Summary: Lucian Huxley wants to be a hero. To be the one who kills the dragon, defeats the rabid horde, and slays the princess. No, wait, saves the princess. Right now his job is to clean up after Moxar Lightshield, the real hero. Real heroes don’t do their own dirty work. That’s where Lucian and his companions, or anyone else willing to put their lives on the line for a trivial amount of money, come in. In a world filled with magic, unruly bandits, and fearsome ogres, Lucian has his work cut out. But this time the Company has offered him the chance to make his dreams come true. Will he succeed and become the hero he’s always wanted to be? Or will he fall at the hands of the God Killer?
Review: I was initially on the fence about this book. On one hand, the writing was decent, and the early few chapters hinted at something I hadn’t actually seen before in my years of reading fantasy novels. On the other hand, books intended to poke fun at things and be humourous often fall rather flat with me, and there’s as much chance that I’ll dislike them for the humour as I’ll like them for the story.
Demi Heroes turned out to be one of those books that I liked. Largely because it riffs on some concepts that many storytellers rely on as a given. People will always be in the right place at the right time. Things will work out in the end.
Demi Heroes is the story of Lucian, and the group of Company workers who basically make sure all that actually happens. They’re the ones who make sure that the Hero of the story doesn’t get held up by wrong directions (unless, of course, that leads to the Hero’s story being more compelling), that the ancient artifacts are in place when the Hero arrives at the ancient temple, that the villains provide a challenge but never so much threat that the Hero’s death is a certainty. They are they unsung grunts behind every Hero’s quest, the hidden hands of the masterminds who profit from the tourist trade when Heroes take down tyrants and defeat vicious dragons. Heroes always have help, even if they’re unaware of it.
Only now, the Company Lucian works for wants to approach things in a slightly different way. Instead of clearing the way for current Heroes and making their lives and stories that much better, they want to start from scratch, chronicling the rise of a Hero from his beginning, not after he’s already gotten underway. Lucian is offered the chance to fill that role, to become a man who can change the world and have stories told about him and have a team of his own working behind the scenes to make it all come together in a way that others will want to hear about. But only if he does well in his latest job to help Moxar Lightshield take down the villain who seeks to kill a god.
This is a book for people who always ask why only the hero’s story gets told, why we don’t see the story from any perspective but the one to whom it’s all really happening. (Largely because doing so tends to not make for the greatest story, as interesting as it could be if done well…) Lucian’s story is a wonderful cross between watching a play and getting to peek backstage to see behind the scenes. Lucian himself isn’t a capital-H Hero the way the Company defines them, though nobody can deny that his “stagehand” role puts him in the hot seat as he faces down bandit hordes and ogres and unfortunate political incidents in order to further Moxar’s story. Lucian and his team have their task, but they’re picking up clues about the God Killer as they work too, and more than once Lucian wrestles with whether it’s better to keep your head down and do your job, or whether advancement and ethics mean doing something completely different and taking a more active role in what is supposed to be someone else’s story. There’s a fun meta-aspect to it all, reading a story about a story-maker (or perhaps it would be better to compare him to an editor?), who is both hero and aspiring Hero, trailing in a Hero’s wake while doing heroic things in the process.
Demi Heroes relies a lot on tropes, unsurprisingly. Company-aided Heroes are paragons of goodness and strength and morals, always bearing the burden of defeating evil wherever it may be found, which is practically a textbook definition of the kind of hero we see in many stories through the ages, and also the kind of hero that has fallen further from favour in recent years as readers crave more nuanced and morally-grey protagonists in their fiction. The story takes a bit of a satirical tone when it comes to those classic tropes, as even in the context of the in-book world those Heroes are to no small degree molded, almost custom-made, for the people who want to hear stories about them and feel inspired. They’re archetypes, not real people doing things that real people do. It’s not that the Hero didn’t kill a dragon, but the dragon was drugged and not as dangerous as it would normally be, so that the Hero can properly kill it and make people feel good about Heroes.
But even as the book pokes fun at tropes and archetypes, it falls prey to them with pretty much every other character. These days, admittedly, it’s hard to write a character that isn’t tropey, since so many things have been done that even inversions of tropes have becomes tropes themselves. The know-nothing know-it-all. The mage who can’t properly use magic. The bard who can’t sing. The man whose appearance is brutish and terrifying but really he wants to heal people instead of hurt them. They’re not really clever inversions, not any more than someone writing a vampire who feels faint at the sight of blood. Funny for a moment, until you realise that dozens of people before you also thought it was funny for a moment when they did it. Lucian and his party aren’t much more original than the character of Moxar Lightshield.
Which, honestly, may well have been Lynch’s intent, since making fun of classic character roles is a big theme here, as well as looking behind the scenes at the people who make stories happen. Lucian’s party may well have consisted of such characters specifically because the Company wanted that kind of party around, because they were characters they felt people wanted to hear about. So we have a storyteller writing about a company of storytellers trying to tell a story about people aiding in creating a story. It’s all very head-twisty and fun, and I think the fun of the implications made up for the characters not always being particularly strong or original.
Demi Heroes doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it does bring an uncommon twist to an old story, and it was certainly fun to read. A bit slow in places, but curiosity to see how it all played out kept me going even when I felt things were lagging a bit, and Lynch’s writing was fairly smooth and decently detailed to boot. If you’re in the mood for some humour in your fantasy, then give Demi Heroes a try.