The ninth Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off writing competition is well underway, and our 10 finalists have already been selected and scores are beginning to land. With 300 entries fighting for those 10 finalist spots, it’s inevitable that very good books won’t progress to that stage. This week I’m featuring one of those I read and really enjoyed – SPFBO9 Semi-Finalist The Crew by Sadir S Samir.
How do I describe this book? Where do I begin? I’m struggling because I’ve never read anything else quite like The Crew. Samir’s debut novel is the first in a planned series called The God Dust Saga. Whilst most fantasy books seem to draw their inspiration from … well, other fantasy books, I’d say the most obvious influence here is the Marvel superhero character Deadpool. The central character in The Crew, Varcade, is essentially a sword-wielding version of Deadpool and possesses similar attributes with rapid healing, phenomenal combat skills and the ability to offer inappropriate wisecracks at the worst possible time.
There’s a sense of fun and humour running through this novel, which really makes it stand out from the crowd. I think the humour is what is going to make or break this for you as a reader. In short, if you find Deadpool funny, you are going to find The Crew hilarious. If you don’t, you won’t. If you don’t know who Deadpool even is, see what you think of this excerpt from the early part of the novel, where Varcade is embroiled in a fight in a tavern:
‘He leapt over the two other thugs, landing behind them. He kicked the closest one in the back, making the man crash into a table, his butt an open target. A quick in-and-out with the blade where the sun doesn’t shine, and the man was no more.
Varcade grunted as a bolt burst from his chest. He pulled it out before dropping it on the floor, blood gushing from the wound. “Oh, come on … Really?”
He turned and faced the remaining thugs; one was still aiming his crossbow at Varcade. The man’s mouth was frozen in an O. “What? How’re you still alive?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Varcade said, inspecting the tear in his coat. “I’m so gonna kill you for that.”’
Now, I laughed out loud at this and various similar scenes. I’ve read a lot of fantasy fiction and never once in any of those books has an enemy been killed by a sword to the butt. Some people will think this is funny (I’m firmly in that camp). Others will think this is juvenile and fail to see the joke – in which case, this book simply isn’t for you, and I think that’s exactly how Samir intended it to be.
In keeping with the Marvel influences, most of the baddies have comic book names like Frying Pan Pete, Fat Pudding, Fly Guy and Bonky-Bonk, to name but a handful. The language is also very modern throughout. Varcade is a violent man child, a product of experiments after being taken from his home when still a boy to turn him into a superhuman Educator (a kind of monk, who enforces their faith through oppressive control and violence, until Varcade flees from them). As a result, it often feels like death has no consequences after the moment, sometimes giving the story a cartoonish feel. Here’s another Varcade quote, which had me chuckling:
‘“I rode the big toad and crushed him into a pulp. It was pretty awesome. You should’ve seen it.”’
So, is this book entirely frivolous? Bearing in mind the clear nods I noticed to Star Wars characters (yes), I think the answer is … er … well, probably about 75% frivolous to be perfectly honest. However, a frivolous book can still be a good book, and there’s certainly lots here to be impressed by, especially when you consider this is Samir’s first novel.
The Arab inspired setting is very well realised and helps distinguish the book from other fantasy releases. With a big cast, Samir also does a very good job making the various characters distinctive, with their own particular quirks and charms.
The magic system is very interesting. In this world, the gods fought a huge battle back in history and many of them died. Their bones can still be found out in the desert and these have been mined. The resulting dust that is extracted can be used to give people various incredible powers, which makes it both valuable and highly sought after.
There are also underlying themes about religious intolerance and the treatment of refugees that drive some of the key events in the novel. I thought these were well handled and it will be really interesting to see how Samir handles these issues in the second book.
The tone of the book becomes a bit (I stress ‘a bit’) more serious by the final quarter, once the plot has reached its climax and the reader understands what’s at stake. It can be hard to maintain out and out humour for an entire novel and still progress the plot, so I think this was probably necessary. The first half really stands out, whilst for me the second half was a bit more your typical fantasy fare, albeit with an absolutely epic showdown to ensure the book ends on a memorable high.
The authors you should take note of are the ones who take an established genre and surprise you by doing something different with it. Sadir S Samir has done just that with The Crew. This is an author to watch.