Category Archives: Words

Trader Redux

Because Mary is way behind me, it’s too soon to start the next Liveship book. And because Road Wars ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, I figured, hey, why not read the next Deathlands. This has done me no good whatsoever, because Trader Redux ended on a bigger cliffhanger than the last one did[1], and Mary has caught up maybe a chapter in the meantime[2].

So anyway. This one was better, with timelines significantly more in whack. The old guy from the 1890s who’s been tossed around via time travel went off to find himself, and the main character guy goes whitewater rafting[3] into the barrel end of a shotgun wedding, so there’s plenty enough going on. But the main point of the book, how will our heroes react to regaining their upon a time leader?

I would call that aspect of things “incomplete”. Which is part of why this one ended on a bigger cliffhanger than the last one. Even if it is the smallest part.

[1] Okay, yes, they all end in cliffhangers technically. But usually the cliffhanger is “where did we teleport to this time, it sure looks dangerous”, and whatever, that’s status quo. Cliffhangers along the lines of “how will the meeting with my old boss who I used to love back when I wasn’t a leader myself, but now not only have I changed, it looks like he has too” and “uh-oh, all my friends have vanished, probably because the house they were hanging out in has more radiation than you can shake a pointed stick at” are qualitatively different.
[2] She’s reading plenty of manga in the original Japanese, so it’s not like she’s a slacker. Just not doing me any good. In, uh, this particular regard.
[3] I think down the Snake River Canyon, although it’s not entirely clear. It is 100% not the Grand Canyon, despite what the more spoilery than anything I’ve said here (and that’s impressive) cover copy claims.

House of Chains revisited

It is hard to believe that when I read House of Chains, I was so far ahead of the curve that Tor had only published the first book in the series so far, and I was still buying Orbit copies, usually from amazon.co.uk. And yet now, thirteen years later, I still haven’t finished the series yet. On the bright side, that’s what this is all about, innit?

Since I have read this one, yep, audiobook. And they changed performers! I’m extremely torn here. Unlike what the reviewers on Audible’s House of Chains page will tell you, Michael Page is not terrible. He’s not quite as good as Ralph Lister from a range perspective, but at least he pauses for half a second between point of view character breaks in the text, instead of reading onward like an automaton regardless of the tonal / plot differences that should be apparent right then, not 30 seconds later when I finally figure out what just happened. On the downside, Lister pronounced everything exactly the way I always have, whereas Page is wonky on some of the names (which could be a difference of opinion) and on some of the terms (which 100% could not be; Soletaken is not pronounced sole-uh-tawk-en, and I will die on that hill). It’s an unfortunate trade-off, even though I think I like the pacing correction more than I dislike the other bits.

Spoilers from here on, I reckon, since this is after all a reread. Continue reading

Road Wars

Vacation nearly always equals Deathlands. And on the bright side, I didn’t run out of book before the plane landed, if only by about 20 minutes of reading.

Downside: Road Wars was the worst of these books in a while. It was not exactly bad, yet while it’s weird to say that I have standards for these books, it also turns out to be true. See, this is the culmination of an ongoing plotline from the past multiple books, in which the two main characters have learned that their old mentor from the first book is not dead of radiation cancer like they’d thought, and head out to find him. This results in a series of episodic encounters that may pay off in future books, while their friends who stayed home and their mentor (and the friend who found him) in old Seattle each have their own adventures. The problem being that these stories are split apart for dramatic effect, yet could not possibly have happened across the timetable in which the main characters are travelling from the friends to the mentor, across 1500 miles of nuked wastelands.

None of the individual stories were bad, and at least one of them was not merely fine but engrossing. Nonetheless, the skewed timelines bothered me really a lot, and took away from most of what was going on.

Still, light entertaining post apocalyptic fluff is not a genre I will soon tire of, and this was only relatively bad. Still far better than, for example, the last Anita Blake I read.

Small Gods

When people talk about Discworld, they say that the first books are uneven (which is true, but not in a way that bothers me) and that if they were to recommend a place for people to start, it would be with Small Gods. I now understand why that is, although I’m not sure how I feel about it for my own recommendations.

Like, on the one hand, this is a brilliant book that puts into words a lot of my thoughts about the institutions of religion and the tug of war they have with the concept of faith. I would happily recommend it to any person who likes social satire and has an open mind. It is a masterpiece of its genre. But on the other hand, it is so thoroughly divorced from the majority of Discworld novels I’ve read so far that it feels strange sending someone here for their first foray into the series. To the extent that it really is the same world, the smaller part falls into using the setting as a keystone for the brilliant satire I mentioned[1], and the larger part is artificially shoehorned in[2]. On the third hand, I have no idea what I would point to instead? Although Mort, or the first Guards book or the second Witches book all seem feasible. Or maybe the very first book, not because it’s first, but because it’s hard to accept any other Rincewind book later when compared to the other options, if you don’t have an attachment to him by starting there. (Also because Nethack.)

