I finished the book last night, and, um, wow.
The markings in this book mostly consist of three runes. The first rune, the Rune of Fantasy-Adventure, is the most successful. The main storyline is interesting, enjoyable, fast, and bloody, and it reminded me of several of my favorite Fritz Leiber stories. There are tomb robbings, library thievings, politicing, plotting, magic, cults, overland travel encounters, and in general it reads like an extended RPG adventure that turned out really, really well. I thought Smylie did a great job of this, and if the book was just this adventure story I would give it 4 stars.
The second rune is the Rune of RPG-Designer-Turned-Novelist, which is less successful. The world building is kind of odd, and draws very heavily on the Artesia RPG book. In many ways it feels like a novelistic walk though of all the concepts laid out in the RPG book. At times Smylie veers into describing the story via his game mechanics, rather than telling a story that could potentially be explained by the game mechanics. There are also more than occasional info dumps. I was thinking that it would be like Chris suddenly deciding to expound at length to his companions about some familiar topic, but then I remembered that the main protagonist is also an academic, so maybe this part is actually realistic. :) Smylie also has this tendency to overproduce in terms of fictional constructs. This works for him really well in terms of designing RPGs, but not so much in terms of story telling. Where some authors would have a fictional city gang or three, Smylie will bring in a dozen. Ditto with nobles, retainer knights, vassal relations, bloodlines, cultures, provinces, forts, etc. These all tend to be dumped on you at the same time too, rather than being introduced and characterized one at a time. I'm not sure how this would read to someone who was not already familiar with the RPG and the comics, but it seems like it would be even more confusing to a complete new comer. Then again maybe the newness of the world building would make it more interesting to them?
The third and final rune is the Rune of Wat. This rune first appears on page 23, and then re-occurs every 10 pages or so up until page 200. After that it largely disappears, before making a triumphant comeback near the close of the book. You will be going along in this great fantasy adventure story, and then all of a sudden it will be like bam, Smylie whips out an at-length description of someone's veiny, glistening cock or night long 4 way or whatever. He definitely follows Checkov's dictum that if you have a corrupt priestess wearing a severed unicorn horn in Act I, then 2-3 pages later she will bloodily and graphically violate someone with it. These sections were the weakest of the novel, since A) they seem wildly out of place with the rest of the story, B) they greatly limit the people who are going to like/not be disgusted by the novel, and C) wow, I was actually surprised that you are allowed to print stuff like this and then just keep it on a general shelf at Barnes and Nobles.
So, overall the book is kind of a hot mess. I would probably read a sequel when it comes out in six years, but I wouldn't put the novel at the same level as either the RPG or the comics.
- the book is quite long (600 pages!), which I failed to realize when looking at a 2D image of it on Amazon. It was only when the book store clerk handed over this giant tome that I realized what I had gotten into.
- There are a number of technical descriptions of arms and armor, which I thought could have benefited from having pictures. Smylie already has 3 pages of maps and ~10 pages of glossary, I think he could have stolen a few of the beautiful pages from his RPG/comics and dropped them in to show what a pallor helm or whatever actually looks like.
Massive, Massive spoiler notes. Invisible to the un-initiated: