While lots of great science fiction takes lots of effort to tell stories that take a magnifying glass to the worse parts of humanity, sometimes it’s just really nice to take a break from that and luxuriate in a really fun science fiction story. After all, who doesn’t love a good semi-comedic, super entertaining sci-fi romp? The correct answer is: no-one. All of the other reviews suggesting this book is a hybrid of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are right on the money. Patrick Canning’s Cryptofauna proves to be a book that’s every bit as interesting as its cryptic title – and the cryptic game of the same name played by the novel’s characters. (Thanks to the author for providing a copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.)
Cryptofauna by Patrick Canning
Working as a janitor at an insane asylum in rural Idaho has Jim in the dumps. One night, his attempted suicide is rudely interrupted by one of the residents, and he’s recruited to play a game called Cryptofauna. The bizarre contest of worldwide mischief and meddling might actually help the blue custodian discover a reason to life, if he can survive the deadly trials that await…
This kind of book is definitely right up my alley. As I mentioned, it’s just a really fun idea and Canning’s writing immediately sucks you into the world he’s created. From those very first pages as you meet Jim, the suicidal janitor, right as he’s about to kill himself, you’re immediately captivated by his story. Why does he want to kill himself? And who is this mysterious man sweeping in to save him just in the nick of time, only to send him off on a somehow even-deadlier adventure? It’s just a bonkers idea that’s explored in all its truly insane glory.
I’d say the greatest elements of this novel are the care with which Canning has clearly taken to develop his characters and the world they inhabit. While a premise as odd as a group of near demi-gods playing this mysterious game is enough to intrigue a reader into picking up the book, having characters who aren’t as interesting as the novel’s premise would probably be a death-blow to a story like this. So, luckily, the characters in the novel are really interesting. Jim, himself, makes for a captivating protagonist. He’s an everyman, which makes it super easy to relate to him as he’s thrown head-first into this weird world. But then he’s surrounded by all of these larger-than-life beings, and it all just gets more interesting. First, there’s Oz, the man who rescued him from his suicide attempt and starts him off on this journey. Then there’s Jim’s loyal companion, Mars, a very good dog who you quickly fall in love with. Surrounding these three are a group of characters even more colorful: Barney, a man found at sea; two shape-shifting Jinn, and a collective of nearly-immortal monks. It’s a kooky cast of characters that are perfectly situated for a story with this kind of premise – and all of them get a fair amount of development, even if they don’t all have huge amounts of page-time.
Similarly, the world itself is very well-realized. From the word go, this world feels lived in. It’s clear Canning knows the rules of his universe and he explains them to his audience exactly when the audience needs to hear it. He also expertly avoids sections that feel like massive exposition dumps, instead masking these moments of information-sharing as character-driven beats; information is only shared because another character in the story needs to know that information, so the exposition dumps tend to feel more natural than they otherwise might. Outside of these kinds of dumps, Canning also expands the world through little interludes that break up the action. Sometimes those interludes end up tying in with the overall story, but other times they act as ways to expand the point of view of the story for just a brief moment. These interludes show off this expansive world that Canning has created and, like the best interludes in novels like Good Omens or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they leave you with a feeling that Canning really understands the world he’s created and it just makes it all the more fun to spend time within that world.
While the novel’s worldbuilding and character development are top-notch, much of its plot goes unfortunately underdeveloped. The book suffers from some pacing issues that largely stem from an underdeveloped threat. It takes the book a while to really get started, probably because the readers are just as clueless as Jim is and his first task feels very… underwhelming. The first chapter is really attention-grabbing, but then the second one is significantly slower and you’re left feeling like you’re not quite sure why any of this is happening. Luckily, it does start to come together fairly quickly and from that point on, the book continues at a very brisk pace, revealing new information at exactly the moment you’d like it to and holding your attention as it speeds along. I ended up reading the latter half of the book in one sitting because of this very aspect of Canning’s writing.
Additionally, due to the general (and intentional) vagueness of what, exactly, Crytpofauna is, it often feels like Jim isn’t actually going up against anything in particular. The novel frequently feels like more of a collection of short stories or episodic adventures instead of one bigger adventure. The climax of the book tries to tie all of these individual adventures into a bigger battle, but it kind of falls flat as the ultimate antagonist and his plan received fairly little development when compared with the rest of the book. You don’t even learn of what the antagonist is actually trying to do until the last 20%, or so, of the novel. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing as you often don’t want to reveal the bad guy’s plan too early, but usually, you’d seed elements of that plan so that when all is revealed, it feels like the reader could have figured out the plan alongside the protagonist. Here, that doesn’t really happen. Jim just sort of figures it out all of a sudden and when it’s revealed to the reader, it kind of just lands with an “oh, so that’s what we’re doing?” instead of a more exciting feeling. Luckily, that semi-anticlimactic ending isn’t really enough to put a downer on the novel as it’s still a lot of fun to read the novel’s climax and see just how everything shakes out, even if there wasn’t a particularly great buildup to it.
Overall, though, Crytpofauna is a super fun read. It’s a testament to Canning’s writing that this whole thing works as well as it does. The idea is bonkers and the characters are larger-than-life, but he very carefully guides his readers through this world and before you know it, you’re totally invested in everything that’s going on. It’s not a perfect read, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but it’s definitely a fun one. If you’re looking for a nice, breeze, silly sci-fi romp, Cryptofauna is the book for you! It’ll grab your attention and won’t let it go until the book comes to an end. While everything is very nicely tied up by the end of the novel, the world feels so expansive that I can’t help but hope Canning returns to this world again and tells some new stories within it. It’s a pretty great world that I’d enjoy returning to in the future.
4 out of 5 wands