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Shadowrun: Crossroads
Stephen Kenson
Roc Books, 273 pages

The milieu is a familiar one. Hackers and street warriors, gangs and multinationals, cyberdeck cowboys riding the matrix. Player characters are shadowrunners, corporate espionage agents available for all B&Es, courier runs, smuggling, hits, and unscheduled data extractions... for a price. Yes, the anti-hero, criminal hackers are sticking it to the man and making a couple of extra nuyens.

What makes Shadowrun different is magic has returned to the world, dragons run for the President of the USA, and gangs of undead roam the seedy night streets. Characters can be any of the metahumans: trolls, dwarfs, elves, or orcs. Weapons can range from monofilament whips and forearm snap-blades to manabolts and death touch spells. Characters form a team of shadowrunners, essentially a small felonious business. With the nuyens they earn from contracts, they can buy lifestyles, or even pool earnings to purchase a grander lifestyle for the team, a swank office on Fifth Avenue hoping to attract more lucrative contracts. Sir Darren Toogood is replaced by a wiseguy elf knocking on a warehouse door and asking to speak to the Don. Nefarious capitalism comes to fantasy.

FASA Corporation
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Don Bassingthwaite

Don't let the giant ant on the cover of this book throw you. This is not a book about the insect shamans that seem to be the ubiquitous magical villains in Shadowrun novels and products. There is one, but he is quickly, efficiently, and heroically dispatched in the opening pages of the novel as we meet the main character, Talon (again, don't let the cover throw you -- he's only referred to as "Tommy Talon" once in the entire book). Talon is a shadowrunner in the cybermagical Awakened world of 2060. He's a streetmage, a rough and tumble wizard who came into his power in the damp concrete and rusty steel of the toughest parts of Boston. He's got a magical dagger and a penchant for conjuring fire elementals. That's him on the cover. Ignore the ant, focus on the hero.

The prologue sets the feel for Crossroads: something nasty and ambitious is lurking under Boston's mean streets and it has a minion who's almost as nasty and ambitious as it is. The nasty something is Gallow, a corpse that's not quite dead, hanging in an abandoned subway tunnel. The minion is Garnoff, another mage, though way more corporate than Talon and -- as is clear as the story proceeds -- a lot less nice. Garnoff is on a serious power trip, his magic and ambitions fed by Gallow. Gallow... well, it's not exactly clear what Gallow wants. At least not right away.

Stephen Kenson has a fine sense for both tension and conspiracy. We know that Gallow and Garnoff are up to something very, very bad, and we quickly come to realize that whatever that is, it involves Talon. No, that's not a spoiler, because even though we have the pieces (or some of them), the whole puzzle only forms up very slowly. Even when we know what's happening, Kenson manages to keep the tension on by not revealing quite everything or by answering each question with a new puzzle. Talon is attacked and learns that Garnoff is behind it. But why? He doesn't know Garnoff. I don't think it's accidental that there's a strong mystery element to Crossroads. In many ways the book reads like an American detective thriller mystery (no locked rooms with arsenic in the tea pot here).

Crossroads also deals well with two of the recurring themes in Shadowrun: the corporate and the magical (heavy duty fans of the cybernetic won't find a huge dose of it here). Too often they tend to butt heads because the styles an author is trying to portray just don't mesh. Kenson pulls it off though, making the magical modern where appropriate and the corporate rough and vicious.

This comes through very strongly in the characters he chooses: Boom, the troll with connections, for example, or Garnoff, the mage with more slippery angles than a greased polygon. The characters are strong, with unique ways of looking at things that makes them and their magical, corporate, future-fantastic world very believable.

Talon, of course, is the strongest of the lot -- something of a natural, since this is his story and the danger comes out of his past. But that past doesn't feel like something that was just spliced together. It feels real and complete, something that Talon actually experienced and grew from over the years. In fact, if it feels like Talon has been around for a while, he has: Kenson created the character and used him in two Shadowrun gamebooks (the Underworld sourcebook and Portfolio of a Dragon) before Talon saw his fiction debut in another Shadowrun novel, Beyond the Pale by Jak Koke. Crossroads adds new details that round Talon out and fill him in. Actually, there are so many details added -- about Talon, about his friends, and about Boston in general -- that I hope there's a sequel coming! Not to worry though: all of the main threads spun in Crossroads are very satisfyingly resolved. Any sequel would be gravy.

The downside to the tension and details of Crossroads is that there is a tendency to repeat information, something can get a little tedious after a while ("Didn't I read that already?"). But it's not too distracting and it does make it easy to keep track of what's going on.

There's also a blessed lack of intrusive game exposition. Kenson doesn't attempt to compress an explanation for the entire Shadowrun setting into a single page: a few comments here and there give novice Shadowrun readers all the information they need to know without boring the hardcore fans. For the fans, there are nifty little nuggets like the make of car that Talon drives or the kind of gun that Trouble, the female lead, uses -- hey, brand name is everything in the corporate world.

So Crossroads has tension. It has conspiracy. It has details. It has characters. So what's it all about? Well, unfortunately, that I can't tell you. Remember those puzzle pieces? Half the fun is figuring them out for yourself. You don't get a direction sign in the middle of a maze, telling you "this way to the exit." If you know what the pieces are, or what paths through the maze don't go anywhere, they're not as interesting anymore. And I wouldn't want to do that to you.

Maybe that's why the cover artist put that ant from the beginning of the book on the cover -- anything else would give away too much from the middle.

Copyright © 1999 by Don Bassingthwaite

Don Bassingthwaite is the author of Such Pain (HarperPrism), Breathe Deeply (White Wolf), and Pomegranates Full and Fine (White Wolf), tie-in novels to White Wolf's World of Darkness role-playing games. He can't remember when he started reading science fiction, but has been gaming since high school (and, boy, is his dice arm tired!).

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