SON OF A LICHE by J.Zachary Pike (BOOK REVIEW)
A doubly disgraced Dwarven hero. A band of accident-prone adventurers. Giving redemption a second shot may have been a grave mistake…
Still bruised and heartbroken from their last calamitous quest, Gorm Ingerson and his band of washed-up heroes try to make amends for the Orcs they accidentally betrayed. But justice is put on hold when an old foe marches to the city gates. Gorm is horrified to discover a liche pitching the frightened city-dwellers on the merits of the undead lifestyle… at the head of a corpse army.
To save the city from high-pressure sales tactics and an inevitable siege, the Dwarf warrior and his misfit band hatch a harebrained scheme that lands them at the top of the king’s kill list. With death and dark magic on his heels, Gorm must craft his own pitch to round up the troops and put the undead snake-oil salesman and his army of pushers permanently out of business.
I really enjoyed Son of a Liche, the chonker (606 pages) sequel to SPFBO4 winner and success story Orconomics (a mere 340 pages!). Son of a Liche continues the same blend of comic fantasy and financial satire that worked so well in Gorm Ingerson and company’s debut excursion. For those, like me, who have allowed some time to pass between reading Orconomics and starting Son of a Liche Pike starts with an author’s note and a link to a recap so that one can refamiliarize oneself with the goings on of the first book. Personally, I take an immersive approach to reading in the same way as I do to assembling IKEA furniture – eschewing recaps and instruction sheets in equal measure and bashing on in the confident belief that everything will become clear soon enough (and, gentle reader, it did!).
I was reading Son of a Liche in between watching episodes from season 4 of Suits – belatedly catching up to what all the fuss with the Meghan Markle career launch vehicle was. Enjoyable as the TV show is, there is something uncomfortable these days about watching shows which glory in the wealth and cleverness of a tiny elite – the rich white men who run hedge funds and the lawyers who exert every loophole so those rich men can get even richer. (Tbh I had similar reservations about the whole premise of the Richard Gere and Julia Roberts characters in Pretty Woman). I saw a meme recently highlighting the issue of ‘capitalist omnicide’ which seems like a pretty apt term for the harm that unfettered capitalism is doing to our environment, our society and arguably democracy. So, given those concerns, the second of Zachary Pike’s Dark Profit Saga books – a fantastic satire on the warping effects of the profit motive – was always going to be right up my street.
However, I should add that you don’t need to be a left leaning liberal to enjoy Pike’s humour which brilliantly subverts traditional fantasy tropes just as effectively as it lampoons contemporary commerce. In reviewing Orconomics I drew parallels between Pike’s humour and Terry Pratchett and I think that comparison still stands. However, Son of a Liche also put me in mind of another comic icon of speculative fiction the late lamented Douglas Adams with his fiendishly inventive Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Although it is almost double the length of Orconomics, Son of a Liche like the orc warrior Darak (“A small mountain of olive flesh and raven hair”) carries its bulk with a balletic grace and impressive effectiveness. A variety of points of view help flesh out the narrative. Though that is, perhaps, an unfortunate turn of phrase since one of my favourite points of view follows the skeletal remains of Tyren an indolent guard captain. His lifetime of evading all responsibility by delegating it either upwards or downwards comes to an abrupt musically accompanied end. But death it seems is not actually an end, so much as an opportunity, and we ride with the unfortunate fellow as he seeks out a similar comfortable niche of inactivity in the ranks of the undead army of Detarr Ur’Mayan.
The berserker dwarf Gorm Ingerson and his disparate desperate band form a strong central thread to the narrative as they try to foil the plans of the Liche and save both the undeserving bankers of Andarun and the more deserving little people – some of them very little, such as the ‘borrower’ like wood gnomes that benignly infest one character’s office (can a garden shed be an office?).
