Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-388-0
Like too many fantasy stories set in a commercial tabletop game setting, Hugh Matthews’s Song of the Serpent tries to capture the structure and feel of a tabletop session: combat encounters that seem suspiciously like filler moments and clichéd companions galore. To be fair, the world of Golarion is pretty much a collection of every fantasy cliché dating back to the 1960s, so perhaps Mr Matthews can share the blame with the publisher in this instance.
The story is pretty simple. Our rogue hero, Krunzle the Quick, tries to steal a particular stash one fine day when he is caught in the act. It isn’t long before our hero is tasked by the merchant he’s tried to target to go and bring back the merchant’s daughter and the magical item she has taken with her. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface, as Krunzle will soon discover.
This one is an interesting showcase of contradictions. This book can easily be read by people new to the setting because, unlike many authors of books of this sort, Mr Matthews is far more interested in the story than the setting. Perhaps tad too interested in the story, to the point that the setting comes off like some amorphous and very generic fantasy setting with little about it that stands out. The author tries to build up an interesting plot here, but while he pretty much succeeds in keeping things intriguing, the denouement and the identity of the villain are all pretty predictable and, thus, anticlimactic and disappointing.
Krunzle could have been an interesting flawed hero with believable weaknesses, but the author goes a little too far with the flaws, so much so that Krunzle’s neck snake (don’t ask, it’s complicated) and sword and even shoes actually take over when things get sticky. As a result, he often comes off like a hapless bystander, along for the ride instead of being an active participant in the fun and skirmish. And let’s face it, when the guy’s shoes are in control, that’s pretty embarrassing for someone who is in the lead role.
Also, the author uses big words and long, flowing sentences, but at the same time, he writes as if the readers of this book are under the age of fifteen. Will those kids cotton up to the author’s love of running sentences? The characters all address each other just like in a cartoon, too, completing each other’s thoughts aloud. Oh, and they also love talking aloud to themselves about what they are doing. So, while the author’s narrative is definitely aimed at older readers, his characters talk and act like kids who need to announce every single thing they are doing.
At the end of the day, Song of the Serpent is a bewildering read. It has its moments, and it could have been an interesting story, but the execution is all over the place.