Sunday, July 19, 2015

REVIEW: THE WAR AGAINST THE ASSHOLES



I'm sure I won't be the first to look at the title of Sam Munson's urban fantasy tale and cringe a bit. However, for me a bit of that cringe is hoping that people won't be immediately turned off, mistaking the bold, yellow-coloured obscenity on the cover as an indicator that this is a book hoping to trade on sassy shock value in place of literary substance. In fact, the opposite is true, and there is a lot to like in Munson's naughtily named novel.

The book follows the tale of Mike Wood, a teenage high school quarterback used to solving problems with muscle. In perhaps the most socially conscious use of blackmail I've seen, Mike is tricked by the nerdy loner of the school, Hob Callahan, into READING (*insert gasp*). The title of choice is a mysterious book called The Calendar of Sleights, a seemingly innocuous guide to a library of cards tricks. In actuality, it is a cleverly disguised litmus test for whether an individual has the talent for actual sorcery.

After passing this initial entry test, Mike enters a world of underground speakeasies, secret schools of spellcraft, and a silent rebellion against the titular "assholes"; a conflicting magical tradition, steeped in ritual and nigh-religious dogma. The Theurgists (the “official” moniker for the Assholes) possess a fierce prejudice against the style of craft that Mike and his compatriots practice: one that has led them to commit a multitude of genocidal atrocities in the name of stomping out all resistance to their deadly doctrine.

Munson's book is a very specific incarnation of urban fantasy. It takes much of its tone from the sleight of hand culture that emerged at the turn of the 20th century, when travelling magicians gained popularity. The type of magic written about here is very informal and personalized. Aside from the Sleights in the Calendar, there are no how-to's, principles, or rules. It's incredibly improvisational, with the nature of the trick largely dictated by the particular proclivities and talents of the practitioner. Hob is a Mozart of misdirection and illusion, his older brother Vincent has a special gift for anything involving plants, and Mike, true to his background, has talent in the form of enforcing his own violent physicality on his foes.

In terms of archetype, the book could best be described as dark coming of age tale. Mike finds companionship and belonging within his new circle of friends otherwise absent in his thuggish football teammates. But the world he is delighted to find he belongs in rapidly reveals itself to be a deadly one, both from the threat of the "Assholes", and the physical toll that every spell exacts upon the user.

The War Against the Assholes
is a refreshingly odd, street-level take on urban fantasy, well-rooted in a story about growing up, discovering your identity, and the gradual erosion of naivete that comes with it. Munson pulls off his own sleight in his gradual unveiling of the story, and though the ending is more a silent vanishing act than a flashy finale, it somehow fits. Sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the bad guys do; but somewhere in between, flickers of literary magic happen, and that's enough for me to recommend this book.


Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek at The Rogue's Gallery and One of Us. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

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