Pathfinder Tales – Plague of Shadows and Prince of Wolves

In the second in my series of book reports from my vacation in Bulgaria, I thought I’d review the two Pathfinder Tales novels I managed to lay my hands on.  These things must be popular because I’ve been waiting for them to show up at Half Price Books and it’s taken a long time.  (I don’t buy paperbacks at full price…)

I’m a big Pathfinder and world of Golarion fan, so I wanted to see how the novels treat it. I enjoyed them both.  Neither is going to become part of the Western canon or anything, but they were better than, say, every Greyhawk novel ever. (Rose Estes is the worst RPG novel author ever, and Gary Gygax, God love him, isn’t as bad as she is but he isn’t the best either.)

Prince of Wolves, by Dave Gross, covers the adventures of Pathfinder and Chelish nobleman Varian Jeggare and his erstwhile tiefling companion Radovan wandering about in Ustalav.

Plague of Shadows, by Howard Andrew Jones, details the attept by elf-raised-by-humans Elyana to save her old adventuring buddy/lover, the now-married and now-Lord Stefan.

The Good

Prince of Wolves had an interesting conceit, where the chapters alternated being from the perspective of Jeggare and Radovan respectively. They get separated early (well, the book jumps back and forth in timeline a little) and then go about their own solo adventures till they join back up about 2/3 of the way through. In general the action progressed nicely, though there were some repetitive parts. It was well written and engaging in general.

Plague of Shadows was a little weaker in the writing department. I was feeling “meh” about halfway through but then there were some big twists and I was interested through the end. I liked the initial setup where it was an adventuring group that had grown apart and was coming together much later, and not all as friends. I had a 2e campaign that was like that, and it gives a feeling of a lot of rich history.

Both novels used Golarion to good effect.  Plague of Shadows did a lot with Galt and the French Terror-esque revolution there, and Prince of Wolves used the gothic nation of Ustalav and the gypsy-like Sczarni. They illuminated the world nicely.

The Bad

Both of the novels suffered from D&D.  Or from Pathfinder.  Mainly the magic system.  They use the game system’s rules too obviously in their fiction. “Time to rest to regain my spells!” “I don’t have that memorized today!” Suck. And they kinda went that way with the magic items too, though Shadows was a little more clumsy about that than Wolves. The mechanical wonkiness of D&D spells do not good storytelling make – Jack Vance used it but these guys are no Jack Vance. At least these authors don’t do like Gygax does in his Greyhawk novels where his storytelling is dictated by the combat rules too (seriously, Gord got 3 attacks every 2 rounds, and he let you know it), but the D&D magic system – for all its in-game merits – invariably comes off as lame in fiction.

And a small nit – I didn’t like the big Golarion glossary in the back. If your writing doesn’t stand on its own, definitions aren’t going to help you. I think it’s much more interesting to wonder about parenthetical references than have them defined for you – hell, that’s how Lovecraft and Howard and those guys’ prose captured the imagination. I am sure they’re trying to help, but cut that out of future novels please.

Conclusion

Both were better than most gaming fiction. I’d give Wolves 4/5 and Shadows 3/5, maybe. Fans of Golarion will enjoy them because of how they showcase the world, and normal fantasy fans should find them diverting enough. I definitely plan to hunt down the rest (though am not inspired enough to start paying full price for them).

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