Book Review: Richard E. Dansky’s Chosen of the Sun
It’s no secret to this blog that I’m a huge nerd. What, with the comics and the video games and the piles and piles of SF/F paperbacks. Of course, tabletop gaming is also a big part of my nerdery. Or, well, it was, as I don’t get the chance to play as often as I used to.
Pretty much everyone’s familiar with Dungeons and Dragons– but because there’s a lot of ‘hipster’ in my nerd-dom, I pride myself on going deeper in that. There’s pretty much a tabletop RPG to fit every genre: westerns, pulp, horror, science fiction, even romance. And among the many titles on my shelf is a crazy-ass RPG called Exalted.
In a nutshell, you can describe Exalted as “Like D&D, only if you started at level 20.” Basically, your character is chosen (or, titularlly, ‘exalted’) by the gods, to go forth and kick ass in a vaguely Asian (read: anime) inspired setting. It’s a high powered game where you throw around buckets of D10’s and generally do awesome stuff. It’s not a perfect game (especially since it can get super crunchy at times), but it can be a lot of fun with the right group of people.
Exalted was published by White Wolf (you know, the guys who did Vampire: the Masquerade), who always, always would produce a whole mess of setting/faction/whatever rulebooks to supplement the main hardbacks. They even released a couple of novels for Exalted, which (along with my poor impulse control whenever I step into a used bookstore) brings us to Richard E. Dansky’s Chosen of the Sun.
One of Exalted’s selling points as an RPG is that it’s fucking nuts. I mean, you get to play a kung-fu demigod capable of defeating whole armies singlehandedly. One the ‘basic’ spells allows your character to spray a 20ft cone of undodgeable obsidian shuriken at your opponent– a far cry from a 1st level wizard zapping an orc for 1d4 damage. And that’s before you get into the crazy-ass in-setting stuff like fate-ninjas or the race of people living inside a giant robot god or the dinosaurs that pee heroin.
The problem is, Dansky doesn’t come anywhere near to that level of craziness. To be fair, Chosen of the Sun was released in 2001, alongside the very first Exalted rulebook, so the setting hadn’t had the chance to progress into the gonzo-craziness that it came to be known for.
Even still, if you take out the game references, Chosen of the Sun comes off as a yet another boring fantasy novel. There’s an Orphaned Kid Who Comes Into Great Power and Destiny(tm), who goes on the run from the Dark Lord Guy And His Undead Minions(tm), in search of a Magic Sword(tm) and … well, we’re only a Runaway Tomboy Princess(tm) away from hitting Generic Fantasy Novel Bingo.
To be fair, the book doesn’t focus exclusively on Orphan Kid. In fact, the viewpoint tends to whip around between several different characters. The problem is, Dansky switches perspectives so often that it’s hard to tell who’s important to the plot and who isn’t.
Furthermore, with the focus on Orphan Kid and his Magic Destiny Quest, it takes focus away from Elizer Wren, the book’s other (and far more interesting) protagonist. Wren is a Not-Shaolin monk, who roams around and gets into trouble and (at practically the very end) gets Exalted for actually being, y’know, kind of badass, as opposed to Orphan Kid who is just a reincarnation of some great hero. (Orphan Kid also winds up massacring a bunch of other kung-fu demigods at the end, despite the fact that he’s, like, twelve. Seriously).
If that wasn’t enough, Chosen of the Sun suffers from an acute case of First-in-a-Trilogy-itis. Nothing is really resolved (apart from Orphan Kid killing some elite miniboss-style mooks), which leads to the frustrating realization I’ve read 280 pages of setup/backstory for the actual cool stuff to happen. And, perhaps to add insult to injury, some random ‘canon’ character shows up at the very end to be Orphan Kid’s mentor despite not having been so much as mentioned by anyone for the whole length of the book. Bleh.
It’s not all bad, at least. When Dansky allows crazy kung fu stuff to happen, he’s pretty good at it. And, while The Prince of Shadows may have a terribly boring villain name, at least his undead henchmen have awesome and thematic names like Ratcatcher, Sandheart, or Shamblemerry. They sound like evil my little ponies, which amuses me to no end.
So yeah. If I happen to stumble across another Exalted novel in a dollar bin, I miiiiight go ahead and follow the rest of the series for curiosity’s sake, but it’s still got a long way to go before hooking me as a ‘must read.’ And, in perhaps the book’s biggest flaw, it doesn’t even make me want to play Exalted, which is a huge flaw in tie-in fiction like this.
Ah well. It’s hard to get everyone together for tabletop nerdery anyway.