Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Few Comments on Dresden Files Book 2: Fool Moon

A lot of people want me to read and comment on books that were written after 1980, so here’s a little something for that side of the internet. I get the feeling that they feel sorry for me for enjoying the older books I tend to rave about– and they imagine that if I’d just step outside of my comfort zone for just a second, I’d see that fantasy literature is getting better and better with each decade that passes. Well, that’s not how it works. There have been cultural shifts over the past century that are so radical, I’m afraid that anyone that even remotely attempts to keep up with the times is going to fail to satisfy me.

Jim Butcher is, as far as I can tell, one of those people, unfortunately. That’s not to say that he can’t write an entertaining page turner that’s loaded with action. The Dresden Files is phenomenally successful and he has done really well for himself putting out what a great many people want. I’m just not quite one of those people. Oh sure, there’s some solid entertainment value in this series, I won’t argue that. But the same stuff that bugs me in popular movies and television of the past decade or so is a fundamental part of the books’ premise.

The police liaison Murphy really gets on my nerves, for instance. She is always upset with Harry Dresden over something. He is fundamentally incapable of making her happy and Dresden is constantly beating himself up for his failure to do so. If Murphy was replaced with a male character, then everything would be more likely to be about solving problems, beating bad guys, and sorting out an effective working relationship. But Dresden and Murphy never get around to that until the plot points fall in place. Even worse, the happy ending status quo for these characters is Murphy complaining about what a numskull Harry Dresden is: “You’re such a pompous, arrogant, pretentious, chauvinistic, hopelessly old-fashioned, stupidly pig-headed….” You know, I really don’t like the way she treats him. It’s not cute. It’s grating.

Meanwhile, the default romantic scenario that a book inherits that’s published in the year 2000 is some variation on the hook-up culture. The execution of what’s here is not that bad compared to the gratuitous sex of, say, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves or Sterling Lanier’s Heiro’s Journey. But Harry Dresden is really hung up on whether or not he’s going to score or not and whether or not the frequency with which he gets into a girl’s pants is sufficient for him to feel good about himself. I can sort of see it working for him to just cruelly take advantage of his conquests or else to be too preoccupied with his mission to pursue some kind of relationship thing. But his general confusion on this point never quite attains any cogency for me. No, not every adventurer will recapitulate Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen or even Sam’s settling down at Bag End with Rosie. But I kind of do expect more from this sort of thing than Susan showing Harry that sex is this huge wonderful contrast to “all the pain in the world” as sort of a prelude to the climatic fight scene. (It’s cute I guess and maybe even a nice gesture… but there’s something about this that simply doesn’t correspond to reality. Sorry.)

But Harry Dresden really is a championship level nice guy. It’s funny, but the way he brandishes his pentacle themed Holy Symbol is really like a classical D&D cleric serving a generic Lawful Good deity. He very nearly quotes Robert E. Lee when he says in book one that “there is no truer gauge of a man’s character than the way he employs his strength, his power.” It is kind of amusing to see this sort of character take off after all the attempts during the New Wave era to overthrow traditional notions of heroism. At the same time, I never get the piercing sense of moral clarity from Harry Dresden that I do from, say, Gandalf. I mean I’m glad that the guy wants to do the right thing. But he seems to think more in terms of merely minimizing supernatural casualties rather than actual right and wrong.

There is some good magic in the series, though. The potions that get brewed up are always entertaining. The scorpion talisman from book one was a top notch magical artifact and I thought Jim Butcher’s handling of demon summoning was pretty fun. His preoccupation with true names and the way he portrays supernatural creatures not having souls is delightfully old school. And I quite enjoyed the mashing together of more approaches to werewolves than I ever thought were possible in this second book of the series. But the Strong Female Character™ of Murphy combined with the handling of the romantic elements get in the way of me enjoying the series as much as I could. If that sort of thing doesn’t phase you, hey… more power to you. I just like the old stuff better.

