Tuesday, April 30, 2013


By Animotion.

I continue to feel unmotivated to make setting updates (or even talk about gaming at all) in part because I'm so busy that spending the intellectual capital necessary to write the update I want to write seems to be just a little beyond me at the moment.

Plus, one of my other obsessions--hiking and backpacking--which has been so long unserviced--has really captured my attention again, and I can't seem to get it off my mind.

I finally broke down and messaged the guy who took us on some of our trips when I was a teenager and asked him for some details of where we went.  I had correctly divined via memory and research that we had taken the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge to Needleton, gotten off at the trailhead there, and hiked to the Chicago Basin, which we used as a base camp to summit one of the three 14ers there.  I was sure it was either Eolus or Windom that we had summited, but he tells me that now, it was Sunlight.

I also found out that the desert trip, where I was even more out of my element and only knew that it was in the general vicinity of Lake Powell, started at the Hurricane Wash trailhead, went into Coyote Gulch, through Stevens Arch and into Stevens Canyon, from which we took a difficult (and waterless) route that is unmarked and only known because our guide had personally explored it years earlier, out of Stevens Canyon to Baker Ranch.

I'd like to recreate the San Juans trip, and part of the Coyote Gulch trip... but I'd probably climb up to Stevens Arch, then backtrack back into Coyote Gulch and take another of the routes out.  I don't think I want to mess around with trying to find a route that's unmarked and requires detailed personal information.  Frankly, I'm just a little too out of shape and out of practice to tackle an adventure quite that... adventurous.  Not without a great deal more desert hiking practice, at least.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Well, I never got around to the third post, on the neighborhoods of Porto Liure.  Honestly, that post will take some work, and I haven't had the time or resources available to me to do it easily.  I've also been distracted by what happened in Boston last week--my boss actually ran in the marathon and finished less than half an hour before the first bomb went off.  He was only a block or two away at the time.  I've been spending more time trawling the news than is normal even for me.

Because of this, I'm not really ready to make that post right now either--I've got to spend a fair bit of time actually developing the content of that post.  Maybe I'll get to it tonight, but I'm not promising that--merely hoping so.

Two quick comments instead--one of them off topic and one of them on.  First the off-topic.  In the wake of the release of Delta Machine I've been listening to a lot of the more recent Depeche Mode--particularly that one and Sounds of the Universe, which I never allowed to grow on me when it was new, so I hadn't really liked it or listened to it in a long time.  Delta Machine right now is kinda in the same boat--I haven't heard it much yet, but I'm not exactly loving it.  I'm trying to keep a more open mind, because listening to Sounds now, I don't think it's all that bad.  It's also, however, not that great.  It reminds me greatly of Exciter, when I was really hoping for something that reminded me more of Playing the Angel.  For my money, Depeche Mode really lost their way when Alan Wilder left.  I read a review recently of Delta Machine and one thing that the review said finally clicked with me why Depeche Mode has largely lost me.  It didn't make any reference to their music as synthpop.  I had thought that that was maybe because synthpop is an esoteric indie genre label that the writer was either unfamiliar with, or didn't want to use because his audience would be unfamiliar with it, but the more I think about it, it's because Depeche Mode's music really doesn't resemble synthpop very much at all anymore.  I'm not just talking about the preponderance of guitars (that's been true since at least Violater maybe even Music for the Masses, and didn't fundamentally change the nature of the music too much.)  I'm talking about how Depeche Mode has largely morphed into a bluesy alternative band that uses synthesizers and samplers somewhat as a legacy element of their electronic music past.

Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Depeche Mode as synthpop. To me, they were key in defining the sound of the genre. Depeche Mode as something else is still interesting to me, but I don't like it nearly as much.  The evolution is somewhat gradual, so maybe there's not a lot to be gained by trying to determine a cut-off point, but I see the departure of Alan Wilder as the defining moment when Depeche Mode became a band that I was significantly less interested in than I had been.  This isn't exactly fair, because I thought both Violater and Songs of Faith and Devotion were disappointing.  To say that Ultra and then Exciter were even more disappointing is just evidence of that continued arc, and regardless of the presence or not of Alan Wilder, that arc was probably still happening.

