Wednesday, August 9, 2017
I've now read the first several books in the Pathfinder Tales line, and I'm sorry to say that Song of the Serpent is the worst of the lot. The novel has a few interesting ideas, but it's the most "generic fantasy" book in the line, with many somewhat cheesy setting elements seemingly closer to the very high-magic Forgotten Realms than to Golarion. The plotting is unsatisfactory, with vague mysteries standing in the place of cohesive story-telling. For almost all of the book, the primary protagonist lacks agency, which makes him a hard character to cheer for. The overall tone is a bit off, with some surprisingly gory scenes mixed into an often lighthearted story, and bits of world lore that just strike the reader as wrong, such as half-orcs being depicted as "not uncommonly cannibals." The conclusion is overlong and surprisingly boring for what should be a climactic, tension-filled moment. I don't want to be too uncharitable, as there are some fun scenes here and there and the direction the book takes is definitely unpredictable, which is a plus. The action scenes are fine, and the dialogue is passable. Still, on the whole, only completists like me should pick up this one.
The book is set in Druma, land of the merchant lords known as Kalistocrats. A thief named Krunzle the Quick is captured by a prominent Kalistocrat and forced to set off on a quest to recover the merchant's daughter, who absconded with a dashing but slimy knight. In order to ensure Krunzle's loyalty, the Kalistocrat has his personal wizard place a magical torc in the shape of a snake around the thief's neck: the snakelike torc is semi-sentient and able to choke Krunzle into submission should he stray from the path. This leads to the problem of Krunzle's lack of agency, as he spends almost the entire book as the puppet of this magical device which seems to come from out of nowhere (and is never satisfactorily explained in the novel). Anyway, Krunzle makes some friends along the way, such as a former slave named Raimeau (who receives an oddly-placed and unnecessary flashback chapter), a troll named Skanderbrog, and a dwarf named Brond. The "damsel in distress" (Gylanna) is portrayed well as a strong character who is very much her father's daughter. As Gylanna is rescued midway through the book, the overall plot is actually to retrieve something that was taken along with Gylanna: a mysterious magical item. The story really starts to break down here, as there's something about an incredibly ancient, incredibly powerful entity buried in a mountain that has led the heroes to this point to free it, etc. But it's all very vague in the end, with a long, weird ritual that simply ends unsatisfactorily with far more questions than answers. The book does integrate some Golarion world-lore (and is one of the few novels to this point to have an interest in dwarfs), but much of the book could take place in any generic fantasy land with little change. Even the main villain, an evil wizard from Tian Xia, is about as cliche as it gets. So as I said above, this is one to avoid.