Jun 012017

The Worm Within is the first novel in the Chronicles of Future Earth, a setting created and written by Sarah Newton.

By Paco García Jaén

Based on Earth in a very, very distant future where civilizations have come and gone and the world has suffered for millennia, left-behind ruins, glimpses and legends of what once was, the novel narrates the events that take place after an ancient and powerful threat is accidentally awoken. At the Chronomancer’s Tower, forces are set in motion to find the source of the threat. At the Autarch’s palace, machinations grow as self-interests move the wheels of intrigue bringing the end of the world closer than anyone thought possible.

This novel follows Iago, a young apprentice with a hidden past, and a group of companions delving into the world’s past and present to stop what could very well be the beginning of the end of a new cycliad.

And it is quite a journey.

Before I go on with the review, I must offer a disclaimer. I have known Sarah for as long as I have known of Chronicles of Future Earth – 17 years. This was her setting for an RPG we played and we went adventuring in the very universe this novel introduces. And I loved every second.

Well … not the time when my friend destroyed a few shelves of ancient books with his finger just to find which ones were magical. I was shocked someone could be so careless with books.

Anyway … the point is that we had a great time.  I have been a huge fan of the setting since even before it was published and I am good friends with the author. I am also very aware of her other novel and game in the Mindjammer setting, and know how well she writes. So I was bound to like this novel.

I just didn’t expect I was going to like it so much!

When I received the advance preview copy of the novel, it took the best part of 10 minutes to start reading it. And it took Sarah the best part of 20 minutes to throw me into the action. Pretty much from the start, fearlessly, the novel throws you into the world and the characters with just a few brush strokes to paint the very basics of both characters and their surroundings.

To start with I found that a bit disconcerting. Names of lost eras come and go. Places, creatures, people, objects, societies… it all comes in a whirlwind of activity that takes some time to process. This is coupled with the fearlessness of the author to throw you right at the deep end of the action pretty much from the start. A bit of chaos of information that little by little takes shape as eventually one becomes fully familiar with the ideas of pantheons, magics, politics and geography, as well as characters and a very well accomplished sense of ancient history.

The thing is, even though it feels a bit chaotic, it actually makes perfect sense in the context of the novel. An unknown situation is what the characters face and an unknown situation is what the readers get. As the plot unfolds, things become clearer for both characters and readers at the same time, thus helping with the pace and the familiarity with the threat, as well as making a better connection to the world and its history. By the end of the novel, you feel you have been there a long time and, without even realising, you have become very familiar with the world in the book.

The map at the beginning, even though a bit small due to the constraints of the book, gives a very handy visual clue to the journey the protagonists follow, as well as the scope of the world, considering it only represents a fraction of the whole place.

This is also important because it gives us a very clear idea of how well the world is created. How much sense it makes. And, personally, it makes me curious to know more about the cities, mountains, rivers and territories.

The plot is not something revolutionary, and it doesn’t need to be. Something has been found that puts the world at risk and it falls on the shoulders of the few and the unprepared to defuse the situation, or at least try. Taking place in two different locations and involving two different sets of characters, the plot evolves amidst intrigue and slightly predictable subterfuge in a crescendo of action that keeps you entertained throughout the novel.

Characters are very well crafted. Even though I can’t help but think we haven’t seen all they have to offer, relationships are explored and personalities grow with surprising detail that goes from the genesis of their friendships to their sexuality and emotional involvement. From the naive innocence of Iago the apprentice, to the churlish dignified traditions of the Pilogiarch or the troubled past of the priestess Appia, all of them show their vulnerabilities without shame or remorse and they grow stronger because they become closer to us. Suddenly someone from a dodgy background can be just as noble and someone who comes from a place of knowledge can have his world turned upside down.

One thing Newton doesn’t shy away from is, actually, fantasy. I know this sounds silly, but bear with me.

It is much too often that I read fantasy novels and they don’t get out of the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Halflings. Medieval fantasy can be a bit trite at times. The Worm Within is not. Far from elves, here we have Viriki and other species, more alien and insectoid than mammal. And they are not just alien in their looks, but also their customs and behaviours are well reflected, giving us societies that, although vastly different, live together and mix well with each other.

Nods at real life situations are scattered around the book. So much so that it feels in places like it’s giving a very subtle yet powerful slap in the face of bigotry and shows a diversity that feels as natural as appropriate.

