PUBLISHER: PENGUIN AUDIO AND REBELLION PUBLISHING| RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
2000AD’s biggest contribution to the fantasy genre is Sláine, a reworking of various Celtic myths mixed with various barbarian hero tropes. This muddy take on the swords and sorcery genre started out as a pretty straight-forward homage to the likes of Conan but over the years evolved into something with a lot more depth and engagement. The Horned God is considered one of the best stories in the Sláine cannon, as it brings together many of the elements that have made this series endure for decades. This probably explains why Penguin Audio and Rebellion Publishing have given it the full cast audio treatment.
The story brings together multiple plot threads from earlier books and sees Sláine as a king. He only has seven years before he is ritually returned to the Earth and his goal is the defeat the festering corruption that threatens his lands, namely in the form of Lord Weird Slough Feg, a crazed death worshipping demi-god. Sláine must bring together powerful treasures to defeat this darkness.
Writer Pat Mill’s is quite correctly regarded as one of the industry’s legends and his work is well known for its solid approach to social and political commentary. However, in the case of Slaine, the comic strip has always hinged on amazing fantasy art. After all, you can’t have a barbarian fantasy without bulging muscles and gore, and graphic novel version of the Horned God heavily relied on Simon Bisley’s striking and exaggerated art to tell the more exciting parts of the story.
As the audio has to rely heavily on Mill’s writing, this means that much of the writer’s excesses are very obvious to the listener. The Horned God becomes a very straight-forward subversion of the usual male power fantasy this sort of story tends to be. Sláine is not only fighting Feg and his corrupt forces, but also toxic masculinity and the clichés that drag fantasy stories down.
This adaptation is very faithful to the original work, and as such, Mill’s urge to break the fourth wall and tell the reader exactly what he’s doing is all the more obvious here. It’s not enough to break down the structure of myth and deconstruct the male gaze, the listener is explicitly told this is going on. Without Bisley’s art to run interference, this is all the more apparent and a little draining in places.
Fortunately, the actual audio production more than makes up for it. Colin Morgan is brilliant as the brutal yet cunning Slaine, but it’s Gerry O'Brien who steals the show as Ukko the Dwarf. Much of the narration is told in Ukko’s croaky and knowing tones and O’Brien nails the humour of the character every time. Gemma Whelan is also a delight in her various roles, as is Ayoola Smart. The soundscape for the various battles is appropriately epic and though the music and effects don’t quite capture Bisley’s art, they have a very good try.
At its heart, this is a solid fantasy tale that is well worth a listen. We would love to see audio and visual combine to turn Sláine into a truly epic spectacle some day, but right now, this epic audio hits the spot.