by Robin D Laws, fantasy (2012)
Paizo, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-456-6
How interesting: this is the second consecutive book in the Pathfinder Tales line (following Liane Merciel's Nightglass) that does not follow the "one guy to unite them archetypes for a quest across the land" formula. It seems like this line is tentatively branching away from stale and played out generic stories and archetypes.
This one is set in the city of Magnimar, and I'm sure it's merely coincidence that its publication coincides with that of the official campaign setting splatbook of this city. Luma Derexhi's family runs a long and successful clean-up business. Which is to say, despite being one of the upper-class families in the city, every member of the family specializes in skills that allow them to clean up messes, rescue or kidnap, and perform other stuff in exchange for money or favors. Luma specializes in tracking, using her unique connection to the city and its inhabitants, sometimes animals, to her advantage.
Unfortunately, while she may be the eldest daughter of the current patriarch, she is actually the illegitimate daughter of the man's dalliance with an elf. As a result, Luma is in an only slightly better position than Cinderella. While she doesn't have to clean the chimney, she has to do her part in the family business and still be treated as an unwanted family relative in the process. Luma, however, still wants her family to love her as much as she love them. That is, until a shocking betrayal happens, and Luma has to dish out some payback as Meiko Kaji's The Flower Of Carnage plays in the background.
Blood Of The City is interesting in that it takes place entirely within one city, and it explores the various political power plays between various factions that run the city, either in front of or behind the scenes. If you are expecting dragons, huge explosions of power, and dungeons full of traps and monsters, you won't find them here, alas. This story is more about being caught in a web of political struggle and finding unlikely allies in the strangest places to help one get out of the web. The costs of success are, unfortunately, high indeed.
The best thing about this story is its nonchalant matter-of-fact preponderance of strong female characters from both sides of the moral spectrum. I've always been intrigued by this particular setting because there is nothing "token" about the female and homosexual characters that show up in a campaign. The official campaign setting materials, for example, have plenty of female characters, not all of them stuck in chainmail bikinis, who show up as a natural part of the campaign instead of that token healer or mage chick/love interest in a group of big brawny guys. It's nice to see that this campaign philosophy show up in this story, as there are enough female characters here to give the boys a run for their money. And some of these female characters break the archetype rules.
Unfortunately, the author's execution of the story is nowhere as good as it could have been. The biggest problem here is the pacing. The story starts out strong, but then plunges dramatically into a horrifically tedious sagging middle, one that it barely crawls out of by the late third or so of the book. And even then, after a strong denouement, the story starts to meander around for a few unnecessary "Where are they now?"-type chapters before concluding with a very good final chapter. This book is like a very old car that keeps breaking down at unpredictable moments - one moment it's smooth sailing on the road, and then it breaks down for a long time before it slowly comes back to life again. Oops, and then it breaks down again. Repeat this pattern a few times and I get a book is that too easy to put down at too many instances.
The next problem is the lack of interesting and compelling emotional development of Luma. For a story of this nature to work, I must be given a good glimpse of what makes Luma tick. Unfortunately, Mr Laws focuses more on the drama happening around Luma. As a result, Luma's transformation from family doormat to the blade of vengeance is abrupt and even discordant, like jumping from Point A to Point C without showing me what happens at Point B. The last chapter, while deliciously dramatic, loses much of its emotional impact because, up to that point, I was given only a very superficial glimpse of Luma's relationship with that person she encounters in that chapter. At one point late in the story, Luma wonders whether she would have been a monster if she continued to remain under the thumb of her family. But because most of the time I have no idea what she is feeling and thinking, I can't help but to wonder whether she's already become a monster when she starts mowing down people in a cold-blooded manner. I like heroines of this sort, mind you, and I like the fact that Luma isn't the usual goody-two-shoes heroine here, but a good insight into the workings of her mind as she transforms into the cold and morally ambiguous character would have strengthened the impact of this story.
Bottom line is that this story has an interesting premise and, boy, it could have been a very good read with a memorable female lead character if Mr Laws had spent as much time on character development as he had in setting up the political struggles of Magnimar and the subsequent exciting murder sprees and near-deaths. Maybe next time.
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