If 'Reckless Ambitions' (review here), the first volume in the ongoing Medford Family Chronicles, was a problem and its first sequel, 'Capricious Deities' (review here), was a solution, then 'Pivotal Ruckus' is perhaps half of each.
Cut ruthlessly down to its core elements, 'Reckless Ambitions' was a gigantic collection of archetypes and conveniences that served to introduce us to a world, an empire and the people who make it tick. Author John Paul Ried poured so much passion into it that it became infectious, even with an oversimplification on every third page, and a plot convenience and a crazy character motivation filling the pair of pages in between. 'Capricious Deities', however, successfully avoided most of those problems, focusing instead on a single battle that worked on the macro scale of kingdoms colliding and the micro scale of the local folk who got dragged into it because it happened to unfold right on top of their town.
Rather annoyingly, 'Pivotal Ruckus' does both of these things.
Like 'Capricious Deities', easily the best book in the series thus far, this is another focused story, this time taking place on and around the Forsaken Islands, four days north of Paladon City by ship. There are a pair of these. A mountain on the western island houses a 250' purple dragon called Kildarious Sharpclaw, who's been mysteriously quiet for a few generations, so it's the eastern island where the humans live. We meet a host of new characters there, who spend the early chapters living and loving and passing their time. Of course, this changes a little when Gargameleche, a nine-foot-tall flying gargoyle who's an ambassador for the Empire of Kasavemel, storms into the Screaming Ghost tavern to proclaim that he'll be invading four or five months hence.
Now, while he and his cohorts are clearly outnumbered on that night, this promised battle is as one-sided as you can imagine. On the human side, Bayton Township counts about five hundred residents, mostly an array of farmers. On the humanoid side (and, oddly, both sides do use this term), the Emperor Shapireten X has an armada of ten thousand ships and one million warriors, all supported by demons and magicians. How this battle is going to be remotely believable is the biggest task Ried sets himself this time out and it has to be said that he has to cheat a little to make it work. However, the Forsaken Islanders do build up an army and navy and write up plans for all eventualities.
What Ried does best is to manage all this. It betrays his background in role playing games, because this is the work of a dungeonmaster, translated into literature, rather than the work of a novelist. For the most part, he moves the right pieces around his virtual board, bulking up here and preparing there, readying his players for a fantastic night of gaming. This is the 'Capricious Deities' half of the affair.
What he does worst is to convince us of the details of it all and that's the 'Reckless Ambitions' half. There is a simplicity of assumption that applies throughout and which is also obviously sourced from the games that spawned this series. Wealth never runs out. Sex solves everything. Every accomplishment results in a promotion. Every question has an answer. Most of all, everyone picks up skills just like that. And, from a town of five hundred people, they adapt to scale like nobody's business! Hey, you need a palatial estate? Well, my farmer boyfriend has hammered two bits of wood together before. Cool, he can be my foreman!
In between those two, depending on your perspective, is where he's going with the naughty angle. In my review of 'Capricious Deities', I highlighted that the inclusion of a sexual element, without ever venturing into erotica, was one of the strong points of the series. It's just as subject to that simplicity of assumption as anything else (I have to be this enemy leader's concubine while obtaining intel, grandpa? OK, that's no problem), but it's a welcome addition to a genre that usually avoids it or goes overboard with it.
However, there are some more dubious angles exhibited here and some may find them objectionable. For example, the oldest profession apparently carries no stigma on the Forsaken Islands, so the best whore at the Screaming Ghost is the 'belle of the town'. Grace can have a boyfriend, they can be madly in love and the townsfolk can place bets on when they'll be married. It's all fine. It's a little strange to see her jealous of any girl who even looks at Joseph, and he certainly can't look back, while she screws anyone for cash. I don't buy that, but that's just credibility on the line.
The really objectionable angle is the one where, if whoredom is respectable, then girls can fairly see it as a career choice. For instance, Emma Hutchinson, 'a young, sixteen-year-old blossoming beauty' is Grace's protégé at the Screaming Ghost, and she's eager to follow in her older friend's footsteps. The auction for her virginity is a lively affair, conducted in front of nobility after fifteen minutes of seductive dance, and 'her services for the evening' are won by Captain Harvey Taylor, a 38-year-old ship's captain, who spends a ridiculous sum on her. What's perhaps most outrageous is that this is the start of a beautiful friendship that soon blossoms into romance and ends in marriage. I don't want to be that guy and restrict what folk can write, but Ried could have handled this in a much safer manner.
There are other angles that seem rather ill-advised too. It's bad enough for Gargemeleche to talk like an illiterate Alabama slave, but adding a surname of Hottentot is just wrong. Ried's ideas for names tend to be good ones, but he goes rather off the deep end with some here, especially when the characters aren't human. I quite like Sergeant Belchero Drinkswill and even Admiral Battemhard, but naming an old troll commodore Sosueme Wedafuquawe? No. Don't even get me started on the god who's named, and I kid you not, Bidoodleoboop.
The other problem with names is that Ried seems to think that we want to hear full names in every line of dialogue, even when they're not official proclamations. Nobody would say, 'My wife Lady Cecilia Ann Menelynn Medford died in the same Scarlet Fever epidemic that same year,' or 'Ever since the civil war ended five months ago, our new Palamaran Emperor Thomas Wilson Oakley Medford IV has been obsessed with building all sorts of ships.' They'd just say 'my wife' or 'our new emperor'.
All in all, this sits very much in between the previous two books. While it remains just as much fun, it's a step down in quality from 'Capricious Deities', though not so far as 'Reckless Ambitions'. The fourth book in the series will be called 'Academic Mayhem', so presumably will return some focus to the Gamemasters University, which stepped back from this one. With it, I hope Ried can keep his worldbuilding skills and a recognisable sense of passion, while keeping his plot conveniences down and giving his characters more believable motivations. ~~ Hal C F Astell