Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-357-6
Some fantasy settings are composed of many familiar elements and styles, and yet the whole thing still comes together as a cohesive and well-drawn fantasy world. In Master of Devils, Dave Gross attempts to bring an old-school Chinese setting to life and the end result is comparable to someone throwing every hammy Hong Kong period kung-fu and fantasy movie cliché to the wall and hoping that something sticks. Tian Xia in this story isn’t an exotic land – more like a smelly sink with remnants of Chinese food stuffed into it nilly-willy.
Count Varian Jeggare and his not-gay not-sleeping-together bodyguard/BFF Radovan the hellspawn superhero travel to Tian Xia, at the far side of the world. While Jeggare is busy sniffing in disdain at everything he encounters in a land he supposedly loves – eeuw, smelly fishermen, and oh my god, he has to mingle with peasants, how nauseating – they are attacked by bandits. Jeggare is separated from Radovan. Jeggare ends up in a monastery where he becomes the archetypical foreign devil among the local unwashed peasants. He even gets a fawning and adoring follower who inexplicably worships him, even if Jeggare has done nothing to deserve that. In fact, Jeggare thinks very poorly of this guy most of the time. Meanwhile, Radovan is pressed into “training” by a vengeful dude who wants to challenge the local neighborhood dragon, and because Radovan is
American a foreigner and therefore very special, he gets to leave behind a trail of dead bodies and carnage… and by the end he is not held accountable for them. The vengeful dude goes to hell, but Radovan who brutally murders and kills gets to be reunited with his BFF in the end. And then, there is their dog who also gets to rally the spirits (who must have moved there from the local version of Japan in that setting) and… you know, I don’t even want to go there. Two dudes bossing it over the local smelly and clearly inferior peasants are bad enough, adding in Uncle Sam the Wonder Dog into this colonial-tinged tale of Chuck Norris and Colonel Sanders tearing up China is just making things worse in a surreal manner.
Along the way, our foreign devils meet the monkey king, dragons, exotic women who swing their swords around, and everything else one can find in any wuxia movie, and naturally, those who are not awe-struck or automatically agreeable to liking and supporting our heroes are thrashed and humiliated despite the fact that our heroes are supposedly amateurs compared to these professionals. It’s really ridiculous, this story, it’s like a book written by and for kids who wish to live vicariously the dream of moving to feudal China and immediately being embraced as the foreign devil wunderkind by the awestruck locals solely because they are white and therefore superior to the locals by default.
More schlocky than cool, and pumped to the max with one-dimensional and inexplicably powerful and awesome characters that manage to easily defeat their opponents who have spent years honing their skills, Master of Devils has all the grace and verve of that kid who runs around the playground thinking that he’s Jackie Chan. This is just another one of many mediocre fantasy franchise books that flood the market, I’m afraid.