Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-287-6
Prince of Wolves is the debut book in Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales line. This line comprises sword and sorcery fantasy novels set in the world of Golarion, and it’s Paizo’s equivalent to those fantasy novels from Wizards of the Coast. If this book is anything to go by, however, I don’t think Raistlin Majere and Drizt Do’Urden should get too worried about competition anytime soon.
I hate to break it to Dave Gross but if there had been a 50-page test – where the reader gives the book 50 pages to draw her into the story – this book would have flunked that test spectacularly. In fact, for the first five chapters, I have no idea where this story is going. There is no semblance of a plot, any build up, nothing but a meandering series of events that are straight out of the handbook of sword and sorcery clichés. We have Pathfinder Varian Jeggare and his “devil-blooded bodyguard” (not in a gay context, so don’t get your hopes up) Radovan, the two of them hailing from Cheliax and heading over to Ustalav, a land of misty forests and werewolves (not sexy in a Lora Leigh way, so again, don’t get too excited) for… something. Yes, there is a scene where a sexy fortune teller tries to tell our hero his fortune using the setting’s equivalent of Tarot, only to go, “No! I see… that card! No!” in dramatic bosom-heaving panic, another scene of our hero apparently dying, a nobody hero who turns out to be somebody in the end, and so forth. I’ve read all these scenes before, and in fact, that’s my general impression of this book: I’ve read variations of this story before – better done variations.
The slow meandering start of the story is a serious mood killer, but that’s not the only issue I have with this book. There are many moments when Prince of Wolves feels more like a textbook on the mechanics of the tabletop RPG game instead of a story, as the author would slip in awkwardly timed exposition about, say, the nature of Wizardry magic or the role of a certain character class. Oddly enough, Mr Gross skimps on details when it comes to what really matters: description of the setting and the nuanced characterization of his characters.
I’ve lost count of how many scenes where Mr Gross describes a place or an object using some banal description like “dark” and “strange”. These shallow adjectives do not bring scenes to life. Don’t just tell me that Malena’s cards look “ominous” – describe to me how ominous these cards are. Don’t tell me – show me. As a result of the author substituting actual descriptions with banal adjectives, the whole setting fails to come to life in any way. Our heroes travel from one place to another, places of supposedly different cultures and scenery, but in the end, everything just blends together into a bland and lifeless generic sword and sorcery setting.
Rather ambitiously, the author also utilizes first person narration, alternating between each man’s point of view, in this story. However, both men come off exactly the same – they speak the same, think the same, and come from the same factory, no doubt. Because there are hardly any moments when these men are addressed by name later in the story, and because everything – scenery and characters – blends in a blur of nondescript blandness, eventually I have a hard time keeping track of which man is doing the narration. Then again, it could be because the slow moving plot is boring me to the point that I can hardly keep awake. Also, the author has his characters speak like 21st century sitcom characters, using terms like “But you’re the boss!” which feel really hilariously out of place alongside more flowery and ritualized patterns of speech typical of a sword and sorcery novel. The schizophrenic tone of the story does not help in making the setting coherent and atmospheric.
A meandering plot with poor build up and pacing, superficial characters, generic setting with barely any detailed atmosphere, and occasional slips into present day lingo all make this story feel like an artificial banged-up job, written to meet a deadline without much thought given to consistency of tone, world building, and characterization. In fact, the author is in a way cheating by assuming that his readers are familiar with the setting to fill in the blanks in his story. Prince of Wolves is a forgettable dud, and at $9.99 for a mass market paperback, a steeply priced dud at that.