(Cue eager 1950s’ advertizing voice.) Looking for something new? Tired of that steady diet of popular fantasy with the same dichotomies, the same sense of style, the same touch points? Need something fresh, something outside the mainstream of genre? A plot that goes none knows where? Characters so obtuse they’re normal? Imagination of the most esoteric? If this is you my friend, then look no further than the incomparable Mr. James P. Blaylock! Fabulist extraordinaire, he mixes a drop of the supernatural into the mundane affairs of Joe Average to create a concoction most quirky—and pleasing for it! Run, run, run to your corner bookshop and pick a book today!
After such a review introduction, I should pause to note the above tone is all in good fun, but the message is real; Blaylock is the scribe for the reader looking for something outside the fantasy norm. His oeuvre unique across the spectrum of speculative fiction, one may choose almost anywhere (save the middle of series, or course) and walk away satisfied. Take for example his delightful 1988 The Last Coin—as consistent, individual, and delightful as the day it was published.
Starting from biblical mythology and going thousands of miles further, Blaylock takes the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot was paid for betraying Jesus to the Romans and runs with it—in Long Beach California. The reader is introduced to the… mentally challenged Andrew Vanbergen as he is attempting to break into his aunt’s room in his own house. Foiled by the cats, rather what is a cat but not a cat, his life shifts into a different gear when a new lodger takes up residence in the bed and breakfast he and his wife run. Dirty coin tricks played on him by this lodger, the suave Mr. Pennyman, Andrew’s attempts at revenge, along with his sidekick, the curious Mr.Pickett, lead Andrew down an ever more slippery slope of cheating, lies, and trickery to keep Aunt Naomi’s peculiar silver spoon a secret and out of the hands of the shadowy Mr.Pennyman.
A capering, picaresque tale where even the “bad guy” is endearing, The Last Coin drips with flavor. Filled with all sorts of life’s strange, quirky details—possums, legerdemain, fisherman’s tales, gumbo soup, toy cars, turtles with silver belts, and host of other ordinary yet extraordinary items—the happenstances are no less separate yet inherent to reality. Indirectly comedic, realistically strange, persistently unpredictable, a soft delight—it is a novel for readers who savor words and scenarios and who are willing to let the plot wander a little for the sheer joy of character interplay and the exploration of strange little ideas only tangentially yet peculiarly linked to where the larger tale is headed.
In the end, The Last Coin is a breath of fresh air—a welcome break from the dungeons of mainstream fantasy. Idiosyncratic, somewhat eccentric, and every ounce original, Blaylock captures something subtly magical in his fantastical imagining of the dark and light power the coins used to purchase the life of Jesus could have had through history. Not one drop of proselytizing in the story, there is, however, a fountain of mirth and individuality to the characters as they trip and fall to their allotted fates. In short, the nomination for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award is well deserved. As far as recommendations are concerned, Blaylock was around before Neil Gaiman, but Gaiman has since outpaced him in terms of sales. Therefore, I suggest Gaiman’s readers have a go at Blaylock and balance the injustice. I think they will walk away satisfied.