Count Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard Radovan Virholt are deserved inheritors of the “buddy adventurers” mantle. They belong squarely in the company of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser as heroes par excellence, complete with the occasional foray into light comedy and weird happenstance. With the newest volume of author Dave Gross’ Pathfinder Tales book, Queen of Thorns, Radovan and Count Jeggare continue to crystalize as iconic characters. The heroes are imperfect and “human”—well, a half-elf and a demon-spawn, but still—which really makes them a cut above the usual dramatis personae.
Varian Jeggare is a Count of Cheliax and a member of the Pathfinders, the eponymous organization of the Pathfinder setting; essentially a guild for adventurers, explorers and the usual player character ilk. Radovan is his counterpart; a gangster turned bodyguard, turned sidekick, turned partner. Radovan has some infernal blood somewhere in his background—he’s a hellspawn, though you could call him a tiefling, if you liked—which is a “big picture” mystery yet to be resolved. They are a duo who will feel familiar to anyone who has played fantasy roleplaying games; their rapport rings true as a “party” of adventurers. Part witty banter and part brothers-in-arms, Varian and Radovan read like a cross between Gilmore Girls and Reservoir Dogs, smack dab in the middle of a sword and sorcery world.
Despite any skepticism about the quality of tie-in novels, good ones certainly do exist. Heck, off the top of my head, John Ford’s The Final Reflection, which is ostensibly a Star Trek tie-in novel, is just a face-meltingly good examination of an alien culture. I think ultimately what it comes down to is something like Hollywood’s “studio system” in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Some of it is almost factory produced, just formulas being recapitulated over and over again, but that means that sometimes a moment of genius will happen, or all the pieces will come together and just click and you’ll end up with a Casablanca or a Dave Gross. That is probably unfair to a lot of tie-in novels, and to the Pathfinder Tales in specific. I suppose at the core my point is that tie-ins represent the old “pulp” science-fiction and fantasy publishing paradigm. Given the nature of branding and marketing, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Dave Gross is, however, not to be mistaken for dross. These books are a heck of a lot of fun and a really smart read.
The first of the Radovan and Varian Jeggare novels is Prince of Wolves. If you are familiar with traditional roleplaying game conventions, I might say by way of shorthand that it is the “Ravenloft-y” novel; what I mean is that the action of the story by and large takes place in a sort of “Transylvanian” pastiche, complete with Hammer Film clichés. That isn’t to say that the tropes are tired, or used in the banal ways you might expect; in fact, quite the opposite. Dave Gross doesn’t feel the need to subvert the genre, to undermine the narrative conceit, but he will twist it and deliver it to you in unexpected ways. If you’ve got a sort of all-encompassing interest in the strange—of course you do!—then you’ll be happy to see that Gross shares that. The details peppering Prince of Wolves—like Mensur’s “academic fencing” scars—really anchor the book, giving the more high fantasy elements a plausible context, and allowing the story to get even odder.
Master of Devils is the second Jeggare and Virholt novel, and perhaps my favorite of the bunch. While Prince of Wolves took on the narrative conventions of Gothic Horror, Master of Devils goes an entirely different route: Kung-Fu movies. The storyline diverges into two—the Count is swept up in courtly drama and romance within a reclusive monastery devoted to the art of combat, while Radovan—fully embodied in a demonic body through unknown means—goes a more grindhouse route, as he travels the land with a crazy mentor, fighting wandering martial artists. Actually, Master of Devils is divided into three parts: their dog Arnisant has his own b-plot, as he meets kami and kitsune, telling a Classic of Mountains and Seas-style folk tale. The writing is very kinetic; everything from body language to hand motions comes across, which makes the escalation to violence all the more visceral. Part wuxia, part romance, part action film, part mythology, Master of Devils draws from a wealth of inspiration to tell a story worth reading.
Dave Gross’ latest, Queen of Thorns, is his take on epic fantasy. There are elves, they live in a secluded forest, their queen is a powerful magic user, all that high fantasy stuff. Of course, Radovan and Varian bring their own unique perspective to the story, derailing it significantly from the chaste sort of epic fantasy, without veering into the other, “gritty” direction. They have a distinct charm; for instance, Count Jeggare has set to make a “word of the day” challenge for Radovan…while Radovan has set his own challenge of whenever he already knows a word, bluffing and playing like he hasn’t heard it. Just a charming comedy duo. Dave Gross focuses on some of the more interesting bits of Pathfinder’s elf culture—like the cult of the wasp god, who believe in cunning, lust and revenge—while giving the characters a chance to cut loose and explore mecha made of trees, a fallen Spelljammer-style orrery, and a secret city ruled by…well, the titular Queen of Thorns. The main characters get a chance to explore their own backstories—elven and infernal—while the side characters have really surprising narratives. A paladin struggling with her choice of supernatural mount is a perfect example of how Gross shines: the mechanics of getting a magical companion are clear cut, but Queen of Thorns spins it into a narrative with surprising emotional gusto.
After each of Dave Gross’ novels, I’ve tried to anticipate what the next one will be titled, usually semi-jokingly. I thought Prince of Wolves might be followed by Prince of Bats, or that Master of Devils could have a follow-up called Captain of Spelljammers. Queen of Thorns ends with Varian and Radovan getting a sort of “spy car,” a carriage kitted out with all kinds of widgets and tricks, so I’m thinking “Agent of…Something” maybe? Perhaps they’ll end up in the strange science-fiction ruins of Numeria? Or the duo is may be due back in devil-haunted Cheliax… a nation with an official state religion that calls Asmodeus the Lord of Law, rather than the Lord of Lies. Maybe that will come into play; “Something…of Hell”? My hope—I’ve mentioned Spelljammer not a few times—is that Radovan and the Count will end up in the wider solar system of Golarion, the planet of the Pathfinder setting, and we’ll get something like Warlord of the Red Planet.
Mordicai Knode is a big fan of elves living in weird forests from way back. Galadriel is his favorite fictional character, after all, right up there with the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Hive Queen from Aliens. You can find him on Twitter and Tumblr.