Friday, September 23, 2022

Review of Kingdoms of Death by Christopher Ruocchio

This being the review for the fourth book in a space opera series, I think I can skip the preamble and get right to the heart of matters: does this book carry forward the momentum of previous books by keeping things consistent yet fresh? Yes. If that's all you wanted to know, you can safely go to your friendly local bookstore and buy a copy. For those who want more, here it is.

Kingdoms of Death (2022) picks up the main storyline a century after Demon in White. Marlowe has been sent to the front to fight the increasingly larger and more dangerous hordes of Cielcin. The swarm grows as their mission to eliminate humanity from the universe comes closer to fruition. Marlowe and his desperate band find themselves in a firefight, but live to tell the tale. Manpower running low, Marlowe is asked by the Emperor himself in the aftermath of the battle to go an isolated human group, the Lotherians, and request help in battling the Cielcin. Marlowe accepts, and little does he know how drastically the mission will alter his life's course.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Manila

If I tell you the theme of the game is Filipino fruit boats being poled to port, you’d probably hesitate then ask “What else you got?” But that would be to dismiss Manila too quickly. If you and your family are interested in race betting games similar to Camel Up! with an added layer of depth, this is certainly worth a look.

In Manila, 3-5 players (the more the merrier) play the role of bettors, hazarding their money on Filipino fruit boats, and whether they will make it to port safely or capsize. Dice determining the ebb and flow of success, there is a distinct craps feel—placing meeples, collecting on winning bets, and looking at what your bank still holds in terms of possibility. The process repeated multiple times, lady luck wanders around the table, bestowing or withholding to the players’ delight and dismay. With a simple stock market mechanism built into the foundation of the game, it’s the player who balances their risk and losses most effectively that wins.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Review of Black Friday 2050 by Joshua Krook


While George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Margaret Atwood's dystopian visions possess oodles of (dark) soul and story, I'd argue the primary reason they linger in cultural memory are the places of true human fear they sting in our psyches. (Well, maybe not Putin's, or Trump's, or Kim Jong Un's, or...) And in the past two decades we have seen an explosion of dystopian fiction, each likewise trying to touch such places in our minds. Coming at readers with the latest hell-on-Earth is Joshua Krook with Black Friday 2050 (2022).

The year is—you guessed it—2050 and everyday man Jack Preston is going about his life. Married to a promising young woman and an up-and-comer at his corporate job, things seem to be going well in his tech-saturated life. But things get turned upside down when an accident relieves Jack of dopamine dumps. Forced into treatment by his corporation, Jack finds himself in a new mindspace, one that calls into question everything he knows about his everyday life, and the pleasures therein.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review of Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald

I am one of many readers with praise for the entertainment qualities of Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark trilogy. While the third volume went to the well one time too many, the series nevertheless pokes its head above the crowded fantasy market for its solid lines and vibrant colors. There is little fantasy can do these days to be original, so McDonald put his effort into the basics of good writing: well-paced plotting, splashes of magic and action, and characters that were rendered with enough dimension for the reader to be interested. What then, could McDonald do for the follow up? Let's see what Daughter of Redwinter (2022) is all about.

Superficially there isn't much which distinguishes either McDonald's Raven's Mark trilogy or this, the opening volume in the Redwinter trilogy. Secondary worlds, wizardly magic, swords and sandals, kings and knights, battles, yadda, yadda, yadda. Daughter tells of a young woman, Raine, discovering magical powers in a Medieval setting. Yeah, you've heard of it before. But again, McDonald breathed a reasonable degree of life into the Raven's Mark to give it something the average series of such caliber does not. I'm less certain how much breath Daughter of Redwinter has.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Marvel Champions: The Card Game

In case you haven't noticed, this blog has a penchant for Fantasy Flight Games. I am one of thousands of thousands of people drawn to their customizable card games, including the cooperative games Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror. Seeing that the geniuses at FFG had created another cooperative card game, it was almost impossible not to at least try. Let's see if Marvel Champions: The Card Game (2019) carries the magic forward.

Focusing on the goodies and baddies of the Marvel universe, each game of Marvel Champions features 1-4 players selecting a hero and working together to defeat a super villain. The heroes win by knocking the villain's hit points to zero, and the villain wins by either advancing their main scheme to completion or reducing all the heroes' hit points to zero. That is the super high-level view. One level deeper, players use ally, support, and upgrade cards to build decks in support of their heroes, cards which provide various bonuses, weapons, abilities, actions, effects, etc. The villain likewise has their own deck of cards (which also can be customized by the players, depending how difficult they want the game to be). This includes upgrades for the villain, one-time effects, and additional schemes that force players to focus on more than just damaging the villain in order to win.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Review of The New Cyberiad by Paul Di Filippo

If I were to assign the task of writing a story in tribute to Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad to any contemporary sf writer, there is a very short list erudite yet gonzo enough to pull it off. I think Rudy Rucker, Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, and possibly Bruce Sterling could. (Catherynne Valente has already, and it’s worth it.) But the first name on my list would be Paul Di Filippo. In accordance, his novelette “The New Cyberiad” is everything that Lem’s stories of the two constructors Trurl and Klapaucius are, right down to the prose, all the while making space for itself.  (Just, ignore the title. :)

