Epic Farm Boy by Sam Ferguson (Book Review)
“Epic Farm Boy” by Sam Ferguson is a weird little book, and that’s coming from a guy who over-committed to reviewing comic fantasy novels. It opens with Jack, an author suffering from writer’s block. His go-to method of getting the creative juices flowing is to experiment with story ideas by starting new tales about Simplin the Wise, a character he drew on a note card as a child. Unfortunately for Jack, Simplin is sentient, aware that he’s a character in a book, and has learned how to cast magic that affects the real world. He uses that ability to tie his creator to a computer and demands that Jack write a whole novel about him. He’s sick of being a writing exercise. He wants a full story, complete with an ending.
“Don’t make me fire another fireball at you,” Simplin warned.
Jack squinted with one eye at the stick-figure. “You mean spark, don’t you?”
“That’s it.” Simplin flicked his wand and another spark flew out, this time straight and true, blasting into Jack’s nose.
“OW!” Jack snarled. “That hurt!”
“So does being shut down in the middle of a story,” Simplin said. “You come in, you start me on a fun adventure, and then poof! You throw it all away.”
This premise does not go to waste; the adversarial relationship between Simplin and Jack is the heart of the story. Simplin is desperate for recognition and respect from his creator, while Jack just wants to finish a story so he can go to bed. In a lot of ways, it’s like watching a D&D campaign where the Dungeon Master and players view the game as a contest of wills as opposed to collaborative storytelling. Jack abuses his control of the story like a spiteful god and Simplin finds ways to get his revenge on the real world. Their feud is both driving the plot along and derailing it in equal measure.
Spilling out from that is a bunch of references to other stories along with a lot of meta commentary on fantasy tropes and storytelling. For example, Simplin and Jack can’t agree on what kind of story Simplin should star in.
“Now, listen up. I want to go on an epic quest. A great adventure with seemingly impossible odds. I want to be the grand mentor whom the protagonist looks up to and… and I want a farm boy to be the hero. But not just any farm boy. I want an EPIC farm boy!”
“A farm boy?” Jack asked skeptically. “There are quite a few fantasy novels with farm boy heroes.”
“Oh yeah, well you haven’t written any like that.”
“That’s because it’s overdone,” Jack said. “I need a compelling hero, someone that the readers will identify with and feel compassion for.”
“Who can’t identify with a farm boy?” Simplin responded.
“Pretty much everyone,” Jack said. “It’s not like we still live in the nineteenth century.”
After some negotiation, Simplin gets his epic farm boy, a young warrior named Lucas. Simplin recruits him on a quest to kill the evil wizard Skidmark the Brown (yeah…it’s not all high concept). But first they must go down a winding path of quest completion and character growth.
At first, I thought the constant bickering between Simplin and Jack was just a framing device, but Ferguson did a great job making it the core of the story. I loved the way they would constantly spite each other or how Simplin had a copy of the outline and argued with Jack to change plot elements in his favor. Jack reacted about as well as a Greek god who has been questioned by mortals. At the same time, Jack is full of self-doubt as an author and Simplin is the voice of that insecurity. The whole book is this constant battle of wills, and that aspect is the main source of the comedy.
“It’s getting out of hand. I am seven chapters in, and all I have done is find the farm boy hero and get lost in a spider forest. I want adventure!”
“Hey, you should be happy, there are tons of epic fantasy books that really don’t have any action at all for, like, the first hundred and fifty pages,” Jack replied.
“And they still sell better than yours because they are entrancing!” Simplin shouted.
I did have a few complaints. I thought the action sequences failed to hold on to the comedic tone. There weren’t very many, but they felt like they came out of a different book. And speaking of coming out of a different book, there was one chapter where Jack wanted to prove that Simplin wasn’t even the best wizard he had created. To make his point, he forced Simplin to spectate a scene from another book, and this took up a whole chapter. I think the gag would have worked better with a shorter excerpt, but as it stands, I thought that section dragged because, well, it was an out of context chapter from another book. There were a few other points where Ferguson over-committed to a drawn-out joke.
Overall, though, I thought this was a quick, funny read that got a lot of great material out of its concept. It combines the meta-commentary about the writing process of Adaptation with the irreverent fourth-wall-breaking zaniness of Deadpool. If that caught your attention, I recommend this book.