnstile in the Fortress of Doom’s ventilation shafts), the occasional shameless pun, or the fact that the Dark Overlord is known as Lord Voltmeter, He Who Must Be Named.
I told you it was silly.
The book takes a couple of chapters to really hit its stride- but once it clicked that I was pretty much reading the novel equivalent of a Mel Brooks movie, I rather got into it. Moore’s not nearly the clever satirist as Terry Pratchett is, but comparing nearly any writer to Sir Terry is a little unfair.
Moore manages to put an interesting enough spin on things, at least. He neatly inverts the ‘arranged political marriage to the ice princess’ trope by having Prince Kevin and Princess Rebecca be secretly in a relationship before the novel even starts, for example. But really, Heroics for Beginners‘ plot is mostly concerned about setting up the next gag than any real commentary on the genre. Which, if you’re in the mood for that sort of thing, is just fine!
This said, the book’s not without its flaws. In a work like this, having a character who’s clued in to the metatext can be fun, giving the author an opportunity to comment on the various idiosyncrasies of a genre. The thing about Heroics for Beginners is that both Prince Kevin and Lord Voltmeter (He Who Must Be Named), are genre-aware, which kind of leads to a little bit of an arms race in postmodernism. Which…could be kind of fun, if you focused on it, but here it mostly gives Lord Voltmeter (He Who Must Be Named), an excuse to say “Aha, I’m one step ahead of you!” Just comes off as a little lazy, I guess.
The other thing that stuck out at me was the novel’s somewhat leering take on sexuality. It’s not nearly as skeevy or explicit as, say, that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser book I read not so long ago, but at the same time, the whole “va va voom!” tone can be offputting. I admit, chainmail bikini jokes are pretty much par for the course when you’re doing a parody like this. On the other hand, Lord Voltmeter (He Who Must Be Named)’s sexy Evil Assistant Valerie falls into the problematic trope of Evil Bisexual (that last comical capitalization is mine, for the record). It’s danced around and played for laughs, of course, and it’s perfectly in line with the vaudvillian, Mel Brooks-ish tone. Then again, this book was published in 2004, not 1974, so that’s something to keep in mind.
In any case, I enjoyed Heroics for Beginners as a silly little amusement. It doesn’t say too much about the human condition, and making fun of fantasy/fairy tale tropes is shooting fish in a barrel (only funny, so…shooting clownfish, I guess?). But, more jokes land than miss, so if you’re in the mood for something a little screwy, you might check it out. It all comes down to how shameless you like your comedy, because Moore will always go for a gag. Always.
Oh, and Moore dedicated the book to the Fandom Association of Central Texas, so he’s local! Ish. Neat!