Archive for Chad Underkoffler

Once Upon a Time…


Tales of Zo, edited by Andrew Byers and Chad Underkoffler

So there’s this cool roleplaying game that came out a few years ago. It basically lets you roleplay in a world that’s a cross between your generic fairy-tale setting and L. Frank Baum’s various “Wizard of Oz” books. It’s called “The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo” — which is an entirely awesome name — and it was written by Chad Underkoffler on his Atomic Sock Monkey Press. It’s a fun game — pretty rules light, with more emphasis on characters and setting, which is how it should be.

Anyway, a little earlier this year, Underkoffler put together this book of short stories set in the Land of Zo. The authors include Andrew Byers, Michaelbrent Collings, Michael Hill, Scott Kane, Jon F. Zeigler, and Underkoffler himself, who contributes the most stories to the collection. They lead us through the adventures of characters like the Blue Tailor, the greatest tailor in the world, the Gingerbread Knight, the Horse Prince, the Bespectacled Boy, the Wooden Pirate, and many more.

And facing almost all of them: Shaykosch, the Deathless Wolf, the Gray Wind, Death-on-Four-Legs, a hellish fusion of the Big Bad Wolf, Koschei the Deathless, and Darkseid. Endlessly hungry and a diabolical shapeshifter, he rises to threaten the Land of Zo every few years, only for brave heroes to foil his plots. But he always comes back…

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are no bad stories in this book, and several that are really pretty world-class awesome. My personal favorites include Underkoffler’s “The Wooden Pirate” (simultaneously tragic and fairy-tale awesome) and “The Horse Prince” (for the very unconventional fantasy hero), Zeigler’s “Galen and the Golden-Coat Hare” (an outstandingly clever story with one great reveal after another), and Kane’s “The Wolf Trap Picnic,” which is anarchic and hilarious.

The characterization is strong in almost every story, but the settings are particularly wonderful. The Land of Zo wears its Oz inspirations proudly, and every country within is quite clearly visualized — while also leaving some up to the imagination of the reader. These settings started out, after all, in a roleplaying game, where it always pays to leave something up to the players’ and the readers’ imaginations.

Definitely the strongest character is the Adversary himself, Shaykosch, who seems to be the rare fairy tale foe who gets charisma, overpowering intelligence, and an aura of real menace all at once. When he appears, you always know the heroes will win out over him — but you also worry that maybe this will be the one time he wins out. And even if he doesn’t win, he might kill or maim several innocent people. He’s a rotten, nasty customer, and you really end up looking forward to seeing him in as many stories as possible, because he’s so much fun to hate.

If I’ve got a quibble with this collection, it would be with the fairly small number of female heroines. I counted only three major heroines, and two of them had to share their stories with male heroes. Considering the large number of female protagonists in fairy tales in general and in fairy tale-inspired stories like Oz, Wonderland, Narnia, etc., there should’ve been more girls in this book vanquishing evil.

Still, only a minor quibble for a collection as stuffed full of fun as this one is. If you enjoy fairy tales, and if you enjoyed the Zorcerer of Zo game, this is definitely something you’ll want to check out.

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