Thassilon once covered the regions now known as Varisia and the Hold of Belkzen. Ruins and monuments of that fallen empire litter the wastelands and even contemporary cities, such as Magnimar.
Forgive me a rather long introduction to the second-and-a-half of my Pathfinder Tales novels. I’ll throw up a header to let you know when I write specifically about the book, but first a bit on my long, slow journey to becoming a fan of Kung Fu movies.
By the way, I call them all “Kung Fu movies” even though there are nontrivial differences between fantasy, wuxia, martial-arts, and actual Kung Fu movies. If you know that differences, then you get it. If you don’t, then “Kung Fu movie” keeps things simple.
The first Kung Fu movie I remember by title is Peacock King, which I saw at one of Zeb Cook’s infamous Bad Movie Nights in Lake Geneva. I’m sure I’d seen many others previously, but Peacock King stands out for several reasons. First, the great Gordon Liu serves both as stunt coordinator and as an assassin sent to dispatch our heroes. Second, those heroes are named Lucky Fruit and Peacock, which delighted me as much as it amused some of the other viewers. Third and most importantly, the film had subtitles.
One of the reasons I’d previously dismissed Kung Fu movies is that many include atrocious dubbing. Even when the translations are unintentionally hilarious, I “get it” when I’m reading the dialogue rather than hearing the often-campy Anglophone voices. To my ear, those versions seem like an unfunny episode Mystery Science Theater 3000. When I hear the voices of the original cast, the characters seem less cartoonish even in over-the-top action sequences.
While Peacock King deserved to be screened at Bad Movie Night, I started paying attention to subtitled Kung Fu movies, most of which were far better. Those who spurred my interest include James Lowder by including Asian films in his reviews for Polyhedron, Gareth Skarka and John Phythyon by sharing both coffee and a front-row seat to their screening of John Woo films while promoting Hong Kong Action Theater!, Chris Pramas for joining me for films like Dr. Wai and the Scripture With No Words at the Varsity Cinema, Pierce Watters for hosting (and cooking for) many Kung Fu movie nights, and perhaps especially Tony Bryant for his astonishing translation of the Japanese subtitles for one of my everlasting favorite horror comedies, Mr. Vampire. To understand, you’ve got to hear the lyrics he sings during the romantic ghost scenes.
By the time Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became an art-house hit in North America, I was steeped enough in the genre to enjoy the film but consider it tame by the standards of a Tsui Hark, Yuen Woo-ping, or Lau Kar-leung. Still, I loved it and hoped its success Stateside meant we’d see a flood of new Kung Fu movies. As it turned out, not so much.
The bottom line is that I’m a fan of Kung Fu movies, and not just of one kind. I love the martial-arts films like Fist of Legend or Ip Man as much as I adore the fantasy films like Bride With White Hair or the quasi-historical epics like Red Cliff. I enjoy the goofy stuff like Heroic Flame of the Martial World or Deadful Melody (that’s not a typo) just as I admire Zhang Yimou’s operatic tragedies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
Discussing a Sequel
After Prince of Wolves, I was keen on taking the boys to Kyonin to explore Varian’s elven lineage. Unfortunately, several elements of my early pitches were nixed by the Decemvirate or the Penvirate, or whatever the masked inner circle at Paizo call themselves in private. Alternatively, I’d considered a novel featuring Azra and other characters from Prince of Wolves, but ultimately I figured it was better to develop Radovan and Varian before turning to other protagonists.
James Sutter and I discussed the matter at Paizocon. We batted around a few possibilities that failed to thrill one or both of us. Then I remembered that Golarion’s fantasy version of Asia was coming out the following summer—about the time a sequel to Prince of Wolves would see print.
“Could I send the boys to Tian Xia?” I asked.
James considered it. I could tell he wasn’t as excited about the setting as I was, but he was open to the idea. “If Erik says okay, sure.”
At that very instant, I spotted Erik Mona ascending the stairs to the gaming rooms. We ran over, asked his opinion, and he said, “Go for it.”
The following week I sent the first version of a pitch to James. It didn’t take much changing, although I remember coming up with at least half a dozen title options before we chose Master of Devils. With that we established the [Rank] of [Dangerous Thing] pattern for the Radovan and the Count novels. Thankfully, I’ve never used the same formula with the short fiction titles or we’d have run out by now.
Mild-to-moderate spoilers below.
Master of Devils
I didn’t want to draw on real-world legends for inspiration. Instead, I wanted Master of Devils to reflect my favorite elements of Kung Fu movies. My favorites range from art-house to grind-house, from mostly historical depictions of real martial-arts masters to super-hero versions of folk legends, and from costume dramas to high fantasy.
Another reason I love Asian films is that they often blend genres in ways North American films would never dare. Comedy, horror, romance, and action can all collide in the same scene. A grim-faced hero can suddenly make a goofy pratfall. With so many possibilities, it was hard to choose only one style of Kung Fu movie to depict in the novel, but I felt it was fair to choose several. I settled on three.
