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Posted December 24, 2012
Death's Heretic is my second Pathfinder Tales novel, after Elaine Cunningham and Dave Gross' Winter Witch. The Pathfinder Tales novels are set in the world of Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder Role Playing Game, though knowledge of the game isn't necessary to appreciate either work. In fact, Death's Heretic was chosen as the number three fantasy novel of the year in the Barnes & Noble Book Club's 2011 Best Fantasy Releases (a fact which more than legitimizes the Pathfinder Tales fiction editor, James L. Sutter, in publishing himself in his own line).
Death's Heretic stars Salim Ghadafar, a man from a country of militant atheists, who now finds himself bound in the service of Pharasma, the goddess of death (as well as birth and prophesy, but it's her aspect as goddess of death with which the novel is chiefly concerned). Salim is sent to the nation of Thuvia, where a recently-murdered powerful merchant's soul has gone missing. The local church of Pharasma obviously has an interest in seeing the matter dealt with, as does Neila Anvanory, daughter of the murdered and missing merchant. The novel reads like (and actually is) a classic noir transposed to a fantasy setting, though not in the Jim Butcher sense--no fedoras or trenchcoats, though there is a damsel in distress and a suitably compromised investigator. The plot points don't stray far from the archetype -- eliminate the obvious suspects, identify the guilty party, tables turned while trying to apprehend them -- but it's the richness of the language, the breadth of the world-building, and the depth of Salim Ghadafar himself, hung upon this rather straightforward scaffold, that make the novel exceptional. Without spoiling anything major, the excursions to multiple planes of existence really take the novel into exciting and most unexpected territory, even as everything ties together nicely in the end.
There is a little bit of "male gaze" in the description of women, which I could do without but probably won't throw off fans of either noir mysteries or old school sword & sorcery, and Sutter's language, which for the most part is one of his core strengths, does go a little overblown in a few places, but these are quibbles in a unique, fascinating, engaging, and interesting fantasy work that I have no trouble recommending highly. If every Pathfinder Tales novel is as good as the two I've read so far, then this line is certainly a place for vanguard swords and sorcery fiction. Clearly, anyone expecting merely serviceable, by-the-numbers tie-in fiction is in for a very pleasant surprise.
Posted December 18, 2011
While I have enjoyed all of the Pathfinder Tales novels thus far, I feel no hesitation in stating that Death¿s Heretic is by far the strongest thus far. I already knew Mr. Sutter was a strong writer from his brilliant RPG sourcebook, Cit of Strangers, but writing a novel is an entirely different matter. Boy, did his talent shine through.
And this is not just a great RPG novel; Death¿s Heretic is a great fantasy novel, in general. Mr. Sutter has crafted an incredibly deep, complex, and fascinating character in his protagonist, Salim Ghadafar. Through Salim, Sutter explores religious and philosophical subject matter rarely broached in fantasy with such depth and poignancy. The concept of atheists living in a world where there is proof of the gods¿ existence is a topic ripe from exploration, but only if approached with the care and deftness of skill that we see in Death¿s Heretic.
The mystery of Salim¿s background is a constant driving force for the novel that interweaves seamlessly with the main plot involving not just the murder of an aristocrat, but the theft of his very soul. Salm¿s investigation of this event, alongside the persona of the dead aristocrat¿s daughter, brings the pair on a roller coaster adventure from the urban intrigue at the scene of the murder to the scene of the soul theft in the Boneyard of the Goddess of Death herself, and beyond.
Each character and exotic location is fully formed and has a deep connection to the story and setting. The subtle character moments are written with the same intensity and care as the action set-pieces. Question after question gets raised and then answered in increasingly creative and unforeseen ways. It¿s a mystery and philosophical smorgasbord, the likes of which I had never come across in my years of reading the genre.
I implore you to give Death¿s Heretic a chance, whether you¿re a fan of Pathfinder, fantasy, or just good novels in general.