Radovan & the Count Reread: Queen of Thorns

Cover by Matthias Kollros.

Cover by Matthias Kollros.

Please pardon another digressive preamble.

Fantasy was not my first fandom. The earliest nerdy genre I remember loving was ghost stories. Whenever the Weekly Reader came around class, I loaded up, as much as my allowance allowed, on “50 Great Ghost Stories” or “100 Tales of Haunted Houses” and stuff like that.

A few years later, I got hooked on classic horror movies via our local Creature Feature, hosted by the wonderful Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyszel). At more or less the same time, I began reading science fiction, starting with A and working my way toward Z at the local library. My first favorite author arrived when I reached B for Bradbury, who incidentally also gave me my first taste of fantasy, although I didn’t yet differentiate it from SF.

The big hook came during a visit to my grandmother. I was her least favorite grandchild for reasons best illustrated when I refused to eat an egg for breakfast. I detested eggs. Grandma ordered me to sit at the table until I ate the nasty thing. I proved equally stubborn and sat there until my mother gathered enough courage to defy her mom and break me out of breakfast jail.

After that, I was bored and sulky. To my rescue came my cousin Frances, who produced a copy of The Hobbit and suggested I give it a try, even though it wasn’t science-fiction. I devoured the book in an afternoon and persuaded my father to take me to a bookstore to buy The Fellowship of the Ring. Two days later, I finished The Return of the King.

As with so many other readers, Tolkien’s epic launched my love of fantasy literature, although I soon gravitated more toward sword & sorcery than to epic fantasy. Still, I dug the Big Fat Fantasies so popular in the 80s, including the blockbuster Dragonlance novels, which also turned me on to tie-in fiction. By the time I started writing tie-ins myself, I drew more from Howard than from Tolkien, but I still felt that love of sweeping conflicts and high magic.

Hold that thought as we delve into mild-to-moderate spoilers.

Before Master of Devils, I’d pitched ideas for a story set in Kyonin. Certain elements of the proposal didn’t fly with the Pathfinder developers. Yet after a year had passed, their concerns had relaxed enough that they approved a revised pitch. The biggest differences were that Radovan and Varian stuck together for almost the entire novel, and I came up with a different way to reveal some of the secret of Radovan’s accursed ancestry.

After the gothic horror mystery of Prince of Wolves and the wuxia adventure in Master of Devils, I felt I’d established the boys as sword & sorcery heroes in atypical settings. Perhaps it was time to pay homage to epic fantasies.

In most of my previous tie-in fantasy fiction I’d avoided non-human characters—one of the reasons I decided both Varian and Radovan would be half-humans—and I’d never done much with elves. (TSR editor Kim Mohan reinforced my inclination toward human characters by describing our tie-in novels as “elfy-welfy stuff.”) Thus, I was ready to embrace epic elf fantasy.

Art by Eric Belisle, © Paizo, Inc.

Oparal of Iomedae. Art by Eric Belisle, © Paizo, Inc.

Of the supporting cast, only Varian’s then-nameless father existed in the earlier pitch. Fimbulthicket, Kemeili, Oparal, and Caladrel were all born during the outline process. While I typically choose real-world names for human characters, for elves and gnomes I depended on the examples in the Pathfinder Campaign setting. In fact, I lifted the names Amarandlon, Caladrel, Oparal, and Variel (the coincidence was too good to pass up) directly from the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting, revised as the Inner Sea World Guide.

Fun Fact: The family name “Morgethai” is an Easter Egg for fans of the iconic characters.

My earliest idea of the plot was much more violent, much of a running battle between our heroes and wave after wave of demons; I was thinking of James Cameron’s Aliens as the template for the action. Yet as the outline progressed I found more and more ways to turn the story into one of exploration and discovery—not only of Varian’s personal history but also that of the elves of Kyonin. The lands of Kyonin also gave me lots of opportunities to reflect the relationship between Varian and Radovan.

When creating the supporting cast, two bits of setting lore got me excited about them as characters. Fimbulthicket as a bleachling gnome, one whose lack of new and exciting experiences has begun to drain the life out of him, suddenly made a much more compelling connection to Variel Morgethai. And Oparal as a Forlorn elf had a connection to Varian, both outsiders among humans and elves alike.

