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Possibly the best Expansion ever, following one of the best Archetypes ever.Orthos —
You know, I could go on for an hour about how I just spent a day making one of these, how much fun they look to play, how intuitive and imaginative the system is, how easy it is to use the pre-made masks and how cool it is that you can still make your own, and on and on and on. But when push comes to shove, there's really not a whole lot I can add that Endzeitgeist didn't already write, so I heavily encourage people to read his review and add a universal +1 from me to just about everything.
The one complaint I'd have is that a single feat was a bit confusing in how it's worded, but Mark Seifter was more than kind enough to come by and clarify it (on a Saturday even!) and it makes pretty good sense now, so even that's not all that big a deal. (The feat is Chimeric Masquerade and the explanation is on page 2 of the discussion, if you're looking for it.)
So yeah. Get this. Get it now. You will not regret it one bit.
Demons, Danger, Destruction, Deviltry, Deception, and the Divine!Orthos —
After my less-than-enthused completion of Queen of Thorns, I was eagerly looking forward to King of Chaos for two reasons - one to get away from Kyonin and the elves, which as stated in my prior review I don't much care for and I think much of their culture hurt the actual story of QoT; and two, to get a look inside Oparal's head. I wanted to like the paladin so much in the prior story, but she came off too much like the Lawful Angry stick-up-the-anatomy paladins you hear so much complaining about on forums like these. I wanted Hinjo and got Miko Miyazaki, in other words.
King of Chaos remedied so much of that. Since the weak point of Queen of Thorns was, in my opinion, the cast, I'll begin there with this one then discuss the plot. The characters in this story are so much more interesting, more well-rounded, and above all much less frustrating, irritating, or plot-derailing.
Radovan is his usual awesome self, and we get a nice view into the nature of his fiendish heritage and the strange bond he has with his progenitors in this story. The one-liners and smart-aleck commentary never cease to amuse.
Varian plays up the best and the worst of the scholarly mage archetype, delving into magical theory with and against a Sorcerer and a Summoner and showing the ins and outs of research into dangerous heretical texts. We also get a little more of his Pathfinder background, an examination of his divided loyalties, and lo and behold, some great character development, both story-wise and mechanically.
Oparal returns, this time as a perspective character, and she has GREATLY improved as a cast member. While she's still stern, taciturn, and overly formal, it's far less frustrating and inflexible compared to how she was portrayed in Queen of Thorns. She even attempts to crack a joke with her soldiers in the first chapter - admittedly it's not a very good one, and she herself says so, but the fact that she tried is itself a testament to the character's improved presentation from the prior story. Tensions between her and Radovan still run high, but on more than one occasion it's Oparal speaking in his defense, something I thoroughly appreciate and approve of, and would have sadly never expected out of her as she was portrayed in Queen of Thorns.
Then there are the new, non-perspective characters. In addition to Radovan and Varian's hired mercenaries and Oparal's elite crusaders, each of which are fairly unique and get their own moments of awesome screen-time, even if small, there are two that particularly stand out: Jelani, a crusader sorceress, and Alase, a Sarkoran Summ... err, I mean "God-Caller" and Varian's hired guide, along with her eidolon Tonbarse. Both of these women were extremely entertaining and interesting to add to the cast, providing unique new perspectives on magic and the locales of the Worldwound, and interesting reactions to the main protagonists.
And now for the plot. VERY excellently written, and a thoroughly fitting successor to the prior three stories. This one hits my high points up there with Master of Devils in so many ways. I love the descriptions of the Worldwound, the nature of the fiendishly-tainted countryside, the broken culture, the demonic cults, and the sinister dealings going on as the cast - protagonists and antagonists alike - vie for advantage. I would almost go as far as to say that King of Chaos should be required reading for anyone planning to run, or maybe even play in, Wrath of the Righteous, as it introduces the Worldwound and its component organizations in such a thorough, descriptive way.
And the MAGIC!! There is so much magic in this book, and it's beautifully and thoroughly described. Wizards, clerics, paladins, sorcerers, summoners! All of them doing what they do best, and doing it well. I would recommend this book for just that on its own - an excellent literary description of how magic works from a first- and second-hand point of view in the Pathfinder/Golarion reality.
