Book Review: Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Angry Robot (November 9, 2021)
Length: 400 pages
Ah, Angry Robot, as ever living up to their mission of publishing the best in science fiction, fantasy, and WTF, and Swashbucklers is definitely one that belongs into the WTF category. This one sure threw me for a loop! To start, I was first drawn to the book because of its cover, so cleverly adorned with a video game controller in disguise, as well as its description which hinted vaguely at a sci-fi type adventure involving virtual worlds and the like. In reality though, it’s all that but also more.
The story first begins with the return of our protagonist Cisco Collins to his hometown after many years away. Tagging along is his eight-year-old son George, who has no idea why the move is having such a strange effect on his father, and to be honest, neither really does Cisco. Many of his childhood memories have faded away, including those of the event that happened thirty-two years ago when he and his friends fought off an invasion by an evil magical pirate called Deadman’s Grin and his army of minions from another realm. After it was all over, though, in an attempt to explain the away the phenomenon, the town blamed a gas leak for causing mass hallucination and the whole situation was eventually swept under the rug.
But now, some of the memories are returning to Cisco, which is why he has come home. A recent report in the news about a man killed by his child’s stuffed toy come to life has triggered something in his mind, and he’s not the only one. His best friends growing up—Jake, Doc, and Michelle—are also reminded of the enemy they had vanquished so long ago, and they fear the story of this bizarre death might be a sign of Deadman’s Grin’s reawakening. Still, they beat him once, they can do it again…right? Except now they are all several decades older, saddled with all the responsibilities that come with adulthood. Cisco himself is not in the best of health, and he has also his son to care for and to keep safe. Times have changed, so much that maybe even their old weapons and tricks will not be enough.
The best descriptions I have seen for Swashbucklers are the ones that compare it to Stranger Things, except the kids have all grown up and are reunited for one more go at the big baddie. It sits somewhere in the overlap between sci-fi and fantasy, bringing a strange mishmash of horror and the paranormal, geeky pop culture references, laser guns and video games of 80s nostalgia, and for good measure, we even have a bit of Halloween and Christmas thrown in.
Anyway, that’s all the good stuff. What didn’t work so well for me was the plot structure and pacing. Things also got weird, and to be fair, “weird” can be hit or miss. I very much enjoyed the intro and the first half of the book, which started out relatively linear and well-reasoned, but around midway, the story went off the rails a bit and started to lose me. Multiple flashbacks and switches in perspective also contributed to the confusion, but mostly I think my struggles were caused by the strangeness and surrealism, the almost phantasmagorical aspects of this novel. While more descriptive world-building may have helped, a lack of explanations and a failure to make certain connections left me feeling a bit untethered and disengaged.
Fortunately, I loved the characters. The premise of old gang getting back together is one of my favorite tropes, and author did a superb job showing how the years have changed everyone—some of them in more drastic ways than others. Fatherhood has made Cisco reevaluate his priorities, and a big chunk of the book shows him being torn between the desire for the adventure and doing the right thing. Whenever I felt the story losing me, the characters’ personal narratives and conflicts always somehow pulled me back.
Overall, a few stumbles aside, Swashbucklers was a good read and a nice surprise! A lot of quirky and a little crazy, this book would be perfect for readers who enjoy speculative fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into any category.