I could keep going on about this book for hours. Seriously. With a plot that engages without being overtly revolutionary, there are enough twists and turns in this novel to hook you and make you want more and more. And I haven’t even gone into how well written it is. How meticulously the words have been chosen to convey the right meaning and the right tone. And how that writing is used masterfully to reflect the changes in societies and social strata within the societies.

The sheer richness of the environment will be more than enough to paint some wonderful and mighty pictures of scenes that feel you are in them and leave you wanting more. And just as well because there is a trilogy to be finished.

This is the start of an absolutely fantastic new series and I would recommend anyone to jump on the wagon right away because this is already brilliant … but the best is yet to come.

Oct 172015

veridonBy Paco Garcia Jaen

I have had this novel in my bookshelf for a while and always put off reading it because steampunk is not my thing very much. Mixed with a dash of science fiction and another, hearty dash of fantasy, The Heart of Veridon sounded like a bit too much of a mix to garner my interest, I must admit.

Still, taking advantage of a holiday with a long plane trip, I decided to put my tablet away and dig this book to see if would keep me occupied for 10 hours. It didn’t. It took me less than 10 hours to finish it. That is not a criticism, by the way… that will come a bit later.

So what’s this novel all about? Well, the star of the book is Jacob Stone, a noble’s son who’s fallen from grace and decided to become a criminal, even though he still has a heart of gold on a part time basis and can be a bastard because… well.. he doesn’t give two hoots anymore. Daddy issues. Literally.

Anyway, it seems that just by chance he gets an artefact from a diying friend he didn’t recognise for a while. Jacob remembered just before killing him when a zepliner they were travelling on crashes down killing all their occupants. Except Jacob, of course, who manages to survive despite all odds. Maybe because this was the second zep that crashed he was in. He probably got a level in “Survive from falling Zeps”.

Sorry… sorry…. I’m being cynical here. You might have noticed.

Anyway, this artefact is wanted by all sorts of people. The mafia, the police, the nobility, an ancient creature with more super-power than the Justice League…

So he has to escape and try to find out what is going on so he doesn’t get killed. His friend Emily and an Anansi (sort of a mix of spider and human) called Wilson – I know, right! – help.

After a lot of adventures, near-death experiences, discoveries, mysteries and a liiiiiiiitle bit of romance, the book ends. Just like that.

The World

One thing I have truly enjoyed of this book is the world. Although vague in places, the description of the cities, the technology, the religion and their ancient gods, the different species of sentient beings apart from humans… Everything is very, very atmospheric and I must admit very original.

The mechanical aspect of the origin of the world, the birth of the city, the relationship between technology and religion and its dependence from each other, it’s all utterly fantastic and left me wanting to read the role playing game and get lost in adventure in that world. I found it utterly fascinating and the level of detail that Akers goes to detail everything and make it make sense is excellent.

Character creation was a bit weaker. Although all characters are very good and have their motives, personalities and experiences congruently reflected in their actions and dialogue, the main character is a bit too cliched. A noble boy who feels betrayed by his family when his dream of becoming a pilot doesn’t materialise and decides to get the thrills he can’t get flying by becoming a criminal for someone called Valentine.

In the case of the female character, Emily, she’s also a criminal but instead of just being tough, she’s also a prostitute. And she uses her… err… virtues, in her job. I also found that a bit cliched. Why does she have to be a prostitute? Why can’t she just be tough and independent? It doesn’t gel with me.

Yet the characters that are allies but don’t participate as closely as Jacob and Emily . Valentine, Wildson the Anansi, the fallen Wraith… they all feel perfectly congruent without any gaps in their behaviour. Maybe because they are simpler, less detailed and yet just as nuanced. They work very well.

Even the villains make sense and the political intrigue is well balanced and placed. It helps give a sense of history and cohesion to the whole situation and the way the city of Veridon works.

The verdict

The Heart of Veridon is a good novel with some amazing ideas and a good, although a bit cliched plot. The accidental chain of events that then happens not to be totally accidental is a bit trite in my books. The main character with daddy issues is also a bit overdone and the woman who is a prostitute… c’mon… there are better ways.

The book also lacks a bit of editing. There is no editor credited in the edition I have, so not even sure if there was one. The author uses some words too many times and sometimes tautologies are really obvious. Also the odd occasion in which the same thing is explained twice in different places of the book.

