Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review Double Feature: Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils

Since I know this is going to be a long article, I will start by giving a “quick and dirty” assessment of the two books featured in this review:

- Prince of Wolves: 4 out of 5 Stars; Good Storytelling, Fun Characters, Naturally rooted in the Pathfinder setting

- Master of Devils: 4.5 out of 5 Stars; Wonderful Story, Great use of different viewpoints, Good way to introduce readers to Golarion’s Asian-themed regions

These two books are further indications that Paizo Publishing understands both the gaming market and the fantasy fiction market. I’m very pleased with where the Pathfinder Tales line is going.

Although this article is primarily about Dave Gross’s Master of Devils, I’m going to take a moment to discuss the Pathfinder Tales line’s first novel, Prince of Wolves, too. I’m doing this for two reasons: (1) the two novels are connected by their leading characters, and (2) it helps me balance an inequity that I created by posting my review of The Worldwound Gambit here before any of the books that have come before. (I did post my review of the second Pathfinder Tales novel, Winter Witch, on and, however. And I’ll be reviewing Plague of Shadows, here, soon.) Now, back to Dave Gross’s books...

Although Prince of Wolves introduces Count Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard Radovan to the wider world of fantasy novel readers, the characters first appeared in the serial novella “Hell’s Pawns” in issues 25 through 30 of the Pathfinder Adventure Path periodicals. We met them again in the web fiction serial “The Lost Pathfinder” which was a prelude to Prince of Wolves. A new story is currently unfolding in the pages of Pathfinder Adventure Path #49 through 54. Entitled “Husks,” this novella is a prelude to the events in Master of Devils.

For me, Count Jeggare and Radovan have become the Pathfinder equivalent of Holmes and Watson. After all, they are primarily solvers of mysteries. The Count is a Venture-Captain, a ranking official in the setting’s famous Pathfinder Society. His role is to uncover hidden secrets and explore the unknown of Golarion’s past and present. Radovan is not only the Count’s bodyguard, but also his friend, though Jeggare’s pride and position make it impossible for him to ignore their differences in station. But together they find their way into all sorts of troubling conundrums. Also like Doyle’s famous pair, the two characters are tied to each other by events that took place before their adventures in “Hell’s Pawns,” and their often-strained relationship continues to develop with each new story.

In Prince of Wolves, the duo travel to the nation of Ustalav to investigate the disappearance of one of Count Jeggare’s Pathfinder Society operatives. In the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Ustalav is a place of dark secrets and ancient evil. It is the home of vampires, gypsies and werewolves, once ruled by a powerful undead wizard known as Tar-Baphon, the Whispering Tyrant. Though the Whispering Tyrant has long been imprisoned, his influence still darkens the shadows in the places where he once reigned.

As the first of the Pathfinder Tales novels, the book sets the tone for the Pathfinder campaign setting, which strikes a wonderful balance between “traditional” fantasy and modern storytelling. Although I haven’t seen it explicitly stated, I get the sense that the current timeline of Golarion, the world where the Pathfinder stories take place, is more akin to Earth’s Early Modern period. This is different from the Middle Age-style settings that have been popular in the past. I personally love this development, because I think it’s easier for readers and players to understand what’s going on in such a setting.

Like all of Dave Gross’s “Jeggare and Radovan” stories, Prince of Wolves is told from a first-person perspective, with the two characters taking turns to tell their sides of the story. This gives the story a feel similar to Doyle’s use of Dr. Watson as the first-person narrator, but puts a twist on things by giving us perspectives from both characters and making it very clear that both characters possess their own skills and insights.

Prince of Wolves is really two stories intertwined. Dave Gross shows a talent for this kind of storytelling. Readers follow Count Jeggare through his investigations of sinister doings at a remote manor house, while Radovan has a more visceral adventure and learns about Varisian (i.e., Golarion gypsy) culture, werewolves and the magical powers and terrible curse imparted to those known as “oracles” in the Pathfinder setting. The characters are well-suited for their roles in each part of this tale and when they merge toward the end of the book, the result is very satisfying.

While playing off of traditional Gothic horror motifs, Mr. Gross introduces elements from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and even adds a few touches of his own, making the book fun to read, useful as a setting resource and helpful as a springboard for campaign ideas. Some of his ideas have already found their way into the roleplaying game rules.

