Beyond the Pool of Stars

One of the high points of Gen Con for me was meeting and chatting with Howard Andrew Jones. I’ve known Howard for quite some time since he generously offered a couple of stories for Sword’s Edge when it was an e-zine. He’s since published a handful of novels – two of creator-owned content – and a collection of short stories. I always pick up his stuff because no one does sword & sorcery like Howard.

I’m also a fan of his RPG tie-in fiction. There is actually a lot of really good gaming fiction out there, including Howard and Dave Gross for Pathfinder, and William King & Nathan Long who write for Warhammer. Howard’s sword & sorcery sensibilities really inform his game fiction. I don’t want to denigrate RPG tie-in fiction, but I know that there is a perception out there that it is crap. Some of it is. Some of all fantasy fiction is. Some of all literature is.

Okay, that’s been said.

So, anyway, Howard’s new book is a Pathfinder novel. Beyond the Pool of Stars has so much that is different, I really forgot this wasn’t creator-owned. The story centres on Mirian, an ex-salvager – diving to recover items or treasure from sunk ships – from a family of salvagers, now an adventurer with the Pathfinder Society. She returns home after her father’s death and gets caught up in his legacy, and an attempt by her homeland to maintain its independence, if not exactly its freedom.

Did I mention Mirian is a black woman? And the other main character is a gay man? And that it really doesn’t matter at all?

Well, I guess it does matter because I think it’s awesome to expand our definition of heroes. I’m always looking for stories for my daughters that feature strong, capable female lead characters – just ordered a copy of Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett for my eldest – so I can only applaud anyone’s attempts at inclusion.

And I know there are people out there – probably not reading my blog, because I’ve made my thoughts on this known many, many times – who feel fiction suffers from inclusion, that it is a negative impact from “political correctness.” I dare them to read this story and tell me how it could be improved by changing these characters.

Okay, so semi-rant over.

What’s important is that this is a gripping story with really great and vibrant characters. Even the secondary characters are given vivid lives that allow us to identify with them and provides even more colour to the scenes. There is so much pulp – in a good sense – in this story it was a real joy to read. They travel through swamps and jungles to find a lost city of the lizard people. I could see this happening in South America or Sub-Saharan Africa, places that don’t get enough love in mass market fantasy.

Further, the society of Mirian’s homeland is strained by the stresses between natives and colonials. It’s honestly welcome to see the very real outcomes of cultural friction reflected in a tie-in story. This is not a book about that issue, but it informs the characters and their perceptions as well as their choices.

This is all gushing. Am I saying it’s a perfect book? Well, I don’t think it rises to Howard’s two creator-owned efforts, but it is my favourite of his tie-in fiction. And, unfortunately, that link to the Pathfinder RPG sometimes created a problem for me as a reader. Specifically, I was kind of taken out of the story every time the wand came out. Mirian has a wand of acid – along with a pair of magical rings that allow her to breathe underwater and move through water as if through air – that is a family heirloom. These magic items from the RPG play significant roles in the story. The rings don’t remind that this is tie-in fiction (not sure why, maybe because magic rings hearken me back to the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so seem natural to second worlds) but the wand definitely does.

Is this a problem? Not a big one. It kind of drew me out of the story because I was always thinking “game component,” and so for me, it seemed unnatural. It fits well with the story, but it was the main indicator of the book’s tie-in nature – along with certain monsters I could identify – and it caused a small bump each time I read it.

There is also a point in the story where I could see it ending, but it was really just shifting settings. It also seemed to be a second story because there was a minor denouement that led to another rise in tension. It seemed a very clear division between two parts of the story, and the clarity of that divide caused me to move out of the story and think of it as a book – if that makes sense. I was completely invested in these characters and their stories, but the divide reminded me it was a construct, then the fiction had to work to draw me back in.

These were the two problems I had with the book. I tend to think these are idiosyncratic, and that they won’t affect others, but the things I love about the book might be the same.

I give Beyond the Pool of Stars 4.5 lizard person songs out of 5. This is a really solid, exciting adventure story with amazing characters in a great setting.

You can find out more about Howard Andrew Jones here.

You can pre-order (or purchase, if it’s after 6 Oct 2015) Beyond the Pool of Stars here.

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