It was great to reacquaint myself with the will-they-won’t-they(for-f*ck’s-sake-get-on-with-it) pairing of solamancer Laruna and noctomancer Jynn (the Liche’s son). I also enjoyed the uneven bromance of Heraldin the bard who won’t shut up, and Gaist the weapons master who never speaks both of whom have interesting back stories to reveal. And the nature of Heraldin’s debt to the villainous crime boss Benny Hookhand was one of many ‘wow wtf’ moments in the book. While I enjoyed the kobold Burt’s constant complaining my favourite character was still the elf ranger Kaitha, burdened by her addiction to healing potions and her misapprehension that she has a supernatural guardian King in the Wood (rather than being stalked and protected by a love lorn rock hurling troll called Thane). With Kaitha, Pike also offered me the funniest character-tortoise interaction I’ve read since Pratchett’s Small Gods.
The prose flows smoothly and amusingly with my kindle notes full of ‘lol’ and ‘nice line’ comments.
A sharp description of a blunt faced queen
“The queen’s appearance reminded the baker of a great Daelish house cat, with tiny features in the middle of too much face.”
Gorm’s philosophy on life – or at least on religion
“As a general rule, he tried not to bother any deities in the hope that they would return the favour.”
At a rather dangerous gremlin armaments factory
“Safety is our top priority! Or at least it’s in the top five.”
“Gremlins often had a keen interest in biomancy, but unfortunately their culture observed ethical standards in the way that merfolk observe hiking.”
The humour blends seamlessly with commentary on capitalist excess. In parallel with the external undead crisis is an impending crash in the internal Collateralised Threat Obligations (CTO) market, closely modelled on the Sub-Prime crash of 2008 with bankers such as the Lamia Sisters, and Goldson Baggs drawing neat parallels with the lamented Levison Brothers and Goldman Sachs. And no I don’t understand what CTOs are, but neither do the bankers which makes the analogy with the Sub-prime market even more apposite. The bankers and guildmasters are all suitably venal
“Oh? I never liked trickle-down economics,” said Ortson, watching the crimson wine drip down the glass. “It implies there’s a leak somewhere.”
Yet when markets do correct themselves, the issue they most often correct is false hope.
Or this point where Detarr Ur’Mayan echoes Steve Bannon & Dominic Cummings
“What’s most important is that we’re disrupting the status quo.”
I also smiled at a brief cameo appearance (rivalling one long ago in Home Alone 2) when we see a merchant of dubious morals and loyalty “A buffoon who vouched for the Liche’s shell company” called Dannel Clubs who boasts small hands and a ridiculous pompadour wig. A character in need of a come-uppance which maybe the next book will deliver?!
The narrative has a kind of cinematic structure with the end of one scene, in word or deed often cueing up a complementary opening to the next scene. It’s a fairly unobtrusive device which helps smooth the flow of what is a long and complex plot.
There are Easter eggs of references and resonances along the way, a side swipe (or wing swipe?) at a popular Lord of the Rings complaint, and a museum heist of sufficient intricacy to make Danny Ocean call out for at least another eleven accomplices.
Besides Detarr Ur’Mayan’s rampaging undead there is the menace of the Red Horde to which the orcish Guz’Varda tribe find themselves aligned after the events of Orconomics. As with any grouping there is dissent over their direction of travel with the orcess Asherzu dismayed at the choices of her brothers. However, as the tribe hold Gorm responsible for the betrayal that killed Asherzu’s father the chieftain and sent his tribe a wandering, it is difficult to see how the heroes might sway the Guz’Varda from the path of violence and looting.
But the real villains are the bankers and the populist politicians – never trust a paladin as they say (or if they don’t then they should). As with Orconomics, Pike finds his astute observations land most emphatically when delivered in the wake of laughter,
“Nobody is above the law!” Baggs shrugged and sipped his wine. “Perhaps, but with enough money you can usually get out from under it.”
Pike’s final anarchic Battle at Anduran makes the battle for Helm’s Deep seem like the Covenanters successful 30 minute siege of Edinburgh castle in 1639, with every character in different kinds of peril. It builds to a delicious final confrontation with Detarr Ur’Mayan complaining of his beleaguered and grunting adversary
“This moment has been decades in the making. I think we can muster some polysyllabic banter for it, hm?”
I understand we have somewhat less than decades (barely months in fact) to wait for the next and final instalment of the Dark Profit Saga, and I for one cannot wait.