Long story short, I’m glad I read this, and I’m sad it took me so long. Learn from my example, if you haven’t read it yet!

[1] The shape of Discworld as religious tenet vs observable fact. The Turtle Moves, y’all.
[2] The ubiquitous food vendor guy really did seem like, no, you guys, look, it’s still Discworld. See? He’s right here, cutting off his own nose!

The Outsider

As you know, a new Stephen King book is out, which, cool and yay. To start with, yep, I liked The Outsider. I was engrossed from basically page two or three, even though it’s more dabbling in the crime and mystery genre, a la those three books that form the trilogy that he wrote over the past few summers.

Which is fine as far as it goes, it’s not like those books failed to delve in the paranormal and existential horror that is his stock in trade. And even if it didn’t, I love him for his grasp of human psychology in the face of adversity probably more than the majority of the bare plots anyhow.

The problem with the book is that I know exactly what it was, but to explain it would be just a massive spoiler of the central mystery, which I am willing to say went nowhere near the direction I expected when I was on that second or third page, all engrossed as I said to begin with.

So, I guess comment spoiler?

Ship of Magic

I’m staring at this blank screen[1] in consternation. I obviously can’t go down to my car and grab the new Stephen King book I got on Tuesday, because then I’ll do an even worse job with this review than I’m already fated to. I would normally read my next comic (even though it’s Team America, ugh), but somehow I forgot to get the 1983 issues of that registered in Comicrack[2], so now they’re sitting at home waiting for me to get there and sync, before I can proceed with this (at least there are only five Team Americas left) next book that fate and the CMRO has decreed I be subjected to.

And anyway, I only justifiably could have read one comic anyway, so it’s not like I would have bought myself very much time.

Here’s the thing. I sincerely don’t know whether I liked Ship of Magic or not. For instance, I absolutely care about what happens to these people. I am interested in the puzzles that have been laid out. (What’s the deal with wizardwood in specific and the Rain Wilds in general? What’s really going on with the serpents? Other things that would be spoilers to point out are open questions[3].) I’m interested in the world building around the slavery cultures that were halfway around the world from the events of the previous series, and the plot developments arising from that world building. So of course I liked the book, right? Look at all that delicious literature on my plate! And two books to go!

But… I’m not sure I’ve ever taken this long to read a book that I actually finished. Or felt this much existential dread while reading this or that chapter. Or taken comfort in such objectively bad outcomes, because at least they were incrementally better than what I had been reading five pages earlier. I just… and there are two more books to go.

I’ll say this much. I’m glad there’s a Stephen King book in my car downstairs, instead of the next book of this series as there probably would have been without the accidental timing of release schedules. It will give me time to sit in my room and think about what I’ve done.

[1] Okay, technically no longer entirely blank once I started narrating, but come on.
[2] Which mysteriously started syncing with my Chromebook again, hooray!!! Almost worth losing most of the functionality as a game-playing device.
[3] Amber, for instance.

Dungeon Master’s Guide (5th Edition D&D)

I honestly don’t have much to add after reading the 5e DMG than when I reviewed the Player’s Handbook. That book contains almost all of the actual rules for the game, so that’s where the meat is.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is, for a wonder, actually that (a guide). It’s not as referency as the Monster Manual, for example, which is just a bunch of tables of monster stats in alphabetical order with flavor text next to each. But it is primarily a reference book full of ideas. “How do you want to deal with character downtime between adventures? How do you want to deal with magic items? What kind of story are your players interested in, and how do you provide them a good balance if not everyone agrees? How do you fill out the rough edges of your world, so there’s a place for the adventures to happen? How do you decide what is going to happen? How do you make sure it’s balanced to where the characters are, so they neither explode into a bloody mess nor march triumphantly through ranks of lesser beings with no challenge at all?” You know, the things you need to know to make it a good game.

Some of those details are useful to me, many more are not (because I’m not making my own world or my own adventures any time soon, for example), but I appreciate the level of detail provided. Someone put a lot of thought into this edition, and it shows. And there are things that are definitely useful, like ways to tweak the rules to make things feel more superheroic or more gritty and real. As reference books go, I’m just trying to say: it’s very solid.

Anyway, though, one thing I should have mentioned in my last review and did not: I am in awe of the genius simplicity of the advantage and disadvantage rules. See, time was, you’d have all these modifiers as a hold over from wargaming. Because, optimally, you are playing on a 3D map with 3D figures, and they are moving around in reaction to each other. So, yay, the enemy is unaware of you, good job, bonus. But boo, they’re behind a waist-high wall and it gives them some cover. Penalty! And all this stuff stacks up, right?

