Royal Chaos is the sequel to Jason Cosmo (previously reviewed), and every bit as much quality tongue-in-cheek fantasy parody. The events in the book begin a few months after Jason Cosmo ended, with the Royal Wedding between Queen Raella of Raelna, and the wizard Mercury Boltblaster (Merc), soon to be prince-consort of Raelna and and Jason's closest friend. The wedding begins, the priests drone on in the sweltering afternoon heat, meaning the Sun Goddess (and Jason's patron0, the holy Rae, had a beaming but slightly scatter-brained eye watching. After the regulation hymns and invocations, just as the ceremony reached its apogee, Zaran Zimabar, the leader of P.A.N.G.O* and a mentally deranged sadist of a psychotic megalomaniac (Merc's words, not mine) appears and using an enchanted quarrel strong enough to punch through the shields of a wizard even as powerful as the high priestess of the Sun God, manages to assassinate Raella. Shocked and grieving, our two heroes escape the slaughter at the wedding and after some very quick thinking, embark upon a mission of vengeance against the villains responsible for this dastardly deed. Big surprise there, right? Powerful female politicians assassinated in our world isn't exactly strangers to us, nor are cold-blooded schemes of savage vengeance a rarity. (Note: review may contain spoilers).
Again, it sounds clichéd, but it isn't. Largely because it's interspersed with sequences like this, when Jason and Merc nocturnally sneak out of the city of Caratha:
I followed Mercury into the night. He was waiting for me in the garden, crouching warily behind the rose bushes.“What’s the big rush?” I asked.
“Quiet! Get down!” He pulled me down beside him.
“Have you gone crazy, Merc?”
“No. But I nearly forgot something important. This is a quest for revenge. We have to leave at night. Preferably by sneaking out of town.”
“What difference does that make?”
“It’s traditional. If you’re going to do something, do it right. A friend reminded me of the relevant customs.”
“You’ll meet him. He has the horses.”
“Horses? Why aren’t we flying? Not that I’m complaining, but I thought—”
“If we fly, we’ll get there too soon.”
“We could upset the karmic balance and overaccelerate the plot lines if we arrive in Rae City too early in the scheme of things. I overlooked that important consideration when we talked earlier, but realized it after you left.”
“Karmic balance? What are you talking about?”
“Just trust me, Jason. It’s not wise to flout the Laws of Narrative. We don’t want to get caught in a plot inversion or a thematic breakdown, do we?”
“Therefore we are taking horses to Rae City,” I said, trying to follow his logic. “So that we don’t arrive too soon.”
“Now you understand.”
“Actually, I don’t."
And later on:
“Out of the question!” I said.
“Be reasonable,” said Mercury. “It’s the fastest way to go.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“We can reach Glymph in less than an hour on a carpet. It will take most of the day by horse. Every minute counts.”
“You remember what happened the last time we flew.”
“Yes. We arrived safely in Caratha.”
“You weren’t piloting then. I mean the time we went down in flames right in the middle of an enemy camp. Or the time before that, when the carpet dissolved into a floating threadball.”
“We weren’t on board at the time.”
“What about the karmic balance and theme inversions and all that?”
“Plot inversions. I don’t think that’s a problem any
more. The event sequence has advanced to a suitable developmental stage such that aerial transport shouldn’t interfere with overall dramatic balance now. If you want me to chart the fifth dimensional occurrence vectors to prove it, I will.”
“Never mind. I don’t want to fly. You and Rif fly and I’ll catch up with you.”
“Nonsense. We need you with us.”
“I do not want to get on one of those flying door mats ever again.”
“You are being a child.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“You have no logical basis for this irrational fear of flying. You have not died in a flying accident, nor do you have direct knowledge of anyone who has. Is this not true?”
“Well . . . yes,” I admitted reluctantly.
“Then it’s settled. We’ll fly.”
