Friday, February 26, 2010

Ode to hobbies gone by...

Although it may have taken me some time to come to grips with the reality here, there are a few hobbies of mine that, quite frankly, I don't think I'll ever revisit again.

1) LEGO's. I've been a fan of model-making for a long time, and the idea of using these semi-universal building blocks to create those models is something that I've been a fan of for a long time. For some time now as an adult, I've continued to follow the releases of LEGO, buy a few sets now and then, and even every so often I'll break them out and reassemble them.

But, for several years now, I haven't really done that, and even when I have, the urge has left me again so quickly that I've had to come to grips with the fact that, quite frankly, I don't really care that much anymore. I still think a well done gigantic LEGO model, built by an adult with an eye for good aesthetics, is pretty cool. But, that's it. I'll never be one of those guys, and I don't care anymore. I guess I finally did grow up... at least a little bit!

2) Model railroading. I never really did have the time, money, or space to invest in this hobby, but for many, many years I was fascinated by it, and I'd dabble at the edges of it, doing a small model here and there, and buying Kalmbach books and magazines on the hobby. The attention to detail and the exacting replication of reality that the hobby represents is still a fascinating thing to me, but I've come to grips, yet again, that I'll never have a model railroad layout in my basement. Even when the kids do finally move out. I'd just rather do something else with my time.

Anyone I know have one, though, I won't say no to an invitation to come play with it for an evening every so often.

3) Games Workshop. This is another hobby where I kinda flitted around the edges, not really having the time or money to invest in the assembling, painting and playing with massive armies of miniature figures. I've bought probably a hundred (maybe more) White Dwarf magazines, though, and I thought maybe I could get in through the smaller investment of playing Blood Bowl. I like Blood Bowl, especially as it existed shortly after the release of the Third Edition... with a few add-on rules that Jervis Johnson (the games designer) had released on the old bbowl-l listserve. Of which I was a member. Had great fun playing it in college.

More recently, I had a pretty good time playing it with a number of other guys, literally every single one of which has moved away since. However, it is clear to me that the direction the game is going is not to my taste. In the interest of appealing more to the long-running leagues of players who prefer a less sloppy, more balanced, less chaotic "chess-player favoring" experience, the game has lost much of what I enjoyed about it most. I mean, I still have the old rules, but getting copy for anyone else to play with me is tricky.

Not only that, the last several times, over the last several years, that I've sat down to paint a miniature, I found the experience tedious and frustrating, instead of fun and exciting like I used to. I've accepted, finally, that it's OK that I don't want to do that anymore. I just don't care. This hobby and I have moved our separate direction.

4) Heroes of Might and Magic. Eleven or twelve years ago, I was really big into this game. Maybe even a little bit longer ago than that. I was a member of the Statesman's Quill, an adjunct mailing list that was part of the venerable AstralWizard's site, all dedicated to this game. I was an extremely active member of that site, as a matter of fact. I wrote some shared fiction short stories around the setting, or rather, one that we kinda concocted. I was big specifically into Heroes 2 and Heroes 3. I think where I started to tail off was with the release of Heroes 4. That game really did not live up to the expectations that I had for it after Heroes 3. So, I wandered into some alternatives, like Disciples 2 or Age of Wonders.

Then, gradually, I just kinda wandered out of them completely. My interest briefly surged when my oldest son found those games and got heavily interested in them himself. But really, I was more interested in spending the time with him than in the game itself; I spent very little time on them (or any other computer games) on my own. Computer games and me: we've parted ways. I still come back to my console game hobby, in fact I've got another blog dedicated specifically to those, although I imagine that it will go through periods of months at a time where it lies fallow, and other times when it flares up to sudden life. But after years and years... I'm pretty confident I won't come back to my computer games anymore.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Small Favor

This past weekend, I finished Jim Butcher's Small Favor, which is the... huh, I've lost count. Ninth? Tenth? book in the Dresden Files series. Of course, again, I've read it before. This is my second time through it, as part of my re-read of the entire series so that its fresh enough in my mind when the newest book comes out in April. Butcher tends to crank these out at a pretty seteady pace; I think he's done at least once a year since they started, so I'm not going to be concerned with another re-read for a few more years, probably, but it's fun to do it at this point, anyway.

