Tor, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7453-0
Howard Andrew Jones has consistently contributed some of the better entries in the Pathfinder Tales line – which is high praise indeed considering some of the clunkers in that line – but I’m sad to report that Beyond the Pool of Stars is a bit of a clunker. Not a lot, just a bit, mostly because it reads so much like a transcript of an RPG tabletop game that I can practically hear the dice being rolled each time the characters in this story make a move.
Mirian Ross left Eleder, the capital city of the nation of Sargava, to become a Pathfinder a while back. She turned her back to her father, a formerly capable salvager who had grown bitter with disappointment and age, and the family business, and she has no regrets. You see, Sargava was formerly a colony of the kingdom of Cheliax, and despite its independence, the nation is still controlled by the outsiders and the natives continue to receive third-class citizen treatment. Mirian’s mother is a native, so her mixed heritage subjects her to this treatment. Coupled with her disillusionment with her family, she walked out and never looked back. At least until now.
She returns when she receives news that her father had passed on – killed while on the job, it seems – and she happens to be at the right place and at the right time to see a pirate ship about to descend upon her family’s much smaller and poorer-equipped crew. Mirian has her acid-spewing magic wand, an heirloom left by her father, so she quickly goes to the rescue. She learns soon enough that she has come home just in time for some fun.
You see, Cheliax has never really forgiven Sargava for breaking free, and now, Sargava pays the pirate captains of the nearby islands every year to protect its own ships from systematic harassment from the Chelish army. Mirian’s father had an agreement with some lizardfolks to help them reach an old structure – if they succeed in getting there, the lizardfolks get what they want, the humans get plenty of gems and other treasure. The Sargavan baron wants the treasure, because it would bring much-needed funds to pay off the pirates this year. Alas, Mirian’s father died before anything could come out of the agreement, and Mirian’s brother is not much of a salvager or businessperson to take matters in hand.
Now that Mirian is back, the baron’s representative, Lady Alderra Galanor wants her to resurrect the arrangement and get those treasures back. Mirian at first is reluctant to do so, until she learns that the family business is so heavily in debts that her mother and her brother are at the brink of total ruination. So now, she’s back on the job, only this time, she is leading an entourage of her father’s two loyal crew members, Lady Galanor and her self-absorbed “I just wanna be a writer!” son, three suspicious and mistrustful lizardfolks, a healer who doesn’t trust lizardfolks much, and of course Mirian’s surly brother. There are also folks who don’t want to see Sargava getting its paws on those treasures, so they would do their best to make sure that Mirian and her pals don’t come back alive.
The story doesn’t sound so bad on paper, but what it turns out to be is a tabletop game session in which the players have very, very poor saving rolls. That, or the DM cheats, I suppose. There are no strong main villains here – the villains hover mostly in the background for the bulk of their story, and their machinations only generate encounters like deadly storms and what not. These aren’t very interesting, and worse, these encounters resemble too much those random combat encounters that requires a DM to roll a die or two and compare the results against a table in the DM handbook. Without strong villains, there is no sense of build-up, no imminent trepidation of a final showdown, nothing, just our team going from one place to another and falling their saving rolls. Seriously, Mirian keeps failing to activate her wand, it’s pretty clear that she is either under-leveled for this adventure path or she has unheard of bad luck when it comes to such things.
There are also many tropes here that, while at home in an RPG tabletop game, seem out of place in a conventional novel. Mirian inherits magical rings and wands from her father. While one can argue that he found these things from his many salvage missions, I have a hard time imagining that nobody else would say anything about getting these kinds of family heirloom. Also, I find it hard to believe that Mirian can walk away from her family but can’t find the heart to sell off magical rings and what not to replenish the family coffers. Another tabletop RPG trope that is present here is the use of resurrection as a skill. Now, I know, resurrection, miracle, and wish are all spells that allow the DMs to give a tabletop RPG party a way out when things are dire and everything is screwed up, but these devices never fail to come off as horribly contrived in a “That’s so convenient, watch me roll up my eyes!” way when used in a novel. Therefore, when a resurrection spell brings a dead character back to life, I soon run out of eye rolls to give.
On the bright side, the last few chapters are actually quite exciting – the resurrection thing aside – which lifts this book out of two-oogie territory. The author can really tell a good story if he puts his heart to it, and his female heroines never disappoint in the backside-bashing department. It’s such a shame, therefore, that Beyond the Pool of Stars is too much like a tabletop RPG transcript, and its existence only proves that inserting tabletop RPG tropes in a heavy-handed manner into conventional stories is never a good idea.