Monday, September 28, 2009

True elephants

I'm talked about this before, but I was re-reading some info on these guys, and was struck again by the accident of semantic history that calls mammoths something other than elephants. True elephants are the descendents of Primelephas; the members of the Elephantidae family, and the taxonomically dubious Elephantinae subfamily, and they include four genera (counting Primelephas itself) Elephas, Loxodonta and Mammuthus. Elephas had up to twenty species at one point, but today is represented solely by the Asian elephant, with several subspecies. Loxodonta is only known from two species, both of which survive, and which are the African elephants. Mammuthus is known from possibly as many as 12 species, but more likely it's only about half that, as overspeciation of fossils comes about when paletontologists don't take into account sexual, regional or even merely individual variation within a single species. Mammuthus is, of course, the mammoth.

I've attached below a picture of the Columbian, Jeffersonian, or Imperial mammoth (in my opinion, all three are the same species), and looking at it, it's easy to see how it's really just "the American elephant." Compared to Elephas or Loxodonta, it's got a more sloped back, a smaller domed back to its head, and larger tusks, but is otherwise, absolutely a member of the same immediate family.

The Stegodons, on the other hand, are slightly different animals; still members of the Elephantidae family, but part of a different subfamily. Today, if we were to see a living Stegodon or other related animal, we'd think it was an elephant with a few odd features, notably extremely long, straight tusks.

Sigh. Once again I regret the accident of history that allowed me to live in North America after more than half of its fascinating megafauna went extinct.

Dire wolf

Here's another interesting little thing I found out. Although GIS hasn't really given me a great picture of one, I recently discovered that the dog breed called the Alsatian Shepalute, which is bred to be a big, companionable dog, has also been bred to resemble the dire wolf in skeletal morphology and structure, as much as possible.

Of course, dire "wolf" may not have been wolf-like at all, really. It's a separate species under the same genus Canis, but so are plenty of other animals including the red wolf, the coyote, various jackals, the dingo, and for that matter, the domestic dog. They also don't all have the same ancestry; it's presumed that some early representatives of the genus Canis separated in North America, making the red wolf, the dire wolf and the coyote all endemic, but the gray wolf actually evolved in Eurasia and then came into North America through Beringia. Given that, the very specific gray pelt with saddle-like markings over the shoulders that belong to the gray wolf would be difficult to imagine on the dire wolf.

The picture I attached is two possible dire wolf colorations, the left showing a wolf-like coloration, the right showing a more likely coloration scheme based on the dire wolf's ancestry in the southern parts of America and redistribution of the dire wolf in areas that later were only known as the home of the red wolf, the coyote, possibly the eastern wolf (if that is indeed a separate species and not a hybrid of gray and red wolves, or simply a gray wolf subspecies). I like to imagine the dire "wolf" is being tawny in color, shaggier than a wolf, possibly with a darker face, and looking like a big dog. Not unlike, for that matter, a big Alsatian shepalute.


You may have heard of Archeopteryx, the "first bird." Well, here's some big paleontological news, that just broke over the weekend. An older bird has been found, again, from China, which is the modern Gold Rush of dinosaur paleontology. Anchiornis huxleyi (Huxley's near bird) has been discovered in the Oxfordian Tiaojishan formation in Liaoning, China. It's been described, based on two specimens, as a troodontid, which are closely related to dromeosaurs. The later, better known dromeosaurs and troodontids might even be seen here as secondarily flightless specimens, based on finds like Anchiornis and others from the late Jurassic. This little guy predates Archeopteryx lithographica by at least five and possibly as much as fifteen million years, and shows both plumaceous "dino-fuzz" as well as pennaceous flight feathers. Also like Microraptor, he had four wings; long flight feathers attached to the leg as well, and in fact (unlike any modern bird) even the feet were completely feathered.

I'm not sure that, other than the confirmed earlier than Archeopteryx date, this is a particularly important find; we already knew about Microraptor from the early Cretaceous, and Pedopenna although the dating on that specimen is unclear, and Anchiornis resembled both to a great degree. It does, however, help us figure out exactly what was going on with the dinosaurs, particularly the paravian dinosaurs, that lead to the development of the earliest true birds.

Storm Front

Although it's not the first time I've read it, I haven't really reviewed Jim Butcher's Storm Front properly. And I just re-read it. Mostly, I think, that's because I managed to convince my public library to buy a new copy of the upcoming Dresden Files novel and put me right at the front of the list to have a copy. As soon as it's processed, it's mine for three weeks, which is way more than enough time to read through one of these. Anyway, knowing that in six months or so I'd be needing to read a new Dresden Files book, I figured I'd see what I could do about leisurely going through the series again, starting now. Storm Front is, of course, the first novel in the Dresden Files books.

It's not a great novel. It's interesting. It's got an interesting concept. Imagine Harry Potter, but if Raymond Chandler had written it instead of J. K. Rowling. "Screw this boarding school crap," he'd say. "Harry's a detective. In Chicago." Harry Dresden is also a very likeable character, which is good because the book is narrated by him, and (obviously) told from his viewpoint. Butler takes this interesting concept and manages to make it pretty fun, blending the conventions and formulae of a detective novel with an urban fantasy, with even a bit of Spiderman pathos; Dresden is the laconic, perpetually broke, magical superhero, who can't catch a break in any real-life issue, in a sense.

At times, Butcher's adherence to formula is jarring. He tries a bit too hard. A few plot elements seem really forced, coincidences strain suspension of disbelief, and a few plot holes have me scratching my head wondering why stuff happened the way it did. However, I don't mean this to be a negative review at all; Storm Front is a fun read. It's certainly good enough that the first time (and the second, and now just recently the third) time through I read it in just a few days and left it eager to pick up the next volume. Plus, obviously, I've read it a few times, which I rarely do for books unless they've got some pretty good mojo going on.

