Let's face it: a good prequel is harder to write than a sequel. You have to get your story to jibe with the other works, just like with a sequel, but the end result is laid out for you already by your own work, meaning you can't simply decide to kill off a character here, or insert a major plot point there. And yet, you have to somehow make the story interesting, meaning you can't just rehash character pre-history and not add anything new. For all of these difficulties, writing a book to go between two already previously written works has the challenges of both a sequel and a prequel.
This is why, upon opening the new Asprin book, Myth-ion Improbable, I groaned inwardly. I have a great respect for Mr. Asprin's writing ability, but I was afraid that this work, which is chronologically placed between Myth Directions and Hit or Myth, would fall prey to the usual prequel problems. I was afraid that he wouldn't be able to pull it off with the panache and style I was accustomed to in this series. The other reason I was unhappy was that, like most readers of the series, my brothers and I have been left hanging for quite some time at the end of Sweet Myth-tery of Life, and wanted to continue the series. Let me also mention that I am a stickler for continuity and internal consistency, a trait which has annoyed my family and friends time and again. Fortunately, as I read, I found that my fears were unfounded.
First, let me say that, as in all the Myth books, Asprin is very careful to make sure that this book can stand alone. It is more rewarding if you've read the three books before it for context, but enough little bits of background are given along the way that the first-time reader will not be left lost. As usual, he keeps these unobtrusive enough not to annoy the dedicated fan, who knows exactly who these people are, and what they're about.
By my count, this book is the twelfth Asprin has written for the series, and for those of us who haven't read the others in quite some time (or at all), here's a quick recap. The Myth-Adventures series follows Skeeve, a young wizard, and his unique companions, including his mentor Aahz, a scaly dimension traveller from Perv. (He's a pervect, not a pervert, thank you very much.) In the series, we get to watch as Skeeve grows from a bumbling and naive apprentice to a somewhat naive but competent wizard. Along for the ride is a cast of colorful characters, including his accidentally-acquired baby dragon, Gleep, and Tananda, a curvaceous member of the Assassin's Guild. In Myth-Directions, Tananda and Skeeve go shopping for a birthday gift for Aahz, find something utterly ugly and unique, and get themselves in a mess of trouble over it, and involved in "The Big Game." The events in this book start on the heels of that adventure.
The book starts with Skeeve and company in The Kingdom of Possiltum, right after the incident with The Big Game, trying to deal with boredom. Skeeve produces a map that had slipped his mind during the excitement in rescuing Tananda in the previous story, and it turns out to be a magical treasure map. Asprin neatly avoids the concerns of continuity because the idea of overlooking a small detail in the previous tale is easy for the reader to accept.
In the map, though, he's done more than provide an adventure hook. He's given us another one of his delightfully silly ideas that make this series so much fun to read. Sure, the book has all the elements that I love about the series: irreverent dialogue, good (and bad) puns, humor in the naive way Skeeve sees things, and the humorous mis-quotes that start every chapter. But the idea of the map is one that I'm going to inflict on my Dungeons & Dragons players as soon as I get the chance.
The idea behind the map is simply this: it shows a convoluted path to a treasure, with lots of choices along the way. There's only one catch. Every time the characters progress along a path, the map changes. To make things worse, they're going to unfamiliar dimensions and so, in order to avoid getting irrevocably lost, are getting directions from a Shifter. A Shifter that's charging them 5% of the final take for each visit.
The book is a quick read (another hallmark of the series), and has enough twists and turns that you won't want to put it down until you're done. Asprin wraps things up neatly, avoiding the prequel problem, but does it in such a natural way, that it is only on reflection that one realizes that it had to be that way.
This is not to say that the book is empty fluff, however. While it is "mind candy," as my father calls it, it doesn't simply rework old ground. First, it gives us further insight into the relationship between Aahz and Skeeve before they progressed to the mutual admiration of partners. Secondly, unlike some of the other books, this one goes further away from simply parodying the fantasy genre, and actually introduces some interesting ideas of its own. To my mind, the map is both: a parody of the standard fantasy/adventure cliche of the ubiquitous treasure map, and, at the same time, a new riff on the idea. At least, it was new to me. Finally, Asprin's filled out his world a bit more: he adds some new denizens -- the Shifter, for example -- and explains more about the way magic works. While the book is completely consistent with what we've seen before, it gives a bit more insight into how his system works. As a reader and a gamer, I always love to see the inner workings of fantasy magic.
I heartily recommend this little gem, and I am sure that my brothers will enjoy it when they receive the copy I'm sending them. Long-time readers of the series will love it, and first-timers will enjoy it, although I certainly recommend that they read the series from the beginning, starting with Another Fine Myth, if they can.
Paul Schumacher is treasurer and a copy editor for Strange Horizons.
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