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TBR Challenge November 2023 – Once Upon a Time…

November’s TBR Challenge prompt is “Once Upon a Time”, and Caz – flying solo this month – had fun with a bonkers fantasy romp in audio.  What book did you knock off your TBR pile this month – and what did you think of it?  Enquiring minds want to know!

The Lightning-Struck Heart by TJ Klune

Narrated by Michael Lesley

Unsurprisingly, the prompt “Once Upon a Time” sent my brain straight to fairytales – but I was resigned to picking a random book for November’s TBR Challenge, because I didn’t think I had anything that would fit. But then, I was scrolling through my Audible library looking for my next listen when TJ Klune’s The Lighting Struck Heart caught my eye; I bought it a while back but haven’t yet listened to it, and I had a vague recollection that the story featured a wizard and a kidnapped prince and a dragon and a giant – which sounded fairytale enough to me!

It is, however, nothing at all like a traditional fairytale. It certainly makes use of many of the tropes associated with the genre – a hero’s journey, a dangerous quest, a handsome knight, a love story with lots (and lots) of pining – but it’s, well, basically, it’s pretty bonkers. In a good way. And the narration by Michael Lesley is a perfect fit; very much of the ‘go-big-or-go-home variety’, he throws himself into it wholeheartedly and does a spectacularly good job of voicing a wide variety of characters (with one cringeworthy exception), playing for laughs where required but delivering on the emotional content of the quieter, more intense moments as well.

Once Upon a Time in the Kingdom of Verania, there was a kickass boy born in the slums of the City of Lockes.

Said kickass boy is Sam – now, aged twenty, known as Sam of Wilds and apprentice to the King’s Wizard, Morgan of Shadows. Born to loving parents, Sam was happy, if poor, but when, at the age of eleven, he came across a group of older boys stealing from an old woman, he instinctively gave chase – and when they tried to turn on him, he turned them to stone. Such an event naturally brought Sam to the attention of the king’s wizard, and Sam and his family were then brought to live at the palace so Sam could become his apprentice. Every king has his own wizard – and Sam will eventually become the wizard to the king’s son and heir, Prince Justin. It’s unfortunate that Justin is a bit of a prick.

When Sam is fourteen, he is sent into the Dark Wood – where all kinds of evil magic reigns – and instructed to bring back something “totally unexpected”. Well, he does exactly that when he rescues a hornless unicorn and a nine-feet-tall half-giant, who were kept in cages in a travelling sideshow, half-starved and beaten to keep them in line. Gary, the gay, hornless unicorn is a screaming queen who eats sass for breakfast; Tiggy is a sweetheart who loves his friends dearly and is happily prepared to smash anyone who threatens them.

When Sam is fifteen, he loses his heart to Ryan Foxheart, aka Knight Delicious Face, a new knight in the king’s service. Ryan is dreamy and beautiful and everything a knight should be – and Sam is so terrified of what he is feeling that whenever Ryan approaches, he generally runs in the opposite direction. But it’s not because he’s scared of rejection, no, not at all (hah!)– it’s because He Has Priorities (capitalised, so it must be true!) and those Priorities mean he doesn’t have time for a boyfriend.

Five years later, Sam is a favourite at court – the king even regards him as a second son – although he mostly drives his long-suffering mentor up the wall thanks to his smart mouth, his impulsive behaviour and an almost pathological tendency to get captured by dark wizards who then proceed to monologue at him (Sam hates monologuers) before he finds a way to escape. In fact, this is how we first meet him – he and Gary have been captured by the evil wizard Lartin the Dark Leaf, who is mid-monologue when Tiggy bursts in – and, er, it doesn’t end well for Lartin.

That’s just the beginning of the trouble Sam and his friends end up getting into – and when Prince Justin is kidnapped by a dragon, they get into a whole lot more of it. After the news that Justin has requested – and been granted – Ryan’s hand in marriage, Sam had decided to go away for a while, ostensibly to spend some time with Randall, the most powerful wizard in the land, but also to try to get over his heartbreak. However, Justin’s abduction changes things. The King asks Sam if he will go with Ryan to rescue Justin and bring him home – and Sam can’t say no. Sam – and Gary and Tiggy, of course – and Ryan set out on their quest.

Sam is an amazing narrator. He’s sweet, caring, loyal to a fault, good-hearted, somewhat naive and often hysterically funny; he almost never stops talking, and everything he thinks pours out of his mouth in a stream of thoughts and observations. But he’s incredibly endearing, with an underlying vulnerability he’d never admit to – he wears his heart on his sleeve and puts everyone else’s happiness before his own, so he’s built an outer shell of sass and snark to keep his feelings hidden. He’s intrinsically good without being perfect; he’s flawed and he makes mistakes, and even though he is probably going to end up as the most powerful wizard of all time, he’s kind of an underdog and it’s impossible not to like him.

It’s pretty clear from the first time Sam and Ryan stumble (literally) into each other on the page, that Ryan is as smitten with Sam as Sam is with him and that Sam is completely clueless (despite the fact that everyone else and his dog seems to know that Ryan is in love with him!) Their slow-burn romance is not the primary focus of the story, but it’s an important part; there’s plenty of not-so-subtle flirting and some Olympic-level pining going on as they become closer, their frustration and heartache at not being able to be together leaping off the page.

But you have to believe me that it’s always been you… I promise, because when I look upon thes stars, there is nothing I wish for more than you.”

On the downside, the book is over-long – the audio clocks in at just under twenty hours! – and it feels like the author lets his imagination and the fun he’s having with all the snarky dialogue get away with him once (several times) too often. When this happens, it gets in the way of the plot progression and is really frustrating; I can think of one example early on which takes about twenty minutes to come to the point and relay the piece of relevant information it’s meant to convey and after about five minutes, I just wanted it to stop and move on.

Michael Lesley delivers a wonderfully entertaining performance, giving every character a distinct and appropriate voice, nailing the humour and the emotional connections really well. His comic timing is impeccable, and his portrayal of the main characters is spot on – he’s outstandingly hilarious as Gary, endearing as Tiggy, sexy as Ryan and achingly funny as Sam. The one weakness in the entire performance is his portrayal of Kevin, who enters the story in the last third or so, and for whom Mr. Lesley has, for some reason, decided to adopt a Scottish accent. I wish he hadn’t, because it’s horrible – worse than Mike Myers in Shrek! – and very quickly reached ‘nails-down-a-blackboard’ level for me. That’s the only criticism I have of the narration, which is otherwise excellent and fits the zany, bold, larger-than-life nature of the story and characters really well.

The Lightning Struck Heart is funny, sweet, crude and bizarre all at the same time, managing to be a light comic fantasy while also being an affectionate parody of the genre. There’s a lot of cursing, sex-puns and sassy put-downs, but the characters are likeable and there’s a real sense of genuine affection and caring between them – Sam and Morgan, Sam and his parents, Sam and the King and, of course, Sam, Gary and Tiggy, who would clearly die for each other – and author packs quite the emotional punch at certain points. It really comes alive in audio thanks to Michael Lesley’s wonderfully animated performance, and I’d recommend it to anyone in the mood for a lighthearted romp full of magic, love and sass by the bucketload.

Grade:  Narration – B+; Story – B         Sensuality: Warm

Running Time: 19 hours, 49 minutes

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon

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