Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-657-7
The Crusader Road is different from the usual fantasy romp: instead of the usual band of heroes taking down the big bad and saving the world from a dire evil, this one is about a family that attempts to settle in and develop a new colony in a hostile environment. It’s a bit like Swiss Family Robinson, really. The Vishov family is, in a way, shipwrecked. Tyressa Vishov’s brother was arrested and executed for treason, and her family is subsequently banished from Ustalav. It is her friendship with the Prince that kept things from becoming absolutely dire. She along with her son Jerrad and daughter Serrana are officially in the Silverlake region, under the Prince’s request, to help start and develop a settlement for the better good of Ustalav. Of course, this is basically a nicer way of saying that the whole thing is a banishment, but there is a slim hope that they can be allowed to go back once Tyressa succeeds in her mission.
Silverlake is no idyllic countryside, however. The nearby Echowood is the province of hostile elves and fey folks who view the encroachment of loggers and such as an assault to their home and, therefore, their entire existence. Ogres and goblins prowl the area looking for things to kill. Kellid barbarians consider much of the land theirs, and they make it clear that they view the Vishov family and their allies as interlopers. Tyressa has some baggage in the home front as well – her soldier husband is MIA, presumed dead, while her daughter is determined to go challenge her in every way and Jerrad keeps getting into trouble without effort. Meanwhile, the neighborhood lords and knights also view Tyressa’s project as a threat to their own demesnes, for there is always the possibility that a prosperous Silverlake would diminish the importance of their demesnes and, subsequently, their political influences.
The whole thing sounds really good, but the end result is actually quite disappointing. I used to read Michael A Stackpole’s books when I was a bigger sci-fi and fantasy geek back in those days, and I always thought he is much better at describing action scenes and dramatic confrontations than he is at inserting human elements into his stories. That’s the problem here: The Crusader Road needs plenty of human elements for it to be really good. Unfortunately, the characters here are all one-dimensional types, and any character growth is treated superficially (especially Serrana). I’m shown how Jerrod gets to be better at magical arts, but often, he does things that seem solely done for the sake of him getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. The author has other secondary characters talk about how Jerrod is stronger than he believes himself to be, and that he’s actually very good at… something, but I don’t see all this. Like much of this story, I’m told about things, but I’m never shown things as often.
While I always like a strong lead female character, due to how rare they can be, Tyressa is too capable to the detriment of the whole story. I’m not given any good look into her background or her past, so having Tyressa being able to do everything, especially when it’s convenient for the plot, seems like something of a short cut on the author’s part. Oh, that stupid boy is in trouble again? Tyressa shows up and saves the day because she’s so awesome that she cows even the most hardened barbarians and fae creatures around the neighborhood. Ogres are attacking the place? Tyressa suddenly shows that she can make Red Sonja look like a clumsy elephant! She also always knows when to say the right things, and nothing truly gets to her. After a while, I stop seeing Tyressa as an interesting character – she’s more like the author’s go-to convenient plot device to extricate the stupid kids out of their constant drama.
This kind of story needs to show me how the characters measure up against the forces of nature. It would be great to see how they triumph against their adversities with their strength and despite their weaknesses. Perhaps these characters feel out of their depths, or they feel like giving up because the odds seem impossible to overcome. Therefore, when they do, the victory feels so much sweeter. Here, however, Tyressa can just do anything and everything in reaction to the constant troubles lobbed her way. The story feels more mechanical and less intriguing as a result.
Still, the last few chapters are pretty good – lots of action here – and there are some interesting twists late in the story, although these twists are left unresolved, maybe in anticipation of a sequel.
On the whole, though, this is one story that falters because the author spends more time getting his characters into trouble. The balance between action stuff and meaningful character introspection is off, here, therefore preventing The Crusader Road from being anything more than one big missed opportunity.