Small Favor is, quite frankly, probably my very favorite book in the entire series.

One of the things that makes it really work is the villains. The Denarians are the featured villains this time around, making a repeat performance. For those not in the know, the Denarians are named for the thirty denarii that were paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Christ. Each of the thirty pieces of silver has been cursed to hold the spirit of a fallen angel, and whomever possesses the coin is in turn possessed by the angel.

Of course, the nastiest of the Denarians are not those who are straight-up possessed by the fallen angel, but rather those who have entered into a partnership of equals of sorts with the angel; meaning that the host is so thoroughly nasty and villainous a person that the fallen angel respects them enough to work hand in hand with them rather than simply taking over and running the show on their own. This subtle little ploy by Butcher is an interesting one, and one that I happen to like. As nasty as the supernatural evil is that Butcher routinely pits Dresden against, it turns out that the very nastiest is simply human evil... albeit human evil that's gotten its hands on a fair bit of supernatural power to back it up. Nobody that Dresden has yet faced off again; the ghosts, the Sidhe, the Red Court of vampires, the White Court of Incubi/Succubi, the demons, etc. Nobody has been as thoroughly vile as the Denarians. And in this book, we really see their vileness.

That's probably what I also like most about this book; it really raises the bar. It is darker, more intense, and more desparate than any of those that preceded it, and at the end of the day, it left the main characters in a worse predicament, knowing that things were going to get worse before they got better yet. In that respect, it reminded me in many ways of the ending of The Empire Strikes Back; things are not resolved, and everything is just that much scarier.

Of course, the question remains; if Butcher is really only 50-60% through with the series at this point, how can he possibly carry on that level of intensity that he ramped it up to in this novel? Or can he? I don't want to spoil stuff that's coming, but I think he had mixed success with that venture in Turn Coat. In some ways, he let the tension slip a bit, yet in others, he kept it on and made sure that the situation generally devolved even more for Dresden. And it looks like, based on what little we know of Changes so far, that he's attempting to keep the pressure up still, as well as mixing up the format and formula of the novels a little bit. I'll let you know how well I think that works when it happens in a couple of months too.

Meanwhile, I picked up Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter to read next, which is an anthology of the three Warhammer novels about the titular character by C. L. Werner, Witch Hunter, Witch Finder and Witch Killer. Clearly Werner's strong suit is not the titles. In addition to the three novels, it also has three linked short stories thrown in to boot, so it's a nice anthology that offers up a little bit more than simply the three books slapped together.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The God Killer

Well, I finished the third Hawk & Fisher novel, and the last in the first omnibus that I have, Swords of Haven. The specific novel, as the post title implies, is The God Killer.

Haven has this thing called the Street of Gods, which is the religious district of the city. It's also a street that exists on a slightly different dimension or something from the rest of the city, and it is one that is saturated with the supernatural. That said, the "gods" of Haven are usually just bizarre creatures or people, touched by the supernatural in some way. In fact, they go out of their way in the novel to call them Beings and contrast them with gods as the term is usually understood; an important theme of this book is: what does it mean to be a god, and what, exactly, is worthy of worship?

Lest you think the books have suddenly turned thoughtful, introspective and philosophical, this is just background, though, for what turns out to be another murder mystery. The gods themselves, or at least some of them, appear to be the victims. Hawk and Fisher are temporarily reassigned to "the God Squad", a unit of the Guard that is charged with keeping the peace on the Street of the Gods.

At this point, the formula more or less takes over, and the book proceeds, somewhat predictably, to its conclusion. And although that sounds negative, it's not meant to be. Formula in writing exists for one reason: because it's proven to be successful. If I had to choose between them, I'd much rather have strong, competent execution instead of innovation that falls flat and doesn't work. Of course, the best works have both, but those are few and far between and I don't begrudge the majority of competent writers for not bringing something new and ingenious to every single work they produce.