For Varian, I wanted a more realistic costume romance with court intrigue and action scenes grounded in reality. Of course, I also wanted to continue his exploration into scroll magic. Flying scrolls are cool.
For Radovan I wanted more fantastic physical action. I wanted him to face adversaries who could be the main villain—or perhaps the main hero—of a Kung Fu movie. When imagining his action scenes, I thought of movies with plenty of wire-work and special effects.
The most fantastical elements of Chinese fantasy films didn’t fit with either of those journeys, so I needed a third point-of-view character to meet the kami, the ghosts, spirits, magical beasts, and other really crazy monsters of Tian Xia. For that I needed Varian’s latest companion, Arnisant the wolfhound.
Including a dog’s point-of-view made me nervous. I worried that it might come off as too comical. It also seemed like a third character would take too much time away from Radovan and Varian, especially since they spend most of the novel separated. For that reason and others, I gave Arnisant only one chapter for every two that both Radovan and Varian got. By the time I’d finished a draft, it felt like the right balance. The end result was basically two novellas, one each for Radovan and Varian, and a novelette for Arnisant, all three converging in a climax I hoped would be both more epic and more personal than in Prince of Wolves.
Fun fact: Once the novel came out the response was overwhelmingly in favor of Arnisant as a protagonist, and presenting his POV again is possibly the most frequent request I hear from readers.
Rather than reminisce about every element of the book that was inspired by a movie, I’ll mention just a few.
The Falcon-Head Sword Gang was originally the “Axe Gang,” an archetypical group that appears in a number of Kung Fu movies. Unfortunately, James Sutter felt they would make people think only of the Axe Gang in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. Incidentally, at that time James had seen only two Kung Fu movies, that one and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which he didn’t like. Thus, we were less often of the same mind on this book than on the previous. In retrospect, I appreciate his decision more. Many readers are more likely to have seen just Kung Fu Hustle than several dozen films in the genre.
On the other hand, James blew my mind by permitting me to include a certain famous simian character.
Wuxia films often feature the idea of an “underworld” of talented martial artists. Wuxia fans know this culture as “jianghu,” literally “rivers and lakes.” You might recognize the names of some of its famous societies and cults, like Wudang or Shaolin. The point is that members of this underworld aren’t all villains or heroes. Some are good and others wicked. I wanted to include this concept as “the heroic world” in Master of Devils, but that was another idea that didn’t fly, perhaps because “heroic” and “good” are inextricably linked in the minds of the Pathfinder developers. Anyway, the point is that when Burning Cloud Devil refers to himself as a hero, he isn’t claiming to be a good man but a powerful one.
The titles to Radovan Chapters like “Eight-Diagram Fighter,” “Drunken Boxer,” and “Moon Blade” are intentional homages to films that inspired some of the fight sequences, but the actual events seldom resemble scenes from the movies. The most obvious divergence is in “Silk Sisters,” a chapter inspired by images of writhing spirits in Green Snake combined with images of dyed silk from Zhang Yimou’s drama Ju Dou, which is not in the least bit a Kung Fu movie.
When first writing the “Necromancer” chapter, I intended to channel jiangshi (hopping vampire) movies like Mr. Vampire and Encounters of the Spooky Kind, but I didn’t want to make it a comical chapter. Halfway through I realized I was channeling Robert E. Howard more than Sammo Hung or Ricky Lau, and that felt like a perfect crossing of the streams for the Pathfinder setting.
When I outline one of these novels, I first decide who’ll have the final chapter, Radovan or Varian, and then I start with the other one. This time, for reasons of both symmetry and story, I ended with Arnisant. I tried to represent the waning of Arnisant’s awakened intelligence in a manner similar to that of Daniel Keyes’ great A Flower to Algernon. It might be a bit too subtle. On the other hand, a few readers have said they noticed it, so maybe that means it’s just subtle enough.
Fun fact: Because “Hell’s Pawns” was inspired in part by my film noir binge just before James asked for a story, I binged on Kung Fu movies while preparing to write the novel. After watching (or, more often re-watching) more than 80 films, I figured I’d be sick of them. On the contrary, I couldn’t stop. My best guess is that my total is closer to 180 films now.
Along with the Varisians, the Shoanti are one of the two native peoples of the lands of Varisia. They gather in clans, each with its own totems and holy sites. The Skoan-Quah or Skull Clan worship their ancestors and guard their burial sites.
I realized only after reviewing my upcoming posts that I’d skipped this short story. While I wrote it after finishing the serial novella “Husks,” chronologically it occurs first. For followers of Paizo’s website, it wasn’t a problem since most installments of “Husks” appeared in print after the web story concluded. Unfortunately, the novel Master of Devils had been published before most of “Husks” appeared, so I suspect many folks missed the story, the novella, or both. Fortunately, they’re both still available at paizo.com.
Virtually spoiler-free reminiscence.
To avoid too much similarity with the Jade Regent Adventure Path, editor James Sutter cautioned me not to include a substantial journey to Tian Xia, where “Husks” and Master of Devils take place. He suggested the boys would use magical means to reach their destination.
