Pious is the second novel by Mark Barber set in the Kings of War world of Pannithor. Timed to come out with the release of Mantics new sailing ship game “Armada”, this adventure takes us on the waves of the Infant Sea, as the Basilean Navy tries to stop an Orc Admrul whose fleet is raiding the shipping lanes along the coast.
There are, as expected for a book based on a wargame, several naval battles, from small encounters to a large final battle with many ships per side. Barber does a good job of describing the battles without getting caught up in too many details. He has a very cinematic style, so you can almost see what is being described (much better than many modern movies and tv shows that have become a jumble of colors and shapes where you can’t tell who is doing what between the explosions). The battles are quite intense and graphic even so, and I believe this is fairly accurate for the battles during the age of sail. The fact that these are primarily artillery battles, and the destruction that entails, helps to bring this into perspective.
I also enjoyed the fact that, for many of the ship-to-ship combat scenes, you could easily see how it takes place in game terms, but not so much that you need to know anything about the game itself to enjoy the book. In addition, as often happened, the crews also engage in boarding actions. This was necessary at the time as it was much more important to capture enemy ships (and earn a bounty for them) than to destroy them. These are also well choreographed and easy to follow. Boarding actions are a bit too abstracted in the game to visualize in game terms (being nothing more than die rolls), so the added details in the story just help to bring the world to life.
Nicely, it is not all battles. There is a lot of chances for the characters to grow and develop. There is even a little bit of romance thrown in as well. I enjoyed that it felt like the way a real relationship slowly develops between people. One of the four major characters is a strong female, and if anyone she has the most interesting story arc. She is never the “damsel in distress” but a fully fleshed out hero and fully capable of holding her own in a world dominated by men.
There are some nice hooks and callbacks to the world in which it is set, and even a few hidden cameos by characters that may be known to fans of the game ‘fluff’. Plus, there is a direct callback to the new game itself, with one of the characters in the book being in the game (no spoilers as to who it might be).
Books set on sailing ships can be a bit difficult for those unfamiliar to nautical terms as there is a huge amount of nomenclature and jargon that you cannot avoid. This is very often confusing to those not familiar with it (it took me years to finally get port and starboard straightened out (port is the left (when facing forward) because left is shorter than right and port is shorter than starboard)). This is deftly solved with the introduction of a captain in the Basilean army who is the leader of the newly formed marines that are attached to the fleet. He (and through him the reader) asks (and have answered) many of the questions the arise from being on a ship for the first time, including the confusion between the naval and army ranks. It is enjoyable watching him learn the naval traditions, and quite humorous when he starts using the jargon himself.
There are a couple of minor things I would have liked to see a bit more of. First, the book is set in a fantasy world with magic, monsters, and mythical creatures. We have Orcs (and goblins) as the antagonist, and the occasional character that is non-human, but other than being much tougher and stronger than humans, they are not all that different. There is mention that the fleet is too small to have one of the rare wizards aboard, but otherwise there is barely a hint of the magical nature of the world (though when the namesakes of the ships do make an ‘appearance’, it is very nice to see and exciting). Taking place mostly at sea, perhaps the appearance of a sea monster would have helped to fit this into a more fantasy world, though I can see how it would have been difficult to fit it into the fairly tightly plotted story. As it was, the story almost felt like it happened in the real world, rather than the fantasy setting I was expecting.
Secondly are the Orcs themselves. One of the main features of them in the game is the fact that they enjoy destruction and chaos, and often will ram other ships to do more damage and get them fighting hand to hand quicker. So much so that this is a special rule they have in the game, and the large ship in the fleet is even a “smasher”, with a bonus for ramming other ships. Sadly, this never happens in the book, and was something I was looking forward to seeing. The orcs were instead about learning more tactics and strategies for sailing and maneuvering – which, while realistic and does present some growth in the main antagonist, it doesn’t really fit with the game and world ‘fluff’. It did not have to even be the main Orc leader; it could have easily been one of the other ships in his fleet taking it upon themselves to ram one of the enemy ships.
Overall, however it was a very enjoyable book, and makes me look forward to whatever else Barber is working on in this setting. While it doesn’t feel like there is anything untold in these characters stories, I think it would be great fun to have them show up as supporting characters in another book. I have heard that Barber is expanding his first book into a trilogy due to it's popularity, and those characters may need to go somewhere by ship after all.
Because it is all fun and games . . .