The deal with the Dresden Files series, though, isn't that it starts with an incredible bang. In fact, apparently, Butcher had no intention of writing Dresden at all; he had been trying to sell his high fantasy for some time with no success when a writing coach, or professor, or someone had convinced him to try his hand at "Anita Blake-like" since he had professed an interest in Anita Blake. Butcher thought it would suck, and actually wrote Storm Front (then titled Semiautomagic which I think it is a much cooler title, by the way) to prove a point; that it would be so bad, so formulaic, that it wasn't worth pursuing. Of course, he was able to sell it, and that's how he broke into the biz, and Dresden has been his paycheck to allow him to write some of the other stuff he really wanted to, like his Codex Alera series, which I haven't read at all yet.

Anyway, Storm Front is an interesting enough book. But the Dresden Files would only be a footnote in the vast sea that is today's urban fantasy market if Storm Front were as good as it got. Subsequent Dresden Files novels really made a quantum leap in quality from Storm Front; the next novel, Fool Moon is much darker, much stronger, and also funnier. Dresden's narration is good; he's got a cynical sense of humor, a dry wit, and it shows through in spite of what is otherwise pretty much a horror/detective story.

I highly recommend the Dresden Files, and I also highly recommend that if Storm Front doesn't completely capture your interest that you give it another shot with the second novel before giving up. I don't think Jim Butcher is for everyone, but at the same time, I'm not quite sure how anyone could not enjoy it on at least some level, especially anyone who's a fan of fantasy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sleeping Beauty

In Glen Cook's Black Company books, The Lady's mother was suggested to be the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty legend except with a much darker vibe; she wasn't awakened by true love's kiss; in fact, she wasn't awakened at all, in spite of the The Lady's father's efforts to bestow his affection, or at least his appreciation for her beauty, and she concieved and gave birth to four daughters without waking up. I had thought that this was a marvelously dark and twisted idea.

However, while poking around for the early version of fairy tales today, I discover that the earliest known written version of the classic Sleeping Beauty motif, a section of the Medieval romance Perceforest originally published in 1528 and supposedly written down in about 1330 or so, has exactly that happen with the sleeping beauty, there named Zellandine. There, the prince Troilus doesn't bother waiting for her to wake up either, at least until after she's given birth to his two twins.

D'oh! These old fairy tale roots are really freaky. That's one that's unusual, but the cases of cannibalism, incest, and other really sordid, dark themes are simply rampant within these early versions.

Of course, the classic Sleeping Beauty motif has older roots; the Brunhild and Sigurd story from pagan Germanic mythology is also suggested as a sleeping beauty source. Of course, that's also difficult to date; the Nibelungenleid and the Volsunga Saga, both of which have Brunhild references, were only written late, but are believed to have roots going back to 5th or 6th century greater "Germania"---although actual textual evidence doesn't even get us quite as far back as Perceforest---sometime in the 13th century.

Halloween music

Well, I wasn't really going to talk more about Halloween music, but since that raging fangirl nicole can't leave me alone with her very poor understanding of rhetoric (or the concept of checking definitions before posting words with which she's obviously only vaguely familiar) it's been on my mind a fair bit.

Let's recap what I said, shall we? Just so that there's no confusion for anyone who's capable of a rational conversation in the English language.

1) I knew of Midnight Syndicate from a year or two ago. I used to be disparaging of the whole idea of what they did, preferring to listen to actual movie soundtracks with real orchestras and all that jazz, but after giving them a listen at a Halloween store, I bought into the idea and picked up a few Midnight Syndicate CDs. They weren't bad, and for a certain kind of mood evocation, I arguably didn't have anything that worked better.

2) This autumn I became aware of another band working in the same medium called Nox Arcana. I also found out that Nox Arcana and Midnight Syndicate had a shared history; one Joseph Vargo was a significant part of Midnight Syndicate's early history as a producer and "creative director" and he's also the founder of Nox Arcana.

3) I also later found out that they left on pretty bad terms; I read in particular an interview that Joseph Vargo had done for Gaming Report, and left hosted on his own site. Based on Vargo's own comments, I got the impression that Vargo was a egotistical prima donna, and that he came off as a bit of a jerk. I said as much here on my blog.

4) On Wikipedia, I found out that Vargo had also alleged that Midnight Syndicate had plagiarized the concept of his own CD Darklore Manor when they made The 13th Hour. I knew enough about copyright law to know that you can only copyright the specific expression of an idea, not an idea itself, so the fact that he would even make this attempt made him look even more like a jerk. I also commented that it was ironic that he would make that claim, and then go on to record albums that were very obviously "inspired by" Midnight Syndicate CDs.

5) This prompted me to do a few other Google searches, and I found the court document from Case 1:07-cv-01197-JG that showed that the plagiarism claim was thrown out of court. As of course it would be, as anyone even kinda sorta familiar with US copyright law could easily have predicted.

That's it. nicole's claims that I'm a Midnight Syndicate fanboy are absurd; I said right up front that I'm still pretty skeptical about their musical acumen for one thing. Her claims that there's more going on then what I've posted about are probably quite true; of course there is. However, that's irrelevent to me, because I'm only posting about what I'm posting about and I'm not posting about what I'm not posting about. Duh. Plus, her claims are based on rumor and hearsay which she sadly doesn't know how to distinguish from actual evidence or proof.

Anyway, enough about nicole. I've been tempted to reinstate comment moderation because of her, and her ridiculous protectionism of her goth idol Joseph Vargo. Vargo is a (very, very minor) public figure, and as such anything he says publicly is open to criticism, and contrary to her delusions, that is neither slander, libel, defamation or anything else even closely similar to that. Especially when I've been very careful to not comment on anything that was a rumor or hearsay, even when she brought up speculation and hearsay and demanded that I change my opinion because of it.