I'm also up against a bit of a quandry in this review. Because much of what I've been reviewing lately are volumes in larger series, it becomes difficult to review individual volumes without repeating myself over and over again. For this reason, rather than continue on about the specific attributes of The God Killer, I'd like to point out that I thought, last night as I was finishing the book, that the Hawk & Fisher series is an interesting counterpoint to the Dresden Files series.

Both of them follow the same basic conceit: they're a hybrid of the mystery/detective genres and sword & sorcery type fantasy. Yet, they hybridize the two genres in completely different ways, and serve kind of like bookends on the spectrum of how it could be done.

The Dresden Files are like Raymond Chandler stories in which the main character is a wizard. They take place in the modern world that we know very well, although of course, the wizard is involved in cases that concern supernatural and mystical elements. There's a strong vibe of "secret history" running through these novels; shadowy conspiracies, and other weirdness happening right in front of our faces while we don't know about them. Hawk & Fisher, on the other hand, have more straight-up, regular, action-oriented detectives as the protagonists. Rather than bringing the fantasy to the modern world, this series brings the modern world to a fantasy setting. Haven is an unabashed sword & sorcery setting, yet it's surprisingly modern in many ways too, and the formula for the stories is surprisingly, almost exactly like a standard mystery story. The first novel, in particular, with the suspects all locked in the same house over night, each of whom has some reason for appearing guilty, follows this pattern, but really so far none of the first three novels has deviated too much from it.

The setting has the inclusion of such modern concepts as SWAT teams, democratic elections, the somewhat surprising revelation that Hawk and Fisher self-identify as Christians (albeit, admittedly unorthodox and somewhat lapsed ones) and other concepts that slowly bring the setting into line with a modern one.

Seeing the contrast between the two series as I go through them has been interesting. Next up on my docket is to finish the last few Dresden files books. I've already started Small Favor and at the rate I'm going, I should finish the existing ones right about the time the new one comes out in April. Of course, I'll intersperse those last two volumes, while I'm waiting on the library, probably, with some other of the books I own. I probably will not at this point read the next Hawk & Fisher omnibus. I'm thinking rather that I might read the Skaith books my Leigh Brackett, and then maybe one or two of the Warhammer trilogy omnibus books I have, and maybe throw in either the Kull or Solomon Kane collection too, before getting back to Simon Green.

A couple of small notes about The God Killer before I leave off, though. The Street of the Gods reminded very sharply of Lankhmar's own Street of the Gods, from, of course, Fritz Leiber's sword & sorcery classic stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Not only the name was borrowed, though; the nature of the gods in Lankhmar is not dissimilar to that in Haven. It's also quite similar to the way religion is set up in Freeport, and the existance of the so-called God Squad hints strongly that that is not coincidental: an earlier version of the setting, before the systemless Pirate's Guide, had a group of enforcers that wandered the Temple District, keeping the peace, who were known as the God Squad.

Of course, there are a handful of other organizations that use that term, and as a nice little pun and a rhyme to boot, it could just be coincidental after all. However, I doubt it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fantasy races

I got involved, slightly, in a discussion about fantasy races on a discussion forum dedicated mostly to Dungeons & Dragons. This issue is always a little bit of a pet peeve of mine, in that I'm always surprised how many people cannot seem to get around the mindset that the standard D&D races don't have to be used.

That was the main question that sparked the discussion, and was followed up with a slightly hapless "well, if I don't use elves and dwarves, what do I do instead?" The main reason that this always surprises, and quite frankly disappoints me, is that fantasy fiction settings rarely assume that there are humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. That's a latent Tolkienism, but other than Tolkien, few other writers did anything like that. Until D&D came along. Even now, though, few authors except those that write D&D pastiche fiction, official or otherwise, assume that racial mix-up. Many, many fantasy writers assume a baseline of human only, from sword and sorcery Fritz Leiber or Robert E. Howard, to modern high fantasy back-breakers like Terry Goodkind or Robert Jordan. If other races exist, they're strange magical creatures, most often, not something that's "like a human, but not."