And for those that want an example from the classics of what I think is far superior to this, I’d point you to A. Merritt’s Dwellers in the Mirage. What we lose with the Murphy character here is the endearing warmth and camaraderie that’s possible with a solid, old type “best buddy” archetype. What we lose with the tacky hook up style relationship is the “evil” version of the protagonist that is able to seduce a femme fatale and double cross her even as she works out a double cross of her own. And finally, with the actual love interest sequence framing the main action, you get to see not just a girl that’s worthy of the hero but also a hero that is worthy of a girl like that. For too long, there have been hardly any protagonists that even deserve that kind of happy ending. The inability of most people to even imagine that sort of thing anymore is actually pretty unfortunate.

Advertisements

REVIEW: SJW’s Always Lie by Vox Day

“I don’t agree with what you say and I will defend to the death the abuse and vitriol you receive for saying it.” — Godfrey Elfwick

Ten years ago I took a job teaching high school. And I can tell you, if you’re coming into that sort of thing through some kind of lateral entry program, you’re liable to have a very tough row to hoe. There were maybe ten of us “noobs” in the beginning. The guy across the hall from me that was particularly kind to me in those first couple of weeks? He’d neglected to mention to the administrators that he was an ex-con and just disappeared one day. Half of the doe-eyed idealists that came in with me were gone within six weeks. They just couldn’t take the stress. And that smart English teacher with a thing for Lobachevsky? Three-quarters through the year she ended up taking a better paying job at a non-profit. In the end, I think only two of us made it through the whole year.

The thing that really got to me about the experience was the knowledge that all it took was a single misstep and I would not only be fired, but I’d also be on the six o’clock news. I could grind through the day-to-day routine, but I never really came to grips with just how precarious my position was. Once when I asked the students to clear their desks for a test a young lady insisted on leaving her gigantic purse out. When a persistent request that she comply devolved into argument, every cell phone in the class was instantly out and recording my every move. And that in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the fact that every interaction I’d had with the school administrators indicated that they not only didn’t have my back, but they’d gladly throw me to the wolves if I ever became inconvenient to them.

In light of this, it was not hard for me to move on to a career that required far less interaction with bureaucracies and/or the public. When I successfully landed a job that paid far more than what I would have made as a teacher, I thought I had gotten away from that strange social dynamic altogether. At any rate, I can’t remember anyone picking a fight with me and recording it on their cell phones since then. And when I chose to home school my kids, I figured I had gotten away from the Bizarro World mentality altogether. Life has been good on the whole.

But then I noticed that that pressurized dynamic was starting to permeate other industries. I don’t remember feeling much in the way of pity for Don Imus when there was an uproar over an off color remark that he’d made. However, the antics surrounding figures ranging from Brendan Eich to Matt Taylor and Tim Hunt were another matter. These were guys that were making real contributions to science and technology… and they were being subjected to witch hunts like something out of the McCarthy era over a campaign donation, a shirt, and a joke. In all cases, none of them had made the sort of mistakes I’d been afraid of making as a public school teacher. It didn’t make any sense.

But while most of us just want to do our jobs, take care of our families, and get a break from having to hear about the gory details of some of these culture war incidents, it’s another thing when this sort of thing begins to creep into your hobbies. The one refuge we have from this is under siege. Consultants to the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons come under fire. Satirical games get banned from One Book Shelf. Apple pulls war games from their app store due to their use of the Confederate flag. Anything and everything is liable to be declared “problematic” at any moment and even creators that themselves have politically correct leanings are not immune to the mobs.

Which brings us to this book.

If you are not already concerned about the trends I highlight above, I can go ahead and tell you… this book will not change your mind. But if you want to know what the common denominator is between everything I’m talking about here, this book is the only game in town. If you want to know what you can do to protect yourself when your turn in the hot seat comes, this book is the best resource currently available. If you wonder just what exactly is wrong with the sort of people that seem to live for these bizarre puritanical crusades, this book will give you insight into just how they think. And if you are interested in pushing back against this sort of thing, this book contains a coherent strategy for exactly that.

Of course, if you are weary of hearing about the Scalzi/Day feud, Gamergate, and Sad Puppies… then yes, three of the ten chapters are going to be a bit tedious for you. But even if you’ve been following those skirmishes compulsively over the past few months you’re liable to pick up more than a few tidbits that never made it into the news stories about them. Even if you have no intentions of jumping into the culture wars yourself, this book is a good read. Check it out.