That last line is one of my favourites in the book. The first time I read it, I snorted about half a cup of coffee out of my nose (warning, never read Pratchett, Adams, McGirt, and the equally formulaic and creative fantasist P.G. Wodehouse*) and it still never fails to produce a chuckle. Again, leading on from Jason Cosmo, the names are delightfully funny. Perfect parodies without stepping too far into the realms of the blindingly obvious. Or perhaps it's the blatant obviousness that makes the book so much fun to read. After all, thanks largely to Tolkein and the near biblical status of that gigantic turkey LOTR (David Eddings' words, not mine. Read the Rivan Codex if you don't believe me.), all of us who read contemporary western fantasy are locked firmly into the Circle of Adventure, which is the basis of any good fantasy book. Particularly in the sword, sorcery, and sandals sub-genre. It's the originality and skill of the author that separates the diamonds from the dross.
Royal Chaos explores a great deal more of the geography of Arden, the disc-shaped world (No, there aren't any turtles) upon which these events unfold, and takes us to some of the twelve kingdoms (which aren't all kingdoms, but, as Jason very reasonably points out, it's easier to refer to the 'twelve kingdoms' than it is to 'the eight kingdoms and other assorted nation-types) we'd only heard of before. The fantasy parody continues here, our heroes are kidnapped and left naked in a forest, fight battles against overwhelming odds only to be rescued at the very last second, and make men and women pant for entirely different reasons. Well, in most cases anyway. Worthy of special mention, though, is the parody of jousting and dueling knights as 20th century entertainment wrestling at a "Succession Slugfest!" between bad boy Baron Bismuth, the Scourge of the South, and Nulf "Terminator" Tungsten, to win the heavyweight championship of the w-err...sorry...the crown of the kingdom of Orphalia.
After a great deal of running around dealing with various sorts of natural disasters, giant farmers, and tough-talking squirrels, our heroes finally discover the identity of the evil mastermind who orchestrated the assassination of Raella, and his lair in Castle Bloodthorn. During the usual but incidental heroic mechanics of their journey there; Merc tells Jason a good deal of his personal history,and how he acquired his incredible fighting prowess. Again, fantasy archtypes are taken and made to stand on their head in a deliberate manner that keeps the comedy level funny without becoming insulting. Or, even worse, boring, the ultimate curse for a fantasy author, and the word they dread hearing the most. All of this is discussed while Jason and Merc absentmindedly fight off demons, great white sharks and assorted other nasties to get into Castle Bloodthorn.
Kidnapped and humiliated, our heroes are placed in caverns beneath Bloodthorn and expected to find their own way out. It turns out that watching this is a form of entertainment that a master illusionist, who is our Villain Prime, can provide for his fellow Dark Magic Society members who have a rather refined sense of cruelty (remember Isogoras's invitation offer to Merc to join the Dark Magic Society?) as humour. Then was the good part. Since Jason and Merc had destroyed the previous Overmaster of the Dark Magic Society, various candidates were campaigning for the post. The assassination of Raella was a publicity stunt orchestrated by the dastardly (yes, I like that word, and don't get to use it very often, so there) Villain Prime. So we get treated to one of my favourite vignettes of political oratory ever, as our evil mastermind tries to win over undecided members of the High Council to his cause with a campaign speech for the position of Overmaster! While not laugh-out-loud funny, this speech will leave you grinning for a long time Personally, I believe that it ranks right up there with Gussie Fink-Nottle's speech to the Market Snodsbury boys school* for comedy value without ever once making you cringe. McGirt then fashions a wonderful twist in the tale with a slick little bit of narrative sleight of hand. I like to think I'm pretty good at predicting this sort of thing but I never saw this one coming. My jaw literally dropped.
The only slight disappointment - perhaps anti-climax would be more apt - was the final ending. It seems a bit too abrupt and forcibly obvious, as if McGirt wanted to use one proper fantasy cliché without parodying it. Still, it in no way detracts from the rest of the book, which is just as funny, witty, and thoroughly entertaining as its predecessor. And that's saying something.