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.