Disclosure: I have a column over at Castalia House. I also was included on the Sad Puppies slate.

Book Review: A Throne of Bones

It’s no secret that of all the authors nominated for a Hugo this year, this was the one I most wanted to read again after plowing through several books. The novellas in the The Last Witchking were that compelling and everything I expected to find in a novel length treatment of the same subject matter is here in A Throne of Bones. As before, things start off a bit slow, but as before I eventually got stupidly invested in each of the characters. There are several different plot threads going at once and each one ends up taking unexpected turns before folding in upon each of the others. Everything logically proceeds from what comes before, and yet some of the developments are absolutely stunning. It’s a good read.

To understand the significance of this book, though, I refer you to  Steve Jackson’s author’s note in the first edition of GURPS Fantasy:

Fantasy writers (of both books and games) often take the safe way out, by providing superficial mumbo-jumbo in place of religion. Frankly, I find this unsatisfying, if not actually obnoxious. Many role players seem to agree; given the chance, they would rather be paladins of a “real” faith than of the Temple of Gooble the Mostly Omnipotent.

Therefore — with the hope that I do not offend greatly — I have presented three of Earth’s major faiths, by name, as they might have developed in a world where magic was real. These depictions come largely from history, partially from the favorite stereotypes of fantasy literature, and lastly from my own imagination!

Given the emphasis on realism above everything else at that time, this passage always struck me as a huge rebuke to the D&D scene of the day. I don’t think I was ever fully on board with the ridicule of “Marge the Barbarian” snark from the Basic Set, but there actually is something to what Steve is saying here. At least, these words were haunting enough that I simply could not get excited about all the weirdo variant cleric classic of Second Edition AD&D when that edition rolled around. And yet, as influential as Steve Jackson’s Yrth was on my teenager brain, I have to say that I was completely unprepared to run a game set in a world with that kind detail. It was just too daunting. I was just some kid and I knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to run real world religions in the context of a game.

That’s where A Throne of Bones comes in. The setting of this novel could have served just as easily as the default campaign setting of the original GURPS Fantasy, although it arguably is closer in spirit to Roma Arcana from the Fourth Edition incarnation of that title. The world building approach is very similar in each case. Heck, the combat sequences read like GURPS tactical combats with Douglas Cole‘s Last Gasp. (Though for the mass combat sequences, it is Commands & Colors: Ancients all the way!)

One faction presented here is an anti-magic and Roman Republic with each major noble house independently running their own legions. They are thoroughly and unflinchingly Christian. Another faction is a french-speaking and magic weilding monarchy. (One of the main characters is a battle mage from there that is unapologetically irreligious.) Yet another faction is the Viking-like Reavers invoking Thor and Odin in their oaths. The elves of this setting have a bit of an edge to them that is refreshing and one of their greatest sorcerers has converted to the faith even as the church has recognized that elves have souls. And there’s also the inevitable dwarves, orcs, goblins, and werewolves rounding things out.

I think this is all laid out in such a way that a game master can easily pick it up and run with it, but the thing that takes the cake here are the detailed depictions of how legions really work. If you saw the opening bits of Gladiator and wished that the movie could have stayed focused on such battles for the entire film, then you will derive a lot of enjoyment from this book.

So yeah, this is an epic story in a solid fantasy setting. But let me tell you why you might not want to read it. The use of a Christian culture as a backdrop may get tedious for some people after a while. Granted, a lot of the Catholic type stuff is no more distracting than, say, a detailed description of an exorcism from a horror movie. But characters that are literally crying out to God when they are in their most desperate moments is going to be more than some people can take. Probably the most likely thing to turn people off is a bit early on where we find out that the elves do not believe in evolution. I don’t think this was handled as well as the theological discussions of Opera Vita Aeterna and I can imagine some people throwing their ereader against the wall at that point. Still, the author does not belabor these sorts of scenes, however, and the intense action of the later chapters would (in my opinion) more than make up for whatever cringe this might induce. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

This book is quite enjoyable by itself, but if you are running any sort of game with a city state that is at all based on the Romans, then this book is an essential find. This is not at all like the derivative fantasy series of the eighties that I grew up with. There’s a realness to it that I don’t recall seeing before. My favorite thing about is that it really takes you inside the head of men that are responsible for leading armies. I simply did not know how much I wanted to read something like that until I got this book! I don’t want to give anything away, but there is some really good stuff in here that is as inspiring as it is entertaining. There are difficult lessons on leadership here that are nowhere to be found in stuff like the more visible Honor Harrington series.

