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Monday, September 17, 2018

SPFBO Semifinalist: Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson (reviewed by D. C. Stewart)


Official Author Website
Order Here Be Dragons over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

FORMAT/INFO: Here Be Dragons is 414 pages long, divided up into 57 chapters with a prologue. The story is told via the third-person omniscient viewpoint, with most of the action focusing on Orus. As of this writing, Here Be Dragons is only available via digital edition.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Many would seek the crown once worn by the late Sir Terry Pratchett; headwear that proclaimed Pratchett as master and lord of all comic fantasy. He has had many emulators, both during his reign and after, but none have quite managed to capture the humor and philosophy offered by the realms of Discworld. While I am not ready to sling the Pratchett-crown at David Macpherson (even were I the master of crown-slinging), I have read few authors who fell so readily into the mold even while distinguishing themselves. With Here Be Dragons, a bouncing tale of incompetence and buffoonery, Macpherson has proven himself at least worthy of sharing a sentence with the best of the best.

The hero of Here Be Dragons is a has-been named Orus. Orus used to be a big deal, even graduated with honor from the acclaimed Cromalot School for Heroes, but after his first big adventure he found himself quite suddenly married with a child. Happens to all of us, right? Decades pass and Orus is offered a chance to once more take up the mantle of heroism, and feeling the doldrums of middle-aged boredom, he jumps at the opportunity - or he would if he hadn’t become fat and easily-winded. Macpherson subverts our typical hero right away. Orus is not the grizzled veteran, still capable of out-fighting his foes. Orus has settled down, become a family man, and his greatest challenges involve sewer pipes and stubborn weeds. Nevertheless, the world needs a hero, and Orus might be the best man for the job - nevermind what that says about the current state of worldly heroes.

Orus is recruited by a monk named Ambrose, who pleads his help and when offered leads him to the dragon shrine where his mission will become clear. Orus is fine with ignorance because he is simply happy to have a quest.. There is also a donkey who bears their equipment, talks to the reader in italics, and is likely the true hero of the story.

On the surface, this all might sound silly, and it is. It would be easy to send Here Be Dragons straight to the comedy cemetery if it weren’t actually so damned funny. Not every joke lands, but most find solid ground. It can even veer towards slapstick at times and somehow not lose its luster. It is a rare author who finds themselves able to make readers laugh out loud while reading. Pratchett did it, and so does Macpherson
.

What I didn’t like about Here Be Dragons was that it so often reminded me of Shrek:
1) Talking donkey - check.

2) Villainous prince who is secretly a coward but who is adored by the masses - check.

3) Bumbling oaf who somehow manages to stumble his way into heroism - check.

Add a princess into this mix, and we might have some copyright infringement on our hands. Here Be Dragons does enough to separate itself from the famous ogre’s tale, and Mike Myers is thankfully nowhere to be found, but there is enough there that I found myself thinking of that movie multiple times throughout the story.

I also took issue with Macpherson’s use of real-world terminologies in his metaphors. In the early part of the novel, he uses footnotes to speak to his audience, and this works and is fun. But this is a fantasy novel set in a world not our own. The line, “The style favoured was like that found at a Scottish rugby club ceilidh at 2am,” is jarring as soon as that reality encroaches upon the escapism (even if the term ‘ceilidh’ sounds more like fantasy that reality).

This is a comic fantasy novel and that could be an excuse to use such terms - we are often told that fantasy has no barriers - but their addition cuts into the easy flow of this work and, I think, harms it. This is particularly frustrating when Macpherson’s other metaphors are so good. The term “red-pen gaze” is so evocative of a certain character in the novel that I wrote it down for use in my own work.

Thankfully the issues I had with Here Be Dragons failed to deter from the simple delight of it. Macpherson takes a common story and makes it fun, and in what I consider to be the most remarkable aspect of the tale, he does so without resorting to violence. At the risk of spoiling some of this book, Orus never once uses his fists to solve problems that he and Ambrose can figure out using their heads. It is amazing in part because this isn’t a passive world. There is violence here, and much of the book’s focus is on the slaying of legendary creatures. Heroes in Macpherson’s world have celebrity status, even boasting trading cards with their likenesses, all because of their ability to kill the bad things set loose upon humanity. Though Orus may have aspired to such status in his younger days, it is the tempering of fatherhood and a settled life, and perhaps an overly large gut, that keep him from seeking blood before seeking solutions.

CONCLUSION: Though a bit rough around the edges, and perhaps in need of a nit-picking editor, Here Be Dragons is a stand-out in this year’s SFPBO. It is so rare that we fantasy fans are allowed to jump out of our scary grimdark and epic, world-crashing tales and simply laugh at an oafish dad and his mid-life crisis while still getting to hear tales of dragons and swords. I’ll take that even if I have to suffer through cynical telepathic donkeys.

2 comments:

Lynn said...

I added this to my TBR mountain poste haste! I need something lighthearted and fun. Thanks.

David P Macpherson said...

Thanks for the review! Just to say there is actually a paperback version available now. It is here: UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Here-Be-Dragons-David-Macpherson/dp/1983140767/ref=la_B07CG1YHKX_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537199138&sr=1-2

USA - https://www.amazon.com/Here-Be-Dragons-David-Macpherson/dp/1983140767/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1537199378&sr=8-2&keywords=here+be+dragons+david+macpherson

I'm having trouble getting Amazon to link them to the ebook entry but should have it sorted soon :-)

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