Fiction Reviews

The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn

(2018) Tyler Whitesides, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 749pp,ISBN 978-0-356-5110-9


Dragons are magical creatures in countless fantasies but Whitesides may be the first writer to really focus on the supernatural and economic value of dragon dung droppings (grits, as the writer calls them, almost too politely avoiding the obvious word that rhymes with grits throughout).

Depending what or who a dragon ate, its grits can be used to create explosives, force fields, optical illusions, and ant-gravity vortexes, among much more. There is a quite handy whole appendix list of dragon grits to access at the close of the book to see which grits do what.

Dragons are rare, as the last male has been killed off, so the last few females are carefully protected and guarded. The best way to get grits for different missions is therefore to steal it from wealthy owners and traders. The rarest kind of grit is that which summons a messianic apparitional Visitant, Ardor Benn is a Robin Hood / Danny Ocean style confidence trickster, hired by a mysterious priest to steal some visitant grit from a tyrannical king.

The first third of the book is essentially a Mission Impossible operation with Ardor, accompanied by his grit-weapons mixer and getaway man best buddy, Raek, as they stage their raid, accompanied by a Catwoman style sneak-thief (no lock she can’t pick), Quorrah.

The over-complex heist plan involves posing as a composer (Benn), and a soprano diva opera singer (Quorrah) to take the heavily guarded grit from the throne room, in the middle of a major royal command performance.

Though there are many narrow escapes in the nick of time, Benn doesn’t die even once in the book let alone a thousand times. The title refers to his off-the-cuff observation in one chapter that a thousand innocent bystanders could die if one of his stunts goes wrong, but given that his failure would wipe out his entire World, these one thousand lives seem by the by. The title of the book is very misleading.

The royal palace raid involves assistance from the book’s best characters, the disguise experts, a husband and wife pairing of walking talking mannequins who can make anyone look like anyone else. They are purposely bald and scrawny so they can try out any costume on each other. They deserve their own book.

Ardor Benn advises Quorrah to give the strange couple some kittens on meeting them, or they will hate her. Quorrah refuses to take kittens along, fearing, as the readers might, that the kittens might be killed or eaten, but the disguisers express no disappointment when the gift is not offered and Whitesides never mentions kittens again. Nor does not presenting kittens create any ill-will between Quorrah and the very weird couple.

The middle third of the story involves a raid on the dragon island, and though the main three characters go along, the disguisers are not involved. Instead we are introduced to a whole new bunch of support characters, mostly only by name. The exception is Nemery, a dragon-obsessive young lady who is there to simply expound perfectly convenient exposition, as a walking-textbook on everything the hero needs to know at any given time.

The switch from heist story to a Jurassic Park: Lost World populated by dragons with loose bowels gives the sense of this being two separate books wedged together.

An odd touch is the hand-written notes that close each chapter as an un-named narrator reflects proverbially on what has gone on (the rest of the text being third-person point of view). It is never clear which if any character is offering these comments, which often fail to really relate to anything said anyway. They come over as a distraction, and in not showing with the closing line just who is writing, they end the book with a rather disappointing note.

The third section involves characters rushing from the King’s palace to the island and back again, without the background characters who now get little mention. Quorrah ends up fighting a zombie on dragon poo island, and meets an embittered former lover of Ardor Benn’s, but not much is made of that either. After the gradual build up in parts one and two, this now feels as if the fast forward button is jammed and the story development is reduced to synopsis.

Several times, Ardor and his companions face ‘we have only seconds only to live if we don’t act now’ threats that then take several pages and a great deal of dialogue to develop what they do to get out of their predicament (usually by convenient production of the right kind of grit for just such an eventuality).

This could work so much better if the writer realized how funny his ideas have a potential to be, and that his best characters are those he most criminally under-employs.

This feels like a comedy romp that takes itself way too seriously. It would make a fun short Tom Holt style yarn, but it runs to over seven hundred pages as if written for the Westeros* reader generation.



* 'Westeros' being something to do with George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series of novels that was also a very popular TV series in the 2010s.


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