Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-660-7
Tim Pratt brings back Alaeron, last seen in City of the Fallen Sky, back for another spin. This book can stand alone very well, but anyone reading this book should be aware that it contains some spoilers for the previous book.
Anyway, this time we head over to Numeria. It’s surely no coincidence that this book is published at around the same time as Paizo releases a campaign setting splatbook for that place. Numeria is a polarizing aspect of Golarion. You see, a very long, long time ago, a large spaceship crashed into that region, changing the landscape permanently with its various effusions and what not. Now, automatons and mechanical monsters roam the wreckage, while some of the most enterprising natives salvage the technology to create some fancy guns and vehicles. The setting also introduces aliens from other planets mingling with the locals and hiding their identities or hiding away in nooks and crevices. There are people that like this steampunk inclusion into an otherwise recognizable fantasy setting, while others pretend that Numeria never exists in their version of Golarion.
Alaeron is an alchemist as well as an atheist. He’s the kind of guy who would stare at people in a creepy manner and mutter embarrassing things in the company of strangers, and yet he always gets to sleep with the hot chicks. In short, he’s a wish fulfillment fantasy of the stereotypical basement-dwelling guys said to read this kind of books. He is absent-minded yet capable of creating an explosive or toxin for every occasion, and he’s also one of the very few guys that managed to escape the unfortunately named Technic League (the bunch of villains harnessing alien technology to rule Numeria while plotting world domination). In this one, his old mentor Zernebeth asks him to come back and explore a mysterious wreckage on her behalf.
Despite the fact that the Technic League has sent assassins after assassins to kill him, Alaeron can never resist the opportunity to wag that thing at a willing female, so he goes ahead right into her bed and into trouble. His sidekick, the thief Skiver, tags along too despite having no real reason to.
Despite promising deadly clashes with robots, the story actually takes a little more than half of its length to actually put our guys into its brand of metallic disaster. For a very long time, the story seems like a travelogue of Numeria and its surrounding regions, only instead of the more traditional kind of tour guide narrative, I have our two guys trying their best to crack one-liners like they are in some comedy revolving around Spring Break. The humor includes some very twenty-first century Earth colloquialism, making it hard to fully immerse myself into this setting.
This is also another story where our two leading guys are so obviously smarter, better, more awesome, and (or so the author hopes) funnier that everyone else that watching them in action is like seeing a bowling ball crushing an ant hive. The only halfway interesting thing here is the mystery of what these guys can find in the wreckage, and once I have the answer, things turn into a forced and suspense-free adventures of two overgrown brats in some low-rate setting that tries very hard to be like Aliens.
Apart from being one-dimensionally superior in a smug and insufferable manner, the two guys have little else to offer in terms of characterization. Alaeron could have been interesting in that he’s a strictly neutral character whose natural curiosity about the world often overrides conventional morality, but for too often, he slips into stereotype territory here as that scholar who seems implausibly incapable of social niceties or even awareness unless it’s convenient for the plot. Apart from being a thief and a gay man, Skiver has nothing to offer. He’s pure sidekick material here, only, he gives little genuine reason to be one. These two men have a relationship that feels forced – they are together because the author dictates that they should be. They show little genuine camaraderie to be believable BFFs.
Reign of Stars sees Tim Pratt trying a little too hard to be Joss Whedon, James Cameron, Kevin J Anderson, and Kevin Smith, but the poor dear ends up being not even a little close to emulating even one of those darlings. It’s a readable story, but the strain of the author’s trying so hard shows every where in the story, and that is distracting.