Playing the Angel was kind of the "back to basics" album for Depeche Mode, but it now looks more like an anomoly than a change in direction.  A momentary throwback, or something.  Of all the post-Wilder albums, it's the only one that comes close to matching even the least of the pre-departure albums (and the least of the pre-departure albums is probably A Broken Frame which was made before Wilder was integrated into the band in the first place.  The more I think about it, the more I think Wilder was hugely instrumental in making Depeche Mode into the band that I loved in the 80s and 90s, and his absense is keenly and disappointingly noted.  Repeatedly.

The on-topic comment.  Being older doesn't necessarily make one more mature when it comes to role-playing games.  In our ongoing Star Wars game, in which most of the party is playing jedi knights (newly minted, in fact, as knights), we're still capable of causing comedy of errors type chaos; real Keystone Kops moments.  This weekend, while walking through an open black market of sorts en route to our actual objective, we got distracted by lots of cool loot.  One of the Jedi was smitten with an assassin droid that folded up into a briefcase, a la Iron Man's armor.  Lacking money, he decided on trying to figure out a way to con or cheat the salesman out of his stuff.  Simultaneously, one of the non-Jedi members of our party was smitten by the wares of a weapons salesmen.  He didn't have any money either, but the dealer he was talking to said that finding some way to get rid of his competitor who was flooding the market with stolen thermal detonators would be worth a couple.

The poor GM, at this point, saw the entire affair, which was only meant to be a colorful little description on the way to somewhere else, go completely off the rails.  While my character and another Jedi staged a fake lightsaber fight as a distraction (echoes of the Michael York Three Musketeers running through my mind), someone else set up a spot where he could pick off the corrupt arms dealer with a sniper rifle, and two other Jedi were running a con game in the droid shop.  The distraction proved to be a little too good when the market was flooded with the better part of twenty guards, and the droid guy clamped up and told his existing battle-droids to be on the lookout for potential theft.  Things weren't looking good, so my character, now doing an extremely quick scan of the dead arm's dealer's kiosk/tent made an somewhat impetuous decision that another distraction was needed to extricate ourselves from our dilemma.  Setting a thermal detonator with a short timer on a crate that I presumed was full of stolen thermal detonators and then running, a massive explosion killed six guards, blinded almost everyone in the entire market (including the rest of the guards and three of the PCs--including the one who was skeptical of this entire affair and holding back.)  The jedi I had been fake fighting took that opportunity to loot a jewelry store.  The jedi attempting to con or steal the assassin droid was getting beat up by the combat droids, so he force jumped out of the tent with the briefcase.  Except... he was blind.  And the tent was on fire.  So, he made a big parabolic arc through the air as basically a flaming piece of tarp with a jedi in it, and crashed into another stand.  Me and the sniper looted the arms dealer's kiosk.   Not the one that was dead--his entire kiosk was vaporized--but the one who initially asked us to get rid of his competitor.

The assassin droid, in the end, was not successfully stolen, and the PC who force jumped in the air with it is now blind and in jail.  We're fairly confident he can beat the rap.  We're also fairly confident that his sight will return.

I'm not sure which emotion was more prominent on the GM's face during the evening... complete frustration, or bemusement.  No doubt, he was struggling between the two extremes himself.  We're also hopeful that Master Luke, who championed our would-be Jedi's cause against the will of the rest of the council, doesn't find out what we did.  That was, after all, just last session...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bared Blade

A quick and dirty read at 288 pages, Bared Blade--the second of the Fallen Blade series and sequel to Broken Blade which I read a week or two ago--was an excellent book.  I quite enjoyed it more than the first.  I'm glad to see that the two main characters develop nicely, and get a crop of (mostly) new characters to interact with as well.

I'm also quite glad to see the setting expanded upon and explored at some length more so than in the first book.  But I'm also glad to see that in doing so, the fundamentals of writing a good story weren't set aside.  I've said it before and I'll say it again (repeatedly--possibly even ad nauseum) but I think customers for fantasy fiction strongly desire and in fact even demand that their novels explore and explain a fantasy setting.  By this I mean that readers want to see some setting development.  And it also means that they want to see something fantastical--their fantasy can't be too subjected to the mundane.  Daniel Polansky's Low Town failed to really develop the setting any and failed to show much fantasy in the setting, frankly, and I think it's to it's detriment in the marketplace.  But this can't get carried away to the point of subsuming the demands of telling a good story with good characters and good plot structure and pacing.  All too often, fantasy writers indulge this too much and their novels turn into plodding travelogues.  Although I don't exactly think this myself, it's a common enough complaint about The Lord of the Rings that it takes the better part of 200 pages to actually get started for real because until then, it's basically a travelogue of the territory of the Shire, the road to Bree, from there to Rivendell, etc.  China Mieville's Perdido Street Station also tends to wander afield showing off how "edgy" he is by adding gratuitous nonsense in the form of setting detail.  Of about 600 pages (in paperback), close to 200 pages could be cut without harming either the narrative or character development, for instance.

