I was approached by Dave Gross to review Master of Devils after I had reviewed a separate novel set in the same Pathfinder universe, The Winter Witch. I was hesitant, because my life doesn't really easily allow much time for reading (it can take me a month to read one book), but I deeply respect Dave and felt I owed it to him when he contacted me directly. I met him at Gen Con and he personally handed the book to me - that's one way to get me to review it!
I'm glad I did. Master of Devils is as much about the extraplanar fiends that lurk in Dungeons & Dragons as it is about the fiends that lurk in our hearts. It begins as a fish-out-of-water story, weaving three different protagonists together into one final climax. The de facto leader is Chelaxian Count Varian Jeggare, a snooty half-elf aristocrat/wizard who can only cast spells through "riffle scrolls" (flip books). His bodyguard is a half-fiend brawler named Radovan who is fond of showing off his fangs when he gives opponents "the big smile." And finally, there's Arnisant, a real son of a b*tch. That's right. He's a dog.
I didn't warm to Jeggare. His arch prose and winding narrative sometimes makes him a chore to read. Radovan on the other hand, is far more relatable. He's a no-nonsense bruiser with a heart of gold, and when he becomes trapped in an even more frightening demonic form it's easy to sympathize with him. But it's Arnisant who steals the show as a "good dog," who loves to work on jobs for his master. He ends up leading a group of kami and other magical beasts in a final battle reminiscent of Tolkien's Battle of Five Armies.
Complicating matters is the fact that all these characters have been thrust into an Asian-fantasy realm. Dave's grasp on the tropes that fill Hong Kong fantasy cinema is breathtaking. He manages to wedge in Asian ghosts, the aforementioned kami, foo lions, Asian-style dragons, a dizzying array of martial arts, the Monkey King, drunken-style boxing made famous by Jackie Chan, a variety of monkish disciplines, wise old tutors, scheming eunuchs, warrior princesses, hopping vampires, ninja-style assassins, star-crossed lovers, multiple curses, flying magical scrolls, a one-armed warrior, "tree jumping," and the infamous Quivering Palm. Dave knows his stuff and he uses all of it to good effect, from blades that move quicker than the eye can follow to heroic duels to the death.
Each character's journey through Tian Xia introduces a different part of the culture. For Jeggare, it's the disciplined life of a martial arts monk. For Radovan, it's the life of a warrior hero. And for Arnisant, it's about enlisting the aid of a variety of colorful creatures from folklore. If this was just one protagonist, it would be too much to take in, but separated across three different threads it's a real treat to read.
The ending is stuffed with everything but the kitchen sink. There are not one but two female ghosts out for revenge, a variety of false deaths, a revelation about one character that was broadcast too early, and a moral choice made by Radovan that unfortunately falls a little flat. But the fun is in the telling, and our heroes all come through their trials changed men (and dogs).
For readers who want a change of pace but find reading an Asian-style setting too daunting, Master of Devils is a perfect way to transition from sword-and-sorcery fantasy to martial arts fantasy. It evokes a world that's even more exotic than a half-elf, half-fiend, and a dog adventuring together.