Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Southtown

I actually wanted to do this myself at one point; take a screenshot of the Fatal Fury 3 map and label it. I should have known that a little looking would have shown me that someone else had already done it, and it would have taken me a lot less work.

Here's a few maps of Southtown, from various games. In most respects, the geography is pretty consistent. Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves is apparently set on a different peninsula/island a little to the East of the rest of the action. I never knew that. Huh.

Here's the original Fatal Fury map. Because the game (and the story) were still so primitive, I don't take this one all that seriously. But it paved the way for what was to come. Note: the subtitle of the original Fatal Fury was The King of Fighters. No relation to the game to come with that same name. Or, well, little relation, anyway.

I didn't look up the release dates, but I think Art of Fighting 2 was the next one, at least of the labeled maps that I have. This takes the original Fatal Fury map, rotates it a bit, and then attaches it to the mainland for a much fuller picture of Southtown.

Here's the map from Fatal Fury 3 which is very similar to the previous one, although turned into an isometric view and made slightly more stylized. This is the one I was working with when I wanted to label my Southtown geography. It was more work than I thought, because I didn't actually know what all the locations were without playing through the game.

Finally, here's a map from Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves. You can just see the eastern edge of the past maps over on the western edge of this map, so you can tell that all of these locations are new ones to the franchise(s).

Anyway, there's my Southtown geography lesson for the day. I'm actually kinda interested in that because I find weird esoteric details about my hobbies interesting. Plus, some of the Fatal Fury games are among the best in the genre (Mark of the Wolves and Real Bout 2 are the ones in particular I'm thinking of, and lots of other folks would also put Fatal Fury Special on that list) and because Southtown plays such an important role in the King of Fighters franchise, it's interesting to know.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Summer Knight

Jim Butcher's fourth Dresden Files book, Summer Knight, goes in a slightly different direction than the previous ones, and most of those that follow too, for that matter. There's a strong horror vibe going through most of the novels, and the antagonists: warlocks, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. support that. Now, however, the antagonists are fairies, and the feel is much more fantasy than horror.

Not that the faeries aren't some pretty mean SOBs; because they are. A combination of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and traditional Gaelic folklore about the sidhe give us elves and faeries that are twisted, alien, mercurial and cruel at the best of times; downright destructive, spiteful and murderous the rest of the time. Dungeons & Dragons could take a page outta this playbook, and maybe a few less out of Tolkiens, and be vastly improved in my opinion. If I've gotta deal with elves, this is how I want them. Against the sidhe conflict, in to which Dresden is inexorably dragged, we also have the backdrop of his continued tension with the White Council (of wizards) and the Wardens, as well as the still freshly declared war against the Red Court of vampires.

Butcher likes his sidhe and the rest of the fairies, apparently. Not only have they at least made some kind of appearance (even if only a cameo) in all of the books so far, they continue to do so. While this book is the only one (to date) to treat them as the major antagonist, they continue to occasionally play significant roles in the books to come, especially Mab, the Winter Queen (a name coined by Shakespeare, it appears, in Romeo and Juliet instead of A Midsummer Night's Dream like you might expect (although her Summer Queen counterpart, Titania, comes from there) where she's just an off-hand reference).

Otherwise, the book is a little light on recurring characters; Michael Carpenter and Thomas Raith aren't even mentioned, and Karrin Murphy makes little more than a cameo herself. However, some important characters are introduced, like Mab, the Merlin, Ebenezar McCoy and the rest of the Senior Council of wizards. There's a surprise appearance by another character, but I won't spoil that here. It's big news. Plus, Dresden finally tells Murphy the way things really are, and brings her into the loop. The Alphas, specifically Billy Borden, also feature a bit, and are shown to have matured significantly since they appeared in Fool Moon.

This book's fun because it departs just a bit from the tone and feel of the others. Like I said, it's got a bit more of a fantasy feel, but not too much. There's still a mystery to be solved at the heart of the book, and Dresden does his usual routine to solve it. There's a climactic showdown in the lands of Faerie itself, that betray Butcher's ambition (still unfulfilled at the time) to write High Fantasy. Well, he had written it; to sell high fantasy is probably a more accurate a phrase.

In other words, Summer Knight is a very competently done iteration of the Dresden formula, and one that deviates a little bit in tone, but not much in form. It lays the foundations for much of the Dresden activity that follows without being groundbreaking in and of itself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Backup

While at the library yesterday afternoon, I saw this quick little book by Jim Butcher; a kind of spin-off of the Dresden Files in novella form, from the point of view of Thomas Raith, an intriguing character who's not... obviously... Harry Dresden himself.

