As much as I loved 2018's Kill the Farm Boy -- and talked about it everywhere and repeatedly -- I wasn't sure how much I really wanted to pick up the sequel. There's no way it would be as good, the humor would be a little stale, and the whole approach wouldn't seem as novel. Still, I knew curiosity would get the better of me -- and it'd still have its moments. Also, I'm not at the point where I can live in a world with a Kevin Hearne book in print that I haven't read.
I was so, so wrong. Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, "how did they improve things this much?"
So this book happens in different corner of the kingdom than Farm Boy did. The Skylar is a choice piece of the land that is home to two diminutive races --- halflings and gnomes. Gnomes want to live in their nice little homes, tinker with their little projects and inventions, and wear brightly colored cardigans (well, there was one gnome who wanted to wear a black cardigan, but let's leave that aside for now). The halflings have found their government hijacked by criminals and those particular halflings are waging a war of sorts on the gnomes, driving them from their homes for unknown reasons. Driven by desperation, two of these displaced gnomes are part of our questing party here. A halfling -- committed to (some may say obsessed with) the law that is being ignored by his people is another member of the party.
These three join themselves to an ovitaur named Agape -- an ovitaur is like a faun, but is humanoid with sheep characteristics (feet, legs, ears, etc). She's the last of a long family line serving as teh guardians of a rare treasure, and needs guidance. A gryphon, named Gerd, outcast from his people has been accompanying the halfling for some time, but is devoted to protecting Agape now. The last member of the party is a dwarf named Båggi Biins. Båggi is on his Meadschpringå -- a time when young dwarves leave their homes to purge the violence from themselves so they can return to their homes to pursue an ascetic life of creativity. He joins the others certain that journeying with them, protecting them along their way will provide all the outlet required to use his violence in a noble cause.
Their quest? To go to the Great Library, where the founding documents of the gnomeric and halfling civilizations are located -- which should prove invaluable to re-establish the peace and help the two societies get along. Agape should find resources to direct her in her guardianship, and hopefully provide Gerd with the proof that he broke no laws of the gryphons.
The fact that most people on Pell consider the Great Library to be a myth shouldn't be taken as an argument against this quest. What better place than a possibly mythical library to provide the answers they seek?
While these characters are on their quest, working for peace -- the king and his advisor are trying to solve the problems between the halflings and gnomes in a more direct approach. We also see (briefly in most cases) other characters from Farm Boy. We see just enough to know how things are going for them some months later -- and on the whole, it's just as you'd hoped/expected it to be for them. It is not essential to have read the previous volume to get 95% of this book. It's safe to hand this one off to family, friends and coworkers who are wondering what you're cackling about without making them do homework first.
Along the way, these characters meet a cult of cabbage worshipers, who have the ability to read prophecies in the vegetables; some very frightening mermaids (that look nothing like anything anyone expects); a very Tom Bombadil-esque character (and a few other Tolkien-inspired jokes). As in Farm Boy, the authors manage to use these ideas as sources of comedy and to propel the plot along in meaningful ways. Similarly, they use racial and personal characteristics of the characters to play with, play against and mock genre standards. But almost none of the characters are mere jokes, they're well-developed characters that happen to be able to comedic. This is not an easy balance to achieve -- and Hearne and Dawson are almost flawless on this front.
For example, gryphons are convinced that they perceive greater nuance and details in colors, sounds, tastes and the like and adjust their pronunciation of words via capital letters, umlauts and extra syllables. Gerd's dialogue is littered with these. It starts off as a joke that just won't stop, and instead of it getting tired or annoying (which I assumed it would), it becomes just part of the way that Gerd talks. His own particular dialect, that occasionally will strike you as amusing -- maybe even just funny occasionally. I wouldn't say it's because the authors show restraint with it, employing it just when needed to keep it funny. Quite the reverse, they seemingly take the approach of drowning you in the joke, figuring that it'll be funny often enough to justify it.
If you're like me, you have a tendency to skip chapter titles. Doing so with The Tales of Pell would be a mistake. The titles are long, fitting, and insanely goofy. The only thing better are the chapter epigraphs I imagine the drafts going back and forth between the authors, each trying to top the other with the next chapter title/epigraph. And generally succeeding.
These books are noted (as I've focused on) for their comedy -- as is right, because they are funny. But as anyone who's read other works by Dawson and Hearne know, they're about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It's easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss -- and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.
In case I haven't made it clear here, Dawson and Hearne knocked it out of the park here. I thought Kill the Farm Boy was outstanding, and No Country for Old Gnomes surpassed it on every front. I don't expect that the third volume of The Tales of Pell will continue this trend -- but I'm more than open to being proven wrong next year. But for 2019? I'm just going to revel in the goodness -- the laughs, the pathos, the excitement -- brought by this adventure and the wonderful cast of characters. Get your hands on this one.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine. via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this, I really appreciate it.