Author ~ TJ Klune
Publisher ~ Dreamspinner Press
Published ~ 20th July 2015
Genre ~ Fantasy M/M Romance
Once upon a time, in an alleyway in the slums of the City of Lockes, a young and somewhat lonely boy named Sam Haversford turns a group of teenage douchebags into stone completely by accident.
Of course, this catches the attention of a higher power, and Sam's pulled from the only world he knows to become an apprentice to the King's Wizard, Morgan of Shadows.
When Sam is fourteen, he enters the Dark Woods and returns with Gary, the hornless gay unicorn, and a half-giant named Tiggy, earning the moniker Sam of Wilds.
At fifteen, Sam learns what love truly is when a new knight arrives at the castle. Sir Ryan Foxheart, the dreamiest dream to have ever been dreamed.
Naturally, it all goes to hell through the years when Ryan dates the reprehensible Prince Justin, Sam can't control his magic, a sexually aggressive dragon kidnaps the prince, and the King sends them on an epic quest to save Ryan's boyfriend, all while Sam falls more in love with someone he can never have.
Or so he thinks.
The Lightning-Struck Heart is a huge book, more than 530 pages. Yet it was still not enough for me. I read it in a single sitting (with an occasional bathroom break), and couldn't put it down. The reason I couldn't put it down was that I was laughing too hard to get up from my seat for anything but a dire emergency. I didn't just titter, I guffawed. Some of the humor was so over-the-top, so replete with bad puns, some of the settings, scenes and descriptions so beyond the pale that I just couldn't bear coming back to reality for even a moment. This book, like all the books by TJ Klune, was nothing less than sheer genius, a shining star so bright, it lit up my day.
When we speak of gay fiction, we usually mean books filled with angst, pain, religious persecution, self-discovery, love, obstacles overcome and Happily-Ever-Afters. And yes, The Lightning-Struck Heart has all of these, so it definitely qualifies as gay fiction. But how many of these artful, moving novels include a gay talking Unicorn with a missing horn, who regularly belches rainbows, sweats glitter when angry, whose poop smells of flowers and cookies, with colored sequins sparkling in the air when he passes gas? And even better, the Unicorn is named Gary and is a screaming queen who talks nothing but camp? Then there's the magical half-giant, only ten-feet-tall (a full size giant is closer to 20) who tends to destroy anyone who threatens any member of the lively band of gay magical beings who populate this book.
The head of this gayer-than-gay merry band is Sam of the Wilds. As an 11-year-old goody-goody from the slums, Sam recovers a bag of fabric that a band of teenage toughs stole from his elderly next-door neighbor-lady (who uses said fabric for charity purposes, primarily to make ugly oversized pants for obese people). Cornered in a blind alley by the bigger, older, teen toughs, he turns to face them, knowing he's about to meet his maker. A glint of green and gold passes across his field of vision and, lo-and-behold, the criminals-to-be turn to stone, frozen with their mouths wide open, their legs in mid-flight and their arms poised in the air to beat the hell out of little Sam.
As it turns out, Sam is a wizard. He'd never been a wizard before, that he knew of, and there are no magical people in his family (though his mother is an ex-gypsy, so who knows?) and he has a major inherited defect - he can't stop talking, and everything he thinks simply pours out his mouth in an endless regurgitation of thoughts, statements, and observations that is enough to drive any listener insane. Sam is sort of the stream-of-consciousness Wizard.
The reader is immediately treated to an episode of Sam's startling grandiloquence as soon as he turns the boys to stone. A canny old man in Wizard's robes (in fact, the Wizard to the beloved King), happened to be passing by when he noticed the boys turned to stone. He stops to question this remarkably talented first-time-11-year-old-mini-wizard to find out what incantations he used to bring about his own rescue by magic. All Sam can talk about is those amazing pointy pink satin shoes that the old Wizard is wearing, and he really, really wants a pair. Eleven years old, and already a fashion queen. Who would have thought it possible?
In fact, it appears that Sam has been aware of his orientation since he was very young. He recounts the crush he had on a school chum, and how he almost kissed the boy:
"He did kiss me two weeks later, but then he also kissed Jessica, David, Megan, Rhonda and Robert. Derek turned out to be a bit of a whore."
Anyway, the mild-mannered, wise old King's Wizard, demands that he return the boys to their previous state. With not a clue how to accomplish that magical feat, Sam tries a few incantations, such as "Flora Bora Slam" and "Abra Wham", adding, when they don't work: "...it might have gone better in my head." The wise Wizard replies "I have a feeling that sums up your life perfectly".
And indeed it does. Sam and his parents (passionately devoted to each other and to Sam, though he'd rather see less evidence of their embarrassing passion for each other) are moved into the Castle where he becomes the official Apprentice Wizard. It's also where he becomes best buddies with the King, whom he is constantly correcting and playing pranks upon. How does he get away with this, between his motormouth affliction and being fashion-forward, especially toward the powerful Monarch? Well, he may be garrulous and not always appropriate, but everyone loves him. He makes them laugh. He treats everyone as a regular old human, even the King. Of course, he's in the process of becoming the most powerful Wizard ever (doesn't even need incantations, he can just think magic and it happens), but most important, he has this huge, innocent heart that no one (with the exception of the jealous and snarky prince) can resist.
