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SPFBO Finalist Review: Chaos Trims my Beard by Brett Herman

The SPFBO team here at Fantasy Faction (G. R. Matthews, James Latimer, Kitvaria Sarene, Michael Everest and myself) have been through something of a turbulent decision-making process during these past few weeks. While choosing this year’s finalist we found ourselves torn between three equally very good books. Marina Finlayson’s Stolen Magic (our second place finalist) had us praising its clean prose, tight plot and attractive ‘complete package’. Michael-Scott Earle’s Wings of Justice (our third place finalist) saw us discuss the merits of fast-paced storytelling and a gradually unfolding mystery set in an original secondary world. But Brett Herman’s Chaos Trims my Beard left us giggling and scratching our heads. We found ourselves thinking and talking about it for days – weeks, even – after finishing reading it, and after a vote we eventually agreed that these factors meant it edged out the others in order to earn its place in the SPFBO3 final.

In short, we liked it a lot, and remain in awe of the bold (and often bizarre) choices made by the author in putting this novel out there for public consumption.

“My name is Edwayn Sattler, and I have a beard.”

That’s the first line of the first chapter. We’re then treated to a brief and oddly fascinating description of the protagonist’s beard, which smoothly segues into the novel’s first major scene. Immediately, the author introduces his main character as someone who is funny, sympathetic and engaging, and the reader is hooked. (Fun fact: Chaos actually has a glossary at the back, written by the protagonist, which is an interesting expansion of the world – particularly the dwarven aspects, which he chooses not to detail during the main story.) Before all that, though, there is a prologue. A lot of us have mixed feelings on prologues – ‘what’s the point?’ I hear some of you cry – but in this case it’s short, sweet and intriguing – exactly how a fantasy noir should begin.

Unlike most other entries, there weren’t many books to which we could accurately compare Chaos, and if you read it, you’ll understand why. It’s less philosophical than Ian Tregillis’ Something More Than Night, less hardbitten than Tad Williams’ Bobby Dollar books, more optimistic than Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century and far less cynical than Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. But with its down-on-his-luck ‘detective’, a world of corruption, and a society made up of elves, ogres and other non-human races, it does somewhat resemble the Garrett P.I. novels by Glen Cook. The combination of magic and urbanity, seediness and idealism, humanity and monstrosity somehow combine to make New Sketlin – city of steel and glass and light and shadow – the perfect setting for this tale, and Edwayn Sattler the perfect protagonist.

A highlight for us was Edwayn’s sidekick, Venrick the Unabashed. Venrick is a relatively strait-laced ‘ratman’ cop whose pride and mistakes have left him disgraced among his own people. (The irony that a rat should be the only person honest enough to stamp out the corruption within New Sketlin’s police force will be lost on nobody.) The interactions between Edwayn and Venrick are a frequent source of amusement, and the dynamic of their unlikely partnership keeps the plot ticking along nicely.

On the whole, Chaos Trims my Beard is a quirky, fun read. I’d even go so far as to call it ‘unique’. It’s far from perfect; it must be said that Chaos is not one of our ‘cleanest’ entries, and while some of us found the editing issues more intrusive than others, there’s no arguing that there are pacing issues aplenty and typos galore. What sets Chaos apart from the others is that sense of ‘WTF’; the consistently humorous voice that says the author had an absolute whale of a time telling this story. That enthusiasm is conveyed so eloquently in the novel’s tone (if not its prose) that we were more than willing to overlook the book’s flaws in favour of the sheer enjoyment it brought each and every one of us while reading it.

Also, the novel contains a tern-related pun that made me laugh out loud for a full minute. If that’s not finalist-worthy material, I don’t know what is.

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