Satirical fantasy has never been my sub-genre. I like Terry Pratchett (no way I’m getting through this review without mentioning Pratchett, so might as well get it out of the way), but not in the devotional way of many of fantasy connoisseurs. I get it. There’s no denying the clever writing and imaginative world-building, but for whatever reason my personality type needs serious fantasy. Going into Orconomics, I was prepared to like it and likely not love it. This was the right mindset to begin this book with because by the end I was surprised and delighted to find that, yes, I loved Orconomics.
Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf with a checkered past. Once considered one of the greatest heroes in the realm, Gorm has since fallen into innumerable gutters and increasingly finds it difficult to crawl out. The world according to J. Zachary Pike is one where heroism is a commodity. Heroes are for hire in every sense of the world, and like many video games of our own world, there is a system of points and values associated with questing and slaying what society considers to be evil creatures, or Shadowkin. Gorm used to have a high rank and more prestige than he knew what to do with until he ran from a quest, which in the Freedlands is criminal. Gorm was cast out of the Heroes Guild, rank stripped, and continued to dig himself into a hole by robbing would-be adventurers of their own gains simply to survive. Then a goblin is literally thrown onto Gorm’s sleeping self and everything changes.
In form, Orconomics is nothing extraordinary. It’s a book about a quest, which is a timeless and well-worn path. What makes it so good is its ability to tell this boilerplate story while inserting so many satirical references. Commerce rules the Freedlands much in the same way corporations run the Earth. In many ways Pike is just substituting specific terms and jargon and telling a story that could come out of the New York Times. This even became a slight detriment for me as the economics terminology being thrown about made my eyes glaze over, but it’s all in service to the greater effort and any daze quickly passed as a new joke or metaphor was juggled in front of me. I have no doubt that this story could not have been told in any other way, and it works incredibly well.
I have read a few different books this year that have been heavily inspired by video games. Some, like Phil Tucker’s Death March, use the literal game world as setting. Others, like Orconomics, are slightly more subtle. Pike uses the mechanics behind many video games and posits that such systems could be used as real-world structures. In the Freedlands, the Heroes Guild and the efforts to earn points and rank by slaying monsters is society’s way of forcing ideals of black and white over a shades-of-grey form that it simply does not fit. What makes this novel so competent is the pushback by the heroes against that system, even if they might not realize that they are doing so until the very end.
My only real issue with Orconomics is that Pike has long passages of exposition, or telling as those in the writing world would say, that seem to be viewpoint independent. In fantasy, it is difficult to avoid the problems of exposition because the world is always so fresh and strange that it needs explaining. However, that fact does not mean that there aren’t more efficient ways to slip said exposition into the text without over-long paragraphs of pure tell. Pike switches his viewpoints around, and it is apparent and effective when he does so, but the exposition almost feels told by a narrator in its own consistency and lack of voice.
The final point I want to make about Orconomics is a compliment disguised as a critique. There is no mistaking the satire in this work. Pike sees it through for most of the book, and it is at times brilliant in both its subtlety and overture. However, a certain scene whips away all the pretense of this fantasy novel and renders it as heartfelt and meaningful as any of its peers. Pike deftly builds the relationships between his main characters to the point that we don’t even realize how much we care about them until it hits, like a bolt from the blue, and then it dawns on the reader that the book has transformed from satire into something more. It is a beautiful moment and can not be understated. I look forward to seeing how the sequel to Orconomics flows because it will take a skilled pen to manage what Pike has accomplished with this book and yet transcend it further. He has certainly set the stage for more, and I am curious to see where this goes.