Brian Prisco gives good nerd.
I figured he would, since the co-worker who handed me the trade paperback, saying, “My friend’s book finally arrived! Oh, my god you have to read this!” is fearlessly fluent in nearly all species of fandom.
If you can’t trust a woman who carries an R2D2 lunchbox, drives a yellow car detailed with Charlie Brown stripes, is willing to talk about the relative BAMFness and Kinsey placements of Doctors War through Twelve, and has a little, knitted, science blue sweater warming the Zachary Quinto action figure she keeps in her work cubicle, you have no trust in you to give.
Twenty-Sided Die is a Kickstarter-funded collection of short stories connected by a group of small-town misfits who have bonded—more or less—over Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, comic books, summer camp, philosophical conversations about cannibalism and literature (and boobs), bullying in its various forms, and the sheer hell of navigating high school and what may (or may not) come after.
The main characters are distinct and unforgettable—and if one of two aren’t entirely likeable (possibly by choice), they still have our sympathy. We know these guys, and in many ways, most of us are these guys:
Dobby, the vicious, DM whose main motivations appear to be junk food and unrepentant spite;
Caleb, the fundamentalist paladin whose karma is about to hit his dogma;
Spence, a simmering wizard who is desperate to blow this popsicle stand;
Scotty, a snarky band nerd of a dwarf who would like to graduate without losing too many teeth to a privileged, troll-sized bully; and
Ben, a trailer-trash, Hinton-esque Outsider (please for to note the capital O) with the heart of a ranger.
My favorites among the supporting cast are Dory, a girl whose thermonuclear response to Dobby’s mysogenist insults in “Geek Out” is worth twice the price of admission, and Mr. Ambler, a former dork turned cool teacher* who is one of the few adult providers of perspective and sanity in remarkably, if realistically, unfair situations.
The stories cover a lot of ground, with varying impact. Some are clearly meant to be squinted at in WTF delight (“Human Consumption”), some are quietly powerful (“A Steady Hand” and “Grendel”), and others are a sucker punch in the solar plexus (most of the final third of the collection). The best of them are hilarious, infuriating, heartbreaking, victorious, and tragic—sometimes all at the same time.
One in particular (“Wages of Sin”) is so breathtakingly inappropriate on so many levels and yet so masterfully written with such undeniable truth that it transcends itself and firmly establishes Dobby in my headcanon as chaotic evil personified. I am in awe .
I only had one difficulty in reading Twenty-Sided Die: about a third of the way through, I stopped seeing it as a series of loosely connected stories. Whether by design or chance or something in my own head,** the stories drew more tightly together, almost gelling into a novel—and a damned good one, too.
This wouldn’t be a problem, except the perspective shift—which again, may be all mine—lent a kind of uneven randomness to the first third, but only (I stress) in comparison. And since this collection isn’t a novel, and presumably wasn’t meant to be, it naturally didn’t develop quite the way I kept thinking it should.
It’s completely unfair to judge short stories by long fiction standards—especially short stories that hold up on their own individual merits like these do—and the only reason that I’m saying all this is that my unreasonable expectations are based on my sympathy for and involvement with these characters (even Dobby, which was a shocker, believe me). I want more from and about them, and for them, too.***
So, I hope Mr. Prisco will forgive me.
acing those charisma checks writing, please.
*If the general atmosphere didn’t seem more D.C. than Marvel to me, I would suspect Mr. Ambler is actually Agent Phil Coulson in disguise—I’d still like to check his desk drawers for Captain America collectibles. And Ben strikes me as Clint Barton with better luck—the bow isn’t the only parallel I saw. I love them both and their conversations were my favorite parts of this collection.
**Possibly helped along by the “Chapter #” heading above the title of each story. I’m not complaining about it—I don’t know if this was done on purpose or was simply a formatting issue, and I didn’t even consciously notice until I was writing this post—but it might have had a subliminal effect.
***I want Ambler to have his day, man. I need Ambler to have his day.