And as a person who came into gaming through the avenue of fantasy fiction, emulating the feel of said fantasy fiction is important to me. If the Hyborean Age works with just humans and monsters, then so does my fantasy setting. That said, I do like to add a few exotic touches here and there. In some settings, I've merely made exotic humans. I think I got the idea from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had his red men of Barsoom (as well as his other "alien humans") but the idea is based on science. If humans are adapted to Earth, and endemic to earth, then the specific ethnicities that we see are also endemic to Earth. Put humans on some other planet, and let them have it it for a few hundred generations, and they'll probably develop into completely different ethnic groups altogether, who don't necessarily resemble Earthly ones at all.

This is perhaps too "science fictiony" a concept for a lot of fantasy fans, who want "mytho-historical resonance" out of their fantasy, and therefore don't mind at all that their fantasy kingdom is almost exactly like the vikings in every respect, or whomever it is that they're imitating.

For those kinds of tastes, I don't mind borrowing some ideas from D&D... just not the typical ones. The last setting I came up with specifically disallowed elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and half-elves. They simply didn't exist. I didn't disallow half-orcs... and if half-orcs existed, then so too did regular orcs. Make goblins and hobgoblins into a playable race, an LA+1 variant of tieflings and fire genasi, and shifters and changelings from the Eberron Campaign Setting, and I was all set. Plenty of options for players to pick from, and yet a very different feel than regular D&D. Since I've set that game in Freeport, and it specifically has a political intrigue, swashbuckling and Golden Age of Piracy feel to it, I think that grafting Tolkienesque conventions probably wasn't the best idea anyway.

And that's one of the things that I actually quite like about a mature, robust ruleset like D&D. Although there are things I don't like about the rules, one that I very much do like is that I've got a very full buffet of options to choose from when creating a game mileu. You can really significantly change the feeling of the game by removing some of the default options and putting some others in instead... even without changing anything else about the system.

Monday, February 08, 2010

White Night

Well, as it turns out, I did read White Night very quickly; I finished it on Saturday evening. This one takes the problems of the last volume and neatly does away with them. It features a much stronger focus, it has interesting and intriguing villains, and has some interesting developments in the characters themselves. Thomas, for example, is half-believed for a time to be, possibly, the monster involved, due to some deliberate machinations and misunderstandings. Murphy's and Molly's relationship with Harry are somewhat transformative in this book, as is Harry's own relationship with the Lasciel shadow and what he does about it.

I think that a tight plot and character transformation is part of what makes this book so good.

For a series that's already this long, and predicted to be quite a bit longer yet before it's done, there's a real danger of having books where characters show up and merely go through the motions. All good stories are stories about people and the things that happen to them, and how they respond to them. This means, as an indirect correllary, that all good stories show transformation of character; Harry Dresden can't show up as exactly the same character book after book after book, with no change at all to him or his relationships to the other characters.

I think this is one of the things that makes the Dresden Files much better than many of the formulaic type stories that by inference are part of the background of source material on which Butcher is basing the series. Look at some of the classic detective stories and action stories series. Characters like Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, James Bond, or heck, even the Hardy Boys or Mack Bolan go through novel after novel, and one of the main premises of each novel is that it leaves the situation at the end of the novel exactly the same as it was at the beginning. That way, any reader can pick up any such novel out of order and get the same experience out of it. Heck, the Hardy Boys, which I read religiously one year when I was about nine, the characters can't even age much less exhibit any other type of growth or transformation. If there is any evolution in those characters, it's only because the syndicate is so long-lived that as prevailing social attitudes have changed, the characters have been slightly tweaked to match.

Butcher doesn't fall into that same trap. Dresden has seen a fair bit of growth as a character himself, and his relationship with various other characters has evolved as well; frequently in traumatic and dramatic ways.

