The protagonist of the Pathfinder Tales novel, “Shy Knives,” lies, steals and slays to accomplish her goals. She does this with lots of quips, some dry humor and the occasional authorial send-up of role-playing games. It’s also adult in nature so don’t be thinking that this is a soft high-fantasy book with a lovable rogue.
Shaia “Shy” Ratani is a free agent who fled the Empire of Taldor because she cheated its Thieves Guild. By cheating this guild, called “The Brotherhood of Silence” of some wealth, Shy ended up double-crossing her dangerous former lover, the assassin Chariel, whom she calls “Char-Char.” The problem is her new mission takes her back to the same place she fled. Shy describes herself as a sort of wanderer. “This is simply what I do. Drunkards swill, addicts puff, and I just keep walking away and into peoples problems, out of peoples lives, and so on and so on until I die.”
This would ordinarily create a character readers might not care about, but Shy risks a lot taking her latest job, protecting a down on her luck noble Dalaris who carries a divine secret. The way Shy puts herself in jeopardy for someone who is in no position to help her shows a positive quality, which she doesn’t see in herself.
The author, Sam Sykes, really knows how to write witty dialogue and great character description. As Shy says about the young and emotional Dalaris, “There are two types of people in this world: tough people beneath a layer of tears and teary people beneath a layer of toughness. Dalaris, thankfully, was the former.”
Opposite Dalaris is the scheming noble Vishera, a wizard who engages in crafting weapons. She, like many arms merchants in the real world, sees the need for war everywhere. Vishera conflates patriotism and her own profits as one in the same for her country. Her cynicism rivals even Shy. When Vishera comments on one of the pawns in her bloody political game it goes right to the heart of her character.
“A nationalist is, at best, an incredibly useful idiot,” she says. “A nationalist without a nation even more so.”
Vishera does more than create wars to get rich and consolidate power. She also engages in deviltry like the breakaway nation of Cheliax. This country broke free of Taldor and Vishera sees their success as something she can replicate by manipulating the angelic Dalaris and her own son.
I recommend reading the Pathfinder book “Hellknight” by Liane Merciel if you want to really see how the very interesting country of Cheliax works in the Pathfinder game world of Golarian. It shows a successful “Evil Empire” of Cheliax and the book is very well written. Many of the adventures in Pathfinder have a tie in to that very complex and exciting nation.
This book, however, shows the “Evil Empire of Taldor” in retreat after Cheliax successfully rebelled to form their own nation. To me this is not as exciting since you feel like the characters are in a backwater town and that their actions are a constant struggle to merely survive, not triumph.
Many of the Pathfinder novels flesh out the campaign world of Golarian. This novel is no exception. It gives a street level view of the sad history of Taldor and how it breeds characters who need to hold onto what they have rather than be able to build something new.
Shy does not rationalize her actions but she is rational. She may not wield much authority but then she doesn’t bow down to it either. She may not be heroic but she is courageous. It may not make for a morality tale but it makes for a diverting story.
If you like some good dialogue, witty sentences and adult fantasy characters who don’t act like paragons of virtue this is your book. Its central character may not be a Paladin but she has plenty of other laudable qualities, especially that of self-knowledge.