Pierced Heart, by Robert Laws

Over the Edge is a classic TRPG that’s getting a new edition soon. The game revolves around Al Amarja, a fictional tiny island nation that survives by virtue of basically having zero regulations on anything and being able to provide tourists with what they cannot find elsewhere in the world as easily: drugs, experimental medical treatments, exotic sex, etc., etc.

It’s also infested with various conspiracies, remnants of prehistoric human races, aliens, real mages and other things They don’t want you to know about.

Basically, think Naked Lunch (more the movie than the book since it’s actually coherent).

Recently, I’ve decided to revisit the game, maybe pick up some stuff I didn’t have. While doing that, I’ve learned about the existence of Pierced Heart, a novel set in the world of Over the Edge.

It’s reasonably good.

The premise of the novel is that a popular Christian singer Jenna has committed suicide on vacation to Al Amarja. Her brother and manager, Patrick, fearing the public backlash, decides to conceal the true cause of her death and hold the funeral on the island. Her estranged twin sister, Alex, learns about Jenna’s death from the news and flies to Al Amarja to attend said funeral.

Alex quickly learns about the true nature of Jenna’s death and decides to investigate the circumstances farther, hoping to understand Jenna’s motives and perhaps find some closure. Over the course of the investigation, she finds out that Jenna was taking an experimental drug called Communion in the weeks preceding her death, a drug said to allow its users to communicate with deities of their choice. That prompts Alex to start taking the drug herself as well as seek out contact with its sole distributor, which puts her on the radar of the Net, an international crime syndicate coveting the secret of the drug’s production.

At its core, Pierced Heart is a drama about coping with the loss of a loved one, questions of faith and your own place in life. It utilizes Over the Edge setting to give the story an edge, forget the pun, to make the readers question the reality of Alex’s experience as well as introduce a more physical conflict to go along with the psychological one, but never loses focus on the characters and their feelings, which is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

It’s the strength because it never loses itself in the peculiarities and weirdness of the setting, never becomes too distracted from the heart of the story, which allows it to adequately explore the themes it introduces. While Alex’s journey of understanding and accepting her sister’s death is not exactly new, and the conclusions reached by the book don’t break new ground, it’s still something that would most likely resonate with a lot of readers, even if you don’t have experience in taking weird designer drugs for some reason.

It’s a weakness because, ultimately, Al Amarja doesn’t matter that much to the story. Aside from the Communion drug, which is important to the narrative but could have been easily introduced into any other setting as a new weird drug hitting the streets, the scenes dealing with Over the Edge setting are essentially distractions from what the story has to say. Often they’re amusing distractions*, but ultimately the story doesn’t need to be set in Al Amarja.

*I particularly like Alex’s interview with a Customs & Immigration official, who tells her that he’s supposed to ask her weird questions like whether she believes in UFOs and such to put her off balance, but after meeting Vishnu he tries to be a better man, live a better life, and he feels that his job, where he has to interrogate and belittle innocent people, prevents him from doing so. He then proceeds to have a nervous breakdown in front of her and apologies for even now making her uncomfortable despite his better intentions. We then learn that it was all an act designed to put her off balance since she was already forewarned about the regular tactic of weird questions.

The conflict with the Net is a particularly weak point here: Alex doesn’t come into contact with their agent until near the end, where the conflict is rather quickly resolved (in an admittedly fairly well-done scene, but still).

I suppose the author had to maintain a balance between showcasing the setting and not overwhelming people not familiar with the game, but I’m not sure he struck the right one.

Another flaw of the book is that it’s a bit too fond of telling instead of showing. There are several instances where the text just tells us characters’ history and motivations rather weaving them into the narrative in a natural way.

Overall, though, I’ve enjoyed Pierced Heart. It’s not really a high art, and it’s unlikely to become a book you reread over and over, but it’s competently executed. If you find the premise interesting, you’ll likely find the book worth reading.

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