RuneScape widens its world yet again with the second novel based on the free to play MMORPG, titled Return to Canifis. For those familiar with the world, Canifis is one of the members-only areas, a dark and evil place populated by the ravenous, as well as werewolves and their vampire overlords. The new book, also written by 2008/2010's Betrayal at Falador author T.S. Church (see our review here), weaves this gritty setting into a story that will appeal to both younger and older readers, and is capable of drawing in even those unfamiliar with the RuneScape game. Church has listened well to constructive criticisms of his debut book, and I found Return to Canifis to be a much darker, more focused work that will engage readers from beginning to end.
If you haven't read Betrayal at Falador, I won't spoil it for you here, as it's a good idea to give it a run-through before tackling Return to Canifis. The author has gone to great lengths to make Return to Canifis accessible to those who missed the first book -- sometimes delving a little too deep into past events for those are familiar with them -- but to truly get a sense of the main characters and how they have developed, you may want to walk that journey with them. For example, Return to Canifis opens with the bitter -- and also maimed -- villains of Betrayal at Falador, outlining their fanatical desire for vengeance against those who had brought them down six months prior. T.S. Church paints a good picture of the how and the why, but to truly know what motivates these characters, being there for the war, destruction, and intrigue -- as well as the maiming -- definitely helps set the mood in the new book.
Return to Canifis tells the story of a winged beast that has escaped from the evil realm of Morytania. This creature has somehow bypassed the magical protections of the River Salve, which are meant to keep Morytania's monstrous evil folk from wreaking havoc on the nicer people of the RuneScape world. The beast has been killing and kidnapping humans around Misthalin's capital city of Varrock, leaving behind the grim and cryptic message "He is coming." The "he" the message refers to is thought to be the immensely powerful vampire lord, Drakan, someone that no one in their right mind would move against directly. Drakan is the embodiment of fear and possessor of an evil intelligence, and is a main player in a prophecy that foretells the rise of a new King in Varrock.
Squire Theodore, one of the main heroes of Betrayal at Falador, happens to be in Varrock while this is happening, and, in short order, the entire party from the first book finds themselves reunited there and attempting to defeat the winged beast. During the struggle, the secret connection of one party member to the evil land of Morytania is revealed to the King. The group then finds itself with no choice but to go on a mission into Morytania itself, into the city of Canifis, in hopes that they might barter with the vampire Lord for the safe return of the King's people, as well as discover the depths of his nefarious plans. As is often the case, however, all is not what it seems, and the party finds itself in a land that is not only peopled by creatures that wish torture and eat them, but also in the midst of a power struggle that threatens to swallow them whole.
Vampires and werewolves in fantasy settings are often a point of annoyance and eye-rolling for me, but RuneScape handles them well, and T.S. Church does a fantastic job of giving them character and dimension. The same can be said of his own characters. The original party of heroes from Betrayal at Falador have grown and changed from their previous experiences, and, while they are ultimately loyal to one another -- for the most part -- layers of tension and mistrust, especially surrounding the character connected to Morytania, are a constant theme in the book, threatening to destroy the group from within. Of course, this tension is only helped along by the machinations of Lord Drakan, Lord Malak, and the original (and still maimed) baddie Sulla, and it all serves to help drive the story along, playing with your own allegiances as a reader. With each passing chapter, you will find yourself more involved in the individual stories and perceptions of the characters as they progress through an intricate tale that is as easy to digest and enjoy.
A major stylistic difference in Return to Canifis over Betrayal at Falador is also one of the main reasons for the new book's draw. The darker setting helps, as it adds an ominous sense of conflict to the story, but the real power lies in the author's choice to use a more singular point of view. Readers still get behind the eyes of all the major characters, but instead of jumping about from mind to mind within a single scene, Return to Canifis keeps to the perceptions of one character at a time, doing its best to boil that down to only the main characters. This makes for a much stronger connection with their stories, adding levels of understanding and intimacy that make you want to know more. Character motivations are still painted rather plainly, and may sometimes come across as awkward to readers with a wealth of life experience, but remember that this book was written with younger readers in mind. In any case, the story and characters are more than compelling enough to keep even more evolved readers interested.
T.S Church has once again done a remarkable job of bringing the world of RuneScape to life for both the uninitiated and long-time players. Return to Canifis is intriguing, engaging, and well paced; a compelling story with a dark and gritty setting. The interesting cast of characters and cliffhanger ending will draw you in and leave you excited for the next book. Highly recommended as a fun and easy read!