His heart is so big that, at the age of 14, he is sent, on a quest, into the Dark Wood, a dangerous place where all kinds of malevolent magic reigns. His task is to bring back something "totally unexpected". Well, he does indeed accomplish that when he hears these plaintive cries from some kind of magical creatures, approaches them in a clearing, and there's this Unicorn with a missing horn, and this half-giant, in tears, whose back is striped by lashes from the whip. Turns out, they were kept caged by a traveling sideshow, barely fed and whipped to keep them in line. When the evil owner of the show tracks them down to return them to captivity, Sam uses his magic to turn the nasty old carnival owner's whip into a trail of butterflies as it is about to land on Sam's face. This fourteen-year-old Apprentice Wizard scares the pants off this miserable exploiter and his roughnecks, who flee in fear. Sam leads Gary the Unicorn and Tiggy the Half-Giant back to the Castle with him, rescuing them from a life of pain and demeaning exhibition in front of the paying populace into a life of fabulousness, riches and unending loyalty.
The three of them would (and do) lay down their lives for each other, and become an inseparable band of magical adventurers. Which is rather convenient, since the Most Powerful Apprentice Wizard In The Known World has the nasty habit of being captured by a wide variety of villains. Every one of them ticks Sam off because, being villains, they find it necessary to monologue incessantly, regaling their victims with highly-detailed recitations of their plans for global domination, before they actually kill their captives. Sam just hates all that monologuing. It's a good thing though, because at some time during these endless, boring lectures, Tiggy manages to bash a villain or two through a wall, Gary kicks the heck out of them with his powerful hind legs and blue-painted hooves, Sam encases them in stone up to their necks, or unleashes a horde of fire-breathing geckos upon them, as they run for their lives.
Then there is the love story (not to mention a talking dragon, who can only communicate when Sam's around) that adds more humor, a little bit of sex (Sam is a virgin until page 500-or-so) and a huge amount of cute crushing and deep loving. His new man-crush is the dashing and gorgeous Knight, Ryan who is soon to become a Knight Commander, and worse, to be betrothed to the King's snarky son, Prince Justin. Ryan is so gorgeous, so sexy, that there are fan clubs that meet in the town square (which Sam attends, incognito, as the bearded Mervin) including the one run by the mean twelve-year-old girl with whom he trades insults every time they're within spitting distance of each other (he'll triumph over the evil 12-year-old yet!), complete with shipping names, such as "RyanSam" or "Rystin". He's in love with Ryan, and though Ryan won't say the words, Ryan is in love with Sam, too. The King is very sad that he encouraged his son's engagement, because he didn't know how Ryan and Sam felt about each other, even though they danced three waltzes, in public, at Ryan's engagement party - something that is just not done!
Even worse, the engagement of Knight and Prince is a potential disaster for humanity - a potential disaster of epic proportions. A great good Wizard has someone destined for his heart, called his "Cornerstone", who keeps him from being consumed by his growing power lest he become a totally-corrupt Dark Wizard. It is only through the Cornerstone that a great Wizard (and Sam is destined to be one of the greatest) can realize his true potential. All Wizards have a natural limit to their magic. But so far, no one has ever found Sam's, so his mentors are terrified that, without his Cornerstone, Sam will eventually devolve into a nasty, evil, powerful and corrupt Magician who will need to be put down for the safety of humanity. I warned you it was really, really epic, didn't I?
There's so much more to this richly detailed and heartwarming book, including (among other things), exploding nipples, the six-inch-tall King of the Fairies who has the hots for the virgin Sam and kidnaps him to force him to marry him (Gary, the hornless Unicorn, kicks in some heads to rescue Sam), Ryan (the Knight) molested by a tree, exploding corn that sets off fireworks to let the farmers know when the corn is ready to be harvested that, unfortunately, also sets the fields on fire, and the older lady-mayor of a village who kidnaps Sam as a sacrifice to the Dragon God of a religious cult she created and populated in only 57 days, and (spoiler alert!) ends up getting eaten by the Dragon when he refuses to kill for her (the dragon bemoans how painful it's going to be when he has to pass all those old bones and other body parts).
OK, enough. If I continue writing this review, you won't have to read the book, and that would be a terrible shame, because TJ Klune is nothing less than a brilliant, inspired writer, and one of the great gay novelists of this or any other age. Proust and Milton are both amateurs when compared to Mr. Klune.
To be serious for a moment (what a letdown, after reading this book), Mr. Klune reliably delivers what I read books for - wonderful engaging characters (and they really all are characters!), unbelievable but enjoyable situations and settings, dialogue that is incomparable (and not far from what you'd hear in any serious drag bar), love, family, boundless humor and, most important of all, magic.
I didn't anticipate a fantasy from Mr. Klune, who is best known for his "Bear, Otter and the Kid" books, also funny but absurdly poignant and beautiful stories, but apparently neither did he. He wrote recently, on his blog, that he never intended Sam and his crew to be an epic, but the world he spun kept growing and growing until it got so big, and so full of possibilities, that he has decided to turn it into a new series.
I can't wait. And you shouldn't, either. If you're looking for a book that will warm your heart, tickle your funny bone, stretch your imagination and destroy any possible disbelief, this is the one to read. The Lightning-Struck Heart is a work of art, a work of genius, but most important, a sheer delight to read. I would give it more than five stars, if I could.