Marked for Death

January 12, 2006

Pulp fantasy is a genre that hasn’t seen much love in recent years. High fantasy, the ground occupied by the Forgotten Realms and the like, has been the dominating style of fantasy RPG for D&D players. Which is why I, I have to say, Eberron tickles me pink.

Gritty and rude compared to the civility of the realms, the Eberron campaign setting has loads of potential for new and interesting storytelling devices. The online game, DDO, is using the dungeoncrawl in new and interesting ways. I’ll comment on that in my review on Slashdot. The pen-and-paper format, and the novels that come out of that crowd, have more freedom to explore other pulp traditions.

The chase scene has been used to great effect throughout movie-making and novel writing, and seems to be one that the Eberron line developers are getting a big kick out of using in these early years of Eberron’s development. The official campaign modules are full of chase sequences. The novel I just finished, Marked for Death, is essentially one long chase scene. Thanks to some believable dialogue and good planning, it works. It works in spades.

This first novel in a trilogy about the long-vanished Dragonmark of death tells the tale of a young elf girl with a problem. She’s the first bearer of a Dragonmark of this kind in several hundred years, and as a result forces from the world outside her small down on the edge of the Mournlands descend to take her captive. Her adoptive father, his friend, and a band of knights are all that stand between her and decidedly dark forces.

The novel begins and ends with scenes of violent battle, a trademark of this novel’s action. The setting of Eberron is still recovering from a long war, and the hatred and pain of battle is keenly felt by the combatants in this tale. There is little to do with honor or heroism in the combat this book offers; Survival at all costs is the hallmark of most of the conflict.

Despite the bleak surroundings and sometimes gorey details, Marked for Death manages to come across as a hopeful tale. The protagonist isn’t a man of convictions or moral authority. Like most of the individuals portrayed in this setting, he is a palette of greys. Absolute black and white are hard to find here, but soldier-turned-lawman Kandler of Breland displays courage and hope in the race to save his adopted daughter. He and the other main characters are both interesting and puzzling. The ‘shades of grey’ in the setting allow for far more than simple fantasy stereotypes, and it’s enjoyable to tease out the worth of a character over the course of a book.

Marked for Death is, like its setting cousin City of Towers, is better than a pulp fantasy novel has a right to be. This first in a trilogy sets up an interesting thought puzzle and introduces some characters that I look forward to learning more about. I recommend this book to folks looking for something out of the ordinary in their fantasy fare.

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