Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-741-3
Jiri Maju – which means Jiri from the Ashes in the language of her people – is one of the very few survivors of her tribe. A shaman-in-training, our young lady is doing her thing one day when her mentor, Oza, senses unwanted presence breaking into the Pyre, a magical vault designed to seal away its mysterious contents, contents that Jiri have little knowledge of but are told to be very dangerous in the wrong hands. They travel in haste to the Pyre, only to be attacked by a demon conjured by whoever entered the Pyre to guard the entrance. Oza insists that Jiri run to the town Kibwe to seek help from an innkeeper that apparently owes Oza a big favor, and Jiri obeys despite knowing that she will never see Oza again.
The innkeeper, Kalun, is not going to take up a sword or magic staff to rain death on the enemies, as he feels that he is too old to do this kind of thing. Besides, he has a family and he is also comfortably positioned as one of the more influential persons in the trading town of Kibwe. However, he has a few adventurers indebted to him, so it’s a simple matter of assigning them to help Jiri. There are Linaria, the half-elven sorcerer with an affinity for ice magic; the warrior Morvius who naturally would screw anything that moves and complain about not getting paid enough for his tasks – he has the body and skills of a brawler, but he comes with the bad wit and one-liners of a bard; and the paladin of Iomedae, Sera, who can cast heal several times a day (just what level is her class again?), and thus she doubles up as the party healer as well. Before they can carry out a raid on the final boss, though, they need to figure out how to get to the villains, who are funded by the greedy “money and power for us, subservience and debts for you” Aspis Corporation. In the meantime, whatever the villains released from the Pyre is killing everything and everyone left and right, and retrieving whatever it is that the villains had retrieved from the Pyre seems to be the key in stopping this thing. So, there is no time to lose.
Firesoul is a pretty standard “form a party, kill things, yay!” sword and sorcery story, complete with the usual assortment of mostly one-dimensional characters trying to save the day. However, it is a very well-entertaining one, I have to say. This one seems to be Gary Kloster’s first published full-length work, and I am pretty impressed as he manages to avoid the traps that more experienced fantasy authors sometimes fall into. This story feels like a story, rather than a transcript of a DM’s script, for one, although the author still can’t avoid some pointless random combat encounter moments here and there.
I dislike random combat encounter moments because they have no place in a story. Yes, in a tabletop session, they can be a nice way for the DM to torture the players (“Oh, I’ve saved this spell for the big bad, but it looks like I need to use it on some random troll that jumped out of the DM’s rear end to attack my party – oh, what to do?”) but in a story, it’s like the characters announcing that they would storm the citadel, only to then subject the reader to scenes of them taking toilet breaks. Random combat encounters are more action-oriented than scenes of our heroes taking a dump, of course, but they all work the same way: they break the momentum for no good reason. Why is Mr Kostler doing this to his own story?
Still, there are enough satisfying action scenes here, balanced by quieter moments of angst and brooding. The pacing is solid, and the way the author incorporates otherwise overused plot elements into this story is coherent and good. The end result is one gripping and engaging story that I can put down – I have to finish it in one sitting. The good guys are mostly one-note – Morvius has only sex and money on his mind, Linaria is of course mysterious like stereotypical elves and half-elves are, and Sera is fanatical about cleansing evil. Still, their personalities are well done, there is some good chemistry among the good guys, and they all work well. No tired “oh, we failed, let’s argue and break up for ten minutes before re-discovering the meaning of family and all that crock” development here, just people who want to get things done, often violently.
As a main character, Jiri can be quite difficult to like, but I actually appreciate this. She’s abrasive, has serious trust issues, and is hardly what one would call a team player. Her behavior especially in the first half of the book can be tiring to follow because she’s so stubborn and hot-headed yet so… bratty. But she gets better in a character progression that feels believable. I especially like that Jiri doesn’t suddenly discover special powers or is revealed to be some chosen special snowflake. She screws up, she has to force herself to think in order to outwit the bad guys, and in some ways she acquits herself well. She grows up a bit, and by the last page, she’s an older and wiser person, with plenty of room for growth. I think she’ll be fine. The author does a good job in getting me to believe that.
I also enjoy how the author incorporates the Mwangi Expanse setting into this story without coming off as too much of a hard sell (buy the campaign setting, everyone!) or inscrutable to newbies, all the while keeping things interesting. I’d like to think of myself as pretty familiar with this setting – I also subscribe to their Pathfinder campaign materials – and I still find some interesting new or less familiar facets of the setting here to savor.
Books in this line can be very uneven in quality, but Firesoul stands out as one of the few that are much better than most others. If I hadn’t roll up my eyes at some of the more obviously shoehorned extra combat encounter moments in this story, I may have given this one a perfect score. Oh well, there is always the next book.