If there’s one potential flaw in reading stories set in roleplaying game settings, it’s that the emphasis is more on the mechanics of the system and magical setting than on the development of the characters. The best stories, of course, are able to avoid this and create complex, dynamic characters that resonate among some of the most memorable in all of fantasy. Raistlin Majere, Elminster, and Drizzt Do’Urden all come to mind as iconic characters born in roleplaying tie-in novels.
Into this esteemed category steps Salim Ghadafar, the protagonist of James L. Sutter’s Death’s Heretic (Amazon, B&N), an upcoming addition to the Pathfinder Tales fantasy novel series from Paizo Publishing. Salim serves the goddess Pharasma, the Lady of Graves, goddess of birth, death, and prophecy, but he does so only grudgingly. This unusual tension, together with a compelling plotline, draws the reader deeply into the world of the story.
Salim is called upon by Pharasma to investigate a man who died shortly after obtaining one of the greatest treasures available to mortals: the sun orchid elixir, which grants near immortality. The details of his death are of secondary concern, though, compared to the events that followed. Pharasma is far more concerned with why her priests are unable to resurrect him. His soul has gone missing … seemingly stolen from the goddess’s very realm of the dead, the Boneyard itself. Salim’s investigation takes him – and the victim’s orphaned daughter, who is bankrolling the investigation – from local rivals for the elixir, including a crimelord and a gorgeous half-elven brothel madame, to the outer planes and Pharasma’s Boneyard. The investigation brings him face to face with creatures who predate the creation of the world itself, with the power to thwart the natural laws of life and death.
While the story itself is compelling and full of action, it’s the character of Salim that most engaged me. He comes from Rahadoum, an atheist nation where the practice of religion is outlawed. But, hold on, doesn’t he serve a goddess? Yes, but he doesn’t particularly care for her. What kind of servant is this? What’s the nature of his relationship to this goddess?
Well, that would be ruining one of the best parts of the story, which is the slow unraveling of Salim’s motivations and backstory. But let’s back up here… An atheist nation? In a world where priests can call forth lightning storms and sling healing spells? How does that work?
As Salim explains at one point, only an idiot would deny that the gods exist, because they make their power quite evident in the world of Golarion (the planet upon which the Pathfinder stories take place), but that doesn’t mean that any man should bow down to them in subservience. I personally have to respect a gaming novel that deftly weaves a complex philosophical religious debate theme into the narrative of a fantasy action storyline, without compromising on any of those levels. (A couple of the relevant quotes – without any particular context to spoil the story – are posted over at Goodreads.)
The philosophical thread isn’t overpowering to the novel, but rather dovetails nicely with the action elements. One could easily pay little attention to it, because the story works as both a fantasy adventure and a mystery, providing enough twists and turns throughout to keep the reader thoroughly engaged. The exploration of the various planes makes me want to find some new Pathfinder sourcebooks, to learn more about these other realms. (Based on the title, I’m guessing the Pathfinder Campaign Setting World Guide: The Inner Sea probably doesn’t delve too deeply into all of the extra planes, but it’s possible they have another supplement which focuses on that more specifically.)
If you haven’t yet explored the world of Pathfinder, Death’s Heretic is a perfect place to start. Whether or not you have any intention of going further into the world – as either a reader or a gamer – it makes a great standalone novel in its own right.
Pathfinder Tales: Death’s Heretic releases in mass market paperback on Tuesday, November 29, with a suggested retail price of $9.99. It is currently available for preorder from most booksellers, including Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: The author of this review did receive a free review copy of the book from Paizo Publishing.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.