Thursday, December 31, 2020

Review of Peacemaker by C.J. Cherryh

It's here—I think. The wheels within wheels, conspiracy wrapped in conspiracy wrapped in conspiracy that began with the space mission's return to Ateva in Conspirator, has moved, wandered, excited, summarized, and sometimes repeated itself through eight novels to Protector. But with Peacemaker (2014), I think we have an end to the plot eight novels in the making.

And what grander place to end matters than with an exceptional set piece? Events taking place over the course of two days, in Peacemaker the shadow guild is finally confronted—in their home. Bren and his entourage tasked with the confrontation, bullets fly, blood flows, and ultimately a society must reset its views to security and leadership.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Robinson Crusoe

Regardless books, video games, or otherwise, I try on this blog to review things for what they are—not precisely in isolation, but preferably not side by side in versus mode. But with Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on a Cursed Island, I find the task difficult. You see, Arkham Horror: The Card Game has killed Robinson Crusoe for me. The games were left on an island, attacked by creatures, and only one survived. To solve this, the only thing I can think to do for this review is to look at Robinson Crusoe, birth to death.


Sustained internet buzz and an interesting premise were the primary reasons I bought Robinson Crusoe. The game has been routinely cited by many as one of their favorites, and the idea of getting through various scenarios cooperatively while telling your own story on a deserted island seemed worthwhile. And indeed, after getting over the massive rulebook hump, there was some fun to be had.


In juggling the tasks while trying to stay ahead of the curve that constantly threatens to slide you off the island, my wife and I enjoyed our games. Collecting supplies, feeding people, building shelter, fending off wild animals, surviving the weather—it’s a true challenge that does a good job of evoking theme and gives a real sense of satisfaction and teamwork when successful.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Review of Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

A few years ago I read an impacting short story, the type that is at once so familiar yet moves in so unique of a direction that it begs to be noticed. The underlying mood disquieting yet mysterious, I put a mental flag beside the author’s name should I ever encounter them again. The story was “Sing” by Karin Tidbeck, so when the chance to get a collection of her short fiction appeared, I jumped. This asks the question, is “Sing” representative of Jagannath:Stories (2012), or a one off? 

Jagannath opens on “Beatrice”, a story whose title ultimately holds the key to its message. What begins as a story of a man's love for an airship, slowly, steadily, yet surprisingly, becomes one of abuse. What follow is one of the best in the collection, “Some Letters for Ove Lindström”. In this story, the reader gets a first-hand view into a daughter's letters to her recently deceased, alcoholic father after years apart. On the uncanny hand, the reader is treated to liminal fairy tale like a sliver of the newest moon, resulting in touchingly sentimental piece that retains its mystery and longing. A small paean to rural domesticity and simple love, “Miss Nyberg and I” is a brief story, perhaps more anecdote, about a strange little animal that grows from the soil complementing a budding relationship.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Game of Thrones: The Card Game (2ed)

I am one of those crazy people waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish his A Song of Ice and Fire book series before watching the tv series Game of Thrones. While the two most recently published books have cut my confidence Martin is able to finish the series in as strong a fashion as it began, I hold out. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy other Game of Thrones content, and that includes Fantasy Flight Games’ living card game second edition.

A Game of Thrones: The Card Game is a card-driven strategy/combat game, or, as can so romantically be expressed: dudes on a table. Players take turns marshaling their characters and assets, afterwards turning them loose in various forms, including espionage, power, and direct combat, all in an attempt gain power. The first player to earn fifteen power, wins. Interestingly, the game can also be played with three or four players and be just as viable, something relatively unique in the world of card-dudes on a table.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Review of The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford

Somewhere in the ether there is the definition of American letters. Holding court are a number of writers—Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and others. The list added to with time, I think it's time to consider Jeffrey Ford. One of the first pieces of evidence I offer is The Drowned Life (2008).

The collection kicks off with the title story. “The Drowned Life” is the story of Hatch, a normal man running the rat race of lower middle-class life, trying to keep up with bills, his job, and the necessities of family. Giving up one day, he sinks into Drowned Town, and there sees life from a different perspective. A metaphorically story dense with both overt and unobvious allusion, Ford nails the never-ending game of catch-up poorer Americans play. A spot of flash fiction, “Ariadne's Mother” symbolically seats Ford's rather cynical view on being a writer in the 21st century. “The Night Whiskey” is a weird—perhaps Weird—tale of a town wherein a deathberry grows, and every year the inhabitants celebrate by drinking a little of the liquor distilled from it. Strange things happening while drunk on the strong spirit, even stranger things happen one particular year when a new Harvester is needed. Not Ford’s best work, but a solid story. While less a story and more a mind map of remembrances of encounters with the ubiquitous little insect, “A Few Things About Ants” ends up in territory beyond memory in an interesting way.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Review of Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Occasionally, very occasionally, while reading book I would have the thought: Why hasn’t anybody written a story about near-future designer drugs and the impact on the individual and humanity? Used here and there, but most often as devices rather than focal points, it wasn’t until coming upon the premise for Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty that I held out hope the 2014 novel might be ‘it’. Having now read the story, was it?

A dynamic, edgy story, Afterparty tells of Lyda and her quest to find the center of distribution of a newly created designer drug she calls Numinous. With repeated, scaled use, Numinous converts and re-routes synapses and linkages in the human mind to the point they become real, at least in the schizophrenic sense. Gods and deities coming to life in users’ minds, those who don’t know any better come to take them pieces of existence. Churches naturally the most likely to exploit such ‘symptoms’, Lyda takes it upon herself to locate the source and put an end to it once and for all.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Review of Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey

Regardless what the reader thinks about the quality of Nemesis Games, fifth book in the Expanse series, it was a clear waypoint in terms of the series’ direction. Where the first four books had unmistakable, linear progression outward and away from the solar system and into other galaxies, Nemesis brought things back under the sun. Earth having been bombarded with asteroids (a la The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), it’s up to the next book, Babylon’s Ashes (2016), to see what remains once the ashes clear.

