Thursday, July 15, 2021

Folklords by Matt Kindt, Matt Smith & Chris O'Halloran

I am exactly the kind of person who would say "I never metafiction I didn't like," and actually mean it. Bad puns, metafiction, fussy literary forms - all right up my street.

So I'm surprised that I didn't like Folklords more than I did. Oh, it's fine: it's an entertaining story. But it seems rushed in spots and not entirely baked, like there was going to be (or may yet be) more to it than this. I do wonder if it was originally planned or envisioned to be a longer series, and ended up as just these five issues somewhere along the way. In any case, it's fun and professional, written by Matt Kindt with line art by Matt Smith and color by Chris O'Halloran.

Ansel lives in Generic Fantasy Village. It's not called that, but that's what it is. Everyone bustles around town carrying baskets of stuff, there's one elf and one troll, there's no larger polity or world (just dark forests and the like), and there doesn't seem to be nearly enough fields and farmers around it to feed everybody. Oh, and there's also a treetop village across the river which is not terribly well explained: it could be the home of some subgroup (it's where I'd expect the elves to be if there were more elves), but it seems to instead be just an overgrown tree-fort that the town's kids use for all of their gatherings and carousings. (All entirely PG-rated, as far as we see, which is also weird and surprising.)

Ansel's story is narrated, at least the first page or two of each issue. Someone not in this story is telling us this story, and we assume we will find out who that storyteller is, and that the storyteller's identity will be important. (Spoiler: no and no.)

Ansel is about to turn eighteen, which is when everyone in Generic Fantasy Village goes on a Quest. There are a lot of kids about to turn eighteen - looks like a dozen or more - which implies a village size and/or an infant-mortality rate and/or a population growth rate that don't entirely match the small, cozy, unchanging vibe. And Ansel, who has been having strange, vivid, troubling dreams (of our modern world, it is heavily implied) his whole life, wants to do the Forbidden Quest: to seek the fabled Folklords, who the reader will assume run the whole world.

(There's a bunch of things in Folklords that seem to be aiming to be mythic or folkloric but just seem generic: mythic is actually much harder than it looks to pull off.)

Ansel is an appropriate hero: he has experiences (his visions) and skills (he can build stuff he sees in his visions, at least some of which really works, which is superhero-tinkerer-level power) and is driven to learn the truth of his world no matter the cost. So it's all set up for a picaresque adventure across different lands, probably picking up allies and enemies along the way, before he finally discovers who and what the Folklords really are.

Oh, but first! First he must be denied the quest.

The authorities in this world - or at least this part of it, as usual with semi-mythic fantasy, the political structure is deeply hazy - are the Guild of Librarians (wink wink nudge nudge!), who are, as they must be, a militaristic masked order of humorless bastards who mete out summary executions at their whim. And they interrupt the Quest Ceremony at the first mention of Folklords, instead giving all of the kids dull Stasi-esque local quests to investigate various things.

Ansel will not stand for that, obviously. So he's off. And the plot I alluded to above - picaresque, episodic, gathering new characters as it goes - does begin exactly like that. But the series is only five issues long, so it goes quickly and Ansel, along with a few new compatriots, quickly meets a Folklord with a very signposted name.

And there's a flurry of confused activity and exposition, including what may be the reveal of the narrator on the very last pages, and what seems to be a sequel hook...except it's presented like, "OK, we did X, which was necessary but not sufficient, and now need to head off to do Y, which is vastly more important...oops, wait, here's THE END."

I want to believe this was not planned to be five issues, because it's really not structured well for five issues. The stuff Ansel builds should be more important, and used more. How this world actually works needs to either be explained or not teased at all - if you have Folklords, you need to show how they lord over folk, and what gives them the power to do that. If there's ever a second Folklords story, I'd want to check it out: there's a lot left on the table here. But, if this is the whole thing, it's more than a bit disappointing.

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