You know what’s hard? Writing comedy. You know what’s even harder? Writing a parody of fantasy fiction, since Tolkien-esque fantasy has become so utterly trite that even spoofing it is fairly old hat, much like how zombie fiction quite fittingly refuses to die. But the debut novel by Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame manages to be raucously entertaining despite tackling those very subjects.
Mogworld stars Jim, a student wizard who gets killed by the end of the first chapter. But when he gets resurrected as part of a necromancer experiment decades later, he’s anything but happy and wishes his soul had been left in Paradise rather than forced to squat in his long-neglected corpse. And despite wanting nothing to do with adventure or saving the world, Jim’s search for self-destruction turns into an odyssey across a fantasy world turned upside-down by everyone’s mysterious inability to die.
Jim is written as a loveably grumpy git, wholly self-centred and resisting the call to adventure at every turn. Croshaw’s great gift with writing is his dry wit, which works perfectly with Jim’s perspective: the narration gives a real sense of the many facets in the great spectrum of hate which Jim feels for every character he meets during his anti-quest, and even the individuals who could be called one-note manage to entertain because of Croshaw’s ability to make even a simple description memorable. Jim’s undead status is also put to great use both as part of the plot and as a regular source of comedy, such as the spiders in Jim’s lungs covering their children’s ears when he swears, so there’s some good action sequences to mix things up without sacrificing the sarcastic charm that is the book’s main appeal.
The story itself takes a few unexpected and suitably wacky turns. Without spoiling the specifics, the book takes as much inspiration from video game culture as it does classic fantasy, so while you don’t need to be familiar with the world of gaming it would definitely help you understand some specific elements of the setting and plot. Possibly my only criticism is that writing a book in which the protagonist is very deliberately avoiding excitement does make for a fairly rambling plot, but there’s some very good foreshadowing for some of the best jokes and the author’s talent at prose means that even a fairly plotless action sequence is a joy to read.
To conclude, Mogworld is a stellar first novel that paints a refreshingly cynical picture of fantasy fiction and video game tropes. It’s an absolute must-read if you’ve enjoyed Croshaw’s game reviews or other light-hearted fantasy adventures like those of the late, great Terry Pratchett, and it’d be a great introduction to the distinct sneering prose and outlandish similes that make Croshaw one of my all-time witsperations. I’ll also recommend the audiobook version as a very worthy alternative, since it’s read by the man himself and his practiced sour tone is a perfect fit with Jim, the mediocre wizard who just can’t catch a break.
Mogworld is available now from Dark Horse Books, in physical form as well as e-book and audiobook.