The Expanse series to date all about character viewpoint, Babylon’s Ashes possesses the most yet. Along with every crew member of the Roccinante (save Naomi) “Corey” also puts on the table Filip and Marco Inaros, Fred Johnson, Chrisjen, Anderson Dawes, Michio Pa, Praxidike Meng, and others. It’s through these viewpoints that Babylon’s Ashes cleans up the events of Nemesis Games, then sets the stage for the final four books in the series. In order to accomplish this, alliances must be made and broken, and old vendettas tested in fresh political waters.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game "The Dunwich Legacy" Expansion

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Dunwich Legacy, as well as the six Mythos packs which complete the campaign, but will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole. All cards and scenario details will be untouched.

This is it—the portal, the nap beside the river that leads down the rabbit hole, the slip into another dimension—where disposable assets, otherwise known as dollars, hopefully exist. If you’re reading this, it’s likely the Arkham Horror: The Card Game base game has scratched an itch, but not hard enough. It still itches, and you’re looking for a better way to scratch it. The Dunwich Legacy deluxe expansion, and the six mythos packs which complete the campaign, may be just the sharp edge you’re looking for.

“The Dunwich Legacy” is the first Arkham Horror campaign released after the base game. It starts with players investigating what seems a relatively ordinary occurrence: two professors from Miskatonic University have disappeared. Going to the University, investigators question Dr. Armitage to learn more. One professor last seen around the university’s academic building and the other at a local speak-easy, players then have a choice which they’d like to locate first, and the adventure begins. It perhaps goes without saying that, what at first seems “a relatively ordinary occurrence” slowly escalates into a situation anything-but. The investigators’ health and sanity tested to the max with each new scenario, it comes down to the wire—cosmic wire?—if they will survive the horrors they discover. Small towns, it seems, old big secrets (but not in any David Lynch sort of way).

Friday, December 4, 2020

Review of Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente

There is a penchant today for writers to take classic stories of the past and re-write them, subverting any perceived or real underlying political values by replacing them with early 21st century, liberal/progressive views. Good writing a natural act of rebellion in many cases, many of these stories have caught the attention of political-minded readers. One of the strongest representatives of this penchant, and having become something of a poster child how to go about deconstructing older fiction, is Catherynne Valente’s novella Six-Gun Snow White (2013).

Feminist fairy tale set in the Wild West, Six-Gun Snow White maps the familiar Disney story onto America’s 19th century from social, cultural, and gender perspectives. Born of a forced marriage between a rich, white land owner and a beautiful Native American woman, Snow White grows up with one foot in both worlds. But when her mother dies and her father re-marries a prudish East coast woman, the teenage girl is forced to put both feet on the white side. The expectations eventually becoming too much, something has to break. And break it does for young Snow White; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review of The Starry Rift ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Fiction in the 21st century has torn down a lot of barriers. Where children’s, YA, and adult fiction were once distinct, today they bleed into one another. (I won’t get into the maturity of some fiction labelled ‘adult’, but certainly there is an argument to be made that the blending started a long time ago.) Nevertheless, it’s important to inform the reader off the bat that Jonathan Strahan’s 2008 anthology The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows is YA.

Unfortunately, I discovered this fact late in the game. After the third story, I was thinking Hey, these stories seem too simple, too immature to be explicitly for an adult mind… But knowing many books marketed to adults do not possess any more maturity, I plowed ahead but with senses tingling. It wasn’t until halfway through I decided to check, and sure enough, it was marketed for teens, forcing me to go back and re-evaluate the stories, which I don’t think I always successfully did. Bottom line is: if I were a teen interested in sf and fantasy, would I enjoy these stories? Answer: likely yes. A few, unlikely…

Friday, November 27, 2020

Review of The Eye of the Heron by Ursula Le Guin

While for some Ursula Le Guin is the writer of the Earthsea series, and for others the creator of the gender-bender Left Hand of Darkness, I don’t often get the impression many online have taken the effort to read bigger chunks of Le Guin’s expansive oeuvre. Though having read almost if not all the Hainish stories, written a thesis on Earthsea, and dabbled in random novels, collections, and stories, I personally feel as I’ve only climbed half of Le Guin mountain. But from my current view, I have the feeling The Eye of the Heron (1978) is something of a summary representation of Le Guin, as overt as it may be.

Working with the British model of the 18th and 19th centuries, The Eye of the Heron is based on the idea of sending society’s criminals and otherwise unwanted to another place. In the novella’s case, it is another planet far from Earth. Colonized in two waves, the first wave established societal and cultural order built around the traditional Western idea—leaders, police, gender roles, etc. The second wave, however, went for something different: rule by referendum and common sense, underpinned by pacifism ideology. Pushed outside the established city, these Shanti-towners trade the food they grow to the city dwellers for metal, technology, and other critical items. But while trade may be a cyclical, balanced area, authority is not. The city-dwellers considering the Shanti-towners a lesser but necessary people, relations take a turn for the worse when a large group of Shanti-towners make the decision to strike out across the mountains to establish a new town closer to the sea.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Flamme Rouge: Peloton & Meteo

This review covers two expansions for Flamme Rouge: Peloton and Meteo. While I review them together, they must be purchased separately.

