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Pathfinder Tales: Song of the Serpent Paperback – May 15, 2012
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It's been said by many that Matthew Hughes is the heir apparent to SF author Jack Vance. Having found Hughes first and gobbled up most of what I could find of his, I then went back and dug into what I could find of Vance - and while this book on the surface somewhat resembles Vance's "Cugel The Clever" saga (thieving anti-hero at the center is sent on a long journey to recover something for a wizard who he attempted to steal from), I have to say that I truly prefer Hughes's writing to Vance's.
Also, N.B.: I'm not a player of the Pathfinder role-playing game. This is my first experience with that world - and as such, it was perfectly fine and I didn't feel out of place as a first-timer. Hughes made it easy to simply enjoy the novel as a novel, and pick up tidbits about the game world (and the game itself, I presume) along the way.
But Vance's Cugel the Clever is a cad and a self-important narcissist through-and-through, while Hughes's Krunzle the Quick is a cad and self-important narcissist *who slowly is forced to change his nature as a result of the events of the story*, which makes for really satisfying reading, at least to me.
In any case: great fantasy story in a medievalish world, great descriptions of battles between dwarves and bloodthirsty orcs, great spooky and unnerving dreams for the characters that seem to be driving them toward their final destination, references to Cthulhu and the Jungian dreamworld of Hughes's Guth Bandar stories. A blast, through and through.
The book follows a rogue named Krunzle, who is forced into a quest against his will. The best parts of the book are Krunzle's interactions with Chirk, the entity binding him to service, and with a certain monstrous creature featured on the cover art. Their dialogue is genuinely amusing and helps set a light-hearted tone despite the shady dealing and slaughter going on through the book.
I'm having trouble thinking of much else to comment about, however. A day after finishing the book, I'm already starting to forget most of the events, leaving me with the vague sense that I was kind of entertained but not that invested in the story or characters. Combined with a resolution that I found unsatisfying (your mileage may vary), I think this is a book that won't cross my mind much in the future.
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.