Let me confess, I pretty much despise elves. Not the ones that bake cookies, and not Santa’s elves. Not the scary elves of Irish folklore, and not Tolkien’s elves, but pretty much all the game-related elves since D&D. They’ve just become so mundane.
And unicorns. Don’t get me started on unicorns.
So when I tell you that Dave Gross’s Queen of Thorns fascinated me from beginning to end, despite being set in an elven kingdom, and despite including a unicorn, you’ll understand that the author has accomplished something pretty amazing.
Queen of Thorns is a Pathfinder novel, related to Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder roleplaying game. Gross’s protagonists are the “Count” (half-elven Varian Jeggare) and his bodyguard friend Radovan, a “hellspawn” (which I take to be the offspring of a human and a devil—as opposed to a demon, by the way). From details mentioned in the book, this isn’t their first tale, and I’m sure it won’t be their last.
The plot centers around the Count’s wish to have a magical carriage—a gift from his father—repaired. Only a particularly skilled elf can repair it, and the Count has gone to some trouble just to be allowed into the elven kingdom to search for the right person.
The elven queen assigns several courtiers to accompany him and Radovan, and before long it becomes obvious that all these “helpers” have different political agendas. The search takes the group through elven wilds tainted by demon incursions. (The elven politics largely involve arguments over how best to deal with this demon threat.) Along the way, the Count’s quest changes somewhat, focusing more on his father’s legacy. Ultimately, the group finds a lost elven city, now the home of a dragon, and a climactic battle against demons ensues, in which Radovan plays a critical role.
That’s just a broad overview of a well-conceived plot, and Gross pulls it off well. But what really makes the book work is his mastery of detail. The settings are richly imagined and described. He portrays each character—hero and villain alike—as a unique persona with distinctive background motivations. (Frankly his characterization of racial perspectives is more satisfyingly specific than Tolkien’s.) Even his treatment of familiar fantasy gaming tropes—such as the paladin—is down to earth in such a way as to make the reader feel that figure’s emotional and ethical struggles.
Finally, I’d mention that Gross’s device of switching between the Count’s retelling in one chapter and Radovan’s in the next throughout the book allows the author to reveal details that neither character would note alone. Their commentary on each other reveals blind spots as only a friend can, as well as showing true affection in a way many novels find difficult. And this engaging device further invites the reader to fill in those few gaps that neither character can perceive.
If I were to quibble, it might be that the demon battles are a bit too much like Warhammer Fantasy for my taste. After being won over by Gross’s excellent depiction of Pathfinder’s elven lands, I just don’t find his swarms of demons as distinctive. And Radovan’s role in that climactic battle strikes me as slightly a deus ex machina.
Quibbles aside, this is an excellent novel, with characters you’ll care about, a rich setting, a sweeping plot, a satisfying denouement, and a promise of more to come. The Count and Radovan have joined Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in my own list of favorite fantasy duos. I look forward to reading more of their adventures, and more of Dave Gross’s other writing.