I have a happy place, a place of peace, and rest, and good food, and great stories. No, it’s not Rivendell (though seriously, it sort of is, in my head.) Rather, it’s where my BFF lives, now two hundred-odd-miles from me. Close enough that I get there a few times a year, too far for it to happen as often as I’d like.
When I’m there, we talk (and talk, and talk…) and then watch stuff, and make and eat good food (well, generally, they make it and I help eat it) and when we’re tired of talking and eating and watching, we retreat for a while to our own devices because we’re all introverts.
This is what heaven on earth looks like for me.
Anyway, I was there a while back, and my godson was reading one of the Iron Druid Chronicles, an urban fantasy series by Kevin Hearne. My BFF had mentioned them to me a couple of times – enough that it registered on my mental “list of books people are talking about.” But that’s a big list.
So we were sitting there in one of our quiet moments – all of us reading, writing, or – in my friend’s case, knitting (I have eight thumbs) – and my godson chuckled.
A little while later, he laughed.
I read the occasional urban fantasy (well, to be fair, I read about everything occasionally, save horror) and one of my favorite things is humor in unexpected places, so the following week, I checked the first one out of the library.
I fell in love.
When I say ‘humor in unexpected places,’ what I mean is that I don’t like comedy. I can’t tell you the last time I went to see a funny movie, and there’s only one sitcom I’ll even occasionally watch, but at the same time, I don’t like straight drama, either. I think it’s because in real life, I’ve seen people cope with truly horrible things with humor, so it makes sense to me that the best fiction, or at least the truest fiction, would be the same way.
At the time, there were seven novels and assorted short stories in the series, and I read them all in a manner of weeks. I’d planned to do this review then, and got distracted, because at times, I have the attention span of- “SQUIRREL!”
Ahem. Anyway, my goal here is to do a non-spoilery overview of what I love about these books rather than the kind of review I usually do – though I might yet do one of those, too, for the eighth book in the series, which I just finished.
The titular character of the series is Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids. When we first meet him, he’s running a bookshop, hanging out with his best friend – an Irish Wolfhound named Oberon – and trying to avoid the Celtic god who’d like to make him the final Druid.
The god finds him, and mayhem ensues. And then completely reasonable-at-the-time choices Atticus makes in that book lead to more mayhem in the following installments.
It’s all good stuff, but in broad strokes, here are three reasons for their appeal to me:
Mix of drama and humor:
Yeah, yeah, I already mentioned this, but it’s worth expanding upon. The humor isn’t of the slapstick kind, which is so un-funny to me that I can’t even think of any examples, but rather, humorous ways of looking at the world. Much of this comes via Oberon, whose thoughts we’re privy to due to his bond with Atticus; some of it comes via the pop culture references, which are mostly scifi/fantasy/gaming based. I’m not a gamer, but the Tolkien, Star Wars, and Star Trek tributes crack me up. (If there’s a scifi or fantasy franchise not yet mined for humor in these books, I don’t know what they are.)
But…there’s drama, too. People die. Characters we come to care about don’t always survive, which leads to the next thing I like:
The conflict works:
By conflict, I mean the tension that drives the plot. I realized a long time ago that if a story doesn’t work for me, it’s nearly always because the conflict – whatever problem the protagonist is facing – feels contrived, or dumb, or illogical.
A number of years ago, I took an online writing class where the instructor said some version of this: “Things need to get progressively worse for your hero. Much worse. Make your reader frantic. Is your hero running from bad guys through a field? Have him realize he’s also being chased by wolves. Then have him run up a tree for refuge, only to discover there’s a bear above him, snarling. And just when he thinks things can’t possibly get any worse, have lightning set the tree on fire.”
No. No, no, and no.
The problem isn’t that things are getting progressively worse – that’s good drama. The issue is when the writer seems to have taken that same plotting seminar (and I’ve seen versions of it all over the place) and thinks that throwing one disaster after another at the protagonist is the way to tell a good story. If you like that kind of thing, either as a reader or a writer, more power to you; it’s the fastest way to get me to chuck the book through the nearest window.
Hearne doesn’t do that. Things get worse for logical, character-based reasons. Atticus tries to do the right thing, and it turns out to be the dead wrong thing, for reasons he couldn’t foresee. Or he chooses the least-disastrous option of three bad choices, lives to fight another day…and then the consequences for that against-the-wall choice turn out to be worse than he could have imagined.
There’s never a point when I’m annoyed because I can so clearly see another choice, one that won’t obviously have dire consequences down the road. The closest we get to that is when he chooses to keep his word even when a lot of very wise people are saying, ‘bad idea. Really, really a bad idea.’ Only…I like that keeping his word matters that much to him. Conundrum!
Appealing, imperfect characters:
And that brings me to the final reason these books are now must-buys (rather than must-borrows): the characters are likable despite their flaws. Atticus is wise and good-hearted, but capable of making bad decisions he then has to live with. As the series goes on, other people come into his life, people just as interesting in their own right. They, too, are making choices which may or may not work out, and the result is that while the most recent book (“Staked“) seems to have wrapped up some significant story lines, it’s not hard to see plenty of places for the next one – and there had better be a next one, because I’m not done with this crew yet – to go.
The Iron Druid Chronicles are by Kevin Hearne. The first book in the series is Hounded; there are currently eight novels and some novellas available.