McCullough, in Bared Blade, manages to give us quite a bit of detail about the Others--the non-human Durkoth in particular--who are really nothing like your typical standard fantasy races at all.  More imaginative than Mieville's bug-headed people or cactus people, in my opinion.  Fascinating folks, actually.  He also gives us a lot of detail we hadn't seen before about not only the political situation of the world (which he also names for the first time in this novel) but now magic works, and what it can and can't do.  But this information was carefully dispersed to never feel like a lecture or travelogue, and to a great degree, it's actually integral to the resolution of the plot which is always a nice surprise.  I recall advice in a lot of old "how to write science fiction" books and essays from various authors who make a point of saying that science fiction isn't really worthy of the label unless some element of science is actually crucial to the plot and in fact the story couldn't be told without referring to it.  Stories that only had the trappings of science fiction, but did not integrate them into the plot (so that you could swap those trappings with those of a western, or some other adventure story, and still tell the exact same story) were disparagingly called "Bat Durstons" in reference to the mocking fake examples given repeatedly in early science fiction magazine Galaxy.  I've never actually heard of anyone making a similar admittedly fairly snobbish appropriation of this concept to fantasy, but the lesson was sufficiently drummed into my head that I actually kinda like to see a fantasy story that actually relies on some of it's fantastic elements, without which the story would have to actually be modified.

Other than that, though, the set-up and plot reminded me sharply of The Maltese Falcon, including a desperate search by various parties steeped in skulduggery for a lost MacGuffin.  Not that there aren't important differences, of course, but the basic set-up is the same.  As in Broken Blade this novel also cultivates--or perhaps more accurately merely flirts with--a noir voice.  But it doesn't feel genuine here any more so than it did in the earlier novel--it felt too lighthearted.  To re-use my earlier example, it felt like a swashbuckling caper wearing a noir Halloween costume.  And as before, that is not in the least a complaint--if anything, I found the voice and tone incredibly compelling and interesting, and suggest that it greatly contributes to the charm of the novel and the series (so far) overall.

Almost immediately after finishing the novel, I put in a request for the next one for ILL, and put in a request to my library that they buy all three of the existing books as well as pre-order the fourth one which is due out this summer.  If the next two stand up to the same standard that the first two have, I'll probably just buy them and continue buying them as long as the series continues. 

Making a list, checking it twice...

Hoping to make three... count them three posts today.  One on DARK•HERITAGE, specifically the next A TO Z post, a book review of the second Fallen Blade novel, and this post--a list of hikes I'd like to start planning.  I've come to realize that my goal of hiking the Triple Crown--or even one of the full legs of it--is not only not very realistic (due to time off work considerations among other things) but probably not even really desirable.  I like to get away into the wilderness, but do I really want to spend the better part of a year and a half hiking all three major trails?  I actually think not.  If my wife was as avid about the concept of hiking, I'd be more willing, but she's 1) suffering from an old knee injury that frankly makes the concept of 20 mile, or even 15 mile, days in the mountains seem fundamentally unlikely.  Especially day after day for weeks and months at a time.  And 2) she doesn't really get it anyway.  And although she tries to be supportive, that only goes so far.  And frankly, even if I didn't have to work at all, I don't know that I want to spend that kind of time away from my family either.  In fact, I'm sure that I don't.  So, as much as the concept of hiking a combined total of some nearly 8,000 miles combined fascinates me, I've come to realize that it's an exotic fascintion rather than something that I really want to do.

That does not mean, of course, that I don't still really want to hike.  There's a lot of hikes that I want to do.  A lot of them are not necessarily named trails with associations and traditions, but hand-assembled loops that I as the hiker construct by linking various existing trails.  I can think of dozens of such hikes of a few hours worth of walking to up to a couple weeks or so that I'd love to do in the Wind River mountains, the Tetons, the Sawtooth range, and Sierra Nevada, the North Cascades, the Smokies, the San Juans, Big Bend, and various spots on the Colorado Plateau, and elsewhere.  But the list below is for named trails with a tradition and often an association that maintains them that I'd like to start making real, concrete plans to hike over the course of the next several years.  Because of the nature of these kinds of things, the hiking season is relatively short (although that can be extended somewhat by doing some southern desert hikes like Big Bend or the Guadalupe Mountains or something during the "off season") so it seems unlikely that I'd ever do more than one of these a year.

