Pocket, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-8947-1
I enjoy playing Guild Wars 2 – it is a very flawed game, but it’s fun and it’s far more satisfying than Diablo 3. I have a maxed-out human ranger, sylvari warrior, asura elementalist, human guardian, and norn mesmer (with ascended trinkets and all, people) in my personal harem of fantasy heroes, with a charr engineer about to hit level 50 as we speak. I promise to stop after that one, really.
So, while deciding to take a short hiatus from the game, I thought it probably wouldn’t hurt to check out at least one novel in the franchise. I’ve heard that this is actually the better of the two books released before Guild Wars 2 came out, and I’ve enjoyed Jeff Grubb’s works in the past, so here I am, reviewing this book.
In the tradition of sandbox fantasy novels tied down by the canon created by someone else – in this case, Jeff Grubb has a hand in inventing the world of Tyria – this one offers more fight scenes than anything else. It’s an odd mix of labored exposition and mechanical fight scenes, but I’ll get into that later. First, the plot.
Since Guild Wars was mostly about the war of attrition between the humans and the charrs, it makes sense for the first book in the franchise to focus on how this war came to a standstill by the time the sequel debuted in the market. Well, it’s because the humans help to locate a missing charr artifact, the Claw of Khan-Ur, and the charrs honor this with a truce.
The truce is necessary if you ask the Vigil, a multi-species organization devoted to combating the true threats to this world: the elder dragons. If the various species keep warring each other, the elder dragons will just swoop in and kill everyone, and we can’t have that. So, first stop: getting the humans and charrs to kiss and make up. With the humans first showing up to seize lands from the charrs hundreds of years ago, to the charrs fighting back, and the human king destroying Ascalon City – and his own people along with himself – just to give the invading charrs the middle finger of all middle fingers. The last happened about 250 years ago.
Today, only one person sneaked into the ruins of Ascalon City and escaped the ghosts within with his life intact: the thief Dougal Keene. His allies all perished, however, and if Dougal has his way, he would never even think of that place. Unfortunately, a botched quest into the crypts beneath Destiny’s Peak put him and a sylvari necromancer ally Killeen in the custody of the Vigil. Since the Vigil is looking for the Claw, and the Claw is said to be lost in Ascalon City, it makes perfect sense for them to gang-press Dougal into the custody of his former comrade Riona (whom he and his now dead allies betrayed in a way). A charr thief is coming along too (Ember using a pistol instead of a rifle is a dead giveaway), along with a norn warrior, and an asura engineer. Yes, yes, rangers, guardians, elementalists, and mesmers get no love here, but there’s always the next book.
Ghosts of Ascalon, as I’ve mentioned, is an odd mix of filler fight scenes and labored exposition. The lore is interesting, but it is soon apparent that there is a “belabor details about history and geography first, and then we’ll have a fight scene” pattern going on here. The fight scenes aren’t too interesting, and they soon come together into one blurry tangle of snarls and senseless brutality. The whole thing could be made more interesting, I’d think, if the authors had made things less predictable here. Also, all the information dumping causes the book to move at a very slow pace, even with all the fight scenes present. Let me put it this way: it’s way past the middle part of the book when the gang finally makes to travel to Ascalon City.
There is some effort to create some interesting characters here, but the efforts only go halfway.
Dougal, for example, is an interesting hero in that he is actually hard to like. He is not the usual heroic type: he betrays his allies in the past, but has the temerity to lecture Rionna on standing by her allies. He plots to betray his allies and escape with treasures plundered during the excursion, but he behaves like he’s better than everyone else. What spoils this character for me is the abrupt transformation from weasel to Vin Diesel late in the story.
Riona is also an interesting character. She has plenty of reasons to be the way she is, but the authors hammer her eventual betrayal of the whole gang by driving home her xenophobia in a heavy-handed manner usually reserved for Wile E Coyote and Elmer Fudd. By late in the story, though, she’s transformed into a sneering cartoon villain who wastes time babbling out her plot instead of leaving the good guys to rot.
The remaining party members are mostly one-note stereotypes. Gullik the norn shows some promise of character development when his imbecile tendency to stop and fight even against villains he would surely lose to, but that promise remains undelivered.
Ultimately, there is, perhaps, an embryo of a good story here. But the execution is uneven, with patchy pacing and half-baked characterization. Ghosts of Ascalon isn’t anything special, therefore. It’s just another readable but forgettable tie-in fantasy novel. It’s far better than the actual stories in Guild Wars 2, but that’s hardly a fair comparison, as a two-year old’s doodle is far superior to any of the so-called “stories” in that game.