Bloodbound by F. Wesley Schneider – Spoiler Free Review
|Author:||F. Wesley Schneider|
|Formatt:||Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Horror|
|Release Date:||December 1, 2015 (US) January 13, 2016 (UK)|
Tie-in fiction isn’t known for its broad appeal. By its very nature, tie-in novels are appealing to fans of a very specific thing, be it a show, movie, game or something else. Bloodbound, the debut novel by Pathfinder RPG co-creator Wes Schneider, is the exception to that rule. It checks a lot of boxes. There’s horror. There’s religion. There’s questing, vampires, family drama and magic. There’s politics and dungeon crawling. There’s even a bit of amateur dentistry, if that’s your thing. And, of course, there’s the Pathfinder RPG setting. That’s the appeal of Bloodbound. It is a great story that has a little bit of everything. And if you keep that firmly in mind while reading it, you’ll have a blast.
Bloodbound is the fourth Pathfinder Tales novel I’ve read, and the second dealing primarily with the nation of Ustalav—created by Schneider to be the epicenter of horror in the Pathfinder universe. Vampires, revenants and things trapped between the worlds living and dead populate Ustalav en masse. Pharasma, the Lady of Graves, is the deity most revered—and feared. Her Church is interwoven with the government and dogma and superstition rule daily life in near equal measure.
In Caliphas, capital of Ustalav only for the last fifty odd years, the long-standing truce between the city’s vampire and human populations is under attack by an unknown cabal. The wrong people are dying, rules are being ignored and those in power are looking to the rotting city of Ardis—the old capital and former center of influence—for answers. When rogue vampires attack an estate on the outskirts of Caliphas, the worlds of politics and religion intersect and Bloodbound takes off.
Schneider focuses on two main characters—the Royal Accuser and dhampir Larsa and the Pharasmin Sister Jadain Losritter. Larsa, the result of an unfortunate union between human and vampire, is the liaison between the Royal Court of Ustalav and the city’s hidden vampire population. A product of both worlds, she is embraced by none, and her story is not a happy one. Jadain is a Pharasmin nun who finds herself in the midst of a crisis of faith after a botched exorcism. These two unlikely allies meet in an insane asylum (naturally) and are quickly tasked with discovering who or what is trying to shift the balance of power in Ustalav.
Despite its oversized trade paperback format, Bloodbound is very clearly a pulp novel of the classic vein. The story is neither deep nor complex, nor should it be. First and foremost, it is a fun read. Worldbuilding, lore and complex magic systems—while present—take a backseat to action, adventure and mystery. If you want to delve deeper into the history of Ustalav, Pharasmin clerical powers, or the story of the Whispering Tyrant, you can. There are plenty of Pathfinder RPG sourcebooks available. Schneider doesn’t shy away from the vast history of his little corner of Golarion, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it either. He laces the novel with just enough backstory to leave you wanting more. For my money, that takes more talent than simply info-dumping a load of backstory that isn’t integral to the plot.
Themes of family, belonging and acceptance are artfully woven throughout the book, always in service to and never at the expense of the plot or characterization. The novel, as a whole, never feels preachy, but I could definitely feel the loneliness emanating from the pages. It was subtle, but it was there.
Schneider takes about ten chapters—roughly one fifth of the book—to set things up before our main characters embark on their adventure, and those first chapters felt and read very different from the balance of the book. I found the language and sentence structure to be more pretentious and obtuse in the early going. It had the feel of a deliberate artistic choice—perhaps Schneider was trying to play up the Gothic horror aspect of the book in the early going—but that choice rang false for me. Around chapter ten the writing became less stilted and Schneider seemed to find the voices of his characters. He also begins to introduce secondary characters that are quirky, over-the-top or just flat-out weird—and expanding the amount of players on stage helps. Larsa and Jadain—and the writing itself—become less dour and stuffy and more fun. More things start happening, and the pace starts to pick up. The last third of the book moves at breakneck speed, rushing to a climax that is both satisfying and true to the tale.
Bloodbound is written in the first-person, with Larsa and Jadain alternating chapters. The first-person perspective is my least-favorite part of the book. I had a difficult time connecting with the main characters initially, and the narrative perspective was a major reason why. I think the first-person perspective is extraordinarily difficult to pull off in most cases, and Bloodbound was no exception. Some scenes—particularly those involving action or fights—were difficult to follow. But once I connected with Larsa and Jadain, any dislike of the technical aspects of the book were eclipsed by my desire to know what happens next. A great story trumps all.
And Bloodbound is a great story, at its heart.
If you’ve ever thought about giving the Pathfinder Tales series a try, Bloodbound is an excellent place to start. It’s an entertaining Gothic horror/pulp adventure tale that has a broad appeal sure to please any genre fan. It isn’t predicated on independent knowledge of the Pathfinder campaign setting or prior novels (although there are a few Easter eggs for fans of Dave Gross’s Prince of Wolves) and it doesn’t drown you in worldbuilding minutiae. Wes Schneider has crafted a novel that is equal parts Underworld, Dragonlance and Sierra Games. It is creepy, a little over the top and a lot fun.