Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: The Worldwound Gambit

During the recent collapse of Boarders book stores, I went to find what deals I could find. This was during the final days of their liquidation, when most items were between 60 and 80 percent off, so the shelves were already pretty bare, but I did bring home quite a haul. Among the booty (books) I carried back to my stronghold (two room apartment), was The Worldwound Gambit, by Robin D. Laws. It's part of the Pathfinder Tales collection which, for those unaware, is a label under which Paizo publishes novels set against the backdrop of Golarion, the official Pathfinder game world. Supporting genre fiction authors is one of my favorite ways in which tabletop gaming companies advertise their products. I've been a fan of Dungeons and Dragon's fiction ever since a friend forced me to read The Dark Elf Trilogy. So as I've long since grown out of Drizzt, I was interested to know what my new gaming system had to offer.

The basic summary of the plot is that a group of less-than-heroic folks take exception to the demonic invasion which is threatening to overrun their homeland. Hoping to bring things closer to normal, the group ventures into the "worldwound," a tiny segment of the Abyss which has merged with the material plane. Their goal is to find and steal the magic orb which is allowing the demons to pass freely in-and-out of the worldwound itself. The plot is simple, and Mr. Laws devotes much of his time to developing the characters. Something which I very much appreciate: genre fiction is at its best when it's character driven.

But character driven storytelling is not enough to save this book from damnation. The writing is, at times, painfully bad. Far be it from me to claim any profound expertise as a writer, but what in the world drove Mr. Laws to write the entire story in present tense? ("Gad is running, and now he jumps." instead of "Gad ran, then jumped.") The senselessly unique perspective constantly pulled me out of the story as I tried to reconcile awkward phrasings. I was halfway through the book before I got used to it, and I still can't think of anything it added to the experience. What's more, some passages simply appear to be poorly constructed. For example, there's one passage which details a single side of a conversation. No less than nineteen lines in a row begin with "Then:." And on page 143, there's this gem, emphasis mine:
"Do we go around the marsh?" Gad asks.
"We don't know how far it extends," says Vitta."Whatever's on either side of it might be worse." She pulls a compass from her pack. Its dial spins crazily. "And the further we get from a straight line to your tower, the less confidence I have of staying on track. We could get turned around and wind up all the way down in the Shudderwood." The Shudderwood is a haunt of twisted fey, far from their destination.
My exact response to this was to shout "ORLY!?" Pardon my exasperation, but are you kidding me!? The Shudderwood never becomes relevant to the story, nor is it even mentioned again in the entire book. The passage provides enough context for even the slowest of readers to know everything they need to know: The Shudderwood is a place very far away. It strikes me as offensively patronizing that more explanation was thought necessary. Either that, or Paizo was really insistent that the Shudderwood get some exposure for some reason.

Aside from the poor writing, The Worldwound Gambit suffers from "Book Based on an RPG Syndrome." Everything about the characters and the world they live in is clearly constructed to tie in with the Pathfinder product. I'd bet $50 that Mr. Laws rolled character sheets for his characters before he started writing. Calliard is a bard and Hendregan is a sorcerer pretending to be a wizard (which is never explained), that much is said outright. Gad, Vitta, and Jerisa are all rogues specializing in diplomacy, lock picking, and combat respectively. Tiberio is the only one whose class is difficult to ascertain, but only because he swore off hurting people. Most likely he's another rogue. I understand that these books are advertisements. That's part of what I love about the fiction programs like Pathfinder Tales. They help companies push their product, they help people who read genre fiction, and most important, they help writers of genre fiction. But making the connection between the fiction and the game that fiction is advertising so on-the-nose only makes the game look bad.

