I just finished Isles of the Shackles, the last of the four Paizo setting books that came with my aforementioned shipment of Paizo books on order from Amazon. And just in time! If the package tracker on Amazon is to be believed, the other two books that were on pre-order arrived in town earlier this morning, and should be waiting for me at home when I get there later today. And although I have to do some Cub Scouts work, and I promised my wife that I'd clean the bathrooms while she folds laundry after that, I hope to still have time to flip through the two new books and maybe start reading the shorter of them, Blood of Angels--aasimar-themed counterpart to the Blood of Fiends which I recently read and reviewed.
I put off reading Shackles for a while, in part because I actually expected it to be my favorite of the current crop, and wanted to end that run "on a bang." As it turns out, Distant Worlds probably will end up having been my favorite of the four that I got in that shipment, and Shackles which, while still interesting, somehow managed to be a bit less than I would have hoped.
It starts off almost without any preamble whatsoever as a gazeteer of the islands. This section takes up probably close to 2/3s of the pagecount, with most islands/areas making up a single page. This is kinda nice, and offers a nice collection of ideas. Many of them are oddly disparate--here we have the little tropical Japan, here we have the little tropical Byzantium city, here we have the island with dinosaurs, here's the undead island, here's the dragon island, etc. This gives the region, unlike most of the other regional books from Paizo, a strange patchwork feeling, and there's little context to unite them or give them any kind of cohesion other than geographical proximity and that you need to reach them by ship. Several of them are--surprisingly--not even necessarily all that piratical feeling. This section, being the meat of the book, was a bit disappointing to me relative to other Paizo regional detailed books. That's not to say that it's bad, exactly. There are a lot of ideas here, many of them reasonably good. However, since I've touched briefly on crowd-sourced similarly themed projects before (check this out, for instance) I found it less impressive than I hoped it would be.
And the remainder of the book was mostly a list of opponents, including some rather esoteric new sea-going monsters, and some statted generic NPCs that might be common in the region. I don't recall ever seeing that latter in any Paizo book before. While it might be a convenient shorthand, it also seems a bit unnecessary, and probably mostly just padded the pagecount. Do I really need stats for a generic pirate captain (fighter 5/rogue 1), several officers and crewmembers, a pirate sorcerer, pirate undead (which, again, use standard Bestiary undead templates and are applied to classes and equipment lists that maybe feel more piratey than some other alternatives... maybe.)
So... this isn't exactly a negative review, however, I do admit that I had high hopes for this book in particular and found that it didn't completely meet them after all. I also have high hopes for the book that should be sitting in my "inbox" at home when I get there, which is a city-book dedicated to Magnimar. Magnimar is a city that is not unfamiliar to Paizonians, having been part of the setting for the Rise of the Runelords campaign. Within some of those volumes, it got a fairly decent treating already. I like city books in particular, and am always keen to pick them up by people who do them well (and I think that is one of Paizo's particular strengths--they haven't yet done a city-book that I didn't like). So I have high hopes, but... I'm also concerned that it will feel like deja vu; rehashing a lot of info that was already present in the RotR books, and adding relatively little to it.