Flamme Rouge is a board game ripe with potential. Card-driven racing, the base game came with the possibility of four players challenging one another across a huge number of potential track layouts. Undoubtedly aware of their game’s potential but waiting to see if it caught fire (har har), the designers surely breathed a sigh of satisfaction when the game caught the market’s eye, and that potential could start to be realized. Peloton and Meteo are the two expansions which have since arrived on shelves.

Peloton adds a number of things that diversify gameplay immensely. Foremost, it adds two additional teams of racers, pushing the player count up to six. It also adds a couple, slightly modified rules for the game to handle up to twelve racers. Next, it adds a couple cards which allow for the usage of dummy teams. For a two player game, having these additional one or two (or more) teams of dummy racers on the board adds to the atmosphere and makes things more tense and exciting. Thirdly, the expansion adds roughly a dozen new track tiles, some with new terrain. Capturing the early-20th century feel of road cycling in Europe, many of these new tiles feature cobblestones, which slightly change how cyclists move and slipstream. Building on top of these new tiles, designers included a set of cards which simulate a tour de ____.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Review of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is one of those novels that, throughout the experience the reader is aware everything is set in reality, just not quite. There is a skew, an angle, a perspective to the events which does not wholly belie the reality you’ve come to know. But at the same time, there is nothing to put your finger on to say definitively ‘that is not reality’. I suppose there are some who would call this ‘slipstream fiction’, but regardless the nomenclature, it creates a wonderfully uncomfortable view to the proceedings that begs to be unraveled. I can’t help but feel precisely the same about M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020).

In the early going, The Sunken Land has the atmosphere of a stereotype: one of “those French novels” where people have trouble with relationships while grappling with the idea of existence (never in so direct terms, natch). Indeed Shaw and Victoria, and their obtuse interactions and dialogue, spawn a certain feeling that something is amiss in their relationship and world, even if they do not know what it is, the quotidian events of their daily lives taking on additional layers in the process. But as the story moves forward, certain patterns begin to emerge. At separate, individual times, strange coincidences occur that are just far enough over the line that the tire of reality is pricked by a pin. As the escaping air builds into the crescendo of a hiss, the reader comes to learn that not all is existentially French. Broader, Lovecraftian-esque (not Lovecraftian) events are shifting and moving beneath the waves that speak to Harrison’s true substance to the novel.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I can’t help it. I will start gushing—not at the conclusion of the review but at the beginning. Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one of the landmark novels of the 21st century, have waited sixteen years for Susanna Clarke’s follow up. And was the wait ever worth it. The time used to let every piece fall into its place, for every word to be to be precisely what the scene/motif/mood/story needed, and for the overarching idea to be relevant to both the human condition and the times, Clarke has achieved more in her 2020 novel Piranesi where there didn’t seem room to do so.

Ostensibly (emphasis on ‘ostensibly’) Piranesi is the story of a man whose life revolves around cataloging the endless, tide-washed halls of a timeless building littered with marble statues. Surviving on seaweed and fish, the only other inhabitant of the House is a man he calls The Other. The pair meeting weekly to compare notes on survival, a spanner is thrown into the works of their schedule when another person is reported to be walking the halls. Threat or friend, rumors and hearsay swirl, forcing the man to strike out on his own to learn the truth.

Cardboard Corner: Survive: Escape from Atlantis

Over the past couple of years I have encountered various people online, in forums, video reviews, comments sections, etc. who are sensitive to games with a “take-that” element or comment. Personal preference is, of course, unassailable—except by rampant criticism, cynicism, and upon occasion physical violence. And for that, nobody can say such games are ostensibly 'good' or 'bad'. But for that personality type who doesn't mind a little take that amid their shark-chomping, rescue raft fun, there may be no more an enduring board game than Survive: Escape from Atlantis.

In Survive: Escape from Atlantis, players try to get their meeples off a sinking island that is doing its best to kill them, and if the island doesn’t kill them, then surely the sharks, whales, sea dragons and fellow players will certainly have a stab at it. Players must do their best to remember the number hidden on the bottom of each of their ten meeples, trying to get those of highest value to safety first. Spoiler alert: given the riotous chaos that evolves, this philosophy devolves into: get any of my meeples to safety, regardless of value. The game’s win condition is total number of points from rescued meeples. (With my four-year old daughter, we sometimes just play total number of meeples still alive.) There are a few things to help the meeples, including boats and dolphins, but the sea is still a dangerous place, not every meeple seeing the end of game.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Review of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelly

I have occasionally tried to define my relationship to music. It’s not easy. I cannot say that I love reggae, or classic rock, or electronica. I own albums and music by artists who produce those types of music, but cannot outright say that I am a dyed in the wool reggae fan, for example. My feelings for jazz are the same. There are bits and pieces that I greatly enjoy; the majority, no. But I do own a dozen or so Thelonious Monk albums. Something about the man’s music attracts my ears, then soul. And with that I decided to pick up Robin D.G. Kelly’s biography to try and get a little deeper into what that “something” is in Monk’s music.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2010) focuses on three primary things: the details of Monk’s character and personal life (heritage, upbringing, personality, relationships, marriage, children, etc.), the evolution of Monk’s music, style, gigs he performed, and albums he recorded, and lastly the relationships and partnerships that formed the social fabric he wove (and unwove) in the musical, mostly jazz scene of his era. As with good biographies, a strong sense of the history that Monk made and passed through emerges in the process.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mice & Mystics

As a child, I loved Brian Jacques’ series of Redwall books. Watership Down with strong Arthurian overtones, they all featured a band of heroic rodents fighting the forces of evil, typically rats, snakes, weasels, foxes, and the like. Wonderfully vibrant and imaginative, these stories still live in my memory today. Coming across Plaid Hat Games’ Mice & Mystics was like discovering Redwall in board game form. While the tangibles of board games are limited when compared to the intangible horizons of books, I still could capture some of that feel, the feel of mice with swords battling evil in their own, small world.

