Fish Wielder takes a fun approach to a well-established and well-loved genre but does not deliver a satisfying enough story to warrant this. Whilst it is apparent from the outset of reading Fish Wielder that Jim Hardison’s book is intended as a tongue-in-cheek response to the classic fantasy-adventure genre, whilst reading the novel I could not help but get frustrated with the style of writing and the slow pace of the book which I found prevented me from becoming fully immersed in the world it creates.
In terms of plot, it is almost entirely predictable. This is not necessarily a negative aspect; in fact, I think this plays well into the author’s perspective and take on the fantasy genre. Fish Wielder follows epic hero Thoral Mighty Fist, a fearsome and barbaric warrior who spends his time stumbling from bar to battle and back again. Thoral lives in a world which bears many similarities to JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings universe – the Dark Lord Mauron has been defeated and his lost Pudding of Power is sought by the evil force of Grome. Thoral must go up against the Bad Religion with his friend Brad, a talking fish, and their allies and companions whom they assemble along the way. They race against the Heartless One to save the world of Grome from her devious plot and to relieve Thoral from the torment of his past.
Fish Wielder manages to incorporate a myriad of references to classic fantasy tales as well as to combine various plot elements from different stories in this genre. This, for me, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book, and something which Jim Hardison undoubtedly executes spectacularly. Escapism is arguably one of the most important aspects of the fantasy genre, and Hardison’s comedic take certainly manages to achieve this. This is only heightened by the meta nature of Fish Wielder, as it lessons the serious, pedagogical nature often found in epic works like The Chronicles of Narnia and other such series. The plot follows the expected path, with many battles, friendships, romantic encounters, and travels forming the bulk of the story. However, it is the way Hardison approaches the expected fantasy formula which makes Fish Wielder a truly enjoyable endeavour. There are talking animals, puddings that are treated like religious relics and evil-doers idiotic enough to rival the Scythians from ancient Greek comedies.
Hardison’s tone in Fish Wielder is utterly contagious and I defy anyone to read this novel and not smile at least once. It is clear that Hardison enjoys playing in this sandbox full of references to epic fantasy works, and he is very talented at doing so. He twists words into overly complex sentences which sprawl across the page with seemingly no end. Characters are masterfully played off against each other to complicate plot points that appear crystal clear to the reader, creating ridiculous but organic tensions and situations. Having said this, Hardison’s commitment to maintaining a comedic and farcical tone sometimes gets in the way of the story; his tone and writing style, whilst fantastically original, are somewhat limited, and it does become grating to read what feels like the same stylistic joke over and over again. It was easy to see Hardison’s background as a graphic novelist coming through, as many of the scenes and sequences felt more like written versions of comic stories or film storyboards. I found myself, at some points whilst reading Fish Wielder, impatiently re-enacting a Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene and urging the plot of the story to get on with it!
The characters are fantastic caricatures, and that is it. They sadly lack depth and, whilst I adore innovation and originality, the best part of reading a book will always ultimately be the characters for me. Fish Wielder is not a long story and, as such, I can appreciate that Hardison wanted to pack a lot into a small story. Whilst his characters are brilliant parodies of the archetypal fantasy characters, there was little about them that I found engaging beyond this. They felt quite two-dimensional, and this impacted my overall experience reading Fish Wielder. Additionally, I wish Hardison had taken the opportunity to use his comedic take on the typical fantasy story to incorporate stigmatised topics, underrepresented groups and a more diverse cast. Instead, the characters presented had almost nothing unique about them and were, unfortunately, rather lacklustre.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Fish Wielder despite my frustrations with the elements I have outlined above. I would caution those who are not fans of the fantasy genre against reading Fish Wielder, as I certainly believe that this is a book written for those who have already devoured most of the fantasy section in their local bookshop. I enjoyed Fish Wielder’s originality and comedic take on a fantastic genre but found myself ultimately disappointed by the stylistic issues and overall lack of depth.
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