Novels set in roleplaying worlds are a tricky thing. On the one hand, you want to be true to the game world, but sometimes the game mechanics get in the way when applied to a novel. So sometimes you end up with a story that feels like it’s been lifted from someone’s campaign (which is, let’s face it, bordering on improv) rather than being a proper story.
Then there’s the problem of having certain characters or monsters being seriously overpowered, which can cause problems. Worst of all is if you have a writer who doesn’t truly understand the minutia of a game world, only how everything looks, and you end up with crap like the D&D movie from the late 90s. (*cough* Beholder Guard Dog *cough*)
Add on top of that the fact that vampires aren’t my thing. At least, not as protagonists. Twilight jokes aside, I’m not one to read stories with villain protagonists. Or, if they’re not a villain, I tend to assume they’re angsty and emo about their struggle with the dark side while listening to The Cure or something.
So when I was given The Dark Gift by Trevor Jones to read, and I was told it was essentially a fantasy roleplaying novel featuring a vampire protagonist, I was… sceptical. Then, as began to read it, I was worried.
Then I was very pleasantly surprised.
The Dark Gift walks a different kind of tightrope, trying to stay true to a D&D world vibe while having its protagonist be what in any other campaign would be the villain, only he’s not.
Penta Ka Wa is not your usual protagonist. He’s not a young hero, he’s long since retired with a large (and sadly doomed) family. When everyone he knows is killed and turned into vampire thralls, including himself, he alone has the strength of will to resist losing his humanity and turn on his master. When he does, the question then becomes, what does he do next?
Usually when a story has an evil creature as a protagonist, we are made to side with them by having them face off against even worse creatures than himself. And while that does become a factor, Penta is not evil—evil just happens to live inside him. He struggles with this darkness, even as he learns to use and control his abilities.
He’s also ridiculously powerful, as one unfortunate group of adventurers quickly finds out. At first I thought this was just a scene to show how powerful he is compared to a standard high level adventuring party (in a literary convention I like to call “getting their butts Worf’d”), but it turned out there is more to this encounter than I expected.
In time, he is able to use his abilities to land himself a position of power within a small kingdom, becoming a baron. That’s where things take on a new twist, becoming a story of courtly intrigue.
Penta spends his time increasing his standing while trying to avoid detection for who he really is, as well as trying to understand his own dark gift better so that he might control it without losing himself to it.
He befriends the king’s royal mage, who is kind of bored to be honest when it comes to finding anyone interesting to teach magic to, so Penta becomes an unexpected surprise in his boring and predictable life. Then there are dark forces that have their roots deep in the kingdom, keeping an eye on Penta, who have growing concerns about this new up-and-comer.
Ultimately, his journey is one of trying to find a reason to live (so to speak). He is a good man in a bad situation, yet he is not all consumed by angst. He does what he can to improve the lives of those he rules over as Baron, but he’s far from flawless and does have his understandable slips from grace. As a result, it raises some interesting questions about supernatural evil. Is it possible to resist something like vampirism and hold on to your humanity?
One of the more unique elements of his character is his love of horses. Penta was, in his former life, a horseman of great renown. I mean, he really, really relates to them. So much so that I had to ask the author if he was into horses himself. It turns out the choice was a deliberate one, just not for the reason I thought.
Vampires are often portrayed as having a connection to various predators, usually dark creatures of the night. Jones wanted to have Penta connected to something else, even before he became a vampire, and horses were a perfect example of strength of character and noble, majestic beauty.
But Penta’s journey is far from over, as this is only the first book in a series that currently has three books released, and several more after that. If you like your roleplaying-inspired novels a bit on the dark side, but not completely straying from the light, I suggest checking Trevor Jones out.