Ennui has rendered the two constructor bots, Trurl and Klapacius, like unto sunbathers on the beach of space. At the outset of the story, they moan about having nothing to do, and thus decide to inject a little dynamism into their lives by resurrecting humanity—an interesting project, indeed. From its wild lexicon to esoteric ideas, the ensuing story is as much in the spirit of Lem as is possible: laugh-out-loud funny yet effortlessly profound.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Review of Appleseed by Matt Bell

The political climate being what it is in 2022, there is extreme debate over the environment. Have humans caused global warming, is it part of nature's cycle, or somewhere between? Should humans set certain expectations on capitalism for the sake of the environment long term? Should governments which seem to take less interest in the environment bear larger responsibility for global warming? And I'm sure philosophers are asking the question: is it possible for humanity to collectively organize an environmentally sustainable future? Tackling all of the above (and more) in science fiction form is Matt Bell's Appleseed: A Novel (2021).

Cli-fi for the 21st century, Appleseed plays off the American legend of Johnny Appleseed from near-future to far-future perspectives. It answers the philosophers' question by saying: no, humans cannot stop the inevitable, Aztec-esque growth into non-sustainability, and will collapse for it. Told in three strands of story, the first is a few years down the road wherein global warming has driven major political and physiological change. The global structure virtually collapsing, power remains with the corporations—entities which can offer the basics of life through economic power. Bands of non-corporate humans roam the wilds, scavenging and surviving off the corporate grid. One such man is John. A former biologist turned survivor, his tale underpins how the world becomes as it is in the second strand. A sentient faun—yes, sentient faun—roams icelands in a gadget-loaded crawler looking for signs of life. Self-promulgating, death means nothing to the faun. He needs only to survive long enough to get back to his crawler to grow a new body, memories and mind intact. The third strand is a far-future Johnny Appleseed. Another sentient, faun-like creature, he and a brother roam Ohio planting apple trees, having mythical, fantastical experiences along the way.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Review of The Book of Dreams by Jack Vance

We've done it, reached the fifth and final book in the Demon Prince series, The Book of Dreams (1981). The series has taken us from secretive evil to killing machines, subtle authoritarianism to petty egoism. Where then does The Book of Dreams take us? To deep-seated childhood issues...

The fifth and final demon prince for Kirth Gerson to take down is Howard Alan Treesong. When an anonymous person submits a photo to Gerson's magazine claiming to feature Treesong, Gerson uses his position to start a contest to name all the people in the photo. Throughout the days that follow, most of the people are identified. But a couple remain enigmatic—people known by multiple names. One entry takes Gerson to a distant planet, and deep into the past of Howard Alan Treesong. Question is, is it deep enough to stay alive and get revenge?

Cardboard Corner: Review of Undaunted Normandy

Are you tired of endless pages of rules? Have you had enough digging through bowls of tiny chits to find the exact acronym you need? Weary of back-and-forth over the table discussing the finer points of a gray rule? Are your thumbs sore from flipping pages, trying to locate that specific reference which confirms your side of the argument but you just can’t seem to find it? Have big, heavy war games finally overstayed their welcome in your basement? Look no further than Undaunted: Normandy (2019) – War Game-lite.

Yes, my friend, Undaunted: Normandy is a light/mid-weight war game. A 2-player-only competitive experience, it takes 30-40 minutes. Depending on the scenario, the players will scout, shoot, machine gun, mortar, and command their way to their side’s asymmetrical objective. One player taking on the role of the Americans and the other the Germans, choose the scenario, set up the modular board and soldiers, and start shooting—ahem, playing. Deckbuilding the primary mechanism, at the beginning of the round players will draw four cards and bid for initiative. The player who wins will then be able to play any or all of the remaining cards in their hand—scouts, riflemen, officers, machine gunners, etc. If they are unlucky, or if their opponent has been stuffing their deck, there is also the possibility of having Fog of War cards in hand—cards intended to clog up the player’s card engine. Naturally, first player to achieve their objective, wins.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review of The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

Trying new authors on the market today is a real Vegas trip. Cover copy, awards, and blurbs just can't cover the nuances of many books. Reviews can be helpful, and thus I hope this review of The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk (2022) can help you determine whether this is a book for you. (Gods I'm getting desperate for intro material...)

Surprise-surprise, Zachary Cloudesley is the star of the novel. His mother dying in childbirth, Zachary's early days are with his loving father Abel, a clockwork inventor, as well as a strong-minded wet nurse, Fiona. As a boy, his rich, eccentric Aunt Frances also steps in to the picture, demanding that part of Zachary's upbringing be her responsibility. Through this variety of people, Zachary comes to his teenage years—something which happens faster than normal given Zachary's unusual talents. Able to see visions of past or future after touching a person, Zach develops a keen, sensitive intelligence to the people around him, and the purity of the love they have for him. When his father is taken, Zachary is forced to put his nascent adulthood into practice to find him.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Review of Many Are the Dead by Anthony Ryan

One of the advantages of novellas is that it gives readers a taste of a writer without the financial and time commitments to a full novel. With epic fantasy books these days doubling as wall-building material, this was never more helpful when looking to explore a new writer; you can test out their style before jumping, or not jumping, into the deep end. Many Are the Dead (2018), was my litmus test for Anthony Ryan. Acid, base, or neutral?

