REVIEW: QUAINT CREATURES (A SIDEWAYS TALE)

A cozy creature feature...


Andrew D. Meredith is an author whose work I've come to enjoy a great deal. I've made my way through pretty much his entire back catalog at this point and was ready to immediately scoop up his first foray into the cozy subgenre.

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 As someone who hasn't really read any cozy fantasy before, I didn't fully know what to expect with QUAINT CREATURES, but I had a wonderful time with this episodic, slice of life fantasy. The charming characters, the quaint little creatures, and all the hijinks that the gang gets up to made for a deeply memorable low-ish stakes adventure. 

CHARACTERS
Our tale is told by Norrik Softstep who is a retired dungeon inspector that now owns a magical pet store and veterinary clinic for creatures of all shapes and sizes. He and his wife run their business outside of their home which happens to be a rather enchanted entity in it's own right given that it's hallways are seemingly endless in a way that defies the laws of nature (and architecture). Joining the pair is a surly dwarf who seems to be the primary veterinarian in the household. Early on in the story, a young gnome woman with sticky fingers is recruited and I thought her part in the story was quite fun. There's a little bit of a "found family" element to the group that I think a lot of people will enjoy. Each of the characters felt distinct yet equally wholesome in their own way and I especially enjoyed the dynamic between Norrik and his wife as there was something that just felt so authentic about the relationship that they share. Equally wonderful is the extensive cast of side characters. There's a lich who's trying to secure his retirement, a chirpy brownie politician who's at odds with an elven councilor, an orc mother and her child who worry about their sick chimera, a pandataur with allergies, and some adorable, yet downtrodden raccotaurs (anthropomorphic red pandas and racoons). There's even a race of magical automatons as well as a variety of undead creatures and monsters who primarily take up residence in the local dungeons. Without giving away any spoilers, I was impressed that so many of these side characters aren't exactly what they seem. Whereas I think Meredith could have easily relegated each of them to the chapter(s) they appear in and be done with them after that episode, he found a way to weave them into the story's conclusion in some ways that I found rather surprising. 

PLOT/TONE
One of the things I was worried about with entering into the cozy subgenre was the lack of a clear plotline as the "cozy" element aims to look more into slice-of-life type of moments rather than a band of heroes facing earth-shattering stakes. What quaint creatures managed to juggle so well was combining the more regular parts of Norrik's life with some longer narrative threads which are slowly teased out right until the final chapters. There's a mystery involving who might be smuggling in dangerous creatures, a conspiracy involving two pet food companies, and a job Norrik takes on to help his friend gain city approval on his recently purchased adventuring dungeon. In between the moments where these different arcs progress are lots of really interesting episodes where Norrik is helping various customers, family members, and passers-by with different issues of varying urgency. The result is a story that felt like it still had "a point" but was also rather relaxing to progress through. In spite of all the magical elements, the pacing of the story also felt remarkably true to how things tend to go in real life. Most of us can't just drop everything in our life to try to immediately resolve our bigger issues. Instead, we take things day by day and work towards our broader goals just like Norrik and his gang do and I loved that level of relatability to these events. I also appreciated that each member of Norrik's household had their own things going on over the course of the story. This gave them a sense of autonomy and ultimately just made everything feel that much more alive. One minor complaint I have is that the end chapters felt like they could have been slowed down just a little. There's still a ton of great payoff and I really enjoyed how everything came together, but I felt like the final conflict played out abruptly. This was probably in the interest of keeping to the cozy subgenre and not getting to action-heavy, but I think the quick cuts actually felt a bit more chaotic than if certain moments had just played out in their own time. 

SETTING/WORLD
Another very strong element of QUAINT CREATURES is the world in which it is set. This is a place where there's a magical being or creature everywhere you turn (in fact, I don't believe there's a single human in sight during this whole story). There are various magic systems revealed, though the details of each are generally pretty light, which I liked. Even the most mundane moments in Norrik's story felt quite magical just given how strange the details of each encounter were. For example, simple veterinary visits ended up being opportunities for us to learn about the various creatures that people in this world have as pets. Meredith may not have fully re-invented the wheel when it comes to the mythological beings who serve as denizens of The Sideways, but he still managed to make this feel like a setting which is entirely unlike any other. There's some interesting lore about The Sideways being some kind of pocket dimension or perhaps a part of a greater multiverse. There's also an interesting layer where adventuring dungeons are commonplace in this universe. This doesn't seem like it's supposed to be some kind of LitRPG or Game-Lit world or anything, but rather just one where dungeons are built and staffed for bands of brave heroes to adventure through for fun, training, or profit. The way this works as a business pursuit in the context of the setting was fascinating and I enjoyed learning more about Norrik's former role as an inspector of these dangerous attractions. All in all, I found The Sideways to be a charming place to spend some time in and I very much hope that Meredith writes more stories here. 

THE PAPERBACK
From the moment I saw the simplistic, yet charming cover, I knew I needed to have this one physically. I was delighted to find that ordering a copy directly from the author's website came with so many little bonuses like a lovely bookmark, some cute stickers, and some very fancy packaging on top of my copy being signed! The book itself is nicely put together. The fonts and formatting are all nicely done, though Meredith's books tend to have stingier interior margins than I'd prefer (you don't need to crack the spine or anything to read them, it's just a little tighter than I feel it needs to be). I especially loved the little illustrated glossary of various magical creatures that appear during the coarse of the story. As a nice bonus, the book itself is also the same size as the paperbacks for the author's NEEDLE AND LEAF series, so this sits nicely on the same shelf as those books. All that said, there's nothing super crazy going on formatting-wise, so if you're more of a Kindle person, then I don't think you'll be missing out on too much by reading it that way. Meredith also narrates his own work and does a fantastic job of it, so I'm sure the audio for this is also great.  

CONCLUSION
If you are like me and have been wanting to give the cozy fantasy genre a try, then I think QUAINT CREATURES can serve as an excellent entry point. For more seasoned readers in this category, I can't really speak to how this stacks up against other books within it, but I do think this hit all of the notes that I expected, so I imagine you will not be disappointed either. 

(+) Delightful cast of characters
(+) A nice balance of slice-of-life moments with some longer narrative threads
(+) Even the most mundane of moments were interesting
(+) The Sideways is a fascinating place with lots of fun elements
(+) A paperback that's fits the vibe of the story quite nicely
(+) An adorably illustrated glossary for the titular creatures
(+) Some fun bonuses for those who order a copy directly from the author
(-) The ending didn't need to unfold so rapidly

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