Mice & Mystics is a cooperative game that plays out the story of Colin the Warrior, Tilda the Healer, Lily the Bowman, Filch the Scamp, Nez the Tinkerer and Maginos the Mystic in their fight against an evil queen who has taken their castle hostage. A light role playing game with miniatures, players traverse tiles and slay baddies while following story instructions in a gamebook. There are ranged and melee attacks, players can upgrade their characters, a variety of spells and items can be discovered, story achievements can be had, and a number of other details flesh out the mice’s adventures through the castle’s basements and sewers and in its dining halls and sleeping chambers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review of Protector by C.J. Cherryh

For this reviewer, Intruder, thirteenth novel in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner series, was one of the high points of the series thus far. In Machegi, there was finally an element of conflict to support what has become a rather boring behind-the-scenes-conspiracy that Cherryh seemed to continually pull out at opportune moments to keep ninjas on the field as threats to Bren without any real substance beyond. Machegi brought out the true diplomatic elements which made the first several Foreigner novels so engaging. 2013's Protector exists to ask the question: can Cherryh maintain the substance?

Well, if one is to judge by the cover, the answer is no. Bren guiding/protecting a group of children does not seem a promising concept. And for 75% of the novel, the answer rings true. In true Cherryh style, the narrative takes its sweet time building up. But when it hits, it hits. There is an extremely quickly escalation into the climax (at least in Cherryh's terms), and the backstory delivered is meaty. Indeed human guests from the space station arrive for Cajeri's felicitous ninth birthday, but behind that intrigues and cabals that have been bubbling for ages finally come to the surface.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Review of The Visible Man by Gardner Dozois

Say the name Gardner Dozois in 2020, and most are likely to tell you: that guy who edited decades of Year's Best science fiction anthologies. Indeed an editor of dozens upon dozens upon dozens of anthologies and collections, he will likely be remembered as one of the great editors of science fiction. But what most readers today are likely unaware of, including myself until recently, is that Dozois was a damn good writer of short fiction himself. The Visible Man (1977), Dozois' first collection of shorts, is an overlooked powerhouse of subtle speculative fiction.

The collection kicks off with the titular story. A classical sf premise if ever there were (not a familiar, derivative premise rather one that feels classic but retains its uniqueness), “The Visible Man” finds a convicted criminal being transported to a new location at the outset. Having paid a high price for his crimes, he has been given medication which renders him unable to see humans. Stuck in the backseat of a small space like a car, everything is ok. But when he escapes, the limits of his condition come to the forefront. While the resolution may not be as substantive as could have been, the manner in which Dozois puts the reader in the shoes of a person who cannot see people is interesting.

Cardboard Corner: Flamme Rouge

Flamme Rouge. Let’s say it together—properly now, no coarse American consonants: Flamme Rouge. And repeat: Flamme Rouge - Flamme Rouge. C’mon, roll that ‘r’—Flamme Rouge… Ok, now in English: Red Flame. Hmm, I see. Not as nice a ring. Seems good English publishers stuck with the French name. So much better than Bicycle Race, or Tour de Alpes, or Two Wheels through the Mountains, or—ok, ok. I’ll stop. On to the board game review.

Flamme Rouge is a 4-player, tactical bicycle racing game that has some delightful parallels to real world Tour de fill in your country___. Races held on modular courses that can be disassembled and re-built in a huge variety of ways, players draw and play cards to propel their two-cyclist teams toward the finish line and victory. Coordinating your small team a requirement, drafting sees cyclists gaining spaces for free, just as being at the front of the pack will find your cyclist taking exhaustion that will inevitably come back to haunt them in the latter stages of the race. Uphill and downhill sections changing the rules slightly, a player must be aware of what is ahead as much as where the other cyclists are if they want to win.

Console Corner: Review of Far: Lone Sails

Shorter Review: If FTL and Journey had a steampunk(ish) lovechild after the apocalypse.

Longer Review: Journey is one of my favorite Playstation games of all time. Simplicity equaling zen elegance in its case, the bare bones of the game's setup gives the player room for reflection on the state of the world you traverse and the purpose of your actions as they compile, leading to an overall experience that transcends most games. Rather than frenetic button-mashing, it's tranquility extends beyond the moment. Okomotive's 2019 Far: Lone Sails is quite different in terms of its world and gameplay, but offers something equally meditative.

Throwing players into the proverbial deep end of the pool, Lone Sails begins with the player controlling a hooded person inside a homemade contraption that is part boat, engine, land crawler, and behemoth. The 2D, cross-section allows the player to move around inside, controlling the engine, brakes, firehose, sails, winch, and fuel tank. Bits of post-apocalyptic debris litter the road, and need to be collected as fuel to propel the behemoth when it runs out. Death not possible, it's the players job to figure their way through the various , obstacles and puzzles, maintaining the behemoth momentum all the while.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Review of Made to Order: Robots and Revolution ed. by Jonathan Strahan

If ever there were a symbol of science fiction, the robot would have to be part of the holy trinity (alien, space ship, robot). Interesting, of that triumvirate, it is the only which doesn't require space travel: in essence, it's home grown, and for that perhaps more relative to humanity—anthropomorphism, ahem, ahem. But after a century+ of stories featuring mechanical people, what's left to say? Jonathan Strahan, editor of the 2020 anthology Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, says apparently something.

