Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Critical Failures' by Robert Bevan

This is a really fun book. The basic premise: a group of friends are keen players of 'Caverns and Creatures', a game not totally unlike 'Dungeons and Dragons' (cough), but when they insult their new Cavern Master, he retaliates by sending them into the game for real. And so a half-orc barbarian, a dwarven cleric, a halfling rogue and an elvish sorcerer find themselves getting used to new bodies, learning to use their abilities, facing up to trolls, goblins, giant ants and a humourless town guard, and finding ingenious ways to survive, but all strictly within the rules of the game.

I've never played D&D, and my only contact with the culture was reading 'The Elfish Gene' many years ago, so a lot of this could have been incomprehensible to me. It's a testament to the author's skill that it wasn't; there was never a point where I felt I needed more explanation (apart from the title!), or that I was missing the point of a joke. And yes, it's funny, very very funny. The first half depends a great deal on the barbarian orc, whose low charisma rating manifests itself in explosions of bodily fluids and a great deal of swearing and aggression, which palls fairly rapidly, but the second half is much more clever, and laugh out loud humour right the way through. The appearance of the sister (as a half-elf druid with antler’s horns) and her boyfriend (a muscular type transformed into a wimpy bard) liven things up greatly.

The plot - well, it's all pretty silly, but completely logical within the constructs of the game. There were multiple times where a solution took me by surprise yet was satisfyingly consistent, and the ending is ingenious and unexpected, setting things up very nicely for the next book. The characters don't have a great deal of depth (but then a barbarian orc is bound to be fairly one-note), but they adapt very nicely to their changed circumstances and learn to use their abilities over the course of the book. The only big negative for me was that so many of the jokes depend on what can only be described as adolescent humour - a lot of four-letter-words, gross-out descriptions of blood, vomit and worse, dismembered corpses and the like. I'm not offended by such things, but it's a very cheap type of humour, and although a certain amount is fine, and it's in character for the barbarian, the best moments for me were the more subtle ones - such as the halfling having a sister who’s half-human and half-elf, or having to use a British accent to understand elvish. There's enough humour inherent in the situation to make the juvenile jokes unnecessary. This is an entertaining light-hearted read, and I'm tempted to say three stars because of the silliness, but I've had a bad week (stupid cold) and this book cheered me up no end and made me laugh. Four stars.

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