In the interest of full disclosure, let me start with two facts: Dave Gross is a pal of mine, and he gave me a copy of Master of Devils (first copy in Canada!) for my birthday. If you know me you can decide whether that would colour my review; if you don’t know me you’ll just have to accept my word that it wouldn’t. I can be a bastard that way.
Since reading the serial fiction that Dave included with the Council of Thieves Adventure Path for the Pathfinder RPG, I was a huge fan of Radovan & Jeggare. Dave’s first novel featuring the intrepid pair, Prince of Wolves, cemented that for me. So I was excited to hear so soon after it came out that Dave was confirmed to write another “R&J” novel. When I learned that it was to be set in Tian Xia, Golarion’s analogue for the Orient, I was practically giddy. Many movie nights in Dave’s basement have demonstrated the depth of his knowledge and love of martial arts films. If anyone was going to make the Tian Xia setting come alive, it was him.
In other words I had very high expectations going into Master of Devils; even a friendly relationship with Dave was not going to protect him if he didn’t deliver.
You (and Dave especially, I’m sure) will be happy to know our burgeoning friendship is perfectly safe. With Master of Devils Dave has proven himself First Brother (yeah, you’ll have to read it to get the reference).
As I sit here prepping the spoiler-free version, I know I’m going to write a more in-depth, spoiler-ridden look at the novel. I’ll have to, there is so much more I want to say. But spoiler-free first, as promised.
So, first impressions. I have long been a fan of Hong Kong cinema and wu xia films, and while I don’t consider myself any kind of expert I would have to say that Dave’s Tian Xia captured that feel for me perfectly. Many familiar tropes and themes are present: martial arts masters (of course), justice and righteousness, beautiful maidens, magic and spirits (kami). Even The Faithful Servant, a character present in many wuxia tales, was present; the chapters from that character’s point of view were some of the most delightful and funny in the book.
And at no point did the setting overshadow the story or our “heroes”, which can be a danger when dealing with such a strong, definite setting. While Tian Xia was always there it was never the focus. That focus was always firmly on the story and the characters, with Tian Xia as a vibrant backdrop.
I mentioned points of view earlier. In a style familiar to readers of Prince of Wolves, each chapter in the book is told from the POV of Radovan or Jeggare (or a third character that I won’t ruin for you). I really enjoy this technique, because in any given chapter I know something that character doesn’t, and it builds tension for me as they make decisions they might not have made if they knew what I know. Dave is one of the best writers I know at this technique, and he uses it to great effect.
In tone, while the novel does have some light moments it is overall much darker than previous “R&J” offerings. The stakes for our heroes, personal and otherwise, are so much higher in Master of Devils, and they go to some very dark places in trying to win those stakes. Suffice to say, if you thought you knew Radovan and Jeggare before this novel, you might want to prepare yourself for how wrong you were.
Okay, before the urge to just spout spoilers like a fountain gets too much I’ll put a cap on this by saying: buy this book. If you love a really good story, buy this book. If you love wu xia and Hong Kong cinema, buy this book. If you are a Pathfinder player/GM and you plan to run or play in Tian Xia, buy this book. Heck, I’m going to go out and buy this book, and I got a copy for my birthday!
Some days it is good to be a geek. The day I read this, that was a great day.
Master of Devils, everyone. You’ll thank me. But thank Dave Gross first.