One of the other things I like about this story is that it utilizes a few non-Western European horror elements, including one of my favorite monsters. This touch reveals a bit of the love Mr. Gross has for Asian-themed fantasy, which he indulges to a greater extent in his next novel. By weaving such details into the tapestry of Pathfinder’s already richly-developed setting, he enhances the story and manages keep readers guessing about the true nature of the tale’s villain.

One point for parents who might consider giving this novel to younger shouldn’t. Prince of Wolves firmly established the Pathfinder Tales as adult-oriented fiction in my mind. I mentioned this in my review of The Worldwound Gambit, but it bears repeating. Although many of the references to sex or certain unsavory topics are oblique, the references are there and clear enough that I wouldn’t want to be explaining some of the book’s situations to a child. This is not fiction for young readers. Although most of Paizo’s Pathfinder products are designed to fall within a PG-13 rating, this book really flirts with details that might put it in the R-rated category.

After their many adventures in Ustalav, Dave Gross transports the Count and his Hellspawn companion to the distant lands of Tian Xia. Tian Xia is the Pathfinder setting’s analogue for Asia, which has yet to be fully detailed in books published for the RPG setting. But Master of Devils is a perfect introduction to the region.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Gross a few times during PaizoCon 2011. During one of those conversations, he said that his intent with this novel was to portray the three major types of the Asian-themed adventure tale in one book.

The first of these types is wuxia, the martial arts adventure in which a hero, usually a strongly principled character from the lower classes, develops great martial arts skill and employs it in defense of his or someone else’s honor. These kinds of stories are exemplified by the high-flying, fast paced kung-fu movies in which ancient masters put their pupils through terrible and painful trials that eventually give warriors the ability to fly through the tops of bamboo forests and balance on the blades of swords.

Similar in some of the action, but slightly different in theme are the romance tales, of which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best example. Although they may draw on some elements of wuxia, the stories are instead focused on the love between major characters--love that is usually forbidden--and the complications of intrigue. These kinds of stories differ from Western romance tales in that the star-crossed lovers rarely get the happy ending for which they hope. Traditional culture enforces the idea that social barriers to their love affair are inviolate, so we do not find the happy ending in which the kitchen maid marries the prince. More often, the kitchen maid dies, while the prince fights to defend her honor and spends the rest of his life alone.

The third, and probably lesser known, genre is the full-blown fantasy story, which incorporates mythic figures and folkloric creatures, usually as part of a great quest. One good example of this genre is Sien nui yau wan (A Chinese Ghost Story). The spirit creatures and bizarre monsters of legend come to life and become a bane or boon for the main characters on their journey.

Master of Devils delivers on all three of these genres. Mr. Gross’s familiarity with and love of the “kung-fu movie” is so obvious. By using the voices of established characters, he is able to tell three kinds of stories within the same novel.

The story begins in the midst of an action scene, and we quickly find the main characters separated by fateful events. I was initially worried by this separation, since Mr. Gross used a similar setup in Prince of Wolves. It didn’t take too long for me to get over that concern. The way he wove the individual stories together in the final acts was worth it. However, it would be nice to see more direct interaction between the characters in the future.

In telling the three different types of story in this novel, Mr. Gross uses the voice of a main character for each one. This, of course, begs the question, “Who is the third character?” Count Jeggare and Radovan obviously tell one story each, but who tells the third? And which one?

There was much speculation prior to the book’s release about who that character would be. I’m reluctant to share the secret in this article, but suffice it to say that I found Mr. Gross’s choice both innovative and charming. Being able to hear him read the first chapter of this new character’s story at PaizoCon made it all the more enjoyable and convinced me that Mr. Gross knew exactly what he was doing.

In all, Master of Devils was a book I devoured quickly and thoroughly enjoyed. The imagery was excellent and the descriptions of the numerous locations in Tian Xia will bring that part of Golarion to life for anyone interested in the setting. The characters are consistent and well-developed, neither perfect nor excessively flawed. Mr. Gross’s descriptions of RPG rules-based concepts, like spellcasting and martial arts allow non-gamers to understand what’s happening while simultaneously giving us geeks the satisfaction of knowing “what’s really happening.”

I’m very happy with both Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils. In both cases, I think Paizo has gotten RPG-based fiction right. They started off well, and by my estimation, they are continuing down a very entertaining path.

Keep it up, Paizo! And please keep writing, Mr. Gross!


  1. >_<

    Fixed...Utter shame. Thanks for pointing that out, Theo.

  2. I blame the awesome cover illustration. Your convo with DG was illuminating, by the way. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. It is an awesome cover. The scene it depicts is really cool, too.