And time now for the obligatory plot summary: old friendships come anew, fantastical beasts attack, and Medieval swords and spears in forest and stronghold. Yeah, that's about it. Oh, and a gruff, no-nonsense main character who does heroic things with his sword. Anything else? Not really...

Cardboard Corner: Review of Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Airport Game

Eeeerrrwhoaaa… That was a child making a zooming airplane sound. Trust me. I know because I’ve played Richard Scary’s Busytown: Busy, Busy Airport (2011) many times with my kids, and every time it sounds like that.

A lightly competitive, children’s game, Busy, Busy Airport sees 2-4 players taking turns to load passengers into their airplanes for trips to various locations that have been scattered around your house, trying to collect the most souvenirs. Have the most souvenirs, or the most souvenir points (depending how “advanced” you want to play), and you win. Turns very simple, players roll two dice, and if lucky, face the choice of loading a passenger (or two, depending on the dice roll) or going to a location (or two, depending on dice roll) to drop off a passenger. Each passenger dropped off is exchanged for a souvenir. In the simple version, players can simply count souvenirs, the player with the most the winner. The more advanced game sees players counting the points on the souvenir cards, which are numbered 1-4. Players who arrive at a location naturally take the highest numbered souvenir(s) available in an effort to add to their points as much as possible.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Commentary Corner: Deep Cave Guru, Bandwagon Rider, and Used Car Salesman: The Wave of DEI in Fiction Is Cresting

It's normal these days to read a book that highlights, or goes out of its way, to identify characters which do not fit Western demographic norms.

“Alex ran around the corner, slipping to catch his balance. Gun in hand he pushed off again, yelling at people on the sidewalk to get out of the way. “Move, move!” Ahead the thief barged forward, knocking bodies aside like bowling pins. “Stop!” Alex shouted. But the thief didn't stop. Amid cries of surprise and pain he crashed ahead toward his getaway car. Alex was black and gay and knew he had to do something, and fast...”

I exaggerate, but there are some writers who are not much more subtle. Gender, sexual orientation, race, culture—these and other facets of being human increasingly often earn spurious mention. It's clear much fiction is attempting to align with a broader cultural movement.

Before jumping further in, let's take a short step back to look at any cultural movement. Foremost, they are products of their time. Hippie counter-culture is a period in Western history, for example. With its own style, ideas, and contrasts to cultural norms, it is identifiable. And while some of those ideas live today, the hippie movement is an element of history. Hairy armpitted-women, beatnik poetry, beads, Bob Dylan, and bell bottoms are not norms. The legend of Jimi Hendrix lives on, but goats and off-grid communes just never took off.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Review of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The human species never ceases to amaze. The past couple of years has seen the rise of Q-Anon conspiracy theories, for example. Bills Gates and Clinton having underage sex orgies while JFK Jr. is predicted to emerge from the woodwork to award Trump the presidency he “already won”. And that's just the tip of the American iceberg. Elvis lives, Area 51, contrails—and the list goes on. Why do people get onboard with such absurdity? Is the human mind so foolishly malleable? It turns out yes, and contemporary American culture is just another point in the history of humanity—so says Thomas Pynchon's 1966 The Crying of Lot 49.

The Crying of Lot 49 is a cruise on the twisting, turning road of Oedipa Maas. Likewise an aerial affair, gravity seems to have little regard for her reality. Oedipa's life takes a particularly dramatic turn one day discovering she is the inheritor of the estate of a former lover. A real estate mogul, he leaves her everything. Oedipa is given the opportunity to indulge in the wackiness of life she probably always wanted to but never had the means to. Now she does. Attracted by a reoccurring horn symbol she often sees opping up in her life, down the rabbit hole of American sub-culture Oedipa goes, and the reader gleefully with her.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Top That!

Here is a mini-Lego set. Here are the instructions. How fast can you put it together? Ok, good job. Now, if I take a copy of the same set and we start at the same time, can you put it together faster than me?  Hmm, no. I’m faster. Ok, let’s try a different set of instructions. How about now? Who is faster? Ok, you learned something—that was faster than me. Let’s try another set of instructions to determine champion of the universe!  If this sounds interesting, then definitely check out Top That! (2016).

The theme is not Lego, rather a classic magic show. In Top That! 2-4 players compete to see who is the fastest magician to put together a hat, rabbit, coin, barrel, and cup according to rotating sets of designs. Complete hand-eye coordination needed, players must stack/combine their five-piece set of components according to the design shown on the current card. First person to complete the design wins the card, and a new round starts.  First person to collect five cards wins the game. (Players can choose the target number if they want—five, ten, whatever.)