This is a nice change of pace after assuming that I’d always have to hold my nose if I was going to read any of the more recent science fiction and fantasy. While this is not entirely family friendly, it is still not nearly as graphic as, say, the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. While it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it also clearly sets up the next book so beware of that. The Roman names can get confusing and the Latin terms can get a little much at times, but really, the biggest problem I had with it was that pretty much had to take a sick day in order to finish reading it once I got about half way through.

Book Review: The Night Land

At one point I didn’t think I could finish this book. Starting at about half way through, it became such a chore. I slogged on through it wondering how it was that the book could be as influential as it was. Fortunately, the action picked back up into something more readable towards the end. The thing that the author was setting up turned out to be quite different from what I was expecting, and though I can’t completely explain it, but the conclusion was strangely satisfying. Which is to say… I’m happier having read that book than I was actually reading it.

The main draw for the average gamer here is the bizarre post-apocalyptic setting. Take every action movie where the good guys save the world in the end, pretend that they failed, then fast forward through uncountable millennia: that’s what might lead to this. There is no sun. Mankind is confined inside a massive arcology surrounded by mindbendingly strange monsters and hazards. People rarely go outside, but look out the windows with their spyglasses.

If a youth desired greatly to make the adventure, he should receive three lectures upon the dangers of which we had knowledge, and a strict account of the mutilatings and horrid deeds done to those who had so adventured. And if, after this had passed over him, he still desired, and if he were accounted healthful and sane; then should he be allowed to make the adventure; and it was accounted honour to the youth who should add to the knowledge of the Pyramid.

The imagery is staggering, evoking scenes in the mind as if Erol Otus had been hired to depict unfathomable Cthuloid nightmares. The author seems to be struggling to describe things which science and genre fiction were not yet developed to handle at the time of his writing. This lends a stark anachronistic feel to the work even as he reaches into the poetic in order to communicate his visions.

And here I must make known that these weapons did not shoot; but had a disk of grey metal, sharp and wonderful, that spun in the end of a rod of grey metal, and were someways charged by the Earth-Current, so that were any but stricken thereby, they were cut in twain so easy as aught. And the weapons were contrived to the repelling of any Army of Monsters that might make to win entrance to the Redoubt. And to the eye they had somewhat the look of strange battle-axes, and might be lengthened by the pulling out of the handles.

He creates a world where the boundaries between matter, thought, and spirit are porous… and a time where there are so many fates worse than death that no one goes out without having a quick-trigger suicide device implanted in their arms.

And there was afterwards writ a proper and careful treatise, and did it set out that there did be ruptures of the Aether, the which did constitute doorways, as those more fanciful ones did name them; and through these shatterings, which might be likened unto openings– there being no better word to their naming– there did come into the Particular Condition of Life, those Monstrous Forces Of Evil, that did dominate the Night, and which many did hold surely to have been given this improper entrance through the foolish and unwise wisdom of those olden men of learning, that did meddle overfar with matters that did reach in the end beyond their understanding.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite for this monumental piece of literature, let me break the horrible secret of this work: it’s a love story. The opening chapter details how the protagonist falls for the girl next door, how she nearly breaks his heart, how they finally marry, and how the object object of his affections died all too soon. And yet… such is the power of true love that both live again in the far future, remembering their past together. The realness and relatability of this connection provides something of an anchor as you enter into a thoroughly incomprehensible world. Later, when the protagonist contacts someone half way across the world with the “Master Word” and his “brain-elements”, it provides the motivation for the hero to strike out across the impossible hellish landscape of the future earth. His true love from beyond eternity is in deadly danger and he must come to her aid.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. This is a reasonable enough basis for adventure fiction, sure. And there are some really compelling scenes of raw terror as monsters storm across the landscape in the vicinity of the second arcology when he finally discovers it. The few remaining survivors are cast out of their redoubt and are slowly succumbing to their grisly fates. But the real trouble comes when the hero finds his love, saves her, nurses her back to health, and attempts to bring her home.

