Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2015/05/25/book-review-shadowrun-borrowed-time/
Unlike a lot of tabletop games, Shadowrun has had a ton of fantastic fiction released for it. Whether you’re talking the original Robert N. Charrette trilogy, Tom Dowd’s Burning Bright, or many of the other books that came out of the FASA/TOR deal back in the early days of the game, you were usually guaranteed a good read. That hasn’t always been the case the past few years. The short pieces of fiction are almost always great. Pieces like Neat, Another Rainy Night, Sail Away, Sweet Sister, and The Vladivostok Gauntlet have all been top notch. The latest batch of novels however… let’s say they haven’t been as good as those released in the past. Hell on Water and Fire & Frost were not things I could recommend to anyone, for example. I’ve been afraid to pick up Crimson because I didn’t want to be hit with a third bad Shadowrun novel in a row. I skipped Dark Resonance for this reason as well (But Ashe reviewed it and enjoyed it for what it was, so I’ll probably go back and get that). I was content to stick with older Shadowrun novels for a while, but R.L. King asked me to review Borrowed Time and I agreed to do so. Which brings us to the very article you are reading. Did Borrowed Time continue the streak of bad Shadowrun novels or has the fiction side of the Sixth World started to show signs of its former self?
First off, the protagonist of Borrowed Time is one of my two favorite Jackpointers – Winterhawk. I don’t know why, but I always picture him looking like Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun facially, even though one has a beard and one doesn’t and I know what Winterhawk looks like from SR4e and Shadowrun Returns. Maybe it’s the fact they are somewhat similar personality-wise. It’s not that I think all mages look alike, I swear! I love the idea of an upper class scholary Shadowrunner that is in it more for the knowledge than for a payday, fragging feebs or sticking it to the man. It’s a unique dynamic when so many Shadowrun characters blur together. Oh, another grizzled Orc Street Samurai? Ho hum. Winterhawk has always stood out in personality, style and tone and so I really enjoy when he shows up (or actually leads) a Jackpoint discussion. Because of this, a full novel featuring him made me extremely optimistic for Borrowed Time. Oh, who is my other favorite? It’s Plan 9, but I can’t imagine how a novel involving him… er, her… er, it… er… them(?) would work without potentially ruining the character’s mystique and comedy value.
For those of you new to Shadowrun, I’m happy to say that Borrowed Time is exceptionally newcomer friendly. The novel doesn’t bring up plot points, situations or characters you can only understand by having been a fan of the Sixth World for many years and read through multiple supplements and sourcebooks to truly understand what is going on. One of Shadowrun‘s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses is the constant Metaplot weaved through all the gaming books. For long time fans, it’s wonderful to see this rich tapestry and history unfolding before you. For newcomers it can be intimidating, confusing and extremely annoying, as most books refer to previously released titles or make references to them in a way that the authors assume you’ve read and owned everything put out for Shadowrun in the past few years. This is not the case with Borrowed Time. It’s a very straightforward novel that doesn’t really go in-depth about the Sixth World and how the earth of the 2070s differs from the real life version without dragons, elves and cyberware that we live on today in 2015. So you don’t have to worry about who Dunkelzahn is, the names of all the Megacorps or what a Physical Adept it. Everything is pretty self-explanatory in Borrowed Time, which makes it a great starting point for people who have been interested in Shadowrun but haven’t taken the leap yet. About the only question I could see newcomers having is, “What is a Rigger?” since four different ones show up in the novel, but even someone totally new to Shadowrun will walk away with a basic idea of thinking it is slang for a vehicle driver… which is right in an elementary way. So if you’ve been wary of the sheer amount of back history Shadowrun usually relies on you knowing, worry not, as Borrowed Time will gives you all the basics you need to understand the Sixth World, in addition to being a fun read to boot.
