Awakening in a speeding ambulance, with the scream of its undulating siren ripping your brain apart, is not a pleasant experience. It becomes even less so when you realize you’re in a body bag zipped up tight and you can’t move. Trapped in suffocating darkness, with the rubberized canvas pulling at your flesh, you realize that if this is death, eternity in a grave will be hell itself.
And so begins A Gathering Evil, Michael Stackpole’s first novel in what was to become the Fiddleback trilogy. Be warned spoilers follow!
As quoted from above, A Gathering Evil starts in the most dire of circumstances, but then moves into a classic romp through a vibrant post-depression world. It is through the eyes of the protagonist, Tycho Caine (a man who knows nothing of his past, not even if Tycho is his real name), that we learn about this alternate 2010s; from the depths of the Eclipse (the name give to the massive solar panel array placed over most of downtown Pheonix) all the way to the top of the most prestigious of corporate towers. Much like Dark Conspiracy itself, the story is one of fighting back against an unknow-able enemy, a universe where it seems it is always left to a collection of misfits and social outcasts to make right when others can, or will, not.
The story itself begins with the ‘death’ of Caine, before weaving its way through a fast paced overview to the setting – the city of Phoenix – and the core concepts of the Dark Conspiracy universe – a world teetering on the edge of dystopian collapse. After the dramatic opening scenes, Tycho is introduced to an eclectic group of Minion Hunters, all of whom work for a mysterious man known only as Coyote. Something of a people’s champion, this Coyote lives by the motto ‘paying forward’, and as such has gathered together individual’s who can help him achieve his goals. This team, into which Tycho is inserted as both a leader, as well as spy , could well be described as your typical Dark Conspiracy party, and includes a few memorable individuals such as Bat, the battle-scarred pit fighter, and Jytte, the seemingly all too perfect computer empath.
With a core of characters in place the plot quickly expands, as Tycho attempts to discover the whereabouts of Nero Loring, the recently ousted CEO of Lorica Industries (a Phoenix based mega corp) while also struggling to come to grips with his true identify. This journey leads him suspect that he may well have been hired by one of the city’s corporate leaders, Nerys Loring (Nerys Loring’s father), to kill his new found patron, the enigmatic Coyote. This thread is twisted even further when Caine finds himself influenced by an entity from beyond the realms of humanity, a thing that disturbingly refers to him as ‘his pet’. It is these revelations that seems to make our protagonist, as well everyone he comes to associate with him, as a prime target; from dyed-haired Neo-Nazi’s through to a killer that just doesn’t seem to want to stay dead.
It is during his adventures that Tycho meets Damon Crowley, a empathic Sorcerer with goals aligned to his own, who helps guide him in this strange new world, one that is not only threatened by the supernatural but seems also on the verge of invasion from entities from outside our own dimension. Together they recover Nero Loring, who reveals to them that one his corporation’s greatest achievements, a maglev train circuit circling Phoenix, is actually a portal which will allow Caine’s original master, Fiddleback, a spider-creature from a world beyond our own, access to Earth. Worse still, Nero’s own daughter is revealed to be a ‘changeling’, a creature sent to replace the real Nerys, and influence the design of the track.
With this information, Tycho, Crowley and the rest of the Minion Hunters infiltrate Lorica’s headquarters in an attempt to stop the opening of this portal. This is not without its difficulties, as traitors – both expected and unexpected – are revealed, and the changeling Nerys’ reveals her true form as a serpent-like demon. In a worthy climatic fight the heroes prevail at just the last moment, successfully stopping Fiddleback’s arrival on Earth. While the novel does end on this high note, one thread is still left unresolved – the real identity of Tycho Caine, and his past. These mysteries, however, must wait until the next novel, Evil Ascending, and the finale of the Fiddleback trilogy, Evil Triumphant.
It is probably an easy statement to make, but in my opinion, this story is probably the archetype for all RPG fiction novels. Not only is a good, well written read, but it easily hits all the high notes of the setting, while brushing over those that could be noted as its weakness. In fact, in some ways, The Fiddleback trilogy (the series of books of which this is the first) did as much to define Dark Conspiracy, as the game itself did to inform the author’s writing. Sure some of the material and accompanying anecdotes are sometimes dated, but in general the setting is pretty timeless, which reflects well on a book 25 years old. What’s more, for most part it successfully avoids the clichés of most cyberpunk fiction, while paying enough of a homage to the stories that obviously influence it.
All this is probably works because the author, Michael Stackpole, is, in my opinion, the most well rounded RPG writer/designer to ever transition into the career of fiction writing. (By the time of release of A Gathering Evil, Stackpole was already well known for his Battletech novels, and was to shortly to move into another level of fame with the Rogue Squadron Star Wars novels.) This is further reinforced by the fact that this novel was originally commissioned as a one-off, and it was only after it was reviewed at GDW headquarters that it was expanded into a trilogy.
As for the plot itself, it has everything you’d expect from a novel that represents a weapon-heavy horror roleplaying game. There’s dramatic gun-play, traitors, dimensional sorcery, and enough Dark Minions to keep any fan interested. As mentioned in the plot summary, in some ways reflects the typical conglomeration of Minion Hunters that can arise from the open careers system Dark Conspiracy offers, and while this is often a point of pain for a Referee, here it used to its full effect to reveal different aspects of the novel’s setting.
This is not to say that the story is not without is weak points (what the hell is going on when the main character visits the region call Sedona!?!), but as it moves the plot along at a fair pace, these are quickly forgot as the author immerses you in a strangely believable world.