You would think that in a place where swear words conjure goblins, cannibals live in the neighboring nation, and blood-drained murder victims are turning up, that paperwork would be the least of your worries. But in Sam Hooker‘s absurdly humorous fantasy tale Peril In The Old Country, over-anxious accountant Sloot Peril’s life is turned upside down after he revises a coworker’s disastrously written report and is suddenly propelled into an aristocratic world of adventure, intrigue, murder plots, double-crossing, and much more.
Peril is all about rules and regulations, order and civility, routine and rote. He’s a devoted patriot of Old Country, dutifully reciting its pledge of allegiance each day, and is a loyalist to his nation’s leader, the Domnitor (long may he reign). He’s a numbers guy – numbers make sense to him, which is why he excels as an accountant. Like most of the working class, he goes about his day like another cog in the machine and plans to do so until it’s his time to retire. A nervous man, he likes to keep things just the way they are and is averse to change. But fate has something else in store for Peril, leading to a series of events that could result in his death… or worse!
Hooker sets up an autocratic nation filled with bureaucracy and somehow makes it amazingly funny in that “it’s funny because it’s true” kind of way. Right in the beginning, we learn that in Salzstadt, the capital of Old Country, the citizens (“salts”) are always in a hurry because if you let people start “sleeping in,” it’ll be all downhill from there. At Central Bureaucracy, the employees work hard to ensure that nothing gets done too quickly (you wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea). Outside the building, Peril is first in a very long line, but once inside, he instantly finds himself last in line somehow. (I really laughed out loud on that one). While waiting for many hours in the lines, one must avoid asking the staff questions like, “Is there anything you can do?,” which opens up an area that leads right to the back of the line. Cutting a line? That’s another action that conjures a goblin, which is why no one does it. This is just a tiny sample of life in Salzstadt, and what makes this book so amusing.
Eventually, Peril is recruited to be the estate accountant for the bumbling idiot son of a wealthy Lord, which should have been a cushy position, since you don’t ever have to count the money for the rich (their wealth is, of course, “vastly immeasurable”). Unfortunately, his new role puts him in a position to take on more insidious tasks that Peril is neither equipped nor well-suited for. When he’s sent on a secret mission to the neighboring barbarous Carpathia, he’s not only thoroughly frightened and ill-prepared, but he’s facing the possibility that he might not make it back alive. And if he doesn’t, well, that likely won’t absolve him from his newfound responsibilities.
I absolutely loved Peril In The Old Country. First off, its cover shows off a formal portrait of Peril looking quite nervously agitated (quite reminiscent of Ichabod Crane, another literary nervous nellie). That was enough to entice me to start reading (as a good cover should). Darker than the Douglas Adams universe, but lighter than Game Of Thrones, Peril In The Old Country hooks you in with its intriguing world-building, compelling characters, fantastical elements, interesting twists on the supernatural, and perfectly absurd dark humor.
What terror lurks in the shadows of the Old Country?
Well, there are the goblins, of course. Then there are the bloodthirsty cannibals from nearby Carpathia, secret societies plotting in whispers, and murder victims found drained of their blood, to name a few. That’s to say nothing of the multitude of government ministries, any one of which might haul one off for “questioning” in the middle of the night.
The Old Country is saturated with doom, and Sloot is scarcely able to keep from drowning in it. Each passing moment is certain to be his last, though never did fate seem so grim as the day he was asked to correct the worst report ever written.
Will the events put in motion by this ghastly financial statement end in Sloot’s grisly death? Almost definitely. Is that the worst thing that could happen? Almost definitely not.