Because it's only a 12,000 word novella (about 70 pages) I grabbed it and read it in about an hour yesterday evening. It takes place at an undetermined point in the series, but it must be fairly late due to a few details that are made clear in this narrative. It also shows that there's quite a bit more going on in the supernatural world of Chicago than Dresden himself knows about.

This one is an interesting concept. Apparently Thomas Raith belongs to a secret society called the Venatori, and their goal is to weaken or break the power of the "old gods" and other cthonian entities by causing them to become forgotten. Because various gods gain power through the worship of mortals, this essentially makes them relatively powerless over mortals. Of course, Thomas is first introduced to us as a White Court vampire, and that's still true, naturally. He's not doing it necessarily because he's a hero. Well, possibly he is, but the rest of his organization certainly isn't.

There's not a lot to say about the narrative, because it's so short. The concept behind it works. Thomas is a readable character, although he comes off as not too different from Dresden himself in most respects. Also, surprisingly, the roll-out of the plot was not unlike that of a Dresden-helmed novel. Thomas keeps saying that he's not that good at magic, and yet that's a big part of what he uses to resolve the conflict.

In fact, if I have any complaint at all about this book it's that; it was an opportunity to see the universe through fresh eyes, and yet it felt pretty much the same. It's well done, it's recommended, but ultimately, if you miss it, you aren't missing much.

Oh, yeah... that is a Mike Mignola piece, in case you were wondering. There's two or three other black and white pieces of his throughout the book too.

Hawk & Fisher

Although I'm reading an omnibus edition, I'll be reviewing each novel of the Hawk & Fisher series individually. The first novel is called, simply enough, Hawk & Fisher.

I've been preaching for some time now that fantasy fans who only read fantasy are really missing out. A lot of other genres have a lot to offer, and as a player of fantasy roleplaying games, that's even more true. If I can take conventions, tropes, and ideas from other genres and work them into my fantasy gaming, that will only make it all the stronger. But, as long as I've been saying that, I haven't been saying that as long as some people have been doing it, and Simon R. Green's 1991 novel Hawk & Fisher is a mystery novel in a fantasy setting. Not only is it a mystery novel, it's almost a cliched, tired, stereotypical mystery novel... except that that fantasy setting makes it fresh again.

Hawk and Fisher---the main characters as well as the title of the novel, are a husband and wife team; the supposedly only honest guardsmen in the entire "police" force of the corrupt port of Haven. (I found it odd that a totally corrupt city is called haven, when the Thieves World guys used the synonym Sanctuary for their own totally corrupt city. For that matter, Green Ronin's Freeport setting as a pirate capital is kinda playing on the same riff.) We get treated to an early display of their competence when they have to put down a vampire in a tough neighborhood as the opening scene, but quickly they get invited into the classic mystery set-up.

They are assigned as bodyguards for an important reform-minded Councilman, and he's going to a small, private party at the sorcerer Gaunt's house that evening, along with his wife and a little more than half a dozen other folks. There's a murder, and it's clear very quickly that one of the guests must be the murderer. The sorcerer magically locks down his house until morning; no one can enter or leave. Hawk & Fisher need to discover the murderer before that time.

Of course, it's not simple. As they start interviewing the guests, all kinds of things don't add up about their stories. Everyone becomes a suspect; everyone's got things to hide. And before long, more people start getting murdered.

If you have any interest in the way a classic murder mystery novel is set up, this is an interesting case study, because like I said, this book is by the numbers murder mystery. The fantasy setting, though, adds some unique elements. Vampires, werewolves, demons, magic spells; all of it becomes important as the story goes on. It's not very long; in omnibus form, it came in at less than 180 pages, but I read it fairly quickly, so I think that even in standalone format this book would have been fairly short. But I recommend it. The title characters are interesting, the setting is interesting, and for me, I was especially delighted to read a mystery novel with the trappings of a fantasy novel.

Because it's an omnibus, I'm going to continue on into the next one before reading anything else (I think---unless my interlibrary loan shows up and I need to read it right away), so I'll probably have three Hawk and Fisher novels reviewed in relatively short order.

Friday, November 13, 2009

No Elak of Atlantis

Well, apparently I will not actually be getting Elak of Atlantis after all. Some local patron checked it out from under me and the Inter Library Loan request was rejected.

I'll try again in a few weeks. Or maybe I'll just buy it. I saw several copies for less than $5 on Amazon.

I'm also considering possibly reviewing the Hawk & Fisher novels individually, even though I have them collected to two three-novel omnibus editions. Stay tuned. If I decide to do that, the first one should be done fairly quickly; it's not that long and I made some decent progress last night. Part of the reason for this is so I can "pause" and read my ILL request of Northwest of Earth when it comes without having to worry about timing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grave Peril

Last night I finished Jim Butcher's third Dresden Files novel, Grave Peril. Of course, I've read it before, but I've never specifically reviewed it, and I'm also going through the entire series again so I'm a bit fresh before the new novel comes out this spring. I won't do that every time a new novel comes out (Butcher seems to set a brisk one a year pace) but for most of the novels, it's only my second time through them. Plus, they're quick and easy reads, and pretty fun.

