Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Glass Darkly



The latest entry to the Pathfinder Tales line is Nightglass by Liane Merciel.  As you can see from the image, the cover is beautifully illustrated by Tyler Walpole.  But Nightglass is really only the first part of the novel, ending on page 157.  However the fault is to be divided between Merciel and the editor, this addition lacks the level of cohesion required of a novel.  There is an admission of this fact in the formatting and division of Nightglass into Book I: Monsters and Book II: People, but the lack of development will not let Book I stand alone and, as it stands, it does not achieve unity with what follows. 
Book I: Monsters is grim.  Exceedingly grim: over 100 pages of growing up and coming of age at the mercy of a dark god and his twisted minions.  I can appreciate it as an exercise in world building, but this exceeds my tolerance for treatment of children in this kind of jeopardy of evil and of fundamental lostness on the part of the protagonist.  While it hints of more horrors than it actually details, the thoughtful reader with a vivid imagination may still find themselves disturbed.
Now, I am no opponent of literature's capacity to disturb, but when it comes to entertainment, it must disturb as a part of accomplishing its purpose.  If Book I’s purpose is to create the character and his predicament and Book II is his redemption from the realm of Monsters to the realm of People, then a tighter composition in which Book I is significantly shortened and the protagonist’s redemption begins earlier would bring about greater unity.  Giving into an excess of world-building and extraneous characterization in this case overcame the basic necessities: revulsion from the Nidalese way and sympathy for the main character.  To be clear, I am not saying that Book I as a whole was unnecessary.  On the contrary, Isiem could have appeared with little initial sympathy without the knowledge of how he was victimized by the followers of Zon-Kuthon.  Rather, what is at issue is balance, focus, and integration.

Book II is much more enjoyable.  Isiem the shadowmancer is fleeing the dark grasp of the evil god of he and his people’s slavery.  He struggles to survive in a harsh frontier and come to a life free of the shadows and of relationships twisted by domination and fear. 


In Book II, the classic trope of what is human and what is monstrous finds play as Isiem discovers that the fearsome, inhuman strix (pictured below) are more humane than the peoples he has known previously.  However, his escape from the world of the monstrously evil humans to the presumed, but human-hearted, monsters will only come with struggle, and this redemptive struggle makes Book II more plot-driven and active -- and ultimately, enjoyable.


I'm sorry to have to judge Nightglass as the weakest of the line so far.  In spite of its potential and its good parts, I grade it as it stands as a whole.
Grade: D

4 comments:

  1. I realize this may be the fantasy/swords & sorcery equivalent of a Godwin, but... your summary of Nightglass evokes memories of Salvatore's Drizzt. The difference to me being, Salvatore's first three books dealt with the adult "fully-formed" Drizzt (and ensemble) being unlikely Big Damn Heroes(tm) in the frozen Faerun north, and the next three showed the formative Drizzt and his rejection & escape from his evil degenerate homeland.

    I think this format and the ensemble is a better way of exploring dark characters and themes than the linear method and single protagonist described in Nightglass. (And I'm not a Salvatore or Drizzt fan.)

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  2. I can't compare Nightglass to Salvatore's writings, Amby, for the main reason that I've only read Drizzt in the comic books! (And folks, pass up the latest Neverwinter: Legend of Drizzt. Now there's a real stinker that can't be saved by a handful of beautiful covers: F.)

    I think the linear progression from the protagonist's POV could have worked, but it would have needed to have been shorter, tighter, and more integrated.

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  3. Neverwinter: Legend of Drizzt must be keeping in line with the books then, because 4e seems to have tainted even them. The newest Drizzt Trilogy (the Neverwinter Saga) is a very large step down IMHO. It took me a while to read the first book and I am struggling with the second (new Pathfinder Tales novels keep taking precedence) and as such the final chapter is about to be released and I am still only 2/3 through the second book. :/

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  4. Warning: Minor Spoilers

    I finished "Nightglass" last night. I was surprised by the ending. Not what happened in the end, by the ending itself. I was halfway through chapter 23 and stopped to check and see how many more chapters were left, and found that I was actually reading the last numbered chapter.

    I have to agree with Theo on his assessment of the novel. The second part would have benefited from more time and development and the first part could have been handled completely differently. Frankly, I think that flashbacks or cut scenes would have worked better than an entire book. As it was, it just seemed gratuitous, perhaps even self-indulgent.

    This is the first Pathfinder Tales book that felt like a "D&D Novel" to me. And, unfortunately, I don't see that as a good thing. There was far more emphasis on properly describing spellcasting and other rules elements. The "world-building" aspect was clearly overdone in Book I, as well. On top of that, this story is nothing more than a "white man with a dark past goes to live with the Native American savages, learns to appreciate their ways, and ends up fighting for them." Even dressed up in (black leather?) fantasy clothing, it was not a very compelling version of the tale.

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