After a typical Strahan intro, musing on the philosophical depths of the subject he's picked for this anthology, the fiction opens with Vina Jie-Min Prasad's “A Guide for Working Breeds”. A light, airy, fairly insubstantial counterpoint to Strahan's intro note to kick things off, it is a fragmented conversation between 2 AIs. It has a fair number of pages, which don't travel far. I suppose the banter was supposed to be witty, and to some readers it may be. The story does, however establish the the anthology will be largely comedic in nature. Taking the integrity of the anthology up a notch is Peter Watts' “Test 4 Echo” A dense, taught story about robot-assisted exploration of the ocean of one of Saturn’s moon, Watts finds the gray areas (emphasis on plural) between human and machine intelligence. A solid story with a nice, organic twist at the climax.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Review of Rhialto the Marvellous by Jack Vance

When kudos are handed out for Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales, it’s rare that the three Rhialto stories, collected in Rhialto the Marvellous (1984), are left with anything in their hands. In the context of Vance’s oeuvre and his fandom, the reason is interesting. Introspective, sober (relatively speaking), and of a particular flavor, they possess only a few of the qualities of the other Dying Earth stories, but are deeper, darker, and more substantive for it. Most of Vance’s stories read and appreciated for the fast-paced dynamics of plotting, the Rhialto stories offer something similar but a little different—just different enough to be something special.

The stories in Rhialto the Marvelous all feature a group of eccentric magicians living in the last days of the sun. Vance capitalizing on the concept as only Vance can, their petty and esoteric interests are presented in comedic yet human fashion, and are integral to their interpersonal differences. Creaky, old men having wars of words (and occasionally fists) over magical baubles and tomes is great fun—high flying verbiage contrasted by childish interests.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mare Balticum

What is it about claymation that touches something within us? The Nightmare Before Christmas, Shaun the Sheep, Wallace & Grommit, Pat & Mat, Primus music videos, Coraline, the California Raisins (the California Raisins!)—there is a fascination watching these productions that resonates somewhere within us regardless whether we like the content or not. Like a puppet show or pantomime, I think it’s because the mind is constantly aware that we are witnessing a production—a presentation whose nuts and bolts are partially leftover on screen. With normal movies and shows, we can so easily get lost in the story because the characters are human, and move and behave in smooth, natural human ways. With cartoons we accept that its unnatural and abstract from the beginning, and quickly push the thought aside to watch. It’s a good thing, therefore, that Mare Balticum has solid gameplay mechanics to draw the eye away from the superb Claymation inspired art.

Mare Balticum is a family game where players control fishing fleets on the Baltic Sea, trying to collect the most valuable haul of fish. Players have three actions on their turn: catch one of the five types of fish, move their ships to richer waters, or storage fish at the ports. All fish harvested from the board are afterwards replenished by drawing new fish from a bag, a bag that likewise contains six clock tokens. When a clock token is drawn, players must assign a multiplier value (3x, 2x, 1x, or 0) to the type of fish they think they will have the most tokens of at the end of the game. When the sixth clock token is drawn, the game stops, players count their fish, use the multipliers per fish type, and add up their score. The player with the most points, wins. (Total play time amounts to approximately 15 minutes per player.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review of Afterland by Lauren Beukes

The market for fiction today is saturated far beyond anything humanity has ever seen. For casual readers who do not invest time in selecting their next read, this is likely not a big deal. But for bibliophiles, it represents a number of challenges. One of these is reading books that are not 100% the same as another book (no two grains of sand yadda yadda yadda), but which hold a LARGE number of elements or devices in common. The market for post-apocalyptic fiction the past ten years, for example, seems to have had not only its surface filled out, but all the gaps, niches, and interstices filled in as well. It’s impossible to be novel. With this knowledge in hand, what then does Lauren Beukes have to add with Afterland (2020)? Answer: maybe everything…

The premise of Afterland is quite straightforward: a strange cancer emerges in the near-future to kill 99% of males on Earth. But it is the aftermath of this situation which the novel focuses on, something which Beukes accomplishes through the points of view of three characters. The first are mother and son, Cole and Miles, told separately. When the reader first meets them they are on the run, trying to escape police given that all boys must be kept in special facilities for research purposes. Miles therefore travels as ‘Millie’, a fourteen-year old girl as the pair travel cross-country to Miami to catch a boat to South Africa. The third point-of-view is Billie, Cole’s sister. Awakening in a car crash at start of the novel and badly injured, she burns with hate for Cole, who was seemingly the cause of the crash. Believing Cole tried to murder her, Billie sets off on a vengeance mission to track down her sister and do her justice, and try to get a piece of the profit in the process.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Skill Up's Review of The Last of Us Part 2 and the Art of Video Games

Warning: Spoilers. Do not read unless you've finished the game.

This article is a response to some of the points raised by Skill Up in his review of the The Last of Us Part 2. Unlike a lot of, if not most of the game's reaction and backlash, this article will not be a hit piece or click bait. I hope it is critical but constructive, addressing what was unaddressed or misrepresented.

Unless you were part of the industry's development decades ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea that video games are an art form. Given the state of of video games today, however, it's tough to argue. Like books, movies, etc., video games have the power to speak to us through a medium that is fictional yet relative, and representative yet stimulating. But where books inspire imagination and movies guide you through an imagined experience, video games add yet another layer of imagination: participation. Players vicariously take on the roles of the characters, directing them within the limitations of agency granted by the game/technology. This experience is dichotomous; on one hand (no pun intended) are the technical mechanics of participation/gameplay (control, vision, action, interaction, etc.), and on the other hand are the elements of narrative (setting, character, dialogue, plot, etc.) In Skill Up's review of The Last of Us Part 2, this dichotomy is heavily, heavily biased to one hand with a lack of underpinning knowledge on the other. It does not do the game full justice.

