Book Review: Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson (Tor, 2015)

Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson was the first new book I finished reading in 2017. It took me under 36 hours, most of those hours badgered by the low-frequency headache and full-body heaviness that is characteristic of the recovering-from-flu. Not the best condition for reading a book, but this book cheered me up.

I met Randy in Seattle the summer of 2015, when I was attending Clarion West. He’s a workshop alumnus and resident of the city, and I suppose one of the people whom every new class of Clarion West gets to meet. Besides writing, reading, critiquing, learning, Clarion West is also a very fast, overwhelming blur of meeting people. I must have met at least a hundred people in those one-and-a-half months? And all of them very friendly and welcoming, all of them readers and nerds, many of them talented writers, quite a few of them with books. I’m sure I met and spoke to more people that summer than I actively recall even now. But Randy stands out in my memory as being nice and generous, an attentive listener when you spoke to him, even if the two of you only been introduced in a whirlpool of people at an event. I remember other people being excited and appreciative of his book, which was only a few months out at that time. I didn’t get around to buying the book at the time – if I’d started buying books at CW I would never stop, and then would have ten bags to lug back to India – but I put it on my to-read list. It took me almost two years to get to that, but I’m glad I did, and this is why.

My relationship with humorous writing can be most accurately described with the clichéd expression “love-hate”. Discworld, my favourite literary work of all time, happens to be humorous fantasy. It is also the only thing I can read and re-read when I’m sad, sick, or just completely disappointed with the world. But I’ve also hated – well, at least didn’t get particularly excited about – most other humorous writing that my friends enjoy. It’s in the small things. The pitch of the humour doesn’t resonate with me: I dislike it. The underlying assumptions and politics of the authorial voice don’t resonate with me: I dislike it. The jokes are too obvious: nope. It’s pretty hard to make me laugh, I agree. Which is why it’s also pretty special.

And doing humour well is especially special in a fantasy plot, because the story itself requires be solid in many other aspects and generic conventions that do not run parallel to humour/comedy – suspense, wonder, terror, bravery being just a few of those. I was pleased to find Finn Fancy Necromancy cover all those bases well, while managing to be funny all the way through.

The way Randy achieves this balance is by putting the humour in the first-person narrative voice. The narrator, Finn Gramaraye, is a man who was exiled beyond his body when he was fifteen years old, and returns when he is forty, so his responses to life are still of a fifteen-year-old, although he must perform the role of an older man. What’s better: this boy also happened to be a nerd. He’s a guy who’d be fun even without being magically special, someone with whom a reader may be friends at school, which is probably not true of characters like Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl, and that really makes a difference. When Finn notices a Star Trek reference inches away from getting killed in horrible ways, that touches a chord of familiarity. He comes back after twenty-five years and really just wants to eat pizza. He’s excited that his favourite TV shows have new seasons to watch. But in the background (or rather in the foreground), there are also immense, crazy, heartbreaking, world-changing things going on.

Another thing that I really admired in the book was the absence of casual, normalized misogyny, even though there were plenty of scope to put that into a character who’s stuck as a fifteen-year-old boy from the ’80s. Casual misogyny was normal for the average fifteen-year-old boy in the ’80s; hell, it’s normal for the average fifteen-year-old boy even now. And I suppose that’s where I can see the Clarion West training and superior nuance in perspective coming out: your character doesn’t have to be whatever is the norm for their demographic, even without that being a major plot point or a didactic lesson. Finn is awkward and inexperienced with women, but just happens to not be a jerk, happens to not be a homophobe, as I’m sure some people have been at all times, just not in the popular imagination. And I’m really glad that Randy puts in the work (and the awareness) to make him so, because I would’ve stopped reading the book if he didn’t.

What I found wanting is that, because of the pace and the unpredictability of the plot, I did not manage to grow an attachment to any other character. The perspective is a bit too much inside Finn’s head, and he has come back to life after twenty-five years and immediately learns someone is trying to send him back, and there is just too much going on at both the sensory and the paranoid levels to focus clearly on any other character. When Finn isn’t marvelling modern gadgets and the Internet, or how the local towns have changed, he’s torn between getting romantically involved both of whom he wanted to date as a teenager, but neither of whose lives from the years in between he has any idea about. He alternatively likes and suspects each of his family members, and there are quite a lot of them. The entire action in the 378-page novel takes place in a span of three days, and that’s a bit too fast, both for the narrator/protagonist and the reader. There’s a twist towards the end when the antagonists are revealed, and the surprise hits the reader a little less than it ideally should, because we didn’t know those characters well enough in the first place to be surprised by their turning.

Nevertheless, Finn Fancy Necromancy got me through my sick days with a smile and the occasional chuckle, and I plan to stick with it. The second book in the trilogy, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, came out in the US in early 2016. It goes into my to-read list right now, and when I’m done with it, you can expect another review.

Express. Engage. Etcetera.

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