Monday, February 6, 2023

Review of Divergence by C.J. Cherryh

Emergence saw the marid finally in a position to take a breath. The Shadow Guild, while still in existence, had been pushed back, allowing Taibini, Bren, and the dowager to begin moving for better territorial position. Nomani was identified as the likely inheritor or lands previously held by insurgents, and in Resurgence the mysterious Machigi appeared with a proposition to solidify his power as well as offer the marid a share. But remnants of the Shadow Guild interrupted proceedings, giving rise to the question are things as stable as readers thought? Divergence (2020) answers that question.

Divergence kicks off precisely where Resurgence ended aboard the red train. Bren is trying to make sense of the strange social, and by default political, milieu the dowager has created. Nomani, still not entirely trustable, continues to push for a lordship, while Machigi sits quietly saying and doing all the right things yet not being entirely open about his long-term intentions. Or is he? In the capital, Cajeri is taken deeper into the confidences of his father and mother as he proves worthy of their trust. And while at a distance from the action, proves his role in the capital can still pack a punch.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "The Rise of Red Skull" deluxe expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game

Fantasy Flight Games have released several expandable card games, and all to date have followed a similar arc—at least those that made it out of the gate and into the stretch. First is a solid core box that introduces first principles through simple but powerful heroes fighting in simple but powerful encounters. This is followed up by a deluxe expansion that offers more of the same with slight iterations—a confident first step beyond the core box that doesn't mix things up too much but offers something new. Along with peppering in single packs to fill interstices, the first deluxe expansion is inevitably followed up by several expansions which show the depth to which the game's first principles can be expanded. Then comes the inevitable power creep—deluxe expansions featuring heroes and encounters that do everything a little bit more in order to give longer-term players a challenge. But I go too far. Let's take a look at “The Rise of Red Skull” (2020), the first deluxe expansion for Marvel Champions: The Card Game. Is it more of the same with slight iterations that doesn't mix things up too much?

The short answer is Yes. “The Rise of Red Skull” is a safe but confident first step that proves the core box has legs to walk on. It gives players two new heroes (with complete decks) and five new villain scenarios linked in a semi-coherent narrative. (More on the “semi-” in a moment.) For players who enjoyed the core box and wanted more content, this is it in a way that doesn't shake things up too much.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Review of Resurgence by C.J. Cherryh

Slices of Bren's life, the first two trilogies in the Foreigner sequence are the most contained of the bunch. It seems at the start of Destroyer, the third trilogy, Cherryh made the decision to open up multiple sub-arcs within a massive, three-trilogy, uber-arc, i.e. to dig into the Shadow Guild's attempted coup and the fallout. Nine novels featured this huge overstory. Thus while the beginning of the seventh trilogy, Emergence, featured hints of Shadow Guild, there was a feeling that Cherryh's bogeymen have finally seen their end in the series. Shifting to focus on trade and diplomacy, the middle novel in the trilogy, Resurgence (2020), would seem to support such a view. Or does it?

As Cherryh has consistently done since the third Foreigner trilogy, the novels' viewpoints oscillate between Bren and Cajeiri. Back in the capital, Cajeiri is maturing, setting aside some of his boyishness and looking for ways to be more responsible and live up to the position he is aware he occupies in the eyes of atevi. Bren, while starting to carry a pistol wherever he goes, finds himself in a position wherein his diplomatic skills are needed more. Machigi has come to the dowager with ideas that require careful analysis and even more careful handling if the fragile stability post-Shadow Guild is to be maintained. A lot of time spent on the red train, negotiations prove to be tougher than expected. And as with Emergence, Nomaji remains the wild card of all wild cards. Can he be trusted? Is he secretly representing Shadow Guild?

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Mutant Genesis" deluxe expansion for Marvel Champions

Since the inception of Marvel, there may be no better known bit of IP than the X-Men (perhaps Spiderman?). It's thus been a question of when not if regarding the mutant superheroes' implementation in Marvel Champions: The Card Game. For those waiting, 2022 marks their arrival. With much of the game's design potential already used by the plethora of content released to date, does “Mutant Genesis” have anything left in the tank for such a well-known IP?

