There are monsters in Mirkwood!
Growing up is hard, but it’s even harder when you are a dwarf, living in a small town in Nebraska, where other kids physically torment you and everyone else shuns you, leaving you as an outcast. If you’re Dr. Robert “Mongo” Frederickson, you might even move to New York City and get a PhD in criminology, becoming a university professor after giving up a highly successful career in the circus. It’d take a lot to bring you back to your home town… such as the death of a favourite nephew.
Tommy was a bright kid. He had an incredibly high IQ and was a veritable wizard with a computer. He was also a very big fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and was part of a group of kids who played a game called “Sorscience”, where you score points by matching real-life phenomena to events from The Lord of the Rings. He and a fellow player were discovered dead, apparently a murder-suicide between two young gay lovers. The town is shocked and so nobody minds it when the whole incident is covered up as quickly as possible. But Mongo is then hired by an unusual person: Coop Lugmor, who abused Mongo when they were children, tries to hire the dwarf to investigate the deaths. According to Coop, his younger brother was no “fag” and he wants Mongo to prove it and catch the person who did this.
If you factor in the title, The Beasts of Valhalla by George C. Chesbro, you might make the same mistake I did. I was assuming that this book, 327 pages in length, would be a drawn-out story with a very obvious and rather stupid solution that you’d be expected to take as a shock. My suspicions seemed confirmed when Mongo flew in a hacker friend of his, a sassy gay black Jew named Zeke Cohen, who seemed all set to be this evening’s comic relief. Then… something bizarre happened.
Without spoiling too much, at about the 75 page mark, the book does a complete 180 on you. It changes directions, genres, tones, and everything in between. Space has warped, time is bendable, and the resulting adventure is more bizarre than a Harry Stephen Keeler novel if it followed a logical story structure. In fact, it becomes a strange retelling (of sorts) of The Lord of the Rings, and many events parallel events from those books. (I can’t give a detailed list of similarities, because I read those books in the fourth grade, and although I liked them fine I’ve never seen the need to revisit them.)
The result of all this is, simply put, the most bizarre mystery/sci-fi/fantasy/thriller that I have ever read… and it’s also an extremely readable book. Through all the bizarre, out-of-this-world events, Chesbro’s writing gives it all something common to tie everything together, and believe me, this is some fun writing. It’s as though Chesbro’s imagination exploded all over the pages of this book, leaving you with such mental pictures as a foul-mouthed gorilla named Gollum or a genius scientist who lost his head and is now wandering the world as “Father”, gathering a new generation of hippies into communes.
If any of this strikes your fancy, you will probably enjoy this book. It’s a good old-fashioned, pulse-pounding adventure with plenty of bizarre twists and turns I did not see coming. It’s plenty of fun and keeps all its momentum going for all 300+ pages. I suspect fans of Lord of the Rings will enjoy it in particular, as it is a very clever retelling, but you don’t need to know Tolkien to enjoy the book.
Any complaints? I can give you a few minor nitpicks. There are one too many “fake-out” moments, for instance when they think character A is dead but he turns up alive and well thirty pages later. One character, supposedly a devout Catholic, says that Catholics are not allowed to believe in evolution, but that’s not true in the least… but I’ll let it slide, because it seems like a genuine mistake, as opposed to some grand anti-Catholic crusade on the author’s part. Some of the science is a bit out of date, with one particularly odd detail that doesn’t really stand the test of time… but this is something the author really can’t be blamed for.
Apart from that, The Beasts of Valhalla made for a rollicking good adventure, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take a really strange ride into Chesbro’s fantasy-land.