Imagine if, just north of Toronto, there was a wasteland empire filled with the worst beings imaginable. The forests of Canada, dripping with blood and pus, the hills crawling with fauna that make giant acid spewing termites and poisonous land sharks look like Bambi and Thumper. Imagine that, in the center of this blight, there was a portal open to Hell.
No wait, picture the one place worse than Hell. Hell at least has rules—you go there if you’ve been bad, the wicked punish the wicked, contracts with Mephistopheles—and this place isn’t nearly so comprehensible. This is the Abyss, home of demons and butchery, of insanity and Evil. Capital-E Evil. Now imagine that it is growing, little by little, and no matter how many soldiers you send into it, the demon horde just keeps coming because they are, quite literally, infinite. This is the Worldwound, in the northern part of the continent of Avistan on the planet Golarion in the Pathfinder universe. And it’s the setting of the newest Radovan and the Count novel, King of Chaos, by Dave Gross.
When I reviewed Gross’ last novel, Queen of Thorns, I said Varian and Radovan were the new Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Maybe you think that sounds hyperbolic, but after reading King of Chaos, I stand by it; heck I’d double down on it if I could. The academic Count and scoundrel Radovan both have plenty of reason to go to the worst places in the world—maybe the worst place in the world—because they are adventurers. That is what they do. In fact, Varian has nearly half a dozen letters asking him to go to the Worldwound and find the Necronomicon Lexicon of Paradox. Radovan, his compatriot and bodyguard, naturally follows, as does their loyal hound, Arnisant.
They aren’t alone: the female voice of Oparal the elven paladin is great to have and she’s a fully vested deuteragonist here, bringing welcome diversity to the usual boy’s club. The paladin is in the Worldwound for her own purposes (a crusade, and she has the troops to prove it), but she too seeks the MacGuffin—as does Varian’s frustratingly and wonderfully incompetent nemesis, the half-mummy, half-vampire Kasiya. Think “evil Inspector Clouseau” and you’ll just about have it.
The most memorable part of the book, for me, was the all-out battle to the death between the paladin Oparal and Xagren the antipaladin. Antipaladins are my jam. This isn’t one of those anti-hero or anti-villain Lawful Evil antipaladins, like the Hellknights—which is my preferred flavor, making Cheliax my favorite nation in Pathfinder—but something all the worse: a Chaotic Evil antipaladin. He appears in mismatched armor culled from presumably hundreds of murders: the Andoren eagle on one shoulder, leering Abyssal face on the other, blasphemous runes on the holy symbol of the fallen paladin’s former god, a locust made of knives welded to his shield. Gross describes the cultists urging him on to greater acts of terror as dressed in “the colors of filth and violence” which makes the whole fight bring up the scary feeling of the moment in Resident Evil 4 when you hear a chainsaw start up. The fun really gets going here when this Mad Max monster of an antipaladin draws his profane blade and it starts bleeding out Kirby dots, and then those motes swell to become locusts, a plague of locusts, streaming out of the blade, swarming across his armor, obscuring the sight of Oparal the paladin…who is the flip side of things, the full-on white knight riding a unicorn. It rules.
At the end of last year and the beginning of this year, Dave Gross had a contest, asking people to build Pathfinder characters for Varian and Radovan. There were a number of interesting results, and the question isn’t entirely theoretical; one of the things that makes Gross’ tie-in novels interesting is that they address the mechanical elements of the game universe—a place with Vancian magic, hit points and levels—while approaching it on his own terms, forcing them to serve the story. In Queen of Thorns, there is a subplot about Oparal gaining the unicorn Bastiel as a companion, which is exactly what I mean. A paladin gaining a mount is a class feature, a “new power” that your character gets. Rather than a video game-like sudden appearance, Dave Gross uses it as a hook to tell a story. Count Jeggare’s indigestion when casting spells—he gets vertigo and vomits—is a more complicated example, as is Radovan’s various diabolical transformations.
King of Chaos continues Gross’ tradition of looking at how the rules of the game work, and extrapolating an organic narrative out of it. A wizard, a sorcerer and a summoner, three arcane talents, all get cracking on an ancient tome of evil, and they get to talking, both about theory and about more pragmatic issues: to wit, Varian’s unique handicap and Radovan being “ridden” by devils (or vice-versa, if you prefer). Events in King of Chaos might spur people to reconsider their character builds for the protagonist, but me, I’ll go ahead and posit a radical theory—what if Radovan and Varian are just using house rules for generic characters? Selecting, grabbag-style, from a laundry list of class features? Or what if Radovan is something like Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition’s Savage Species? A guy with levels of…well, of Devil?
Let’s not get too far afield musing on that cross over, for while King of Chaos and the other Radovan and the Count novels are unmistakably set in Golarion, and the canny reader can see the Pathfinders bells and whistles hidden behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, the books stand completely on their own merits. You don’t need to think “huh, she killed those zombies with turn undead” when Oparal calls on the miracles of her god, because Dave Gross doesn’t tell, he shows. You’ll see Oparal calling on Iomedae, you’ll read about how it feels when her god fills her up with divine wrath. It isn’t a roll of the dice or a press of a button; it is a novel, a story. So when a character dies and then later a person—a wholly different person—claims to be that person, brought back to life in a stranger’s body? It is body horror, it is suspicion and confusion, it is mysterious…not just a reincarnation spell.
This book also had a chapter called “Prince of Bats,” which was the first of my (incorrect) guesses as to what the next Radovan and the Count novel would be called…this time I’ll guess…Emperor of the Dark Tapestry? I still want to see Varian and Radovan in spaaaaace, and the royal titles keep escalating. God of…something or other, I guess could be next; I speculate that the ultimate fate of either Radovan, Varian or Arnisant is to touch the Starstone and ascend to someplace above Hell but below Heaven, to paraphrase Marlowe.
King of Chaos is available from Paizo.
Mordicai Knode would probably just say Arnisant is a riding dog with the celestial template, post-Master of Devils. You can tell him all your hopes and dreams on Twitter or see pictures of monsters and supervillains on Tumblr.