Monday, August 1, 2022

Review of The Smoke by Simon Ings

The first 100 or so pages of Simon Ing's 2021 novel The Smoke are like watching an archer shoot at a target; each arrow strikes a new location. With one of the first arrows, readers learn that the world took a new direction in the early 20th century when the Russian embryologist Gurwitsch created a biophotonic ray. This technology has since widened the gaps within our species, social class taking on a whole new meaning. With another arrow, readers get a view to life in in London's the Bund where the upper class exist, and with still another arrow a view is given to the lower class where modified humans, called Chickies, stumble about in what is left of civilization, building nests, reproducing, and scavenging for sustenance. In still another arrow, the largest from Ings' quiver, the reader meets Stuart Lanyon. A wannabe architect, his ambitions never quite come to fruition. He does, however, fall in with the daughter of a billionaire tech entrepreneur, a woman named Fel. Money and time mean little to her family, and so Fel's mother puts Stuart to work drawing and designing set pieces for her pet project, a low budget sci-fi television series. Stuart's social class not quite up to snuff, things eventually come to a head as the technology Fel's father is developing encroaches on Stuart's life, challenging him to define precisely what he wants his reality to be.

The concepts of The Smoke are as varied as the directions the novel seems to go. And yet Ings drives with purpose, keeping things contained. Gene therapy, immortality, space travel, aliens, dystopia—all would seem to be too much for one book to bear. Yet character and the human condition sit front and center. What normally appears as sensawunda in most sf books is here informative without being overbearing, tantalizing without being cheesy, and conducive rather than spotlight-hogging. There are times in the middle sections of the novel the reader starts to wonder whether Ings even needed science fiction's tool chest at all. But then the conclusion happens...

Cardboard Corner: Review of Thurn & Taxis

How does the 17th century German postal system sound as a theme for a board game? I imagine there is a spectrum of replies: boring, interesting, and could be interesting. If you fall into the latter two responses, continue reading. I hope the review will help you definitively answer the question.

Thurn & Taxis (2006) is a 2-4 player game in which players are trying to be the most efficient/fastest to build certain types of postal routes and upgrade their horse carriages. The game’s setting middle Europe in the 1600s, the board features approximately two dozen German, Austrian, Swiss, and Polish cities, all connected by roads and divided into various sub-regions. On their turn, players will select from the six city cards face up on the board, trying to choose locations which link up in order to build routes which connect the cities, as well as a larger network of routes to connect regions. When a minimum of three cities are linked, players can choose to complete their routes, place buildings on the appropriate cities to mark them, then start a new route. Risk inherent, however, longer routes typically provide the player more points. Then again, they also take longer to build, meaning fewer turns to accomplish other goals. Regardless, it’s player choice which predominantly determines outcome.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Review of Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

On the spectrum of science fiction possibilities, I find myself most appreciative of writers who are trying to do something different than the mainstream. Naturally this can lead to odd conceptions, but I find such misadventures still more enjoyable than Joseph Campbell-ian action in space: push <here> to repeat. Robert Sheckley, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Catherynne Valente, Jonathan Lethem, Micahel Swanwick—these and many others are writers who can be depended upon to regularly work outside norms in (mostly) successful fashion. Adam Roberts is another such writer, and his 2021 Purgatory Mount perfectly fits the bill. If there is anything predictable about Adam Roberts it is that he is unpredictable.

If Purgatory Mount were a journey, than it's cross-section would be shaped like a shallow bowl. Readers would start at one rim, learning about gods in a space ship who encounter a bizarre, Dauntian structure on an alien planet. Descending the slope of the bowl, readers would then uncover a primitive tribe of people seemingly on a generation starship. And finally, readers would hit the bowl's bottom and start an extended trek across it—the main body of the novel. About a group of teens in near-future USA, the five get into trouble when they copy (not steal!) a piece of protected IP from a tech company and hide it in their off-grid network. The police coming a knocking, what follows is a harrowing tale of when the system cracks and the rule of law falls apart.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Review of The Face by Jack Vance

While I enjoy the first three Demon Prince novels for what they are, ultimately they do not display much of the panache that made Vance so special. They are straightforward James Bond-esque adventures in revenge mode without a lot of the figurative color that makes later Vance novels memorable. Published twelve years after The Palace of Love, the fourth novel, The Face changes things up, however. The 70s arguably the time Vance discovered his singular voice, The Face has a touch and feel different than the first three novels—and for the positive.

With three princes down and two to go, in The Face we see our hero Kirth Gersen set his sights on the low brow, petty Lens Larque. In the previous books, Gerson employed various tricks to get close to his targets, and in The Face it's business tricks, including becoming a majority stakeholder in a company owned by Larque. Requiring Gersen to do a lot of legwork tracking down shares, he eventually gets close to the vile Larque. But is it close enough? And indeed, is Larque not so unlike Gersen?

Console Corner: Review of Space Hulk: Tactics

Apart from a two-month binge on Board Game Arena playing Seasons a couple years ago, I have not played any digital board games. Face-to-face experiences have been my default. But when researching the next strategy video game to play, one kept popping up: Space Hulk Tactics (2018), a video game based on a board game. Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, let's see how a board game plays on the PS4.