Oh, it’s bad enough for current readers that she is utterly weak and completely dependent on the hero. Many people are going to be throwing the book across the room when she insists on preparing the protein pills and dehydrated water. Some people’s heads will explode when she displays no particular skills or passions beyond doing her hair, washing clothes, and performing low level health care tasks. People that are undeterred by these things are still liable to throw up when these two characters kiss and coo and nestle and cuddle and hold hands and call each other by their pet names… all in the midst of a far more interesting postapocalyptic wasteland.

Maybe there’s a bit of artistry to the contrast… you know, just one small relic of paradise in that awful hellscape. If only it were that simple. It soon becomes clear that the author is spending so much time on these apparently extraneous details because things are about to get far more complicated. You see… his true love has something of a rebellious streak. Although she seems to reciprocate the protagonist’s feelings for her, her “naughtiness” slowly grows to the point that she is a danger to both of them. He’s built like He-Man. She’s a helpless maid. They are timeless soul mates and hopelessly in love… but for the hero to rescue the damsel in distress this time, he is actually forced in this case to master her even while there are many miles to tread and many monsters to fight though.

Maybe I don’t get out much, but I really don’t know that many people that are going to appreciate how this turns out. Squaring the fairy tale ending with the author’s antediluvian views of romance and marriage is going to be impossible for a lot people to wrap their heads around. And this particular relationship’s presence in a science fiction story are going to be downright weird… and perhaps even scarier than the monsters! Seeing it enshrined as the very height of love, honor, and faithfulness is at least as inscrutable as the horrors of the Night Land.

I admit, I personally was moved by the tale even as I was stunned by it. I suppose that makes me something of a neanderthal. The behavior of the girl is not unlike what I’ve observed in teenage girls that are toying with their first boyfriend: fickle, alternately hot and cold, making up problems that serve as the perfect excuse to get close… followed by made up offenses that allow her to punish the guy. In sort, she behaves like a child… but with a power of manipulation matched only by the Second Foundation. As foolish as she might be, she is still innocent and therefore likable. Of course, the fact that she is no Delilah or Jezebel only makes it harder to read what happens to her.

Now I was just complaining on here the other day about how Mary Robinette Kowal used an incredibly sickly husband character as the means to make the main female character look strong. Is this happening here in reverse…? Not at all. The hero here is strong because of his physical strength, his skill in combat, his discipline, his courage, his persistence and his daring. The female character in this story serves to highlight his Achilles heal. And unlike the monsters which are occasionally scarce enough that they can rest in peace, once this relational conflict begins it tarnishes every waking moment until the girl’s testing of the boundaries escalates into stupidly dangerous actions.

While the female character is probably the more politically incorrect, it is the hero that is perhaps not even imaginable today. It is the juxtaposition of so many hard contradictions that make him so difficult to accept. He can spend hours holding and kissing her and admiring her… but he is at pains to never take advantage of her or force his affections on her. He is more hopelessly romantic than Paul McCartney and Barry Manilow put together; he puts the girl on an insanely high pedestal, and she is the only one for him in all of time… but he is willing to whip her into submission if she is disobedient. Probably most surprising is the fact that while they both considered complete intimacy to be something that must wait for marriage, this kind of dominion seemed to be in force well beforehand.

Those that are mortified at the thought of such men existing have little to worry about. Whatever ones were left when the Titanic was going down were (along with the author) expended during the War to End All Wars. And although the “gentleman” in the story is difficult to accept, one has to admit that it is at least as hard to imagine an epic hero of the milennia accomplishing great quests while at the same time being himself “whipped” at home. Although it’s rare to see a complex relationship get developed to the degree we see here, it’s to be sure not what most people reading post-apocalyptic science fantasy are looking for.

