When Skull Island eXpeditions first launched, they gave us the ensemble novel The Devil’s Pay, by Dave Gross. I’ll freely confess, it’s not one of my favourite Skull Island novellas, which kinds of blew my mind when I read Dark Convergence, also by Dave Gross, and was essentially caught flat-footed by how much I enjoyed the book. I engaged Mr Gross in discussion about this, and after having read three more of his novels (the Pathfinder Tales Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils and Queen of Thorns) I’ve definitely determined that it wasn’t the author that had me initially boggling; rather, it was the challenge of following an ensemble cast through a story that, in my opinion, wasn’t long enough for the author to sufficiently flesh each member out to the point where I could connect with them.
Any reader of the aforementioned novels will be familiar with Mr Gross’ forte, that of writing a narrative from multiple perspectives, moving from one character’s point of view, chapter by chapter, without skipping a beat or generating any significant disconnect. It’s a writing technique I wasn’t familiar with prior to reading Mr Gross’ work, but one I’m rapidly becoming enamored with.
Imagine my reaction, then, upon commending reading the latest release from Skull Island eXpeditions – Murder In Corvis, by Richard Lee Byers. A very prolific writer, I’ve managed to avoid his works by sticking my head in the literary sand for the decade prior to Skull Island launching, so I came into the tale with fresh eyes and no expectations.
What I got was a a story developed from four different perspectives. The gruff, no-nonsense Gardek, Trollkin bounty hunter. The all-too-full-of-himself Eilish, forensic arcanist. The greasy Milo, thief and alchemist. The level-headed entrepreneur, Colbie, mechanic. These are, of course, the Black River Irregulars, with whom players of the Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game may be familiar, since they are the starring player characters of the introductory adventure for the RPG.
The story is set before the Irregulars have their mercenary charter; indeed, it’s the story of how they all got stuck together tracking down a serial killer in the tunnels and underground portions of Corvis, while at the same time ticking off as many powerful cliques and coteries as they can. Hilarity ensues as the story reveals betrayal, deception, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a surprising number of hand grenades and spiked pauldrons. The interplay between the characters as they pursue lead after lead establishes their relationships as the motley crew learn to work together rather than at cross purposes, leaning on each other’s strengths both in-combat and out, including one member’s complete inability to actually hit an enemy with a firearm, and in the end we see the bonds form through the eyes of the one team member who has the least desire to even be on a team in the first place.
This last part was what won me over, I think. I’m a sucker for a tale where the good guys struggle through adversity and come out on top despite all indication that things are going very, very south indeed, and Mr Byers has handled it rather well. Each member of the team has some character flaw which irked me a little – they’re character flaws, that’s what they’re meant to do – but even though each chapter is from the perspective of a different member of the team, it’s in Milo’s chapters that we get to see the skeptical, mistrusting gutter snipe look up at his “social peers” and see through their flaws, to see their merits as he finds himself questioning his urge to run from these dangerous maniacs and hide out, and to decide that maybe, just maybe, there’s something worth fighting for here.
Mr Byers has crafted the tale to flow from perspective to perspective, while not losing that connection with the underdog alchemist as events unfold around him, and this, I think, is what counters my general aversion to ensemble cast novellas. We get to spend time in the heads of each of the characters, to see how each responds differently to varied dangers and challenges, so as the book develops we have more and more of a connection with each of the characters. The limitations of the novella format – the primary hindrance for a tale where we need to actually spend time with each character – are countered as well with the author being unafraid to have chapters as short as two pages, giving a taste of a personality – a refresher if you will, to remind you what they’re about so the character is fresh in your mind before moving on – before quickly moving on to the next personality as the needs of the story dictate.
In the end Murder In Corvis is a dark tale of deceit and bloodshed, woven around a four person action buddy movie. It’s an entertaining read, and worth the investment of your time… Especially if you’re running an IKRPG campaign and are looking for some rival crime syndicates to weave into your urban adventures. You can get it at Skull Island eXpeditions right here on this link.