Space Hulk Tactics is a turn based strategy game for 1-2 players. Set inside a massive derelict spaceship, players choose the side of either the Space Marines or Genestealers, and proceed across various modular maps towards objectives. In single-player there are two campaigns available (the same campaign, in fact, just played from either the side of the Space Marines or the Genestealers). Playing as Space Marines, the campaign consists of a series of missions which try to get at the root of the Genestealer swarms invading the ships and attacking the Marines. The missions can be anything from survival to planting bombs, opening void gates to capturing specific objectives. The Genestealer campaign is to try to prevent the Space Marines from succeeding at their missions through swarming attacks and tactical movement/blocking. For two players, there is an online skirmish mode. (Note: there is no local two-player variant given that some Genestealer movement is hidden.) I did not play the skirmish mode and so will be reviewing only the campaigns here.

Cardboard Corner: Review of: Camel Up

Note: this review is for the first edition of the game (as seen on the cover image). I do not have experience with the second edition, so take the review as such.

With the world’s casinos regularly turning profits in the billions, it’s clear humanity has a thing with odds, risk and gambling. It’s no surprise that this form of fun is represented in boardgame form, also. In fact, I suppose there is a case to be made that the majority of boardgames hold the same principle: reward through risk. But I’ll save that for another day. In perhaps its most overt form, Camel Up! takes the concept of racetrack betting and stands it—not on its head, just up.

In Camel Up!, 2-8 players take on the role of camel speculators at the racetrack, trying to earn the most money. Five camels, each of a different color, race in front of the speculators, trying to be the first (and upon many an occasion topmost) to cross the finish line. A turn starts with the first player who decides whether to: hazard a bet which camel will be in first place at the end of the round, roll a dice from the dice pyramid, hazard a bet which camel will be first or last at the end of the race, or place one of their land tiles to either move a camel one space forward or one space backward if they happen to land on it going forward. That's it. Choice of four options. Their turn is finished, and the next player takes their turn. Play proceeds until all five dice have been rolled. Players collect their earnings, depending on the result of their actions and bets, and the next round begins. Rounds continue until one camel—or more—crosses the finish line, bets for first and last place are tallied, and total earnings are counted. This “or more” needs a closer look as it’s here that the game’s betting becomes diverse and interesting.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Review of The Jonah Kit by Ian Watson

"Doing something new" or "Doing something different" is one of the most subjective aspects of science fiction, and literature in general. And never more so as we find ourselves a century-deep into mass publishing—literally millions of unique titles on the market. Going even deeper, the idea of "new and different" in American science fiction has largely been tied to technology, gadgets, sense of wonder, and the like. For European SF, new and different has more often been a product of style, technique, and fresh views to society, individuals, technology, and the human condition. Fightin' words if ever there were, the point I'm getting at is, if you're looking for something new and different in the latter vein, try Ian Watson's second novel, The Jonah Kit (1975).

A product of its times, the story of The Jonah Kit plays off the Cold War and the extremes of Soviet military research. Combine that with groundbreaking astronomy and visionary ichthyology, and the resulting tale bounces around a fair bit before making its connections known and drawing them together.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Review of The Palace of Love by Jack Vance

While the Demon Prince pentalogy was published over a couple of decades, the first three volumes were written in very short succession. The result is a strong consistency of style and length in those first three novels; Vance was in the groove and pushed out the stories in short order. Let's take a look at the last of these three before the pause button on the series was pushed, The Palace of Love (1967).

With two princes down and dusted, Kirth Gersen looks to the next name on his Count-of-Monte-Cristo hit list—and perhaps the best named villain in the series, Viole Falushe. Where Kokor Hekkus' vices were rampant with unadulterated violence and madness, Falushe's evils are authoritarian. Maintaining a massive harem of unwilling women, he uses perfumes and poisons to rule a vast domain. That is, until Kirth Gersen steps into the picture to exact his revenge.

Review of The Killing Machine by Jack Vance

It is a maxim of storytelling that if you show a gun at the beginning of a story, at some time it will be fired. In Jack Vance's The Killing Machine (1964), second book in the Demon Prince series, the gun has metal mandibles, fire-breathing eyes, a segmented body, and mechanized centipede legs. With such extravagance, undoubtedly readers will be happy it fires, but perhaps less happy only once.

With Kirth Gersen's raison d'etre established in The Star King, The Killing Machine sees the second demon prince on the hit list, Kokor Hekkus fall under his crosshairs. More overtly evil than the Star King, Hekkus quickly shows Gersen how little existence means to him in an early, down-and-dirty encounter. Gersen manages to escape with his life, but also with a set of plans which seem to show the impossible: a highly unorthodox machine whose purpose could only be one thing, killing. But where, and why?

Sauron's Eye vs Cosmic Evil: Comparing The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game to Arkham Horror: The Card Game

When looking to get into the cooperative LCG scene, I spent a little bit of time searching online for comparisons of the Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror card games (LCGs). The reason it was little time is because not a lot of content was available. A couple years later, there is still not a lot available. Older commentary exists—when Arkham was one or two campaigns old but LotR was quite established, the comparison not really 100% even. There is some personal opinion floating around—this game is better than that because I like ____, etc., etc. But since Arkham’s establishment (seven campaigns and counting), nothing really meaty has appeared online that compares and contrasts the two games with potential players in mind. I hope this is it.

