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Pathfinder Tales: Song of the Serpent

Publisher: Paizo Books
Author: Hugh Matthews
Review by: David Stonehouse

Song of the Serpent is a Pathfinder Tale set in the merchant land of Druma. It begins in the wealthy trading city of Kerse where newly arrived thief Krunzle the Quick is trying to help himself to the town’s rich pickings. It shouldn’t be an easy mark for a thief because everything valuable is defended with magical charms. However, Krunzle has a magical artifact of his own that warns him of potentially dangerous spells. Or so he thinks, because it isn’t long before he has tried to rob jewels from an enchanted tree and found himself helplessly wrapped up in creepers with a life-sucking vine stuck to his face. His would-be victim is a now none-too-pleased Prophet of Kalistrade who refuses to set Krunzle free unless he agrees to take part in a suicidal sounding rescue mission.
The prophet’s daughter Gyllana has been abducted by a silver-tongued vagabond called Wolsh Berbackian along with an ‘item of value’ which he is suspiciously cagey about. Nevertheless he wants his things returned. Without being allowed any say in the matter Krunzle is kitted out with magical boots that can carry him along at enormous speed, an enchanted sword that he can only use in self defence and a jailer in the form of a snake-shaped torc around his neck. The snake goes by the name of Chirk, communicates directly into Krunzel’s brain and shows his displeasure by choking him or tormenting him with muscle spasms if he shows any signs of disobedience.

Once Krunzle has set off on his bounding way the novel follows the standard Pathfinder journey format. Krunzle works his way across the varied map of Druma with regular stops along the way to have mini adventures and collect new companions. First off is an ambush on the road and then it’s quickly on to being captured and stripped of his sword and boots in the mining town of Ulm’s Delve. It takes Krunzle’s sharp wit and the helpful cunning of Chirk to get them out of that scrape, retrieve his possessions and be back on the road with an unexpected ally in the form of an unusually clever troll called Skanderbrog who likes eating peoples’ heads but is otherwise friendly enough.

Tracking down the missing girl doesn’t prove too difficult but, inevitably, the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as Krunzle was led to believe. Gyllana isn’t a damsel in distress in need of rescuing and her scathing disdain of the thief provides lots of nice comic touches. She, like most of the characters he encounters, has had strange prophetic dreams and as events unfold it becomes apparent that all of them have been behaving in ways they can’t really account for. It slowly becomes clear that somewhere out there is something or someone with very powerful magic, manipulating their actions and guiding their steps toward a terrible secret buried in the mountains. Who is behind it all, and what are they trying to achieve?

The story rattles along and is full of exciting incident. The characters are fun with Krunzle and the mysterious Chirk making a good double act. Krunzle is full of sly cunning and has a nice line in wise-cracks while Chirk is an intriguingly ambiguous creature. Krunzle has no choice but to work with Chirk but the motives of the thing disguised as a snake necklace remain unclear and, right up until the big finale, it is impossible to tell whether he is good or evil, friend or foe. The other characters also add to the rich mix. There’s a grumpy heroine, and escaped slave miner who’s had a prophetic vision, an unusually bright troll and assorted mages, orcs and dwarves all thrown in the mix. As you’d expect with a journey based adventure there’s a nice range of well realised environments to feed the imagination from glittering cities to grimy frontier towns, orc-filled forests and zombie infested dwarf mines.

Hugh Matthews gets the balance just right. There’s adventure and action, magic and mystery all set in a rich and well-described environment. There’s also the very real sense of fun that is such a welcome part of all the Pathfinder Tales. Amongst the adventure and cheerfully gory battles there are also some very funny moments to be found in the complications of the well worked plot and the sparky banter of the likeable character ensemble. A common criticism of fantasy writing is that it can sometimes take itself too seriously and become very po-faced and self-indulgent but that is certainly not the case here. The Pathfinder Tales are books for people who take their gaming world seriously but also go there for fun and entertainment and they certainly don’t disappoint.

Song of the Serpent is another exciting and enjoyable read that, once again, shows off the vast storytelling potential of the Pathfinder world. It is also high quality fantasy writing in its own right and well worth a look even if you’re not a gamer yourself.

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