Lord of Runes is without question the best piece of tie-in fiction I’ve read. It’s an excellent fantasy novel in its own right.

Before I further explore why I think this, let me first address this: if I consider it so good why four stars, not five? Largely because I’m stingy with stars. With only five stars to choose from, that last star gets awarded only rarely. Four stars puts Lord of Runes, by my reckoning, alongside works such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Saga, Ray Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, Lieber’s first 6 Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser collections and the works of David Gemmell – novels I have read passionately, series I have followed, for many years. (What gets five stars? Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lieber’s novella Stardock.)

Dave Gross’s Pathfinder novels have consistently been good reads, among the best tie-ins I’ve read. Lord of Runes is better.

Gross has always had a deft touch with narrative and dialogue, but here it sparkles. Within the first two chapters, the city of Korvosa was alive in my mind. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue natural.

The plot, perhaps a little simpler than his earlier Pathfinder Tales novels, is yet more epic.

But what really lifts the book is the emotional content. Gross’s Pathfinder novels are buddy stories, and in this we get to see just how deep the bonds between protagonists Radovan and Count Varian Jeggare go – and how far they can be stretched.

The emotional undertones of the novel go beyond the protagonists, though. The supporting cast carry issues of their own – at one revelation, I found myself having to put the book down for a moment while I worked the lump from my throat and blinked a tear from my eye.

This is potent stuff.

It’s hard to give details of character development without revealing spoilers, but few of the main characters end this novel with the attitudes or beliefs with which they started it. Count Varian’s slow deterioration is particularly well handled, both in his first-person chapters and when we get to see him from Radovan’s point of view (it is a technique of Gross’s that in these books the first-person point of view is swapped between the protagonists).

There are treats in store for Pathfinder fans – the return of Pathfinder Eando Kline and (given the title it’s no real spoiler to say it) the rise of a Runelord. But I don’t think it necessary to know the game or its setting to appreciate the quality of writing and storytelling Gross achieves.

Tie-in fiction has a bad rep because there’s a lot of poorly written dross churned out, but there are a few gems out there. Lord of Runes is a diamond.

This review is based on the Kindle edition of Lord of Runes. I will be looking for a paper copy as well (perhaps two), because this is a book I intend to lend to friends – both to players in my Pathfinder games and to fans of fantasy fiction.

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