There are many different types of gamers, and Skill Up is one I've come to categorize as a gamer who loves gameplay—the first hand, in-the-moment experience of interacting with the game's virtual world through the mechanics that allow this.  Another way of putting this is: the details surrounding punching, kicking, shooting, attacking, etc. are of utmost importance.  And yet another way of putting this is, some of his criticisms of TLoU2's gameplay are spot on. Gameplay has been slightly enhanced and improved from Part 1, but the loop overall is very similar, nothing truly innovative coming out the game. Naughty Dog clearly did not want to deviate too far from the success that was Part 1, and yes, there are absolutely other games with better control, response, action, etc. on the market. SkillUp nails this. Trouble is, gameplay isn't the game's prime focus, and by focusing so heavily on gameplay Skill Up failed to see what the game's focus actually is.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review of Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

First half of Jack Vance’s Cugel duology, The Eyes of the Overworld (aka Cugel the Clever), is a riot of wit, charm, and the most colorful storytelling that a reader can encounter. Rogue an unintended wayfarer (as we all are, to some degree), his quest to capture the ‘eyes of the overworld’ and return them the Laughing Magician is the joy of fiction in 150 pages. The last pages of that book indicating just how two-edged Cugel’s ‘cleverness’ is, it remains for Cugel’s Saga (1983), second and final book in the duology, to complete Cugel’s tale.

Having accidentally transported himself back to the very same place at which he started his quest for the eyes of the overworld, Cugel’s Saga opens with Cugel standing on said shores, with nothing in his pockets, wondering what to do. Heading in a different direction, he comes upon the manse of a magician, and there finds gameful employment collecting the scales of a dead demon from from a pit of slime, all for pitiful pay. Escaping the miserly magician on his own terms, Cugel once again finds himself alone in the wide world, but with a numinous object in his pocket tat he feels will surely lead him to revenge on Ionuscu, the Laughing Magician.

Review of The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

There are certain reviews that I don’t feel comfortable writing. In some cases I don’t feel I will do a book justice. And in other cases, the material is so special, so close to my heart, that putting into words a “review” has a chance of deconstructing something that I would like to remain a construct of mysterious quality—or at least that’s how it can sometimes feel. Teetering ahead on this tightropes, I dive into Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld (or as Vance preferred, Cugel the Clever) (1966).

Figuratively and literally (at least in the text), The Eyes of the Overworld, first of the two Cugel novels, is magic. Ostensibly far-far-far future Earth, the sun is a dying red blob in the sky, occasionally fading out to pop back to life, while below on Earth humans live a quasi-futuristic/Medieval existence. One such existence is Cugel. At the outset, he is a wannabe tradesman at a flea market who quickly succumbs to his baser instincts at the behest of a fellow seller. Coming to regret his decision to steal from the local magician’s manse, Cugel finds himself thrown across the sky into foreign lands with the spells of the Laughing Magician impelling him to find and acquire an object of inestimable value and bring it home. All manner of being resourceful (a useful trait considering he gets himself into trouble as much as he avoids it), Cugel fulfills his mission, sort of. But as with most things, it’s the journey not the destination…

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly

The talking dog. Ordinarily it’s a sign of madness, but in science fiction fully sentient canines have long existed—from Olaf Stapledon’s tragedy of a dog with human-level intelligence in Sirius to Clifford Simak’s cautionary sequence of stories that find dogs becoming “rulers” of the universe in City. Adding a dose of feline in his futuristic vision, James Patrick Kelly’s novella King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats (2020) tells of one decaying but diverse city ripe for revolutionary change, all through the eyes of man’s best friend.

Kelly seeming to have shifted into a more subtle gear as the years go by, the splash of talking cats and dogs proves just the surface of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats. About an aristocratic canine named Gio, the dullards of societal stability have started shaking him loose from his deep-rooted life. Involved in love triangles, sneaking around at night, rubbing shoulders with nefarious people, and otherwise not knowing what to do with his life, Gio’s answer comes in the form of a circus brought to town by an extra-terrestrial cat. Revolution in the works, a stable life for Gio and the city around him will be no more…

Console Corner: Review of Guacamelee!

Zap! Pow! Bang! With mariachis—and luchadores!! Guacamelee Super Turbo Championship Edition! by DrinkBox is one of those game that is fun of the purest variety. It embodies the spirit of video games in every way—the sprites, the glorious colors, the sense of fun, and all button mashing you can imagine in this highly recommended 2D action platformer.

An ordinary man working in the agave fields, players take on the role of Juan in Guacamelee. But he oh so quickly finds himself in the position of rescuing the beautiful president’s daughter from the evil Calaca, a demon who has emerged just before the Day of the Dead to find a sacrifice. With the assistance of goat man (as well as chicken magic), Juan punches, headbutts, and suplexes his way through our world, into another dimension, and back again to defeat the evil Calaca and rescue the president’s daughter. Not precisely Pulitzer quality writing, but certainly fun.

