I would love to play RPG with M. Edward McNally. This was the prevalent thought I had while reading his e-book The Sable City, available on Smashwords and Amazon. The story certainly knows its way around different fantasy tropes, combining them well enough to create an adventure campaign that is light in tone and quick in pace.
What I enjoyed most about it is that it felt like a throwback to RPG-inspired series like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. In The Sable City, Captain Block and Tilda Lanai find themselves far from their island home in search of a man long lost to their people. Along the way, they encounter a host of other characters (and monsters), getting themselves embroiled in an adventure that is much bigger than what they first anticipated. Running counterpoint to their story is the adventure of another party. Zebulon Baj Nif is hired to be the translator of a mysterious woman and her Far Western warrior escorts, a job that leads them towards the same destination as Tilda's (the titular city, in case you were wondering). Mr McNally excels in creating likable characters with interesting backstories, and he certainly knows them well enough to keep them moving from battle scenes to courtly games. At key points in the narrative, I was convinced that Mr McNally plays Legend of the Five Rings when he wasn't writing epic fantasy -- though his story featured only two Japanese-inspired characters (one of them a 'shukenja'), his world's spellcasting method made me recall certain elements from my favorite tabletop RPG.
Despite the book's engaging characters, it was in no means an easy read. I came to this forewarned about the amount of info-dumping here and while I applaud the author's efforts to create such a rich and realized world, it was hard for me to care about it as much as he did. I think moderation is key; fantasy readers often appreciate flavor as long as it is provided in manageable doses. One such manageable dose appears late in The Sable City, during Amatesu and Shikashe's backstory, which was evocative of a Japanese folktale. The setting and circumstances of their tale are very stylized compared to the rest of the book but it does not necessarily contain a lot of Places of Interest or Historic Titles that I had stumbled upon in the earlier chapters. I feel this stripped-down sensibility makes these scenes stand out against the rest of the book.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr McNally's characters and how they dealt with each other, I would have to admit that most of them acted as if they were in an RPG and had no choice but to keep to the quest instead of going off on their own and risking the GM and party's combined wrath. There were times when I felt that a certain character did something contrary to his persona just so he could stay in the story. Moments like this came off as contrived but despite this, The Sable City is a solid effort that has a lot going for it. Mr McNally writes with real skill. He has a good feel for conflict and knows how to balance humorous banter with sobering tension. I thought there was a freshness to it that I hope to still see in his next books.
Thank you to Frida Fantastic for the reco. It was well worth it!