Monday, October 5, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Another Fine Myth

Another Fine Myth is the first installment in Robert Asprin's series of humorous fantasy novels known as "the Myth Adventures." In 1978, when this book first appeared, this was rather an original concept, which is why I enjoyed the early books of the series. As the years dragged on, though, my enjoyment waned and I eventually came to have bad feelings about the entire endeavor. As anyone who knows me well is aware, I'm actually not a fan of humorous fantasy novels, even ones as supposedly well-written as the "Discworld" books, of which I have not read a single word and have no intention of doing so (Please don't use the comments to try to dissuade me from this. Seriously).

Nevertheless, Another Fine Myth is a good, if light, read. Its plot concerns Skeeve, an apprentice wizard with a knack for thievery. Indeed, his skills as a thief far outstrip those as a magician, a fact his master says is retarding Skeeve's ability to cast spells with any success. Hoping to shock some sense into him, his master decides to show Skeeve the true power of magic by summoning a demon, which he does just as a magical assassin appears. The assassin and Skeeve's master slay one another, leaving the apprentice behind to deal with the strange, reptilian demon.

As it turns out, "demon" is simply a slang word for traveler between dimensions. The traveler Skeeve's master has summoned is known as Aahz and he offers to take Skeeve on as his apprentice, teaching him magic, since his own ability to use magic has been temporarily lost due to the summoning ritual that brought him to Skeeve's world. Of course, the assassin that killed the master was not alone and his comrades are now after Skeeve, which is why he and Aahz flee, hoping to evade them long enough for the demon to teach Skeeve the magic they need to survive all these people wanting them dead for reasons as yet unknown to them.

What follows is a humorous fantasy picaresque filled with all manner of bizarre situations and strange characters, especially the latter. Asprin had a real knack for creating quirky, yet oddly believable, characters and I suspect that he's had a strong influence on my own NPC characterizations, which can be quite ... unusual, as my players will attest. Likewise, the central premise is a classic fantasy one: a nobody in the "real" world, in this case a fairly mundane fantasy one, finds himself thrust into a much bigger -- and more dangerous -- world than he ever realized existed, along the way acquiring knowledge, power, and influence he otherwise never would have possessed. Sound familiar?

There's lots of good ideas to mine in this novel and its sequels, particularly if one doesn't take one's fantasy too seriously. As I said, I found the later books increasingly less good. I suspect that Asprin kept writing them because they continued to sell well rather than because he had anything new to say with these characters. It's a common problem in genre fiction, where interminable series seem to be the norm. Mind you, the same is true of roleplaying games, where the power of "the brand" generally wins out over anything resembling esthetic integrity. Regardless, Another Fine Myth at least is worth a read if you've never had the chance to do so. Asprin is an under-appreciated writer and I think one gains a better sense of his unique virtues from his early books rather than his later ones.

16 comments:

  1. I can't tell you how many ideas I stole form the Myth books for use in my AD&D1e games. But, yeah, they get pretty tiresome.

    Oh, and getting the editions illustrated by Phil Foglio is key!

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  2. Out of interest, James, why do you refuse to read any of the Discworld books?

    I'm not saying that you are wrong for not doing so, I'm just curious as to what was sufficiently egregious about them as to make you dislike them sight unseen.

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  3. Arthur,

    As I said, I simply have no taste for humorous fantasy novels anymore, no matter how well-written. I don't dislike the Discworld books, as I've never read them, but I have no interest in them whatsoever, in much the same way as I have no interest in multi-volume epic fantasy.

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  4. I had the same experience with the Myth books--enjoyed the first few but then I lost steam.

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  5. May be cause they're not funny. Covers by Phil Foglio - funny. Fake quotes by important historical and fictional people at beginning of chapters - funny. Dumb names of dimensional travelers in other languages - funny once. Stories - not so much, they're pretty straight. I gave one of the later novels to my father to read cause I thought he'd appreciate it and his reaction was, "coming of age story, not very good." The wacky covers mislead you, but the stories are very ordinary.

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  6. I had a similar experience with the Xanth novels in the early-mid '80s.. Read the first few, then realized I was wasting my time. They were cute, but got old quickly. I think I made it to Ogre, Ogre before throwing in the towel.

    I'm with you on the Discworld books. They don't appeal to me in the slightest.

    Just out of curiosity, do you feel similarly about Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books? I like those okay.

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  7. The Foglio-adapted comic of AFM is quite good, and recently reprinted. Funnier than the book (and the ending makes more sense, too.)

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  8. It's worth noting that the Discworld novels aren't really humorous fantasy novels. If that's all they were, they wouldn't be so enduringly popular. They're humorous novels that happen to be set in a fantasy world. Like Jonathan Swift, Pratchett is using a fantasy world to reflect our own. (I'll not try to judge if Pratchett is a effective as Swift, just that they're using the same techique.) There are few exceptions, notably the first two (The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic), but the core of the Discworld books are fundamentally about our world, just reflected of a funhouse mirror of seemingly stereotypical fantasy.

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  9. I concur with Matthew above -- read the comic book, not the novel!

    (Word verification: mingrigh -- some new species of wee folk?)

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  10. I share you reservations for both supposedly "funny" fantasy series as well as for multi-volume series.

    I have no problem with books that share a common setting (such as Mieville's Bas-Lag series or the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks), but these days it seems like many fantasy books are plotted as a series rather than as a story, which is usually better served as a single book.

    As far as Discworld goes: I've tried, and they just don't strike me as funny. And the constant gags just kick me out of the story.

    Don't misunderstand, I think that humor has an important place in story, and can enhance dark stories especially by providing a counterpoint and punctuation to horrible situations. My games end up being filled with laughter, even when PCs are having their asses handed to them.

    It's just that Humorous Fantasy usually isn't very funny.

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  11. Myeh. I wouldn't say Discworld was 'humourous fantasy'. Maybe some of the early books, which aren't great in my opinion. The later books could be described as witty, yes. Satirical, possibly, but I wouldn't say 'humourous'.

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  12. Yes, the first two (or maybe three) "Myth" books are good, but none thereafter. I also give Asprin props for his work on the THIEVES' WORLD books, editorially and in terms of his stories. Under-appreciated indeed.

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  13. What about Order of the Stick? I read it regularly, but I find it not so much funny as cute.

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  14. I like Discworld better than Lord of the Rings, for its excellent satire. From how you describe them, the Myth books sound less like Tery Pratchett and more like Piers Anthony. I guess I like Anthony's childlike aproach to fantasy more than I like the droll heroics of Tolkien.

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  15. Your thoughts on the Myth books (and humorous fantasy in general) is akin to my own.

    What's interesting to me is that this is one of the few books I can think of off-hand that could be considered the story of a "1st level magic-user" and how one might get on as such in a D&D campaign (without simply running away at every turn).

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  16. I will always have a soft spot for Asprin due to his Thieve's World creation.

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