Monday, January 12, 2015

Nightglass by Liane Merciel

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the Pathfinder Tales fiction line. While I enjoyed Heretic of Death, the novels Prince of Wolves and Winter Witch, the latter by an author I normally enjoy, didn't impress. FRP Games was having a blowout sale at the end of the year though, and I picked up Nightglass by Liane Merciel on a lark.

And am pleased to have done so.

Roughly broken into two sections, Nightglass starts with Isiem, a youth raised in a village in the kingdom of Nidal, who shows much promise with magical abilities. Abilities tested initially through a magical device known as a Nightglass.

Taken from his country side village, Isiem is raised to learn magic and faith in the city of Pangolias. In this empire of the shadows, dedicated to an evil god, one who feeds on pain and discipline within that pain, it felt like the author, Liane Merciel, was taking several pages right out of the Elric novels in her descriptions of the training and torture that the students undergo.

For example, there is one chorus that is played when a student inserts a flute pipe into a victim's throat. Done correctly, every breath creates its own note. Done incorrectly, death for the one who did it incorrectly and of course, the person whose throat has been punctured.

Liane's description of how the students are tested again for potential, with the "Joyful Things", inhuman creatures that wrap their tongues around a hopeful student's skull. Those who don't pass their judgement? Not good things. There are other numerous bits that added to the feel of how evil and vile the society was. How difficult it would be to have any hope, to be normal there.

Isiem doesn't escape this unscathed though. His outlook is similar to what the old Fighter's Handbook personalities section would label "Fated Philosopher" He acknowledges the things that are outside of his control, that are outside of his agency to influence. And he plans how to expand his agency to expand his control.

This opportunity comes in what I'd call the second half or part of the book.

If the first half was all vile torture and teachings of dark arts and acceptance of fate, the second part takes a page from various westerns including Deadwood where Isiem winds up in a frontier town where he must lend his arts to the empire that his own country is aligned with. This makes an interesting change of pace and Liane handles the transition well.

From stuffy halls and doom shrouded classes, to rugged outdoorsmen who are fighting for their very survival. From agents of Nidal worshipping their dark god and passing their dark magics onto a corrupt political country that finds it easier to murder a silver mine owner than tax his wealth. It's all very Western in feel and brings those elements home gracefully.

Here though, things take a turn for the worse and Isiem gets what is possibly his first true taste of freedom and then has to decide what to do with it.

I'd never read any work by Liane Merciel before. I will be reading her work again. She doesn't shy away from description but does so in a way that is quick and easy to read. While some may say they were able to see what was coming a mile away, I find that true for most works of fantasy fiction, or indeed, most movies. The telling of the story is what interests me more than having some bright new singular idea that stands out above all others.

One of the things I enjoyed is that while Isiem is competent, he isn't some 'farm boy out to save the universe.' His abilities fall within the realm of possibility for the setting the novel is based in. His growth and things he can do, fit in with the setting. He is not slinging artifacts around, nor able to outfight the many situations he winds up in. He often needs planning, allies, and the willingness to admit that he cannot do everything himself. This makes Isiem, especially for a magic using character, a tremendous breath of fresh air as opposed to Forgotten Realm spell slingers like Blackstaff and Elminster who shrug off demon lords and deity avatars like last week's old soup.

In terms of this being a Pathfinder Tales novel, if you know what you're looking for, it reads as one. The kingdom of Nidal is given four pages of description in the Inner Sea World Guide, and that's not four pages of dense text. There are several illustrations and a map as well. the details that Liane puts into the setting? Puts into the characters? If you have players who read this novel and aren't interested in making a Shadowcaller from this region, or want to liberate this region, or to serve the dark god who rules with an unbreakable claw, they've read a different book then I have.

In terms of gaming information? This book showcases the difference between reading a game setting, and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are several bits that could easily be put to use in game terms here.

1. The Joyful Things. They know something that the players need to discover. Can the players withstand talking to these horrific entities and deal with their dreaded touch long enough to learn what they came for?

2. Dungeons of the Dusk Hall: One source of information that the players need to find is in the dungeons below the Dusk Hall. Have can they navigate to there through the heart of the Midnight Lord's capital city?

3. The Slave Market: Knowledge is such a funny thing. It can be scattered here, there, and even in the most unlikely of places, a slave's mind. The players have to outbid other potential buyers for a slave who has a particular bit of knowledge that they need in their own quest.

4. Shadowbound: One of the players has been cursed to shadow and supposedly the only place to undo this condition is in the kingdom of Nidal.

5. Dubious Allies: In a setting with as many organizations as the Pathfinder one has, even knowing some Hellknights could get the players alliance through proxy to those of Nidal.

6. Freeing the Shadow Lord: While not specifically mentioned here, if you've read the Inner Sea Gods book, you know that the god of Nidal is himself not what he used to be. Can the players free the god from the things that bind him?

Nightglass is the first book in a series that Liane Merciel is working on. Unfortunately, Paizo is, in my opinion, holding back potential sales of any of their fiction line. The electronic versions are only available through Paizo directly, not through Amazon or Google Play. That only makes sense if these books are terrible sellers. While it does provide Paizo with all the funds, it limits their streams of revenue. It also limits the ability for Amazon to put any of these books on their daily deal sales and expand their readership that way. There are many an author I've picked up on a lark because it was inexpensive.

With the Paizo store charging $9.99 for paperbacks and $6.99 for epub versions, I'm afraid their cutting their potential market out quite a bit. The long tail on such sales will potentially suffer.

Still, Paizo has been around a long time and I hope that the line is successful for them. For me? I'll be looking for Nightblade and other books by Liane Merciel next time I'm at the book store.