Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike (SPFBO Review)
One of my measures of a book is in the number of lines I mark on my kindle; the notes to self about a wry observation, a pithy phrase or a laugh-out-loud moment. Orconomics generated loads of these, starting with the first interaction between the hero commissioned to rid a farmer of his goblin infestation and the disgruntled client realising that the cure is more ruinous than the original complaint.
The stream of kindle-assisted annotations only began to slacken towards the end, and even then only because I became too engrossed in the story sweeping towards its climax to pause and take notes.
Though other minor characters get the occasional point of view scenes, we ride mostly with Gorm, a disgraced dwarven adventurer who we meet fallen not so much on hard times as fallen in a ditch. Demon drink leaves Gorm reflecting in an early bookmarked line:
“Last night was a blur; this morning was a smear.”
We hear more of Gorm’s weary but unbowed experience later, after knocking down a literally incandescent wizard:
“Warrior heroes came in only two varieties: those who knew how to fight mages, and extra crispy.”
Tales of fantasy fiction – like their heroes – can be too elevated and grand, or too dark and destructive to make for an easy match with comedy. Aside from the barbed witticisms between rival characters, it is rare to find a book built upon a spine of humour and satire. The great Terry Pratchett managed it magnificently, but the Discworld series aside, I’ve only really read two books that strove for laughs in a fantastic setting. The first was The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, which – to my mind – worked over-hard to manufacture punning comedy from its real-world allusions yet still fell short of an underlying story that would bear the weight of a reader’s expectations. The second was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of The Wyld, which I found massively enjoyable as it somehow combined the plots of “The Magnificent Seven” with “This is Spinal Tap” into an epic quest that was – like its heroes – not without flaws, but fun nonetheless.
Orconomics blends the best traits of Pratchett’s and Eames’ work, seizing the reader with bursts of humour, holding them with a well-woven story, and yet transitioning somehow along the way into a serious quest tale.
I love to find the influences in a book of other works – to see the roots on which the author has drawn. Sometimes my enthusiasm is misplaced; like an over-enthusiastic archaeologist, I conjure up links that the author will tell me were at best subconscious and more likely non-existent. But it is fun to hunt them down, nonetheless. Orconomics offered me a feast of such associative moments. For example:
- Andarun city, centre of the Freedlands, struck me as some unfortunate offspring of Minas Tirith and Ankh-Morpork.
- A celestially linked onyx cat found in a hoard is unfortunately more like Douglas, our languid household pet, than Drizzt Do’Urden’s Guenhwyvar.
- The economy of heroes and monsters, hoards and rewards seems, like all things, to have been subverted by big business and totters on the brink of a sub-prime crisis to rival the one that consumed our world just over a decade ago.
- In the midst of it, two traders in others’ fortunes and misfortunes reminded me of the eminence grises Randolph and Mortimer from Trading Places.
- The key quest – recovery of the oft-stolen Elven Marbles – must surely be a nod to the disputed Elgin Marbles.
These shadows flung by other worlds and works into Orconomics add depth and texture rather than distraction to a well-developed setting.
There are many other features where Pike shines a light to illuminate an old trope from a fresh angle. Long-lived elves? How would they handle the plethora of memories and keep a sense of identity? Human cells renew in their entirety over a seven-year period; so too do Pike’s elven personas refresh and reset over a few centuries or so. And what of healing potions? The opiate-induced haze that turned many an eighteenth-century invalid into a laudanum addict is here echoed by heroes succumbing to a grim addiction to self-harm and magical healing.
In the course of the adventure, a beauty may collect her beastly shadow, but throughout there is a fitting uncertainty about who the real monsters are in this world of inverted morals and exploitative economics – hey, maybe not so unfamiliar after all!
Perhaps it is best embodied in an observation from the mysterious Mask:
“Nobody’s got a true self… Everybody is trying to look like someone else, even to themselves.”
Comedy is the velvet glove within which a skilled author can conceal an iron fist of tragedy. Pike’s tale – like his ragged collection of heroes – grows up and becomes more serious as a tangled conspiracy is unravelled. Pike’s role-play gaming past shows through in the monsters he recruits and the villains he casts, but there is a dungeon master’s skill at work in the way he weaves these familiar ingredients – with other threads – into a story that is fresh and appealing.
Final Score: 9.5/10
T.O. Munro stepped in on behalf of The Fantasy Hive to help out with the final stages of SPFBO 4!
SPFBO – aka the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – is a contest organised by Mark Lawrence with the aim of celebrating the best amongst – you guessed it – self-published fantasy. Read more about its origins here, and check out the current finalists’ scoreboard here.