Welcome back to The Sinister Reader for the month of April and this month, I have something a little different for you. So far, we’ve delved into cosmic horror of various shades, some monsters and lush, beautiful prose. Since the month starts off with people trying to be funny (and usually failing), I figured that we could run with this theme and look at a very funny book that also happens to deal with monsters and magic. This month we are spotlighting the latest and very funny book by Yahtzee Croshaw called Differently Morphous.
If you aren’t familiar with the author, you may not already be familiar with his brand of sarcastic, dry humor. Those of you who might be gamers, however, will likely know this name as the witty game critic behind the animated game review show, Zero Punctuation. For the uninitiated, this is a weekly online series that puts out short video reviews of an animated Yahtzee against a yellow background, showcasing what he liked or, much more likely, what he took issue with while playing popular video games. While it’s not required viewing for this book, checking out a few of those videos might be a good idea if only to give you an idea of what to expect for the tone of the book. It’s got that same sense of snark and gives you a good warm up as to what you’ll be in for. That said, don’t get too hung up on Yahtzee as a critic because there is a whole lot more for him to play with in this book, as you’ll soon see.
As a slight departure, before I get into the meat of the synopsis and the review, I will say that while this books is available in different formats, it was first released on Audible as an audio book and if you have a subscription, I very highly recommend using a credit on it if you have one to spare. To be completely honest, the book is going to be funny regardless of what format you read it on. Croshaw is good at creating a narrative that takes the mundane and makes it absurd and just keeps going. His stories are very entertaining and if you’re in the mood for that trademark British sarcasm, you will definitely get a good laugh out of this one. That said, there’s still a bit of a difference between reading the characters and hearing your own voice in your head, especially if, like me, you’re North American and think in familiar tones rather than insert specific accents and hearing them done by an actual British person. More than this, he can capture the differences between people with specific social backgrounds and others who come from different areas of the UK. All of this lends a bit more magic to the book and I can vouch for the fact that Yahtzee does an excellent job as a narrator for his work. If you are concerned about the speed of his delivery, especially if you’re a fan of Zero Punctuation, you can rest assured that he puts on a great performance and there are times that I forget it’s him talking, he’s that engaging.
Onwards to the plot! The book takes a bit to get going as we are introduced to two major plot points at the same time. In the first, a man wakes up to find out that these gelatinous blobs have landed in his backyard and express to him that they are seeking asylum in our world. In the second plot point, a young woman named Alison is excitedly attending a school for those who are “magically infused” and are learning to hone their skills. She is that plucky, slightly annoying classmate, that always has the right answer and is itching to tell the teacher all about it. As such, it is a bit of a sharp awakening for her when a former student arrives as the school to explain to her that she actually has no magical powers at all. Despite being devastated at having to leave, Alison is offered a job at the secret branch of the government known as The Ministry of Occultism, where she meets an array of colorful, and slightly unpleasant, characters who all seem a little on the hostile side. Meanwhile, our gelatinous friends and the man whose garden they’ve ruined have set out to find a method of getting these creatures the asylum they’ve been seeking while trying to avoid a hunter employed by said Ministry of Occultism.
From here the book takes a hard left and continues on that way into some odd territory. Just when you think the Ministry is just your average glorified dysfunctional office, a higher level member of the government shows up on their doorstep when the gelatinous creatures, who identify as Fluidics, make a TV appearance asking not to be killed. The Ministry gets a big old makeover after this man arrives as they aren’t able to hide from the politics of the day and Alison gets shuffled into a new world that involves a field partner that behaves like a cartoon villain, a serial killer hunting the Fluidics, an HR coach trying to usher in new progressive ways of thinking that may or may not be dangerous and the ever present feeling that the people around her aren’t entirely what they seem to be.
To say more would be to give away too much because you really deserve to know more by reading or listening to the book. In a way, even giving away too much of the premise is like telling you where some of the really good jokes in a movie is because a good portion of the humor in this book comes from the absurdity of the situation as it unfolds. The two elements of the plot that are introduced in the beginning converge and that’s when things really get going. The world of political correctness comes marching in and shortly afterwards, so does the serial killer. It’s obvious that the Fluidics are a stand in for refugees and, to some extent, marginalized communities that are given a pass to be part of society but not really accepted, per se. The cast that we are first introduced to are now all scattered across a variety of points of view with Alison being dropped in the middle to play the point of view of someone with no answers to any of the questions that the plot raises and trying to do the best she can in a world that gets increasingly chaotic.
At this point, I should go into that whole political correctness thing because it does play a major role in the plot. If you are concerned that this book immediately turns into a screed about how “Me Too was a joke” and “everyone is too sensitive” and all that bullshit that your least favorite friend on Facebook is apt to be spouting at the first opportunity, rest assured that any mention of these ideas is usually coming out of the mouth of one of the least likeable characters. That said, this book doesn’t take a hard line on the left either. At least one character embodies every single toxic thing that you’ve seen shot at people when they didn’t conform immediately to the newest wave of what is considered correct. This could be a risky move to an author with less skill but Yahtzee, for all his snark, actually handles the whole thing in a way where neither point of view is posed as the butt of the joke as much as the situation is. I think he’s able to do this by including all of the points of view that we see floating around the topic of being politically correct and, in almost true South Park fashion, holding absolutely none of them too precious or out of reach for the plot’s critical eye. You get to see how the old assumptions of the Ministry were wrong but you also get to see how blindly adopting something that seems correct based on a formulaic way of thinking can be equally dangerous.