I've already discussed at length my reservations about the series overall, so I won't rehash that here. Rather, I'll focus on the specifics of this novel.

I quite like it, as I like all of the Dresden Files books, especially the second and beyond. However, it wasn't the strongest of them. There's a lot of good stuff around character development. Harry Dresden himself is put through a real wringer, and emerges a much richer character. He undergoes a number of really life-defining moments in this book. His girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, does as well.

Also, this book introduces recurring character Michael, the Fist of God. Michael is the wielder of Amoracchius (always written in italics) which the books hint might be the actual real sword with is the legend of Excalibur. Michael isn't a magician in the strictest sense of any kind, but as a highly favored of the Lord righteous man with a magic sword, his "faith magic" is actually quite powerful. Butcher took a slightly more difficult road here, and I applaud him for it. Given his probable audience, it would have been easy for him to cast the Catholic Church and anyone associated with it in a bad light. Dresden himself states that although he believes in God, "he doesn't exactly see eye to eye with him." However, in contrast to that, we get repeated exposure to the character of Michael, which is everything that a member of the Church should be and hopefully aspires to. He's a great character, and no less interesting for his squeeky clean image. Anyway, Michael recurs frequently throughout the series, and his oldest daughter actually ends up becoming Harry's apprentice later on, so the impact of Michael (and his family) is substantial. I'd say other than Karrin Murphy and possibly Thomas Raith, he's the most important non-protagonist character to appear in the series. Thomas Raith is also introduced in this novel, by the way, although his future importance is barely hinted at. Murphy, on the other hand, gets very little screentime.

Anyway, the line-up of characters who appear, and what they will do later sounds more fanboyish than helpful, so I will point out that plot-wise, this one probably has a little too much going on, frankly. Who's the bad guys here? The ghosts? The vampires? The sidhe? All of the above? The lack of focus means that they aren't really given their due. Butcher instead focused on setting up important plot arcs that would take him through much of the rest of the series, and character development. While this isn't exactly problematic, in some of the other books (Fool Moon for example, which came right before this) the horrific nature of the "monster of the year" is more fully explored, and creates a much more dramatic effect.

I suppose that's the challenge of writing a series of mostly self-contained, yet loosely connected novels; the self-contained aspect tends to create friction against the connected aspect. In this case, the connections with other novels (future novels, mostly) are stronger while the self-contained aspect is a bit weaker. That makes the novel itself a bit weaker, but the series itself stronger.

But, I'm really not trying to gripe. It's not that big a deal; the novel is still plenty of fun, the bad guys are still scary enough, the characters are still charming, and the plot is still engaging. Everything that makes a Dresden Files novel fun to read is still here, and there's plenty of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New books to read

I'm demonstrating a continuation of my astounding lack of discipline about my stated reading schedule. On a whim, I've requested Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis and C. L. Moore's Northwest of Earth (both in the recent Paizo Planet Stories imprint) from Inter library Loan, so when they arrive, I'll have to put my own reading on hold and have a go at them.

As with most of the Planet Stories line, these are "forgotten classics" of the pulp era. Henry Kuttner created the character of Elak to fill the void left by Howard's death---his Conan stories were a huge hit with the readership of Weird Tales. C. L. Moore, otherwise famous for writing the character Jirel of Joiry, often touted as the first female sword & sorcery hero.

Northwest Smith, on the other hand, is a kind of Han Solo or Indiana Jones like character in a setting not unlike Leigh Brackett's solar system. All of the planets, or at least the inner planets, are able to support life, and there are native humans on Mars, Venus and elsewhere that in many ways are analogous to the relationships of Western countries in the nineteenth century with various indigenous peoples in their far-flung colonies.

Anyway, this will probably mean another delay in reading my Simon Green Hawk and Fisher books... unless I can get that going really fast and read a significant portion of the omnibus before these ILL's show up. So, in case you were really excited to see my thoughts on that (something I'm sure nobody was), well... sorry.

