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Fantasy Metaphysics with Pathfinder Tales: The Redemption Engine

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

250px-Redemption_EngineFantasy worlds usually contain good and evil … and frequently personifications of good and evil. Angels & demons. Saints & devils. Knights & undead. Good gods and evil ones. Sometimes these distinctions are very clear-cut and that’s okay. There’s something to be said for a world where the heroes are clearly heroic and villains are clearly evil. But the real world isn’t generally like that and, even within our fantasy, it’s often the case that things tend to be much more interesting when the lines are blurred a bit.

Which brings me to the most recent installment in Paizo publishing’s Pathfinder Tales series of books: The Redemption Engine by James L. Sutter. This book places the metaphysical questions of good versus evil squarely in the center of the plotline, as the atheist priest Salim Ghadafar investigates a case of missing souls that had been destined for Hell. But as the case unfolds, drawing Salim across dimensions ruled by the forces of Good, Evil, and Neutrality, it becomes clear that some of the outsiders native to these realms are throwing the rulebook out the window, trying to gain souls to their armies through new, more innovative means.

As revealed in Ghadafar’s previous novel appearance Death’s Heretic (and the web fiction Faithful Servants), Salim serves as an investigator and enforcer for Pharasma, the goddess of birth, death, and prophecy, but he doesn’t worship her. Coming from the atheist nation of Rahadoum, Salim spent years as a leader in the Pure Legion, persecuting the faithful, before he finally got an offer he couldn’t pass up and swore himself to her service in exchange for the life of the woman he loved. Now he serves the goddess Pharasma … but he doesn’t have to like her.

As the goddess of death, Pharasma is the one responsible for sorting out the dead upon their passing from the mortal coil. When Hell-bound souls of mortal evil-doers turn up missing, the meticulously-lawful devils of Hell file a grievance with Pharasma’s otherworldly servants … and ultimately the gruntwork of the investigation trickles down to poor Salim. Not all of Pharasma’s minions are pleased about this, though, and he finds himself in competition with one of her outsider servants of death, a Morrigna Psychopomp, who doesn’t trust a mortal to handle a matter of this much importance.

Gaming note: Psychopomps are neutrally-aligned servants of death itself, like Angels but without the fixation on goodness. They are introduced in the Inner Sea Bestiary (Amazon, Paizo), but are detailed more fully – including the Morrigna breed – in the Pathfinder Bestiary 4 (Amazon, Paizo).

The problem is that supernatural entities such as the Morrigna tend to see things as absolute, since they have an absolute nature. Mortal beings, being far from absolute in their motivations, are able to surprise them, to act in ways that absolutely defy the simple rules that define their existence. And as such, these beings that are devoted to Law and Good and Evil and, yes, even Chaos tend to overlook things … a fact which Salim takes no short amount of pleasure in repeatedly pointing out to them, even as he recognizes that this very arrogance – his own rebellious inability to let the Angels and the Psychopomps be satisfied with their own smug sense of superiority – is what drives him to serve the goddess that he despises so much.

While I was reading the book, I couldn’t help wondering if James L. Sutter was a fan of the television series Supernatural. Salim’s ability to be cocky and disrespectful directly in the fact of powerful angelic hosts and demonic hordes was reminiscent of a far more honor-bound version of Dean Winchester. Without giving away anything about where the investigation leads, the moral ambiguity that permeates the strong “good” and “evil” natures of the Angels and Devil is also reminiscent of the complexities in Supernatural, where the angelic inability to grasp the possibility of their own frailty is a very real problem.

One compelling aspect of The Redemption Engine is the time spent on other realms: The lawful good realm of Heaven, the lawful evil realm of Hell, and even some neutral realms in between. As someone who is running a Pathfinder campaign, the book inspired all sorts of things for me to incorporate into my storyline, by offering up some rich descriptions of these realms and the metaphysics that governs them. Sutter also brought Salim to Kaer Maga, which is the city that Sutter described in detail in his Pathfinder Chronicle: City of Strangers (Amazon, Paizo) supplement several years back, and the narrative brought it to life in a way that has made me dust off that old volume to incorporate it into my campaign. You can also read Sutter himself gush a bit about Kaer Maga at this i09 interview.

It would be hard to express quite how much I enjoyed this book (and the previous Death’s Heretic). I’m actually not a huge fan of media tie-in books as a general rule, because they can be very hit-and-miss and I have limited free time to read. One exception from my youth, however, is the classic Dragonlance Legends trilogy, which I consider to be one of the finest fantasy series ever written, on par with the best adventure fantasy that I’ve ever read. What I’ve read coming out of the Pathfinder Tales series is on the same scale, focusing on deep, rich characterization and truly complex moral dilemmas that draw you in. If you want to read not just a great adventure, but a truly great story, then I highly recommend Pathfinder Tales … and The Redemption Engine is as good a place as any to start.

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