My comment number 4 above, though, has prompted me to propose an experiment, which I'll probably start next week when I've maybe got some time to start it. This experiment is based on two ideas: 1) although Nox Arcana's sample mp3s didn't impress me too much, that's partly because they were out of context. Now that I have some (most) of their complete CDs, I think that they're the equal of Midnight Syndicate, certainly. In fact, I'd venture to say that almost 99 out of 100 people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between their work anyway. I personally don't have any horse in this ridiculous online factionalism between them; I'm not a fan of one and not the other, and I think it would be absurd to be so when the music is so literally the same. 2) As a mentioned above, Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana each have a number of albums that focus on the same themes. NA alleges that Darklore Manor was "copied" in The 13th Hour while I snicker and point out that they have several CDs that did the same thing to pre-existed MS albums, so they really should both just shut their traps about it at get back to work recording more music.

However, why not put these matched pairs in head-to-head competition with each other? Here's my proposal, I'm going to listen to each matched pair album twice; once just to listen through and once to make notes and observations. Granted, this kind of music is "background music" so I expect that my attention will also wander a bit, but that's why I'm going to do it twice to give myself time to really catch whatever differences there are between them, and then I'm going to write a head-to-head competitive review of each matched pair, picking which one I think is my favorite and explaining why.

This may be more difficult than I think; it occurs to me that there may not be an easy way to pick a favorite with music that's so similar in tone, theme, and execution, but I'm going to make the attempt anyway. Also, before I can completely do all the matched pairs, I need to actually find one more of the CDs still. I may have to download Blood of the Dragon as an amazon mp3 album (for $8.99---not a bad deal) in order to do this, but that's OK.

Here's the matched pairs. I'm listing the MS one first, just because I already had them and it's easier for me. Plus, M is before N in the alphabet:

  • Midnight Syndicate's The 13th Hour vs. Nox Arcana's Darklore Manor
  • Midnight Syndicate's Vampyre vs. Nox Arcana's Transylvania
  • Midnight Syndicate's Dungeons & Dragons vs. Nox Arcana's Blood of the Dragon
  • Midnight Syndicate's Gates of Delirium vs. Nox Arcana's Blackthorn Asylum

Anyway... may be the best albums win!

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Well, I enjoyed Way of the Wolf enough that on taking it back yesterday to the library, I also popped into the shelves and got the next two in the series. I could have gotten the next four, but realistically I probably can't read those in the next three weeks before they come due. So much for my list of my own books I'm supposed to be making it through.

I'm also re-reading the first Dresden files book. I think it's the season; Halloween makes me think of Dresden or something. Plus, I just convinced the library to pre-order the upcoming new Dresden book in April and I've got an immediate hold on the book as soon as it's processed. Those are quick reads too, but... there's 11 or so of them. These two series will keep me busy for a little while...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Way of the Wolf

Way of the Wolf by E. E. Knight, is the first book in a series called Vampire Earth. It's an interesting concept; imagine the concept of Stargate, but instead of aliens being the source of our Egyptian mythology, they're the source of our folklore about vampires. They come to Earth via a system that's not unlike Stargates, and here the story is set about 50-60 years in the future, after the vampires have decimated the population, killing nearly ¾ of the population with a plague, and then rounding up most of what remained, having them live as little more cattle in some cases, and as cattle dogs in others.

Of course, the story tracks the career of a young man, David Valentine, who belongs to the resistance movement. Certain areas of the North American continent are largely free of vampire incursion, and serve as "at seige" nations of sorts, and David Valentine is a soldier for this group. The aliens themselves are at war; the vampires being those who became addicted to siphoning off "aura" from other beings (via drinking their blood) and those who don't. These less vampiric aliens brought a few key advantages to struggling humanity; the ability to unlock latent mental and physical abilities. David Valentine is a "wolf"---his senses, reflexes and stamina are greatly increases from his human normative pre-wolf days, making him a superhuman warrior... although still not exactly a match for a vampire one on one by a long shot.

Knight is a pretty good writer; he makes David a believable and interesting character, he describes a fantastic setting, and he manages to keep tension and plot structure at a nice clip. I found the book very easy to read through in a short period of time (of course, it's also not that long of a book; just shy of 400 pages in mass market paperback.) As well as the fascinating secret history aspect of the books, there's a lot of implicit setting stuff that I found really intriguing.

For instance, the remainder of the US has been knocked back into a technological Dark Age of sorts; kinda like the early 1800s. Knight also had society resemble the early 1800s, which is one of the things I found more interesting; small rural towns and the lifestyle of early American pioneers... but with the constand fear of vampire attacks.

This also comes at an especially opportune time, as I'm in the middle of developing my vampire kingdom module for my modular campaign setting, and this is a good model of vampire kingdoms ruled by various vampires, or "Kurian lords" as they're called here. Knight himself says that he first developed this setting as a roleplaying game setting, and ran games there for his friends.

Anyway... check it out. A fun new take on a classic idea.

Nox Arcana and Midnight Syndicate

Well, I've read a bit more on the shared history of these two musical groups, and the levels of pettiness, ego and douchery from both parties is pretty pathetic. But I won't bore you with the sordid and ultimately fairly boring details; suffice it to say that we benefit from it; when Midnight Syndicate decided that they wanted to go their own way without Joseph Vargo's self-professed "control freak" and "less than diplomatic" touch, we ended up with two outfits doing this kind of stuff and releasing CDs which means as Joe Consumer, we now have a lot of choice when it comes to dark mood music.

I've run around town at various Halloween stores lately (I mentioned two, but of course, that's in my suburb. There are two others a few blocks from where I work, for instance) and picked up most of the Nox Arcana CDs. I already had most of the Midnight Syndicate CDs from last year, or even the year before.