I'm also not quite sure how to review these yet; they're both short story collections, not novels. So I guess I'll have a go at it as best as I can.
One thing that's interesting, is that both of them supposedly sport a "Lovecraftian" vibe. Northwest Smith (the character in Northwest of Earth, naturally) is maybe like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and the setting bears some resemblances to a Leigh Brackett or Edmond Hamilton solar system setting (common to sci-fi pulps of the time) but the antagonists are often things that you'd expect to see in a Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith story.
Anyway, I don't have any direct experience with either writer, so I'm excited to uncover some "forgotten classics" of the golden age of pulp.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Thief of Llarn

Garder Fox's follow-up to Warrior of Llarn was Thief of Llarn, the further adventures of earthman Alan Morgan on the Barsoom-esque planet of ...unsurprisingly, Llarn. This was a short little book, published in 1966, and is only 158 pages long. My oldest son, who's a little shy of 14 years old, saw the cover while I was reading it the other day, and remarked that it looked like a cool book. I'm not so sure I agree (based on the cover anyway); the cover art by Gray Morrow is replacing Frank Frazetta from 1964's Warrior of Llarn. Gray Morrow had a decent career of his own doing covers in the 60s and 70s (he's the iconic Perry Rhodan illustrator) as well as in the comic book industry, but let's face it; he was a major step down from Frazetta. Even though the Frazetta piece in question is certainly one of his lesser works.

Despite this short length, a lot happens. As was typical for science fiction stories of that era, particularly science fiction stories that were purposefully retreading the ground of science fiction from 50 years earlier, the plot zips forward at lightning speed. Major setbacks are set up, identified, worried about, and then resolved again in less than a dozen pages. Fox makes liberal use of deus ex machina to advance the plot; sometimes stuff happens for no good reason than because he said so.

The gist of it is that a certain type of bizarre jewel is being stolen across Llarn. Alan Morgan is called on to find out why, so he infiltrates the Thieves Guild, impersonating a famous thief Uthian the Unmatched. At this point, we get treated to the "sword & planet" M.O., that is, Fox has his character travel all over the place, visiting exotic locales. There's a kind of travelogue vibe to these types of stories; the action is interrupted occasionally for several paragraphs at a time as some item of local culture or technology or even history is explained, as if by a tour guide. This isn't necessarily meant to be a bad thing, though... as much as I almost hesitate to use the phrase, the point of this is to stroke our "sense of wonder" by showing us cheap exotica and thrills. Burroughs did it frequently, and most of his imitators do as well.

Fox has a little bit more rounded characters than is normal for this genre. Alan Morgan isn't just an everyman hero, he's kinda a dumb jock in a lot of ways, in over his head but for the author's intervention due to spectacular good luck. The women of Llarn are fairly interesting, showing hints of color and personality.

All in all, if you like this genre at all, I think you'll like the Llarn books. They have most of the same weaknesses that all of this genre seems to sport like a badge of honor, but luckily, the Llarn books also seem to have most of their strengths. And Fox has a bit of genuine cleverness here and there in how he exploits the formula. At times, I almost wonder if he's writing a subtle parody of the genre, but at other times I think that the parody is too subtle; more likely he's playing it straight.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sandboxes vs. Railroads

Some of the buzzwords that seem to be flying around fast and furious in RPG theoretical discussions these days include sandboxes and railroads. Railroads has been a term that's been in play for years and years, whereas sandbox as a term, seems a little bit faddish. I've only heard that recently, and I think it's an import from the world of computer game design theory. Let me define them right quick, as I understand them at least.

A sandbox gaming paradigm is one in which the setting or mileu in which the game takes place is static, and only shows signs of life when the player characters interact with it. The classic example is a completely open-ended site-based game design in which the characters can choose to go do anything they want to, pretty much, and as they interact with the sites on the site-based design, things that are waiting in those sites occur, whether it be a monster that attacks them, a treasure they (can) find or something along those lines. Site-based and sandbox go hand-in-hand (although that's not the only way to do a sandbox, it's probably the simplest and most direct.) Because of this, "old school" and sandboxes also go hand in hand. In fact, in some old-school discussions, I've seen folks nearly fetishize the sandbox.

In essense, they've created an ideal that never really existed, where in "the Golden Age" of roleplaying, the proscribed, accepted, and E. Gary Gygax-approved method of gaming was the sandbox, and everything that's come since is a dangerous heresy. I didn't start playing D&D back in 1974 in Wisconsin with the first group, or anything, but I think that attitude is a bit of hogswallop at best. For one thing, it appears that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax differed in playstyle preferences, making the call of "original" playstyle difficult to ascertain at best. For another thing; who really cares who Gary did it? I'm much more interested in what works for my group. In my experience, which does go back to 1980 or so (although it was a few years later before I became a bit more integrated into the D&D hobby) people didn't always play pure sandboxes. In fact, I think a pure sandbox game would be rather boring, personally. The important thing to remember is that a pure sandbox is a theoretical endpoint on a spectrum... not necessarily a desireable goal in its own sake. Some sandboxish campaign design is certainly good in any roleplaying game, but it's not, and wasn't ever meant to be, held forth as an ideal to strive for so much as an extreme to avoid. Running a sandbox game either requires that a great deal of material is prepared ahead of time, or that the gamemaster have a highly developed skill at making stuff up on the fly.

