Book review: “Standard Hero Behavior” by John David Anderson

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Standard Hero Behavior
by John David Anderson


Mason Quayle has the bad luck to be a bard in a land without heroes. It has been years since the city of Darlington, formerly known as Highsmith, has needed heroes to defend it against orcs, goblins, trolls, and the like. Or rather, it has only needed one hero: the Duke in whose honor the town was renamed. In return for crippling taxes, Duke Darlinger sallies forth every month or so, and comes back boasting of great deeds done in defense of his people.

The Duke already has a bard. So young Mason, whose father left Highsmith years ago with the last party of heroes, has nothing to do but mooch up and down the street lined with the abandoned mansions of bygone heroes, listen to his mother tell tales of his father’s heroism, and compose ditties in honor of paying customers’ daring deeds, such as shooing away a chipmunk. Things are even worse for Mason’s best friend Cowel, whose blacksmith uncle is no longer needed to make armor and weapons, and whose career as a plume salesman is hampered by a shortage of helmets to stick plumes in. So even with the safety and security the Duke has brought to the town, life has become desperate for Mason and his mother, Cowel and his uncle, and others. They barely earn enough money to pay the Duke’s taxes. Starvation approaches.

Finally Mason becomes so desperate that he risks his mother’s disgust and decides to beg the Duke for a job. But he arrives at the castle just as the Duke finds out that a certain ogre chieftain, whom he has been paying off to leave Darlington alone, has been killed in a coup. The new chieftain demands more money than the Duke can possibly pay to continue the arrangement which has, without any heroism whatsoever, kept the town safe all these years. Someone needs to go out into the world and bring back as many heroes as possible, and with only three days left before the deadline. It’s not going to be the Duke who goes, because he’s a quivering wreck. That leaves Mason, mounted on a mild-mannered horse, accompanied by his friend Cowel, and guided by the wisdom of his father’s magnum opus: an unfinished book titled Quayle’s Guide to Adventure for the Unadventurous.

Mason does find some heroes, but he is disappointed to find how little they live up to his father’s description of “Standard Hero Behavior.” Some of them seem just plain useless, like the deadly swordsman who can only fight while he is sound asleep, but who cannot control when he sleeps or wakes. Some of them have settled down and sworn off the hero business. And some of the greatest heroes seem to have risked everything on one last, stupendously dangerous quest—and never returned. Mason and Cowel follow in their footsteps, meeting lots of interesting people, getting into numerous scrapes, and making discoveries that, at least in Mason’s case, change everything he thought he knew about his father.

This 2007 adventure is, to-date, the only book published by its Indianapolis-based author. Nevertheless, it is an assured piece of writing, with endearing characters, memorably original fantasy concepts, warmth, romance, danger, sorrow, and a hearty helping of humor. The scene in which Mason consults a fortuneteller made me laugh so hard that I felt compelled to share it. (My mother has probably realized that I only call when I want to read aloud to someone.) And while a little sadness tinges the happy ending, there is one way author Anderson can turn some of that sadness into joy: Keep writing!