The Short Version: When Helen and Troy, two teenagers, are suborned by a Lost God into a quest, they have no choice but to hit the road and try to accomplish it without dying. Should be easy, seeing as Helen is a minotaur and Troy is a perfect human being… but road trips can be rough, even without the dragons and fates and the horde of orcs on your tail.
The Review: I hope you were lucky enough to take a vacation this summer. It’s a nice thing to do, getting out of your home and going someplace different. Maybe you even took a road trip. I got to do a bit of both, flying out to the West Coast and sneaking a brief roadtrip to/from Ashland, OR. It’s not quite like anything else, is it? That feel of hitting the open road and tooling along, probably with some tunes and hopefully with good company.
While on that vacation, immediately pre-road-trip (I was at Powell’s in Portland), I allowed myself (of the haul I was amassing) one book that I wouldn’t ordinarily have allowed myself to purchase otherwise. A. Lee Martinez has caught my eye before, usually due to the absolutely delightful covers his books have received from the fine folks at Orbit – and this one, sitting face out on a shelf, was too perfect not to just impulse-buy. I’ve never had the pleasure of reading one of his books prior to this, although they all seem silly and delightful, and so I had cautiously optimistic hopes for this. Happy to report, those hopes were met pretty much across the board.
The book is a lark, a lighthearted romp, to be sure. There’s nothing tremendously weighty or intense going on and the book itself is easily dispatched in a single, sunny, deck-bound day – indeed, it is perhaps best read in exactly that way. Yes, readers will likely be able to predict the plot step for step, following as it does the arc of a traditional quest – but, you see, Martinez is clever enough to make that exactly the point. He’s sending up traditional quest narratives stretching back to The Odyssey in the same way that Wet Hot American Summer sent up stories about summer camp, you know? It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s episodic, and it has a whole lot more heart than you’re maybe prepared for.
For one thing, the unlikely friendship/budding romance of a minotaur and a young man digs deeper into stereotypes, body image issues, and what’s “okay” to society than a book with such a silly cover should have any thought of doing. Troy, an overachieving and all-American young man, has to deal with the onus put upon him by fulfilling that exact Asian-American stereotype – and so when he speaks to Helen of his burdens in the hopes of letting her know she’s not the only one who has it tough, it’s quite sweet and a reminder that even the perfect kids are struggling underneath whatever veneer they have facing the world. Too, Helen’s struggle to deal with her nature (a curse put on the family somewhere way back in time that manifests somewhat randomly and rarely so completely – a brilliant twist on genetic disorders, one that makes them oddly much easier to understand for this particular one’s impossibility) is dealt with in potent and true tones – she’s a teenager just like everyone else, despite the hooves and horns and hair.
The quest itself is suitably vague, a point made much mockery of, and it follows the duo (who quickly become a trio when they pick up an adorable three-legged pup) across several states as they hit things that feel altogether too American not to be real. Every single stop that they make feels like a real roadside attraction somewhere, even if that somewhere might be the next universe over or something. Whether it’s the bureaucracy around wildlife preserves (even dragon ones) or the gimmicky signs advertising the Mystery Cottage, it all feels so quintessentially American in the most delightful of ways – and, just to be clear, I’m talking about the dream of classic America more than I am the present. I’m talking about the roadtrips I went on as a kid with my family, where we’d stop at some gigantic wooden Indian and, an hour later, return to the road with some antiques and treats and feel absolutely satisfied. I’m talking about the way that, for some reason, even the gimmickiest things take on a little more respectability under the auspices of a summer roadtrip. Martinez brings that home beautifully in this book and it is the novel’s greatest accomplishment.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a fantasy roadtrip novel – and it’s just as silly, wonderfully silly, as the cover implies. Summer’s on the wane, but maybe you pick this one up when you need a good, quick trip read. The plot resolves pretty much how you might expect (although Martinez saves one delightful tweak to the quest storyline for the end that made me grin and shows that he’s got a real flair for playing with expectations) but the journey was damn fun and I had a great time tooling down the road with Helen and Troy and Achilles.