Category Archives: Words

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.

Rider, Reaper

I liked this Deathlands book somewhat less than usual, for a variety of reasons, which I will now elucidate.

1) The plot was not organic, and instead was in service of a clear goal that took me out of the writing. See, albino knife-throwing murder machine Jak Lauren left the group a long time ago, to start a life on a ranch in New Mexico. Yet, the in media res opening of Rider, Reaper immediately took the happy ending away from him, solely so the series could have him back. Clumsily enough so that I didn’t even realize it was that style at first, and instead thought I had accidentally picked up the wrong book. (On the bright side, I like him. But man, the clumsiness. Maybe if his family had been murdered during one of the stretches of time when everyone else hadn’t been right nearby, and then found him along the way instead? I dunno.)

2) Due to circumstances, they team up with a group of Navajo warriors to take down the bad guys of the week, and those warriors are portrayed as hot-headed savages worthy of a team-up with 19th century cowboys showing that the white way is manifestly the correct one, instead of 22nd century survivors of a society-ending nuclear war. It was just so bad, and all the moreso for me being used to this series’ shockingly common egalitarianism. Ugh. I am pretty sure the author hasn’t changed yet and won’t for a long time, so I hope it is a one-off problem, and not a sign of things to come due to editorial changes or some other permanent shift.

All that said, the set up of the next few books is pleasing to me, and I continue to look forward to where things are going. Please oh please let this be merely a small bump in the road.

Aftermath: Life Debt

Life Debt is the second in a trilogy of books that falls between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens in the new Star Wars continuity. I have more of a feeling than I originally had that I will learn very little about how we got from there to here, after having read this book. That’s disappointing, but not enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book for itself.

The cool team of rebels (or whatever you call them instead when the Empire is kind of defeated although not entirely but for sure there’s a replacement or at least alternative government in place) from Aftermath is back, to do Princess Leia a favor. See, the new Republic government is focused on fighting the Empire over systems with tactical or political value as they gradually try to put out the flames, instead of on who is suffering; and one Han Solo owes a Wookiee of his acquaintance a free Wookiee home world.

Only now they’re out of contact, and Leia asked those people I mentioned from the last book to go find him. And thus, a plot! Also, there’s some seemingly (but I’m afraid ultimately not) relevant byplay among the Imperial remnants, trying to figure out who will come out on top and how they will crush the new Republic, you know, like you’d expect them to want to do. Wake me up when one if them is named Snoke and I’ll care more about where that part of the plot is going.

But the laser battles and ship battles and infiltration plans and whatnot? Definitely still Star Wars, and that’s fine by me.

Blood Follows

There is one problem with publication order, and that problem is when small run publications are later gathered into collections. Well, to be fair, it’s not a problem with reading; you just read the part of the book that contains the story you were reading in publication order, and then put it down until later. But it is a problem for me specifically, since I include links to the book I read from, and yet the book I read Blood Follows in is not strictly the original book itself, since it’s a collection. Like, it’s fine now, but what about when I have the same cover and the same link for the next story I read from this collection? (It turns out I used the cover of the original small batch publication, so that may help a little.)

(It’s possible[1] I’m thinking about this too much.)

So, in Memories of Ice, one of the subplots I did not mention was that of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. This is because despite touching on the main drive of the story at several points, they really have nothing to do with anything that’s going on. Despite that, they are fascinating characters. Well, the one who murders people and uses their parts to build constructs in pursuit of some nebulous goal that may not rightly exist[2] is not especially fascinating. But the one who accompanies and protects the crazy one because it gives him a chance to further his own necromantic research, and who presents as a polished and urbane yet evil supergenius in the vein of Dr. Doom, he is fascinating. And their manservant, Emancipor Reese, is usually played for comic relief, but in a way that makes you care about him. He’s stuck in a situation, and making the best of it. (Well, trying and mostly failing to, whence comes the comedy.)

Anyway, though, Blood Follows. This is a short book that gives an answer for why these characters were in the main sequence book: because Erikson is as fascinated by them as I am. We join our characters several years earlier and half a world away. Emancipor Reese has just lost another in a long string of employers to unfortunate death (this time at the hands of a murderer stalking the streets of his city for the past fortnight), and he needs to find a new job fast, lest his wife and probably non-biological children think even less of him than they already do. Also, there’s a reasonably cool police detective type trying to solve the murders.

By and large, this is a story that you will care about if you care about the characters you already knew, and otherwise, you will not. In part this is because Erikson is a far worse mystery novelist than he is a fantasy and war novelist. In part, it’s because even to the extent that the mystery worked, too many characters emerge as major players in the final act, and it is seen through the eyes of someone who has just as little idea of what’s going on as the reader does. This can work in the first book of an epic series, if your reader trusts you and in the meantime the story is written masterfully. It works a lot less well when the story is barely a hundred pages long and the things the reader didn’t really understand revolved around characters he (by which I mean I) doesn’t really expect to encounter ever again.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It is to say that if I wasn’t already invested in the world and the main characters, I probably would not have, though.

[1] probable
[2] That is, I don’t really think he has an endgame in mind (nor that, even if he does, I’ll ever learn it). It’s more like he’s playing with legos to see what he can make.

Jack of Fables: The End

The final volume of Jack of Fables is hard to review for two reasons. If I’m being honest with myself, the series had outstayed its welcome since probably the big crossover, or at the very latest whichever book after that involved the dragon. So for my perspective: I’m glad it’s over. But that’s an opinion, not a review.

Reason one why The End is hard to review: because it’s not only the last entry in a series, but also the ninth. So, spoilers galore. This is a common problem that I have, and the lesson I suppose is to read more standalone stories?

Reason two why it’s hard to review: because anything I actually would be willing to say is already covered by the title itself. This book right here? Delivers on its promise. So, what else even would there be to say? Was it satisfying? Since I was already done with these characters, one of them probably before he ever existed[1], it’s hard to answer that in true fairness. But yes, I’m satisfied.

….except for the perpetual Walter Mitty miniaturized blue ox. I never got that at all. But I’m glad I will never have to worry about it again, at least!

[1] Jack Frost

Memories of Ice revisited

My original review of Memories of Ice is really terrible, and it should not be read. I liked the story, and that part is still the correct opinion, but man is the review a rambling mess. I apologize.

But, I have now listened to that book again, as part of my ongoing reread (and eventually new read) of the entire series, and: seriously, this is an incredibly good series. With an incredibly good reader in Ralph Lister, so naturally he did these three books and then stopped. I do not want to have to get used to someone else!

Anyway, what can I say about the book that is not a spoiler but that also redeems my original review? Man, I dunno. I was definitely interested in the way this and Deadhouse Gates paired with each other, and wonder if anyone has provided a way to read them simultaneously. I mean, interleaved with each other such that the events on different continents are occurring in more or less chronological order. This would be a terrible way to first read them, as they each are so self-contained, but the occasional ways they interact are a lot more meaningful to me during this reread, while I have a decent idea of what’s going on overall.

As last time, the things I cared about were very different upon the revisit. Every scene with Itkovian or with the T’lan Imass was riveting, and every scene with Lady Envy was drenched in snickers. Even the ones that should have been maybe serious? But mostly, I found that this is very nearly a self-contained trilogy, and definitely a good one. Among my favorites, though that’s easy to say when so few exist.

I’m getting towards the part of the story where I remember less about how things are. So that will be interesting?