A railroad on the other hand, is something that's never enjoyed a faddish adulation of idealised game design. For the most part, everyone recognizes that a railroad is a bad game situation. As you'd expect from the opposite of a sandbox, a railroad is a game in which the players have little choice to make; they can't go anywhere they want, and in fact they can only really do what the gamemaster wants them to do. Railroadish GMs are often would-be writers, who find themselves uncomfortable with "winging it" when a player character does something unexpected, so their goal is to cause the unexpected action to fail, get the player back on course, and have the game again proceed according to his predetermined plans for the game. The advantage of a bit of railroading is that you can present very interesting and complex scenarios to the PCs... because that's what you've spent your time preparing, instead of a bunch of other things that the PCs may or may not interact with, according to their choices. Of course, the downside is very obvious; few players enjoy having the GM's story read to them; they want to be creating the story themselves through their actions.

The kind of game I like to run utilizes some very limited railroading, and then a non-site-based sandbox idea. Here's what I like to do. The model is called narrow-wide-narrow (and I can't take credit for the name or the expression of the model; I was doing it kinda intuitively, but a much better GM than I had actually quantified this). In the beginning of a game; either a campaign or a one-shot either one, the players probably don't have strong ties to anything. They don't yet "stick" to the setting, or have any reason to get engaged with it. You need to be a bit forceful up front, giving the players more direction to get the game going.

While you do this, you also throw out a lot of potential plot hooks. See what the players are biting on. Let them gradually take control of the game. This is the transition from narrow to wide. The players want to set the agenda for the game, and pursue the things that they find interesting, not what you do (so make sure that the plot hooks are going to be just as engaging for you to run as it is for them to play.)

As you near the end of the game, there's probably going to be a lot of dangling threads, unresolved and un-followed issues. This is where you need to start narrowing it again. As you see that a potential end is in sight for the game, start bringing these back together. This is best accomplished if you don't plan very far ahead. Elements can be linked after the fact, and players can't tell the difference. You don't need to be a conspiracy mastermind to make it look like you are; you just need to keep track of what they've done, what they've discovered, and what your reaction as the arbiter of the setting has been to that. Start bringing all this stuff to a head, so the game can end on a high note, with a satisfying conclusion that leaves things resolved and done.

And that's my narrow-wide-narrow strategy. I find that games that veer too much into pure sandbox or pure railroad territory are equally unengaging, uninteresting, and ultimately, not very fun to run or to play either one.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Camouflage - Sensor

The last two nights I've pulled out my copy of Camouflage's Sensor CD. This was released in 2003. I didn't remember that it was that old, really, but like I said earlier, all the post-early 90s synthpop stuff kinda blends together to me.

Camouflage is one of those bands that's been around for a while. They actually released their first CD (in America) in 1987 ("The Great Commandment" single; the follow-up album came out in '88) but they'd been kicking around in Germany together as a band for a good three years or so before that. They had some early success ("The Great Commandment" and the single from their next album, "Love is a Shield") but then struggled to find a market. The trio went down to a duo, changed their sound, released a disappointing studio album (that nonetheless has the brilliant song "Heaven (I Want You)" on it), stumbled around failing to find follow-up commercial success and label support and almost leaving the music business altogether.

Happily, that didn't happen; in 1999 the trio reunited (the band member who left remained good friends with the two who stayed) and they recorded the single "Thief." However, due to label stuff, it took an additional four years for the album that it was supposed to lead off from to get released. FOUR YEARS! However, that album is Sensor and for my money, it's the best Camouflage CD ever made.

Camouflage recognized that a return to their roots was going to be important for this album, so it's a good, German, dark, melancholy and bleak synthpop CD. Unlike a lot of more recent synthpop, it's not full of overt club anthems with pounding pseudo-industrial or trance beats; in fact, it's rather slow-paced and introspective in nature overall. It's got some guitars (mostly acoustic, which is anathema to some synthpop purists, but isn't really uncommon the genre).

The nice thing about it (if you want to call it that) is the thematic unity and focus. The entire album is pretty grim in tone, but it's got an awful of lot beauty to it nonetheless. Camouflage of the past often struggled a bit with English lyrics, but these sound smooth written, smoothly delivered, and work very well.

I've attached a few Youtube clips. First up is an unplugged rendition of the song "Can't Feel You" which isn't too different from the album version. The album version is obviously more synthesizer driven and lush in comparison. Second is the song "Lost" which is my personal favorite. And I've topped it off with the single version of "Thief" although it's important to note that the album version is quite different from this one.








Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Me

I came into my "musical maturity" at about the same time that incipient synthpop was becoming highly mainstream in America. So right about the time that Depeche Mode, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Information Society, New Order, Book of Love and others were regularly filling the charts with successes in America, I was looking for a musical identity of my own. For a variety of reasons, most of which I have no interest in going into here, that's the kind of music that I latched onto.

A few things happened after that. I was in Argentina, a bit disconnected from pop culture, when that all came crashing down and the mainstream success of synthpop evaporated in America. So to me, there are two "eras" of synthpop. The 80s, which culminated in the high levels of mainstream success, and "everything since then." For me, all synthpop of the last five, ten, or even fifteen years is all "new" because it postdates the popularity crash of the early nineties. I call these two eras the "Golden Age" and the "Silver Age" of synthpop respectively. They're a bit misnomered, though... for the most part, the Silver Age beats the pants off the Golden Age.

Anyway, Depeche Mode was always my favorite during the "Golden Age" of synthpop. Something about the bleak, pessimistic viewpoint they espoused struck a chord with me (even though I'm not exactly a bleak, emo type guy) and I think that their themes and sounds are kinda timeless. Either that or I simply haven't matured at all from being a teenager twenty to twenty five years ago. Both could equally be true. But the "heyday" of Depeche Mode's sound, in my opinion, were from their mature but not yet post-synthpop sound, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. Most people will praise Violator, but to me, that CD was always a disappointment. Sure, "Enjoy the Silence" is a classic; probably the most iconic Depeche Mode song ever, but the CD overall was a step downhill from their previous heights.

Anyway, not that I want to lock Depeche Mode in a studio and force them to recreate that same sound, but a lot of bands subsequently (many of them of my "Silver Age" of synthpop, which is still ongoing) made a lot of hay out of mining the same territory as Depeche Mode did in the middle and late 80s. Red Flag, Seven Red Seven, Cause and Effect and Camouflage were early imitators, who were able to cash in with some significant Billboard success of their own before the 80s synthpop boom ended. De/vision and Mesh are two of the most successful groups to come out after the synthpop fall. Given that Depeche Mode themselves have largely abandoned the sound, tone and themes that made them famous (arguably) the fact that some of these bands out-Depeche Mode Depeche Mode themselves is interesting. In fact, I'm not even sure that I'd call much newer Depeche Mode synthpop; it's almost become another genre altogether. Now, I'm not going to say that essentially replicating the sound of someone else is artistically very compelling, but rather, I'd say that these bands mine the same territory, without being outright copies.

I'm going to start a small series of posts wherein I talk specifically about some of the CDs that "out-Depeche Mode Depeche Mode." Most of them will post-date the synthpop crash, and Violator too for that matter, and all of them have some clear ties in sound, theme, tone and feel to the Depeche Mode of the later 80s.

So, heads-up. It's coming. The first CD I'll cover is Camouflage's 2003 effort, Sensor, which sadly is not available via mp3 from Amazon (although much of the rest of Camouflage's catalog is) and the CDs don't sell for cheap. Not to steal my own thunder, but this is a great CD, though. I'm already excited about the prospect of touching on this little CD review, so stay tuned.

Also, check out this Depeche Mode image. I used to have that t-shirt; it was part of their "101 tour" from 1988.

Change in reading order...

Last night, after reading about 40 pages of The Many-Colored Land by Julian May, I quit. I got the book via Interlibrary Loan, and it was going to be due in two weeks. Not only is The Many-Colored Land itself a relatively lengthy novel, but it was actually an omnibus with that and The Golden Torc. I decided that at this time in my life, I really don't want to set myself up with pointless stress; trying to read a very long book by a deadline is not something I need right now.

And, frankly, I just wasn't feeling it in those first 40 pages. I think the concept is still really interesting, and I want to revisit the Saga of the Pliocene Exile sometime... but I want to do it on my terms, not feel rushed.

So, I've removed it from my reading list and I'm sending it back to the library. Instead, I picked up the really short Thief of Llarn, the sequel to Warrior of Llarn that arguably I should have read months ago. I've got enough of my own books to read that I probably won't pick anything up at the library for a while with the probable exception of the next Dresden Files book.

Anyway...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fool Moon

Finally, just today at lunch, I finished re-reading Jim Butcher's Fool Moon, the second book in the Dresden Files saga. My plan was to now skip on to some other stuff, but frankly, I'm in the mood for more Dresden already, so my plan may see a bit of revising to work in book 3.

In my earlier review of Storm Front I rather candidly (I think) pointed out that Butcher's Dresden Files books are pretty formulaic. However, with this one, he gets a better handle on the formula. Fool Moon doesn't feel forced, it's not trying too hard, and it comes naturally. It also seems to up the ante quite a bit. The villains are scarier, their villainy is actually disturbing, and the series as a whole gets both more serious, more comic, darker, and more fun all at once.

