When Ewan Mao was a kid, a prophecy foretold that he would save the world from evil overlord Duff Slan. He reacted just like you’d expect any other kid in a YA fantasy would: he trained (occasionally), he slacked off in school, and he got into a lot of fights with powerful men three or four times his age. And then… and then he didn’t defeat Slan at all. Ewan’s best friend Oliver did.
Erin Claiborne’s YA fantasy novel A Hero at the End of the World opens five years later, with Oliver working his dream job, and Ewan living with his parents and slinging coffee as a barista in West London (he’s not bitter though, really). A chance encounter with a charismatic customer introduces Ewan to a new, radical form of magic, that just might help him show Oliver what it really means to thwart destiny. Charming, self-aware, and hilarious, Hero is the frontliner of the new Big Bang Press, and is everything we can ask for from a press dedicated to fan writers and culture.
The thing is, when Archie enters Ewan’s life, it almost feels like the reader is being tricked. He’s so obviously a bad guy (“‘Wait one bloody minute,’ said Ewan. He snatched his hand back. ‘Are you evil?’”), what with his attempts to charm Ewan into joining a secret order of magic-users whose missions are mysteriously focused on Ewan’s ex-best friend and all. Readers get that, though—Claiborne doesn’t shy away from calling attention to the tropes her novel deals, maybe even revels in, and Archie is neither sneaky nor smart about the nefarious Zaubernegativum. But surely—surely it’s too good to be true that the attractive “villain” will play out a romantic comedy with the novel’s loser protagonist?
Needless to say, I was intrigued from the start. In addition to Hero’s unceremonious introduction into its hapless characters and meta-commentary, its fast pace and dual-POVs make for a can’t-stop-won’t-stop-sort-of read. While Ewan is busy being manipulated out of his quiet, depressing life, Oliver’s job at the Home Office’s Serious Magical Crimes Agency leads him to investigate a dangerous cult led by none other than Louise Gardener Hobbes, Archie’s mother. Rife with half-assed deceit and poorly-concealed emotional vulnerability, Ewan and Oliver’s five-year reunion is complicated by present and past danger alike.
In addition to the evil aristocratic family (/cult; take your pick) attempting to manipulate them, Hero’s protagonists battle bureaucracy, the ridiculous inefficiency of magic (if Harry Potter’s refusal to use the internet ever bothered you, this is the book for you), and universe-altering disco balls. The book feels cinematic in its scope and pace—not only does it never have a dull moment, but it also maintains a full cast of zany, sympathetic characters. And, if Ewan’s sad sack 20-something loserdom is not your speed for a protagonist, you will have equal time with the far-more-heroic Oliver (“‘I’m brave, handsome, clever, likeable, in touch with my feelings,’ Oliver replied, ticking the items off his fingers, ‘overall a good person, and my parents are dead’”).
There are some aspects of Hero that bugged me—primarily that humor, quirky dialogue and quick pacing sometimes win out over world-building. For instance, I finished the book wanting to know much more about how magic works in Claiborne’s world. If one method of spell-casting slowly drains its user of lifeforce, why on Earth would they use it as compared to, say, totem-based casting? Does the user have any real control over the method they choose? Hero’s failure to fully address some of these questions was frustrating not only in terms of fleshing out the story, but also because it left a few dangling thematic threads. For a story whose focus is fighting fate, Hero didn’t always follow through outside of the theme’s relationship to its characters. It could have used some space to explore the more subtle implications of Ewan’s refusal (well, failure) to fulfill his destiny by killing Slan.
That being said, the same humor, quirky dialogue, and quick pacing that I just mentioned above, were more than enough to keep me reading. Even more than that, Hero features canonical queer relationships; weird, funny women; and not one, but two men of color as the story’s heroes. In countless ways, it distills what is good about fandom—from minority representation, to fan favorite tropes (coffeeshop AU anyone?), to meta commentary—and turns it into a funny, compelling narrative.
A new, crowd-sourced endeavor, Big Bang Press has entered the publishing world with a proverbial bang. Their mission—to support and promote fanfiction authors in their transition to professional publishing—is justified by Claiborne’s amazing work. Fandom is powered by women, by queer folks, and by a community of criticism and curiosity. A Hero at the End of the World’s success can be found not only in its representation of these groups and ideas, but also in the playful, joyous ways in which it explores them.
A Hero at the End of the World is available now from Big Bang Press.
Emily Nordling is a fangirl living in Chicago, IL. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and social justice.