However all that pales into insignificance when you read the book because it is so rich and visually appealing – as in the language helps very well to conjure images of the scenes in your mind, at least in mine. The novel reads very easily and quickly, even for a slow reader like me.

The one thing that disappointed me the most was the ending, though. Although it felt it would go into an epic scale, the whole thing wound down and ended up in a bit of an anti-climax. Not a cliff hanger, not a breaking point… it just ends without a true resolution. But it doesn’t give you any reason to look forward to more… It’s weird. Not bad… just weird.

I wouldn’t say this novel is a masterpiece, but it’s certainly worth a read. It’s very enjoyable, full of very good and original ideas and it does something cool with the Steam Punk aspect, as well as the fantasy.

If you don’t mind a weird, anti-climatic ending and are a fan of Steam Punk Fantasy, this book is certainly one to look into.

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Sep 102014

Vampires: A Hunter's Guide by Osprey Publising By Paco Garcia Jaen

The guide to Vampire Hunters fro Osprey

Vampires have had a place of honour in folklore and fantasy literature for millennia. One way or another, they have been present in legend and myth and the 21st century hasn’t done anything to diminish their popularity. Even the Twilight Saga hasn’t been able to damage their reputation!

However what’s not very clear is if they are a force of good, evil or both. Osprey think they are all evil and have decided to put all their knowledge and expertise in this treaty that aims to teach us what we are fighting and how to fight them.

Let’s start with the production and physical description of this book. Cloaking up 80 plus covers, it is a soft-cover and perfect-bound small book that won’t break your bank and will keep you amused for an afternoon or two. The layout is not perfect, but it’s easy to read and the number of illustrations is quite large, so your eyes are never too far away from some visual treat.

The illustrations come in a mix of styles; from old style medieval illustrations to lavishly painted scenes that depict encounters with vampires.

I say depict encounters because the book has been written in a “realistic” style. The language describes everything as if it were actually real information and not fantasy. This is very much in line with the style of the whole series and we saw the same technique used to great effect in The Nazi Occult.

The chapters take us around the world and describe not just what kind of vampires we are likely to find in those areas, but also their origins. This is where things get interesting.

One thing I noticed is that this book is firmly aimed at the American market. Although the European Vampire does take a lot of the book, there is a whole section to the presence of Vampires in the USA and the creation of a special forces unit dedicated to fight them. And actually it’s a pretty good story with a lot to offer and it does feel very American, so, quite frankly, I am very pleased they added it.

The African Vampire, Asanbosam, takes yet another twist. Vampires are thought of as having evolved somewhat and the origins of the species is explained as coming from a sort of ape creature that became extremely adept at jungle life and needs blood to survive. It also describes a class of warriors, the Ashanti, who dedicate their lives to fight the presence of the monster.

Chinese vampires again take a very different twist. These seem to take about 100 years to be created and, to start with, they look like clumsy and mostly harmless stiff puppets that can’t hurt you unless they get too close. And yet, they reveal a series of very powerful and dangerous tool to survive, turning them into pretty lethal enemies. And this was a huge surprise for me. To start with my scepticism made me sneer, and then, as the chapter went on, I kept smiling at the devious ways in which those vampires operate and how they can be destroyed by the Shaolin monks who spent centuries learning the ways, not just to fight them, but also to return them to their graves where their souls can rest forever.

The South American vampire is the one with the least coverage in the book. In a nutshell, it’s the Chupacabra. A legendary monster that is just that, a very advanced and dangerous animal that doesn’t resemble the vampires as we know them. At all.


I did enjoy reading this guide, though I must admit I struggled with it on two counts.

Firstly it portrays vampires as irredeemable evil creatures, sometimes mindless. Secondly it really plays up with the origins of vampires in totally new ways and that took me a while to come to terms with.

After having played so many games in which I was a Vampire, to see them as the evil people no matter what sat hard on me. This is not to say it does’t make sense or that it’s badly done, quite the opposite. However if you expect this to be something like Twilight or Vampire: The Masquerade, you’ll be disappointed.

The origins of vampires really got me by surprise. I have always associated vampires with some sort of mystical beginning, so to think of them as the produce of evolution… that was weird!