There's a scene in particular, where a werewolf is arrested, the full moon hits, and he makes the Terminator's stop at a police station look like a picnic, that is quite moving. Characters that I had thought were going to be recurring are literally torn to shreds. This scene, probably more than any other, typifies for me the escalation of things in general that Fool Moon manages to pull off over Storm Front.

There's also some quite early hints of the "metastory" that Butcher has been dangling in front of us for some time now. What? His parents "natural" deaths may not have been natural after all? Dresden's past is examined a bit more thoroughly, as are his weaknesses and foibles; the things that make him an interesting narrative character to read about.

All in all, Fool Moon is a clear improvement in Butcher's technique, his craft, his plotting, and his artistry. My concern about the series isn't that he hasn't managed (mostly) to keep that up over eleven books and counting and mostly improve as time goes on; my concern is that he's only about halfway through his planned arc. Already I'm starting to feel like he's dragging his heels on resolving "metastory" plot threads, while instead giving us the monster of the week (or of the year, as the case may be) with just a few crumbs thrown in to whet our appetite for the bigger picture story going on in the background.

We'll see. My worries aside, Butcher hasn't let me down yet, and Fool Moon is the first really good Dresden Files book; the one that took a decent but ultimately not that memorable concept, and turned it into a powerhouse.

Princes of Darkness

This weekend, I also finished the latest Paizo Chronicles book, Princes of Darkness which is supposedly Book of the Damned: vol. 1. Presumably subsequent volumes will treat some of the other fiends, the demons and the daemons, and whatnot. This book treats the devils, and Hell.

I don't know how long Hell has been an integral part of D&D, but certainly it was with the first edition Monster Manual, which had a catalog of greater and lesser devils, and the archdevils Asmodeus, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, etc. Hell in D&D, no matter who's treated it, has been strongly influenced by Dante's Inferno and every iteration of Hell published has nine "circles" of Hell, many of them bearing the exact names and descriptions of Dante's own, with others changed to be more suitable to the D&D cosmology.

This is true also of this book; unsurprisingly. One thing that Hell and the devils have not managed to do, is eclipse the demons. I guess the variety of demons makes them more attractive, perhaps. Their more independent nature. Maybe plain ole destruction is just an easier motivation for folks to latch onto than enslavement and damnation. Lots of folks have tried to take the devils and make them really interesting. Chris Pramas did a great job of it in Legions of Hell, although that was more a catalog of monsters with only a very short section on the diabolical cosmology itself. Robert Schwalb and Co. took on the Fiendish Codex 2: Tyrants of the Nine Hells where they made Hell into, basically, an analog of corporate America's cubicle culture. A cute idea, but probably one destined to ultimately fail.

Paizo's Wes Schneider gives the devils an almost Lovecraftian spin. According to the doctrine of the Church of Asmodeus (although plenty of hints here and there suggest that this isn't just one of his heresies), the Archdevil himself is the most primal god in the entire multiverse, and the rigid tyranny of Hell is the natural state of the universe. With a bit of secret history, with a bit of blasphemous meddling, terrible books that attack your sanity just to read, and with a few pages that look like they took their inspiration from Black Library's brilliant Liber Chaotica series (I only own the Khorne one, but I saw some clear parallels), the devil is finally given his due.

Most of the book is fluff; there's a lot of stuff about the arrangement and cosmology of Hell itself which is an interesting read, although not necessarily something you'd use in your everyday game. There is an interesting and challenging prestige class, that I'd love to see get some play in a game (it would sure put to bed such notions as D&D being a high fantasy only vehicle; this class has a very sword & sorcery feel to it.) It's got some spells, some monster entries, a few magic items... pretty much what you'd expect. But really, it's the cosmology that makes it interesting. The fact that it really takes devils, gives them an agenda that you feel you can work with, and some legs that you can use to get some real traction for a slightly different type of villainy in your campaigns.

Of course, this is also coming out at the same time (more or less) as the latest adventure path, which is set in a devil-worshipping city in Cheliax, and at the same time as the Cheliax book in the Pathfinder Companion series... so it's greater than just what's here in this book alone. Combining the three together gives you something that's greater than merely the sum of the parts.

Anyway, recommended. Paizo continues to impress me with their setting stuff. I'd often said that vanilla D&D didn't hold any more attraction for me, but somehow Paizo have managed to pull it off. With their Golarion setting, they've managed to make the old, tired, cliched even, feel fresh again. This book is the latest chapter in that same success story.

