This is one of those rare instances where I feel a book’s cover copy gives away too much about the plot. Other than that, Mogworld is a lot of fun if you’re a fan of MMOs, or D&D-style fantasy adventure games, or spoofs of the fantasy genre in general. Yahtzee Croshaw brings his renowned wit to the world of novels, and while I miss the crudely-drawn stick-like figures against a yellow background, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had here. As with many stories like it, Mogworld’s humour is in the details.
Jim is a reluctant hero, an antihero, who was a nobody when he was alive and who has been dead for sixty or so years. After dying unheroically at the second- (third-?) rate magic school he attended, Jim gets resurrected by a discount dark lord who goes by the name of Dreadgrave. And this is where the fun really begins. Dreadgrave works some impressive magic to reanimate all these corpses, but then they turn around and have free will. So, in a sketch that reminds me a little of Monty Python, he actually has to offer them, you know, payment and benefits and reasonable working conditions! So Jim ends up working in Dreadgrave’s dungeons, going after the surprisingly numerous adventurers who attempt to infiltrate Dreadgrave’s fortress. But matters take an even more sinister turn, and as Croshaw draws back the curtain on Jim’s reality, we find out more about the hint of an “AI” as promised on the back cover.
This is probably one of the more refreshing takes on NPCs’ perspectives on their existence in a game world. Attempts to personify or imagine these types of worlds tend have variable success. It’s so tempting to play fast-and-loose with the tropes, to poke fun at everything, until you’ve broken down the fourth wall so much that the floor starts giving away too. Croshaw neatly dances around this problem by disassembling that fourth wall brick-by-brick. Spoilers on the back cover aside, even if you figure out the nature of Jim’s universe early on, Croshaw teases out Jim’s personal realization for as long as possible. Heck, Barry finds out first—and I love how he interprets it as a “Truth” that he must spread to others.
Indeed, the multiple layers of conflicts in Mogworld help to make it a much more entertaining novel than its premise or writing first suggest. First there’s Jim’s personal quest to be “deleted”, because he just wants to die, for good. That might sound macabre and nihilistic, and it kind of is, but Jim’s habit of acting heroically despite claiming not to be a hero balances it out. Then we have the various antagonists Jim runs up against, for better or for worse, including Barry and his minions. These characters almost always out-match Jim in the power department; their weakness lies in an inability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. Jim, by contrast, pretty much just rolls with everything. Finally, the overarching meta-conflict among the game developers, personified in game by the appearances of Simon and Dub and their chosen messiahs of Barry and Jim, respectively, is a lot of fun. Simon is the kind of personality we’ve all worked with at some point in our lives, and it’s interesting in a trainwreck kind of way to watch him totally sink Mogworld because of his ego.
I read this book towards the end of a week off from work, and it was a good choice. It is light, fast-paced, and very, very funny. But there are opportunities to dig deeper if that’s your thing; Jim’s whole story arc is very existentialist. Nevertheless, I do think Croshaw misses some opportunities to do even more here. The romance, or lack thereof, between Jim and Meryl is very unsatisfying—not because of Jim’s ambivalence but rather because I’m not entirely sure why Meryl is there, except to react to what Jim does. Indeed, pretty much every other character in the book exists purely as a plot device, literally showing up exactly when Jim needs them and then being written out, temporarily, until they get needed again. Although these kinds of cosmic coincidences make for very fun reading, they also have the effect of transforming Mogworld into a Swiss cheese block of plot holes and contrivances.
In other words, Mogworld is good, and if you think you’re going to like it, you will probably like it. Like many self-aware and meta-fictional jaunts, however, it is very much a patchwork with visible seams, and while Croshaw is a fun and talented writer, sometimes he tries to pack in one too many jokes. I had a great time, not sure if I’ll pick up his other novels though.