In any case, White Night doesn't feel like set-up; it's a complete and viable story in its own right, and actually one of my favorites in the series. I particularly like its focus on the White Court of vampires, since I see them as among the most interesting of the many supernatural entities with which Harry interacts frequently. Perhaps that's because of the relative humanity of these vampries. They, quite literally, are much more human than any other of the supernatural terrors Harry faces (with the exception of bad wizards, or "warlocks") and as such, they're more understandable and you can relate to them. Even as you're simultaneously horrified by them, of course.

Highly recommended. I am, however, going to put a small hold on Dresden reading. I've been in the midst of my omnibus of Hawk & Fisher books for far too long, and I'm going to read the final book in that omnibus (The God Killer) before picking up Small Favor. That shouldn't take more than a few days tops, though.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Proven Guilty

For a variety reasons, it took me a really long time to read Proven Guilty. At least relatively speaking. Three or four weeks for a fast-reading 400 page book is absurd for me; normally I can blow through a Dresden Files book in about two days.

In this case, there were several externalities going on. My birthday, for instance. I got a PS2 for my birthday, plus a bunch of games. I've spent a lot more of my free time in the evenings doing that instead of reading. I've also been trying to catch up on some shows and movies that I've been meaning to watch for quite some time.

But, ultimately, I have to acknowledge that part of the reason I went through this one relatively slowly is because I just don't like it nearly as much as most of the other Dresden Files books. Granted, it's got some great moments in it; some real emotional ones, even. As a family man myself, the noble, self-sacrificing parenting examples that show up here really hit home. As a religious man, the characterization of Michael Carpenter's family's faith and steadfastness also struck quite a chord. It also touched, at least a bit, on some of my favorite themes from the books; Butcher's presentation of the Fairy Queens, the White Court of incubus and succubus "vampires" and the big conspiracy that's moving and shaking events off screen as Harry and Ebenezer and eventually a handful of other players start to piece together what's going on. But at the end of the day, Proven Guilty is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

I think one thing to blame for that could very well be the lack of focus on an obvious villain. By bouncing around from various antagonists, all of the several that make cameos in this novel feel more like they're making cameos rather than significant threats. None of them seem to have a particularly sinister, or at least competent agenda. In fact, in several cases, its not even clear if they really are enemies, or simply operating under a condition of misunderstanding.

Another is the relatively cheesy nature of some of the monsters. Shapeshifters that can take the form of whatever you most fear is a standard supernatural bogeyman, but when they start taking the forms of cheesy slasher flick villains of the Freddy Krueger or Jason variety (not that Butcher would actually use those examples; he used made-up ones to protect himself from any potential legal troubles. But they're clearly in the same vein) just struck me as too tongue in cheek to really work as an honest horror vibe.

Finally, the plot and structure itself seemed to suffer from some rather obvious deus ex machina moments, as well as feeling like set-up. Butcher needed to set some things up for future stories: Molly as Harry's apprentice, worry about Mab's sanity, Murphy's demotion at work, etc. and this book conveniently gives him a vehicle to do that. But it's rather clumsily done. Rather than feeling like natural occurances of the narrative, it feels like this book was, in part at least, concieved merely to get a few things out of the way that needed to be finished so he could move on to his regularly scheduled plots.

In any case, now that it's done, I've already moved on into White Night which gets me significantly closer to finishing the series. It's my goal, if you remember, to have re-read all of the books again before April when the new novel Changes comes out, so that the events of prior novels are relatively fresh in my mind instead of stale and half-remembered. At the rate I'm going, that won't be a problem... unless all the remaining three books take me as long to read as Proven Guilty just did.

Added a hit counter

Just for fun. It started a 0, so it's like a trip odometer, not like your "regular" odometer. Since this blog's been around for a while, it'll only be good for me to judge the rate of hits, not the actual total hits. But that's OK. I'm not doing this because I want real, important statistics or anything. Just a quick and dirty gauge of how many people might be seeing this blog but not commenting.