Alright guys, we’re back with another review.
As I mentioned last time, I’ll be reviewing the latest Pathfinder Tale’s novel, The Redemption Engine. Please take this as your warning for potential minor spoilers for the novel, because damn it I have to talk about it to review it, now don’t I. Not much else to say really, so let’s just get straight to it.
The Redemption Engine
James L. Sutter
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
From the Paizo.com blurb:
When murdered sinners fail to show up in Hell, it’s up to Salim Ghadafar, an atheist warrior forced to solve problems for the goddess of death, to track down the missing souls. In order to do so, Salim will need to descend into the anarchic city of Kaer Maga, following a trail that ranges from Hell’s iron cities to the gates of Heaven itself. Along the way, he’ll be aided by a host of otherworldly creatures, a streetwise teenager, and two warriors of the mysterious Iridian Fold. But when the missing souls are the scum of the earth, and the victims devils themselves, can anyone really be trusted?
From acclaimed author James L. Sutter comes a sequel to Death’s Heretic, ranked #3 on Barnes & Noble’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011!
James Sutter is actually the Managing Editor of Paizo, but he’s an experienced developer and author as well. Some of his work for Pathfinder includes the Campaign Setting books Distant Worlds and City of Strangers; the third book of the Shattered Star Adventure Path, The Asylum Stone; and the Pathfinder Tales novel Death’s Heretic. Of those books, two of them are based around the city of Kaer Maga, sometimes known as the City of Strangers or the Asylum Stone (if you managed to figure out which two books I’m talking about, congratulations, you win no points… if you still need help, City of Strangers is the setting book for Kaer Maga, while The Asylum Stone is an adventure set within its walls).
Now we have Sutter’s second entry to the Pathfinder Tales fiction, The Redemption Engine. Not only is it a sequel Death’s Heretic, one of my favourite of the Tales novels, it’s also set in Kaer Maga. Is anyone else starting to pick up on a pattern here? Kaer Maga is actually Sutter’s personal pet project in Golarion, much like Wes Schneider has the gothic horror influenced country of Ustalav. Based on his intro for The Asylum Stone, it amuses me to believe that every time the rest of the staff at Paizo want him to write a new Kaer Maga book, they basically trick him into it. I imagine it goes something like this –
James Jacobs (Creative Director): Hey James. We were thinking of writing a new Kaer Maga book. You want to do it?
James Sutter: Nah, got too much on sorry, what with all these other books I have to edit. It’ll have to wait.
Jacobs: Oh don’t worry, we’ll just give it to one of the freelancers to write. They should be able to handle it.
Sutter: *Wincing in pain* Ngggg… Okay! I’ll do it!
I like to think that afterwards James Jacobs walks out of Sutter’s office and high fives or fist bumps a waiting Wes Schneider, because apparently I think about these sort of imaginary scenarios way too much.
Anyway. Onto the review itself. I said before that Death’s Heretic was one of my favourites of the Tales. Well, I’m officially adding its sequel to that list. I don’t know that I’m even capable of giving any criticism of this book, because I just loved it from start to finish. I can’t think of a single moment of the story that didn’t have me cheering (inside my head anyway, I stopped cheering out loud to books when I kept getting weird looks on the bus…)
Let’s start with the setup of the story. For those who haven’t read Death’s Heretic, there are some spoilers about the protagonist’s background coming up. Skip the next paragraph. Better yet, go and read Death’s Heretic… but if you can’t do that right now, skip the next paragraph.
DEATH’S HERETIC SPOILERS AHOY!
Salim Ghadafar was born in the country of Rahadoum, the only nation on Golarion to have banned religion, becoming a land of atheists. For those wondering how you can be an atheist in a world where there is constant proof that the gods exist in the form of clerics and holy warriors imbued with divine power, the answer is that they know damn well the gods are there, they just refuse to worship them on principle. Thus, they’re not so much atheists as they are anti-theists, but atheist is the term they’ve been given in Pathfinder. As an adult he joined the Pure Legion, the military force responsible for keeping Rahadoum free of religion, and had a good life… until his wife was killed. Stricken with grief, he begged for someone, something to bring her back, offering to pay any price… and something answered. His wife came back to life, but was horrified that he had reached out to the gods to save her. She informed her father (Salim’s commanding officer), and Salim fled the country. Shortly after, Salim tried to kill himself after being confronted by a servant of Pharasma, Goddess of Birth, Death, Fate and Prophecy, who explained that the price of bringing his wife back was his service as an inquisitor, hunting those who committed heresy against the Lady of Graves. Upon killing himself, Salim discovered that he wasn’t “allowed” to die, and would just keep coming back to life until Pharasma said otherwise. Since then he’s become a reluctant servant, using her divine power only when he has no other choice in the execution of his tasks.
NO MORE DEATH’S HERETIC SPOILERS HERE!