I included on the list, the "big three" trails that make up the Triple Crown, although as I said, I'm not really interested in hiking them in their entirety. I am, however, extremely interested in "section hiking" significant portions of them.
  • The Teton Crest Trail (40 miles) - I've always seen the Tetons as a kind of Holy Grail of western mountains, rather fairly or not.
  • The Wonderland Trail (93 miles) - makes a grand circuit around the flanks of Mt. Ranier near Seattle.  A portion of this trail is pictured above.
  • The Uinta Highline Trail (96 miles) --traverses the crest of the Uinta Mountains in northern Utah--a place I've actually hiked before as a teenager and quite enjoyed.
  • The Tahoe Rim Trail (165 miles) -- marking a complete circuit of this massive lake, although a bit off the beaten path from the very busy actual lakeshore.  Concurrent for about 50 miles with a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, too.
  • The John Muir Trail (210 miles) -- one of the premier backpacking experiences in the country, starting near Half Dome in Yosemite and going all the way to the peak of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48.  Although not exactly concurrent with the PCT, it travels through much of the same territory, including through many of the same basins and by many of the same lakes and peaks.  One of the most scenic trails in the country by all accounts.
  • The Colorado Trail (486 miles) from Denver to Durango, basically, through a huge swatch of the most scenic of the southern Rockies.  Combined for almost half it's length with a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.  I've also spent some time on (or at least very near) the southern terminus of this trail in and around the Needle Mountains, where I peaked (with my group) either Mt, Eolus or Windom Peak (it's a little embarrassing to admit I don't know now which it was) in the Weminuche Wilderness.  That was one of the highlights of my outdoors experiences; I'd love to expand on it, since it was now almost 25 years ago.
  • The Arizona Trail (817 miles) is one that I probably wouldn't hike the entirety of, actually.  The very southernmost portions are, in fact, not really recommended by the society that maintains the trail and publishes info about it due to our government's unwillingness to protect our border, thus making the southern hundred miles or so decidedly unsafe with a lot of criminal alien activity in the area.  Although I often talk a lot about the mountains of the west--the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades--I actually have an equally great love of the southwestern deserts.  There aren't a lot of named and traditional long hiking trails in places like the Grand Canyon, Arches or Canyonlands National Parks, etc.--even the desert section of the Continental Divide Trail is the least developed and complete.  The Arizona Trail is one of the few exceptions, and for that reason alone, if for no other, it is an attractive option.
  • The Appalachian Trail (2,180 miles) - Again; I'll never intend to hike the entirety of this trail.  Especially not in a single thru-hike season.  I'd love to spend much more time exploring the Blue Ridge mountains portion of this trail, which I've seen a little of in the Great Smokies National Park last year, and I'd love to hike much of the New England section of the trail someday, though.
  • The Pacific Crest Trail (2,663 miles) - Of all the long-distance trails, the one that most fascinates me.  I could actually see myself hiking most of the trail--but not all at once.  Breaking it up into manageable sections seems like a way to go that's more likely to fit my needs.  I'd love to do the Transverse ranges of southern California, skip to Walker Pass--hike all the way to Lake Tahoe (which is already covered by the Tahoe Rim Trail, see above), then do the Klamath Mountains of northern California.  I'd probably do highlights only of Oregon and Washington, but I'd love to do more hiking around Shasta, the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Crater Lake, the Three Sisters, the "Cascade Matterhorns" and probably the entire trail from Snoqualmie Pass to the northern terminus.
  • The Continental Divide Trail (c. 3,100 miles) - The longest of the legs of the Triple Crown, and the least complete.  Frankly, this trail somewhat intimidates me, and not because of it's length--because it's so isolated, so poorly developed, only about 70% complete, and is really for those who just charge off into the wilderness blazing their own way to some extent.  But many sections of the trail really appeal to me, including probably most of Colorado (much of which is on the Colorado Trail anyway), much of northern Wyoming (through the various Wind River Range wilderness areas, and the Yellowstone-Teton Wilderness/National Park complexes), and much of northern Montana (the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.)  Portions of the northern Colorado part of the trail, southern Wyoming and southern Montana, as well as most of the New Mexico portion of the trail I could probably skip and look for higher priority hikes to do.)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

