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The world according to Gork

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Gabe Hudson’s “Gork, the Teenage Dragon”

There are a lot of people out there writing genre fiction. Considerably fewer are writing good genre fiction. And good genre fiction that is also genuinely funny? And just for fun, why not make it a legitimately compelling coming-of-age story?

You could count writers that capable on one scaly talon.

Gabe Hudson’s “Gork, the Teenage Dragon” (Knopf, $24.95) is a smart, subversive work that somehow reads as sophisticated even when repeating the phrase “scaly green ass” on seemingly every page. It’s “Catcher in the Rye” spiced with Anne McCaffrey, “Eragon” by way of John Irving, with a whiff of Douglas Adams for good measure.

Gork is a graduating senior at the WarWings Military Academy. His unfortunate nickname is Weak Sauce and he is nestled near the bottom of his class. His scores in vital categories such as Will To Power and Conquer & Rule are abysmal – this despite his lineage; he’s the grandson of legendary conqueror (and now mad scientist) Dr. Terrible, though his relationship with his grandfather isn’t great. And he spent his earliest formative years in isolation on Earth, so he’s … different.

He needs to find a queen on Crown Day or else resign himself to spending the rest of his life as a slave serving other dragons capable of enslaving planets. He’s got his eye on one dragoness in particular – the lovely Runcita, who just happens to be the daughter of the Dean (who has his own reasons for disliking Gork). Gork does have the support of his kind-of-a-robot best friend Fribby and his self-aware spaceship ATHENOS II, but no one else gives him a chance.

When Gork finds himself swept up into intrigue – intrigue that might prevent him from finding a mate or from, you know, surviving the day – he’s forced to confront some hard truths about himself. Maybe the measure of a dragon goes beyond scores and conventional wisdom. Maybe Gork is a bit more than Weak Sauce – and maybe he can manage to get his scaly green ass out of trouble one last time.

“Gork, the Teenage Dragon” is, on one level, precisely what you expect it to be. It’s a freewheeling genre adventure, balancing fantasy and sci-fi conventions. But it is also a sharp, satiric take on the coming-of-age tale. And a broadly funny (and mildly raunchy) teen comedy. Plus there’s a love story woven in there. Some family drama too. 

Gork is an engaging central figure while still being a little irritating (and sometimes more than a little), yet he’s lovable despite it – or maybe even because of it. He’s also one of the more entertaining narrators I’ve encountered in a while. Sure, he might be weird and a little off-putting, but he’s also sincere and genuine despite a world designed to prevent him from being so. He exists with empathy - dragon-filtered empathy, but still – in a place where apologizing or saying “Thank you” is potentially punishable by death. Yet despite his best efforts, he can’t stop being good. He just isn’t the planet-conquering species-enslaving type. His heart’s not in it.

It’s one thing to create an engaging universe, but quite another to do so with what seems like effortlessness. Hudson’s worldbuilding seems almost casual, rich and generous with images and ideas. Vivid details abound, and when Hudson gets going, the narrative energy crackles. Add to that humor that isn’t afraid to be subtle or over-the-top, as the moment demands. Of particular note is a real, well-honed sense of the absurd, a quality that tends to be what truly sets apart the funniest efforts – your Hitchhiker’s Guides and your Discworlds.

“Gork, the Teenage Dragon” isn’t one of those books – and Hudson isn’t Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. But it’s closer than you might think. This book is FUNNY. It is funny and it is clever – which are not the same thing, another truth that Hudson recognizes here. It celebrates its fantasy/sci-fi identity just as wholeheartedly as its more “serious” influences. And it’s a heck of a good story to boot.

Smart, subversive, funny and fun, Gabe Hudson has created something special - something soaring - with “Gork, the Teenage Dragon.” 

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