Thursday, January 28, 2010

High Fantasy Slashes Its Way Into the Modern World

I've mentioned this before, but I'm not big into high fantasy. It probably stems from reading an overload of DragonLance books as a child (I still have the cracking, falling-apart copies of the books I "borrowed" from my babysitter), but tales of heroic swordsmen and gray-robed mages and demons from another dimension just don't do it for me. There are a few exceptions (Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy springs to mind), but on the whole, it's a genre that doesn't exactly get my loins stirring.


Fortunately, Lars Brown's North World isn't precisely high fantasy. Yes, it's a universe filled with wizards, guilds, giant vermin, enterprising blacksmiths, and warriors wielding oversized weapons. But all these high fantasy tropes have found their way into a version of the modern world. North World has cars, modern houses, and Chinese food, but it has no computers, telephones, or TV sets. It's a place where high fantasy mets urban fantasy, and where all of a writer's least favorite technologies have an excuse not to exist.

The Epic of Conrad, a two-volume North World tale published by Oni, is a happy introduction to Brown's oddball universe. Conrad is a slayer of especially large animals -- child-chomping eagles, magical talking bears (but not raccoons; they're pretty chill) -- living a simple but relatively exciting existence. He gets his orders from his guild, wreaks a little mammalian monster mayhem, pays a bard to spread the tale, and spends his down time drinking ale and bedding warrior groupies. After a strange run-in with the ursine King of the Forrest, Conrad gets his most exciting mission yet: rid a far off town of a pesky demon summoner before said summoner can raise a demon. There's just one catch: the summoner is hanging out in Coeur du Lac, Conrad's home town. Conrad hightailed it out of Coeur du Lac seven years ago, after a horrific tragedy, and hasn't been back since. To make matters worse, he's learned that his ex-girlfriend is set to get married in Coeur du Lac in just a month. Still, a promotion is a promotion, and Conrad is determined to get his demon summoner.

Brown knows that his universe is just a tad wacky, and The Epic of Conrad manages to be offbeat without descending into unapologetic silliness. There's a plot point involving a demonic ham radio, a character who goes off on long rants about the absence of telephones in the world, a character forced to battle giant fish because he happens to be able to breathe underwater, and lots of Scott Pilgrim-esque declarations of one's own awesomeness. But all the book's lighthearted crazy is tempered by its underlying themes. At its heart, The Epic of Conrad is about growing up, about trading adolescent impulses for adult decision-making, figuring out where your home is -- be it with in your hometown with your family or out on the open road -- and deciding what you want to do with your life. Will Conrad remain in Coeur du Lac? Will he continue to heed the call of adventure, or will he become an accountant like his father? Will the town toughs continue to spend their days brawling and shoplifting whisky, or will they find a more constructive outlet for their energy?

It's a shame, then, that the plot itself falls short. The first volume is the stronger of the pair, setting up the world, introducing us to its lively inhabitants, and giving us a peek into the secrets of Coeur du Lac. But Brown spends too much time winking at the audience, letting us in on some of the key mysteries long before Conrad and the other characters catch on. Too much of the second volume feels like an obligatory wrapping-up: explaining the secrets and revealing the (none too surprising) big bad. However, the plot feels secondary precisely because it is -- secondary to the characters and their non-demonic problems. Even with a weak plot, I'd happily cozy up and spend more time in Brown's world.

And it looks like I'll get the chance. I actually purchased both volumes of North World, only to realize after polishing off the second volume that Brown has put the entire thing online. And, as a bonus, he has posted nearly a dozen other stories set in the same universe. There goes the rest of my week.

22 comments:

Walter Ostlie said...

cool. thanks for bringing this to my attention, it sounds interesting. I'll have to give it a read, online though :-) thanks.

K. Starks said...

thanks for bringing this MY attention, too. I read it in two days. I do not roll with sword and sorcery either but this was a beautifully crafted, clever, lovely drawn piece of comic-dom.

I can't wait to read the additional stories...

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