Honesty Time: Of the novels A. Lee Martinez has written, I’ve only read Monster, Divine Misfortune, Gil’s All Fright Diner, and The Automatic Detective. Those books are listed, by the way, in the order that I enjoyed them, and I enjoyed them all. Oh, and I’m also well into the process of reading the rest of his books.
The good news is that the most recent of the rest, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, is, thus far, my favorite.
Helen Nicolaides is a typical teenaged girl. Well, she’s typical except for the fact that she’s a minotaur, an Enchanted American, and her minotaurism comes from her mother’s side of the family. “She was still a seven-foot girl with horns and hooves,” Martinez tells us, “dozens of case studies in various medical journals, and her very own Wikipedia page. But she’d learned to roll with the punches.”
Troy Kawakami is Helen’s Magic Burger co-worker, and he is, essentially, an Adonis, perfect in every way that counts. He’s handsome, athletic, and smart. He always knows what to say, what clothes to wear, what martial art to master. Unlike the typical teen romance stud-muffin, however, Troy is also an unbelievably nice guy.
The world of Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is one populated with gargoyles, elves, orcs, ratlings, minotaurs, djinn, sphinxes, gremlins, dragons, and humans, all of whom are doing their best to eke out livings in various vocations: accountants, innkeepers, fast-food workers, theme park characters, bartenders. Theirs is a world featuring television shows like Have Sword, Will Travel, where bedside tables in hotel rooms contain druidic tomes rather than Gideon bibles, where orc biker gangs sing along to Journey songs in taverns.
One noteworthy thing about A. Lee Martinez’s stories is that, regardless of the worlds in which they’re set, they don’t spend a lot of time trying to justify their realities. They just are. Hey, it’s a world with monsters and magical creatures, folks—deal with it. Not to say Martinez doesn’t do a superb and thorough job of constructing these worlds, because he certainly does. In fact, the offhand way he throws these details out to the reader actually makes them seem more plausible. He excels at creating a believable universe next door—okay, maybe it’s actually two or three doors down—and peppering it with thousands of nifty nuggets that could easily spawn new A. Lee Martinez stories. They’re never throwaway details, though, not by a long shot.
This novel is a hero’s quest updated for the mostly-modern age. When Helen’s elfin boss Mr. Whiteleaf tries to sacrifice her to the Lost God–a god who first appears at the Magic Burger in the form of a giant pile of hamburger meat–things quickly go wrong, the outlaw god eats Whiteleaf, and he charges Helen and Troy with a quest to track down a list of unknown artifacts.
There are rules to the quest, but Helen and Troy don’t know what they are, and no one is willing or able to tell them, not even agents of the government-run National Question Bureau. Left to their own devices, and with a NQB-sanctioned 27% chance of success, Helen and Troy set out with a godly commission, a sword, a wand, and murky directions from an oracle.
But this is only one-half to three-quarters of the story. Elsewhere, Grog the orc god has charged a biker gang, The Wild Hunt motorcycle club, with a holy mission to kill Helen and Troy. Why? Well, Grog has his reasons, but he’s not sharing them with anyone. One of The Wild Hunt members, Nigel Skullgnasher, is an orc with a mid-life crisis. In this life Nigel is an accountant, but he’s often dreamed of being a warfaring orc like his ancestors, so Grog’s mission sounds like it might be just what he’s been waiting for.
Nigel and the rest of The Wild Hunt—dubbed with excellent orcish names like James Eyestabber, Jenny Gutspitter, Denise Spinecracker—set out in lukewarm pursuit of Helen and Troy. And the chase is on.
This story contains lots of in-jokes that fans of mythology, comics, and fantasy will get: The existential conversations based on characters from the Marvel Comics universe, the bit where Troy snaps a pic of Helen holding a theme-park Theseus impersonator in a headlock, a cottage-keeper named Babs who may or may not be—oh, I’m not going to tell you who she may or may not be. It’s not necessary to understand these jokes to appreciate the story, but they do add a nice layer of authenticity and fun into the mix.
Speaking of fun, another thing to know about A. Lee Martinez is that he does comedy like a pro. This novel in particular is consistently funny—along the lines of Robert Asprin and Terry Pratchett funny—but that comedic element never lowers the stakes. Nothing less than life and death are at play here, and despite the laughs, Martinez never lets the reader forget this.
This is also a tale about growing up and learning to live with the things that make us different. Helen and Troy both find themselves on the verge of adulthood, with its impending loss of innocence and growing sense of inherent unfairness. Despite all the characters and situations, though, in the end it’s really Helen’s story. She’s the best kind of quester, the one who’s unsure of herself, who is in constant fear of failure, wondering if she’s on the right side of destiny. Troy, on the other hand, spends his time being perfect—or, as Helen muses, “close enough that it could be infuriating”—though he doesn’t read as a flat character. Together, the adventures of Helen and Troy make for a fun, compelling, and sometimes even touching read.
Ultimately, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is a fun, fantastic tale packed with weighty existential questions, drawn across a backdrop where mere mortals serve as game pieces for temperamental deities.
And we get to watch the game. Lucky us.