Wondrous Wit Smackdown! The Pleasure of Witty Repartee

What is it about witty banter that thrills our souls so? How is it that some stories may be weak on plot, on action, or lack a compelling setting, yet they can still rivet us so long as a silver-tongued duo is at the center of the scene? Of course, it’s so much better if the plot and action and setting are all backed up or enhanced by character interactions. There’s something incredibly pleasing about the lobbing back and forth of subtle insults (or not-so-subtle) or the casual joking of characters as they dash headlong into danger, using humor as their way to avoid directly admitting that they might die at any instant at the hands of whatever monster or fiend they may be facing.

Banter often also can be a way that two characters who, on the surface, appear to have an intense distaste for one another, are still able to convey a grudging fondness or even admiration for one another that they would rather not have others pick up on overtly. Let’s admit that a battle of wits can often be more exciting and entertaining than a clash of swords! So let’s look at several stories where the banter brings a grin to even the grimmest of circumstances.

THE HAMMER AND THE BLADE by Paul S. Kemp

THE RUNDOWN: Meet Egil and Nix, two swords for hire who are trying to turn from a life of dungeon robbing and scheming to become somewhat reputable businessmen. Unfortunately, buying one of the most rundown and rowdy brothels in the city doesn’t exactly provide the firmest foundation for their new endeavor. But when one of the local families forces the pair into a quest to retrieve an ancient and dangerous relic, Egil and Nix must determine where their loyalties lie and what they’re willing to sacrifice to survive.

THE CONTRAST: The Hammer and the Blade is told in a classic sword and sorcery fashion, where the land abounds with devils and demons and dark secrets. Egil and Nix aren’t necessarily heroes in the traditional sense, but even when their focus is on acquiring riches and satisfying their various pleasures, they’re still willing to rise to the defense of the weaker and innocent around them – even if it requires a bit of underhanded dealings. Their back-and-forth banter is one of the highlights of the story, as they almost constantly verbally spar with one another or with anyone stupid enough to pick a battle of wits with them.

THE LIVES OF TAO, by Wesley Chu

THE RUNDOWN: What if you woke up one day with a voice in your head that claimed to be an all-wise, all-knowing alien lifeform? That’s exactly what happens to self-admitted loser Roen Tan, who discovers he’s been swept up in an alien war that has been the basis of all human history (for millions of years, in fact). The alien in his mind, Tao, tries to guide Roen out of a lifestyle of laziness and junk food and self-doubt, but it’s uncertain whether Roen will rise to the challenge and find the strength necessary to fight off those who are looking to track down and eliminate Tao once and for all.

THE CONTRAST: The Lives of Tao is a great buddy story conveyed in a science fiction fashion, with an almost old cop/young cop approach to Roen and Tao’s relationship. Tao is constantly trying to push Roan beyond his limits, mentally, physically, and otherwise, while Roen is simply trying to adjust to the reality that he is now host to an alien who has guided numerous historical figures to fame (such as Genghis Khan). One of the greatly entertaining parts of the novel is simply learning how much the aliens have influenced humanity, from the earliest days of our evolution to the development of modern technology.

QUEEN OF THORNS, by Dave Gross

THE RUNDOWN: When Count Varian Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan are invited to visit a secretive elven court, at first it seems a high honor. However, as is often the case with the elves, many schemes and machinations are already in play in the background, and the Varian is soon set on a task to track down and discover the fate of a druid lost in the depths of the forest. Traveling with an odd collection of adventurers and explorers, Radovan and Varian discover a devilish plot in play that could unleash a terrible force on the land if not stopped.

THE CONTRAST: Queen of Thorns is one of a handful of novels telling the tales of Count Varian and Radoven, as they duel, debate, and * their way across the lands of Golarion. Being royalty, Varian is a bit high-browed and highly intellectual in his approach to any problem they encounter; on the other hand, Radovan is a shameless rogue who loves little more than coin, women, and having a nice jacket. The two have an undeniable chemistry, often sparking verbal flares against one another as they take quite polar approaches to whatever dilemma they find themselves in at any given time.

