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Book Review: The Elfish Gene – Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe

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My first encounter with Dungeons and Dragons was as a young teenage boy. I had played off and on for a couple of years, eventually dropping the interest as I entered college and became a bit more pressed for time. The memories and life lessons that I took from the game and the people that I played with are still with me today. When I first heard of Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange, my first reaction as a former player was, “I got to read this book.” It was one of my best impulse decisions to date.

Mark Barrowcliffe is a British writer noted for his dark sense of humor. His other books include Girlfriend 44, Infidelity for First-Time Fathers, and Lucky Dog. The Elfish Gene is Barrowcliffe’s memoir about growing up consumed with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and the affect it has had on his life.

As I said above, my decision to read this book was based on pure impulse. I wanted to see how someone else who had played the game viewed their experiences with it. I found that I in no way took the game to heart as much as Barrowcliffe did, but I could relate to almost every page he wrote. I think the magic behind this is that, whether you grew up engulfed by D&D or anything else (music, sports, etc.), you will find a bit of yourself within these pages. That or you will begin to understand the inner workings of teenage boys.

Barrowcliffe writes one of the most true to life coming-of-age stories I have ever read. His masterful sense of humor and wonderful writing style make this book a tough one to put down. Honestly the only things that made me take a break from reading it were work, school, and the occasional bit of eating and sleeping.

The Elfish Gene begins with Barrowcliffe’s life before D&D and how he came to be engulfed in the world of fantasy and wargaming. Even if the only dice you have ever picked up have been six-sided, Barrowcliffe does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the world of D&D. He covers not only various rules, playable classes, and the personalities of the people who play (I could match almost every character in this book to someone that I played with in real-life), but he also shows the progression of the game throughout the years, the cultural influences that interacted with the gaming world, and myths associated with the game and its players. Within these pages are insightful reflections on the changes in societal trends, music, and the priorities of teenage boys.

In addition to a great story about D&D, Barrowcliffe has put together a wonderful tale about growing up. He begins as a very annoying and oblivious youth and grows up (sort of) into someone with a little more understanding of the world he once lived in and the one he has found himself in today. What I enjoyed most about this book was not the subject matter, but Barrowcliffe’s ability to have the reader share in his life experiences. I cringed at the embarrassing moments and laughed out loud at some of the bizarre displays of poor-judgment he reflects on in each chapter. I laughed so hard at one point that I had tears in my eyes and passed the book to a friend. Even though they had no experience with D&D and only read one page of the book, they found it as funny and entertaining as I did. I think that is the mark a great writer. Barrowcliffe has the ability to take a subject familiar to a very select group of people and make it accessible and entertaining to everyone who reads his book.

Each chapter connects the reader more and more to Borrowcliffe himself (past and present), D&D, and his close childhood friends. The people in the book become more than just names on a page as each chapter progresses. The reader truly gets to understand the personalities and inner workings of almost every person as if they were friends with them themselves. I felt sorrow at the loss of friendships and touched by the conclusion at the end of the book where Barrowcliffe updates the reader on what happened to each of his gaming buddies years after he let go of the game. It was an amazing experience witnessing the growth from desperate attempts for acceptance and self understanding to a deep understanding of what it means to grow up and accept the wonders that exist in the real world.

If you have ever played D&D or any variant of the game, you definitely need to read The Elfish Gene. It is a nice reminder, no matter your level of involvement with the game, that you are not alone. For everybody else, I would still highly recommend the book because it is a wonderful story about growing up and understanding life. In addition to that, it is one of the funniest and most entertaining books I have had the pleasure to read in a long time. I have no shame in admitting that The Elfish Gene now rests alongside my personal collection of rulebooks and character sheets.

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