Friday, August 22, 2014

Pathfinder Tales Review: The Redemption Engine

   Disclaimer: I have yet to read Death's Heretic, so some of the overarching themes of Salim's story are lost on me.  I thought about reading it first, but after a conversation with James Sutter at GenCon about seeing people like me (aka homosexuals) in fantasy literature, he indicated that I'd probably be more interested in reading The Redemption Engine.  I had read Sutter's serialized stories Boar and Rabbit on the Paizo blog.  Those were our first introduction to Bors and Roshad.  Finally, this review is intended to be spoiler-free, but that's really impossible unless the review is a blank page or just says, "This is a good book." (It is, by the way).  So, while I've left out the plot points, you are going to learn a thing or two about the book.  It is, to quote Emperor Palpatine, inevitable.

   The Redemption Engine is at heart a story about coming to terms with who you are.  Salim Ghadafar, a former officer in the Rahadoumi Pure Legion made a bargain with Pharasma, the Goddess of Death.  Salim got what he asked for and in exchange he gets to be Pharasma’s immortal enforcer.[1]  Salim’s worldview remains staunchly Rahadoumi athiest[2] despite finding himself as the servant of one of them.  I’ll deal with the homosexuality issues later.  For now, I’ll just say that it was refreshing to read a novel with gay characters that focused on self-actualization that wasn’t about the gay characters’ attempts to come to terms with living within their own skin.[3]  In this installation of Salim’s story, he’s off on a new mission for the Lady of Graves in Kaer Maga.

Salim spends a good portion of the novel trying to come to grips with his role as Pharasma’s enforcer.  Pharasma’s power within him is colorfully described as being highly unwelcome.  But when Salim can’t access it he feels barren and empty.  Is he coming to terms with his choices?  Regardless, he keeps his sense of humor.  At one point while reading on a plane, I laughed aloud, stunning the guy in the seat next to me.

Sutter also provides us with a perfect Salim foil in the psychopomp Maedora.  The Redemption Engine is a police drama (for what is Salim, but an investigator, hot on the chase?).  Maedora represents the feds in relation to our plucky local cop, Salim.  The rightness of Pharasma’s divine mandate is slowly insinuating itself into Salim.  At the same time, the psychopomp believes unhaltingly in Pharasma’s will, but can she learn the perspective and humor necessary to any investigator that would view the world through her quarry’s eyes?  Without giving away the ending, we are left with the feeling that locking Salim and Maedora alone in a room would result in either a fight to the death or them becoming the best of friends.

James Sutter also wrote City of Strangers, the Campaign Setting supplement detailing Kaer Maga the city where the story starts.  Kaer Maga has been around a very long time.  It predates even Azlant and Thassilon.  Hexagonal in shape, Kaer Maga sits at the top of a great cliff.  It’s a home for those who are fleeing another life, hence its other name, the Asylum Stone.  You can tell that Sutter wrote the campaign sourcebook, he delves into all parts of the city and brings its anarchic, yet strangely ordered, politics to life. 

At one point in the story Salim travels deep below the city.  As a reader, I found this journey riveting, but as a Pathfinder player I was somewhat disappointed.  In City of Strangers, James Sutter created not just a world beneath Kaer Maga, but worlds buried beneath worlds buried beneath still other worlds.  His decision to take the reader all the way to the bottom is riveting from a plot perspective, but undermines so much of what makes the space between the two interesting in the sourcebook.  Despite this small quibble, Sutter has brought the city and its subterranean environ to life in a way that made me want to pull down my copy of City of Strangers and design some urban intrigue.

But The Redemption Engine isn’t just confined to Kaer Maga or even to the Material Plane.  Salim Ghadafar is a plane-hopper extraordinaire, which gives Sutter an opportunity to explore the inherent paradoxes behind the Outer Planes’ focus on alignment.  We can see the disorder in Heaven and the balance in the Maelstrom in the book.  Having started playing during Second Edition AD&D, at first I had trouble suspending disbelief in this narrative.  But without some flexibility, there’s no narrative space in any of the Outer Planes to tell any stories.  Even order has to change over time, so even the lawful planes must have some level of dynamism.  If the planes are all exactly the same, what’s the point of them and without difference how can there be any stories at all?  And those stories should be the greatest of myths that come to be retold on Golarion!  Once I was able to jump this mental roadblock, the book made for fascinating reading.

Finally, in Bors and Rochad Sutter has given us two strong homosexual characters.  On the one hand, I really enjoyed the way that Sutter portrayed the two of them as being comfortable within their own skin.  These are not two naïve twinks, dedicated to each other but unsure of themselves.  The two of them are steadfastly in love and unafraid to show that love to the world.  But no one cares that they are homosexual. 

Perhaps I’m lingering in Stockholm syndrome of the real world, but isn’t one of the formative experiences of homosexuality (or of any other minority) that you will experience prejudice and that your reaction to it will be indicative of your character?  When he first introduced Bors and Roshad in his web fiction, “Boar and Rabbit,” Sutter did have them fighting against oppression and on a very personal level.  Not so here.  Their homosexuality is accepted, but it’s accepted by everyone without comment.  Certainly not all fiction featuring homosexuals need focus on the difference, but pretending there’s no difference at all comes close to whitewashing.  Sutter’s web fiction and background writing Kaer Maga as a place where no one cares about another’s business shows isn’t what’s happening here, but it makes the two characters a little difficult to relate to.

I compare Bors and Roshad with Richard K. Morgan’s Ringil Eskiath from The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands.  Ringil’s constantly second-guessing his personal choices, but not his martial skill.  In fact, he’s a badass that could go toe-to-toe with Salim Ghadafar.[4]  More to the point are Morgan’s other characters, Ringil’s friends that find themselves missing “that faggot.”  This feels real.  This is acceptance won through fire. 

It’s also the heart of my concern with the portrayal of Roshad and Bors in The Redemption Engine.  Sure, the Kaer Magans don’t care about Roshad and Bors’ personal life.  But Salim Ghadafar is not Kaer Magan.  He’s simultaneously unconcerned about the two’s homosexuality yet threatened by it when he believes they are inviting him for an amorous three-way.[5]

Ultimately though, The Redemption Engine is a fun fantasy book and that’s what I’m reading Pathfinder Tales novels for.  As this isn’t a queer theory or gender studies class but my own free time, I’m free to say that on balance I really liked the book.  Salim is a fascinating character that we get to see grow internally over the novel’s 500+ pages.  By foiling him with the psychopomp Maedora, we can see that growth works on a two-way street.  Sutter hitches us to Salim’s wagon and takes us on a rollicking ride across the planes to solve a mystery.  Who dunnit?  I’m not telling.  Will local cop Salim and federal agent Maedora learn to work together?  You’ll have to find out for yourself.  All I’ll say is that you should.

Four out of five stars.

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[1] The exact terms aren't dealt with here.  Presumably they were dealt with in Death’s Heretic.  James Sutter, I am NOT complaining about this AT ALL.  When reading serial fiction, I hate the inevitable summation of the previous installation’s plot over 1-5 pages.  THANK YOU for not doing this.  Now, I can go back and read Death’s Heretic without feeling like I read a book report on it.
[2] Essentially, he believes that the gods exist, they just aren’t worth worshipping.
[3] Yes, for those of you that read it, that little twist was intentional.
[4] My money’s on Salim in that fight, but then again, as Salim says, “It’s likely I can’t die.”
[5] Points to you there, Sutter.  I’ve seen more than one straight guy think he was in that situation (and a smaller pool that actually were) and Salim’s reaction rings perfectly true—at least for the ones that declined.