Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-440-5
I have wanted to read Nightglass ever since its publication was announced, because it is set in the dark realm of Nidal. Nidal, in the Golarion setting, is a wretched land ruled by the worshipers of Zon-Kuthon, the evil god of pain and torture. Zon-Kuthon is very obviously inspired by that Pinhead fellow in the Hellraiser series, so the whole story promises to be a dark and nihilistic tale that Clive Barker would be proud of. Or so I thought. This will teach me to expect so much from reading just the publicity material, but I can’t entirely be blamed for this. There’s a good reason why this book is easily the most well-written and memorable entry in the Pathfinder Tales series: the author has a very engaging narrative style and this story is a refreshing change from the usual “one guy gets a party of stereotypical RPG archetypes together to retrieve a great treasure” stuff.
Nightglass is basically the story of Isiem, the son of Nidalese peasant who manages to get recruited at age 13 into the land’s very twisted version of Hogwarts. There, he shows great promise and becomes the most fabulous of them all (heroes always do), but his conscience always wars with the teachings of Zon-Kuthon and the principles of inflicting and receiving torture as a form of worship and pleasure. Eventually he grows up, turns his back against the teachings of Zon-Kuthon, and walks off into the sunset with a number of subplots left dangling. The last is, I suppose, an opportunity for Isiem to show up as an NPC in a future Pathfinder campaign. The whole “dark emo dude turned to the light” thing worked so well from that drip Drizzt Do’Urden, after all, and really, guys, look at the cover art of Nightglass and tell me if there isn’t a resemblance in that dude on the cover.
The best parts of this book are easily in the first half, when Isiem’s wet drip behavior complements well with a cast of secondary characters that play well with him. There’s a Hermione Granger type, Helis, who embraces the sadistic principles of Zon-Kuthon as a means to avenge her ill-fated brother, and Ascaros, that Hero Sidekick dude who can never be as good as Isiem and accepts that gracefully. I’m tempted to compare Ascaros to Ron Weasley, but Ascaros isn’t a good-natured punchline here, he’s just a counterpoint to Isiem’s perspective on things. The sadistic and cruel tutors-cum-torturers are fascinating and repulsive, and the whole Hogwarts-in-Hell setting is just beautifully gruesome and nasty. Nothing in the R-rated write-up on Zon-Kuthon and his worship in the official Pathfinder source materials prepared me from this horrific tableau. Very nice. Those Joyful Things are so cute.
What doesn’t work – and this is the fatal flaw of this story – is Isiem. My dislike for whiny wet drip noodles aside – and goodness, this guy is so easy to dislike – this fellow is in the wrong story. Hogwarts-in-Hell is supposed to be this very regimented totalitarian establishment where even a single thought of impiety can be sniffed out, sending the luckless sod into the dungeon for some unspeakably brutal torture or worse, demonic possession. But Isiem manages to keep rising up the ranks despite acting like a humorless paladin. The fact that this fellow actually does well in this setting is really hard for me to believe, when his fellow students are caught and tortured for far less severe things. It’s not like he’s extra careful either, as I’m told that the Joyful Things can magically sense naughty thoughts among the students in a daily inspection ritual best left unsaid in this review.
In addition to the unbelievable plot armor the author has given Isiem, that hero is also bizarrely untainted by the things he’d done. He condemns everyone else around him for doing nasty things, but he harbors a surprisingly very light amount of guilt about the things he himself did. True, he has no choice in the matter most of the time, but then again, those he condemns are in the same boat as he. Isiem’s holier-than-thou attitude, therefore, comes off as hypocritical. I especially love how he condemns Hellis for involving the lives of innocents in her plan for vengeance, but he has no problems doing the same for a cause he believes in. What makes him so special that he is exempted from being damned by the same brush he tars others with?
Ultimately, the hero is too unbelievable for the story. This story needs a hero with a far less stark black-and-white morality. The story, I feel, will work better with a guy who starts out amoral only to slowly realize what he has been doing all this while is evil, if Ms Merciel wants to go down the “tale of darkness and redemption” route that this book is advertised to follow. Isiem, considering what he is, wouldn’t and shouldn’t have survived, much less thrived, in the setting of this story. The fact that he does is a testament to a plot armor than anything else, and the story is far weaker for that.
Nightglass has promise, and I will be lying if I say that I find this book forgettable or boring. But it needs a different hero to make it work. This hero – and this story – just doesn’t work.