Kill the Farm Boy, the new comedy fantasy from accomplished novelists Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne, is not for the faint of heart—that is, if you find all manner of puns terrifying. For every moment in which other writers would stray from the joke in front of their nose, for every bit of back and forth, for every tantalizing smidgen of wordplay that some writers wouldn’t dive into, Dawson and Hearne plow straight ahead. They don’t so much lean into the crucial comedy of this novel as they do invite it out to dinner, feed it tacos and tequila, and record every bit of banter that results.
Kill the Farm Boy is a smart comedy, not only because it skewers modern tropes with a deft but direct hand, provides twists and turns to what should be a classic quest, or has representation in sorely needed ways, but because Dawson and Hearne know exactly when to dole out the humor amidst all this deconstruction of narrative.
You see, in the land of Pell, there’s been a Chosen One found, and he’s only been freshly Chosened. Worstley, younger brother to the slain Bestley, is a farmhand for his family, and keeper of the animals, among them an ornery black goat called Gustave. But when the rather gross fairy named Staph comes along and declares him the Chosen One while giving Gustave the gift of speech, Worstley figures it’s time to get to Chosening!
Meanwhile, the Dark Lord Toby and his hapless rogue Poltro have decided to cut out Worstley’s heart, to expand Toby’s powers beyond making artisanal breads. On the other side of town, there’s a princess asleep in a tower, a bard keeping watch over her, and a warrior in a chainmail bikini focused on stealing a rose from said tower. To say much more of Worstley’s fate, or any of the above, would spoil the whole conceit of the novel but suffice to say that Worstley is incredibly important in how everything falls out.
Dawson and Hearne have crafted a story that is in love with its own zaniness. It doesn’t try to justify its hilarity, and it never stops to question why it ever would in the first place. In many ways (and in the best way), it reminded me of a game of Dungeons and Dragons where things start out reasonably enough, but then go completely off the rails, and even when you’re laughing at the idea of someone screaming, “I conjure ciabatta and throw it at the troll!” it’s still played seriously enough. And at many times, as they work to pierce the various tropes under their employ, Dawson and Hearne absolutely know that’s the sort of DnD reality they’re inhabiting. You don’t have to look any further than the scantily clad (and annoyed by it) fighter woman, the bard who isn’t great at singing, the rogue who can’t hide for anything, and the wizard who is more obsessed with food than with magic. Not to mention Gustave, everyone’s favorite talking goat, trying to avoid being turned into a meal and being incredibly unsubtle about the whole thing. While these characters start off in a trope-y place, under Dawson and Hearne’s meticulous care and curating, they become nuanced, complicated, and human (yes, even Gustave). Their journeys through the novel help lend some direction among the comedy, and grant a focus whenever there’s a little too much back and forth insanity.
Comedy in fantasy fiction is hard. I mean, hell, comedy in anything is tough. It’s so subjective that sometimes 99 jokes out of 100 will miss. I used to do stand up. I do improv comedy now. Believe me, I know. But trust me when I say that in Kill the Farm Boy, there are jokes for everyone. Fart jokes and witty turns of phrase. Banter back and forth and Three Stooges slapstick for the ages. Complete dressings-down for trollish behavior and hilarious deconstructions of the fantasy genre overall. Dawson and Hearne can do all of this because they know their own material so well. If they weren’t as knowledgeable as they are, they wouldn’t have been able to be as indulgent as they are in this novel. There were a few moments that happen very quickly, but they happen because Dawson and Hearne aren’t interested in just showing you how someone gets a new wand in the land of Pell. They want you to see how that person uses a new wand to become a possum.
Kill the Farm Boy is the first of several installments to come, and if the next few stories are as engrossing, energetic, smart, and funny as this one turned out to be, then they’ve found a devout reader in me. Combining the narrative deconstruction of the genre that fans of Terry Pratchett will enjoy, and the absolute absurdity that Monty Python fans will love, Dawson and Hearne have earned my permission to kill as many farm boys as possible, if this is the novel we get as a result.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.