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Nathan’s review of Dreadful by Caitlin Rozakis 

The tl;dr: Dreadful is a witty and fun cozy-ish fantasy that delightfully and lovingly pokes fun at the tropes of epic fantasy – especially everything to do with the big-bad villains. Readers will find a lot to love with goblin henchmen, kidnapped princesses who are not damsels in distress, garlic festivals, thwarted plots, people being turned into roosters, and more. It is an absolute riot that is let down just a tad by some plodding pacing in the middle (which won’t be a problem for cozy readers, but might for more plot-forward readers). I had a lot of fun with this book and I hope for more like this from Rozakis.

Cover of Dreadful

My full review:

Dreadful is a hilarious fantasy that is both a loving, gentle satire of the genre’s many tropes while also being a poignant exploration of how we get to decide who we are going to be in this world. It is perfect for fans who love deconstructions of fantasy books (think a gentler Discworld) and anyone looking for something on the more action-oriented side of cozy fantasy (and without a cup of coffee/tea or bookstore in sight!). I quite enjoyed my time in Rozakis’ world, and this is an impressive, if not perfect, debut novel – one that should be on your radar if you like your fantasy both funny and just a bit saccharine.

Dreadful begins with Gav waking up without any of his memories intact….and quickly discovering that he is one of the big-bad Dark Lords that are so common in epic and heroic fantasy. The issue – he doesn’t know how to be a Dark Lord and is actually a pretty nice guy. Gav has a host of terrified goblin servants and a captured princess and a whole coterie of other dark mages he is supposedly working with on some diabolical plan…and he has no idea how to deal with any of it.

Rozakis’ wit, style, and humor really shine in the early pages of the book, and nothing that came after really enamored me in quite the same way. As Gav awakens with no clue who he is or where he is at, we readers, with our in-depth knowledge of fantasy worlds, come to a much quicker realization of what is going on than Gav does. We understand the oppressed servants, the kidnapped princess, the castle with the creepy aesthetic, and more. This was so much fun because readers, for once, had more information than the main POV character himself, and Rozakis hilariously impales so many of the standard villain tropes. Gav is shocked by the condition of his castle – why is it so ugly? – and how inefficient the whole system is. He laments his surroundings and why the peoples that his castle controls (a single solitary village that can only grow garlic) are so destitute and poor. Why would anyone be proud of this? Why would anyone want to be surrounded by this? Everything you think while reading about any stereotypical fantasy villain is put on full display here, and I had such a wonderful time laughing along with Rozakis’ observations!

If you are a fan of villainous characters and are perhaps a bit disappointed that this book’s main character is trying to live a less villainous lifestyle, don’t worry! Rozakis packs the book full of various villainy characters – characters that all have their own goals and lengths that they are willing to go to achieve their evil plans. Rozakis also has a lot of fun “inverting” the traditional dynamic between heroes and villains. The “villains” in Dreadful are given names, personalities, backstories, etc., while the heroing party coming to save the princess are glorified background characters. They don’t have names and readers can barely distinguish between them, which was such a clever way of exploring the character archetypes in epic fantasy, while also allowing Gav and co. to shine in their own ways as the book moved through towards its conclusion.

I did find that the book lost a bit of steam after Gav starts to figure out who he is and how this world operates. Dreadful isn’t able to maintain its momentum and humor as the book becomes a bit more plot-based, and the initial hilarious observations about fantasy tropes starts to fade into the background. The biggest issue here, and with many cozy fantasy (or cozy fantasy-adjacent books) is that the plot isn’t all that interesting. It is fairly simplistic and cannot sustain or support the book as it moves into its second and third acts. Rozakis occupies Gav’s world with a bevy of fun and memorable characters, but doesn’t quite him them enough to actually do. Some potentially exciting moments (like quests for some MacGuffins) are completely skipped over, and so the book just eventually becomes a bunch of characters explaining things to each other without actually having them DO anything. This is what ultimately bumped this down to a four star book from me; the book is nearly perfect, but it stumbles in its middle section.

As the book reaches its falling action, I was back on board again. As Gav and the rest of the crew reconsider everything that they thought they’ve learned about themselves, Rozakis finds a way to reach through the humor and pull at some heartstrings. She beautifully explores the concept of identity – is our identity predetermined for us? Are we allowed to change? Are we allowed to take control of our own destinies and assert our own agency? At the beginning of Dreadful, it seems like everyone has some predetermined role to play that fits into the tropes of the fantasy story – the evil villain, the put-down henchmen, the damsel in distress. And yet through the book the characters realize that they don’t actually fit those archetypes, that what they want out of life is so much more than the boxes that they had initially been put into. I loved this ending so so so very much and made the whole book worth reading.

Dreadful was such a fun read that was relaxing and cozy, but made sure to insert an actual plot. I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and if a cozy comedy with heart sounds good to you in your fantasy reading, then make sure to put this near or at the top of your TBR. It’s not perfect, especially for readers who are looking for dense or complex plotting, but it is a fun send-up to so many of the villainous fantasy tropes.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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