Saturday, March 29, 2014

Guildpact by Cory J. Herndon

I’ve never been much of a reader of urban fantasy.  I like my fantasy to involve large scale dramas and journeys and open vistas more than I want to see big cities and the familiar.  Clearly, this isn’t an attack on the genre, but just a quirk of my personal reading tastes, but it means that there is a large swath of fantasy, from real-world locales to cities straight out of the fantastic that aren’t particularly my cup of tea.

Which means reading the three book Ravnica cycle is an odd choice indeed.

The three books of the Ravnica Cycle are set in a vast, world-wide city covering the entire planet.  His world city is full of guilds, groups of like-minded beings with the same approaches to life, be they the business-minded Orzhov or the nature-religion approach of the Selesnyans or any of the ten guilds.  A set of rules, known as the Guildpact, governs Ravnica, and keeps the guilds from the near-constant war they used to always find themselves embroiled in.

The Ravnica novels are based on a string of expansions in the popular game Magic: The Gathering.  I recently began playing the game with the “Return to Ravnica” block of expansions, and part of the enjoyment of the game for me is the world and the story surrounding the gameplay.  Wizards of the Coast recently released a trilogy of ebook novellas set during the events of the “Return to Ravnica” series, but wanting to start at the beginning I went back to the novels published to coincide with the original “Ravnica” sets.

The first novel, Ravnica: City of Guilds by Cory J. Herndon, helps build the setting, and tells a wonderful hard-boiled mystery story in the heart of the city of Ravnica.  Agrus Kos, an over-the-hill cop, is working to solve a number of murders that quickly become tied into a much larger conspiracy, with Ravnica itself at stake.

All of this builds into the second novel, Guildpact, also by Herndon.  Following the event of the first novel, Agrus Kos is now semi-retired working as a bouncer at a bar on the edge of civilization, in a part of Ravnica known as Utvara.  Utvara is a confluence of a number of guilds: the Gruul, a semi-nomadic tribal people, have a group living on the outskirts of town; the Izzet, scholars of magic and makers of elemental beings, have set up a laboratory and are performing mysterious experiments; and the Ozhov, focused on business, money, and contracts, own the land and are moving in to take a more personal control of Utvara.

But Utvara isn’t just a frontier city; it is home to a strange anomaly in the sky that seems to suck up the spirits of the departed, and the region is filled with a vicious plague that is barely kept at bay.

Through all of this, the reader follows retired cop Agrus Kos, goblin Izzet courier Crix, and Orzhov Baroness Teysa, as all of these strange events build towards another conflict with apocalyptic repercussions.

While the police procedural of the first novel is a lot of fun, Herndon really shows his strengths with Guildpact.  Working with a larger cast of characters, the diverse nature of the guilds in no way conflicts with the detailed characterization of the protagonists, particularly Teysa.  Some characters make return appearances from Ravnica: City of Guilds, but Herndon takes advantage of the opportunities a new cast of characters presents and creates an exciting adventure.  The urban aspects of Ravnica remain, but Herndon does an excellent job of making them feel truly alien compared to real life.

For readers looking for an exciting adventure and a unique fantasy setting, especially those who are also interested in Magic: The Gathering and enjoyed either of the Ravnica blocks, Guildpact is very highly recommended.

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