New Essay on Black Gate

Art by Eric Belisle

Art by Eric Belisle

Black Gate is one of my favorite sites, focused on fantasy but with a diversity within the genre that keeps it fresh and often introduces me to things I hadn’t discovered. Also, the folks at BG share many of my non-fantasy interests. For example, Bob Byrne posts a regular Sherlock Holmes feature.

Last week Bob invited me to contribute an essay based on the “Holmes & Watson” pitch that launched the Radovan & the Count novels. That led me to consider both the limitations of the “elevator pitch” and the perils of “pinching” ideas from famous books and movies. You can read it right here.

Welcome to Radovan & the Count

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

Cover by Alberto Dal Lago

If you haven’t read any of their previous adventures, it’s perfectly okay to start reading about Radovan & the Count with Lord of Runes. While there are continuing backstories, it’s a lot like checking out a monster-of-the-week episode on TV. It mostly won’t spoil the previous episodes.

If you’ve never even heard of the boys, here’s a brief description with links to my remembrances of writing the novels. With only a couple of exceptions, it’s fine to start with any of the novels, short stories, or novellas. The exception, in my opinion, is that you want to read Queen of Thorns before you read King of Chaos.

With that exception in mind, and with an emphasis on “it’s okay to start anywhere else (and Queen of Thorns makes another great starting point),” I respect that some folks really, really, really want to know the chronological order of the Radovan & the Count stories, so here it is.

Radovan & the Count Reread: King of Chaos

Cover by Tyler Walpole.

Cover by Tyler Walpole.

Even before finishing Queen of Thorns, I knew where the boys were headed next. I’d even set up one of their adversaries in the web story “Killing Time,” although I knew he wouldn’t be their ultimate adversary. What I did know was that they’d journey to the Worldwound, where they’d be a part of the campaign to drive back the demon horde after the events of the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path.

One of the continuing struggles in writing tie-in fiction for a game line is to appeal to readers who don’t play the game while simultaneously satisfying those who do. Making connections to the Adventure Paths is an obvious way to do that, but there are some challenges. You can’t have characters in the novels usurping the position of players in the game. After all, the players’ characters are the heroes of the setting. On the other hand, the novel characters are heroes, too, and it’s not very exciting to feature protagonists who serve little more than to set up the story for the real heroes.

Thus, the first outline challenge was to come up with a sufficiently big story that intersected with the Adventure Path without usurping the players. Of course, that same story would have to introduce non-gaming readers to the Worldwound, or as I preferred to think of it, the land of Sarkoris.

The Pathfinder RPG Campaign books Lost Cities and Lost Kingdoms provided the foundation of my research material. Especially in the latter, I was able to loot the map for ideas. As with Prince of Wolves (to a lesser degree) and Queen of Thorns (to a greater one), a lot of the challenges the boys face came straight from the campaign material. Many of the characters in the novel come straight from the game.

You might think that would be limiting, since game characters have plot immunity, right? Not so! Mostly due to the generosity of Wes Schneider, I had permission to kill some of them. When it was more interesting to the story, I did just that.

One of the things I don’t especially like about writing in a game setting is the existence of resurrection magic. It’s convenient to pretend it doesn’t exist, but that’s not true to the world. At risk of spoilers, I’ll mention that reincarnation rather than raise dead makes the problem much more interesting, especially when the one casting the spell isn’t your friend.

Because King of Chaos is at its heart a war story, there’s a pretty big cast of secondary characters. Characters die in wars, and I wanted each death to matter more than ticking off numbers on an index card, so that meant giving the Kellid warriors and the Crusaders names and at least a little personality. The downside is that it was much harder for me to watch some of them die, because I get attached. The upside is that, by the time I finished the novel, I had a dozen story ideas for the survivors.

Another big difference between King of Chaos and the previous books is that there’s a third main character. While Arnisant had half as many POV chapters as Radovan or the Count in Master of Devils, Oparal is an equal third partner. I wanted to show her from the inside as a contrast to the way the boys saw her from the outside in Queen of Thorns. Also, I wasn’t done messing with the idea of a unicorn as a paladin’s steed, and Sarkoris was just the right place to take them for spoiler reasons.

After King of Chaos, the boys and I needed a little break. I had expected it to be longer, but when Paizo was ready to join forces with Tor to publish Pathfinder Tales, it was too good an opportunity to resist.

I like to keep the chronology of the Radovan & the Count novels lined up with real years. Thus, a book published in 2013 takes place about three years after the events of one published in 2010. Also, Varian has good cause to stay away from home (because of the events of “Hell’s Pawns”), and Radovan sticks close to the boss.

Thus, Lord of Runes picks up two years after the end of King of Chaos. In that time, Radovan, the Count, Arnisant, and the Red Carriage have traveled from Sarkoris, across the lands of the Hold of Belkzen, through Shoanti territory, past the dwarven stronghold of Janderhoff, and finally to the city of Korvosa in Varisia. There, Varian visits the famous Academae to demand answers about the magical disability he has only recently learned to overcome.


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.


Radovan & the Count on HBO

At least that’s part of the wish-fulfilment Photoshopping from Gnomatsu, who envisions Sean Bean as our favorite Hellspawn and John Malkovich as Varian Jeggare. I never considered these two actors as models for the characters, but now that I see the images he chose, I can hardly imagine anyone else in those roles. Just put a bigger smile on Sharpe and trade that powdered wig for Varian’s long black hair, and see if you don’t agree.

Check out Gnomatsu’s glorious mock TV-series posters here.