Murder in Corvis (Iron Kingdoms)
Publisher: Privateer Press/Skull Island Expeditions
Page Count: 152
Release Date: 09/25/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
I’ll admit something upfront. I’ve never been interested in Iron Kingdoms or Warmachine. Both feel like a steampunk version of Warhammer and I already have enough RPGs and miniature combat games to pick up what feels like a derivative of something else. I’ve got a stack of Bones, Tomb Kings, Robotech RPG Tactics and my old D&D Tactics figures from when that game existed. However, I really do like Richard Lee Byers’ stories. I’m more a non-fiction reader, but I enjoy enough of his writing to know I’ll pick up something of his (especially a review copy) if I run into it. Besides, the last time I picked up a book by him from a RPG universe I wasn’t originally interested in (The Festival at Glenelg), I ended up reviewing three adventures from that game. So who knew? Maybe Murder in Corvis would make me curious enough to try out some of Privateer Press’ games. There was only one way to find out.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Murder in Corvis. Would it read like a gritty pulp thriller? Would it be more like one of those cozy mystery series my wife enjoys? Would it simply be a fantasy novella with a murder as the crux of the story? Would it be something else? The only way was to dip into the story and find out. Unfortunately, you don’t get to find out right away. Before Byers’ novel starts you get a very dull and dry four page introduction to the Iron Kingdoms world. Personally, I would have let the author incorporate this information into the story rather than have a preamble that reads like it was written by Ben Stein, but that’s just me. Most of what is in the introduction has no bearing on the story at all and will serve to bore or confuse newcomers to the Iron Kingdoms. As well, there is a six page glossary in the back, which defines specific creatures, jargon and game terminology that the reader will encounter within the novella. I feel Byers describes all of these terms pretty well in the story itself, so a glossary of this size and the verbose descriptions provided for each one comes off with the publisher either not trusting its audience or simply being VERY condescending to them. Both the preamble and the glossary rubbed me the wrong way and definitely gave me a bad first impression of Iron Kingdoms in general. Honestly, if you had to include both of these, I’d have put a much shorter glossary in the front so that readers know it is there (most people I know don’t flip to the back of a book except for people who like endings ruined and even less read the Table of Contents in a fiction book) and I would have put the “introduction” at the end to act as a, “If you liked this story, here’s more about our world (and product line) that you can purchase,” so as not to intimidate younger/casual readers or worse, make a person think that Murder in Corvis will be as poorly written as that four page look at the world of Iron Kingdoms. I can honestly say after reading Murder in Corvis, I’d probably pick up more stories by Byers in this setting…but I’m not at all inclined to touch the game line(s).
Murder in Corvis is basically the origin story for a motley group of mercenaries that will eventually be called the Black River Irregulars. You have Milo the thief/alchemist, Gardek the Trollkin thief-taker (a trollkin feels like the defacto half-orc for this setting), Elish the arcanist (think techno-mage) forensic detective and Colbie the Mechanik, because changing c’s to k’s is somehow novel or interesting I guess. It’s the typical “one character from different classes to create a balanced party” trope that many fantasy stories have (and probably your own gaming party!), but Byers makes it work in spite of being a cliché (as always). The characters are well defined and nuanced with the cast being treated as an ensemble rather than one starring character and the rest of the team being supporting players. It’s nice to see this, because it’s rare an author treats an entire party as equals. Even in Byers’ previous novels and/or short stories with large casts, there is always a character or two that dominates the “screen time” so to speak. Aoth Fezim, Anton Marivaldi and Erik Nygaard come to mind as examples. I think all fiction authors are guilty of this because you develop a favorite (even if said favorite changes from book to book) and so they get a little more detail and word count devoted to them. Not so with Murder in Corvis. Here each chapter has a different character take center stage even when the other characters still appear in it. It’s a really nice touch that makes the piece stand out. A great example of the balance if I thought Milo was going to be the main character from Chapter One but then it ends with a twist and so I think Gardek is going to now become the main character and the first chapter was just a swerve. With each chapter unfolding though, I realized Byers’ was writing a team story rather than one focused on a single character and I loved the result.
Because Murder in Corvis is an origin story as well as a murder mystery, you get to see how the group forms. Of course, none of them really like each other at first but grow to respect and befriend each other as the story goes on and they have to work together to find the murderer. Each character gets to show off their strengths and how they can complement or protect another teammate. It probably isn’t a spoiler to say the entire team lives, but I was surprised that they lost more fights than they won and that there was a mauling or two along the way. The story flies by pretty quickly even if 126 pages is a bit long for a novella and it left me wanting more adventures with these characters. I still probably wouldn’t be interested in the Iron Kingdoms game, but I’d certainly read another story with these exact characters and author. Of course, I’m not sure if it would be interesting now that they are all chummy-chummy and the interpersonal conflict is gone, but I’d give it a try.
The actual murder mystery itself is worth noting. Apparently there is a serial killer going around. Originally just Gardek the trollkin is hired to find and subdue the killer but after he catches the wrong guy, the four protagonists are forced to team up to find the person behind the slayings. Their quest is a more cerebral one than you might expect from a story based on a fantasy RPG, but there are a few fight scenes here and there. I do like that the book really focused on solving a mystery over hack and slash, even though Byers is quite adept as long detailed fight scenes. By sticking with the detective aspects, the story felt like a murder mystery first and a licensed novelization second. I also liked that the characters didn’t solve the mystery right away, complete with the occasional dead end, false lead and accidental accusation of the wrong being thrown in for good measure. Because of the narrative style, I could give Murder in Corvis to people I know who like murder mysteries but hate gaming fiction and feel they would still enjoy this in spite of its origins.
Overall, I was glad to see that Murder in Corvis is another fine story spawned from the mind of Richard Lee Byers. Unlike some of his other releases, this novella didn’t convince me to pick up the game it was based on and I actually think the weakest points of the release are when the package tries to sell you on Iron Kingdoms instead of allowing you to just read the story, but the novella is an enjoyable murder mystery in a steampunk high fantasy setting. It’s newcomer friendly and the characters will keep you both entertained and interested from beginning to end. If you’ve got five bucks to spare and an afternoon with nothing to do, you could while away the time in worse fashions than reading Murder in Corvis.