I highly recommend this book. Immensely so. If you, like me, were troubled or bothered by the presentations of the characters in Queen of Thorns, especially Oparal, fear not - this book makes up for it and then some. And if you weren't, it's a great story on its own, regardless. Very worth the five stars.
An Excellent Story... if only the Characters would stop getting in the way.Orthos —
After Master of Devils, which I thought was amazing and thoroughly entertaining and had me psyched for the next book in the series, it was all I could do to restrain myself from diving straight into Queen of Thorns right that second. That eagerness was fairly quickly tempered when I discovered this next book was set in Kyonin, home of the Elves. Not enough to blunt my interest in the story to be told, but it certainly put a hesitance on my rush to read.
I'm not a huge fan of Elves, you see. The vast majority of published settings, Golarion included, have never portrayed them in a way that gets me interested in them as a race or a culture. I'm fond of the concept of Forlorn Elves - one that comes up quite a few times in this book - but pretty much everything else about the race I tend to find lacking. "Oh well, at least we'll still have Varian, Radovan, and Arnisant, which should provide plenty of entertainment on their own, right?" Which it did.
The story here is amazing. Varian has come to Kyonin, after earning a special pass that allows a rare non-elf to visit the inner cities, to track down his never-met father and see to the repairs of his beloved Red Carriage, destroyed all the way back in Prince of Wolves. As expected, tracking down the wandering elf is no simple matter, and eventually a ragtag group of escorts, protectors, spies, and guides is gathered up to lead the count and his bodyguard/partner/friend through the forested wilderness. Along the way they encounter ancient magic, bizarre creations, demons galore, forgotten ruins, and - I'd call it a spoiler but it's right there on the cover - an ancient green dragon.
The plot itself is great. When it was rolling and things were happening, I was thrilled. The adventure, the action, the intrigue, the mystery, the magic - good grief, the magic! More magic gets flung around in the last couple of chapters of this book that the entirety of Prince of Wolves! It's all here, and it's all amazing.
If only the cast wouldn't keep derailing things.
(I'll try to avoid spoilers from here on but I might mistakenly share a couple, so be warned.)
Joining the errant count and his retinue in this book are three elves and a gnome, provided by the Queen of Kyonin and her court as escorts, guides, and minders/babysitters for the visiting outsiders on their quest.
The first of these escorts introduced is Kameili, an Inquisitor of Calistra and the winner of "least favorite character" for this book. Kameili has only two modes: flirtatious and violent. Every time she shows up, she's either flirting with Radovan (and on a few occasions with Varian) or trying to encourage Radovan to do something violent, usually to the paladin (who I'll discuss shortly), over some petty sleight. She's 100% in character for a Calistran, and a living example of why Calistra is one of my least favorite deities in the Golarion setting. She also provided a lust-target for Radovan, which I felt was tiresome enough back when it popped up in Prince of Wolves, and this is far more prominent and more heavily leaning on the plot, which makes it all the more irritating for me. Some people like a lot of that sort of thing in their stories; I am not one of them. I much prefer the way his rambling nature was expressed in Master of Devils: where his propositions were either usually shot down or handled quickly and quietly off-screen and the plot forwarded to the next morning or jumped back to Jeggare.
Second is Oparal, a Forlorn Elf Paladin of Iomedae. I really, really wanted to like Oparal. I really did. I love Paladins, they're one of my favorite classes. I like Iomedae, much much more than Calistra; she's not my personal first choice for a Paladin patron - that honor goes to Sarenrae - but she's definitely in the top five. And I love the concept of Forlorn Elves - in the rare occasions I play Elves, they're always Forlorn (even back before I had been introduced to Golarion and had the concept of "elves not raised among elven society" given a name). But Oparal is everything people hate about having a Paladin in the party. To quote a grumbling rant I posted about halfway through the book:
I do not feel she greatly improved in her flaws over the course of the book either. However, as she'll be rejoining the cast in King of Chaos, I'm still holding out hope for her showing some severe character development in the readings ahead.
The third guide is Caladrel, a Ranger. He's pretty awesome, and Gross does an excellent job of showing off a master ranger and huntsman working at his best in his home terrain. Of the elf characters in the book, he was my favorite.