Looking ahead, I will be avoiding spoilers. The goal is to capture the key differences, locate common ground, and highlight what might be appealing to different types of board gamers. I am human, and therefore everything here is subject to opinion, but I hope that you will not find a more objective comparison online.


Similarities

There are several obvious similarities between Arkham and LotR. Both are cooperative card games for 1-4 players that play out in established IPs, Lovecraft and Tolkien’s worlds, respectively. Both are scenario driven games which ask players to build decks of cards they think will allow their characters the greatest chance of success at resolving the objectives of the given scenarios. And lastly, both games feature a similar flow; the characters are given a chance to acquire/spend resources to deploy their tools and allies in an attempt to defeat monsters and accomplish objectives, and after, the scenario fights back through threats and monsters in an attempt to defeat the heroes. There are several other minor similarities (business model, no two scenarios alike, etc.), but as a whole, each game sits within such parameters. It's the details which separate the games in which most interest can be found.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Review of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

I have previously tried and failed to read a Patricia McKillip novel, The Riddle Master of Hed. Perhaps it was just my mood, the wind in the trees, or position of the moon, but for whatever reason, my mind kept wandering, and every time it snapped back, it encountered vanilla this and vanilla that and eventually wandered away again. I put it down, perhaps for another day (or moon). Based on the accumulated weight of recommendation from trusted sources (and non-trusted), I picked up The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974). An excellent thing there are second chances.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is the story of Sybel, a teenage girl who lives alone on a mountain surrounded by animals and creatures she communicates with telepathically while studying magic. One day a man arrives at her house named Coren. He delivers a small boy, Tamlorn, whom he requests Sybel to care for. And for the next decade, Sybel does as much, becoming Tamlorn's mother in essence and spirit. It's thus when the boy's true identity is revealed and people come looking for him that Sybel's future comes under a different light. Everything she has learned about magic needed in the aftermath of these events, Sybel and her menagerie are forced into a role in the kingdom of Eld beyond her mountain, but one that may have more advantages in the long term, no matter how hard it is today.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Review of Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux

In my 20s and 30s, as I traveled to different places in the world, a minor inspiration was Paul Theroux. I read his slapdash travelogues with an eye to the experiences he had—China, Australia, and other such places. But as with a lot of travel writing of such length, Theroux inevitably reverted to dialogue and embellishment—a style which enhances readability but likewise creates degrees of doubt regarding the actuality of his journeys. It wasn't until later I started reading Theroux's fiction. And what I find is a more confident voice, one more subtly lays bare the psyches of its main characters. The latest peeled mind I discovered is Kowloon Tong (1997).

Kowloon Tong is a few months in the life of Neville (aka Bunt) Mullard. The son of a textile factory owner in Hong Kong, he inherits the business after his father passes away. Though in his forties, Muller is still a child in many ways. Unmarried, he lives with, and obeys, his mother. His life is as routine as can be, seeking pleasures without responsibilities in this city's “chicken houses”, daily following a schedule like a schoolboy. But change is looming. After 100 years, Britain is about to give up control of Hong Kong and hand the peninsula back to Chinese. Existentially stuck in the middle between China and England, Mullard finds himself facing uncomfortable but necessary decisions as the handover draws nigh.

Console Corner: Review of Frostpunk DLC Expansion

This review is dedicated to all the DLC expansions for Frostpunk to date—at least as of the writing of this review. If new expansions are released, they will be added. The six are as follows:

The Arks

The Refugees

The Fall of Winterhome

The New Autumn

On the Edge

Endless Mode


The Arks”

The premise of “The Arks” is to protect (i.e. keep warm) four buildings which house the seedlings that will be used to re-start agriculture once the deep freeze is over. But the scenario quickly evolves into: how well can the player manage multiple automatons to stockpile resources. Worker count extremely limited, players need to juggle their automatons all the while significantly developing the production base. This is one of the weakest DLCs for Frostpunk. While the starting conditions are different, the course of events almost entirely parallels the main campaign “A New Home”, right down to a storm. I can see people who did not use automatons in the main campaign getting the most out of this expansion. Other players will likely find that the other expansions offer more unique challenges.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Review of The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Steampunk, oh steampunk, you oasis in the desert, calling me with your dreamy green palms and promise of refreshment. The adventure, the tropes, the potential—calling me across the blowing sands. This is good, and that is good, and this is good too—luring my parched throat and burning skin forward. And arrival... was it all a mirage? Let's take a look at The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia (2008).

The Alchemy of Stone is the story of Mattie. An automaton, she lives—ahem, exists—in a Victorian-esque city ruled by the Merchants and Alchemists, each of whom have their agendas regarding the creative direction the city should go. One of the most intelligent automatons ever created, Mattie has a love-hate relationship with her Mechanist creator, Loharri. When she requests to study as an Alchemist, he begrudgingly allows her but retains control of the key needed to keep her heart wound, and in essence her body alive. But Mattie's situation becomes more complicated when she is secretly contacted by a group of gargoyles—immobile stone creatures who wish to become mobile and escape the city—against the wishes of both the Mechanists and Alchemists. Empathizing with the gargoyles and their non-flesh existence, Mattie embarks on a mission to find the alchemy which will convert stone to flesh.