Review of Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Those reading this review will likely be interested in having one question answered: is Demon in White (2020) as good as the two previous novels in the Sun Eater series? Is it worth the time and money? Answer: yes. Ruocchio continues to build his world with surprises, fill out Hadrian’s character in a mostly 3D way (2.5D?), and keep the reader engaged through big-screen storytelling. Page length, well, it too increases…

If you were hoping to have an additional question answered: how did Hadrian get his head chopped off and survive? You are not the only one. Hadrian also wants to know, and his quest leads him to an answer in Demon in White. But not before two major trials. The second not possible to be described (spoilers), the first can at least be introduced. With the slaying of the Cielcin prince, Hadrian is now a legend among men, and an Emperor’s knight. His first mission as knight sends him into the deeps of space to solve the mystery why imperial ships disappear without explanation in a certain quadrant. Hadrian unravels the mystery, but not before encountering a threat unlike the human world has ever seen, and one that has implications on the entire Empire itself.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Enchanted Tower

Perhaps someday I’ll wax on about all the wonderful, human aspects of board games. The healthy social interaction, the brain exercise, the fun, the imagination, the tactile experience—waxing! They’re good in many ways, and I would argue most especially for children. Granted, some games offer limited forms of brain exercise: roll the dice, obey the dice, move the piece, roll the dice... Such games may actually be a detriment, in fact. But at the same time, many adult games—adult in the intellectual sense, har har—are too difficult for wee ones. Thus, children’s board games that exercise the mind and are fun for adults are a blessing. Enter The Enchanted Tower.

Using a classic fairy tale motif, The Enchanted Tower sees a hero and a sorcerer racing toward a hidden key, trying to rescue or capture, respectively, a princess locked in a tower. The hero closes their eyes while the sorcerer hides the key in one of the many holes. Players then take turns rolling unique dice to move around the board and find the key. As the sorcerer knows where the key is, the hero is given a head start for searching. The player who finds the key first, however, does not automatically win. There are six keyholes in the tower that players must test to find the one that frees the princess, meaning it’s likely more races—and more suspense—await.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Review of Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is quietly one of the tip-top best fantastika writers of the 21st century. The originality of imagination, the sense of ebb and flow of story, and the understanding of what makes a story truly a story, I buy read his books sight unseen. And this is despite Ford’s work with Seeming to have a contract with the publisher to deliver a novella every year or two, these stories tend much closer toward genre mediocrity (aka “broader appeal”). But he is Jeffrey Ford, and thus I read 2020’s Out of Body.

As hinted in the title, Out of Body is about out-of-body experiences, particularly one had by a small town librarian who begins to experience the phenomenon after being first-hand witness to a tragedy. His experiences arising at night after falling asleep, he goes out into the night world, there to learn who and what else is “alive” there. More than he ever expected, his out of body experiences lead him into the middle of a situation he would have far rather slept on.

Console Corner: Review of Ghost of Tsushima

Shorter Review: If there were a hippy community of Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed, and God of War that had an orgy one night, Ghost of Tsushima would be the samurai love-child—true parentage a mix of blood.

Longer Review: Over the years, and undoubtedly over the years to come, there have been and will be video games trying to capture some essence of ‘samurai’. From Ninja Gaiden to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, the world has a fascination with these Japanese knights, their code of honor, and the deadly katana combat they are famous for. And there has been, and will likely be controversy over how well or poorly these games capture that essence. With Sucker Punch’s 2020 Ghost of Tsushima, however, it’s difficult to see where any controversy might arise (save the ‘cultural appropriation’ crowd, natch).

Seeming to take all the lessons learned from this generation’s action-rpgs and blending them into a synergistic vision of single-player campaign glory, Ghost of Tsushima pushes all the right samurai buttons (har har). Fluid combat, engaging world-building, a story of honor and glory, evolving upgrade paths, blessedly short loading times, a staggeringly beautiful setting—finding holes in the game is very difficult. All the good parts of other games borrowed and implemented in a historically realistic setting, Ghost of Tsushima may be the last great game of the current generation of consoles.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Review of Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell occupies one of a few hallowed spots on my virtual shelf of: buy sight unseen. Even if he were to take on the most tried and true plot ever contrived, I believe his wordsmithing would overcome any inherent triviality, producing an engaging novel in the process; reading a Mitchell story is like being scrubbed in the waters of dynamic diction and gregarious character. The man’s writing defines ‘verve’. Utopia Avenue (2020) was bought review unread. It’s time to see if his spot on the shelf is still deserved.

Utopia Avenue is yet another departure for David Mitchell. Each of his prior novels scattered across the dartboard of setting and theme, Utopia Avenue finds itself in the counter-culture revolution of 1960s England. What we’ve come to call classic rock starting to take center stage, the book tells of a fictional band—a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and organist—who come together under the numinous auspices of Canadian manager Leon—to make it big. This arc of story, from poverty to success and beyond is everything a reader would expect from such a story. But it is likewise more.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game

For those in the know, they know this blog is no friend to H.P. Lovecraft. While not openly hostile, there is much indirectly to be said by the lack of Cthulu content among the thousands of reviews of science fiction and fantasy—Lovecraft’s wheelhouse—on this blog. The primary reason is style: the man’s diction is overwrought, and as a result, a grind. The second is substance; of what little I’ve read, most was “common horror”, i.e. dark, arcane things happen to ordinary people.  This doesn't massage my f-spot (fiction spot).  I recognize there are philosophical elements to Lovecraft’s fiction worth digging deeper into (“the unknowable of the great beyond” <queue scary ghost noises>), it’s only that the manner in which these ideas are packaged is a turn off.* But like entering a real house of horrors (versus reading a short story about one), it’s the degree of interaction which has the biggest impact on the Lovecraft experience. Jump scare: Fantasy Flight Game’s Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

A combination of Choose Your Own Adventure and tactical card-playing, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a game that sees one to two players (up to four if you buy an additional copy) working their way through scenarios, searching for clues, accomplishing objectives, and trying to stay alive fighting monsters. The scenarios strung together to form an overarching campaign, players steadily add powers and abilities to their investigators as they move forward, facing bigger and more evil challenges while solving the larger mystery. RPG-ish, there is a chance players take on permanent trauma and injuries as a consequence of various decisions and story inflection points, making for a tense, seat-of-your-pants adventure through the layers of story. It turns out Lovecraft in the driver’s seat is a different experience than laying on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Cardboard Corner