And yet it does work to a great degree. Considering that we’re talking about a manual about fantasy creatures, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t work. It has a tough fight to battle against our pre-conceptions, though and that’s quite a challenge.

The one thing I struggled with most with, though, was the way in which the book tries to tie all the vampires together as if they’re somehow related. Yes, they have the common trait of blood drinking, but whereas the European and Asian vampires are intelligent creatures, the African and South American are little else than beasts. That is just strange for me.

As a gaming aid, this is one to have. It is affordable enough that it won’t hurt your pocket too much, it reads well (as in being very entertaining and well written) and it’s full of ideas that can be used in pretty much any game with a touch of supernatural.

Another good addition to Osprey’s collection!

Apr 262014

123039-thumb140[1]By Endzeitgeist

This guidebook to help aspiring freelancer is 32 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page inside back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 27 pages of content, so what is this book about?

Essentially, this book is Creighton Broadhurst’s wisdom (with a slew from John Bennett thrown in for good measure), or at least a part of it, regarding the nature of freelancing – and in case you wonder – he does explain, sans hubris or pretensions, what qualifies him to give this advice – which is valuable.

Now usually, I go into a point-by-point analysis of a product’s contents, but seeing that I’d have to essentially reproduce the whole book in this case, I’ll instead tell you about some of the articles herein: First of all, examine why you want to go into freelancing – 12 reasons against it (like “for the money”, “problems with taking criticism”) and 8 reasons in favour – while I’d consider many of these self-evident, experience has shown that not everyone is in the know regarding the realities of the rpg-industry; I’ve seen people actually expect completely unrealistic things, so reading these should provide a nice reality-check for aspiring authors. Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, make sure you follow his GOLDEN RULES.

They’re called like that for a reason – from editing, knowing and playing the game as well as the target audience/publishers, contracts etc. – there is a lot to take into account and yes, this includes the acceptance that whatever you write, it WILL be edited. Proper project management advice and further reading (re Kobold Press’ EXCELLENT, nay MANDATORY design-books, for example!) further should provide several excellent starting points for aspiring freelancers.

Now the essential thing beyond quality is actually getting things on (virtual) paper -advice for being productive is extensive herein and as a person who values efficiency (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to review…at all), I can attest that these are not only valuable, they even managed to teach an old dog like me a new trick or two, even if the pieces of advice in question were not that complex – just reading them has a benefit in itself -and yes, “Turning off the internet is just one of the pieces of advice I can attest to regarding efficiency, as is listening to music -fun fact: Whether I’m writing for my day-job, supplements or reviews: The proper music, much like a good work-out, can get you faster into the proper mindset. While Creighton doesn’t go deep into details, I’ll be egoistical for a second and provide some examples from my own array of writing-music.

Complete derail of the review in favor of some of my favorite tunes to write:

Are you writing something viking-themed? Get Turisas’ “Varangian Way” or Týr’s “Blood of Heroes” or anything by Amon Amarth. You’re writing some dark “Sword & Sorcery”-stuff? Put Bal-Sagoth on your speakers. Decadent gothic horror/fantasy? From “Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio” to bands like “Pretentious, moi?” or “Project Pitchfork” (Beholder, for example!), a mix of low-key songs and sinister, pumping beats can go a long way. And once you need to get stoked, KMFDM’s “Hau Ruck” or Sabaton/Blind Guardian make for a great background to get into the proper set of mind. Oh, and if you need some inspiration for disturbing imagery, there’s not much that surpasses Sopor Aeternus’ “La Chambre d’Echo” and for dark sci-fi “Darkspace”, for bloody, fast-paced martial arts, Combichrist’s “Today I Woke to a Rain of Blood”. Finally, there’s no track that better encapsulates a feeling of desolation on a post-apocalyptic level than the brilliant “78 Days in the Desert” by Sólstafir.


Sorry, got a bit lost there. Where was I? Oh, yes, project outlining – tips for properly outlining projects are provided herein as well and once you have started your career, the struggle is anything but over: Properly “levelling up” by pitching the right stuff the right way to the right people is crucial as well. Another page covers reasons why you want your own web-site – whether as a blog, a site or something else: There are benefits here and yes, the virtues and how and what to publish here are explained concisely.

