Howard Andrew Jones’ Plague of Shadows is a solid entry in the “what happens to adventurers in their twilight years?” sub-genre of fantasy. The elf Elyana used to wander the world with her doughty companions, slaying evil wizards and malicious dragons. As the years passed, some friends died, others got old, and some treaded less heroic paths. When an old friend becomes afflicted with a magical disease, Elyana has to seek the one item that can save him. It’s your standard “fetch the magic MacGuffin” plot, but the twists and turns along the way make this an adventure with unexpected heart and quite a few thrills.
Plague of Shadows is set in the Pathfinder RPG campaign world, and is the first Pathfinder novel I’ve read. The first hurdle for any such novel is avoiding a dire trap — feeling like the novelization of someone’s RPG session. Thankfully, Jones dodges this pitfall. There are references to concepts you may find familiar from D&D, such as magic users needing a night’s sleep to prepare spells, but they’re handled in an organic, natural way (in this case, a wizard ends up without spells after a night of drinking and carousing).
The plot is fairly straightforward — Elyana’s friend Stelan is sick, and an evil wizard claims responsibility. “Bring me the Crown of Twilight and I’ll remove the curse.” So Elyana gathers a troupe of new adventurers, including Stelan’s son, and sets off to find it. Like I said, pretty boilerplate stuff.
But it’s the complications that make this novel so rich. The evil wizard was once a part of their old adventuring company. Elyana and Stelan (a human) were once romantically involved, but they split due to religious differences and he married a human woman who is a bit of a harridan. One of the newcomers is a half-orc who has to deal with mistrust from strangers and even his own companions. To get to the Crown, they have to travel into the land of Galt, a nation in a permanent state of destabilization due to constant political revolutions. To get there in time they have to take a shortcut through the Plane of Shadow. On the way they enlist the aid of another of Elyana’s old compatriots, a bard who has perhaps grown a bit too happy with a life of luxury.
On the way there’s a prison break, stirring battles against nightmarish creatures, betrayals, revelations, discoveries, anguish and tragedy. With every page, Jones thickens the plot.
The portrayal of women in what I will loosely call “nerd media” (comics, video games, etc.) has been a hot topic of late. A lot of time is spent pointing out how not to portray female characters, but this is a good opportunity to point out one that’s done right. Elyana is the main character of Plague of Shadows. She’s strong and intelligent and extremely capable in battle. Yet she’s not without flaws. She makes rash judgments about Stelan’s wife because of lingering jealousy. She’s trusting, sometimes to the point of naivety. Raised by humans, she finds that she’s inept when it comes to the social pleasantries of her own elven culture. And when pushed, she displays a vivid thirst for vengeance.
The one flaw this book has is a slow start. A lot of the issues and conflicts that really sink their hooks into you don’t occur until the last third of the book. The first few chapters seem to flounder for a bit, and the characters and plot seem shallow at first. There are infrequent flashbacks to the earlier adventures Elyana and her companions enjoyed, and at times I wished the novel was more focused on those adventures than the one presented. However, the pace picks up and the plot starts rolling, gathering momentum and complications that make it all worthwhile. This is a fine sword and sorcery novel, a standalone story that requires no prior knowledge of Pathfinder or the world of Golarion. When it seems like everything on bookstore shelves is part of a trilogy these days, it’s a pleasure to find a well-written fantasy novel like Plague of Shadows.