Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Who’s Pulling The Strings? Novels where there’s an unseen hand influencing the characters, in a way that the Illuminati could only dream of. Since the reveal of exactly what that hand is attached to comes late in all of these books, that’s about all I can say without giving away major plot points. However, what I can say is that this is a companion piece to last month’s column, Mostly British Humour, so if you liked the tone of any of the books mentioned there, you’ll definitely want to check out these as well.

So if you like:

Douglas Adams
Star Trek
Debating Star Trek
Star Trek tropes

You might like

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, by John Scalzi

Overview

So you know when the bridge crew of the Enterprise beams down to a planet on an away mission, with some extras wearing red shirts, and those guys never make it back? Like, every time? This is what it looks like when they start realizing that something’s up.

Sample passage

“So, did you guys get asked about away teams?” Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.

“I did,” Hanson said.

“So did I,” Dahl said.

“Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?” Duvall asked.

“Give me an example,” Dahl said.

“I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization.”

“Death by shuttle door malfunction,” Hanson said.

“Death by ice shark,” Dahl said.

“Death by what?” Duvall said, blinking. “What the hell is an ice shark?”

“You got me,” Dahl said. “I had no idea there was such a thing.”

“Is it a shark made of ice?” Hanson asked. “Or a shark that lives in ice?”

“It wasn’t specified at the time,” Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.

“I’m thinking you should have called bullshit on the ice shark story,” Duvall said.

“Even if the details are sketchy, it fits your larger point,” Dahl said. “People here have away missions on the brain.”

“It’s because someone always dies on them,” Hanson said.

Duvall arched an eyebrow at this. “What makes you say that, Jimmy?”

“Well, we’re all replacing former crew members,” Hanson said, and then pointed at Duvall. “What happened to the one you replaced. Transferred out?”

“No,” Duvall said. “He was the death by vaporization one.”

“And mine got sucked out of the shuttle,” Hanson said. “And Andy’s got eaten by a shark. Maybe. You have to admit there’s something going on there. I bet if we tracked down Finn and Hester, they’d tell us the same thing.”

 

Takeaway

You can enjoy Redshirts without being familiar with Star Trek, but being aware of the tropes Scalzi is playing off of really enhances the novel (which won the Hugo award in 2013 for Best Novel). It’s interesting to see how the background characters on a spaceship boldly going places have to deal with the fallout of the main characters having adventures, especially when done from a humorous angle. Things move pretty quickly and the jokes land at a steady pace, and it should definitely appeal to anyone that liked Joe Zieja’s Mechanical Failure

Or if you like:

Terry Pratchett
Monty Python
Douglas Adams
Role playing games

You might like

Mogworld, by Yahtzee Croshaw

Overview

As a minor wizard, Jim thought dying in an inter-school brawl should have been the end of his problems, and it was, until somebody brought him back as a self-aware zombie. But they can’t make him stay alive…or can they?

Sample passage

“Rise, my hordes of darkness!” he shrieked, then he did that laugh thing again. With the firelight, I could now make out his features. He was very tall and very thin, with the body and skin tone of one who has placed far too many pieces of his soul in far too many evil magic artifacts. He had tried to disguise his skinny build with a thickly padded black cloak and a pair of spiked shoulder pads the size of watermelons. Framing his sunken face was an ornate obsidian helmet carved somewhat predictably into the shape of an angry fanged skull. In addition to all that, he was addressing a bunch of dead guys, so he might as well have been wearing a sash with “NECROMANCER” writ big.

“Rise!” he repeated, throwing up his hands. “Rise, and join the ranks of my unholy horde!”

He seemed to notice for the first time that we weren’t exactly rushing to his side, but were mainly watching him as a zoo patron would watch a crazy monkey, curious but ready to move at the first sign of poo-flinging.

“March, my undead minions! We ride to my fortress of darkness!”

“Do we have to?”

This time, the necromancer’s improvisational skills abandoned him. His arms dropped to his sides, and when he replied, the booming insane qualities were missing from his voice. “Well . . . yes, I mean . . . you’re my undead minions. I raised you from the grave. You have to do everything I say.” Doubt was clearly nagging at him. He extended his hands again, holding his gnarled ebony staff horizontally. “I command thee to march!”

“March!” A spark of panic materialized in the necromancer’s eyes as if it had finally dawned on him that he had just placed himself right in the middle of a cranky, unstoppable army of unwilling zombies and identified himself as the source of their misfortune. “March! Walk . . . jump up and down . . .
do a little dance . . . er . . . ” The staff wobbled nervously in his grip. “You’ve got free will, haven’t you.”

“Sort of,” said the spokesman.

“They’ve got free will!” called the necromancer, to a trio of men in full suits of spikey black armor who had been tending to a quartet of horses some distance away. “How the hell have they got free will?! . What the hell am I supposed to do with a bunch of smelly . . . independents?”

“Why don’t you just ask us to join your horde?” said the haughty lady with no arms. “Like polite, decent people do.”

“Would you really? If I asked?”

“Maybe, I mean, we’ve never really been in any undead hordes before, so we might be interested in the opportunity to try new things.”

Takeaway

For a book that hinges on a fairly well traveled trope (which I won’t get in to as it is a plot point), this was really, really well written. Jim’s goal of shuffling off the mortal coil keeps getting thwarted as one problem leads to the next, dragging him along although he’d rather not participate in any of it. With him being an unwilling protagonist, the tone of this was very much in the spirit of a Monty Python movie. Add in various factions airing their grievances, and the totally unexpected happening with some predictability and it really shines.

Or if you like:

Fantasy novels on the lighter side

Dungeons & Dragons
Background characters moving to the foreground

You might like

NPCs by Drew Hayes

Overview

A bunch of bystander characters have to go on a quest to save their village after the primary heroes die in an avoidable drinking accident.

Sample passage

“The only issue is that now we’re short a barbarian.”

“That’s not what the goblins told Thistle,” Eric interjected, his own shyness fading now that he was no longer the subject of discussion.

“It seems you swing a good axe,” Thistle added.

“No, that was just one of those things. I like this tribe and seeing them get killed set me off. It was closer to a tantrum than bravery.”

“As someone who has traveled with a barbarian before, I assure you, the capacity to turn fury into blood is almost the entire prerequisite checklist.”

Takeaway

I’m always wary of books that have a built in reference to games, as I find they usually read like bad fan fiction that’s trying too hard to be cool while the logic of the plot takes a back seat to hip one liners and self referential in jokes, so it was with some caution that I picked up NPCs.

Now if you’ve got some background in fantasy gaming (role playing or computer) you’ll know that NPC stands for Non Player Character – those cardboard cutouts standing around in the background, complaining about taking an arrow to the knee, or encouraging you to stay a while and listen, who are basically there to service the plot, resupply the protagonists and probably die horribly. In NPCs, Hayes has imbued these background characters with a surprising amount of depth as they set forth on the hero’s journey. There are real reasons they’re suited for playing the roles of barbarian, thief and wizard, and the logic shown in those choices permeates the rest of the story as well. To elaborate more would give away some key plot details, but suffice to say that Hayes has constructed a really thoroughly entertaining novel that builds off of tropes rather than being smothered under them.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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