“There are dark forces afoot.”
“And you know all about that…Merisiel told me what you did.”
Has it really been two months already?
It appears so, as our good friends Merisiel, Valeros, Ezren and Harsk are back in town, both literally and figuratively.
Making their way back to Sandpoint after an episode and a quarter settling matters in Magnimar and its distant port holding of Hook Mountain, the adventurers arrive mid-siege. A detachment of stone giants and their pet dragon are razing the continually traumatized bucolic town in search of a magic stone rumored to be somewhere beneath the town…
“The question is why? Stone giants are a peaceful folk…they have been the voice of reason among their kin for centuries. The other giants go to war at the drop of a hat…but stone giants preach caution, patience. They appreciate the dangers of conquest.”
Why are the stone giants on the move? And how is all this related to the uncharacteristic movements of goblins and ogres and infestations of ghouls and lamia plaguing the area of late?
While the group’s adventures have always run to the darker end of the spectrum (the eviscerations and flaying of the living by Nualia and Tsuto, the grisly murders of Xanesha, Foxglove and the Skinsaw cult, the sicko backwoods ogres of the Graul clan), it appears that the outlook turns ever more grim in the ongoing adventures of the Pathfinders.
“Don’t worry…we’ve already defeated one cave bear today. Another shouldn’t be any AAAAAHHHH!”
With Sandpoint in ruins for the second time in four episodes, nearly every single character finds themselves humbled: Sheriff Hemlock (Toby Longworth) in obvious fear and at a loss as to how to what to do, barkeep/adventuress Ameiko (Yuriri Naka) laughed at, nearly strangled and tossed ignobly into a sack, Harsk (Ian Brooker) snuck up on and taken out in mid-taunt, Merisiel (Kerry Skinner) put paid by a cave bear and poor Valeros (Stewart Alexander) finding himself in the most dire straits of all, this is a real sweat inducer for listeners who’ve grown attached to these characters over the better part of a year.
And with some rather valid concerns fraying at even the more solid of bonds between them, we appear to be heading towards some serious internal friction looming on the horizon…
“See the runes cut into his flesh? They bind the victims to their master’s will, body and mind. There’s no escape, no cure. A life of unending pain and servitude. Giants or no, no one deserves such a fate.”
Without question, this is Valeros’ episode, and unfortunately also his greatest hour of trial.
Easily humbled by the dragon he so desperately wishes to slay for glory’s sake, his impulsiveness and pride leads him directly into a defeat that keeps on going: captured and taken to the fortress of the tyrannically homicidal “midget giant” Mokmurian, subjected to public humiliation and finally driven to the same awful fate as some of the Sandpoint raiding party, branded as a Runeslave…a condition for which we are given to understand there is no hope of a cure.
As always, the four leads and two Sandpoint regulars come to the table with reasonably realistic, likeably recognizable performances that ring true to experiences and friends both past and present (less in the heroic adventuring aspect than the more earthy, humanistic relationship end, naturally).
Stewart Alexander really shines here, delivering a believably nuanced performance tinged with Valeros’ usual bravado and hubris, but clearly showing hints of bewilderment, uncertainty and even terror as matters get further and further out of his control or ability to put on the brakes.
While maintaining a brave, sarcastic front as much as possible, it’s clear that the man is out of his depth here and further, that he knows it. It’s about as honest a betrayal of depth and true persona as we’re likely to see from a self-identified “hero” and ever self-aggrandizing whore to fame like Valeros is, and it’s to Alexander’s credit that he pulls the subtle shifts in tone off as deftly as he does.
On the other end, we have Trevor Littledale’s Ezren, shiftily (or perhaps self-justifyingly) betraying a far darker side to his persona and studies than we’d been given to believe. Where this goes from here, only time will tell, but it’s clear that a trust has been violated, and that at least two of his friends will have their eyes on him going forward…
Ezren’s surprised (or perhaps bewildered) reaction to being called on his actions also rings true to human nature and real world experience, and again shows that even with ostensibly “lighter”, less nuanced milieus like that of Adventure-Fantasy and tabletop RPG, Big Finish stacks the deck with talented scriptwriters and clever actors who pick up on subtle opportunities to provide stories and performances that continue to deliver upon repeated listens.
We’ve been returning to the Pathfinders stories over and over again since March, and are still finding eye opening little mumbled asides and bits of background business that flesh out both characters and scripts to a far greater degree than earlier listens (and reviews) had led us to believe…
Even beyond the aforementioned, listeners can expect a Greek chorus of sniggering harpies (who cast their hypnotic spell on our male protagonists despite their very hideousness), demonic lords, a “shining child” (don’t ask) and betrayals galore, as one might expect of a kingdom run on selfishness, strongarm tactics and fear. Dedicated foemen turn friend and vice versa, but will these surprise twists of fate truly turn the tide for our heroes?
Like the later events of Burnt Offerings, the Skinsaw Murders per se and the ogreless portions of the Hook Mountain Massacre*, Fortress of the Stone Giants is exceedingly dark, quite atmospheric and gripping. The character interactions and ongoing, rather amusing good natured ribbing between them remain the heart of this series, but there are seldom any shortage of exotic monsters to face or perils to overcome.
*the less said about those dumb killer hicks, the better – see the review and note further that we regularly hit the fast forward button to skip over the entire sequence with the Grauls…
While hardly on the same level of comfort and enjoyability as Burnt Offerings or its far darker, if still quite excellent companion piece the Skinsaw Murders, Fortress of the Stone Giants is once again probably not the one for new listeners to start on – it’s simply too grim, and like Hook Mountain Massacre, fails to show the adventurers in their best light.
But it’s also more realistic for all that, characterwise, and as such, while certainly distressing at points for those invested in the spunky if mismatched band’s virtual welfare and ongoing adventures, proves a worthy installment in a series that continues to grow in this reviewer’s household’s estimation.
And while it may in fact be unusually grim, particularly for Valeros and the much beleaguered town of Sandpoint, at least there’s no slasher film-style hillbilly ogres this time around to turn the stomach and pull listeners well outside the general sword and sorcery milieu…