The short answer is a “yes” with qualifications. Firstly and most importantly, “Mutant Genesis” does not deviate from the formula that has made Marvel Champions: The Card Game a huge success to date. While FFG have proven to be extremely reliable in this regard, it's worth noting. It's clear time and effort went into design and development to give players a top-tier experience, just as with previous deluxe expansions.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Non-Fiction: Review of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of by Thomas Disch

I guess I am a science fiction nerd. Beyond the fiction, I have also invested in the non-fiction, such as How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss,The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as numerous articles and essays, including Peter Nichols and John Clute's excellent online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The meta of science fiction as a literary and cultural movement is just as interesting as the stories themselves. Bring on Thomas Disch's 1998 The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World.

Of all the non-fiction sf I have read, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of is perhaps the most erudite (despite the title ending on a preposition, natch). Disch brings to the table his experience as a writer of many forms of fiction and poetry (not just sf), his work as a published critic, columnist, and essayist, not to mention broad reading experience outside the genre. Like Aldiss and Atwood, Disch is better positioned than the average genre writer to form an opinion about the context and evolution of science fiction in the world at large.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "The Scarlet Keys" expansions for Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Note: “The Scarlet Keys” Investigator and Campaign expansions are combined in this review. Each must be purchased separately but were designed and released simultaneously, and thus will be reviewed together. As with all Arkham Horror reviews on this blog, there will be no spoilers save the bare necessity of setting up story.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is something like the Beatles. Churning out hit after hit, it seems the game can do no wrong. After eight albums/campaigns, including the core box, designers have yet to try new wave jazz, i.e. produce a campaign that intentionally hits off notes in the name of the art. But don't all ideas have a ceiling? Don't all artists eventually need to try new wave jazz in order to feel fresh and invigorated? Let's look at the ninth and latest campaign, “The Scarlet Keys” (2022).

Strange objects are disappearing around Arkham. There is no obvious link and nobody else besides yourself seems to be noticing, that is, until a mysterious letter arrives at your door one day. The sender requests a meeting in London to “share information”. Taking a risk, you agree to meet them, and in turn end up tracking a mysterious Red-Gloved Man who has been seen flitting in and out of the shadows where objects disappear. Aided by a coterie of hooded agents, however, the Man proves elusive. Where is he? Who is he? And finding a suspect, pulling their hood off, and discovering they are just one of the coterie doesn't help. After an encounter with another shadowy group, however, hope reveals itself. Well informed, the shadowy group provide a dossier of info, instructing you and your fellow investigators to scour the globe, find the Red-Gloved Man, and discover just what paradimensional purpose the strange objects are being collected for.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Today and Tomorrow: A Second Look at A Song of Ice and Fire

Every winter, something epic itches inside of me and I scratch it by re-reading a fantasy series. This year it was George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It is the crack candy of the book world. Once you start huffing that stuff you can't stop. Martin nails the overlap of intelligent pulp and entertaining literature in a way so few writers can. He will not win the Nobel prize, but there remains something inexorably bittersweet, something relatably gray about his fantasy world of humans doing what humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. And beyond the human condition, there is the stuff of drama, of revenge, of power, of love, of justice (and injustice), of loyalty—the stuff that turns pages and pulls the mind from the real world into imagination. With the re-read fresh in my mind, I thought I'd put down a few of my thoughts on the following points:

  • The Story

  • The Future Story: Story

  • The Future Story: Author

The Story

A Song of Ice and Fire was good the first read, but improved upon re-read. Knowing what is coming, the reader can see Martin subtly positioning people, places, decisions, and actions well in advance, such that when the time comes for the shoes to drop (swords to fall?) the striking moments feel organic and natural, not cheap spots of drama as so many lesser writers contrive. The Red Wedding, for example, takes on a darker hue reading how the characters in-the-know spoke and behaved well beforehand. Or Tyrion killing his father, the reader can see how he was driven to inhuman depths by the man. The perpetrator of Joffey's poisoning is now clear as day. And there are numerous other such examples. The stories and sub-stories were always gears within gears, but upon re-reading became Swiss watchwork. (At least the first three novels; the latter two are more individual trajectories shooting from a central point.)  Martin nevertheless remains a master storyteller.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Review of On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch

Based on how strong recency bias has become the past +/- 10 years in speculative fiction, I assume Thomas Disch has only a toe or two in society's collective awareness. Encyclopedias et al have room for everything, but I guess most modern readers' shelves do not have a Disch. Which is a shame. He is quietly one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Aware at the macro and micro levels, his fiction features living, breathing humans in existences spiced and peppered by sf devices. But that in itself is not enough to earn him a place in the science fiction pantheon. But what is, are the choices of subject matter and application of said devices—both perennial in nature. No book in Disch's ouevre may speak to this relevance better than On Wings of Song (1979).

Part speculative and part autobiographical, On Wings of Song may be Disch's magnum opus. While indeed speculative given the manner in which it envisions alternate borders within the US, as well as “flight” and penal technology, it's the manner in which it reflects the social, cultural, and political issues the US is still dealing with today that make it perennial. Published more than four decades ago, it often reads like a novel of 2023.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Edge of the Earth" expansion for Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Note: Designed together but released separately, this review will cover both the “Edge of the Earth” Campaign and Investigator expansions.

Fantasy Flight Games are like a golden child: they can do no wrong with Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Every expansion released to date hits the sweet spot of fresh, fun, and evolutionary within the game's first principles. They have proven there is heady space to iterate on the original concept without destroying what makes the game singular and enjoyable. Do FFG still have the golden touch with the latest expansion “Edge of the Earth” (2021).

Bringing to the table what some consider Lovecraft's best work, “Edge of the Earth” plays off The Mountains of Madness. Appropriately set in Antarctica, players take on the roll of an investigator who is joining an expedition to investigate the unexplained discoveries in the icy, mountainous land. The ship journey goes smoothly for the investigators, but once arriving on land, things take a a quick turn for the worst. The group's airplane crashing, they are forced to find emergency shelter. Trouble, that is only the beginning of their worries as a creepy miasma starts to spread across the land toward them, threatening to swallow them unless they can discover its origins.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Review of Tomorrow's Parties: Life in the Anthropocene ed. by Jonathan Strahan

With weather patterns visibly evolving in my lifetime, global warming seems a real thing. There are clearly biodiversity issues occurring due to humanity, i.e. the expedited extinction of species, but as for the concept of global warming as a whole, science has yet to write the definitive chapter. Is it natural, or are we, the most advanced monkeys on Earth, to blame? There is a significant chunk of people who say 'yes' to the latter, and have dubbed the era the anthropocene. Regardless one's opinions or views, Tomorrow's Parties: Life in the Anthropocene (2022), edited by Jonathan Strahan, features a suite of short stories looking at the concept from a variety of interesting perspectives.

The anthology, however, does not kick off on a bang. “Drone Pirates of Silicon Valley” by Meg Elison is a YA story that postulates: what if Robin Hood stole from everybody, not just the rich. It features a group of teens who start start capturing Amazon-esque delivery drones and redistributing their contents—at least those they don’t want. A “corporations are evil” story, it blurs the line between legal and illegal in ideological rather than realistic fashion with weakly characterized people. A might makes right sketch, the story would have been better off at longer length to flesh out the characters and implications of their piracy. Another story that could have been novella but in this case has enough meat on the bone to be a short, “Down and Out in Exile Park” by Tade Thompson takes the tons and tons of plastic in the ocean to its logical conclusion and posits a floating island named Exile. Exile so big as to become inhabited, Thompson locates a socio-anarchic society of Nigerian political deviants on the “land”, then sets them spinning with a most delightfully bizarre idea regarding their “religion”. Thompson has received increasing accolades in the past five years, and the story shows him growing in strength.