I’m on a bit of a “Matthew Colville” tear this week, so I figured I might as well review the first book in his Ratcatchers series, Priest. As Colville often says in his videos, the best way to support him is to buy his books. Since I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and refreshing information from his videos, I figured I might as well buy his books as a way to contribute to his well-being, despite the fact that I know his recent Kickstarter has helped him build a company that will probably have more to do with his income than his book series will for the next several years. I also figured he’d be a good writer since he does an excellent job with his videos and seems to be a DM people loved to play D&D with.
Priest is a surprisingly complex and nuanced book that stands out from most of the (honestly, pretty awful) D&D-fantasy books I’ve read. To be fair to the genre, I haven’t read most of what people say are the good ones since I get most of mine from used book stores and people seem disinclined to sell the reportedly good ones. I enjoyed it, and I’d say it was a really fun fantasy novel that broke away from a lot of the typical fantasy tropes by relying on the sort of stuff that comes up in a D&D world that is a bigger deal in a typical fantasy novel world.
For instance, the gods are real and have intermediaries who do their bidding, like the titular character, a Priest named Heden who used to be an adventurer. Heden, an ex-ratcatcher–to use the term most people use to talk about adventurers and all the chaos they bring to locals–is a shut-in priest who hates leaving his closed-down inn but is tasked to go investigate The Forest by his immediate superior, the local bishop. Heden not only has to face the dangers of a forest that generally kills everyone who goes into it and brave the mysterious Green Order, an order of knights who protect the locals from the dangers of the forest, but also his own anxieties and PTSD from his past as an adventurer.
There are a lot of mysteries about Heden’s past and Colville does an excellent job of giving the reader just enough information to slowly create a picture without tipping his hand. He lets us know that the past is important because it informs who Heden is and why he’s been chosen to investigate the death of a knight from the Green Order, but he also lets us know that it isn’t a central point of the story. Heden’s PTSD and some of the horrors from his past impact the present, but the important part is him facing them, not exactly what happened years ago. In addition to the glimpses through Heden’s quickly avoided memories, you meet some of the members of his old adventuring group and get a sense that Heden was the reason they’re all retired. Clearly they had all become very powerful by the time they retired, judging from the casual power of the magic items Heden has available to him, but still they all toil away at their own solo endeavors and don’t seem to speak to each other very much.
This cleverly side-steps the problem that arises when you have a large group of very powerful people united towards a single purpose. With all of them together, there would be very little that could stand in their way. Alone, Heden misses important clues in his investigation, can be brought down by sheer numbers, and has a hard time processing what is happening because he’s alone all the time. With the full group, the story would have been over in the first quarter of the book and there would probably be no sequels. Alone, you get to see that Heden still has a lot of growing to do and there is opportunity for mishap when he has to tackle every major task on his own.
The plot was a little frustrating, but that was mostly a personal thing. Heden is supposed to investigate and then redeem or condemn the Green Order, but he struggles with the task because of his own prejudices against knights and because literally everyone seems to put all of the responsibility on him and then do their best to make his job harder. Eventually, you see everyone was acting appropriately, but felt like “there needs to be a problem so everyone is going to be stubborn and difficult” while I was reading it. In hindsight, it was a clever thing to do because it aligned the reader with Heden’s feelings on the matter, but I really dislike stories that have problems because there needs to be a problem, so I almost put it down.
I would definitely recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, the characters are all intricate and super interesting, and it deals with something most people don’t consider: what happens to the mental health of adventurers after they retire. Not many stories seem willing to consider they might wind up like a lot of modern combat veterans. I like that Matthew Colville clearly did his research and does an excellent job of bringing PTSD and panic attacks to life in the novel in a way that isn’t so rough that it could easily trigger someone with related issues. I suggest picking up a copy of Priest and giving it a read.