This is a boring post--don't read

Just for my own records, here's a list of books I've made that are at our public library that I want to read.  Some of them are early books in series--if I like book one, the rest of the series will likely fall into place as well.
  • Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
  • Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook (I've been wanting to read this for a while, and actually our library has the anthology with the first three novels all in trade paperback format.)
  • Dhampir by Barb Hendee (I think Goodreads recommended this to me based on books I was reading already.)
  • The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker (no relation to Bob Bakker the dinosaur paleontologist.  I presume.)
  • Hounded by Kevin Hearne
  • Something From the Nightside by Simon R. Green (I've enjoyed his light-hearted Hawk & Fisher stories; this seems like it's probbaly somewhat forgettable, but right up my alley.)
  • The Devil You Know by Mike Carey
  • Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb (an author I've heard about for years but never read.)
  • The Hammer by KJ Parker
  • Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk
And the following is not at our public library, but is available through ILL:
  • The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Master of Devils and The Worldwound Gambit

I’ve been on a rather furious reading streak (which is good for knocking back titles on my perpetually growing To Read list—which actually has finally been shrinking for the first time ever lately.) In addition to the two novels I just reviewed, I’ve finished two others—both of them in the Pathfinder Tales line of tie-in fiction to the Pathfinder role-playing game and its default house setting, Golarion.

Now, Pathfinder is basically D&D, right? So, let’s be pretty clear about that up front; this is D&D tie-in fiction that just happens to not bear that name. And that’s fine. But occasionally a little odd.

The first of the books I read was Dave Gross’ Master of Devils, the sequel to his earlier novel Prince of Wolves, a kind of buddy movie type storyline with the noble half-elf Chelaxian Pathfinder Varian Jeggare, and his rough-and-tumble tiefling friend and partner Radovan. I’ve heard Radovan occasionally described as Jeggare’s side-kick, but I really don’t get that vibe reading the novels—from a story and point of view perspective, both are equally prominent. Like I said, their relationship feels more like an Odd Couple buddy movie than anything else. They’re not exactly Holmes and Watson (although kinda) and not exactly Murtaugh and Riggs (although kinda) and not exactly Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (again—although kinda) but they do have an interesting vibe between them.

In Master of Devils, however, they spend most of the book apart, on separate plot threads that don’t converge until the end of the novel. And a third voice (and separate plot thread) comes in some chapters that are POV of Arnisant, the dog that they picked up in the last novel. I liked both (all three now, I guess) of these characters, so it was fun to see them and “hear” their various voices in POV, which are all quite distinct. The story is and setting this time around, however, is quite dramatically different from the last novel. Where Prince of Wolves was in a fantasy version of Stoker’s Transylvania, Master of Devils is in a fantasy version of a Hong Kong martial arts wire-fu movie a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Couple this with some fish-out-of-water aspects (since none of the characters are local, and the customs and surroundings are strange and exotic to them; which makes it easier to present to the readers as well, in many ways) and you’ve got a very compelling story.

As with Prince of Wolves, however, I found that the ending was a bit less satisfying than I hoped. As the three plotlines converged and tension ratcheted up, POV switched faster and faster, and finally was describing the same scenes from different perspectives. This, however, rather than offering more perspective, offered less, because Gross occasionally would skip stuff and describe is happening just barely “off stage.” And as the conclusion rushed to its… well, its conclusion—I found myself scratching my head just a bit wondering exactly what had happened. The denouement was also underwhelming—it happened too fast and skipped over details, as if by this point, the reader must surely have lost interest in seeing how everything played out as long as everything was back in place for the next volume in the series.

I don’t mean this to be a crippling complaint, though—it was a minor dissatisfaction on what was otherwise an excellent novel. It’s not exactly new anymore either, and I’ve got the third book in the series (which also is no longer new) waiting on my shelf. After I wander a bit through the Fallen Blades and Abyssal Plague series, no doubt I’ll come back to this sooner rather than later.