Although I don't know that it's worth my while to review them, since the reviews would all kind of blend together, I will at least list them, and point out that I've listened to them the last few nights while reading and it's certainly added to the reading experience. (Also: finished a book last night, and I'll be reviewing that later today too, assuming I have time to post the review.)

Anyway... here's what I've got.

Midnight Syndicate
Born of the Night
• The 13th Hour
• Vampyre
• The Dungeons & Dragons Soundtrack
• Gates of Delirium

Nox Arcana
• Darklore Manor
• Necronomicon
• Transylvania
• Phantoms of the High Seas
• Blackthorn Asylum
• Grimm Tales
• Shadow of the Raven

I'd really like to pick up Blood of the Dragon assuming I can find it, because it's supposedly got a nice D&D-like vibe. I do think it's ironic that Nox Arcana apparently tried to sue Midnight Syndicate because they thought The 13th Hour was too similar to their own Darklore Manor, but they then returned the favor by doing their own thinly veiled answers to the D&D soundtrack and Gates of Delirium. Oh, well. Did I mention the pettiness?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Darkly Everafter

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. I love it when the sky turns gray, the leaves turn orange, red and yellow, a chilly wind cuts through you, forcing you to break out your warmer clothes, and... most of all... I love it when Halloween stores start to open. Actually, in our neck of the woods, mostly only the latter has happened so far. Halloween stores are places that are only open for 6-8 weeks of the year tops, and they're stuffed to the gills with masks, costumes, and decorations that are macabre, gruesome, and totally, totally fun. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I told Julie (my wife) the other day that I wish we could afford to permanently decorate one room in our house as a kind of gothic horror room and pipe spooky music into it year round. I'd get my gamer friends in there to game, I'd sit in there to read, and basically it would just be an awesome hang-out room. Although it would earn me a ton of goth points, and I'm really not a goth at all. I just like Halloween. And artists like Depeche Mode and The Cure.

One thing that's a result of Halloween stores is the gradual degradation of my classical musical snobbery. See, I also like classical music; I've played two instruments and done a few other things that cause me to appreciate it a lot. I say classical, but I mean that in the broader sense, not the stricter sense; what I really mean is "Romantic era" music, which starts with Beethoven in the early 1800s, and makes up most of the orchestral compositions for the next nearly 100 years. I'm a big fan of composers especially from central and eastern Europe: Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Dvorak, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. So for a long time, I had a real snobbish attitude about orchestral music; if it wasn't one of these types of composers, it wasn't up to snuff.

The first chink in that armor was John Williams and the soundtrack for the Star Wars movies. John Williams is a very talented composer, and the more I listened to some of his work, the more I realized that even though it was composed to accompany a movie (and a somewhat cheesy, fun and pulpish movie at that), the music is really good, and I don't just mean that in a "I like it" kinda way; it's diverse, it's technical, it's good music. So, for a long time, I've also now been collecting movie music soundtrack scores on CD, and I have now a lot of them.

When folks would talk about what kinds of music was best to listen to in the background while playing D&D (and other roleplaying games, but since this conversation usually came on on ENWorld, it was mostly D&D) I would recommend a few of my favorite orchestral movie music scores, and I used to be disparaging of those who recommended Midnight Syndicate's official D&D soundtrack. Why would you listen to two guys with a synthesizer each when instead you could be listening to real composers writing for real musicians playing real instruments? (The fact that I also preached the musical acumen of artists like Depeche Mode... who play synthesizers, didn't seem to concern me at the time). What changed my mind about that was the local Halloween store.

Although Midnight Syndicate did do the official D&D soundtrack CD, they're actually much better known as the makers of half a dozen or so gothic horror Halloween-type music CDs which are the gold-standard when it comes to Halloween stores, haunted house type attractions, and ironically, their last two albums have been scores for b-movie horror. Although I'll say that musically Edward Douglas and his partners in Midnight Syndicate don't have as much going on as John Williams, Howard Shore, or Danny Elfman, I discovered that it didn't matter; this stuff was fun anyway. Also, sometimes you just want mood music in the background, and that can add a lot to the experience of a roleplaying session, or even a book-reading session, even if the music itself is kinda forgettable. Not that Midnight Syndicate's music necessarily is, but...

That brings us to this year. We had our first foray into the two Halloween stores that grace our little township this weekend, and at one of them I spotted a CD called Necronomicon by artists Nox Arcana. Which, let's face it, isn't nearly as catchy a name as Midnight Syndicate, but I presumed that the concept was pretty similar, although this specific CD obviously had a Lovecraftian theme running through it. I looked up Nox Arcana, and found that they have a website. On their website, they've got a lot of musical samples in mp3 format. Although I don't actually have any of their CDs (yet) I've got a pretty good flavor of what their music is.

Thing is; Joseph Vargo, one of the two Nox guys, actually worked with Midnight Syndicate while they were developing their haunted house sound, and is credited as being part of their project for the Born of the Night and Realm of Shadows CDs before parting ways. In fact, he did the cover art for both CDs; and he comes at this as an artist first and a musician second. A few minutes of fact-checking suggests that the parting may not have been amicable; Vargo mentions a "stifling creative environment" and apparently a lawsuit was filed with Nox Arcana as the plaintiff asserting that a Midnight Syndicate CD was deceptively similar to their own Darklore Manor. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

In any case, Vargo's artistic background overshadowing his musical background is actually apparent on the musical samples I've listened to so far, which I've loaded up on my mp3 player for fun. Although Nox does attempt to diversify by incorporating some ethnic and period instrumentation on some of their works, it does tend to blend together. This is true mood music; musically it's difficult to listen to without getting bored, but in the background of a roleplaying game session, a haunted house environment, or while reading Bram Stoker's Dracula (seriously, read that novel if you haven't. And listen to the Nox Arcana sample mp3s while you're reading it. Why not?) it'll only add to the experience, not take away.

