Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-465-8
In his acknowledgements, Richard Lee Byers claims that Called to Darkness is a homage to his favorite works by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Well, he does a pretty job here, because this one really does feel like something the late Mr Burroughs might come up with. We have a solitary protagonist on a vengeance quest who ends up uniting two rather primitive tribes against an army of monstrous creatures, all in a wilderness setting, for one, and the vibes are all here.
Kagur is the daughter of the chieftain of the Blacklions tribe, one of the tribe of fierce warriors that live in the icy Realm of the Mammoth Lords. Wait, there are lions in that place? If no, how did the tribe get that name again? Kagur’s age isn’t given, but judging from her temperament, I’d put her in her mid- to late teens. Any older and she’d be an embarrassment.
Kagur’s father “adopted” a frost giant, Eovath, when the tribe slaughtered the rest of Eovath’s kin. Raised from young as Kagur’s brother, Eovath from all appearances seem to have taken to his new people. Kagur, in fact, likes to imagine that her father’s love has removed the barbaric savagery of Eovath’s frost giant nature. Well, surprise! It turns out that Eovath doesn’t take to being paraded in front of other tribes like a trophy of the Blacklions, and he actually despises his “family” for slaughtering his own people. When the story opens, Kagur runs off with some kid to get to third base, but the lovely moment is interrupted by Eovath taking the opportunity to put everyone under his ax as a sacrifice to his deity, the mad god Rovagug.
Kagur ends up being the sole survivor of the massacre, and she wants revenge. Together with a near-blind shaman, she will venture underground into the Darklands (think Journey to the Center of the Earth, only with orcs and ghouls and weird tentacled monsters) to take down the monster she formerly considers her kin.
It is a nice change for once to read an action fantasy romp with a heroine at the front and center, especially one that doesn’t contain the obligatory romance to make her look “feminine” or “sweet”. Unfortunately, while I do appreciate that Kagur mellowing somewhat is basically her character arc in the entire story, it can be hard to follow this story without wanting to choke some sense into her now and then. Kagur is pretty dumb in that she spends the bulk of the story refusing to do sensible things like taking into account her surroundings or even paying attention to what is happening around her. She’s like that dumb rhinoceros charging ahead blindly – which is why I said earlier that if this silly girl is older than her late teens, it’s be most embarrassing for her indeed.
She settles down somewhat at about the midpoint of the story, but it can be trying just to get to that point. This story becomes much easier to enjoy from that point, though, especially as there is no shortage of action drama here. Thing is, and this is probably by design, I don’t know, the whole adventure resembles too much like the script of a tabletop RPG for my liking.
Now, I know clerics can summon food in a tabletop campaign, but when this happens in a novel, the whole thing feels suspiciously like cheating. Only the Bible could get away with such a scene, and even then, there are still people who would say that they have read better. Yes, in a tabletop game, clerics and magic-users have a cap on how many spells they can cast in a day, because without such a cap, everyone would play those classes and fling spells with impunity while warriors and rogues find themselves out of fashion. In a novel, however, poor shaman Holg complaining that he’s run out of spells just seem… wimpy. We don’t have scenes such as Kagur wanting to stab someone to death only to flunk her die roll and end up missing, so why include these other mechanics of a tabletop game into a novel? All these things are, at best, distracting and, at worse, unintentionally hilarious. There are also scenes that are nothing more than filler designed to showcase some monsters or creatures in the campaign.
Honestly, if this book is less of a commercial for the Pathfinder setting and more of an organic fantasy story, it would have been more enjoyable. Or less ersatz at any rate. If this book is anything to go by, however, the people behind Pathfinder Tales want these books to serve as complements of the splatbooks and what not – even to the bizarre point of referring novel readers to campaign setting splatbooks for more information of various monsters and locales in this story. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that none of the books in this line has so far managed to wow me over.
Back to this story, the awkward self-sabotaging efforts to sell Pathfinder products aside, it is a pretty pleasant way to kill a sleepy afternoon. The author can deliver some good action scenes and his pacing is solid. The atmosphere of the story is pretty good later on when everyone stops giving me a tour of the Darklands, settle down in one place, and just get down to an old-fashioned killing sprees. A more composed and less recalcitrant Kagur is a bad-ass warrior, although it gets a bit unbelievable how this nobody can end up leading men and women with more battle experience while taking down monsters that make these people cower. And this book also has one of the best final chapters I’ve come across lately.
Called to Darkness tells me that I’d probably enjoy this author’s works when he’s serving up something that doesn’t come with commercials for splatbooks every few dozen pages. This story does have the potential to be something great, but in its current form, it just sorts of get there halfway and find its footing only late in the story – too late for me to give it a greater degree of approval.
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