Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-369-9
Sometimes I wonder why I am bothering with Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales fiction line. The offerings so far have been mediocre or, at best, fatally flawed in some way. Most of them read like transcripts from the gaming table. But I guess we need a venue for elevated fanboys and game designers to play the role-playing game of being a fantasy author? James L Sutter’s Death’s Heretic is his first published full-length fiction, as his previous efforts were short stories and splatbooks, and it really shows. The entire second third of this book can be removed without making much of an impact on the rest of the tale.
Salim Ghadafar is an interesting case of contradictions. He is an atheist in spirit, having long being jaded with the gods, and yet, he is an agent of Pharasma, the goddess of birth, death, and prophecy. Salim works directly for Pharasma through her angel who acts as Salim’s Bosley, and he doesn’t answer to any of the goddess’s churches. In other words, he’s the one they call when it comes to matters that the church either can’t openly get involved in or cannot resolve in its own capacity. In this story, his mission seems simple at the surface: he is to locate and collect the missing soul of a wealthy merchant. Somehow, the soul has been stolen after it was judged by Pharasma, and therefore, the goddess’s image as a bad-ass death diva is on the line. Accompanied by the merchant’s daughter Neila, he will soon embark on a mission that spans several planes of existence.
The story starts and ends pretty solidly. It is the bulk of the middle portion of this story that is the problem. After setting up the story in a surprisingly suspenseful manner, the author proceeds to kill all momentum in his story by having Salim lead Neila on what is basically a tour of Pharasma’s Boneyard and Axis. Both characters have encounters that do not add much to the story. Look, some thieves try to rob and kill our heroes! This is a great excuse for Salim to lecture Neila on the worshipers of Norgorber! Let’s introduce that machine thing Calabast as an excuse to get Salim and Neila to the Maelstrom, only to have him go away soon after without making much ripple in the story! I don’t know why the author doesn’t just let Salim and Neila head over to the Maelstrom on their own, since Calabast doesn’t make much of an impact in the story after his introduction, but I guess the author needs an excuse to have Salim explain more about the machines of Axis to Neila. And when the author has finally run out of random encounters or scenery to chew on, he decides to introduce a flashback to explain Salim’s past to me. Oh god, just get on with the story, please!
It is only in the last third of the story that Mr Sutter remembers that he is writing a novel, not the script for a reality show set in Axis, and tries to bring back some of the lost momentum into the story. By then, however, the flaws of the story have started to catch up with it. Why would the Church of Pharasma, which do not look fondly on mortals who try to prolong their lives beyond their destined life span, agree to resurrect the dead merchant in the first place? Why would Neila, whose character starts out strong only to degrade pathetically as the tale continues, would love a man like Salim, who has shown her nothing but curtness and impatience? The characters are so one-dimensional that they easily wear out their welcome during the sagging middle of the book, and by the time the story kicks back in gear, I am itching to see the last of these underdeveloped characters.
On the bright side, of all the authors that have attempted to wow me in this line, Mr Sutter is the best so far in bringing the setting to life. When he puts his heart into it, he can create very interesting secondary characters and describe an exotic setting in a most evocative and vivid manner without resorting to purple prose. This plays well into the author’s strength as a splatbook author, of course, but the jury is still out when it comes to him being an accomplished fantasy novelist. If this book had been one-third its length with all the momentum-killing sagging middle bits cut out, yes, it would be an amazing read. The shorter length would also make the poorly-developed state of the main characters easier to overlook. In its current form, Death’s Heretic is a story that has bits of a splatbook stuck in the middle just to pad its length to meet the word count.