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Bad Prince Charlie by John MooreThree stars
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After four novels, I'm beginning to detect a — ahem — pattern in the storytelling of John Moore. We have a reluctant hero thrust into a madcap series of adventures that more often than not cause him to cross paths with a host of rogueish villains and highly sexed, inexplicably available hotties. Through cleverness and a smirking refusal to take his situation all that seriously (not an insensible attitude in a comic novel), he deftly wins the day, and doesn't so much get the girl as the girl gets him. Rock on! They don't call the genre fantasy for nothing.

John is good at this sort of thing, so while on the one hand I want to see him stretch out of his comfort zone, I can't blame him for playing to his strengths. In Bad Prince Charlie, he's got the formula down to a science. The emphasis is far less on spoofing genre clichés (as in Heroics for Beginners) or reframing childhood fairy tales for — ahem again — grownup sensibilities (as in The Unhandsome Prince), and far more on story. While I thought John had a more likable cast of characters in Unhandsome, he has a tighter and funnier plot here. Bad Prince Charlie maintains John Moore's track record for fun fantasy rib-ticklers.

The setting is the kingdom of Damask. Its monarch has recently died, giving the book an opening scene that delightfully goofs on the opening scene of Hamlet. Damask is a nation in trouble. Its agriculture is a failure, it can't sustain an economy, and every single last one of its officials is either on the take or corrupt in any of the myriad ways the nobility can be corrupt. The late king's brothers want to hand Damask over to the more powerful neighboring kingdom of Noile. To do this they must make things so intolerable that Noile and its monarch Fortescue can be seen as liberators, marching in to restore peace and order to Damask. Thus, they need a willing puppet on Damask's throne, someone who doesn't give a shit and will execute policies so egregious as to foment discontent if not outright rebellion.

That puppet is the late king's wastrel son, Charlie, whose nickname (check the title) may not exactly be deserved, but who is, if not bad, certainly carefree and irresponsible. Charlie goes along with his uncles' plan and proceeds to infuriate the nobility and plebes alike. But when his father's somewhat inebriated ghost warns Charlie that he was, in fact, murdered by said uncles, and that their whole plan involves a desperate search for — wait for it — the late king's Weapons of Magical Destruction, Charlie realizes there's a lot more at stake than he thought. For the first time, he rises to events and takes his responsibilities to Damask seriously.

Where Pratchett is fantasy's take-no-prisoners satirist, John Moore is still its choice purveyor of light comedy. (Though John does lob a handful of satirical cherry bombs at himself, and the way his books are inevitably compared to Pratchett's by some readers.) This is why he's able to concoct a plot that has the trappings of a satire about the Iraq War and the Bush Doctrine, but that really isn't one. As a light comedy, Bad Prince Charlie is as charming in its way as any of John's other books. But I want to see more of an edge in his work. Any edge we actually get in one of John's books is more akin to the retractable stage dagger that allows one character here to fake his death. Every time I think I'm about to get some truly cutting satire, the blade pulls back.

So while I enjoyed Bad Prince Charlie — and I think fans of John's previous books will, too — the fact remains that John, four novels into a deservedly thriving career, is still writing the kinds of books that an offhanded comment like "It was cute" can adequately sum up the entire experience of reading. John may be good at this, but I happen to think he's better, and in his next book, I really want to see him get in touch with his bad self.