Son of a Liche by J. Zachary Pike (Book Review)
As this is my first comic fantasy review for The Fantasy Hive, I’d like to take a moment and introduce my style of reviewing. When it comes to comic fantasy, one of the common barriers for entry is the fear that the jokes won’t work for you, or that the humor gets in the way of the storytelling. Therefore, when I review comedy, I focus on the book’s sense of humor and how that humor is used in the storytelling.
With that out of the way, let’s get on with it.
The Dark Profit Saga does one of my favorite things in comic fantasy. It takes fantasy tropes and shows what kind of infrastructure it takes to make them work. All those aspects of fantasy that we accept as part of the genre, but wouldn’t possibly fly in a realistic setting, can become hilarious when there are accountants and bureaucrats making them possible.
In this case, capitalism comes to fantasyland. A sizeable chunk of the economy is the Hero industry. Professional heroes are part of a guild and assigned ranks (which are suspiciously similar to character levels), and they take out contracts for a cut of the treasure. They are also backed by a whole investment system. Bankers and investors take out stakes in each adventure, funding them with an expectation of a strong return when the quest is successful. The world is ruled by an economic class of robber barons who view heroes and monster races alike as a disposable source of revenue. It leads to many allegories for the modern world and its social injustice, racism, and inequality.
Pike uses the economics angle not as fodder to amuse his accounting buddies, but as a unique hook to satirize the modern world alongside epic fantasy tropes.
“Why, how many strange and dangerous journeys could heroes skip if Great Eagles were on hand to carry them to any destination? And what danger could they not escape if the eagles were waiting to sweep them away? I should think you’d want to employ the birds all the time.”
“And we would, sire, believe me,” said Ortson. “But the accursed creatures have unionized.”
After the events of Orconomics, Gorm Ingerson and his band of adventurers have been living as outlaws, and the first half of this book shows the stress of their new circumstances combine with all the secrets they’ve been hiding from one another into a swirling vortex of dysfunction. The humor and tragedy come in equal measures as each character works through their personal issues and clashes with everyone else.
Gorm Ingerson himself is a fascinating character. He’s a Dwarf berserker and a bit of an anti-hero, quick to attack and vicious in a fight, but always willing to defend the weak. He’s also a seasoned veteran and has a great deal of wisdom and experience when it comes to fighting and questing. Thanks to the events of Orconomics, he’s lost some of his confidence and edge, but he hasn’t lost his sense of heroism.
His party consists of similarly broken people. Our wizards are Laruna, a healing potion addict in a sad parallel to the opioid crisis, and Jynn, the titular son of a liche struggling against his father’s legacy and assorted other dark secrets. We have the odd friendship between Heraldin, who is most certainly a bard and not a reformed thief, and the silent and mysterious weapons-master Gaist. We have an out-of-work purse kobold named Burt, and Thane the lovesick troll. Each of these characters gets more spotlight and development in this book. Where Orconomics was largely focused on Gorm’s journey, Son of a Liche is a true ensemble story.
On top of the collapse of both the economy and Gorm’s party, the liche Detarr Ur’Mayan is building an undead army. I love Detarr. He’s flamboyant and dramatic, the sort of villain to drag a pipe organ 200 miles just to make an entrance. Fitting with Pike’s satire of capitalism, Detarr’s chief weapon is advertising, and his top lieutenant is the Head of Marketing, a floating skull who would really like you to read a flyer about the benefits of joining the undead horde. I had a great time watching Pike skewer modern advertising techniques through the point of view of Detarr’s minions as they constantly brainstormed new techniques to convince the defending armies to surrender (and die) willingly in exchange for better standing in the undead army. For example, here is one of the flyers they distribute before a battle, trying to thin the ranks of the living defenders.
THERE IS MUCH TO FEAR IN LIFE.
(Specifically, the horrible bit at the end.)
YOU’LL HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR AFTER DEATH.
MAKE YOUR TRANSITION AS PAINLESS AS POSSIBLE.
SURRENDER TODAY AND GET A SPECIAL BONUS.
If I had one complaint about Orconomics, it was the major tonal shift at the end. The first 80% of the book or so was focused on farce and satire as the party formed and engaged in their quest, but things got real at the end. The jokes slowed down and the darker emotions came into focus. Don’t get me wrong. It worked and it was great, but it was still jarring. Son of a Liche doesn’t have such a turning point. The jokes and the feels smoothly weave in and out of one another. That helps the novel feel like it has a stronger, more consistent identity and speaks to Pike’s growth as an author.
Here are a few quotes that should serve as a good sampling of the humor.
The economic satire runs deep:
“Oh? I never liked trickle-down economics,” said Ortson, watching the crimson wine drip down the glass. “It implies that there’s a leak somewhere.”
The character banter is on point:
“It’s a tip about the bard,” said Gorm. “I’m to check it out in the back alley. If I’m not back in ten minutes, ye know what to do.”
“Drink your ale,” said Laruna.
“And order me a cold one.” Gorm headed for the back door.
And the world-building is self-aware:
Orcish wise-ones even developed an alphabet using the hand and foot bones of their foes, though it was usually just painted on stone in bone shapes. Otherwise, it took at least three corpses to write a sentence, and the writer would still likely run out of vowels.
I don’t think this book would work as a stand-alone since so much of the story hinges on characters’ baggage from the first book, but I definitely recommend that you check out The Dark Profit Saga. And come on, Orconomics just won SPFBO. Why would you skip it?
Full Disclosure: J. Zachary Pike is a colleague and friend of mine. This review represents my honest opinion of the book.