A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

A+ #BookReview: How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django WexlerHow to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying (Dark Lord Davi, #1) by Django Wexler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Dark Lord Davi #1
Pages: 432
Published by Orbit on May 21, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy in Django Wexler’s laugh-out-loud fantasy tale about a young woman who, tired of defending humanity from the Dark Lord, decides to become the Dark Lord herself.
Davi has done this all before. She’s tried to be the hero and take down the all-powerful Dark Lord. A hundred times she’s rallied humanity and made the final charge. But the time loop always gets her in the end. Sometimes she’s killed quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. But she’s been defeated every time.
This time? She’s done being the hero and done being stuck in this endless time loop. If the Dark Lord always wins, then maybe that’s who she needs to be. It’s Davi’s turn to play on the winning side.
Burningblade & SilvereyeAshes of the Sun Blood of the Chosen Emperor of Ruin

My Review:

The blurb for this title – a title just full to the brim with snarky, contradictory glory – is a bit more on point than the one for next month’s Service Model, which I read in the same weekend and was just really, really off.

But it’s still not quite there. This isn’t Groundhog Day meets Guardians of the Galaxy. It could, sorta/kinda be a take on the very motley crew of Guardians and their very snarky leader with his love for 1980s music and pop culture, but isn’t really Groundhog Day because there really isn’t a redemption arc – at least not so far – because Davi doesn’t need to be redeemed.

What Davi, wannabe Dark Lord Davi, needs to do is figure out how to survive the fantasy world she’s been dumped into, nearly 300 damn times so far. Because her previous attempts have all ended more or less the same way, with her being killed by some bwahaha spitting orc bastard who has just taken over the world and killed all the humans he or she can find.

It’s not always been the SAME bwahaha bastard, but does that really matter?

Davi has decided that it absolutely does not. If she’s going to survive this clusterfuck, she’s going to have to change the rules. Starting with pounding the smug, lying manipulative bastard wizard who starts her down the path of inevitable destruction into the rocks that surround the pool she always emerges from until his head is paste.

Davi has had enough. Clearly.

(If the idea of this story sounds familiar, it is. Alix E. Harrow’s “The Six Deaths of the Saint”, included in the Best American SF/F of 2023 collection, has a VERY similar premise – taken much more seriously and without the snark.)

Davi has had enough of being the shining light of goodness and humanity, because all it gets her is dead. She may have a destiny on this world, but so far all she’s been destined to do is die.

Since her journey always restarts, always in that same pool, always listening to that same wizard’s crap when she inevitably dies again, this time she’s going to do an asshole playthrough – even though she’s already determined that whatever this is, it isn’t a videogame world.

Still, this is a concept she hasn’t tried before. It might work. It might be interesting. It might be good, just this once, to be bad.

Escape Rating A+: How to Become the Dark Lord AND Die Trying (the title absolutely needs to put some emphasis on that ‘AND’ because WOW those things should be contradictory), is a snarktastic romp, a wild, exuberant page-turning knock out of an epic fantasy and a complete and utter send up of the whole entire genre AND the horse it rode in on all at the same time.

That it isn’t the redemption story the blurb’s reference to Groundhog Day might lead you to believe doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – and Dark Lord Davi certainly does have some VERY grand schemes – but it misses one of the points just a bit that would add to the sheer WTF’ery of the fun of the thing.

Because it’s not Groundhog Day, it’s Edge of Tomorrow. You remember THAT movie, the one where Tom Cruise has to repeat his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, over and over and over again, each and every time he gets killed – frequently and often – so that eventually he and Emily Blunt can put the pieces together fast enough to kill the alien invaders before they decimate Earth.

Part of the fun of that movie was watching Cruise get killed. Part of the fun of How to Become the Dark Lord is watching the Dark-Lord-in-Waiting fake it until she makes it, over and over and over again – knowing that death is just the excuse for another restart.

But Davi isn’t an evil dark lord, which becomes part of her problem as her journey towards dark-lord-dom continues. Davi really does care about her people – admittedly some more intimately than others. She takes care of her people. She’s reasonable and responsible and nurturing and does her best to avoid needless killing and senseless violence.

Emphasis on needless and senseless. She’s aware that some eggs are going to get broken in making this Dark Lord omelet but she’s never reckless with anyone except herself.

All that she’s done by switching sides is changing which people she’s willing to protect and defend. She’s changed who it is that she counts as ‘us’ in her calculus of war. It’s very much the perspective of Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, or Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker and Godslayer in that the orcs – and the other wilder-folk and non-humans – are the people she – and we – root for while the humans are off being inhumane to everyone not human and Davi is no longer there for that.