THE VERDICT

Dave Gross’ Queen of Thorns is an excellent addition to the Pathfinder Tales novels, and Radovan and Varian are favorites among the loyal readership. However this particular novel, while not absolutely requiring you to have previous reading experience with the two, could still benefit if you started out with some of his earlier entries in this world. Without a doubt, it’s entertaining and the characters are unfailingly unique, but you may want to understand a bit more of the back story before you delve into this one.

In The Hammer and the Blade, Egil and Nix’s interactions are often the centerpiece of the action. In itself, the story doesn’t rise much above the standard quest for a relic that many sword and sorcery stories are based on. You really go into this one for the characters. The plot is certainly serviceable, with the usual twists and turns and double-crosses and otherwise that you would expect. But it won’t necessarily push past any expectations, and so the most enjoyable element is really the wit and companionship that the two men display towards one another.

So, if you haven’t already, I’m going to suggest giving The Lives of Tao the go in this instance. It has such a unique premise, but remains grounded in many of the relational dynamics that you’ll have come to enjoy in other formats or genres. While it’s set against the background of the deadly serious alien war, which claims numerous lives throughout the course of the story, the lighthearted banter between Roen and Tao gives this tale excellent energy and humor, bringing the characters to life even more so than if they were just caught up in their own thoughts.

Now that we’ve got that sorted out, tell me if I’ve overlooked a particular pair or story that’s defined by banter that you’ve come to love. Clever dialogue is always a welcome addition, and protagonists with sharp or slick tongues can make for some of the most intriguing and entertaining characters out there. After all, the pen may be mightier than the sword…

…but where would the pen be without witty words to scrawl?

15 thoughts on “Wondrous Wit Smackdown! The Pleasure of Witty Repartee”

  1. is it only “banter” if the characters appear at first to dislike each other but are actually fond of each other? I’ve got some books in mind that have some witty and brilliant dialog, but I’m not sure if it would be considered banter.

    1. I don’t think banter has to be based on dislike or aggression, no. I was just saying it often seems used to mask that sort of interaction on more humorous terms. What books did you have in mind?

      1. I was thinking Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, where everyone is friends, but there is a lot banter and teasing back and forth. And Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World, which just has flat out brilliant banter-y dialog. I’ve seen it used as more gentle teasing between friends than a tsundere (I don’t like you, but really I do like you) type thing.

  2. There were highpoints in The Hammer and the Blade? Really? Probably the most disappointing book I (partially) read this year, given the high praise it received around the traps. Clunky, dull and ssssslllllllooooowwwwww. And could someone advise me of the witty banter allegedly contained in the book? Because I’ll be buggered if I saw any evidence of it.

    1. Sorry to hear it was a letdown for you. Most folks I’ve bumped into who’ve read it have enjoyed it, but we all have different tastes, for sure.

      1. I agree with you, Josh. Discourse in Steel has more banter between the lead pair, as one might expect.

  3. I would add Matthew Hughes’ Archonate novels and stories. He is a master of witty characters, whether two verbally spar or one verbally abuses, as well as of tight plotting. I recommend in particular his collections Nine Tales of Henghis Hapthorn and The Meaning of Luff and Other Stories.

  4. I second Mr. Grant’s recommendation of Hughes’ Henghis Hapthorn stories.

    I’ve just read Toby Smith’s SPACE CAPTAIN SMITH and very much enjoyed it’s silly humor. Easily recommended for a good story with laugh out loud moments.

    1. Having recently listened to Redshirts, yeah, it does seem to be a feature of John’s fiction. It’s especially noticeable in audiobook format.

  5. There’s some great repartee, as well as swordplay, in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint (also known as Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners). I loved it as a book, but I’m also longing for the opportunity to hear the audio version, which won the Audie Award for Best Audio Drama.

  6. Some other authors who do witty repartee: Michael. J Sullivan, Glen Cook (Garrett Files), Richard Kadrey, Jim Butcher (Dresden series) and Charles Strode (Laundry series).

    Wow… guess I really do have a “type”. :-)

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