Well, it’s been a while. No excuses for it, I’ve just been very, very slack on posting. I’m going to try to get myself back to weekly updates, hopefully on Saturdays or Sundays. To make it easy for now, I’m going to start off with book reviews just to get going again.
So on that note, let’s start with a review of the latest Pathfinder Tales novel.
Full Disclosure: I was provided with an e-book of this novel by the author for review purposes. This has in no way influenced my opinion of the work, and this review is a full, fair and honest accounting of my thoughts on it.
Forge of Ashes
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
From the Paizo.com blurb:
Years ago, the dwarven warrior Akina left her home in the Five Kings Mountains to fight in the Goblinblood Wars. Now at long last she’s returning home, accompanied by Ondorum, her silent companion of living stone. What she finds there is far from what she remembers: a disgraced brother, an obsessive suitor, and a missing mother presumed dead. Yet the damage runs deeper than anyone knows, and when Akina’s brother is kidnapped by ancient enemies from the legendary Darklands, she and Ondorum must venture below the surface—and into danger as old as the stones themselves.
From debut novelist Josh Vogt comes a tale of love, redemption, and subterranean battle, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
So, as you can see from the blurb, this is Josh Vogt’s first novel, though not his first published work. He has a growing number of published pieces short fiction, and has also contributed to a number of RPGs, including books for some of my favourite settings/systems, such as Gun Metal Games’ cyberpunk setting Interface Zero 2.0 and Third Eye Games’ Part-Time Gods. He’s also got a new series of urban fantasy novels, The Cleaners, which has me excited since urban fantasy is basically my favourite genre these days. The first book, Enter the Janitor, has already been released (it may have actually been published before Forge of Ashes, but I believe Forge of Ashes was the first novel that was completed. I could be wrong of course), and is high on my list of things to check out and review.
All of that said, we’re not really here to talk about the author, we’re here to talk about his book. So let’s get to the good stuff.
Forge of Ashes is the story of Akina Fairingot, a dwarven beserker (in Pathfinder RPG terms, she’s a barbarian) and her companion Ondorum, an oread monk under a vow of silence (oreads are one of the four races of humans with elemental power in their bloodlines, specifically earth). I won’t say much more about the basic setup of the story, as the blurb covers it pretty well, but it opens with Akina and Ondorum approaching the dwarven city of Taggoret. Right from the first page I was able to get a good feel for the characters. Akina’s banter and Ondorum’s stony silence (heh, see what I did there?) really built a picture of them in my head quickly. Akina is very quick to anger, passionate, and easily frustrated by her companion’s silence, while Ondorum is calm and collected, but feels guilt and a need for penitence. They seem to be almost opposites, but complement each other perfectly. Given how short Pathfinder Tales novels are, it’s important to get a clear picture of your characters across to the readers as quickly as possible, and this is a perfect example of how to do that. Of course, there’s still more to learn about our heroes as the story progresses, but the foundation for them is there, ready to be built upon as more details are revealed. While Akina is very clearly the main character, there are quite a few segments from the point of view of Ondorum, which, given his vow of silence, is vitally important to understanding him as a character, since it allows for a chance to hear his thoughts on the situations they’re in.
As with Wendy Wagner’s novel Skinwalkers, the characters are a real strong point here. Akina as a dwarven barbarian is a fascinating character, as it’s something you don’t see very often. Dwarves are more often than not shown as the stalwart fighter, controlled and steadfast. Reading about a dwarf who loses herself in the bloodlust and sometimes can’t even tell friend from foe made a really nice change of pace, and allowed room for her character to develop as she searched for a form of peace from the rage inside herself. Ondorum as a monk isn’t as unusual, since oreads as a race are described as introspective, calm and methodical, but he was still an interesting character simply because I’d yet to see a novel with one of the elemental races as a protagonist. The talk of his connection to the elements, and his struggle with his vow of silence and the (potentially flawed) reasons for taking it, as well as the wedge it was driving between he and his lover, make for a surprisingly deep character for a piece of licensed fiction for a RPG. That said, I’ve always said the characters are one of the strongest elements of the Pathfinder Tales series, and certainly I consider the series as a whole to be far superior to the licensed novels for other traditional fantasy RPGs.