So we have Salim, an undying inquisitor of the Lady of Graves, who’s basically Golarion’s answer to Doctor Who/Torchwood’s Captain Jack Harkness. You think I’m kidding? Let’s take a look:
- Wear’s a bad-ass long coat? Check. Okay, so it’s a robe. Still counts.
- Non-stop source of witty one-liners? Check. Nothing else to say on this one
- Functionally immortal. Check. They can both die, but keep coming back.
- Gets the job done, no matter what? Check. Don’t think Jack can be a ruthless bastard when he has to be? Watch Children of Earth and then try to tell me I’m wrong.
He seriously needs to just start flirting with anything that moves and he’d a perfect match… anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the review.
So, we have Salim arriving in the City of Strangers, to meet with his contact, the psychopomp Ceyanan. Someone has been murdering the vilest of criminals in Kaer Maga, and while mundane murder holds no interest for the Pharasmin clergy, the devils are upset that souls that were Hell-bound have been stolen. So Salim is once again assigned to the case, as reluctantly as ever.
As you can probably tell from the fact that the story is introducing an immortal holy inquisitor, devils and a psychopomp right from the start, this book is basically the exact opposite of Skinwalkers (reviewed here). While that book was very low magic, and set in a small geographical area of Golarion, The Redemption Engine is a high-octane magic fueled adventure, with plenty of exploration of other planes of existence as well as the city of Kaer Maga. I don’t really have a preference for either style, but out of the two of them, this is my preferred story based on sheer enjoyment. It’s part of why I loved Death’s Heretic so much as well, it almost feels like the Salim stories are designed to show off just how crazy the Pathfinder multiverse can get.
As soon as the story started, I was sucked into the city of Kaer Maga. That danger is present is made immediately clear as Salim’s first encounter in the city is a trio of muggers… but the same moment reminds you that Salim isn’t your average priest, as he deftly deals with the situation, and walks away cool as a block of ice. You get a really good feel for just how strange this city is based on how he reacts to it. After all, if it’s weirding out a hard-bitten inquisitor who regularly travels to other planes of existence, can use magic and isn’t allowed to die due to the spite (as he sees it) of the Goddess of Death, I think it’s a pretty good indication that you’re not in Kansas anymore. So much that the inhabitants of the city take for granted is strange and confusing to Salim, with full-blooded orcs wandering around freely, undead servants being accepted and allowed, and an area of the city ruled by freed slaves who somehow seem to have reconciled themselves with the fact that the rest of the city still condones slavery.
Perhaps the most effective moment in setting the scene was Salim’s moment of, panic isn’t the right word, but it’s all I can think of, when he turns around and almost runs into a troll. Fearing that the beast will cause massive damage to the crowded market, he goes to draw his sword, only to watch in shock as a merchant peaceably negotiates a price with the troll, who then guts himself, reads the merchant’s fate in his own entrails, calmly stuffs them back into his body and walks away. That’s right, the trolls are a valued part of society, acting as augurs and fortune tellers to those with the cash to pay them. It’s a nice touch, a way to show that the rules really are different here, and it leads me nicely into my next point.
As I mentioned in my review of Skinwalkers, I really like when they tie the Tales novels into the Pathfinder canon. And that’s been done really well here. The troll augurs have been detailed before in the City of Strangers setting guide, and play a role in The Asylum Stone as well. The adorably cocky and charming streetwise guide, Gav, also appears in The Asylum Stone. I can’t say for sure what else has been tied in, as unfortunately I don’t currently have access to a copy of City of Strangers or my copy of The Asylum Stone, but I’m sure there’s going to be plenty more bits and pieces to really drive home that it’s not just some generic city that’s been thrown together. For example, I’d be very surprised if Alaeh A’kaan and his spectacular inn, the Canary House, were not part of the city prior to this book. This kind of attention to detail definitely helps pull me into the story more.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Salim adventure if we didn’t get treated to a veritable feast of strange and wonderful locations, and The Redemption Engine certainly doesn’t disappoint. As the back of the book states, Salim visits both the idyllic plane of Heaven, where the Archons and Angels maintain order in paradise; and the fires of Hell, home to the Devils. Both of these settings are detailed beautifully, as are some other exotic locations that I don’t want to spoil. As is usual, we also get plenty of exposure to the Outsiders (planar beings that represent specific ideals and alignments) of Pathfinder throughout the story. There’s a good range represented here, with Devils (Lawful Evil), Angels (any of the Good alignments), Archons (Lawful Good), Psychopomps (True Neutral, because they serve death and take no sides) and the Aeons (True Neutral, because they represent true balance… meaning they might free slaves one day, then enslave free men the next). I think the way they were written actually gave some really good insight into what it means to be a manifestation of an ideology rather than a truly free-willed sentient being (yes, they can make choices, but they tend to act within their alignment and role more often than not). It was also really nice to finally get some, if not a whole lot, of information on how exactly the Aeon’s go about their task of maintaining balance. Honestly, it was something I really didn’t see coming, and I can’t wait to work something to do with it into one of my games. There’s also a very telling comment about the nature of those who go to Heaven, as opposed to Elysium or Nirvana (the Chaotic Good and Neutral Good planes). When a character asks about why the souls are waiting in line to get into Heaven, the response is essentially “because those are the kind of people who go to Heaven”. It shows that people get what they truly deserve in the afterlife. The cunning and calculating evil go to Hell, the psychopaths go to the Abyss, the nihilistic evil go to Abbadon, and the reverse applies for the Good aligned in their final journey. This kind of look at how the planes works is much appreciated, as it gives a much better understanding of how the multiverse functions in this setting.