Plus, the artwork is really pretty nifty. It's been growing on me.

Here's a youtube video of one of their songs from the Grimm Tales cd, "Darkly Everafter", including a slideshow of the art that (I presume) accompanies that CD.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deadhouse Gates

The Norse have the Edda, the English Beowulf, the Welsh the Mabinogian, and so on and so on. The national epic of the Canadians appears to be The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I just read Deadhouse Gates, which is the second in this ten book series, the ninth of which was just released in the UK. It's a pretty massive volume; the mass market paperback clocks in around 836 pages, not counting several pages of appendices, glossaries, character lists, and other items at the back (and the front.) And seeing it on the shelf next to its peers in the series, it looks like one of the narrower of the volumes in the series. Although pagination is a tricky thing, it looks likely that the complete series, in US mass market paperback edition, will be almost 9,000 or 10,000 pages long.

That's not exactly problematic in the fantasy genre; the Wheel of Time is probably as long, as is the Sword of Truth. G.R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice is probably only going to fall short of that total because it's he's such a slow writer that he won't put out as many total books. Heck, even Glen Cook's Black Company books started edging up to that kind of page count by the time they ended. Clearly fantasy fans have an enormous and voracious appetite for long, long books. But what exactly do you get in those 10,000 pages of Malazan wonder?

I started reading Deadhouse Gates several months ago; shortly after coming back from Hawaii in early July. Two and a half months later, I finally wrapped it up. Now, as I mentioned, it's a long book, but it's not that long. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files novels are a more subdued 350-400 page books (edging up to nearly 450 in the later volumes); less than half that length, yet I can read them in just a day or two sometimes. If Deadhouse Gates were really good, I'd have finished it in a week or two tops. Erikson's work here is very ambitious, and I applaud him for that. He's cranking out a massive, massive epic at a pretty good clip, he's jettisoning many of the tired fantasy cliches, he's really trying to raise the genre a bit, and take it in new directions. He's also got some great ideas, and some great visuals, and when he's really paying attention, he can write some really jaw-dropping scenes. I'm reminded of the finale in Gardens of the Moon, where the Jaghut tyrant comes to town in Darujistan. Great stuff. The Semk godling character here, with his mouth and nose sewn shut, is a fascinating visual.

But, sadly, good visuals and noble intentions do not a good book make, and Erikson's work is brought down by the simplest of problems: lack of good craftsmanship. Let me be more specific.

1) There are no believable characters in this book. Or interesting ones, either. I suppose Kalam almost qualifies as an interesting one, but even he feels cardboard, his motivations arcane, and his actions only barely related to those motivations even so. I actually thought this book was going to be an improvement on the first one when it started. I'm going to name off a few characters, which if you haven't read the book you won't recognize, but bear with me; they're all just examples of the problem I'm referring to. Felisin's predicament at the beginning started off so well, generating human interest and empathy… and then she became completely unbearable to read about. Duiker and Fiddler were major point of view characters who were almost completely indistinguishable other than by whom they were surrounded. Nobody's motivation seemed to make any sense, and they did not act in accordance with stated motivations half the time. I found every single character (again, with the exception of Kalam who, for whatever reason, I kinda liked) unbearable to read about. Some of them were not just boring and seemingly taken with nonsensical whimsy, they were literally painful to read. Iskaral Pust was supposed to be comic relief, I think, yet he was incredibly annoying. Mappo wallowed in so much self pity that I wanted to slap him upside the head. Duiker was even worse; Erikson literally spent hundreds of pages rehashing despairing philosophical internal monologs in this guy's head, making the plot line for which he was the point of view character, the would-be epic Chain of Dogs, tedious beyond belief to endure. Heboric starts off sympathetic and then goes both bitter and crazy making every scene he appears in after a certain point roll-eyes-worthy.

2) There is no coherent structure to this novel. Erikson is firmly, in my opinion, in need of a lifetime prescription to Ritalin. The book bounces around constantly at seemingly arbitrary cut-off points, between the Fiddler group, the Kalam group, the Felisin group, the Mappo group, and occasionally others as well. None of these "plot" lines actually follow much of a plot. There's a structure that you expect in novels, that facilitates reading, that Erikson eschews for reasons that I don't clearly understand. Although lots of stuff is happening, plot isn't necessarily advancing, and the entire book feels very disjointed. After reading it, I'm not even 100% sure I could outline the plot for you, and if I did, it would actually be a very short outline. Plus, like I said, hundreds of pages were devoted to crybaby whining via internal monologs. Hundreds!

3) Erikson's writing style is deliberately dense. It's florid, grammatically awkward, and imprecise. The imprecision in particular is galling; it's sometimes difficult to tell exactly what it is that he's describing at first. A good quality of most fiction is that it disappears; the writing is well-crafted enough that you don't notice it, and the setting, events and characters feel real. That's never the case here; in fact, the entire experience often feels very surreal. You're always isolated from it by the bad writing, the hoaky dialogue, the difficult descriptions and characterizations, and all of the other poor craftsmanship elements that cause the writing to stand up in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Things happen without sufficient explanation or description, leaving you scratching your head wondering why. The dialogue is particularly painful; I think it's an attempt to be clever and/or deep, but the characters rarely feel like they're having conversations with each other; they seem to be reading out of context fortune cookies at each other. Another annoying element of Erikson's style is that he "cheats" and witholds information from the reader deliberately and crudely, by having character internal monolog about the information, and then not tell you what it is that they're thinking about.

