A Hero at the End of the World: How is Big Bang Press’s First Release?

Around this time last year, I brought you a web crush and a link to a Kickstarter for Big Bang Press. Now, just to recap, Big Bang Press is an independent publishing company that dedicates itself to guiding fanfic authors into the wider world of publishing, while also making books that fandom would be proud of; that is to say, books that have diverse characters and relationships. I donated some money to the Kickstarter and, as a result, the first book, A Hero at the End of the World, arrived in my mailbox this past weekend. Should you get the book when it’s publicly released on the 11th? And how well did Big Bang Press serve as a press that’s explicitly dedicated to connecting fandom writers and the larger publishing world?

a hero at the end of the world coverThoughts on both those questions, and some slight spoilers for the book, after the jump.

A Hero at the End of the World by Erin Claiborne (eleveninches on Tumblr) is a satirical spin on a standard fantasy trope: some guy is told he’s been prophesied to save the world, and then he saves the world. Said guy is usually a plucky orphan who is extremely talented and extremely brave. In this book, however, Ewan Mao, the prophesied Chosen One, is not only not an orphan, he is also extremely untalented and also a huge coward. His best friend, Oliver Abrams, is a brave, talented orphan, and he is the one who ultimately defeats the evil Duff Slan. So what would happen if the Chosen One didn’t fulfill his destiny? What would he become afterwards? What would happen to a sidekick who was no longer a sidekick? That’s where our story begins.

As a novel, A Hero at the End of the World was definitely a good choice with which to kick off Big Bang Press’s campaign to publish more books. Because it’s a clear send-up of things like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and other such stories with “Chosen One” tropes, there are several moments where its fandom roots shine through. But don’t think of this as fanfic with the serial numbers scrubbed off—the book features an original, intriguing take on magic, delighting in a very Britishly dry sense of humor, while paying homage to many popular fantasy series. My main problem with the book was that the worldbuilding wasn’t quite strong enough to live up to the plot; the different magical systems, despite being integral to the real villain’s dastardly plan, were never very well articulated and remained confusing up to the novel’s explosive ending. And although each character was well-drawn, I found the relationships, both romantic and platonic, to rely overly much on telling, not showing. To make a long story short, it made me laugh, but it’s not a book that will stay with me for very long.

Ewan Mao.

Ewan Mao.

Despite the first-novel-esque mistakes, though, Claiborne shows a lot of potential. Her dialogue was great, and when her characters were allowed to be themselves rather than advancing a whimsical and at times nonsensical plot, they were brilliant. The characters and their relationships are where Big Bang Press brought Claiborne’s strengths to the fore. The character I particularly want to comment on is Ewan, who is Chinese-British (as the Brits would identify him; “Asian-American” would be the matching term in American English). Ewan’s parents are from Hong Kong, and his multicultural heritage is explored, if a little shallowly. He knows a few phrases of Cantonese, and his parents are wonderfully loving and accepting of everything he’s done in his life—something I wish we’d see from more fictional Asian parents, and something I wish my own parents would take note of. Ewan’s relationship with the mysterious Archie is given equal, if not more, page time to Oliver and Sophie’s relationship, and even includes a self-referential quip about showing gay relationships in media. Personally, even though some readers might think it’s not okay to have the only Asian character of any note be an underachieving talentless hack (sorry, Ewan), I loved it. In a time when most Asian characters seem to fit the model minority, characters like Ewan help to prove that we Asians can fail at things too.

I don’t have any personal anecdotes to share about the other characters, but that doesn’t mean that they’re written less well. Oliver is Black, and although his heritage isn’t explored as much as Ewan’s is, he is a very well-rounded character with a significant character arc. Archie and his mother, the Lady Gardener Hobbes, fairly drip with upper-crust privilege, and Oliver’s partner Sophie is a clever, no-nonsense lady who is often the only one with their head on straight. Since Big Bang Press is a fandom-oriented publisher, though, I’d be remiss not to mention that the book could seriously have used more main female characters and female relationships—something fandom has had a long-running problem with, for a variety of reasons. The primary relationship is arguably between Ewan and Oliver, so the book is from their perspectives; although Oliver and Sophie had some good moments together, Ewan’s and Archie’s relationship was also the one that felt more natural to me.

The art for A Hero at the End of the World deserves its own paragraph for sure—by hiring their own (fandom-related!) artists, Big Bang Press sidestepped the problem of finding the right model and photographers for their books. Jade Liebes (hydrae on Tumblr) has created an amazing cover on which Ewan and Oliver are clearly Asian and Black, respectively. There is no whitewashing here, and for readers who prefer to skip over any mention of race so that they can headcanon their favorites as white, the cover is a blatant slap in the face. There are also some great interior illustrations. A lot of books don’t have any interior illustrations at all, and certainly none of this caliber.

Look at these brilliant characters of color!

Look at these brilliant characters of color!

To get back to my original question: should you buy or borrow A Hero at the End of the World when it’s released on the 11th? Yes, you should. Although it has a few problems, it’s still a hilarious read, and fans of fantasy will particularly enjoy the references to Harry Potter and other series with a prophesied Chosen One. If you’re not big on fantasy, but want to support diverse books, you should also check out this book. Who knows, maybe it’ll convince you to give that whole magic thing a chance.

I think the main thing here is that Big Bang Press has succeeded at what it set out to do: bring diverse works by fandom authors into the world. Sure, A Hero at the End of the World suffered from first-novel jitters, but so did Sabriel, and as we all know I love that book to pieces. There’s not a single criticism you could level against this book that you couldn’t also use on books published by bigger and more famous publishing firms. It was oddly wink-wink nudge-nudge about things you should find funny? So was Hitchhiker’s Guide. It was enormously British to the point that if you hadn’t at least visited London once in your life you’d be missing out on a lot of the jokes? So are any number of novels by English authors, not least of which are all my favorite Nick Hornby novels. And this book is much more diverse than those, to boot.

When Big Bang Press first announced that they wanted to help fanfic writers bridge the gap between fandom and publishing, a lot of people were cautious or outright suspicious. This is far from the first time that fandom writers have succeeded in traditional publishing—Sarah Rees Brennan, Naomi Novik, and Cassandra Clare come immediately to mind, and even E.L. James can count as a success, in that she made a lot of money—so many fans were thinking “why do we need another press, anyway?” I don’t think Big Bang Press is out to replace traditional publishing or even views itself as the sole voice for fandom; with this novel, the press has merely proved itself a viable alternate option to other publishing houses. It remains to be seen if future novels from the press will be as good or as diverse, but this is certainly not a bad start. So cheers, Big Bang Press. I look forward to your next one.


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2 thoughts on “A Hero at the End of the World: How is Big Bang Press’s First Release?

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