Book Review: Hauntings (Shadows of Esteren)

Hauntings (Shadows of Esteren)
Publisher: Agate/Studio 2 Publishing
Cost: Free (to Kickstarter backers) TBD (Everyone Else)
Release Date: 07/22/2015 (Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
Get it Here: Studio 2 Publishing (Eventually)

Hauntings is a collection of short stories that was part of the “Ghost Stories” side project that came about in a set of Shadows of Esteren kickstarters. The first part, The Black Moon Handbook, is a supplement for the actual SoE RPG. Meanwhile, Hauntings is the first fiction collection released for the brand. I should warn you ahead of time that Hauntings assumes you are familiar with the Shadows of Esteren line in some fashion and makes no attempt to explain specific terms, jargon and the like to newcomers. So you might not realize at first (or at all) that Daols are currency, or that a Varigal is akin to a Bard. So if you do pick up Hauntings, you might want to read Book 1: Universe first. Even Book 0: Prologue would be a find prelude to Hauntings, and it is free! Now, cheap plugs for the actual tabletop game aside, let’s talk about the five stories you’ll find in Hauntings.

Our first story, “Call to Action,” is actually about the in-game author of The Black Moon Handbook, Steren Slàine. This story fills in some blanks from the gaming supplement and tells her own tragic first encounter with the supernatural and why she now travels Tri-Kazel as an Occultist. You learn about her family life, eventual marriage and the tragedy that befell this semi-happy couple. It’s an interesting story and a fast paced one, even though there is little in the way of physical action. There’s a trigger or two in the story that some people will be bothered by, but it fits the story, type of haunting that occurs and helps to turn Steren from a timid wife into an adventurer and major Shadows of Esteren protagonist. It’s a very good story and definitely the best choice to start the collection with, as many who pick up Hauntings will be familiar with Steren as a character.

The second story is “Gray Dawn,” and its protagonist is Father Arteus Merven. Father Merven is a young priest in a small village enlisted by two warriors of the church to track down an evil sorcerer and his minions. Father Merven believes he is there simply to provide healing and an extra sword in the fight that will inevitably break out, but as his travels with his companions go on, he begins to realize they have an ulterior motive for roping him into their team. This is another good story, as the characters are well written, and I liked the double twist at the end. You don’t see the actual reason Siobhan and Deckhir enlisted Father Merven, and I also like how this story shows that not all supernatural activity in Shadows of Esteren is necessarily evil. Another fine tale.

“Soul-Searching” is our third story, and it’s about a Varigal named Neviell Mac Bretor who has finally come home to his family and lands after many years, only to learn his one true love was murdered by his younger brother in a murder/suicide affair. Stricken with grief and alarmed by the rumours that her ghost still haunts the crumbling remains of his family’s castle, Neviell vows to stay within the haunted castle until he is able to make contact with her and find a way to set her ghost free. Of course, things don’t quite turn out that way. The story’s eventual ending is pretty obvious from a few pages in. You know the destination pretty much right away, but the journey getting there is a fun one. “Soul-Searching” isn’t as good as the previous two tales, but it’s still entertaining in spite of some implausibilities in the manner the story is told.

“Dusk and Dawn” is our penultimate story in this collection, and it’s the weakest in the entire set. It uses the same obvious twist we saw in “Soul-Searching,” which wouldn’t be so bad, except that a) “Soul-Searching” does it better and b) two out of five stories shouldn’t use the same cliché. That’s sloppy story selection by the editing team. Still, the story is a decent one, but it really does suffer from being in the same collection as “Soul-Searching” due to the similarities.

This story tells the tale of an elderly religious woman and a group of children she saved from a plague that overtook her entire town. Now they shelter themselves in a hovel and series of caves, for during the day, the disease is active, claiming any who let sunlight fall upon them. At night, wolves are on the hunt, trying to attack anyone they come in contact with. So, it’s not a good time for these people. Slowly but surely, Una, the only adult in the group, and her relationship with the children begins to fray. How could it not under such circumstances? Eventually two men are sighted by some of the children. Men who can stand the light of day without getting sick. How can that be? Is a cure to the plague now available? No. Unfortunately for the survivors, it’s something else.

Our final story in Hauntings is “Look in the Mirror!” and it tells the tale of a young orphan who calls himself Grimace due to the scar he has. Grimace has been living on the streets as a member of a gang that doesn’t treat him very well. He fancies himself a thief, but he’s not very good at it. Indeed, Grimace has had a crap life. Things turn around for him as he learns his late uncle has died and left him everything. Now Grimace is fabulously wealthy, has fine clothes and most of all… a large spooky mansion with lots of secret rooms and hidden passages. Everything’s coming up Grimace! Well, at least at first. Together with his friend Verse, we learn that Grimace’s uncle isn’t necessarily the benevolent benefactor he appears to be. “Look in the Mirror!” is a fun story, but the ending is really weak and confusing. I don’t know if I’d actually call this a haunting either. It’s a weak way to end the collection, but everything up until the ending is quite fun.

Overall, Hauntings has two very good stories and three decent ones. There isn’t a bad one in the collection, but the majority are merely mediocre tales that will entertain you if you are a fan of Shadows of Esteren or schmaltzy horror. Whether or not I can recommend this collection really depends on the price tag the SoE crew give this to the general public. For five bucks, I would definitely say this is worth picking up, even if you’re new to Shadows of Esteren. Any more than that might be pushing it. Again, two of the stories are really good, and there isn’t a bad story in the collection. It’s just three of the five stories have issues and, while not good, aren’t bad either. If you see a chance to get this for cheap, by all means, pick it up.



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