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Darius Finch

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Goblin Squad Member. RPG Superstar 6 Season Dedicated Voter, 7 Season Star Voter. Pathfinder Society Member. 4,074 posts (9,087 including aliases). 3 reviews. No lists. No wishlists. 3 Pathfinder Society characters. 29 aliases.

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How I learned to love elves

****( )

Queen of Thorns is the third book featuring the adventures of Count Jegarre and his partner and bodyguard the hell-spawned Radovan. The first (Prince of Wolves) and second (Master of Devils) each could be considered quasi-parallel stories to help flesh-out the setting of a corresponding adventure path – Prince of Wolves takes place in Ustalav alongside Carrion Crown; while Master of Devils is loosely paired up with the Jade Regent campaign. Queen of Thorns, on the other hand, could be considered a stand-alone piece of fiction in the sense that author Dave Gross is not obviously tied to an ulterior motive, but gets to enjoy telling a story for the sake of the story.

In a way there is a parallel to his other books: not only do the titles form the same Title-of-Noun structure, but again Jegarre and Radovan explore a land alien to them. And, it must be said, alien to the reader: the story takes place in the homeland of the elves, Kyonin. Elves in the Pathfinder setting are quite different to the way they have become mainstream in popular culture (thanks to the Lord of the Rings movies) – where the Tolkienesque elf is akin to Nietsche’s Übermensch, the Pathfinder elves are a lot less human and a lot more fey. Unlike gnomes they do not share an actual fey lineage, but they do have a natural propensity to capricious chaotic-neutralness, much like humans naturally lean toward lawful-neutralness.

Dave Gross is, to me, a master at crafting foreign lands in a way that is both believable and understandable. In the same way that Ustalav and Quain in the previous books come to life with a wealth of cultural and historical details, so too does the land of the elves become a colourful and richly detailed setting as the words tumble through the novel. What makes this outstanding is the subtlety that Dave Gross employs in his work – at no point is the cultural dissemination obvious or like a lecture. But after a while, the reader naturally begins to think and see along the lines of the natives.

This is particularly true when it comes to understanding and appreciating the ways that are natural for the “true” elves: that is to say, ones that are born and raised in Kyonin. Elves from the outside, and particularly half-breed elves like Count Jegarre, are generally treated with considerable disdain – the best a non-Kyonin purebred elf can hope for is to be permitted to stay in an isolated town within Kyonin. On the one hand it can seem cruel and arbitrary, but there are many reasons that become evident – other than just raw discrimination: as a rule, foreign elves are entirely differently acclimatized and even to them the culture and ways of Kyonin elves can be daunting and strange. For example, whereas the nobility in Ustalav is marked by protocol and intrigue, the opening act of Queen of Thorns depicts a frolicking and playful mass orgy that even the queen partakes in disguised as a servant girl.

The story and particularly the people in it are strongly characterized, with opportunity for everybody to shine in their own way. The intensity and difference of Kyonin elves when compared to foreigners (including foreign elves) stands-out in the interaction of characters. The story starts with Jegarre’s desire to have his only parental keepsake, a stately red carriage, repaired. The original fate of the vehicle was told in the first book, Prince of Wolves, where the carriage suffered an unfortunate destruction. The nature of the vehicle is such that only its creator would be capable of restoring it – hence Jegarre’s efforts to track down this man in Kyonin. The difficulty in locating the creator is the impetus in the story for visiting many locations; which allows the story to make the nation of elves come to life in all its wild, untamed splendor and strangeness.

Pathfinder fiction has, by and large, been purposefully limited in terms of the scope – meaning that the caretakers of the setting do not want it to get too out-of-hand with events that require the world itself to change and adapt. The first customer for the setting is the Player, and he should be able to be the change in the world, rather than the Reader, who can read about the changes in the world. That said, Dave Gross uses various tricks to stretch the limits of what can and cannot be done – and in doing so expands the depth of the world in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious. But, in Queen of Thorns, I think he created the most obvious and the most prominent and meaningful impact to the Pathfinder setting, Golarion. I can only assume that Dave Gross beat and James Jacobs in a no-holds-barred game of knivesies and earned the right to stretch the setting a bit.

In closing, Queen of Thorns is the triumphant return of Jegarre and Radovan. The reader is in the fortunate position to enjoy remarkable revelations on both characters – and I suspect that the next book (that Dave Gross hinted will take place in the demon-infested Worldwound) will shed even more light on Radovan’s mysterious existence. Queen of Thorns is thoroughly enjoyable, consistent in style and narration to its predecessors and equally engrossing. I encourage prospective readers to start sooner, rather than later!

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Master Fu

****( )

Paizo doesn't cut corners or make a hash out of selling their campaign setting; this is particularly true with any major new contributions they bring to the setting - such as the continent of Tian Xia. Master of Devils complements the Jade Regent adventure path, along with the campaign setting and primer for the Dragon Empires.

The novel features Count Jegarre, his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan, as well as a slightly unlikely third companion, the hound Arnisant. Jegarre and Radovan's adventures have graced Pathfinder fiction in various forms previously - most notably in the novel Prince of Wolves. As such, avid followers of Paizo stories can enjoy the new exploits and developments in the characters, which lends the novel a certain degree of authenticity. The characters do not merely exist as cardboard cut-outs for the story, but have the luxury of depth and extended development.

