I don’t read. I’m not kidding about that, either–I spend almost the entirety of my free time avoiding reading fiction for pleasure. I so rarely find a book that interests me enough to keep me slogging through page after page of tiny text when I can so easily download another episode of an old TV show. Which is why it surprised me earlier this week when I finished Yahtzee Croshaw’s debut novel Mogworld thirty-six hours after I bought it. It’s not a short book, coming in at a proper novel-sized four hundred pages. It’s an inherently and addictively readable book, the kind whose prose is so witty and whose characters are so fascinating, you just don’t want to put it down. I started reading this book in a Tim Hortons, minutes after having bought it. I kept reading it on the bus, at work, at home during dinner, while watching the news and until I fell asleep halfway through. I repeated this all through the next day, until finally finishing the book at midnight. It’s that good.
Mogworld, as spoiler-free as the author seems to have meant it to be read, is about a guy named Jim. This is Jim. Jim, if you didn’t click the link, is a magic student in a high fantasy world who, one unceremonious day, has his school invaded by raiders and dies. He is resurrected over fifty years later by an evil overlord who happens to be an ideal boss to be part of his undead horde, and thus begin Jim’s adventures through the ever-worsening land he lives in. While he was under the ground, it turns out that a few things about where he’s living have changed. First, no one ages or dies any more–all forms of entropy have entirely ceased. When someone other than Jim dies, they come back to life at a nearby church. When Jim dies, he has to repair his body in order to keep moving. Second, the best adventurers in the land have come over with The Syndrome–a disease like a waking paralysis that stiffens their movements, stilts their speech and eventually reduces them to doing nothing but posing.
Jim is beset upon by fellow reanimated corpses like Meryl, a ceaselessly chipper and annoyingly optimistic corpse who clings to Jim out of nationalist nostalgia and an ex-priest who has seen his reincarnation as a member of the walking dead not as a judgment or abandonment by God, but as an opportunity to judge his fellow shambling corpses as demons from among their ranks. Meryl insists at every turn that Jim nut up and find a way to save the land, restore entropy and reverse the Syndrome. Jim insists back that he is not and has never been a hero and that her blind faith in him to be a leader of corpses is misplaced. Really, all Jim wants to do is find a way back to the peaceful and calming death he was in the middle of when Lord Dreadgrave raised him.
Jim is a fascinating character, the likes of which you don’t often see in fiction. He’s far more aware of his status as protagonist than he should be, constantly sending winking asides to the audience as he defies expectation. Croshaw’s unique wit lends itself well to his snarky anti-heroics through the land. Better still are passages where Croshaw gives Jim a deeper motivation and the stirrings of heroism in his heart–not for being the trite fantasy cliché of feeling like a hero and thus becoming one, but because he naturally struggles with even the basic feelings heroes possess. Jim is not a kind man, not a friend to all living things, and it’s nice to see a character like this consistently portrayed instead of turning into the generic fantasy-hero of lore–a kind of undead magic-wielding John McClane.
Another thing that helps Mogworld take the crown of “only high fantasy novel I’ve ever enjoyed” is its thoroughly modern prose and writing style. It reads less like an elaborate history of a fictional land and more like the fantasy version of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, never slowing or stopping its adventures for little things such as “backstory” or “meaningful character interaction”. Instead, Mogworld is the kind of book that stopped being praised somewhere in history: the ripping good yarn. It’s not a literary statement, it’s not a metaphor. It’s an engaging story, told in a unique and witty voice that keeps a fast and funny pace from page one to page four hundred thirteen. I don’t know when the quality of writing became dependent on how very sad the sob-story in the pages was, but that kind of mentality has always bugged me. Mogworld is a literary debut worthy of Carrie or The Mysterious Affair at Styles in that it’s an interesting story set in an absorbing world, well told.
For all there is good to say about this book, there’s also some not-so-good. I’m an atheist, and judging by the character of the undead priest, I’d hazard a guess that Mr. Croshaw is, too. Indeed, Mogworld has the same flaw as Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying–it just can’t decide whether or not it wants to devolve into a full-blown religious satire. Both movies feature strong lead characters who insist that they are not heroes or good men. And both feature an incessant subplot dedicated to something that really should have a longer narrative dedicated to it. I like Croshaw’s style enough that reading his take on religious satire is not a bore, but in a novel as brimming with ideas as Mogworld, it really doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the themes in the work. Every town has a priest, there are several important God-analogues interacting with characters (phrased to avoid spoilers), and the religious vary in this book from annoying-but-actually-a-kind-of-stand-up-guy to downright pure evil.
But really, is an excess of ideas something we should fault someone’s first published novel for? I’ve never written a book, but if it turned out half as enjoyable and well-written as Mogworld, I’d be immensely proud of the effort. A definite must-read, and a promising start from an author I hope to be reading more of in a year’s time. THREE AND A HALF STARS