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Mourners is a good novella that should have been a great novel


Disclosure: I am acquainted with Ripley and we are members of a writers' group together.

Mourners is a good novella that should have been a great novel.

The plot is, at its core, a love/hate letter to the Pathfinder roleplaying game (and its D&D antecedent), especially the manichaean Good-Evil/Lawful-Chaotic alignment system and the Paladin class. Anastasia (Ana) is a novice paladin sent along with her master to overthrow the Scarlet Princess, who has toppled the lawful government of the city of Shatterdown. They are greeted enthusiastically by the populace, who seem secure and prosperous, and who throw flowers at their feet. Unfortunately, they turn out too loyal to the Princess, Ainsley, and take the paladins prisoner.

Shory story shorter, Ana is required to remain in Shatterdown as a member of Ainsley's inner circle, the Scum, given ironic titles: Duke, a drow knight; Contessa, a teen technomagical genius; Margrave, a pirate captain who feeds on fear (and is possibly the most evil character I've seen recently); and Sybil, a healer and the Scum's moderating force. Against her wishes, Ana is given a title too: Bishop. She meets each other Scum in turn, and each, along with Ainsley, assists in her training. She also learns about their personal history and what brought them to be "evil", a proces that leads to her questioning the utility of the system.

Eventually, as was inevitable in this genre of books, a world-threatening plot is revealed and our heroes and antiheroes are required to sally forth to meet the omnicidal villains. There's also a love story in there.

The book is tightly plotted and has some of the more interesting characters I've seen in a while. It avoids all of the worst traps of a first-time writer. No character is perfect (good gods they are not), but nor has Ripley overcorrected and laden them with so many flaws that one wonders why one should care about them. Cause follows effect, which in turn becomes cause; there is no serendipity or eucatastrophe to save the chararacters and they must instead save themselves. There's clearly a living world in his head, but he doesn't try to make the book an atlas. Most importantly for this book, it creates believable "evil" characters, people who could easily be the villains of your average fantasy novel or D&D campaign, but also makes it difficult to hate them and easy to root for them. There's no wondering why Ana decides to pitch in with them.

Unfortunately, this is really too much to fit into 158 pages. Pacing suffers, with too many timeskips. The descriptions are a bit too spare. I said before that Ripley doesn't try to treat us to a grand tour of his world, but it would be nice to have some set pieces to contribute to themes and atmosphere, as well as to give something more to interact with besides each other. Most of all, while the characters we see are fleshed out, too many interactions—especially, to my mind, Ana's training sessions with Duke—are glossed over and so we don't get to see enough of their relationships' growth. The reader sees why, but not how.

(Also, while this won't be an issue for everyone, I found it mildly jarring to spot mechanics from the Pathfinder RPG I'm familiar with. The one exception to this is Sybil's trick to keep our heroes alive during their combat with the archetypal guardian of the underworld; that was just clever. If this doesn't bother you, or you've never played D&D or Pathfinder, this won't be a problem.)

Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable read that treats its characters, even—especially—the evil ones, with compassion.

While I finished Mourners unsatisfied, I am looking forward to his next work. And if Ripley happens to return to Mourners and expand it into a novel, I'll be first in line to order it.