Now, on to characters. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I adore Salim. He’s a brilliantly written character, with wit, style and confidence justified by the fact that yes, he is good at his job. But he has his flaws, and that’s why I love him. He can be over-confident, he’s prideful, and his insistence on working alone gets him into trouble that could have been avoided if he’d just accepted the help he was offered. It means that there’s room for the character to grow and develop, and he certainly does throughout this novel. I’m not going to talk too much about him though, because I’ll never stop. So let’s talk about a few of the other characters.
As I mentioned earlier, Gav the street guide from The Asylum Stone makes an appearance as Salim’s guide. His sharp wit, layman philosophy, and fierce loyalty mixed with his natural charm make him an endearing character. He’s ready to follow Salim anywhere he goes, because as far as he’s concerned, it’s the right thing to do. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago, but I consider him to be one of my favourite secondary characters from recent times.
Roshad and Bors deserve a mention here as well. The sorcerer and fighter (I assume he’s a fighter) are intriguing characters, with their close bond both to each other and, as the story progresses, Salim. Members of the mysterious group known as the Iridian Fold, they seem to be the real catalyst to Salim realising that he doesn’t have to do everything alone, that he can have friends. I don’t want to give too much of their story away, so I’m just going to say that you should really go and find out about their background in Sutter’s new addition to the Pathfinder Tales webfiction, Boar and Rabbit, which takes place prior to the events of The Redemption Engine (part one has just been posted here).
Maedora is the other character I’d like to talk about. She’s an interesting counterpoint to Salim, in that she basically performs the same role, from a different side. She’s a powerful psychopomp, and like Salim cares for nothing her duty. Her only satisfaction seems to be making sure that the proper order of the afterlife is maintained, with souls going to where they belong. She also has an interesting dislike of Salim from the outset, apparently feeling that he is unworthy of the power and tasks laid upon him, no matter that he didn’t want to take them up in the first place.
The interactions between Salim and these characters is filled with enough conflict, banter, tension, victories and setbacks to drive some excellent character development. It makes them feel like living, breathing characters, with their own worries and cares. I think part of this is the conversational way that they’re written, the dialogue never really breaks into a formal style, keeping things sounding like a real conversation.
Okay, nearly done. Let’s talk about the writing style. If my earlier comments didn’t make it clear, The Redemption Engine is an action packed novel. Once it gets rolling, it rarely slows down, and it gets rolling early. That said, James Sutter’s writing makes it easy to keep track of what’s happening. There’s no confusion about who’s doing what, where the characters are headed, it’s all very clearly written and easy to understand. Combat is well written and exciting, with the descriptions giving a strong mental image of the action. Violence wise I wouldn’t say it’s any worse than any of the other novels in the Pathfinder Tales series. There are descriptions of injuries caused by magic and blades, but none of it is gratuitous or overly graphic, just enough to make it clear that they’re fighting for keeps.
I’m also a big fan of the way he manages to get across core concepts of the characters, like Salim’s disgust at having to use Pharasma’s power. Rather than state that Salim hates it, we get a descriptive element to it, where he likens the feeling of her divine power a taint contaminating him, like a mudslide pouring into a clear pond. Little touches like that are what make it such a joy to read.
Like Death’s Heretic, it’s one of the longer of the Pathfinder Tales, taking me most of a day to read. Death’s Heretic took about the same amount of time for me, as did Chris A. Jackson’s Pirates Honor and Ed Greenwood’s The Wizard’s Mask. So it’s one of the meatier novels in the series so far.
So, to summarise. Would I recommend The Redemption Engine?
Short Answer: Yes.
Long Answer: Hell yes I would! Read it. Right now. Then tell me how awesome it is. Go on, I’ll wait. In fact I might just reread it right now, in the hopes that when I’m done I’ll look at the list of upcoming books in the series and see a third Salim story on there. It’s got everything I wanted out of it. Angels, Devils, other miscellaneous Outsiders, plane hopping shenanigans, long coat (or robe) wearing clerics who kick ass and take names. Twisted plots and powerful magic. What more could you ask for?
Written while listening to The Glitch Mob’s new album, Love Death Immortality. I only got into them recently, and have already decided that they’re suitable for use as a soundtrack for club scenes in an upcoming Shadowrun campaign I’m planning at the moment. Check out their songs Our Demons and I Need My Memory Back
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