Book review: Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning
Jim is a custodian at a elder care/psychiatric facility. He lives on premises in a small room. And he plans to commit suicide in great detail. Before he does, however, one of the patients intervenes and takes Jim to the basement where a weird, giant tree exists with a monolith, which is a door to adventures in the global game of Cryptofauna.
Cryptofauna is a bit like a LARP that’s real. If you don’t know what a LARP is, it’s Live Action Role Playing. It’s a combination of role playing game and soft impact fighting. Not to be confused with Society for Creative Anachronism, in which learning about and recreating history from a specific period is the emphasis.
Cryptofauna is a game that’s real in consequences and risk to life. Within Cryptofauna, there are different types of players, or Operators as they are called in the book. There are Mentors, there are Disciples, and there are Companions who join with an Operator to create a Combination. To top it off, each Mentor/Disciple combination has a Rivalry to compete against. Jim’s savior is Ozymandias, a very large older man with a penchant for eating cherries, pits included. Oz, as he’s referred to, is Jim’s new Mentor and Jim is his Disciple. During a series of small quests that builds Jim’s knowledge and confidence to play Cryptofauna, more Companions join Jim, including an unusually intelligent dog named Mars (though I question if Mars really is a dog).
Jim, Oz, and the rest of Jim’s Combination face increasing dire circumstances as the story unfolds. And that includes Jim’s first foray in to Cryptofauna, which is to be marooned in a small boat in the middle of the ocean without compass, sail, or means of rowing.
In Jim’s case, his group’s rivalry is with Nero and Boyd. Nero is a match for Ozymandias, or Oz as he’s referred to most of the time in the book. Boyd is Nero’s Disciple. Boyd is psychotic. His complete lack of empathy and disregard to any living creature make Nero seem cuddly, and Nero is not a cuddly character. In fact, Boyd’s general behavior prompts Nero to reconsider his choice of Disciple and start to evaluate ways to get rid of Boyd.
However, Boyd enacts a plan of treachery against Nero that rightfully seems to violate the basics of the overall Cryptofauna game.
And that’s the point.
While I didn’t really like Nero, it wasn’t from the writing. Canning creates a solid antagonist in Nero. He is slimy and what we might consider villainous. He more or less plays by the rules of Cryptofauna. But when he realizes that he’s made a bad choice, he’s as conflicted as any other person. While I was looking forward to seeing Nero defeated, I didn’t really want to see Boyd end him like he did.
Besides the adventure of the game itself, there’s the tension of the game not playing out in a manner that experienced characters, Oz for example, are expecting. Readers are given enough information to understand that Cryptofauna is a risky game, but not necessarily lethal.
Cryptofauna is funny as hell. There were moments that I laughed out loud from an unexpected turn of phrase or some fantastical slap-stick. The humor felt lively and not overworked. Patrick didn’t reach for humor if a scene doesn’t really call for it.
It’s also a fantastic adventure, with plenty of whimsy and moments of awe. I would definitely consider it urban fantasy, though purists for that genre might argue with classifying in that niche. But given that there’s magic and fairies, it seems like urban fantasy. It also has moments that remind me of Terry Pratchett’s Disc World novels. It’s something familiar, but given new flavor.
To be honest, when Patrick first queried me about reviewing his book, I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. But Patrick won me over with his story, his easy writing, and humor. It’s fast-paced and worth rereading. You should go read Cryptofauna, too.
Matthew Reed is host of Matt Reviews Books on YouTube (youtube.com/mattreviewsbooks). Check out his video review here.