In Oparal, I wanted to show a negative stereotype of paladins on the surface with something with more dimensions just beneath the surface. I was much more interested in Fimbulthicket and Kemeili as I began writing the novel, but by the end I realized I wasn’t done with Oparal. There was much more I wanted to reveal from her own point of view rather than the boys’. Fortunately, this revelation came after James Sutter and I began discussing a follow-up book, so I revised the conclusion to point her toward the events of King of Chaos.

Fun Fact: I cut the original first chapter, which was set in the coastal city of Greengold and gave some foreshadowing of the Walking Man, intending to expand it into a story called “Killing Time.” It bears no resemblance to the web story of the same title, however, and remains unfinished in my Queen of Thorns folder.

One of the things I loved about researching Queen of Thorns is that, while there was more setting material for Kyonin than there had been for Ustalav or Tian Xia, it was still limited to one big article in the Second Darkness Adventure Path and the Elves of Golarion sourcebook. Plus, James Sutter is the author of the Kyonin article, and more than any other Pathfinder developer, he’s happy to let me loose on his creations. It doesn’t hurt that our creative sensibilities are simpatico. I often find that the locations that interest me most are those that he’s written.




Radovan & the Count Reread: Killing Time

Radovan’s Tien jacket was pretty spiffy. Art by Carlos Villa.

If you haven’t read “Killing Time,” you can do so for free right here. If you’d like an ePub copy for your virtual Pathfinder Tales library, you can buy that for a few bucks right here.

Fun fact: The first chapter of “Killing Time” is “The Night Visitor” as a nod to the 1971 film of the same name starting Max Von Sydow. There’s no other relation to the film. I just love the title. The movie’s pretty good, too.

We’re getting deep enough into the “canon” that spoilers abound for those who haven’t been reading the stories in order. That said, none of them are likely to undermine your enjoyment of the stories that come afterward, nor of any single story or novel, but if chronological order is your thing, you might want to read “A Lesson in Taxonomy” before this post. There will also be some mild spoilers for a later novel, but really nothing that takes away a big surprise.

As you might have noticed, there’s typically a new piece of web fiction before each new Pathfinder Tales novel. “The Lost Pathfinder” started the trend, and “A Passage to Absalom” bridged the gap between Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils.

After the events of the latter novel, I wanted to address the violent and asexual year Radovan had spent in Tian Xia. I also wanted to remind regular readers of Varian’s tenuous relationship with the Pathfinder Society, to show the difference between a spoiled noble with genuine intellectual curiosity and one’s who’s just a dilettante, and to lay pipe for a future conflict—but not one from Queen of Thorns.

Of course, because it was to be a short story, I needed to limit the settings right away. Library for Varian was a natural. And, I admit, brothel/gambling hall for Radovan was intentionally on-the-nose. Once I had figured out the basic conflicts and the settings, the rest flowed naturally from the characters’ pasts and the emotional conflicts I knew they were going to face in Queen of Thorns.

Fun fact: My initial conception of Prince Kasiya’s unusual form of vampirism was much creepier, but the dev team wanted me to reign it in. Instead of turning into mist, I had his once-pulverized body “relaxing” into a fleshy ooze that could slither around like the classic gibbering mouther. I don’t think anyone was squeamish about the horror element, but they wanted him to work closer to the Pathfinder rules for vampires. The end result seemed a good compromise.

Prince Kasiya thinks he’s concealed his identity, but not from Varian. Art by Carlos Villa.

While both of the boys suffer setbacks in the novels, usually I don’t end with a gut-punch, as I did in “Hell’s Pawns.” This was a good opportunity to make both of them hurt because they lost something important while fighting. For Varian, that’s the burning library and the additional harm his misadventure causes to his relationship with the Pathfinders. For Radovan, it’s the desire not to be an instrument of murder but finding out, yet again, it’s something that comes easily to him.

Fun fact: I chose the name Iolanda because of a great song by a local musician, which I’d mis-remembered as “Yolanda.” In fact, the song’s title is “Orlanda,” an even better name. I’ll have to use that one another time.