4) He tries too hard. Possibly he's got an ideological ax to grind, although I always hesitate to ascribe that motive to writers, but for whatever reason, he focuses too much on "the horror of war" and it doesn't work. Glen Cook, for instance, can write about that theme, and the men who perpetrate those horrors, and it feels authoritative and authentic. Erikson's ham-fisted attempts to evoke an emotional response are completely emotionless; he writes as a man who's read too much and lived too little, and simply doesn't have the wherewithal to present that topic and make it ring true, or powerful.

In short, the book really makes me wonder what in the world happened to editing careers in the fantasy literature department. Apparently there are none, because fantasy publishers don't believe in editors. This book would have been dramatically improved by some good editing; probably 20-25% of it could simply have been cut without disturbing the structure at all, the entire book needs a serious level of polish.

Now… re-reading that, it sounds pretty scathing, and I suppose that it mostly is. And I'm going to stand by it. That said, there's a good book trying to get out of the mess of a book that we actually got, and I did find myself occasionally caught up in Erikson's ambitious grand vision. And, on the rare occasions when he's on track, the books provide some really exciting fun stuff. So, even after about 1500 pages of work that's rendered occasionally nearly unreadable by crippling, fatal flaws, I'm still not 100% convinced that I should drop the series. Erikson's ambitious, audacious take on the fantasy genre is compelling in some way, and I find myself wondering if he can improve his craft enough to pull it off before he's done. I'll probably give the next book, Memories of Ice a try. However, I’m not going to be in any particular hurry to do so. I've got enough stuff on my docket to read as it is, most of which I'm looking forward to quite a bit more than I am to this, so it's going to be a very low priority for me to advance further into the misadventures of the Malazans.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conan and the Hand of Nergal

Nergal is, of course, a Babylonian god, who's cult at Cuth is mentioned briefly in the Old Testament, as a religion brought back into depopulated Israel by the now heathenized Samaritans. This meant that, like many other middle eastern heathen gods, he was demonized by early Christian writers. He's perhaps more familiar to gamers under the mangled spelling of Nurgle, where he's a chaos god of disease and decay in the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings.

Be that as it may, under the direction of Tim Truman, Nergal is an elder, Lovecraftian god with a fondness for zombies. Truman's story came from a fragment penned (but never published) by Howard, and ignores a completely unrelated pastiche based on the same fragment written by Lin Carter... with the exception of using Carter's title.

This story, like the rest of the unofficially titled "Tale of Nestor" is a very Lovecraftian type of Conan; an almost horror story, which Howard wrote several of, but never starring Conan directly. It was an obvious direction to take, but Howard himself never quite got around to it, it seems.

The writing continues to impress me. Tim Truman is not Kurt Busiek, but I find that I don't really care. Unfortunately, Giorello is also no Cary Nord, and that I do care about more. Not that he's not a talented artist, but it isn't the Conan look that I've come to know and love, and frankly I found it occasionally distracting. Although I also have to admit that I didn't give Tomás Giorello enough credit previously; his work is very good, and his design of the undead thugs of Nergal is particularly nice. His depiction of Conan himself, the various other characters, and especially the women characters I found disappointing, however.

In any case, I'm a bit wound down on Conan. Not only can I apparently not easily get the next trade paperback from Interlibrary Loan, but I've also just read enough of them to tide me over for a while. When I get back to my Del Rey Howard collections, maybe I'll comment on them again, but for the time being, I'm not focusing on finishing the Erikson book that I've been slogging through for most of the summer, and then turning to a few of the shorter, breezier books in my collection that remain unread before attempting another doorstop of a fantasy epic.

Monday, September 14, 2009


What in the world is "Dark•Heritage" supposed to mean, anyway? People ask me that all the time. Well, actually nobody has ever asked me that, but I imagine that anyone who happened to stumble across this blog, if anyone ever were to, would think it was a pretty doofus name that doesn't describe anything at all with what this blog is about.



Actually, that's a fair comment. The genesis of the name was in a campaign setting that I developed both for a short-lived, yet fun, RPG that I ran a number of years ago, and also some fiction ventures that seem perpetually stalled and abortive, but about which I remain optimistic that I'll actually finish someday anyway. The name came from 1) some elements of backstory, the "secret history" of the setting, which was unpleasant, and therefore implicated a "dark heritage" for the characters in the setting, and 2) a more specific dark heritage of one of the main, iconic characters who is a point of view character in the fiction work.

Whether or not the title has any relevence to the setting anymore or not is debateable; as time goes by and my tastes gradually evolve, some of the specific elements that indicated a "dark heritage" have been removed and replaced with other elements. Also; it's even less clear what this campaign setting name has to do with this blog. For that, I can only say that I was casting around for a name, and not coming up with one, and this is what I picked. I think that at the time I created the blog, I had in my mind the idea that it would focus on the setting as it developed. This has not happened, but the name stuck.

In fact, Dark•Heritage is just my catch-all name for almost any home on the internet now; I've got a wiki named after it (two actually) which is a wiki for the setting (both the obsolete version and the new, improved, and... so far empty second version), I've got another website that has the setting at a point in time (prior to the wiki) and I've got an in process set of house rules; a personal SRD if you will of how I run the game, since I've discovered that regardless of setting, I prefer the same fixes repeatedly.

In any case, Dark•Heritage lives on as a slightly anachronistic title; one who's relation to the various bodies of work that bear it is dubious at best. But, the graphical look of the blog still bears some hints of the Dark•Heritage heritage; the banner and bricks, for example, are supposed to evoke the dark, urban, slightly steampunkish flair of the setting.