Cardboard Corner: Ranking Arkham Horror: The Card Game Final Scenarios/Bosses

One of the best parts of video games is 'the final boss'. A true test of the skills you've learned, it's usually an over-the-top experience that feels great when you finally squeak past. Smartly, Arkham Horror: The Card Game has taken a nod from video games and implemented a final boss in all of its campaigns released to date—sometimes more than one. Let's see how they rank.

Three important things before moving ahead:

  1. Warning-Warning-Warning: this article assumes you've played all the campaigns, so if you don't want any final scenario spoiled, wait to read.

  2. With the exception of perhaps “The Devourer Below”, there is not a bad final scenario in the game. Whatever scenarios end up low in the ranking are still a huge amount of fun.

  3. This is a live page. I will update it as campaigns are released and played.

Jumping right into things, from lowest to highest ranked, here is the list:

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Review of Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham is one of the busiest men in writing. He is one half of the “James S.A. Corey” pen name which produces the Expanse series (ten books and counting), as well as co-writer on the television adaptation. He is the writer behind the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, and adapts George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books into graphic novel form. He regularly contributes short stories to Martin's Wild Cards anthology series and other venues. On top of all this, he somehow finds time to write epic fantasy under his own name, producing two lengthy series the past 15 years, The Long Price quartet and The Dagger & Coin series. The latest fantasy series to come out kicks off with Age of Ash (2022). Let's see if the workload affects quality.

Age of Ash, while occasionally viewed through side characters, is predominantly experienced through the eyes of Alys and Sammis. Alys is tough and street smart. Part of a gang of petty thieves, she runs distractions while her accomplices, one of whom is her brother Darro, get away with people's valuables in crowded markets and streets. Darro has loftier goals in life, but his schemes eventually catch up to him, leaving Alys with even tougher choices to make. Sammis is the ying to Alys' feisty yang. Quieter, calmer, she takes lesser known paths to resolve problems—particularly the problems Darro's adventures get the gang into.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Review of The Left Left Behind Plus... by Terry Bisson

While I prefer reading paper books, the heft and feel in the hand irreplaceable, it's inevitable that in 2022 ebooks and audiobooks are likewise present in my life. If I do consume the digital side of literature, I prefer short length—10 hour audiobooks, novellas, and collections are my go-to. Seeing a short collection by Terry Bisson on the cheap in e-form, I snapped it up. The book is Left, Left Behind plus... (2009).

When I said short, I meant short. Left, Left Behind plus... is two short stories sandwiched by a solid introduction and an in-depth interview with Bisson. That's it. It's a sampler of the personal variety. Despite this, it still offers more substance than a lot of the genre fluff making its way to shops.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Review of The Lady of the Lake by Andrzej Sapkowski

Note: This review of The Lady of the Lake (1999), fifth and final volume in the Witcher series, is going to assume the reader has read the prior four books.

After four novels, we’ve finally reached the end of the Witcher novel series. It’s up to The Lady of the Lake to put the final stamp on proceedings. As with any final volume in a series, this means the impression of the entire series for many readers—the part coloring the whole.

Ramping up slowly through a series of framing scenes, The Lady of the Lake finally settles into real-time storyline. Geralt, and the group which accumulated around him in The Baptism of Fire, are in Toussaint awaiting news. Geralt is once again taking monster contracts, and on one fateful excursion learns of a plot to overthrow the Emperor. As an extra little nugget of information, Geralt learns Vilgefortz’s location, and so rushes back to his group in make an attempt at rescuing Ciri. Arriving at the castle, however, things take a left turn, leaving the fate of the group, and Ciri and Yennefer, up in the air.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Review of Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock

It’s mid-2022 and Europe’s attention is on the ongoing war in Ukraine. The topics of security, economy, and resource availability are at the forefront. But in 2017, another topic was predominantly on Europe’s screens: refugees trying to escape a (Russia-involved) war in Syria. Ethics, human rights, and cultural integration/conflict were widely being discussed and handled in a variety of fashions. Into this scene Anne Charnock published a novella “The Enclave”. Having seeds of potential, in 2020 Charnock expanded it into a novel, Bridge 108.

The Enclave” was a window into the life of Caleb, a Spanish immigrant who lost his parents and now finds himself an indentured laborer in the hands of Ma Lexie in near-future Birmingham, UK. Lexie enduring her own tragedies, she daily sells her second-hand clothing at a cheap market in a poor enclave, Caleb her helper. In the enclave, immigrants like him are taken advantage of; life is not easy. He must look for his own bright spots, all the while enduring unpleasantries and the social limitations Ma Lexie and her associates impose on him. Caleb dreams of many things, and it isn’t long before he plots to get out of the enclave. He gets out, and Bridge 108 tells the story of what happens after.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Review of The Star King by Jack Vance

Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series is one of the more remarkable projects in Vance’s oeuvre. The five books were not written in relative succession, rather spread out over a period of sixteen years among other writing projects. But what makes them most notable is their human nature. Where most of Vance’s books tend to feature static heroes adventuring across the galaxy, in the Demon Prince books the revenge motif is taken seriously - something aking to a sci-fi version of The Count of Monte Christo. Vance gets deeper inside his main character, letting the man reflect on his loneliness and mission to kill than he does with most of his other such heroes. Setting the stage for the series is its first novel, The Star King (1964).

