BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Salim Ghadafar, reluctant minion of a Goddess of Death, investigates a set of missing souls, and so becomes caught up in machinations ranging from Heaven to Hell and the mortal plane between.
PROS:: Strong, focused characterization; intriguing and diverse settings.
CONS: A couple of subplots don’t hold up quite as well as the rest of the book.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid, entertaining fiction that works for both those already familiar with the Pathfinder universe and newcomers.
An atheist servant and agent of a Goddess — even a Goddess of death — sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can one be against worshipping the Gods (as opposed to believing in their existence) and yet do the bidding of one, willingly or not? Salim Ghadafar wonders the same thing every day. A native of Rahadoum, a realm where religion is outlawed, he was raised to not worship Gods, much less act as their agents. However, a bargain was struck and now Salim is on the payroll of Pharasma, goddess of death and prophecy. With souls destined for her judgement suddenly going missing, Salim is sent to investigate in the city of Kaer Maga, an anarchic burg with plenty of competing factions and powers with their own agendas. Salim may wind up distrusting his erstwhile allies as much as his enemies in order to solve this mystery.
The Redemption Engine is the second novel by Paizo Managing Editor and Fiction Editor James L. Sutter and is set in Paizo’s D&D-descendant Pathfinder Universe. While it may sound strange (if not an outright conflict of interest) to have the managing editor write a novel, those doubts about any possible conflict will be quickly erased when you dive into the novel. I have not read Sutter’s previous novel about Salim (Death’s Heretic) and have not spent a large amount of time in the Pathfinder world. (I’ve done some roleplaying in same; see my Role Perception Plus Awarenes column here at SF Signal.) However, I was quickly drawn to Salim and the other characters, and their rocketing between Kaer Maga, the outer planes and back again.
For all of the large-scale vistas that Salim travels through, and the potential scale of what’s going on, the focus on Salim and the characters he meets, tangles with, and opposes makes this firmly a Sword and Sorcery novel. After the eclipse of novels and stories by Fritz Leiber in the 70’s, the Sword and Sorcery genre fell into disfavor as compared to the rising subgenre of Epic Fantasy. It was fantasy tabletop roleplaying worlds, however, with stories about groups of characters investigating dungeons, fighting gnolls, opposing bugbears, and tangling with dragons that really kept the Sword and Sorcery subgenre going for decades. It’s only in the higher levels of such gaming that Sword and Sorcery gives way to Terry Brooks or Robert Jordan levels of fantasy scale. The Redemption Engine firmly moves forward the Sword and Sorcery tradition and fits with the S&S renaissance seen in recent years.
I was also amused by the plot parallels between this novel and the Tad Williams urban fantasy novel The Dirty Streets of Heaven. In that novel, Bobby Dollar, a worldly and world-weary (in some ways) agent of divinity (although an angel himself) investigates a strange occurrence regarding recently deceased souls going missing. Like Salim, Bobby Dollar soon learns that trusting his own side is as perilous and fraught as dealing with the opposition. It was interesting, too, to compare and contrast the strange realms beyond the mortal worlds, both in Williams’ novel and in the Pathfinder universe.
For those who wonder if reading a Pathfinder novel, in particular this one, is just a post-action report of a roleplaying game, I can happily report that, no, there is no indication of rolling dice during the well-drawn and exciting combats, or the many other feats and adventures Salim gets himself hooked into — which also hooked me as a reader. If you didn’t know Pathfinder was a gaming universe, or that Salim existed in one, it will not affect the readability of the novel in any way. That, to me, is a mark of a successful RPG tie-in novel, and Sutter hits that mark squarely. Salim is an intriguing and exciting character with a complicated and complex past, but there are plenty of other fully fleshed characters with arcs and stories of their own. In particular, I loved the story of Bors and Rashad, two sworn warriors from a distant land who have a strange bond, a loving relationship, and an ethos to match.
Sword and Sorcery fiction has grown back out of tabletop fantasy roleplaying. Paizo — specifically in novels like The Redemption Engine — show that while it may have grown beyond those bounds again, Sword and Sorcery remains strong at its core. Beyond being a strong novel in its own right, The Redemption Engine has furthered my interest in the Pathfinder Universe. (I need to get me a copy of The Inner Sea World Guide, for openers, to learn much more about the realms that Salim walks through.) And, assuming that The Redemption Engine is a representative sample, I definitely need to pick up some more novels set in the Pathfinder ‘verse.