Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Master of Devils and The Worldwound Gambit

I’ve been on a rather furious reading streak (which is good for knocking back titles on my perpetually growing To Read list—which actually has finally been shrinking for the first time ever lately.) In addition to the two novels I just reviewed, I’ve finished two others—both of them in the Pathfinder Tales line of tie-in fiction to the Pathfinder role-playing game and its default house setting, Golarion.

Now, Pathfinder is basically D&D, right? So, let’s be pretty clear about that up front; this is D&D tie-in fiction that just happens to not bear that name. And that’s fine. But occasionally a little odd.

The first of the books I read was Dave Gross’ Master of Devils, the sequel to his earlier novel Prince of Wolves, a kind of buddy movie type storyline with the noble half-elf Chelaxian Pathfinder Varian Jeggare, and his rough-and-tumble tiefling friend and partner Radovan. I’ve heard Radovan occasionally described as Jeggare’s side-kick, but I really don’t get that vibe reading the novels—from a story and point of view perspective, both are equally prominent. Like I said, their relationship feels more like an Odd Couple buddy movie than anything else. They’re not exactly Holmes and Watson (although kinda) and not exactly Murtaugh and Riggs (although kinda) and not exactly Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (again—although kinda) but they do have an interesting vibe between them.

In Master of Devils, however, they spend most of the book apart, on separate plot threads that don’t converge until the end of the novel. And a third voice (and separate plot thread) comes in some chapters that are POV of Arnisant, the dog that they picked up in the last novel. I liked both (all three now, I guess) of these characters, so it was fun to see them and “hear” their various voices in POV, which are all quite distinct. The story is and setting this time around, however, is quite dramatically different from the last novel. Where Prince of Wolves was in a fantasy version of Stoker’s Transylvania, Master of Devils is in a fantasy version of a Hong Kong martial arts wire-fu movie a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Couple this with some fish-out-of-water aspects (since none of the characters are local, and the customs and surroundings are strange and exotic to them; which makes it easier to present to the readers as well, in many ways) and you’ve got a very compelling story.

As with Prince of Wolves, however, I found that the ending was a bit less satisfying than I hoped. As the three plotlines converged and tension ratcheted up, POV switched faster and faster, and finally was describing the same scenes from different perspectives. This, however, rather than offering more perspective, offered less, because Gross occasionally would skip stuff and describe is happening just barely “off stage.” And as the conclusion rushed to its… well, its conclusion—I found myself scratching my head just a bit wondering exactly what had happened. The denouement was also underwhelming—it happened too fast and skipped over details, as if by this point, the reader must surely have lost interest in seeing how everything played out as long as everything was back in place for the next volume in the series.

I don’t mean this to be a crippling complaint, though—it was a minor dissatisfaction on what was otherwise an excellent novel. It’s not exactly new anymore either, and I’ve got the third book in the series (which also is no longer new) waiting on my shelf. After I wander a bit through the Fallen Blades and Abyssal Plague series, no doubt I’ll come back to this sooner rather than later.

The other book I read was Robin D. Laws’ The Worldwound Gambit, in which a quest into occupying and corrupted demon territory to shut down a demonic threat by grabbing the MacGuffin is cast as an Ocean’s 11 like heist/con. This novel I liked quite a bit less. Laws’ voice never really caught on with me; it somehow felt awkward and artificial all the time. Part of this was that it was told in present tense, which I admit I find awkward anyway, but part of it was that it just didn’t feel quite polished enough somehow. This wasn’t helped by the dropping of clear game-related vocabulary into the text—antipaladins being the one that most egregiously offended my sensibilities. Making a big deal out of the difference between a sorcerer and a wizard in the text (without explaining the difference really) might be fine for gamers, but for anyone else, it just feels weird, and marks the novel as game fiction. The same was true with the silly characterization of alignment that peeked through the seams at various points. The characters were also fairly cardboard caricatures most of the time.

Despite that, however, some of the characters started to grow on me. Jerisa as the scorned lover, accompanying team leader Gad knowing that her love for him was both unrequited and frankly kinda psychotic and broken, was an interesting plot device that could have been brilliant in better hands. Calliard, the demon-blood addict who used his addiction to gain extrasensory perception when it came to demons was an intriguing concept. I might even adopt a riff on that concept as a fifth iconic character for DARK•HERITAGE when I get a chance. Tiberio, the huge half-orc pacifist, on the other hand, felt like baggage who’s idealistic position made me just wonder why in the world he came along for the ride at all. Rather than being interesting, his twist made him feel both useless and frustrating more often than not. The crazy fire guy might have been interesting, but I had to roll my eyes when his own personal hell was being stuck in a place where nothing would burn. Really?

I heartily recommend the Jeggare and Radovan stories—both that I’ve read so far—but I’d have avoided Worldwound Gambit if it were up to me to do again. I think I was suckered in by my well-attested love for the demonic in D&D settings, and seeing how they can be described and presented—and more often than not being disappointed in the execution of it.

Next up on the reading docket is book two of the Fallen Blades series, then a non-fiction book from the library, then... probably book two of the Abyssal Plague series.

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