Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nina Kimberly the Merciless: A Brief Review

One of the things that annoyed me about many fantasy novels (along with romance novels, which are, of course, just another type of fantasy) is that they took themselves so darned seriously. When one is writing about dragons and fair maidens and magical spells and the like, it helps to laugh at one’s self every now and then.

Christiana Ellis, author of Nina Kimberly the Merciless, isn’t having any of that. Nina is a fantasy novel that does its best to subvert the genre. Sure, there is a fair maiden, a king, a quest, a little romance, a happy ending, and even a dragon, but it’s mainly a laugh-out-loud book that remembers to make the whole thing fun.

Nina is the daughter of Marcus the Merciless, the chief of a barbarian horde that conquered the backwater kingdom of Langia. When Marcus met an untimely death courtesy of a gopher hole, the horde would not accept a girl as their leader and Nina was stuck in Langia, hoping for a Quest that would provide excitement to a teenager. She decides to strike out on her own, searching for a suitable quest. Unfortunately, tagging along with her is the besotten but thoroughly incompetent Francis IX, king of Langia, who refuses to understand that Nina despises him. Nor can she simply kill him, which is her preference, so she puts up with him for the moment. Unbeknown to Francis, Nina’s agenda is to find a magician who can remove a spell from Francis, which will then allow her to kill him and continue on her own. The duo soon encounter a dragon, with whom Nina develops a bond. As dragons cannot speak English, the two develop a set of hand signals that Tyrnon (as she dubs the dragon) can use to communicate with her. (Conveniently, dragons apparently have no trouble understanding English.) The trio meet William, a handsome young man, a combination of Robin Hood and a grafter, who makes a living helping those in need – while taking a little off the top for himself. They make their way to a market town that is having a festival. Nina and William hatch a scheme to make a little money by staging a fight between Francis and Tyrnon. Naturally, things do not go According to Plan. As Nina continues her search for the magician who can remove Francis’ spell, Things are Not Well back in Langia. Will Nina be able to claim her destiny, save her people, and rescue the kingdom?

Oh, come on. That was a rhetorical question. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, as the saying goes. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun along the way, and the ending holds a number of surprises.

I listened to the audio book version , which has the virtue of being free (no worries, though, Christiana: I ordered the paperback from the nice people at Amazon), and read by the author. An added benefit is that Nina’s dialogue is read in the nasal, somewhat whiny, perpetually aggrieved tone of a teenage girl. It’s very funny. A new version of the audio book is currently underway at; I haven’t heard it. The original (or “classic,” as it’s somewhat cheekily dubbed) contains post-chapter comments by the author, including a segment where one reader a week can ask a question of any of the characters. Nina, Francis, and even Tyrnan hold forth on such subjects as “How do I go about starting my own barbarian horde?” and “Advice for the employee stuck in a bad job.” So let loose your inner teenage barbarian with the crew from Langia.

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