For the best encapsulation of the setting, although one that's now out of date, check out my series of "Dungeoncraft" articles that describe it right here. Although don't make an attempt to get to those messageboards. They've been dead for years. You'll note that, like many of my online endeavors, this one stopped before it was completely done, but it is sufficiently complete to be useable nonetheless.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Conan and the Rogues in the House

This is the first of the Conan trade paperbacks that I didn't ever buy... because, like I said earlier, of the change in creative team. I shouldn't probably have worried about that. This is still excellent; Tim Truman does a marvelous job of scripting this, and Tomás Giorello's art is adequate. I won't say that I like it as much as Cary Nord's... but it's also not immediately obvious when it switches over, so that's a good thing.

The main story of this segment, Robert E. Howard's "Rogues in the House" is often considered one of the first truly "good" Conan stories; where Howard flexed his creative muscles a little bit and did more than simply follow his succcessful pulp commercial formula. Because of "Rogues in the House", we got "Queen of the Black Coast", "Red Nails" and more. This story also paved the way for one of the most iconic Frank Frazetta images ever painted, which I'll post here when I'm done with all the text.

The interesting thing about it is that even though it's an action/intrigue story, there's a lot of philosophy that's woven into the story. And it's pretty bleak philosophy; Howard's take on civilization as inevitably corrupting and decadent vs. barbarians as "noble savages"; violent, yet honorable and honest, at least.

Anyway, the translation to comic book medium was, as always (so far) excellent, and the filler stuff around the story was fun too. Interestingly, the authors threw in a bit of an in-joke in having Conan get into a bare-knuckle bar fight with "Stakostok"---a very transparent stand-in for another Robert E. Howard character, Steve Costigan, who was a dumb as rocks yet loveable gigantic sailor who starred in a lot of Howard's "boxing stories".

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cheliax: Empire of Devils

I picked up (and read, in short order) the latest Pathfinder Companion volume, Cheliax: Empire of Devils. Despite the fact that the title had me humming Frankie Goes to Hollywood all night (Cheliax! Don't do it! When you want to come!) I liked the book. Cheliax has actually featured in quite a few of the Pathfinder products, at least in some form. The Rise of the Runelords adventure path is set in Varisia, and Chelaxians (or the Chelish; Paizo seems to use both adjectives nearly interchangeably) are a major component of that nation. The second adventure path, Curse of the Crimson Throne is set in Korvasa; a city that technically isn't Chelish in terms of sovereignty, but absolutely is Chelish in terms of culture. The next two adventure paths explore some other areas of the setting, but we return to Cheliax for the fifth adventure path, the Council of Thieves, which is set in the sprawling urban dump of Cheliax's former capital, Westcrown.

So clearly someone at Paizo likes Cheliax.

I do too; it's an interesting idea. Geographically, it would represent maybe the Western Roman Empire to Taldor's Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, but only geographically and from a historical perspective. Nothing else about it fits the bill; rather it's a fantasy totalitarian state. And since Nazis are the ultimate pulp evil, what better way to build on the concept of fantasy Nazis than to make them a devil-worshipping theocracy to boot? It's just too over-the-top evil, and that's the charm of the place, frankly.

Now, I wouldn't have minded if the authors had taken just a few sentences here and there to talk about how in Cheliax they're Asmodian apologists or something. No, he's not a devil, that's a heresy that the other gods have spread, etc. Nobody thinks that they're evil, and Cheliax doesn't have any such psychological buffer. There's also a handful of weird "this society is lawful evil, so here's some concessions to arbitrary lawfulness" moments in the book. That's one of the problems with the D&D alignment system, though and it's a shame that the authors had to play up to that bizarre alignment paradigm at the expense of verisimilitude. But it's not a huge deal either way.

The art, as always, was very nice, although I don't know what that thing on the front cover is supposed to be. A centaur Hellknight? I didn't know there was such a thing.

One nice thing about the book was that even for a land that's known as an oppressive, controlling, totalitarian regime, I felt like there was stuff you could use. You don't just go to Cheliax and have to follow all the rules because otherwise you get thrown into prison; this is a place that could be a home for adventure. And not just the "spying on Cheliax" or "infiltrating Cheliax" or playing "Luke Skywalker to Cheliax's Death Star, with Hellknights as Sith Lords". This place felt a bit like a place that you could easily use in your game. If I were homebrewing something similar, I'd probably make it slightly less overt; Asmodeus goes by a different name, people in Cheliax don't believe he's evil (although of course he is) and there's not such a risque, "Ooooh, we're the devil-worshipping Nazis!" vibe all the time; it would be just a tad more subtle.

Conan and the Halls of the Dead

I finished another one of the Conan trade paperbacks the other day. The last one that had the original team of Busiek and Nord together; Truman actually takes over in this book, and Mike Mignola (of Hellboy) fame penned an episode too. By the next trade, Busiek is completely not to be found, and Cary Nord himself leaves off in favor of Argentine artist Tomás Giorello. Since the combination of Nord and Busiek was a big part of what attracted me to the books in the first place, I never bought beyond that. I do, however, have the next two from Interlibrary Loan from my public library, so I'll be talking about them soon too.

The main story here, the Halls of the Dead, is a pastiche. Howard wrote it up as a quick outline or sketch of a story that he never actually composed. Mike Mignola stepped in and made it very overtly "Lovecraftian"; the halls of the dead, not only guarded by strange undead people, but also by these red frogs, who seem to congretate around a gigantic three-eyed vaguely froggish creature that swallows Conan with a tongue that looks like a fat octopus, and then keeps coming even after Conan cuts himself out.

It's very much like something Howard would have written... but didn't, and it's a nice nod to Howard's fellow "Three Musketeers" of Weird Tales; I couldn't help but think of Clark Ashton Smith's froggish god Tsathoggua throughout the story.

Tim Truman is, although no Kurt Busiek, a notable Howard fan, and while I previously wrote him off as "not the original" I'm actually excited to see what he can bring to the next trade paperback in the series, which is centered around the classic Howard tale "Rogues in the House."


