We all know what a Hero is like. Though born of ignoble birth, he overcomes great odds and adversity to accomplish noble quests, gain the aid of mysterious allies and ancient artifacts, and show up to save the day in the nick of time, winning the love of the beautiful (and virtuous) princess, and probably the throne in the process. Right?
Wrong. Prepare yourself for the heroic fantasy novel that laughs at convention, scoffs at tradition, and overturns the apple cart of expectations. Peter David, noted “Writer of Stuff,” is at it again with Sir Apropos of Nothing, the book that Tolkien is glad he didn’t write, the story Eddings shut the door on, the tale too unpredictable for Jordan.
Let’s review the facts: Apropos is a coward and a thief, a craven, conniving, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, bitter young man He’s about as much hero material as a half-eaten jelly donut. He’s lame, walking with the aid of a staff. His mother was a whore, and his father could have been one of six “noble” knights who forcibly had their way with her. All his life, Apropos has been betrayed, spit upon, mocked, reviled, picked on, and used. After his mother is killed, he has but two goals in life. Avenge her death, and get enough money to live happily ever after.
The princess in question, Entipy (short for Natalia Thomasina Penelope) might just very well be a pyromaniac, as well as a sociopath.
The hero is Tacit One-Eye, who claims he was raised by unicorns, and who used to be Apropos’ best friend, once upon a time.
The knight is Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, a useless, addled, broken-down mockery of a once-mighty warrior who can’t even remember his own name from day to day, and who goes through squires like Clinton through interns.
Despite his best efforts, Apropos actually ends up squired to Sir Umbrage. And despite his even better efforts, he and Sir Umbrage are sent on a routine mission, to escort Princess Entipy home from the Holy Retreat of the Faith Women.
Wouldn’t you know it, things go wrong. Very wrong. Extremely wrong. We’re talking disastrous. On a large scale bad. As they used to say, this was ‘moose bad.’ (Long story.)
The unicorns are out to kill them. The Evil Warlord Shank is out to kill them. The Harpers Bizarre are out to kill them. The mobile army of the Vagabond King, Meander, are (you guessed it) out to kill them. Hell, at the rate Apropos collects people out to kill him, it’s a wonder he manages to survive from day to day. And you’ll never guess what part the jester plays in all this.
I promise you, if you’re not rendered speechless at least twice by the end of the book, you’re not reading it properly. I read some of the worst puns out loud to my wife, and she wondered if Peter David had been bitten by a radioactive Spider Robinson (of the Callahans series). The cats were less amused.
Sir Apropos of Nothing is both an excellently told fantasy novel and a brilliant metatextual commentary upon the heroic fantasy genre. It’s self-aware, but not embarrassed in the least. In this regard, it ranks right up there with Eve Forward’s Villains By Necessity and Simon R. Green’s Blue Moon Rising for taking the traditional trappings of epic fantasy, and not just twisting them into knots, but giving them a good sucker punch to the groin for good measure.
Apropos is by no means a hero, not in the least, save for the few times enlightened self-interest gets in the way. Frankly, it’s nothing short of amazing how well he can fast-talk his way out of danger, and even more amazing how he ends up back in those same situations against his better judgment. He’s an anti-hero, a lazy scoundrel who’s concerned about himself first, himself second, and himself third, and to Hell with the king, the kingdom, the princess, and everyone else. But he’s the sort of character we can identify with nonetheless, for in the end, he’s wholly believable. And his reaction upon learning his true role in the world is nothing short of priceless. I can’t give it away, but I can say that it’s been a long time coming for a character to gain such self-knowledge.
I can only pray there’s a sequel, because Peter David’s only scratched the surface of the genre with this offering, a fairly hefty tome in its own right. He’s given us a believable, if amusing, world to play in, with place names like Flaming Nether Regions, and The Tragic Waste, with fully-realized characters, and with a magic system that defies description. (Well, it could be described, but I just like saying something defies description. Ha! I defy you! I defy you again!) (Forgive the digressions. I blame the book.)
If you like fantasy, and you’re tired of the same old epic quests, noble knights, unpronounceable names, and recycled elves, you’ll enjoy Sir Apropos of Nothing. Now, if you don’t have a sense of humor, you’re probably better off sticking with the elves. All in all, this is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while.
And its only fault was daring to come out at the same time as Neil Gaiman’s new novel, thus making me choose which to read first.
I’ll be looking forward to Peter David’s next offering, and if it’s even half as enjoyable as this one, I’ll enjoy it at least half as much.