Pathfinder Tales: Prince of Wolves – Dave Gross
Paizo Books £7.50
Review by David Stonehouse
Dave Gross’ Prince of Wolves is the first in a series of Pathfinder Tales, tie-in novels to accompany the fantasy role playing game. It’s a bit of a challenge to take on, attempting to create something that will satisfy a legion of fans so dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate about their favourite pastime, but fortunately Dave Gross doesn’t disappoint.
The story follows the adventures of two characters, the elf pathfinder Count Varian Jeggare and his devil-blooded bodyguard Radovan, who may or may not be the Prince of Wolves of the title. They have travelled into the land of Ustalav in search of another pathfinder who has gone missing after being sent on a mission by Jaggare. Ustalav is a suitably gothic environment, a sort of alternative Transylvania, full of dark and magical forests, sinister castles and creepy isolated villages. To begin with our two heroes travel together, encountering a band of gypsy types called the Sczarni, but shortly after this incident their carriage is ambushed at a bridge over a ravine and they are separated, each believing the other to be dead. The narrative switches between the two characters’ stories and it is Radovan’s exploits that open the book with a fantastic prologue where he wakes to find himself bound, in a coffin, and in very real danger of being cremated alive.
In fact, Gross’ unusual narrative style is one of the great strengths of this adventure. Chapters are written in the first person and alternate between Jeggare and Radovan which gives two very different perspectives on the action. Jeggare is a scholar and a gentleman, aloof, wordy and philosophical, while Radovan is much more of a rough and down-to-earth scoundrel. After the ambush Jeggare finds himself a guest in the house of another nobleman, but it isn’t long before he realises that, behind the smiles and hospitality, he is little more than a prisoner. It is a castle of secrets and something evil lurks in the shadows. Another nasty surprise is that his memory seems to have been tampered with and he begins to find evidence of things he has done there but which he has no recollection of at all. Radovan, on the other hand, finds himself out in the black forest back with the Sczarni who turn out to be werewolves. There’s a cryptic prophecy from a beautiful fortune teller, a power struggle between the males of the pack and a wandering mute hedge-witch called Azra who can only communicate through signing.
To a reader who is unfamiliar with the Pathfinder role-playing game, and the reviewer is one of those (sorry guys!) the opening section is a bit of a slog. Jeggare’s first chapter, where he outlines the backstory from the Royal Palace of Caliphas is, to the newcomer, a bewildering list of place names, characters, religions, gods and plenty more besides which really taxes the concentration as the reader tries to get to grips with it all. Despite this it is well worth persevering, because all this information which seems so bewildering to begin with is actually evidence of a fully realised and thoroughly convincing fictional environment. And what a world it is, every location comes with a rich sense of history. Factions have their own politics with subtleties for our heroes to negotiate. There are nations who worship separate gods and follow a variety of religions all with their own ceremonies, symbols and beliefs. A wide range of creatures populates this world, there are men, orcs, elves, werewolves, demons, devils, sorcerers, witches, ghouls and the gods know what else, to be encountered on the journey. There’s magic too, ranging from healing and protecting spells all the way up to the sort of powerful dark magic that threatens the whole world. In fact Jeggare and Radovan are in pursuit of just such an evil spell-book, the Lacuna Codex, which, in wicked hands could cause untold suffering and chaos.
In structural terms Prince of Wolves mimics the mechanics of gameplay well. The two narrators switch turns regularly which allows Gross to use the two perspectives to skilfully control plot detail, with each narrative complementing and adding detail and depth to the other. The quest driven storyline is also typical with journey sections regularly punctuated by dramatic discoveries, battles and other unexpected obstacles. The journey sections provide lulls from the action which allow engaging character moments to develop as well as comic interludes and more sinister political scheming and wrangling. When the action moments arrive Gross handles them very well, ratcheting up the tension skilfully and delivering a variety of exciting set pieces. When things get gruesome, and they certainly do in places, Gross manages to make these incidents both shocking and disturbing. One, early on in Jeggare’s tale is particularly grim and unexpected.
The many locations add much to the fun. Gross never holds the story in one place long enough for it to become stale. There are creepy gothic castles, haunted mausoleums, fire-lit forest camps, mutant villages, ancient temples and a sinister monastery along the way. Each new location has its secrets and is populated by ambiguous characters who could be either friends or foes but certainly have hidden agendas of their own. Gross takes us on a grand tour of the weird and strange and guarantees some damn good fun along the way.
All in all, Prince of Wolves bodes very well for the future of the Pathfinder Tales. It is a very well written and thoroughly enjoyable slice of fantasy fiction. Pathfinder gamers will feel at home straight away but this should not be written off as something only players will enjoy. In fact, this is a top quality novel in its own right and any reader who has ever enjoyed high end fantasy fiction should give it a go. If the rest of the Pathfinder Tales can match Dave Gross’ high benchmark then they’ll be very welcome, and the more the merrier.