The construction of the story seems sloppy as well. As I mentioned earlier, Hendragen is a sorcerer who tells everyone he's a wizard. The author took the time to make this point clear, and the characters even have a discussion about it where one of them is quite indignant about the deception. Hendragen replies "When others ask, tell them I am a wizard." That's the last which is ever said on the matter. No explanation is ever given for this anomaly. It's not the only one either, at one point Gad speaks with an old witch who apparently suffered rapid-aging due to a previous adventure which she accompanied Gad on. The entire encounter is not only melodramatic, but as far as I can tell, the only purpose the scene could possibly serve is to express to the reader that it's possible something bad might happen. Hardly a shocking revelation when the characters are charging into the heart of the demon forces. Oh, and spoiler warning: nothing bad happens to the characters after all.

Aside from the questionable writing, the book is also quite sexist. There are three women which play central roles in the story: Vitta the locksmith, Jerisa the killer, and Isilda the villain. Isilda is a powerful leader of demons, certainly, but is defined almost entirely by her sexuality. The first glimpse of her the "party" gets includes the following:
"A white silk garment sheathes her alabaster torso. its cut is tauntingly revealing, forcing the gaze to a pair of small, imperiously conical breasts. A filmy skirt of uneven strips likewise confronts the viewer with flashes of long, unblemished thigh. "
As a fan of small breasts, I found the phrase "imperiously conical" rather delightful, and mentally cataloged it for future use, for the next time I write something...personal. But this character, Isilda, is not starring in a fantasy themed erotic novel. She's a power mad woman who somehow rose to such high prominence that she--a mere mortal--commands demons within their own domain. But sure, we can talk about her breasts.

Her characterization only grows worse from there. Nearly every one of Isilda's scenes is about her aggressively pursuing sex with Gad. And when she's finally the focus of a scene where she isn't trying to have sex with Gad, it's only because she's being murdered by another woman who loves Gad. Which brings us to Jerisa. Her character can be quickly summarized in three points. She is good at killing people, foolishly impulsive, and desperately in love with Gad, who does not care for her in return. If you drop the killing efficiency from that list, she becomes every 2-dimensional love interest in history.

Which leaves Vitta. Vitta is a badass. She's got a slightly sharper tongue than she seems to realize, and it doesn't take much for her to fly off the handle when she thinks someone else is being foolish or putting the rest of the group in danger. She's intelligent as well. She critically analyzes each situation, and is often responsible for solving the group's problems. She has no love interest in the story, but shares a camaraderie with Gad which can be heartwarming at times. She's also a halfling. Excuse my crassness, but I can't help but wonder if she would have been so well characterized if her hips were wide enough to fit a dick into. It seems too coincidental that the only good female character is also the only one the author wouldn't be able to have sex with.

Despite all those failings, the book was compelling. Mr. Laws did an excellent job giving life to the world around his characters. Details, such as the blood of demons being used as an addictive drug, make me wonder what other curiosities this world holds. And wanting to know how things would turn out for Vitta had me turning pages furiously near the end. I must also admit that there were three or four other complaints which I was all riled up to make, only to have the author yank them out from under me near the end of the story. Bastard.

Easily the books greatest overall strength is the lack of combat. Fiction like this is normally characterized by lengthy descriptions of flashing swords, pooling blood, and clashing armor. It's refreshing to read a book where the characters solve their problems primarily through skill and guile. What violence there is takes the form of quick strikes from the shadows. Most of the foes the party actually chooses to fight are dead too quickly to say that combat occurred. This is precisely what I loved so much about The Cleric Quintet, and genre fiction needs more of it.

Despite loving Vitta, and believing more books need to lay off combat the way this one does, I don't think I can recommend The Worldwound Gambit. The poor writing and sexism are simply too much for me to accept. This is the first and only book in the Pathfinder Tales collection I've read so far, so I can only hope it's the worst of the bunch. I see that Elaine Cunningham has a book in this collection titled Winter Witch. I always enjoy Ms. Cunningham's Star Wars novels, so hopefully she can redeem Pathfinder fiction in my eyes.

If you do want something to read, try The Cleric Quintet. It's also low combat, exciting, and Danica isn't a cardboard cutout of a woman.

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