Book Review: Hard Magic (Book One of the Grimnoir Chronicles)

“If only there was some sort of agreed upon standard for how we should assess books based on their covers.” — Tenth Justice

People have been recommending Larry Correia’s books to me for at least a year now, but I’d never gotten around to checking them out. This particular series never looked that interesting to me, but now that the third installment is nominated for a Hugo Award this year, I went ahead to dropped five bucks for the Kindle edition. What’s it about? Superheroes punching each other. Also guns. Lots of guns. And explosions. And gigantic magical zeppelins. There is so much action here that I when got half way through the book, I actually could not imagine how the author could possibly have been saving anything back for the climax, much less for later books in the series.

If you enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s Wildcards series, John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, or the the first season of Heroes, then you’ll be right at home here. Instead of beginning the alternate history in WWII for nostalgia’s sake, Correia allows powers to begin to appear during the 19th century. As in the movie Push, each Active has access to one general ability: a Traveler can teleport, a Heavy can control gravity, and Torch can create and control fire, and so on. What’s particularly enjoyable here is that he’s explored how governments would respond to the emergence of a significant percentage of superpowered individuals. War and espionage have their obvious applications, but we also get to see how these abilities impact industry and society in general. This is especially enjoyable because comics tend to be set in a sort of perpetual present with supervillians and superscience mostly failing to influence history and economics in any significant way.

I like the characters for the most part. At some point, so many are introduced that I had trouble keeping up with them, but the main protagonists are likable enough. The banter is punchy and the book is a real page-turner. The book’s three plot threads are well paced and well engineered. A lesser author would have lost control of the story… or lost me. The only thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with were the romantic elements. While it’s not as ham handed as the Neo/Trinity relationship we see in the Matrix movies– “insert romance here… because every epic needs a bit of that sort of thing”– it’s still sort of a cursory treatment. The descriptions of the firearms are actually penned with greater tenderness…!

Given that Correia has been something of a lightening rod as of late, it’s reasonable to want to know how he handles various political issues here. Well, there are no rousing speeches. There is no overt attempt to persuade the reader to a particular point of view. There are no paper-thin allegories to current hot topics. The worst thing I can think of on this point is that a character mentions that he thinks the New Deal is no different than Marxism. Other characters are frustrated by the American isolationism of the period. While there are no openly gay characters, the cast is nearly gender balanced. (Superpowers, guns, and ninja training make for fairly potent equalizers.) The main character is so far from being racist that he actually was sent to prison for killing a sheriff that was intent on lynching a black person. The only reason anyone might accuse this work of being political would be because it fails to loudly proclaim anyone’s preferred talking points.

It’s very difficult for me to read this book without mentally composing its corresponding GURPS supplement as I flip the pages. I know that Larry Correia has been associated more with Hero System up until now (see this Kickstarter… or here on his blog for recent plugs) but everything described here meshes perfectly with the typical GURPS way of doing things. Each major ability type can be assigned their own set of advantages, just like in GURPS Powers. While you’d normally be limited to a single power type in this setting, an unusual background might allow you to dip into closely related powers on a limited basis… but probably only with character points earned in the course of play. The text indicates that skill will matter a lot… and a lot of the special tricks could be classified as techniques whose penalties can be bought off over time. Use of these abilities require tapping into a separate power reserve rather than just getting exercised for free or coming out of fatigue. The way I read it, extra effort should be able to buy additional enhancements on the fly fairly liberally… but the costs should force most characters to have to rely on their guns until they can rest up again.

Oh, in addition to the superpowers there’s a new magic system here that would be built entirely with stuff just from the Basic Set. Different groups of advantages can be acquired by getting tatoos of various glyphs. I’m not sure if the number of these you can get should  be based on some other attribute or if you have to make a health and/or a power roll each time you get one in order to determine whether or not you can handle more. There’s more techno-magic type things hinted at in the text, but getting the most common “kanji” worked out should be a trivial task for most GURPS game masters.

I enjoyed this book a lot. If it’s dealing with your favorite genres then this is sure to be an enjoyable read– if you can handle the nonstop action. If you like vintage guns, then this book was made for you. There are dozens of cinematic bullet time sequences condensed down into the written word here. History buffs will be amused with the many cameo appearances that are worked into the general background of the tale… and people that are tired of insane Nazi’s taking over the world all the time will finally get to see a magically empowered Imperial Japan on the loose here. This is solid gaming fiction and extremely entertaining stuff.