Book Review: Pathfinder Tales: HellKnight by Liane Merciel
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Pathfinder Tales
Publisher: Tor (April 5, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
Author Information: Website
I’ve dabbled in the Pathfinder roleplaying game for a few years now, but this is actually the first time I’ve actually tried one of the books in the Pathfinder Tales series. To be honest, I don’t know what took me so long, since seeking out tie-in novels or any kind of related literature spawned by the movies, games, etc. that I enjoy is something I do quite frequently. Part of it might have to do with the fact that it’s such a HUGE world, and when it comes to what I know of Golarion (the main world of Pathfinder where most of its campaign and events take place) I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It’s all just a bit intimidating, especially when you consider how often new volumes are being released (about every few months or so), and currently the series is sitting at more than thirty novels and that’s not even counting all the novellas and short stories. Though I was assured that the majority of the books are standalone adventures, I still felt uncertain.
Finally, I decided to simply take a chance and go for it. It helped that the book I was interested in, Pathfinder Tales: Hellknight, had an interesting premise and was written by Liane Merciel, an author whose work I’ve been wanting to check out for a while now due to the fantastic things I’ve heard about her Dragon Age novel. More importantly, I was happy to find that Hellknight is indeed a book anyone can jump into and enjoy, no matter what your familiarity is with the Pathfinder franchise. The story is really easy to pick up, and you don’t need to have any prior knowledge at all.
At its heart, this book is about a murder investigation. There’s an organization of warriors called the Hellknights who are charged with maintaining the law and order of the land, and one of them, a hellspawn woman named Jheraal, is dispatched to a nobleman’s estate to investigate the brutal murder of its heir. Meanwhile, the victim’s brother is being called back from the front lines, now that his presence is required at home. Ederras, disgraced and exiled for his part in a rebellion when he was younger, is now an experienced and battle-hardened paladin. For his part, he’s actually quite reluctant to leave his post, but what choice does he have? Now that his brother is dead, someone needs to inherit his family’s title and take care of their lands and holdings.
As Jheraal and Ederras team up to find the murderer, they uncover a deeper conspiracy leading to more death and destruction. A trail involving some missing servants leads to a gruesome find, as it appears that their serial killer has been targeting hellspawn, cutting out their hearts in a magical ritual thus leaving them in a state of lifelessness-but-not-quite-dead. The two of them end up recruiting the services of Velenne, a crafty diabolist who has a history with Ederras, and it seems she is not quite done with the paladin yet.
For a book based on an RPG, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Hellknight. Based on my experience with tie-in novels, I’ve found that the quality of them can vary greatly, and I admit I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but I ended being quite impressed by the high standard of storytelling. The writing is also superb. Liane Merciel does a fantastic job setting up the stage for a mystery, creating a very immersive environment at the same time. It’s the little details that make a difference, masterfully showing without telling us right out what kind of society our characters live in. It is not a very pleasant place, especially not for hellspawn, who live as second class citizens in this world, mistrusted and abused.
I also enjoyed the characters, who come into their own and set themselves apart even when they’re being obviously written to conform to RPG/fantasy archetypes. Again, I was surprised at the depth of their personalities and the complex ways they are impacted by the events of this novel. Both protagonists have interesting backstories and are haunted by their pasts, with Jheraal hiding a secret daughter and Ederras struggling to come to terms with the mistakes he made in his youth. The themes of this book are made fuller by their two tales of sacrifice.
My only criticism is that the story’s pacing is very uneven. Hellknight started off strong, but the momentum tapered off as we entered the middle section, and then plateaued until we reached the last hundred pages or so of the novel, where things fortunately started picking up again as we moved into its climactic ending and resolution. For this reason, I can’t quite justify giving this book more than a solid three stars, though overall it was very enjoyable. Its quality is easily heads and shoulders above a lot of media tie-ins out there, and despite its pacing issues I thought this was a really good story and well worth the read.
So don’t let the Pathfinder name scare you off, which is probably the key point I wanted to emphasize, because tie-in fiction can be great fun and I think most will have no trouble diving into this world and appreciating it like any other fantasy novel. I look forward to reading more by Liane Merciel, and I definitely see more Pathfinder Tales in my future.