It occurs to me that given my rather fickle nature, I will probably not continue the series of posts about LEGO bad guys in the Space theme after all. So, I'll post some Spyrius themed "unofficial" sets that I've got on my hard drive (so I can erase them) and move on. The actual Spyrius sets seemed to converge on two design ideas; wheeled vaguely anthropomorphic robots, and flying saucers. Anyway... here goes. For whatever reason, most Spyrius fan-designs seem to be very small little fliers.

Tarim Mummies

I'm not going to review it, but as a note, I finished reading J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair's The Tarim Mummies last night. Again. It's actually one of my favorite non-fiction books; it delves into a mysterious pre-historic and para-historic mystery and although it comes up with a nice, plausible solution, it's careful to point out that it's far from a done deal.

The Tocharians, the enigmatic people who are the main focus of the books, are an interesting linguistic problem, and a good fit for the similar interesting archeological problem; what the heck was the Afanasevo culture doing so far to the east in the Minusinsk basin, when it looks like a transplanted Pontic steppes culture like the Yamna culture?

I know it's kinda silly, and possibly ethnocentric in a bad way, but I can't help feeling a kind of kinship with these far-flung peoples who spoke languages similar to mine (kinda) and who seem to have the same Eneolithic cultural ancestors (if not actual genetic ancestors). They seem like extremely early pioneers, not unlike our own pioneers who settled the American West... except that they were three or four thousand years earlier and they went east from the Black Sea to the Altai Mountains and the Tarim Basin, not west to the New world, and from there to the Great Basin.

Still... you gotta work with what you've got.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Half-mage classes

I wonder if my idea of chopping D&D magic using classes in half and using them as if they were d20 Modern Advanced Classes isn't a mistake after all; why not just use the d20 Modern advanced classes exactly as is? There'd be a number of very minor changes needed, but not really any moreso than would be needed for the Wizard anyway (using the Mage as an example; I could do the same with the Acolyte/Cleric).

To whit:
  • I'd need to do some scrubbing of the skill list and the required skill levels to enter into the class. My preference for skill lists is now the Trailblazer skill list that consolidated six skills into three, eliminated two others, and introduced Linguistics to replace all the bizarre Speak Language skills. Note that Concentration is one that got eliminated, to be replaced by a spellcaster level check. That only simplifies the Mage somewhat, so it's OK.
  • It has a d6 hit die instead of d4. That's OK.
  • It has a faster progression of spell abilities (the Wizard basically comes with none; the Mage has bonus feats twice as frequently, and also gives several class features here and there that are the equivalent of Metamagic feats.
  • I already prefer using Action Points and Defense bonuses, so those can just be used as is instead of me having to manually add them back in for this class.
  • Reputation is superfluous, so I can just ignore that.

So, it would be a better choice for a character who wanted to play a spellcaster, but not so much so that it jeopardizes my intent vis-à-vis flavor.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Class costing

One of the very interesting things about Trailblazer, which I've mentioned here already, is that it "costs" out the classes in order to numerically balance them against each other. It found, for example, that the fighter and rogue were at the bottom of the heap, with paladain just barely above them.

For fun, I've done a few of the Complete classes using the same methodology, and come up with a bit of costing data for a few of them as well. From Complete Warrior, I did the Hexblade and the Swashbuckler, which came up at .85 and .86 respectively; barely better than the fighter or rogue; right about on par with the paladin. The Ninja from Complete Adventurer comes in at .85, also weak. In fact, that was probably a very generous interpretation of the Ninja's class abilities; I'd probably fudge the total down to .80 or so, since the class abilities aren't really any better than the Rogue's (and many of them are in fact the same class abilities anyway.)

I haven't yet done the Scout or the Spellthief or the Samurai (although of those, really only the Scout interests me much anyway) but I expect to find that it's similarly weak.

Now, this sounds terrible from a basic D&D perspective, and in many ways it is, but I've also come to another conclusion in the last few days. I don't play D&D. My preferred house rules include severly limiting magic. Lately, my tendency is to chop spellcasting classes in half and use them as something like d20 Modern advanced classes. Therefore, without the cleric, druid and sorcerer (and to a lesser extent the Wizard) throwing off the power curve, all of the classes are much more balanced against each other, just at a slightly lower level than the average if you factor in those other classes too.

That doesn't mean that the Trailblazer improvements to the classes aren't necessarily welcome, although it does make them not nearly as necessary. Plus, if I adopt them, that means I need to modify all the Complete classes that I allow into the game too, in order to compensate. And given that, I'm less likely to embrace the Trailblazer innovations whole hog after all; it's more work for me to do so, all because of the fact that I specifically don't want yet another D&D clone feel.

Cliff swallows

I was reminded of the cliff swallows, small migratory birds that live part of the year in San Juan Capistrano in California, and famously all leave at once by the thousands to fly to Goya, in Corrientes province, Argentina. Festivals in both cities accompany both the arrival and the departure of the massive flock of migratory birds. It has also brought the two cities together after a fashion; although legally cities can't enter into treaties, but the two cities have signed a so called "declaration of brotherhood." Exactly what that means other than feel-good PR I don't know (and I suspect nothing) but I was struck by the image; how many fantasy settings have little details like that? Little details like that really make settings come alive and feel more "verisimilitudinistic"--i.e., they better give off the illusion of reality.

I like to make darker, more pulpish, more savage settings, filled with alien life a little more like Barsoom than like California or Corrientes (which, although I've never been there myself, is by all accounts a pleasant enough place---I've had friends who lived there.) So migrating swallows need to be replaced with hairless, carnivorous bat-things, like this bad-boy originally painted for the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. They could migrate, couldn't they? Sure, why not?