It’s happened. I’ve been pushed over the edge. To blame? Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

As you, my loyal thimbleful of readers have noticed the past few years, the blog has branched out into video games. While some may balk at an interactive, digital medium invading the space of what was primarily a blog reviewing the analog, for me it represented two things: a natural evolution reflecting my life (i.e. a person can only review a hundred or so books per year without looking for something else invigorating), but also a chance to write about another form of narrative that, while most often simpler in form compared to fiction, offers a participatory experience that books simply can’t. (It’s no surprise that the games I prefer are largely those which utilize a player’s agency in a story for thematic purposes.)  And besides, since the beginning of the blog I’ve posted randomly my family’s various world travels (what some might argue is also a form of story—ha!). <drumroll> As of today, there is another contemporary form of narrative that has pushed for a place on this blog.

I’ve always played board games. But as a child,  I never had a collection, a handful at best, and most of the games were common for the era—Monopoly, chess, Life, checkers, Jenga, Boggle, Mouse Trap, Sorry, Scrabble, etc. But I also had a couple of games that sparked a little extra enjoyment, games that brought to the table something a little less ordinary, namely Fireball Island and Scotland Yard. In Life and Monopoly, the “narratives” are dictated by wheel spins and die rolls. The number of outcomes to Life can’t hold a candle to the seemingly infinite paths the title—reality—holds for us. But in Fireball Island and Scotland Yard, a different “story” plays out on the board with each game. “Remember when your detective was standing here? I was just one space away, and I thought for sure you were going to catch me!” you might say after the game. Or, “If you hadn’t played that Fireball card here, she wouldn’t have been able to steal the jewel. That’s what allowed me to sneak up behind her and get to the docks ahead of you!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Top Ten Jack Vance of All Time

I achieved a bittersweet day in my life a month or so ago: I read my last "new" Jack Vance book. While I immensely look forward to re-reading many of them, unless some secret stash of manuscripts are discovered by the Vance estate, I will never again read a Vance story virgin to my eyes. Reflecting on this reality, I thought it a good time to look back at the cream of the crop. Forgive me as I will play fast and loose—sometimes individual stories, sometimes novels, and sometimes series, but I believe I've compiled the best ten works Vance produced.

Before I get into the list, a few honorable mentions. I love the Durdane series. It's perhaps the closest Vance came to writing a serial, 1920's pulp sf adventure, but in his vivid style. Spanning multiple planets and featuring space ship fights, blasters, aliens, etc., it's fast-paced fun that really keeps the pages turning. I have a soft spot in my heart for the duology Lurulu/Ports of Call. Written when Vance was in his eighties and nineties (his last published fiction, in fact), the books have less action than a lot of his other works but star a young man who longs to see the universe, and eventually does in a series of fun yet relatable planets and cultures. Paralleling Vance's own life traveling as a newlywed, father, and writer, I can't help but see Vance in the duology, reflecting back in old age with a glint in his eye, proud to have seen the world we live on and express that experience as only he can in sf adventure. And finally Wyst: Alastor 1716. The best of the three Alastor novels, in Wyst Vance takes the piss out of Bohemian socialism, interestingly through the experience of an off-world artist. Vance's sharp eye to human nature the guiding light, indeed, the communist collective has some dark spots to address but under Vance's hand are addressed in a humorous, almost satirical way. And there are more books I greatly enjoy, Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, The Dying Earth, and others; Vance would not be Vance if he didn't have a lengthy list of highly readable fiction.  But on to the top 10.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Review of The Lesser Devil by Christopher Ruocchio

I have described Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater series to date to be a hybrid of Ursula Le Guin and George Lucas. Space empires, laser fights, and evil aliens—there is plenty of action, but action tempered by a deeper sensitivity to language, culture, and Otherness that makes the series a little more than the latest space opera flash in the pan. (High brow literature, no, but certainly more than the average offering on the oversaturated market today.) With the short novel (novella?) The Lesser Devil (2020), Ruocchio sets a tangential course of story from the main novel arc, expanding the world he’s built and the characters in them in similar fashion.

The Lesser Devil returns the reader to the setting of Empire of Silence, the place where Hadrian Marlowe was born, raised, and ultimately escaped. Set fifty-odd years after said escape, the story tells of Hadrian’s brother Crispin and a mission his father sends him on to a remote place on their planet. To say more of what transpires in the mission would spoil the story (matter go sideways very quick). Suffice to say, the authoritarian actions of Hadrian and Crispin’s father has not been to everyone in his empire’s liking, an overdue case of revenge on the books.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Review of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Before I knew anything about anything (some would argue that is still the case), I read that Jack Vance was a hidden gem of yesteryear science fiction and fantasy. Seeking out his best, all fingers pointed to Tales of the Dying Earth—what I thought was a loooong novel, but turned out to be a collection of short stories and novels. I was blown away. I literally had never encountered a voice that inspired such delight, humor, and pure enjoyment of story and writing. I have since gone on to read what I think is everything in Vance's oeuvre, and having done that, what better than start back at where it started, all over again.

My joy in Tales of the Dying Earth was not a hit off the bat, however. I struggled with the opening stories—the stories taken from Vance's collection The Dying Earth. While highly readable, they didn't have that singular, unique voice that I would discover in the Cugel novels, and in essence define what Vance is as a writer to me. Dare I say it (will Vance's fans kill me?), the Dying Earth stories hovered somewhere just above normal, average. But will they feel that way the second time round—ten years and hundreds upon hundreds of science fiction and fantasy stories from all points later?