Fantasy novels based on a roleplaying game? You betcha. There’s no shortage of book series that
suck money from devoted fans tie in to popular gaming franchises, such as the novels that accompany World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k, and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. Paizo‘s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game introduces the world of Golarion which, as many fantasy worlds are, is full of monsters, magic, dungeons, piles of treasure, plenty of traps, and–most importantly–an endless stream of “adventurers” who got conned into believing that the best way to make a living is to throw themselves headlong into danger and pray they come out the other side with all their wiggly bits intact. With Pathfinder Tales, Paizo has unleashed a growing variety of authors on the reality they’ve created to see what stories they can conjure.
So how do game dynamics and rule books translate into novel-length plot and characters?
Pretty durn well, actually. So strap on those boots, grab your walking stick, and prepare to journey through three such literary concoctions from the Pathfinder Tales library. Oh, and you might want to make sure your first aid kit is freshly stocked with healing potions. Just in case.
THE RUNDOWN: Salim is an immortal warrior, bound to the service of the goddess of death. When a wealthy merchant’s soul goes missing after he’s murdered, Salim’s job is to track it down and make sure the skein of life remains unsnarled. But the merchant’s willful daughter demands to join him on the investigation, and soon the two are caught up in a race through numerous Planes of existence, where they seek the truth from the mouths of demons and discover a conspiracy to cheat death itself.
THE CONTRAST: This fantasy actually comes across as a bit less “epic adventure” and more of a whodunnit. While there are certainly plenty of fight scenes and enormous landscapes, there’s a familiar feel to the trekking about, talking to suspects, dredging up clues, all the while inching closer to the center of the mystery. Much of the story is also driven by the conflicting relationship between Salim and Neila (the merchant’s daughter), and his introduction of her to the wider worlds their reality exists alongside.
THE RUNDOWN: Alchemist Alaeron’s previous death-defying adventures have bestowed on him a number of powerful and precious artifacts that he uses to protect himself from the many enemies he gained on those self-same adventures. When he gets wrapped up in the schemes of a ruthless crime lord, Alaeron’s only choice is to journey to the wreckage of a floating city, recover a hoard of magical treasures, and hope he survives long enough to return and buy his freedom.
THE CONTRAST: Alaeron is one of the more unique protagonists I’ve bumped into lately, preferring to brew potions and research artifacts rather than swing swords or cast spells. His personal drive comes from the desire to truly understand the purpose of the relics he discovers, and that knowledge is far more valuable to him than, say, plain old fame and riches, which sets him apart from other more traditional adventuring types.
THE RUNDOWN: Isiem is a promising shadowcaller, one who uses pain and blood to conjure magic from a realm of darkness. When his masters send him on a mission to a foreign land, he encounters a tribe of winged creatures that are wreaking havoc on the local towns–and Isiem is commanded to exterminate the beasts. But as he interacts with these creatures further, Isiem discovers uncomfortable truths that force him to question whether his order has lied to him all along.
THE CONTRAST: This book is actually split in half. The first part is devoted entirely to Isiem’s discovery of his magical talents and schooling in the brutally cruel capital of Nidal, where he faces…actually, he doesn’t face too many challenges himself, but watches as his fellow students deal with their torturous education in various unhealthy ways. Only after he graduates, at the halfway mark, does the story about his diplomatic mission kick off and Isiem’s worldview is turned upside down.
Which of these three might make for a more worthy reading companion? They’re all solid stories in themselves and if you’re looking to explore a vast new world, then each is an available gateway that won’t disappoint. With Nightglass, from reading the back cover copy, you go in expecting one particular story but actually find two distinct ones. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, it feels like it could’ve been split into two fully different novels and the reader would’ve been able to enjoy twice as much content equally well.
What about Death’s Heretic vs. City of the Fallen Sky? Both have intriguing protagonists, with Death’s Heretic being a murder mystery set in a fantasy scenario whereas City of the Fallen Sky follows the familiar quest-for-the-treasure setup. Both span a wide variety of lands and cultures, and there’s plenty of intrigue and double-dealing to keep readers guessing throughout.
In Death’s Heretic, there were a few points where the gameplay mechanics peeked out from behind the curtain, reminding you that, yes, this is based on a roleplaying platform. It doesn’t harm the story or pace any, but for such a close finish in this review, it means I’ll have to hand City of the Fallen Sky the win this time. Pratt does a wonderful job of bringing all his characters to vivid life, even while putting them through the most wrenching scenarios–and there’s no promise any particular one of them will survive, even Alaeron.
For fantasy readers seeking a world with unlimited potential for incredible stories, don’t hesitate to pick up any Pathfinder Tales book and enjoy exploring the glittering cities, murky swamps, alien ruins, and sinister dungeons found within.
Just recognize it’s likely you’ll be eaten by a grue along the way.