But of the new cast members, he was second to my favorite character short of Varian and Radovan themselves - the Gnome Druid, Fimbulthicket. Oh man, this guy was AWESOME. A Gnome Druid who is all about the Golarion druidic religion, the Green Faith, and his connection to his fey nature. He also happens to be suffering from the Bleaching, the strange disease that plagues Golarion's Gnomes, and we get a firsthand experience of what it's like to watch a Gnome suffer from this malady. Every scene he was in was amazing, heartrending, or hilarious. I really, really hope we can get Dave Gross to write more about Gnomes in the future, and that anyone else writing Gnomes in Golarion take a few notes from Fimbulthicket.
So there you have it. If I were to rate this on the value of the plot alone, it'd be five stars easily. But the cast... maybe if Kemeili and Oparal had been slightly less front-focus characters, their antics might have left a less sour taste in my mouth. But as it is, almost any scene where one or both of them was at center stage, it felt distracting and disorienting, and only proceeded to delay the progress of the plot. Honestly I think the book as a whole would have been much better if Kemeili hadn't been included at all - I can't think of much that would be lost to the events that occurred in the story by removing her presence.
If sultry, vengeful elves and their like are your cup of tea, you'll love this book. If they're not, like they aren't mine, brace yourselves because there's a lot of them, but the plot underneath is still excellent despite them.
Schemes and Sorcery in the Far East!Orthos —
A very, very fun story starring once again Varian Jeggare and his companion/bodyguard/partner Radovan, and promoted to full cast member for the first time Jeggare's wolfhound pet Arnisant, whose surprising role as a central, narrating character caught me pleasantly off-guard.
As the three are separated during a bandit attack that goes horribly wrong when a pack of tigers shows up, all three suddenly find themselves being propelled in unexpected directions through the landscape of Golarion's Far East.
Jeggare becomes an unwitting student at a monastery, where he must overcome the distaste of his fellow students for a "foreign devil" and his own Chelish pride while investigating the mysteries surrounding a beautiful princess, a mysterious bodyguard, and one of his elite fellow students.
Radovan finds himself prisoner to Burning Cloud Devil, the titular Master of Devils, a vengeful sorcerer and self-proclaimed King of Heroes who is on a mission of destruction with Radovan as his weapon of choice, on pain of a very unpleasant death. Bonus points to Dave for the frequent inclusion of the amusing phrase "my g@$~@!ned little brother".
And Arnisant, separated from his master and his best friend, seeks out the aid of the kami Judge Fang, who leads him on a quest to gather spirits, beasts, and other mysterious entities for an impending conflict, and along the way proves himself as much a hero as his two humanoid companions.
The three viewpoints are far improved and much more balanced than in Prince of Wolves, where it seemed all the entertaining or action-packed chapters tended to be in Radovan's narration and Jeggare's chapters tended to be slower-paced. Watching the three separate storylines interweave and move steadily and inexorably toward their inevitable collision was a fun ride, and leaves me eager for more of Gross's work and excellent characters.
And here's hoping this isn't the last we see of Arnisant's narration. The first few of his chapters had me rolling in laughter, especially with Gust and the Goblin-who-Swallowed-the-Wind, the unnamed spider woman (I presume intended to be a Jorogumo), and the Great Turtle.
On to Queen of Thorns!
An engaging start, minus some speedbumpsOrthos —
An adventuresome little story that admittedly takes a bit of getting used to the format at first. I wasn't expecting a first-person narrative from a story I'd been informed in advance had two central protagonists, and it took a bit to figure out when the chapters changed perspectives. By the end of the novel however it was easy to determine just based on the first line or two of dialogue - Varian and Radovan's internal narrations are vastly different, fitting for two characters so starkly unlike one another.
The story itself was interesting, kept me wanting to read more and solve the mystery, and almost all the characters were memorable and easily identifiable. I do have to agree with some of the other reviews that Varian at the beginning was very off-putting, but he does improve over the course of the book and I presume in hindsight that his initial presentation was meant to be a turn-off so the reader could see his development over time. Radovan on the other hand was appreciable from the get-go, and with few exceptions his narration tended to cover the more interesting or entertaining chapters. Hopefully in future novels in the series it'll be more balanced between the two.