Book review: Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

(cover image courtesy Tor.com (c) Angry Robot Books)

ARC courtesy Dan Hanks – release date 1 February 2022 in Australia and 9 November 2021 in UK.

No one ever really talks about what happens after the movie ends.

Especially when the movie is a bright, adventurous blockbuster in which a band of gallant children come together and defeat, through wit, luck and a whole lot of youthful confidence, a malevolent evil which is intent on destroying life as we know it.

It’s adrenaline and running and shouting and near misses and then, well, nothing really; roll credits if you will, please.

The strangeness of this end of film limbo has obviously been swimming energetically in the imaginatively fecund mind of Dan Hanks, who has poured his musing on “what happens after?” into a rip-roaringly good, thoughtful and wildly clever new novel Swashbucklers, his second book after the expansively escapist brilliance of Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire.

While a wholly different story in certain key ways from its predecessor, it clearly shares the same deep down love of pop culture, devil-may-care adventurism and insightful humanity, sporting a Spielberg-ian heartfelt thoughtfulness that percolates through a narrative which is a headily invigorating mix of Stranger Things meets Ghostbusters get up close and personal with a fantasy escapade of your choosing.

What makes Swashbucklers such a sheer delight to read, and you will turn those pages with the animated speed and frenzy of someone running to outrun a possessed Christmas scarecrow – a what now? Worry not, it will make sense once you’re deep into the novel – is that Hanks is never a derivative prisoner of any of his influences.

“For a few hours Cisco had returned to who she remembered in the childhood of that fuzzy haze of hers. The boy who had been her best friend. Full of hope and optimism and excitement for anything and everything. Almost glowing, like the Ready Brek kid from that old advert. Certainly not the worn, deteriorating husk of a person that had come back to Dark Peak devoid of spirit, surprising her in the café the other day.

She wouldn’t admit it to anyone, especially him, but she had missed their time together. Yes, people moved on. And she still had Michelle and Jake and this wonderful town where she lived. But after Cisco had left, things hadn’t been the same. She had really missed them all hanging out.

And now they were back together again, doing things that rational adults shouldn’t be doing, while she was sitting in the midst of a childhood she had long forgotten.”

They are there in full view certainly and at various points you will see mention of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Aliens, Red Dwarf and Dungeons & Dragons to name just some of the pop culture mainstays featured, and glory in the fact that they are so clearly a part of Hanks’ obviously well-informed pop culture literacy.

The reason why they and so many other properties and characters are important is because while the story of Swashbucklers starts in present day Dark Peak, a town near Manchester, England, it has its captivating beginning back in 1989 when Cisco Collins and his band of accidentally intrepid friends – Doc (aka Dorothy), Jake and his sister Michelle – work together to defeat a great evil who takes the form of a decaying pirate named Deadman’s Grin with some souped-up game consoles that fire masses of energy bolts, youthful bravery and an excitement, for Cisco at least, that his fantasies of being the hero had sprung to life and he had to race right along with them.

But that is then, and this is now, and as Cisco returns back to Dark Peak following a messy divorce and the collapse of life as he knows it (triggering all kinds of questions about self worth and his inherent value as a human being), he discovers that he is the only one who remembers the scary glory days of yore.

To the rest of the town, and his friends in particular, what happened in 1989 was the result of something more banal and it quickly becomes clear to Cisco, who has brought his young son George along with him, that while he might still remember the titanic battle of his youth with fondness (and more than a little horror since he was briefly turned into a hellmouth by Deadman’s Grin), his friends have all moved on.

Dan Hanks (image courtesy Goodreads (c) Dan Hanks)

Well and truly moved on, as it turns out.

They are all married, have kids and are spending their days juggling school pick ups, Nativity play attendances and careers, with no time to spare for saving the world, not that they remember doing that the first time anyway.

But evil has a pesky way of refusing to die, and as it begins taking the form of everything from monstrous giant Santas – it all takes place over Christmas so twisted joy to a burning world, I guess? – to animated street decorations, and in a clever bit of social commentary the election of Trump and Brexit (but then humanity stupid enough to do that without underworld help, it seems), it becomes clear that Cisco and the reunited gang, who find getting their memories jogged less more than a little traumatic, have their work cut out for them fending off denizens from the pits of mythological hell while answering emails, getting the kids fed and bathed and generally being sober and serious adults.

Swashbucklers does an absolutely brilliant job of delivering a pell-mell, seat-of-your-pants, ’80s style action adventure that will have you wishing you too had a blasty, melty, energy crackling console, mixed in adroitly and affectingly with some vibrantly expressed humour and really considered thinking about how different life becomes between 14 and 44.

I mean, we all know adulthood is not even remotely the same as childhood – sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good – but Swashbucklers really drives home the fact as Cisco is forced to confront the yawning gap between what happened to him in 1989, which felt like the culmination of his boyhood need for something exciting to happen and for him to be the hero, and current reality which hasn’t been all that kind to him.

“This wasn’t how things were supposed to have gone, he thought for the millionth time as he leapt over a broken stile and broke through the thin sheet of ice into a puddle of mud on the other side. Growing up was supposed to make things better. He had fulfilled his hero fantasies as a kid, so why hadn’t he gone on to do greater things as an adult? How had he gone from saving his town – arguably the world – only to end up a shit friend, a terrible father, and clearly a rubbish partner in life, trudging alone through a wood in the middle of the Peak District?”

It’s that sense of yearning for your childhood while being unable, and often unwilling to forego the responsibilities of parenting – Cisco may not be the world’s best dad but he does love George and that really what counts in the end – that really gives Swashbucklers that extra special dash of something serious and ruminative in what is a thrilling full speed ahead, cracking good race to stop evil from destroying the world, and many others besides, against a ticking clock.

And all at Christmas too when thoughts should really be turning to peace and goodwill, eggnog and street markets, and not, thank you very much, evil creatures from the most frightening corners of our imagination who, it turns out, are a whole lot more real than you, or Doc, Michelle and Jake might think (Cisco, of course, does know which is a great part of the burden he carries and the existential angst which is a near constant presence for him.)

Thankfully for Cisco and his band of exhausted fighters of darkness they have the help of a magical talking fox, a man made of boulders, and a host of other beings from sprites to gnomes from which they will definitely need help as a romp through an enchanted forest, accompanied for Cisco at least by the whispered cries of a long-lost friend, becomes altogether more serious.

Swashbucklers is all your fondest ’80s adventure fantasies sprung gloriously and soul-stirringly to life, writ large against a massive battle to save the soul and physicality of all worlds, but it is also richly so much more, offering up ruminations on the chasm-like gap between childhood and adulthood and how we never really leave who we were as kids behind even as we struggle to live as fully-functioning adults.

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