Stuff of Legends
by Ian Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stuff of Legends / 978-0-441-01930-4
Following a semi-basic plot of a retired hero being called unwillingly back into action one last time, "Stuff of Legends" takes the Shrek approach to the genre and ties modern-day Hollywood sensibilities to his characters. Thus, we have a world where heroes and villains really do have epic battles, and both parties thoroughly intend to win the fight, but the victories and defeats are somewhat guided (and in some cases, outright scripted) by the talent agency bards that follow them around and record their deeds into movies, er, songs.
The setup is done fairly well, with most of the obvious questions and potential loop-holes tidied up along the way. What makes "Stuff of Legends" really shine, however, is not so much the plot, but the delightful characterization of retired hero Jordan and the entourage of villains he encounters throughout the entirety of his unwilling comeback tour. Good protagonist characterization can carry a plot a long way, and author Gibson seems to thoroughly understand that - Jordan is perfectly characterized as a tired war hero, desperately seeking peace and absolution, and yet still alarmingly competent and pleasantly maintaining the same tenuous camaraderie with the villains he encounters (after all, at the end of the day, it's really just business). Gibson perfectly balances Jordan's natural reticence to be pulled back into the hero-ing business and his genuine anger and frustration at those manipulating him, while never descending into excessive angst that would only annoy the reader.
Another high point in favor of "Stuff of Legends" is the wry wit of the writing, reminding the reader of some of the best aspects of British writing humor. Many of the turns of phrases here seem gently reminiscent of Douglas Adams, such as when a bard wryly notes that a dawn "came without metaphor", or when Jordan's injuries are described as his various body parts arguing with each other over which is hurt the most. Perhaps best of all is the tête-à-tête between Jordan and the villains, with each party trying to maneuver the other into an uneasy compromise, rather than alternative of being outright manipulated by the directors back in tinsel town.
If "Stuff of Legends" has a draw-back, it lies unfortunately with the three "support" characters, each of whose job is largely to drive the plot by driving Jordan unwillingly towards it. Eliott, a young boy who hero-worships Jordan, is particularly problematic - to paraphrase Yahtzee, I believe this character was written to be deliberately annoying, in which case the author should be congratulated for doing his job, and reminded that "deliberately annoying" is still "annoying". It's fairly obvious throughout the narrative that Eliott was originally written to be very young - I'd say no more than 10 or 12 at the most - which might at least excuse a little of his more egregious stupid and irritating mistakes, but then at the last minute prior to publish, the boy was given an upgrade to 15 in order to have some initial sexual tension revolving around his elvish babysitter, which is then (thankfully!) never mentioned outside the first chapter. The other two support characters are also remarkably childish and juvenile, despite being an immortal elf and a grown man. The very few tentative steps made towards character growth are always immediately wiped over in the next chapters, and the ending will absolutely infuriate any reader who had hoped that the trio might learn the importance of not screwing with your hero's life on account of him being a *person* and not a source of entertainment.
I would assume that age and personality of the support characters were adjusted to set this novel into the more lucrative "Young Adult" market, but I'm not sure I see the logic of this. The book is almost completely free of gore and sex, which greatly increased my enjoyment of it, but probably means that it isn't "intended" for adult audiences, and yet the wry writing will most appeal to a mature audience who appreciates the tongue-in-cheek nuances presented. I think the best thing that could have been done here would have been to ditch the child-like characters entirely, since they largely only seem to exist for a child reader to sink into, and just market this as a clever retrospective fantasy novel for adults, but that's my opinion.
In the end, "Stuff of Legends" shines beautifully for the bulk of the novel, only really descending into mediocrity in the few pages where we absolutely must deal with the annoying support characters, before climbing back up into the superb fun of watching Jordan wearily battle for the right to live his life in peace and quiet. The book is well worth reading for the wry humor and clever dialogue, and I look forward to reading more from this author - and particularly hopes that next time, he will just leave the annoying support characters at home.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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