Tor, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-7548-3
Liane Merciel is one of the better contract authors in Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line: she knows her pacing and style, her narrative is polished, and her characters can display depths that can move me on a good day. Her last two books for Paizo were doomed from the start because the whole arc needed an evil protagonist for everything to make sense. Here, however, the premise is fine with a lawful character, as opposed to evil or amoral, so everything makes sense.
Anyway, some background for new readers: this story takes place in Westcrown, the former capital city of Cheliax, a country in which the official religion is Asmodeus, the Prince of Hell. The Prince of Hell in this setting is an evil deity concerned with law and order, however, so good religions are allowed to exist – although there are many rigid rules and restrictions imposed, of course, to make sure that these goody-two-shoes will not get in the way of everyone else. The Hellknights, contrary to what their name may suggest, do not serve Asmodeus. They are technically independent – technically, that is, as real life isn’t always so clear cut – and serve as an organization dedicated to enforcing law and order. The Hellknights are not necessarily good or evil, and they have many subgroups, called Orders, under their main umbrella.
Our heroine Jheraal is a Hellknight from the Order of the Scourge, a bunch dedicated to tracking down particularly slippery criminals and bringing them to justice. Naturally, each Hellknight of this Order serves as the judge, jury, and executioner – if they catch you, say bye bye now. She is also a tiefling – a fancy word for a half-human, half-devil creature. While Cheliax may worship devils as a whole, they view children that are produced by liaisons between humans and devils as an abomination, an affront to the natural law and order of things, and this belief persists even if the union that produced a tiefling may not be consensual on the mother’s part. The Order of the Scourge is one of few employment opportunities that allow tieflings like Jheraal to operate and get paid based on merit rather than bloodline, hence she is very committed to her Order and her job.
The problem begins when the heir of a Westcrown aristocratic family is murdered. Two tiefling staff vanished on that night the young lord was murdered in his study, but the two staff members were known to be loyal. What happened? The new heir of the family, the disgraced eldest son Ederras Celverian, is summoned back. He is a paladin of Iomedae, the good version of a lawful deity, and he was exiled when he tried to play Marius Pontmercy in his own version of Les Misérables, and worse, the spy that blabbed to the authorities turned out to be his lover Velenne Thrune, a member of the royal family that rules Cheliax.
Ederras and Jheraal naturally collaborate to investigate the murder, and when Jheraal suspects that the plot would involve magical intrigue, she requests the assistance of a wizard or other kind of magic-user from her Order. They send… you guess it… Velenne, now a devil-summoner of considerable power, who actually volunteered for the task because, from all appearances, she wants to start over again with Ederras. But can he trust her? Mind you, she doesn’t care that he almost killed her after he discovered her betrayal, and she even wants him to stay the goody-goody two shoes that he is, but you know how it is with all these femme fatales, especially when the one here can summon devils to screw you over when she’s mad.
Meanwhile, Jheraal finds herself emotionally involved in this mystery despite her efforts not to, because the villain is also targeting tieflings – magically ripping their hearts out and yet, the victims still remain alive, although unable to respond to external stimuli. She has a lot of baggage about being a tiefling and all the discriminatory screw-you’s being one keeps getting her, and more importantly, she has a daughter whom she refuses to acknowledge, because the daughter can pass for human and she wants her to live as one, untainted by any devil heritage. Therefore, she has to be content with being the “friend” to her daughter, the guardian that found the girl abandoned in the middle of nowhere and took her to the Hellknights to be cared for. The thought that her daughter may be in danger only fuels her determination to catch the villain. She knows that she can work with Ederras and Velenne, but she is also very aware of the fact that those two, being humans from noble families, will never truly understand the plight of being a tiefling in Cheliax.
The parallels to present day race issues in the real world are obvious, but they are very well done here – no preaching, no hand-waving, just the author sharing with me Jheraal’s experiences and emotions, and the effect can be heartbreaking. Good job to the author for that.
I find the relationship between Ederras and Velenne interesting as well. Both are polar opposites, at first apparently united only by desire, but it turns out that the whole thing is crazy enough that it may just work. What I like about this one is that both parties do not have to change for the other person, and Velenne doesn’t have to make compromises to get her man. They may be in love, but they are also very aware of why the whole thing may just crash and burn around them, just as they are pragmatic enough to know why the relationship may be socially and politically advantageous for the both of them.
I also like how all three characters have opportunities to shine when it comes to rear-end kicking. And the secondary villain (who is just in it for the money and for a chance to leave the old life behind) makes for an interesting, even relatable character.
If I do have a quibble, however, it’s how our main characters end up needing the bad guys to lure them to the final showdown, a move that seems too much like a plot contrivance to move the plot along. Even then, Velenne correctly points out how ridiculous that the three of them are going to face the enemies who were taken down a while back by a coalition of several Orders charging full force. Of course, they succeed in the end, but this is one story that would have been better off having a grander scale confrontation involving more than just three people and a bunch of devils summoned by Velenne.
Still, Hellknight is one solid, edge-of-my-seat read that can get the adrenaline rush going. I really like this one, it’s definitely one of the better books to read in this line.