The other book I read was Robin D. Laws’ The Worldwound Gambit, in which a quest into occupying and corrupted demon territory to shut down a demonic threat by grabbing the MacGuffin is cast as an Ocean’s 11 like heist/con. This novel I liked quite a bit less. Laws’ voice never really caught on with me; it somehow felt awkward and artificial all the time. Part of this was that it was told in present tense, which I admit I find awkward anyway, but part of it was that it just didn’t feel quite polished enough somehow. This wasn’t helped by the dropping of clear game-related vocabulary into the text—antipaladins being the one that most egregiously offended my sensibilities. Making a big deal out of the difference between a sorcerer and a wizard in the text (without explaining the difference really) might be fine for gamers, but for anyone else, it just feels weird, and marks the novel as game fiction. The same was true with the silly characterization of alignment that peeked through the seams at various points. The characters were also fairly cardboard caricatures most of the time.

Despite that, however, some of the characters started to grow on me. Jerisa as the scorned lover, accompanying team leader Gad knowing that her love for him was both unrequited and frankly kinda psychotic and broken, was an interesting plot device that could have been brilliant in better hands. Calliard, the demon-blood addict who used his addiction to gain extrasensory perception when it came to demons was an intriguing concept. I might even adopt a riff on that concept as a fifth iconic character for DARK•HERITAGE when I get a chance. Tiberio, the huge half-orc pacifist, on the other hand, felt like baggage who’s idealistic position made me just wonder why in the world he came along for the ride at all. Rather than being interesting, his twist made him feel both useless and frustrating more often than not. The crazy fire guy might have been interesting, but I had to roll my eyes when his own personal hell was being stuck in a place where nothing would burn. Really?

I heartily recommend the Jeggare and Radovan stories—both that I’ve read so far—but I’d have avoided Worldwound Gambit if it were up to me to do again. I think I was suckered in by my well-attested love for the demonic in D&D settings, and seeing how they can be described and presented—and more often than not being disappointed in the execution of it.

Next up on the reading docket is book two of the Fallen Blades series, then a non-fiction book from the library, then... probably book two of the Abyssal Plague series.

Monday, April 08, 2013

L'Isula Dzovençan—Demon Isle

L'Isula Dzovençan is the formal name of an island located midway between Razina and Sént-Haspar (Razina being on the Razine Peninsula on the north shore of the Mezzovian and Sént-Haspar located just east of the Colomá Swamp,where the Mezzovian Sea pinches to a relatively narrow point.)  The name on the map is usually forgotten, though, and it's known by it's more usual nickname--Demon Isle.  L'Isula is part of a strange trifecta; one of three places in the Three Empires region where the bizarre and "The Other" somehow leaks through into the mundane.  The most infamous of these locations is the Plateau of Leng, where the "leak" is so bad that it has corrupted and warped a broad area, the entire Forbidden Lands.  The capital region of Tarush Noptii is also a font of strangeness, where the astronomically implausible fact remains that it is always night, no matter what else happens in the regions around it.  The third is the Demon Isle.  Unlike Leng, it is not dispersed over a broad area, but concentrated, like a piercing hole drilled straight through the matter of the world into the world Beyond.

There are cities on the Demon Isle, and mortals live there.  In the interior, the landscape is haunted and warped into strange sculptures, and demons wander as freely as do mortals.  In the port cities, the effect is more subtle.  But it exists nonetheless, and the inhabitants of the Demon Isle are somewhat insane--deranged cultists of their demonic patron Tetep-Uradad-Namme.  Reavers who make hail from places like Darkwater or Scurvyport are anathema on the Mezzovian Seas, even in lawless places like Porto Liure or Sarabasca.

Like a microcosm of whatever Hell from which the demons on Demon Isle come from, squabbling demon lords set up demesne's of their own and fighting in Machiavellian style for influence and power.  Not all of these self-styed demon princes are actually demons, though--various members of the Heresiarchy occasionally set up shop in this bizarre place which furthers their own researches or aims.  In fact, many would-be purveyors of the sorcerous arts make their way to the Demon Isle, as a way to quickly gain forbidden knowledge that can not easily be learned elsewhere.  But doing so is fraught with danger, as life is extremely cheap on the Demon Isle.  Both the mortals who live here and the demons who think nothing of the lives and souls of mortals have no compunction against incidental murder or worse.

