One of the many books that I picked up at GenCon this year was A Prisoner's Welcome by Shane Moore. It took me a while to get to this one, mainly too many projects of my own, but this weekend I managed to finish it, and despite not really being asked, decided to post my opinions of it. Really, I asked permission at GenCon, but I suspect Shane Moore doesn't know my review style.
A Prisoner's Welcome is a pretty heft book at 553 pages in length and perfect bound with a pretty good quality. It was daunting in places to read, mainly I had it out on my bed table for a few weeks before I got to finishing it, but overall, I was very glad I did.
As I read it, it got pretty obvious that Shane's world is pretty much based on a generic fantasy world heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons. At least, that is what it felt like. You had people referring to each other as classes and races, powers and skills that were pretty much aligned with the game, and even the bestiary could be culled from those sources. This really isn't a hindrance, in my opinion, but I'm glad he at least didn't capitalize the classes. I don't know why, that just bothers me. Knowing the mechanics or the inspiration helps you understand and appreciate it more, plus it means that you don't have to wonder what in the world as "daraka" is (he doesn't use it, but just to use it as an example). Instead, you know an elf has pointy ears and probably squeaks when you squeeze them. But, there was this strict focus on "one class per person" that seemed to railroad the character concepts for me. I did like the characters, I just felt their characterizations were restricted by the framework in which they were written for. In effect, their personalities were limited by their class and race a bit more strongly that I appreciated; a bit of deviation would have been nice, or even some more obvious multi-classing.
Now, using a established baseline for your story doesn't mean everything is derivative. I love Mr. Moore's death knight. It was probably one of the best mental processes of corruption, growing evil, and betrayal that I've seen in story. The knight has to be one of my favorite characters, not because of the depth he had, but how he showed true change throughout the book. I actually felt sorry for him, and I know it probably wasn't part of original plan, but the most of the characters felt shallow compared to the one. Shane also expands on a baseline world in excellent places, surprising me with little twists when I thought it was going to be an obvious answer culled from some book. Those little jabs of creativity help craft an engrossing story that delved deep into a common mythology for writing but still kept it interesting enough to keep on reading.
The characters had a reasonable amount of depth, but most of them didn't really didn't feel like they had full dimensions to them. The "good" characters were the ones I liked the least, mainly because they didn't evolve as quickly or as richly as some of the others, but they were still likable characters. I felt that some of the secondary characters (the thief couple, the death knight, the general) really shone in the personalities, drives, and even evolution of their character throughout the story. I like change. I like characters to change over time and I didn't really get that from many of the others.
One of the things that didn't change in the book was one of the most common threads throughout the story: betrayal. Everyone is betraying someone. The good guy has an entire plot over cheating someone. Every single politician is backstabbing someone. Even the paladin was betraying someone at one point in the story. With the exclusion of only a few characters, it seemed like it was a major thread of the story and probably the thing I like least about the story. In some ways, the story might have been better called "A Prisoner's Betrayal" but it isn't my place to name books. Just read and enjoy them.
I did enjoy it. The writing style is closer to mine, with relatively simple words and easy to read on the eyes and the mind. Shane has a wonderful light touch with descriptions. Outside of combat, it is like painting with hints and highlights, letting your mind fill in the rest. You get such lovely teasers of outfits, colors, and scenes, and then the story moves right back into plot. In combat, the descriptions get more detailed and lush, but also a lot more bloody. This isn't a story for Fluffy. The violence and rape themes were too much for her, even though they were effectively glossed over, they did overly dominate a reasonable hunk of the story. But, all the scenes, violence and not, were wonderful. The location and struggles were very well done and it kept the story moving very quickly forward. I ended up reading the last three hundred pages in one night, ending around three in the morning, so I obviously enjoyed the story.
There is a curse with the sparse descriptions, however. In writing style, I saw two things that kind of frustrated me as a reader. One was the change of view. Shane would switch POV of the story in the middle of a chapter, but there was very few transitions to indicate the change. You'll be learning the internal state of one character, seeing the world through their eyes, then the next paragraph, you'll be seeing the same character with a different POV and it sometimes left me wondering if someone had a brain fart. Later in the paragraph, I'd figure out the POV changed. The other is emotions. They jump out at you. There wasn't much transitions between the emotional states (quiet to anger for example), but looking back I could see where they could have happened, it just surprised me when it did. Between those two things, I occasionally struggled to read the story but they were, at most, minor distractions once I realized his style and learned to anticipate it.
I found the book to be enjoyable. It hung nicely on the large body of work of pre-existing fantasy but it added just enough twists and flairs to the story to really make the world feel different and unique. The characters had depths, but I felt some of the secondary characters were much better developed than the primary ones. His writing style is easy to read and enjoyable to do so, but it jumps around a bit more than I was comfortable with. Knowing how he writes, or at least getting comfortable with his style, made the latter half of the book considerably more enjoyable to read. Starting the book again, it seems like it is true, his style flows fast, once you get it.
Would I read the sequel? Without a doubt. Shane has written a story that has some interesting concepts, characters I want to see how they turn out (mainly the general and the knight), and a style that I enjoy reading. I look forward to reading the next one, or at least checking out GenCon to see if he has it for sale.
Would I recommend it to people? It depends. It's a bit bloody and the rape themes obviously will cause Fluffy some problem. I have friends who would read it and friends who I wouldn't even ask. There is a gritty sense to the story that won't appeal to everyone, but for those who like that type of story, I think it is an excellent choice to read.