The story itself takes place in Quain, a nation of heroes in the continent of Tian Xia - the Dragon Empires. The word "hero" needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (as the novel points out on more than one occasion) and is more intended to mean "warrior of great renown or infamy" - well suited to a nation of warrior monks. As such it should not come as a great surprise that a particularly powerful hero, who calls himself Burning Cloud Devil, creates the main impetus in the story. He uses the quivering palm strike to literally hold the life of Radovan in his hands and uses this to pressure the hellspawned to comply to his demands. At the same time Jegarre and the dog Arnisant each have their own story to follow with many characters and intrigues to fill the pages. All three characters ultimately serve their respective comrades in a way that draws everybody together for the climax of the novel.

The author chooses to tell the story from the first-person narrative; which can be slightly jarring to the reader when he switches between characters. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular character, either Jegarre, Radovan or Arnisant, and consequently narrates in the "I" perspective. Once this becomes apparent to the reader, the flow of the story becomes swift and quite enjoyable - as Dave Gross manages to believably inter-mingle the events between the three main protagonists in such a way that thoughts started by one character get completed by another in a different chapter. Seeing the metaphorical footprints of the various characters in the other characters' storylines creates an enjoyable recognition and makes for an exciting and believable story.

Another feature that draws comment and praise is the change in prose that the author introduces for each protagonist. The first-person narration is intimate and lends itself to a much deeper insight into the psyche of the characters that are portrayed when compared to other styles of narration. In this case the arrogance of Jegarre, the flippant nature of Radovan, and the simple canine thoughts of Arnisant each uniquely color and flavor the chapters in which the respective characters lead - but at the same time make it vividly clear that each of the characters is complete and complex individual. What makes this a particularly appealing proposition is that of introduction: all three of the characters are foreigners in the strange lands of the Dragon Empires. That means each of the three gets introduced and digests a different perspective of the quasi-Asian setting that Paizo has developed, and in the process the reader is naturally given access to these lands as well.

The story is strong and fast-paced, in spite of taking the time to flesh out the flavors and thoughts of a strange continent. I would have thoroughly enjoyed even more of Dave Gross' palette as he brings the world of Tian Xia to life without ever needing to tell the reader "hey, pay attention now, this is what the world is like". His rendition of the capricious Monkey King, his treatment of the disparate and sometimes truly bizarre nature of the kami (a form of spirit), and the sometimes unexpected wisdom of warrior ascetics, to name but a handful, truly colors a rich tapestry - and the subtle nature by which the author does this is worth emphasizing: the story flows naturally, in pleasant swirls and eddies and yet still carried along swiftly to its ultimate conclusion.

I've only had the pleasure of two books in the Pathfinder Tales range - the other being Death's Heretic. Perhaps I am biased, for my love of Eastern stories, but although both are very enjoyable stories, I favor "Master of Devils": the plot and characters are more complex and the various threads are interwoven more richly to produce a thoroughly satisfying story that I do not hesitate to recommend.

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Review: Death's Heretic

***( )( )

I’ve stayed away from Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line of releases until recently and – for better or worse – there’s been a fortunate mix-up when I ordered my first such book (Master of Devils) from Paizo: they accidentally shipped the wrong book and I unpacked Death’s Heretic instead. To Paizo’s credit they didn’t hesitate to gift it to me on-the-house and have included the book I actually ordered in the very next shipment. I’ve thus received my very own personal Christmas gift from Paizo! Huzzah!

In return, I decided, the least I could do was write-up a review of Death’s Heretic:

Salim, the protagonist, is a very unusual man. He is Rahadoumi and shares the atheist views of his people – but he also serves the goddess of death, Pharasma. Nominally he hunts the lesser and greater undead in Pharasmas name, but in Death’s Heretic Salim is called to an unusual task. He must uncover a mystery in which a soul has been stolen from the Boneyard of the death goddess herself. He is accompanied by the aristocratic daughter of the victim and their search takes them from the deserts of Thuvia across the multiverse through a variety of strange locations.

The author, James L. Sutter, is obviously intimately acquainted with the setting that Paizo have created for themselves, and it is a joy to explore the exotic locales that James paints. I was particularly enamored with the descriptions of the city of Axis and the First World, both of which carve a vivid image in the reader’s mind. Where the story does come short is in its omissions, some chapters introduce vibrantly crafted characters – such as the Jackal and the Harlot – only to let them fade to obscurity once they have served their primary function. Perhaps weaving them into the continuing story would have required prohibitive page real-estate, given how the story marches onward through diverse planes and locations, but a curt nod would have been appreciated.

The narrative flows smoothly and, given the many-planar premise of the story, it mercifully keeps to the protagonist Salim throughout its course. The questions that are raised in the course of the reading are answered in a manner that evolves naturally from the story. There is a refreshing lightness to the novel when compared to the far-reaching complexity of some other works, such as The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson; and I mean this in more than just the scope of pages. The universe around Golarion – the campaign setting Paizo has created – is centered on a certain degree of staticness – you will not find grand sweeping tales that change the face of the world, as the world is the semi-constant stage on which numerous tales get spun. Instead heroes are of the caliber that we expect from the Pathfinder RPG: powerful and yet human in both their potency and impotency.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Death’s Heretic, it’s easy to digest and sets the stage for a promising character, Salim Ghadafar, in future books. It does not, by itself, create the kind of literary legacy that is spoken about in hushed or emphatic tones, but perhaps it is a prologue to such a masterwork.

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