While I had hoped to include a sea journey, searching for someone powerful enough to cast a teleport spell gave me an opportunity to take Varian to Absalom, the seat of the Pathfinder Society’s inner circle. And I could work in a sea voyage after all, since the obvious path from Ustalav to Absalom is almost entirely by river or sea.
I had begun to think I’d emphasize investigations in the short fiction and let the boys experience more action-oriented adventures in the novels. While “Husks” is also a murder mystery, it’s a bit more of a procedural. I wanted to try something a little different this time.
I certainly had Agatha Christie in mind when devising “A Passage to Absalom,” especially in the conceit of a closed setting and a group of colorful and eccentric suspects. I admire writers like Christie, who can write clever mysteries with brilliant detectives. As a less-than-brilliant non-detective, I’ve never felt quite up to the task. Thus, holding up Christie as a model was a challenge to myself.
Fun fact: This is the second story I wrote only from Varian’s POV, but so far it’s the only one in which he’s the sole narrator while Radovan is also present. (The others take place before Varian meets Radovan.) It gave me an opportunity to show certain of Radovan’s behaviors in a less flattering light.
Four 2,000-word chapters is a short space in which to introduce new characters and construct a murder mystery. By the time I finished writing it, I felt it had worked, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d left enough clues to make it fair but not so many that it was easy to guess the ending.
Another fun fact: I intended that two of the characters who survived the story could potentially return later. Thus far, however, neither has.
I was delighted and a little nervous when the readers at paizo.com began speculating. They made some clever observations. After the third chapter appeared, I was sure someone would guess the ending But no! Thankfully, no one guessed the ending exactly right, although three of them each guessed a part of the answer, making me feel the clues had been fair.
Oh, all right, one more fun fact: To the delight of one Finn, I gave the dwarves in this story Finnish first names. I often give characters real-world names that aren’t too common in North America so that they sound natural but don’t break the “reality” of the fantasy world. “Steve the elf” might be a problem, whereas “Radovan the hellspawn” doesn’t throw most readers.
You can read “A Passage to Absalom” for free, right here. If you dig it, consider leaving a review on the product page, where you can buy it in ePub format.
Officially disbanded, the Gray Maidens were once a knightly order in Korvosa. Some former members have since become bounty hunters or mercenaries.
After Prince of Wolves, Pathfinder Tales editor James Sutter asked me to pitch another novel. At first I was torn between writing a novel featuring Azra from Prince of Wolves or continuing the story of Radovan & the Count. At that time, James was game for pitches featuring either. Ultimately, I decided it was better to build on the established duo and came up with a few ideas.
I’ll write about Master of Devils next time, but because I love not only Chinese but also Japanese films, I also pitched a story for the Jade Regent Adventure Path. Because novels are due much earlier than the fiction for Adventure Paths, I began “Husks” soon after finishing Master of Devils, but the novella takes place before the novel.
While the novel is set in Golarion’s version of China, or a small part of it, “Husks” is set in Minkai, a fantasy version of Japan. And whereas “every Kung Fu movie I ever saw” was the inspiration for the novel, “Husks” draws more from samurai and Yakuza movies and TV shows.
While I love the films of Akira Kurosawa, his samurai epics were not actually a principal inspiration for the story. However, the last film produced from one of his screenplays, The Sea is Watching, certainly influenced my vision of the Oda and its prositutes. Even more, the films of Yôji Yamada influenced my idea of a samurai with a certain grubby romance about him. For some of the more horrific moments in the story, images from contemporary Japanese horror and crime films were definitely in mind.
One scene inspired by a Chinese movie did slip into the gambling house scene, but since it was so close to scenes I’d seen in Zatoichi films, I didn’t think it’d feel out of place. Speaking of Zatoichi films, if you’ve never seen one, do something about that right away. The remake with Beat Takeshi is fun, but you want to go back to the originals starting with The Tale of Zatoichi.
After the alternating points-of-view of Prince of Wolves, and knowing I’d used the same device in Master of Devils, I decided to make Radovan the sole narrator again, as I had in “Hell’s Pawns.” His voice had evolved in Prince of Wolves and “The Lost Pathfinder,” as I intentionally limited his vocabulary and made him a little coarser for stronger contrast with Varian’s narration. But his voice in “Husks” is pretty much what it remains afterward.
Another reason I stuck to Radovan was because it was another mystery, and since I’m not a genius, I wanted to portray Varian’s deductions through the eyes of his less brilliant assistant. Also, since Varian is a worldly fellow but Radovan a newcomer to Mikai and its foreign customs, sticking to his POV gave me the opportunity to show him as a fish out of water.
Because “Husks” is a murder mystery, it’s tough to talk too much about the supporting cast without giving away the ending. Suffice to say that “Husks” is entirely independent of Master of Devils; you don’t need to read one to appreciate the other, but if you do read them both, you can see how they fit together chronologically. By the end, it’s no shock that Radovan & the Count continue their journey to mainland Tian Xia.