A lot of the best parts of this book come from the characters and their interactions. I really have to hand it to Yahtzee on this one because I mean it when I say that he has a rather colorful cast going on here. Alison is a bit on the bland side but she is meant to stand in the middle and be someone we can focus on as the chaos of the story goes on around her. That said, she’s not a paper cut out of a character either. She’s friendly, she’s smart, and that’s one of her most important attributes, and she does try to stretch herself out of her comfort zone when she is trying to do what she thinks is best. She’s also the type of person who is young enough that she isn’t quite sure who she is yet and that makes her capable of being led in different directions. She doesn’t come off stupider for it so much as she seems a bit like a lost sheep, looking for someone who seems friendly and knows what the hell they are doing. She also makes a good foil to the others around her, sometimes being the only sane and competent person in the room. Despite some small cringe areas that are kind of inevitable from the story itself, as a character, Alison works perfectly well as the audience stand-in and even manages to subvert that well worn fish out of water trope by being gifted in non-magical ways and working with that and her intelligence to get her through the weird and hilarious world that Yahtzee has built around her.
And I suppose I should also get to the humor part now. As anyone out there who has been taxed with the job of trying to write about something comedic will tell you, this is where things get a bit difficult because humor is so subjective. I can tell you something is funny and I do stand by the fact that this book is very funny, but knowing if you are going find it funny, casual reader that you might be, is something else entirely. Many years ago I was on the receiving end of the lesson that you don’t tell people where the jokes of a movie or book are unless you’re looking to give your least favorite friend a sleep aid. Seriously, nothing is less interesting to watch or read than something where you can already tell what’s coming out of the gate, especially the first time you are getting to experience it. (Legit, don’t spoil things for people, regardless of what genre. It’s an asshole move.) If all this talk of spoilers is getting you nervous, fear not for I am not that person and I won’t be telling you anything more than what I already have. That said, I do want to talk about what kind of humor it is to give you at least a little bit of a push either way if you were on the fence about this book. A lot of the humor in this book is of the deadpan variety, giving you the straight narration of the absolutely oddball and insane antics of the characters, all treated as if it were completely normal. If you like the works of Douglas Adams or even the author that I’d previously spotlighted for the introduction to The Sinister Reader, Jonathan L. Howard, you’ll likely enjoy this too. It leans a bit more on the absurdity side than the other two, though this isn’t surprising considering the magical set up of the novel. The unique element to the humor, however, is the smashing together of the real world with this poorly defined magical one and how the collision creates an almost slapstick quality to it but in a way that’s more charming than annoying like visual slapstick can be. Yahtzee is clever enough to pull it off and still make you laugh at the antics but it never gets in the way of the plot or overstays its welcome.
Finally, let’s get to that mystery. This is one of the elements that almost seems like an afterthought sometimes in the story but this isn’t really a bad thing. If you’ve read any cozy murder mysteries, you will already know that the mystery is almost a footnote until the main heroine finds a clue or decides to pencil in some time in her busy schedule to try to solve that pesky murder that shocked the hell out of everyone at the beginning. While this one doesn’t go fully into those same tropes, I did notice that the mystery element of the serial killer occasionally takes a backseat to all the weird and crazy antics of the department going on around Alison. That said, when the clues almost fall on Alison’s head and things get more serious, this part of the plot emerges nicely and I quite enjoyed the way that it kept me guessing at who might behind it all. Since the main appeal of mystery stories is the want to figure out the puzzle, even when the mystery was less than prominent in the story, the parts I got still scratched that itch for me and I was happy with it. I will say that if you’re more of a full on mystery fan and this was the part that you were more invested in, while there’s some legitimately fun mystery scenes in there, this is likely not going to be as satisfying for you. I still think it’s great but it’s certainly not going to replace the James Patterson or even the Agatha Christie books in your life if that’s more your bag.
All this said, I thought Differently Morphous was a riot and I very much recommend it for someone who is looking for something funny with some more depth than just a popcorn read. I cannot recommend the audio book enough because Yahtzee is an excellent narrator and I genuinely think the book is that much richer for the character voices that he uses. I kind of loved and hated them all and I had a lot of fun with it. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you should definitely pick it up.
Thanks again for joining me for another edition of The Sinister Reader. If you’re wanting to get more book chattings, you can pop onto my Patreon and for as little as a couple dollars a month, you can get some extra book recommendations, some of my thoughts on topics brought up in the review and all the other site content early. If times are too tight for such things, I appreciate you taking the time to come and enjoy another of my favorite books with me anyway. Happy reading and I’ll be back next month with another Sinister Read for you!