I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’m going to avoid talking about any really specific plot details. What I can say is that Forge of Ashes in no way lacks for compelling characters; intense action scenes for both the aggressive Akina bringing her berserker rage to bear on her opponents, and the methodical Ondorum practicing his controlled martial arts to deadly effect; villains that really make you hate them (though still managing to be sympathetic in at least one case); exploration of the subterranean dangers of the Darklands (one of my favourite parts of the Pathfinder campaign setting); and even manages to slip in a few heart-warming romantic elements. It’s got a punchy pace, keeping the action flowing, and builds up to a couple of really great climactic confrontations. The ending was technically happy, but closer to bittersweet, and wrapped up the story nicely while still allowing for a sequel if Paizo decide to commission one. All of that adds up to a great novel, but if that was it had to offer me, I’d have given it a 4 out of 5… there had to be something more to get that 5th star…
So what was it? What made me give the book a perfect score? Put simply, it’s the way it made me think about certain races and creatures from the setting in a new way. Often people who play a lot of games like Pathfinder will begin to think of even the sentient races that are said to have civilizations of their own as nothing more than monsters to be cut down. They don’t really consider that the enemies have their own culture, their own traditions. This is true even of many who like a lot of story to their games, because they want their character’s story, not the story of the random monsters they encounter along the way. So there’s a few things I’d like to really highlight as having made me stop and think for a bit. I’m going to be a little lazy and do them in a list, since it’s 3 AM and I’m starting to feel the call of my bed:
- First one isn’t really related to the monsters, but it was nice to once again see a non-standard relationship in one of the Tales novels. Pirate’s Honor and Pirate’s Promise had Torius (human) and Celeste (a lunar naga). The relationship between Akina and Ondorum isn’t quite as out there, but it’s still a rarity to see a relationship between a dwarf and a human(ish) character, and their mutual love and respect was beautifully portrayed. The pain that Akina feels when Ondorum can’t talk to her because of his vow, and the way that he keeps nearly breaking it because he wants so badly to be able to talk to her like they used to, it really makes you realise just how much they care for each other.
- A tribe of derro appear as minor antagonists fairly early in the story, and while they’re fairly standard evil characters, it’s nice to see them sticking so close to the rather disturbing flavour that Pathfinder gave them. If you’re not familiar with them, derro are a degenerate subspecies of gnome, and in Pathfinder they’re kind of a mix of mad scientists and the greys, in that they tend to abduct people from the surface and drag them away underground for experimentation. Those they let go have their memories tampered with, so that they’re found wandering confused and often with no understanding of who or where they are (remind anyone of the classic alien abduction stories?).
- It’s revealed fairly early, so I don’t feel like it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that the ancient enemy mentioned in the blurb are the duegar, an offshoot race of dwarves who stayed underground when the rest of their race took part in the Search for the Sky (an exodus to the surface world during a time of severe upheaval of the landmass during Golarion’s ancient past) and turned to worshiping Droskar, the evil dwarven deity of slavery and tyranny. As with the derro, the duegar are presented as they normally are, as pure evil, but a lot more detail is given on their culture than is normally seen. You get a feel for their military structure, what they value, their methods of controlling their territory, and how they select the rulers of their society. For anyone wanting to use duegar as antagonists, this is a great place to get a few ideas on how to portray them.
- Akina and Ondorum fall in with a companion called Izthuri during their journey into the Darklands. It took me a moment to realise this due to them being referred to as caligni in the novel, but Izthuri is actually one of the ruling class of the dark folk, a race of subterranean creatures who don’t get a whole lot of attention in the setting. In fact I think this is the first time I’ve seen them in any Pathfinder products outside of the Bestiaries. They’re a reclusive race, and generally implied to be sneaky, underhanded and not to be trusted… not so here. Izthuri is a loyal, if somewhat strange companion, and her tribe is of great assistance to the heroes. They seem to want nothing more than to be left to live in peace, safe in hiding from those that mean them harm. While they’re listed as Chaotic Neutral in the Bestiaries, certainly this is the only time I’ve seen them portrayed in a sympathetic manner rather than just being foes.