So now, let’s talk plot. As mentioned previously, Borrowed Time is about Winterhawk, who has more or less retired from Shadowrunning. So what brings him back for a mission? Ancient tomes containing mystical secrets? A plot by insect shamans to take over the world? Shutting down an evil corporation? No, nothing no grandiose. This time Winterhawk is doing a run because he has no choice. My favorite mage/scholar has been given a complicated poison that is guaranteed to kill him. The only way to get the antidote is to do the run a particular Mr. Johnson has asked him to complete. Why go to this trouble to make Winterhawk fulfill the mission instead of simply ask? Well, those reasons will unfold as you read the novel. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he has no choice but to comply. To this end, Winterhawk has to assemble a team and engage in a mission that involves extracting an employee from the Shiawase Corporation and having them guide the team to an artifact that Johnson desperately wants to get their mitts on. Of course, no run ever goes as planned, and so Winterhawk sees his team going from Seattle to California to opposite ends of Australia (the only two cities I’ve been to Down Under, in fact!). What’s worse is that the team sees not one, but two betrayals as the novel goes on, a lot of infighting amongst this motley crew, and perhaps the worst possible outcome when the extraction half of the missions occurs. All in all, even for Shadowrun, this particular mission seems to be cursed. Speaking of a cursed mission, the MacGuffin at the heart of it all? Oh man, it’s bad hoodoo. Bad enough that two members of the assembled team don’t make it out alive. I won’t spoil who they are, but I will use this to illustrate the point that this mission isn’t like some high fantasy licensed RPG fiction where everyone comes out unscathed. This is Shadowrun chummers, and although the mortality rate isn’t as high as say, Call of Cthulhu, runs go bad and runners get killed. This book highlights how complex even the simplest of missions (on paper) become.
Characterization is definitely the high point of the novel. Winterhawk of course shines, thanks to being written by his creator, but the supporting cast is really well written too. Within the novel you’ll meet Scuzzy, the socially awkward Decker (only schleps call them hackers) with a heart of gold. There’s Ocelot, an old friend of Winterhawk who is pretty much a white hat and who suffers from some notable issues with claustrophobia. There’s Dreja, the socially conscious Ork Street Samurai who has past issues with Winterhawk and comes on the mission for her own reasons. You have Tiny, another Ork Street Samurai who is nowhere as socially conscious as Dreja but makes up for it with his love of guns. Finally there is Kivuli, a silent but deadly elf. These six make up the core of the team, but other characters will come and go throughout the novel. There are four different Riggers (don’t worry, it’s not a Spinal Tap situation), the extraction target and Thuma, an aboriginal apprentice of magic flitter through the novel. There isn’t a lot of depth to the antagonists of the story save for the one that gets the whole chain of events starts, since they don’t show up very often. This is simply because the book is far more about interpersonal team dynamics and the evolution of the characters than it is protagonists vs. antagonists. Sure, there are some battles interspersed throughout the novel, but this is not an action packed book. The story is a very slow burn. The full team isn’t assembled until a quarter of the way in. You don’t get the big picture as to what all has transpired in-between the lines until sixty percent of the way in. You don’t get to the start of the actual climax until the last ten percent of the book. Again, these are NOT bad things. Think of it more as an adventure that is more role-playing than roll-playing or the difference between a hack and slash dungeon crawl and a narrative driven piece where the action is in the words rather than the combat. I personally prefer my novels to be more character driven and action-driven, so I really enjoyed Borrowed Time for what it was.
Now, no novel is perfect, and as much as I enjoyed this one, I did have a minor issue with the climax of the book. Now this isn’t a spoiler, but obviously Winterhawk’s side won (even though there were fatalities along the way), but even after reading the climax several times, I couldn’t really figure out HOW they won. I couldn’t tell if it was because of causalities suffered on the bad guy’s side, if the host body for SOMETHING wasn’t strong enough and things would have just fizzled out no matter what, if the team’s face (for this situation) managed a critical success negotiation-wise, or if the people he was trying to negotiate with had no intention of helping the main bad guy anyway and he was just deluded into thinking it was. It was never clear which of the following caused the downfall of the antagonists-side, if any, or even a combo of the events, and if I was unsure which is the correct answer to why we didn’t have a massive shakeup in the Shadowrun meta-plot, I’m not sure newcomers will either. This is a minor quibble though, as I have said before, and aside from my confusion on this particular plot point, Borrowed Time is a top notch novel from beginning to end.
So, after a streak of some bad SR novels, Borrowed Time proved that long form Sixth World fiction can be as good as the short stories and novellas Catalyst Game Labs has been putting out for a while. Borrowed Time is a fine read, even if you’re brand new to Shadowrun and might be a better way to get your feet wet than the core 5e rulebook itself. It’s good enough it has me considering whether or not I should pick up Dark Resonance and Crimson, which is a good sign, but I might just wait for Shaken since I have two core rulebooks and a Call of Cthulhu adventure collection that needs to be reviewed. For now though, I’m quite happy with Borrowed Time and I think you will be too, even if you’re relatively unfamiliar with Shadowrun.