Far from Timid: Shy Knives by Sam Sykes

Over the past year or two, I’ve become a big fan of Paizo’s Pathfinder Tales—a series of tie-in novels set in the world of Golarion, home to the popular tabletop RPG, Pathfinder. When I first discovered them, with Wendy N. Wagner’s Skinwalkers, I was searching for great contemporary sword & sorcery novels; something in the style of Howard and Lieber, but written with a more modern approach to world-building, gender, race, etc. Pathfinder Tales offered all of that and more.

Each entry is unique and standalone, offering a new experience wrapped up in a familiar setting. The creators of Pathfinder, including James L. Sutter, have done a wonderful job of creating the perfect fantasy playground, and then hiring great writers to tear it apart and build it back up again.

“I think the biggest thing is that I’m giving [the authors] just the world,” Sutter told me in an interview last year, during the height of my obsession with Pathfinder. “When it comes to characters and plots, I make the authors generate those themselves, on the theory that they’re going to be more excited about ideas that are theirs from the start. While I wave them away from some ideas, and help them mesh their work with the world, we created the setting to host any kind of story, and they bring me mystery, horror, romance, black comedy, sword & sorcery…”

While there are several up-and-coming authors working within the Pathfinder Tales line, most notably Wagner and Josh Vogt, one of the keys to the success of the Pathfinder Tales is that Sutter and his editorial team bring in great writers, many of whom have already established themselves with their own “creator-owned” (tie-in speak for “a series that’s not related to an existing intellectual property”) projects, and let them run wild. Hugo Award-winner Tim Pratt has written some of my favourite Pathfinder Tales novelsand Max Gladstone, Tor.com favourite and author of the Craft Sequence, has a Pathfinder Tales book coming next year. Also among those who’ve come to the fold is Sam Sykes, author of An Affinity for Steel and The Mortal Tally, and, now, Shy Knives.

Set in the huge world of Golarion, home to all of the Pathfinder Tales, Shy Knives is the story of a thief, Shaia “Shy” Ratani, on the run from her past. All she wants is to keep her head down, and scam a noble or two. But, trapped in the city of Yanmass, Shy soon finds herself tangled in a mystery involving a corpse, deadly local politics, and an invading army of centaurs. It’s the type of unabashed, straightforward RPG-inspired plot that I’ve come to love and expect from the Pathfinder Tales. Things really shine when Sykes embraces the novel’s origins as tie-in fiction and allows himself have fun.

And, boy does Sykes have fun.

Sykes is no stranger to frenetic, action-packed fantasy in the style that you’ll find at the best D&D sessions. “Is there ever action!” said Strange Horizons‘s Richard Webb in his review of Sykes’ The City Stained Red. “Relentlessly so at times, with our archetypal group of lead characters […] charging through a series of set-pieces like a D&D party rampaging through a lunchtime campaign.” Sykes feels at home writing in Golarion, and his approach to storytelling, with an emphasis on action, humor, and familiar characters, is the perfect fit for a series that owes its very existence to Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and classic sword & sorcery novels. One of my favourite parts of Shy Knives, above and beyond even the other humorous Pathfinder Tales novels, like Tim Pratt’s Reign of Stars, is the way Sykes pokes fun of and satirizes tabletop RPGs—not the act of playing, but the tried-true-and-tired tropes that have haunted playgroups since the late ’70s.

This particular passage had me grinning all day long:

No lie, I once saw a dwarf down six healing potions at once.

It was a few days after I had left Katapesh, in the tavern of some border village. I was lifting a few coins to pay a caravan master to take me to Osirion when the doors burst open. Your typical motley assortment of adventurers came charging in: elegant elf, wizened wizard, obligatory halfling, that sort of thing. And on their shoulders was this dwarf, so covered in wounds I thought they’d painted him as a joke.

They were coming back from the Forbidden Crypt of Evil Bad Crap or something like that, torn up and looking for a cleric. This village was too small for that sort of thing, so they shelled out money for everyone to give them every potion they had. Then they pried the dwarf’s lips opened, jammed a funnel in his mouth, and crammed every last drop in his gob.

I thought I remembered him surviving, but I couldn’t be sure. The party’s thief started talking to me and we had drinks and then I had to leg it out of there be he realized I had swiped his purse.

Point being: people in this line of work have always had a fondness for healing potions.

Personally, I thought they tasted like licking the underside of a boot. When it came to restoratives, my tastes had always ranged toward the traditional.

Thing is, though, (and this might surprise anyone who follows Sykes on Twitter, where his humor hits like a hammer), Sykes offers a lot more than humor and action in his writing. Just a few pages later, he smacks you over the head with something like this:

Do this job long enough, there’s stuff you get used to. Knives in the back, dead bodies in the alley, money slick with blood; see enough of it, it stops meaning so much.

But, gods help me, I never did get used to the sight of that little girl.

She’s in all of us, you know. Someone small, timid and trembling. We build up around her with our walls and our weapons and our scars and our proud talk until we can’t see her anymore. But when we realize how big the world is and how very alone we are in it, all of that goes away. Walls come down, weapons rust, scars fade, proud talk falters.

And all that’s left is that little girl.

And you can’t but stop and contemplate.

It’s a heady combination, and Sykes juggles it like a pro.

Shy Knives has a small cast of characters—no more than a dozen, half of which form the core of the novel—which feels just right for an adventure novel that focuses as much on the complexities of its relationships (emotional, political, and physical) as it does on derring-do and swordplay. The cast is rich (sometimes literally, almost always figuratively), motivated, and diverse. I don’t necessarily read adventure-driven fantasy for the deep plots and intricate characters, but when those elements come together, it’s a satisfying mix, which is sure to appeal to many types of reader.

Shy Knives doesn’t have a romance-heavy plot, but Sykes adds just enough romantic tension in between the adventuring and mystery solving to show another side to characters that might otherwise fall firmly on the side of being paper thin. In particular, Shy tiptoes along a complicated path between two other women, one newly met and one an old acquaintance, who offer very different opportunities for romance and lifestyle. It says a lot about Shy that, even when her back’s against the wall, she is able to draw out some vulnerability in two women who are otherwise women made of chrome. It would have been so easy to bash readers over the head with the queer-friendly romance, but Sykes is smarter than that, more experienced, and, like a good seasoning, he treats it with respect without overdoing it. It’s balanced, subtle, and, in a novel that’s very sure of its violence and sarcasm, heartwarming and tenderly confused.

In all,  Shy Knives provided me with everything I expect from a good sword & sorcery novel: great action, an engaging quest, and interesting set pieces. Sometimes it even goes above and beyond that with its intricate relationships between well-developed characters. This isn’t Sykes’ breakout novel—he already had that with The City Stained Red—but it is proof that Paizo’s commitment to bringing established and exciting young writers to the Pathfinder Tales line is paying dividends. With all its referential humor, Shy Knives might work a bit better for readers familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, or tabletop gaming in general, but even newbies will find a novel that’s punchy and tough to put down. As for me? I’m hoping this isn’t the last time Sykes sets foot in Golarion.

If you’re interested in learning more about where to start with the Pathfinder Tales, check out my primer: Welcome to Golarion.

Shy Knives is available from Tor Books.

Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.

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