So what would a fate worse than dragons be? Well, to aging bachelors like me and John Moore, you might say "marriage." Or at least, arranged marriage, the unfortunate position in which the heroes of Moore's tightest little comedy to date find themselves.
In his fifth novel, John Moore may not appear to have progressed much as a storyteller, but he has. He's still entirely happy to keep doing light comedy, of course. And why shouldn't he? It's working for him, after all. But it's always good to see an author knowing when he's done something, yet managing to evolve consistently, retaining his established voice and the appeal that won him his fan base. Fairy tale parody? Spoofing fantasy cliches? Done that, thank you. And now it's time for a brisk and well-plotted little adventure that keeps all the charm and humor of his earlier work, but with a more focused and confident approach to the story.
One delightful aspect of Moore's work is that he peoples it with knights and princesses and wizards and enchanted frogs, but gives everyone perfectly normal names. If there were a way to take some of epic fantasy's pretentions down a peg, but do so lovingly enough so as not to alienate that genre's core readership, John's found it. "Terry" isn't exactly the manliest name for a dragon slaying, burly knight. It's perfectly androgynous, entirely non-threatening — more like the kind of name you might have. And that's what's funny about it.
Anyway, Terry has every expectation to be wed to the princess Gloria of Medulla, after slaying a nasty fire breather. (The two are already in love, like the leads of Heroics for Beginners.) But an unexpected legal glitch arises, and Terry has to forfeit credit for the slaying to his befuddled squire in order escape marrying a different — and mad, for what it's worth — princess entirely. Gloria, meanwhile, finds herself betrothed to dashing metrosexual Roland, the presumptive heir to a prominent baking firm. Roland's family wants him to marry up, since their business is rocky and his future with it not assured. After all, he scandalized the whole country by inventing sliced bread!
Moore's heroines tend to be on the proactive side, and Gloria is no exception. To escape her situation, she fakes her own kidnapping with the aid of Baron Wayless, a down-on-his-luck nobleman dying of consumption. Wayless is deeply in debt to the crown, and the king's tax collector for the region, Count Bussard, covets his property. But our heroes are unaware that Bussard, in league with a sorcerer called the Middle-Aged Man of the Mountains (the Old Man of the Mountains has retired to an upscale golfing community), is tired of waiting, and has chosen to kidnap Wayless's daughter Alison. Guess who's kidnapped by mistake?
Thus we are launched into a frenetically funny saga of mistaken identities and race-against-time action, in which Moore slickly avoids the most obvious storytelling choices. An expected rivalry between Terry and Roland never becomes an issue; Roland is in fact immediately smitten with Alison. Thus we are treated to a cast of entirely likable and relatable heroes who simply want to be with whom they truly love. The emphasis on keeping the plotting crisp means that Moore avoids odd narrative tangents like that strangely out-of-place subplot about anti-Semitism in The Unhandsome Prince. And while this book may have not quite as many moments of sheer silliness as, say, Heroics, the end result will tickle your funnybone just fine. (A scene late in the book, involving a gryphon, a guy, and a suddenly not-so-reluctant virgin is probably the funniest thing Moore's ever written.)
But as a complete reading experience, I found A Fate Worse Than Dragons the most satisfying John Moore novel yet. Of course, it didn't hurt that, what with all the mid-life-crisis jokes that we get deluged with as soon as the Middle-Aged Man of the Mountains turns up, this is one of the few books around that chooses to laugh with all of us aging bachelors, rather than at us.