Now what would make my job as a reviewer much easier is if everybody checked the “How to Kill your Career”-page here: There is a reason Raging Swan Press supplements only rarely miss the highest echelons of my rating system, and from missing deadlines to bad spelling etc., I can only fathom what some publishers have to deal with submission-wise. In fact, I do have some partial insights behind the curtain and having seen some submissions as they reach the respective publishers is sometimes horrifying to behold. Oh and there is the “Don’t Argue with Reviewers”-point – at least here, I don’t mind an argument, as long as it’s CIVIL. I’ve been insulted, called out and even threatened and don’t react well to the like – though I try to keep a calm head. Now on the other hand, I’m not perfect, nor is any other reviewer out there, so if you write something and feel a review has an OBJECTIVE mistake, feel free to point it out and discuss the review in a civil manner. I believe I have managed to remain civil and helpful in most instances and always like to provide feedback for improvements and at least I’m not beyond saying “Mea Culpa”, man up and rectifying mistakes I’ve made. Just my 2 cents, though. 🙂

Proper pitching of projects is also important and with some experience at choosing pitches under my belt, I can attest that these guidelines here should be followed. Next up would be advice not on the logistics of freelancing, but on the act of actual creation – from dungeon dressing to dungeons that make logical sense within the world and how to properly make a dungeon ecology that does not break one’s sense of immersion, these pieces of advice are GOLDEN. Oh, speaking of which -how to properly craft unoccupied rooms is handled here as well. What? Yes. And you should read and take this page in – there is a reason Raging Swan Press-modules tend to feel that realistic, concise and alive – and these are an integral part of it! Encounters, Treasures, Settlements, NPCs, Villain motivations – all the following pages should be considered a Bullet Point-check list to avoid bad design-choices and, more importantly, bland ones.


Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to RSP’s elegant standard with 1-column-articles that fit (if your eyesight is as good as mine) up to 4 pages on one sheet of paper, making this very friendly on the printer. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and in two versions, one for screen-use and one to be printed out.

Creighton Broadhurst has provided a collection of articles and lists here that every aspiring freelancer should check out – the advice is thoroughly sound, concise and as a check-list to avoid design-sins and issues, this pdf can be considered an invaluable guide to help you get into freelancing – a cool and useful companion to have, well worth a final verdict of 5 stars +seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Apr 062014

alchemist_revengeBy Paco Garcia Jaen

The Alchemist’s Revenge is the first novel by Peter Cakebread, one half of the team Cakebread and Walton, fine purveyors of Role Playing Games, namely Clockwork and Chivalry, Pirates and Dragons, Renaissance and Airship Pirates.

This novel is based on the universe of Clockwork and Chivalry, a dark time in England’s 17th century, with a civil war raging and the forces of clockwork battling against the forces of magic and alchemy. Royalists fight and battle Parliamentarians and they occupy the land our heroes, reluctant as they might be, must traverse.

When a grieving widow hires a disgruntled and bitter mercenary to accompany her to the grave of her late husband, a journey that should be simple enough becomes plagued with more dangers they could have all expected. Reunited with old friends and stalked by ruthless enemies and a very dark past, they band together to overcome challenges that are, quite frankly, terrifying. Like the whole setting actually is.

This book is published by Delta 14 Publishing and, at least the book I received, is a print on demand version. The softback has been very, very well bound, no pages will come off that book anytime soon, I must say. The cover is thick enough and the paper is a little bit on the thin side, but it won’t tear when you flip the pages.

Let’s get out of the way the only thing about this book that’s not all that great. It’s not bad, but it’s not great: The art direction and graphic design. Yes, believe it or not, novels also use graphic design. The cover, although is attractive enough, it doesn’t really give away much about the novel, the setting or anything. If you saw this book in a bookshelf in a library, you’d have no idea what’s like. Again, is not bad looking, but it’s not great.

The interior also lacks of a bit of TLC. Although the font is big enough, it needs a bit more space to breathe around the page. The numbers and title of the book is a bit too close together for my liking, and a bit more separation between paragraphs wouldn’t go amiss. Once the eye gets used to it, the book is easy enough to read, but it takes a few pages to get the eye trained to follow the lines and it can be irritating for the first few pages.