- This one is a little bit spoilery, as it is a pretty specific event, so skip ahead if you want to avoid it, but I couldn’t go without gushing about just how much I loved this scene. There’s a point where Akina, Izthuri and Ondorum end up separated, and Ondorum has to go forward on his own for a bit. After hiding from a rather overwhelming threat, he ends up captured by a roper. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, a roper is an ambush predator that hides in caves, disguised as a stalagmite. It’s only once they attack their prey that they reveal their six razor-sharp tentacles, a two foot wide maw filled with massive teeth, and their gigantic single eye. While they’ve always been described in Pathfinder as being intelligent, being a Chaotic Evil species, they’ve always really been played as just monsters to be killed. What made this particular encounter so interesting was that the roper didn’t try to immediately kill and eat Ondorum, but instead chose to speak with him, treating him as a puzzle to understand. It spoke of philosophy, the nature of life and death, and even managed to shake Ondorum’s faith in his vow of silence, pointing out with biting wit that in many instances, silence is a poison that can negatively affect the mind of someone who becomes isolated from their friends by it. Admittedly did still try to kill Ondorum after tiring of conversation, but it was really intriguing to see this classic monster treated as a well spoken, witty, and intellectual being that gained at least as much pleasure from talking as from catching and eating it’s prey.
I guess the point I’m getting at is that throughout the story, my expectations of how certain characters and creatures would behave and react was consistently subverted, making me stop and think about how those expectations were set. In turn it makes me wonder more about other aspects of the setting and how I might be wrong about them. Taking a wider view on it, it’s actually an interesting thing to think about for real life as well, looking at what my assumptions and expectations about the world is and how they may be incorrect. Frankly, any novel that is, at its core, pulp fantasy that can make me think this hard about things has earned that 5 out of 5 stars.
A quick note on writing style. As I’ve found to be the case with most of the Pathfinder Tales authors, Josh Vogt’s writing style is clear, descriptive enough to evoke a clear image of the scene without being too flowery, and easy to read. It’s always a pleasure to read a novel that hits that sweet spot of not feeling like it’s trying to club me into submission with overly complicated wordplay, while managing to not feel dumbed down. Essentially, it’s the perfect style for this kind of fantasy novel.
Before I finish up though, I’ve got one last thing to mention that made me really happy. The use of Forgefiends. I love those goofy looking horrors. They’re basically evil metal constructs designed as walking torture/execution chambers… they’ve got a big mouth in their stomach, and they’ll swallow prisoners whole then hold them in their hollow interior while they go and sit in flames, basically turning themselves into walking ovens, burning their prisoners to death. They’re delightfully twisted inventions, and I always love seeing them (I even used to have a few minis of them floating around somewhere, I think they may have been sold with a bunch of other minis though).
So, to sum it up. Would I recommend Forge of Ashes? Well, I think it’s pretty obvious from everything I’ve said that yes, I would. Looking back on it, I actually had nothing bad to say about it, and I can usually find something to nitpick. If this is a sign of what I can expect from Josh Vogt’s writing in the future, then I’m ready and eager to read more, and I really hope that somewhere down the track there’ll be adventure or three for Akina and Ondorum.
You can find Forge of Ashes for sale on Paizo’s webstore here. If you’d like to find out more about Josh Vogt and his work, please take a look at his site for news about what he’s working on and links to his other fiction: JRVogt – Fantasy Author & Freelancer
I’d like thank Josh for providing me with an advance copy of the book for the purposes of this review. Given that I’ve had to cancel my subscription to the Pathfinder Tales series recently thanks to the increased costs, as well as some pressures on my personal finances (I may love my bike, but damn if she’s not expensive to keep running at times), this is really the only way I’d have got to read it, and missing out on a story this good would have been a crying shame. So once again, a huge thanks for giving me a chance to review your work. I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got in store for us.
Written while listening to Love Is… by The Best Pessimist. I’ve been on a real kick for post-rock recently, ever since I saw Sleepmakeswaves a few weeks back. I’ve always loved the genre as a whole, ever since I first heard Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but lately it’s pretty much all I listen to. Seriously give Love Is… a listen, and while you’re at it give anything from Sleepmakeswaves a try as well, but if you want a recommendation for a specific album, well, my favourite is probably … And So We Destroyed Everything, but In Today Already Walks Tomorrow and Love of Cartography are also excellent.
I’ll be back with another review next week, this time for The First Tail, the first book of The Tails of Two Dragons, and the debut novel of local Canberra author T.J. Burgin. If you have something you’d like a fair and honest review for, please feel free to get in contact with me via the Questions and Queries page
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