When just a child, Kirth Gersen watched his family and city destroyed by an alliance of five evil men, later called the “demon princes”.  His grandfather, the only other survivor, trained Kirth to be an assassin, and before dying, instructed his grandson to get revenge.  Carrying the list of names in his pocket, Kirth now makes his way through the galaxy hunting the princes, luring them into the open, and killing when the opportunity arises.  The opening of The Star King finds Gersen on a sparse, remote planet chasing information on one of the demon princes, one Attel Malagate. At a bar he meets a man employed by Malagate, but before he can extract enough info, a gang of thugs enter and put an end to his interview in decisive fashion. Kirth having a few tricks up his own sleeve, he learns the identity of the thugs and begins tracking them, hoping to be led to Malagate himself. His methods take him in the right direction but getting to the bottom of exactly which of his suspects is Malagate will require special cunning.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Review of Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson

In my youth and into adulthood I have read a fair number of boy’s adventures—Hardy Boys, The Mad Scientists’ Club, Hatchet, Mark Twain, Treasure Island, Jack London, My Side of the Mountain, The Prince of Central Park, and many others. Big rights and wrongs, catastrophes, mysteries, becoming independent, and of course adventure, there is indeed a certain style of book that appeals to teen males. It’s therefore important to note that Robert Charles Wilson’s 2009 Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America is precisely one such novel.

Julian Comstock is actually the story of Adam Hazzard. Adam is eighteen and a member of the working class (i.e. slightly above indentured servants but certainly below aristocrats) living in a small, Western town. He spends his days working in the barn of a local aristocrat family, the Comstocks. where he is taken under the wing of the Comstock family’s son, Julian. Unlike everyone else in his family, Julian eschews the religious rigor of the day and crosses class lines to befriend Julian. The two spend many an hour discussing religion and politics, that is, until the army comes to town looking to forcefully conscript its young men. Knowing they’ll be sent to distant Labrador to fight in long, bloody battles against the Dutch, the boys look to escape. They do, but only for a time. There comes a moment when they need to decide where to put their energy—religion, politics, and everything else around it as war rages on.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Fireball Island

For those unaware, I am an American living in Poland. Slowly but surely, I have transported all 500+ of my CDs across the Atlantic. (Yes, I’m also a middle-aged American—a music loving middle-aged American.) Every visit to the family or business trip, I would stick a few dozen in my luggage, and eventually they were all brought here. A couple years ago I became even more ambitious: to transport my copy of Fireball Island across the Atlantic.*

For the unaware, Fireball Island’s board is a single, solid, very colorful, 3D piece of plastic about the size and shape of a kitchen sink, but with less depth. It cannot be folded neatly and transported as any other board game might. Why it can’t be folded, you ask? So the marble fireballs have sturdy ground to roll and smash you, of course.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Review of The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier

I’ve heard it said that science fiction is a “literature of ideas”. I never liked this. All literature is ideas. Thus, I would paraphrase to say science fiction is a literature wherein ideas that do not (yet) exist in reality often take priority over the realism of character, emotion, dialogue, etc. After all, alien species, extraterrestrial planets, radical technology, and alternate forms of society often receive more attention from science fiction writers than the characters around them. Science fiction by default, Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly (2022) nevertheless subverts this mode by putting its weight behind typically less-prioritized elements—ideas, as they were.

To say precisely how The Anomaly is science fiction is to spoil the novel. Therefore, it is a good time to pause and say if this is one of the first reviews you have read of The Anomaly, be cautious reading additional reviews if you are concerned about plot spoilers. The novel hinges around an “idea” that is revealed at about the halfway mark. I have read reviews which discuss it in nonchalant fashion, but be aware it is the hook on which the plot is hung.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Review of The This by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is that maddening sportsman who has trophies on the shelf to show he is a winner but doesn’t always show up to play. With an irregular training scheme and dynamic mentality, he instead depends on innate talent to win matches. Naturally, this results in inconsistency; he’s not always a threat for the podium. For the reader, this means they never know what they are going to get with Roberts—certainly one type of appeal. With 2022’s The This we get the chance to A) test the accuracy of Google’s search algorithm, and B) answer the question: has Roberts once again channeled his innate talent to make a run for the winner’s circle, or is it just another quiet bowing out in the group stage?

Working with Robert’s love of θ, we get The This. After a surreal, cosmic cycle to open the novel, the book settles into the life of Rich Rigby. A typical 30-something male in the mid-21st century, Rich spends his days waiting for freelance writing gigs, playing video games, indulging in internet porn, and of course, thumb-fucking his mobile phone into loneliness. Almost all of his waking life spent online, he becomes interested in a breakthrough technology that saves users time by installing tech in the brain. Text messages, online searches, etc. no longer require tiresome finger movements. Such activities can all be done mentally, thus freeing users’ hands to perform other useful activities. The name of the tech is The This. While Rich is initially skeptical, the corporate forces that be eventually win him over, broadening his horizons in ways every major, human technical breakthrough has: for better and worse. But such blasé commentary is not Roberts’ point. Read on to find out.