I learned about this one via KizunaYueMichaelis' review of it. Although the review basically boiled down to “meh,” I loved Jade Liebes' cover art, so I decided to give the book a shot.
Imagine a world where prophecy states that a specific boy would be the one to defeat a tyrant. That boy spends years thinking that it's his destiny to be a hero, and everyone around him goes easy on him because, well, he's the prophesied hero. Then the time comes for him to carry out his destiny...and he chickens out, delays the final battle, and his handsome and smart best friend kills the tyrant instead. This is Ewan Mao's story.
Fast forward five years, and Ewan has a dead-end job at a crappy coffee shop while Oliver Abrams, his former best friend, is a rising star at the Home Office's Serious Magical Crimes Agency (SMCA). When Ewan is approached by Archibald Gardener Hobbes (aka Archie) about an alternative magical system that's supposed to be able to change lives, he is, at first, annoyed and desperate to be left alone. When he eventually caves, he's told that he can be everything he ever hoped he could be. The only catch is, he has to convince Oliver to kill someone first. Which sounds suspiciously evil. But if the person Ewan convinces Oliver to kill is evil, then that would make Ewan a hero, right?
The framework of this world is going to feel familiar to anyone who knows a little about the Harry Potter series. Duff Slan was Voldemort, Ewan had Harry Potter's “chosen one” role, and the agents of the SMCA were basically Aurors. However, Ewan and Oliver's world didn't have non-magical “Muggles” and wizards - as far as I could tell, everyone was magical, although the type of magic people used varied.
Alapomancers like Oliver and Ewan drew their magic from totems. If their totems were drained dry or taken away from them, they were helpless. Dréags, like Oliver's partner Sophie, drew their magic from their own bodies. While they didn't have to worry about being separated from their source of magic, their lifespans were shorter. The appeal of Zaubernegativum, the alternative magical system Archie and his mother dangled in front of Ewan's nose, was that magic could be drawn from anything, and there was no limit to how much could be gathered and used. The magical systems in this book didn't really interest me all that much, although I was curious about whether Zaubernegativum actually worked and whether it would destroy the world. Nearly everyone but Archie and his mother seemed to think it was nothing more than a crazy theory.
This book's biggest appeal, for me, was its humor. Ewan had a gift for making terrible decisions, and almost all of the characters lacked the ability to see the things that were right in front of their noses. There were loads of funny moments: Oliver's unquestioning acceptance of his superiors referring to themselves as “Shadowy Figures,” Ewan discovering to his dismay that making coffee was always his destiny, the incredibly obvious romantic relationships (both m/f and m/m) that kept coming as a complete surprise to everyone, and more.
Unfortunately, one big thing kept me from fully enjoying the story: I disliked almost all of the characters. Ewan was a lazy, cowardly, whining man-child who allowed one moment to define his entire life. Oliver was full of himself. Archie was annoying and had difficulty thinking for himself. Sophie was pretty much the only one I liked. She wasn't afraid to let Oliver know when he was acting like a jerk.
While the characters all recognized their mistakes and apologized for the things they'd done wrong by the end of the book, for the most part it felt like too little, too late. I was okay with Oliver, especially because I figured Sophie would be happy to deflate his ego whenever necessary, but I never managed to get past the horrible stuff Ewan and Archie either did or chose to ignore.
All in all, this was good for a few laughs, and I liked how Claiborne messed with the stereotypical “chosen one” story.
There are black-and-white illustrations throughout the book.
- The Colour of Magic (book) by Terry Pratchett - This is the very first book in Pratchett's Discworld series. Rincewind is my least-favorite Discworld character, because he's a bit like Ewan Mao in some respects: he's cowardly and deals with a lot of problems by running away from them. It's fitting that I get to include one of Pratchett's books in a read-alikes list today. R.I.P., Terry Pratchett.
- The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kngdom (book) by Christopher Healy - This was written for a younger audience but may still appeal. It stars a bunch of "Prince Charmings" who are annoyed that none of the songs about them ever include their names.
- The Eyre Affair (book) by Jasper Fforde - The SMCA made me think of this book, an alternate history featuring a British Special Operations division that deals with literary crimes.