Thank goodness those little niggles don’t last long as the story quickly drives you in and you just want to know what happens next. Even though the plot is not epic and it seems quite simple from the start, the pace is well set since the beginning and the plot twists are interesting enogh without being mind boggling. It doesn’t start too quickly and Cakebread doesn’t spare any effort to describe the environments to give a clear picture of what’s going on and where. From the point of view of someone who lives in England (that’d be me) it is lovely to see the description of pubs and locations that still echo in the walls of buildings and streets to this day. There is a sense of familiarity and enough richness in the prose to allow you to imagine the locations rather vividly. A huge plus for me!

The characters also take some time to fall into place and the best bit about them is that the don’t try to be likeable. They all have their own agenda and personalities, including their own reasons to be there, and they stick to them, even if that makes them look stupid, selfish or arrogant. The author hasn’t tried to soften the attitude of anyone just to make you like them. And yet, as you get to know the characters, almost without realising you can understand the true reasons behind their reactions, you can see behind the mask while the other characters stay with the surface. Very cleverly done!

Throughout the whole book there’s a feeling of tension; an unease sensation that come from the fact that the protagonists can’t relax. Every person they cross can be a foe, everything they do can turn against them and every location is unsafe. And yet it’s perfectly congruous with the war environment. I can see the 17th century being something very similar to this.

The fantastic elements are also there and in good measure. I mean this in all the senses of the expression. There is plenty of Alchemy and Clockwork and there are a lot of questions that are left unanswered about both areas. This is probably the one thing I can imagine would frustrate some people. As much as we are all used to the idea of Magic in fantasy setting, mechanical wonders are less common and this book doesn’t offer anything on its origins or ideas on how the work. There’s a some  interaction between the heroes and some clockwork designers and the door into that room is ajar, so you can see a bit, but not enough to lift the mystery. The magic is catered for as one of the characters is a magic wielder and she manages to pull some punches very nicely thanks to it.

This is very much a roleplaying game adventure novel. If you are familiar with role playing games, you’ll easily see yourself around a table rolling your dice as the adventure progresses, and you’ll probably want to run this novel as an adventure too. From that point of view is perfect.

This novel is also brutal. There’s plenty of violence, plenty of gore and plenty of unpleasantness. This is not a fluffy pink novel. At all. This is not to say that the author rejoices in it, just that it doesn’t shy away and tells it how it is.


I must admit that at the start I had difficulties getting into the book because of the weak layout, however a few pages in I found myself enjoying this book a lot. The drama and tension are very high and keep you gripped very tightly as events unravel.

Though the plot is not demanding (at all) the author’s knowledge of the whole universe is such that describing the right elements to get you interested comes very naturally. Most importantly, what he describes is, somehow, familiar and it’s easy to “see” what’s going on. It’s a world so full of adventure you can see the possibilities.

I do wish the publisher had a more cohesive art direction between the book and the game itself. I think that linking both lines of product visually would go a long way to help people buy the other. At the very least, get a cover artwork that is more consistent with the contents of the book.

The best bit is that this novel leaves you wanting to play the game it’s based on. Maybe that’s because I like RPGs so much and I can see the RPG adventure elements in this novel that it attracts me so much, or maybe that’s because the world this is set in is very inviting and interesting from all angles. I don’t know… the fact is that it makes me want to be a part of it, and that has to count for something.  And now I want to read more, so I hope there are more coming.

Recommended book and one that promises a great future for this author!

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Book review – Death Mark, a Dark Sun D&D novel by Robert J. Schwalb

 Authors, Books, Paco Garcia Jaen  Comments Off on Book review – Death Mark, a Dark Sun D&D novel by Robert J. Schwalb
Feb 132014

Death_Mark_NovelBy Paco Garcia Jaen

This D&D novel was published by Wizards of the Coast in 2011 and was written by Robert J Schwalb  in 2011. Yeah… I’m a bit late on this one. I should have got hold of it a long time ago.

I absolutely adore Dark Sun. It was the first D&D setting I actually got to master and it was so far out from anything else that was going on at the time – and the time is 1994 when is was released in Spain – that I was captivated from the moment go.

I read the Prism Pentad novels avidly and I re-read them not four years ago. Then I read the newer novels. I wasn’t impressed, I’m sorry to say.

You see, Dark Sun is meant to be a truly horrible and brutal world. One that would make Westeros a cozy place. The novels I’ve read didn’t convey that. They offer a rather sanitised version of Athas that I felt belonged more in a Disney production than an HBO, if you know what I mean. So when I found this novel, I bought it out of inertia more than anything else. Yes, the author’s name was encouraging, but then that’s never any guarantee.