What makes this romp so very much of a romp is that Davi is snarky to the max, rather like one of John Scalzi’s, Simon R. Green’s or especially K.J. Parker’s and T. Kingfisher’s anti-hero-ish heroes. She never meets a quip she can’t make, a dig she can’t take, or an attitude she can’t cop, sometimes all at the same time. She’s a bit like Murderbot would be if Murderbot let it all hang out.

She’s also, manifestly, an epic fantasy hero who does not have all the answers – nor does she have any advisors who do, think they do or pretend they do. She’s faking it until she makes it – only to discover that once she’s made it there’s yet another hill to climb and yet another army to defeat.

Dark Lord Davi is simply awesome, as well as laugh out loud funny and occasionally downright embarrassing to herself and her minions. She’s a great hero to spend a long dark evening with! So I’m very glad that I did, and I can’t wait to do it again when she comes back for (cue the EXTREMELY apropos ‘80s earworm) Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

Review: Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

Review: Hard Reboot by Django WexlerHard Reboot by Django Wexler
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: F/F romance, science fiction
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Django Wexler's Hard Reboot features giant mech arena battles and intergalactic diplomacy. When did academia get to be so complicated?
Kas is a junior researcher on a fact-finding mission to old Earth. But when a con-artist tricks her into wagering a large sum of money belonging to her university on the outcome of a manned robot arena battle she becomes drawn into the seedy underworld of old Earth politics and state-sponsored battle-droid prizefights.
Is it time to get back to the books, yet?

My Review:

I came into this one expecting “Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em” mech battles combined with a bit of “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small”. The snark voice in my head was imagining the academics themselves fighting it out inside the mechs, because that would have been hilarious.

Also true in a very perverse sort of way. And possibly a whole lot of vicarious fun. It would certainly help some of my friends in academia vent some well-earned spleen on the whole subject.

But that’s not exactly what I got. Although it also kind of is – just not as directly as I was first thought. In a metaphorical sense, however, yes, very much that. And isn’t that just the way we think of academic politics?

What underpins this story about a hard-luck mech fighter and a young academic clawing up way up the ranks from the very bottom is a story about class and privilege, fought by two stubborn, scrappy underdogs against systems that are designed to keep both of them in their “place”.

Along with a thrilling high stakes mech battle. And love conquering all – even the dragons of academia.

Escape Rating A-: I was expecting the mech battle. I was also expecting the scrappy underdogs. I wasn’t exactly expecting the romance but wasn’t surprised by it either. What I was surprised about was just how often and how well the story manages to sneak in a whole lot about power and privilege and the way that the amount of both you think you have has a whole lot to do with your environment.

What makes this story work is the snarky, sarcastic, scared and ultimately defiant voice of Kas, a young scholar who doesn’t see herself as privileged at all. Because in the environment she comes from, she very much isn’t.

But compared to Zhi, that underdog, under water in debt, underground and under the radar mech fighter, Kas is both privileged and rich and initially seems like a mark that Zhi can exploit without troubling her conscience one little bit.

And they’re both right and they are both wrong – although admittedly Kas is quite a bit wrong-er than Zhi.

Because if this scheme goes pear-shaped, Kas will be sent home in disgrace, will lose her academic place, will probably be re-educated and will never get even a glimmer of a chance to be who and what she’s always wanted to be. But she’ll still have a roof over her head, she’ll still have plenty to eat, she’ll still have parents and a family that love her and will support her even if they are disappointed in her. And she’ll live to see more than one century in good health – and possibly even two – thanks to the excellent medical care that is her right.

Which doesn’t mean that she isn’t currently a third-class citizen – quite literally – in academic circles. And that the system she lives under isn’t set up to guarantee that she remains so.

Because it is.

But if Zhi loses the mech battle she will become an actual slave to the criminal “Houses” that run everything on old Earth. Or she’ll be killed as an example to anyone else who sets themselves up in opposition to the Houses – just like the friend who was helping her was killed as a warning for her.

And if she just barely ekes out a win, she’ll still be stuck on old Earth, still under the thumb of the Houses, still threatened with slavery or murder at every turn. While worrying every day about whether she’ll have enough to eat and be able to scrape together and defend some minimal shelter. If she isn’t murdered outright, she’ll die long before she reaches her first century, aged before her time, because there is no medical care for the scavs like Zhi on old Earth.

They have to not just win, but win really, really, really big, in order to make their dreams come true – but also to keep their nightmares at bay. And have a chance at keeping each other.

So I came for the mech battles. But I stayed for Kas’ voice and the relationship she develops with Zhi. That they managed to finally put one over on ALL of the people trying to keep them down and out was icing on a very tasty, if slightly metallic, cake.