Best Served Cold

This weekend, I finished Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, an unusual fantasy novel that reads a bit like one third The Count of Monte Cristo, one third The Magnificent Seven, and one third Abercrombie's own stuff. It's an interesting book. It's got a fast, engaging, and weighty plot, complete with a lot of twists and turns. Some of these twists are telescoped way in advance and don't surprise at all, but a few others caught me off-guard. The gist of the story is that mercenary general Monzcarro Murcatto and her brother are betrayed and murdered by their mentor and patron, Grand Duke Orso, who's making an impressive run on becoming king of all Styria, a kind of fantasy analog to the medieval Italian city-state landscape (the prevalence of Italian sounding names also helps there.) Except that she doesn't quite die, and someone comes along to patch her up and restore her to a semblance of functionality. Naturally, her first thought is revenge. She starts gathering a group of unlikely hirelings, starting with northman Caul Shivers who's attempting to turn over a new leaf and become "a good man" instead of just an instrument of violence. She also ends up with an autistic mass murderer, the very same mercencary general that she herself betrayed (who's now a raging alcoholic), a tag-team of finicky and treacherous poisoners, and more, and goes about her bloody work. Collateral damage tends to be high as she has her first few successes, comes to the attention of Orso, and the plot really gets into high gear.

Not only do you have the sneaky assasination "capers" thoughout the book, but the politics involved start to take center stage before long. Styria is wedged between two "superpowers", the Gurkhish empire, and the Union. Both of these superpowers are revealed almost right away to be patsies for the real powers behind the thrones; Valint and Balk's banking house, and The Prophet's religious movement.

In addition to the well-paced plot, most of these characters were really quite interesting, and were kinda fun to read about. Sadly, the two least interesting to me were Shivers and Murcatto, and those were the point of view characters nine times out of ten. But still; the characters, the dialogue, and the plot were clearly this novel's strong suit.

I read Best Served Cold without reading the preceding First Law Trilogy. Although this novel references a few events and characters from the earlier trilogy, it's not really a sequel, just a stand-alone novel set in the same setting. I'm not that thrilled to go back and read more Abercrombie just yet, though. The work had some flaws, or at least things that I personally didn't like. I'll start with the least offensive and work up from there.

First off, I suspect that many fans like a good fantasy setting. I know I do. Now, let's be honest; a setting doesn't make or break a novel, and some novels are in fact sunk by the writer's inability to stop doting on his setting (China Miéville, I'm lookin' at you) but a setting that generates at least some interest is better than one that doesn't. And in this novel, the setting just doesn't do it. It's odd, really, because the action jumps from one city-state to another several times, but never at any point does it seem to matter where they are. They're all the same. They blend together into a rather bland whole. It's also not really very fantastic. There's very little reason why it couldn't have been told in medieval Italy. One character seems able to come and go and will without being seen. Magic? Probably. She may also have cast a firestorm spell of some kind. Maybe. She might have been using their version of Greek fire, too. It's not 100% clear. Another character seems to have been imported from Shaolin Soccer and comes equipped with wuxia style super powers. Other than that, the fantasy is extremely low key. In fact, it's nonexistent.

Secondly, Abercrombie cheated a bit. It's one thing to withold important information from the readers so it can be revealed at the dramatically appropriate time. But this should be done by also withholding the information from the key point of view characters. If key point of view characters know something important and the writer just doesn't bring it up to create a false dramatic tension when he finally does, all I feel is, "uh... why didn't we know this before now when there was no reason not to tell us?" I don't want to get too into the details to avoid spoilers, but two characters have relationships with family members that really are important to the plot... but which we simply aren't told the details of and led to believe that they are something other than what they are. Cheating, in my book.

The third problem with the book is that it's too much. I like a grim and gritty fantasy. At first, my perception of this was that it was "deliciously nasty". But after a while, it was way too much. It wallows in nastiness. It's gratuitously nasty. Hardly a single sentence in the entire book doesn't hammer home the point. Good Heavens, Joe Abercrombie. We get it already. A little bit of subtlety would have gone a long way here. And ultimately, this is what turned me off a bit from the book. The gratuitous nature of the grim and gritty aspects of this fantasy just became too much after a while. The repetitive, incessant nature of it. Literally everything that is described is made tawdry, false and mean. As an example, someone we already know to be a nasty customer, is shown cutting off a cadaver's leg, thinking of all the ways he can cook it. It's never brought up again, and it has no bearing on his character in any way; why did we need to be treated to a page and a half long internal monologue of a cannibal on how to cook this person's leg?

Anyway, I'm a self-professed fan of grim and gritty (the actual term used in some discussion circles that I'm a part of) but as always, moderation is key to success. This lays the grim and gritty on so thick that Abercrombie's work is almost a parody of itself before it even begins.