The way advantage works is, either because of a specific reason in the rules (surprise, enemy is immobile, character learned a cool technique that they can use only sometimes, or whatever it is) or because the DM sees a good reason why advantage should be granted due to the tactics being clever but the rules not covering it specifically, you get advantage on the roll you are making. Which means you roll your d20 twice, and take the better roll. Disadvantage works exactly the opposite, you find a reason why this is hard (your hands are covered in blood and it makes your trap tools slippery, or you’re just waking up when the fireball explodes in the middle of camp), and you roll your d20 twice and take the worse roll. It doesn’t stack where you’re rolling any extra dice beyond two, and it cancels if you would have both.

If that doesn’t sound incredibly simple and clever to you, it’s because I described it wrong. Seriously. Best rules update since they took away THAC0.

(Secretly, I still like THAC0, but I couldn’t think of an easier touchstone.)

Player’s Handbook (5th Edition D&D)

Full disclosure: I did not read the entire Player’s Handbook cover to cover. Because, like, there’s a section with a bunch of spells in alphabetical order, right? Except for a couple to get a flavor of the formatting, I did not read those[1]. I may have skipped other stuff too? I forget.

That said, this is a pleasing book. I last played 4th Edition, in the 2010-2011 timeframe, which it turns out was a long time ago? I liked how they handled combat, but came to greatly dislike how they handled the characters, who all seemed like smudged copies of about four types. And that’s where I have good news! Combat in 5e is about the same, it does a good job of working out timing (I mean, who goes when), positioning, movement, reactions, all of that. But the character mechanics are nearly as diverse as they were in the first and second editions, while being simultaneously streamlined[2] for ease of use.

Even better, there is a good variety of resources available for ensuring that your character has a backstory and a current story outside the adventure itself. This is the kind of modernization of the game I can definitely get behind. Obviously you could always make your character’s history as rich or as vague as you wanted, but formalized rules to assist in the endeavor are entirely welcome.

So anyway: good stuff.

[1] I want to know how to play and run the game. I do not need to read reference books. See also: why there will not be a review of the Monster Manual.
[2] A point that was driven home to me when I looked up the 1e stats for the spell Dimension Door earlier this week. It had a casting time, which I remembered, but it also had a recovery time after use and the weird AD&D conceit of “inches”, which we used to call areas. (I don’t know why? Maybe the book also called them that.) But 1″ is either 10 feet inside, or 30 feet outside (if I remember correctly), because magic would somehow work that way? I’unno. My point is, it’s possible that my longstanding desire to run a first edition AD&D campaign has been, um, misguided.

The Walking Dead: Lines We Cross

I find that Walking Dead graphic novels come out at the right pace. Twice a year, six issues each (which okay, that’s a pretty obvious rate if you pause to think about it), and whenever I get one in the mail it’s just about exactly the time that I think it’s been a little while since I read the last one. I wonder if I would itch for them more, if the show wasn’t also coming out on about that schedule (eight episodes instead of six, and closer to the turn of the year than an even split, but nonetheless) to fill in any extra itchings.

Sometimes I can tell what they were going for from the title, and other times (like now), not so much. I mean, Lines We Cross is a rich mine for the entire series, certainly, and most of the individual characters have a lot of story dedicated to that question. But this specific book? Nah, not seeing it.

That said, it is an introspective, quiet, rebuilding book, in which people have time to take stock of lines they have maybe already crossed, regrets they have, relationships lost and found. And I will never get tired of the parallel story arcs between two characters that would be very spoilery[1] to call out. But if introspection is not your thing, there’s a new hilarious character (right on the cover!) and the promise of a brand new storyline springing from the culmination of the radio conversations that built throughout the Whisperers arc. So, Kirkman’s definitely not out of ideas yet. And, at least for now, I’m not tired of hearing them yet.

[1] For a lot of reasons

Aftermath: Empire’s End

If you are looking for a book that explains why there’s wreckage all over Jakku in The Force Awakens, then Empire’s End is the book for you! If, however, you are looking for information on where Leader Snoke and the First Order came from, well, you’ll hear somewhere between one to five percent of that story, tops. (Which to be fair, at least until the trilogy of movies is over, you had to know that nobody would be allowed too close to direct backstory, in case the writers wanted to do it on film instead. I mean, you had to know that, right?)

On the bright side, I’m still very much enamored of the characters in this trilogy, and it’s nice to see someone telling a full-sized story in the Star Wars universe where Skywalkers are relegated to a side role at best. (There have been other such stories prior to 2015, but really not very many.)

Just in case there’s confusion, I should note that the book does a lot more than explain Jakku wreckage. But it’s the third book of a trilogy, so why go crazy with spoilers? It continues to do well what the other books also did well: present a living, breathing galaxy reacting to Palpatine’s demise and the birth of a new Republic, while telling a personal story about several people on both sides of the lingering conflict. In other words, if you care about Star Wars, this has star warsy stuff worth caring about.