In the deep forests of Kyonin, elves live among their own kind, far from the prying eyes of other races. Few of impure blood are allowed beyond the nation’s borders, and thus it’s a great honor for the half-elven Count Varian Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan to be allowed inside. Yet all is not well in the elven kingdom: demons stir in its depths, and an intricate web of politics seems destined to catch the two travelers in its snares. In the course of tracking down a missing druid, Varian and a team of eccentric elven adventurers will be forced to delve into dark secrets lost for generations—including the mystery of Varian’s own past.
From fan favorite Dave Gross, author of Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils, comes a fantastical new adventure set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
Here's part of what I said when I reviewed "King of Chaos": About page 33 of the new Dave Gross Novel "King of Chaos" I realized it was part of a series. About page 44 I went ahead and ordered the other three books in the series, but since I was already hooked, I kept reading....
I like reading fantasy novels, sometimes including those set in a gaming universe. The problem with those is sometimes the authors are third tier , hired to crank out some hack books just to support the game side. Not so with Pathfinder Tales. James Sutter, the Editor, has taken great care to get some solid authors for his line of Pathfinder Tales fiction.
Now, sometimes the authors come out with a fantasy tale, which other than the setting, is not particularly `set" in that gaming universe. The characters don't have "classes', don't use a lot of easily recognizable spells, and magic items are few and far between, unless they are a macguffin. This works as it gets in readers who don't play that particular fantasy roleplaying game.
But as one of my friends was complaining, they don't read as if they are set in one of those High Fantasy High Magic universes. I mean sure- the locations are there, but where's the magic?
Well, this one does. There are scads of spells being tossed around here, not to mention magic items. Characters use scrolls, quaff healing potions, and fire spells which are clearly from the pages of the Player Handbook. Most of the characters (other than those with a mysterious secret background, of course!) are clearly identifiable as to their class, and those who track the spells, etc used can even get a fair guess as to level. Summoners summon their eidolons, wizards burn thru scrolls like it's my Friday nite game, Paladins lay on hands, etc.
This is cool, fun & refreshing. And the combats! Ah here, Dave Gross excels! Our heroes are fighting a literal legion of demons from the depths, not to mention a despicable Undead Lord, who is definitely not sexy or sparkly. "
So, after ordering the prior three books, of course I am now reading them and finding them just as enjoyable as I thought. I have just finished with the last (which is the next to last as I read the 4th book first- confused yet?): “Queen of Thorns” whereupon our brave team of Pathfinder Investigators delves (too) deeply into Sylvan secrets, including some interesting enigmas and mysteries of both Count Varian Jeggare and his hellspawn bodyguard Radovan.
I have talked about the great actions sequences and combat scenes Dave is known for. I forgot to mention the banter, which is filled with little digs, humor and double entendre. What’s also cool is that now that I have read this far, I really feel like I really know these two characters and am invested in and care for them. It’s hard to write fantasy where you get so involved with the characters. These guys are all too human…even if technically they’re only half-human.
Besides Varian and Radovan we also get more about their faithful hound and are introduced to a paladin , a uncanny gnome, a ranger, not to mention someone interesting from the Count’s mysterious past.
A real page turner, fun and with plenty of action.
So much potential, so few actual details. from the first scene all the way through, the book brushed against, and touched on things that could have made the elven kingdom come to life, it never quite got there. While the two main characters remained interesting, and the book fit well within their continuing story, it never really managed to let the reader see what was going on around them through their eyes in a way that made Kyonin seem any different from any other region. It's greatest shortcoming in my opinion, and that it forced one to pull out 'Elves of Golarion' to try and get more information. As a stand alone story it was fairly dry, lacking in drama and suspense, even in the heart of combat, but as part of a larger tale it fits.
Repeated plot structure and understatement bog this down
I hold Dave Gross's stories of Jeggare and Radovan in rather high esteem, and I most certainly enjoyed "Prince of Wolves", the first book in their series (I also read about their adventures in Westcrown, in the Council of Thieves adventure path, which I also enjoyed a great deal). Something about this concept of a sort of a fantasy Sherlock Holmes with a twist really sparks my interest, and the writing is always excellent.
However this time, I think the story is a bit of a miss in several aspects(WARNING - MASSIVE BOOK SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!!!)
1) Understatement. Some of the things Radovan and his boss encounter during this story are serious, high end D&D stuff - for example, an ancient green dragon, and one of the most powerful demons from the bestiary. While those monsters should fill me, the reader, with awe and fear, they really don't. Because, as it seems, the characters themselves aren't all that afraid.
More broadly speaking, there is a distinct lack of menace from the bad guys in this book. How many encounters with howling demonic hordes can I read, each time finding out the characters win the fight easily and emerge unscathed, before the demons start losing their menace? Near the end of the book, with the shocking discovery that several devils perch in Hell, monitoring Radovan and waiting for a chance to come forth to our world... the book kind of just shrugs this off. When Radovan speaks with the devils they sound more like a group of old ladies having a tea party and playing Bridge than like a group of beings of pure malice should. How can I be intimidated by a bunch of polite speaking fiends, when even Radovan isn't, not at the slightest?
I felt much more afraid for Radovan when he challenged that Lycantrope for a duel in "Prince of Wolves" than when he faced dozens of demons in this book. To me, that shows that this time around Dave Gross went SO over the top with the bad guys, that I wasn't really able to buy into the story. Certainly, the way some of the most terrifying monsters in the game were described was lackluster. I can get the Jeggare would describe everything in his dry, pragmatic, understated way... but Radovan's chapters are written like that, too, and the minor characters also act totally unintimidated.
2) Repeating story structure. The story in this book is remarkably similar in many aspects to "The Prince of Wolves", to the point where one wonders if we'll ever get a different story with these characters. It begins with the pair delving deep into a new land to find someone Jeggare holds dear, who's footsteps disappeared some time ago. By the end of the story, Radovan exposes an ability to transform into a powerful devil, which saves him during the last fight, a seemingly friendly noble is exposed as a traitor, and the story ends with both the main characters displaying a new level of affection to each other, and a witty one liner by one of them. Oh, and let's not forget to mention that once more Radovan is torn between lust for a sexy, adventurous woman with an ulterior motive, to his true affection to a more worthy woman. Kind of feels like a pattern.
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!
Dave Gross has proven more than apt in balancing good storytelling with recognizable game mechanics. Even better is his grasp of (Pathfinder game world) Golarion as a sort of character in itself, rather than just a place in which some adventures happen to occur. And I love that he plays the long game, allowing mysteries to unravel episodically, over the course of multiple titles. I recommend his work as most excellent.