The other feature unique to the Demon Isle is a subset of hellspawn unique to its shores.  Although it is unclear to outsiders exactly how this comes to be, the Witchlings are a female only variety of ehllspawn unique to the Demon Isle.  Always fit and beautiful, these tropical seductresses sport large curling horns on their heads.  Although they are natural succubi, they delight in almost feral violence and torture more than in pleasures of the flesh.  Many are amongst the most depraved and feared reavers to sail the seas.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Various very brief book reviews

I've decided, when reading multi-book series, that at least at this point in my life, it's better if I break the series up.  Instead of finishing one book and immediately picking up the next one, read one book and then pick up something else.  Come back to the next book in a week or two.  With that, I've read books one of two new series, and will come back to both soon (one because I already own books two and three; the other is a library book) and want to give a quick rundown of my experience.

Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough

This is the first book in the Fallen Blades series.  It's only a trilogy in the sense that coincidentally three books are out now; I believe a fourth book is due out later this year.  I stumbled across this at the book store, but rather than buy it, I made a note of the title and author and went and looked for it via the library.  I'm currently waiting on book two to arrive.

The premise is that the main character (the title character, actually) is a washed up drunk who used to be one of Namara's Blades, an assassin for the goddess of justice and retribution.  At one point, he was the best at what he did.  But, the other gods decided that Namara was getting in their way, always looking to repay evil with stern payment, and she was herself killed by the other gods, and their temple (and all the blades) were either killed, or at least outlawed and operating with a death sentence on their heads.  The main character, Aral, doesn't take well to this development, so he's a depressed drunk, kept alive only by the need to preserve his life so his familiar, a shadow creature that literally resides in his shadow, won't die.  And then trouble comes a'knocking, in the form of a beautiful woman in a red dress...

If that sounds like a very typical noir set-up that's been "fantasied up" a bit, I'm sure it's supposed to.  The book, as it unfolds, reads very much like a noir novel with fantasy elements.  However, somehow it doesn't feel like a noir novel.  It's just a little too light-hearted, somehow.  It feels like a swashbuckler action story wearing a noir Halloween costume.

That may sound a bit like a complaint, but actually it's not at all.  This odd juxtaposition, makes the novel very compelling and fun to read.  And the main characters are all very likeable.  The setting, with vague allusions to Oriental elements, and a magic system that is quite interesting (all mages of any kind must cast magic through their familiars--and various schools of magic have various familiars, from Aral's own shadow to the dreaded stone dogs of the Elites.

The book was relatively short--under 300 pages--and moved along at a good clip.  With interesting action set-pieces and interesting characters, it has much to recommend it.  I'm happily waiting on the second book in the series, and hopefully after that, the third and the fourth (and however many more follow.)

The Temple of Yellow Skulls by Don Bassingthwaite

The Abyssal Plague was a big "event" in D&D fiction a couple of years ago.  I read the prologues; the ebook novella Gates of Madness by James Wyatt, The Mark of Nerath by Bill Slavicsek, and The Seal of Karga Kul by Alex Irvine.  As my prior reviews show, none of them was exceptional.  But for whatever reason, I was determined to get through the actual trilogy which followed, so I bought them all.  I've actually owned them for several months at least (almost two years in the case of the first book, the one I just read) but hadn't read any of them until now.

Now, Don Bassingthwaite is a pretty good author.  I gave a pretty good review to his Legacy of Dhakaan series recently.  And that works for him again here, too.  Taking the characters and set-up of Nerath, he goes on to spin a fairly cliche story of crazy cultists trying to summon up some insane god trapped since the beginning of creation, yadda-yadda-yadda.  But cliche is only a problem when implementation is boring or pedestrian.  Bassingthwaite manages to do a bit better than that by implementing the story well.  In that way, it becomes a "clever exploration of familiar tropes" rather than merely cliche.

That said, the more interesting characters were the ones he introduced, few though they were.  He inherited (from Slavicsek, or whomever watching over the entire Abyssal Plague project came up with these bozos) a pretty bland slate.  I didn't love this book, but I liked it quite a bit.  I actually found the "save the world from demonic invasion" plotline kinda interesting--although Bassingthwaite's hints at deeper motives and conspiracies underlying that simple premise is a big part of why I liked it.

Bassingthwaite also wrote the concluding volume in the trilogy, but curiously he did not write the middle one--that honor went to James Wyatt.  I guess we'll see how that tag-team writing notion paid off.  I'm half expecting that the entire series--trilogy plus 2½ preface novels--will only end up being two good novels, interspersed by at best mediocrity.  And yet I perservere regardless, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.