When I started to read, though, I started to change my mind pretty much as soon as my eyes hit the pages. Much to my surprise!

The plot takes place one year after the events in the Prism Pentad. King Kalak has been defeated and Tithian has been crowned king in Tyr. The city is in turmoil as it tries to shift from slavery to a free society and the merchant houses, unsettled by the loss of earnings and the threat of invasion from Urik, decide to take matters into their own hands and various plans are conceived to take over the commerce and government of the city, including the tremendously profitable iron mines, now closed. The roles of the characters introduced throughout the novel and the seemingly disconnected actions of all the parts slowly come closer together.

It is difficult for me to tell you much about the plot without giving away key clues and I really don’t want to spoil this one. It’s too good to do that, so please bear with me. Also I can’t help but comparing this novel with the previously published ones. Sorry. Can’t help it because Death Mark is miles ahead from any other novel published before.

The characters, without going into any existentialist essays in the book, are actually really, *really* well crafted. Most of them have perfectly credible motivations and great personalities; they are congruous. That is, they react as you’d expect a character like them to react. The former gladiator is a killing machine; he might not like killing, but he does so, does it well and has the reactions you’d expect from a gladiator brutish, to the point and struggling to keep up with mind-games. The self-centred defiler works to better his plans and status and will step over anyone to achieve that goal, even if his actions put the health of the city at risk.

The best way I can think to describe how the novel is structure is this: most novels feel like they narrate how an adventuring party is out and about on missions and tasks, just like your gaming group does when you get together to play. There is one group of people and they drive the plot. This novel, though, takes several adventuring parties and sets them away from each other, each one with their own adventure to follow. Slowly, as time advances and events unravel, their paths start to converge and, eventually, most of them come to see they were all going in the same direction from different starting points.

The cast of characters is well balanced and there are villains and heroes in both genders. There are strong women and weak men. There are ruthless men and women and there are weak women and strong men. Schwalb doesn’t hold back on that front. Or any other, for that matter.

The novel is pretty hefty at 304 pages with fairly small font, and no description is spared. The fabrics in the markets, the leather armour worn by warriors, the tunics of wizards, smells, textures, spells… Everything is looked into and everything is given to the reader uncompromisingly.

Also no compromise is reached when is about the brutality of the land and its people, though, and that is a good thing. Unless you don’t like graphic descriptions of gore, violence and the unpleasantness of human (and other races) nature. Make no mistake; this novel could give any of the Game of Thrones series a run for their blood. From the quick death by beheading to the struggle to kill another gladiator in the arena with multiple blows, if a detail needs to be there, the author makes sure is there in exquisite detail.

Same goes for the ways of the land. Halflings are unpleasant and untrustworthy – at last a proper Athasian halfling! – and elves are far from the noble race we’re used to; just as they should be in Athas. And magic is lethal; properly and really lethal. And yet, there’s so much of it!

This is possibly the only thing about this novel that has taken me aback a bit. There’s barely any psionic activity. The Way is almost absent. Although I can understand it would add yet another element to follow, add even more material to the book and make it even more complicated to follow, leaving behind something as inherent to the Dark Sun universe feels strange.

One worrying thing, though, is that there’s no editor listed in the credits. The reason I find that worrying is because this wouldn’t be the first novel published by Wizards of the Coast that leaves the printers without any editing. “City Under the Sand” suffered from that oversight, which I consider unforgivable.

Everything else is absolutely fantastic, though, and if that were indeed the case and the editing had been omitted, that only turns the author awesometer a notch higher, because this novel is excellent as it is.

One of my friends complains that D&D novels suffer from a big problem, either they are written by great writers who have no understanding of the D&D universe, or they are written by mediocre writers who do understand it. There’s no doubt Schwalb understand Athas and the Dark Sun universe better than any other writer before him. And that is saying quite a lot. Thank goodness he’s also vey talented as a writer and manages to convey that understanding also better than anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the perfect storm D&D novels need. Badly.

By now you would have guessed I truly love this book and will be one I read again. I would go as far as to say anyone who’s ever run a game of Dark Sun in any of its editions should give this one a serious go. This is the true Athas.

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