Monday, September 25, 2023

Review of Children of the Night by Dan Simmons

In a strange case of life imitating art, Dracula has emerged from the imagination of Bram Stoker to occupy our reality. Go to Romania and you find the black hood and sharp fangs on merchandise everywhere, with many people (mostly tourists) believing the legend is somehow based in history. And indeed in Romania you find the gray history of Vlad Tepes. A brutal leader famous for impaling his enemies on stakes, he also had a role to play in pushing back the Ottoman empire and preventing its incursion deep into Europe. Dan Simmons mixes these elements (with a strong helping of 90s communism) to create in the action adventure novel of Children of the Night (1992).

Children of the Night starts in Romania in the time immediately following the Ceauescu regime and its concurrent fall with the iron curtain. An American blood scientist named Kate Newman is visiting the country's orphanages for research. But her work soon turns to motherhood as one of the infant children strikes her heart and she decides to adopt the boy, naming him Joshua. In a parallel storyline, Dracula, now a rich aristocrat, is aging. Making the decision to end his reign, he foregoes feeding, thus beginning the process of becoming mortal, and names an heir. And still further uncanny machinations are afoot deep in the ancient mountains and castles of Romania, leading to a clash that will decide the fates of all.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Review of The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

If you were like me, then you read the second book in the Horus Heresy series, False Gods by Graham McNeill, asking yourself: who is this Erebus guy, where did he come from, and what is his agenda? And while information is revealed the further the reader gets into that novel, a number of questions still remain. The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski Bowden (2010), fourteenth book in the Horus Heresy series, blows the doors off all questions.

And so where the first three books published in the Horus Heresy series describe how Horus started his rebellion, its origins lie beforehand in The First Heretic. The novel opens on the Word Bearer's planet Khur where the Ultramarines have been sent to raze it by the Emperor's command for reasons of heresy. The boys in blue allow one communication to leave the planet, describing their actions and why, then destroy it. Feeling wronged, Lorgar and his fellow Word Bearers set their sights on understanding why the Emperor has betrayed them and getting revenge. And when you want to get revenge on a larger, stronger opponent, desperate tactics are needed. Just what effect said tactics will have in the long term, however, not even the Word Bearers can foresee.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Culture Corner: Romania - The Castles

 This is Part II of my photo post on my family's vacation to Romania this summer.  (Part I is here.)  This time around, castle, of which Romania is not lacking.

1. We'll start with a minor castle—one of many gypsy palaces we saw, in fact. A unique contributor to Romanian culture, it never grew tiring seeing their colors and panache.  The horse and buggy are a major contrast to the home (and the Porsche and Land Rover just out of view).

2. This is Corvin's Castle. Unlike most castles I've been to, visitors to Corvin have access to the majority of the grounds. Set in a picturesque place (and secure from barbarians), it was a nice afternoon of exploring knights and ladies (and torture).

Culture Corner: Romania - The Countryside

The following is the first of two posts capturing some of the photos my family took during our summer holiday in Romania in August this year. (Part II is here.) Despite spending 10 days and covering about 2,000 kms (1,250 miles) in country in a camper, there were many things we missed: castles, Brasov, and Bucharest among them. But we did meet many nice people and see many nice things. I've broken the content into two things we saw the most of (besides asphalt): the countryside and castles.

1. Romania's population is organized in a fashion I, as an American living in Poland, am unaccustomed to. Clumped in villages, towns and cities, there are very few homes outside these areas. There are minimal houses and buildings in the countryside, leaving the country feeling a little wild. Here is one of the villages: dense and quiet.

2. For those familiar with Romania, this is the region of the transalpina highway. Picturesque, it invited us out of the camper for several day hikes. This is myself and the kids on one of the hikes.

Review of Age of Darkness ed. by Christian Dunn

Entering the Warhammer universe of fiction I was skeptical about the quality of the franchise's fiction. Dan Abnett's Horus Rising gave me pause, and the handful of books I've read since have, generally speaking, not seen my doubts realized. But that didn't stop me from being skeptical entering my first anthology, Age of Darkness (2011). Where Warhammer novels can devolve into blaster porn, a series of short stories seems to shift that possibility almost to a guarantee. After all, doesn’t each story need a bit of action? And the next? And with +/-10 stories in an anthology, isn't that 10 spots of bolter blasting action in a row—a deluge of 400 pages? Let’s see…

They say the army is the only non-democratic organization in the West, and “Rule of Engagement” Graham McNeill puts the idea to the test through the primarch mastermind of Roboute Guilliman honing his Ultramarine’s battlefield command. Unfortunately, a story that can be read only once, it's also a story that fulfills my concerns about blaster porn and then some. The second story, "Liar's Due" by James Swallow, is a Horus Heresy version of a KGB operation on a backwater planet. Swallow could/should have spent more time on scenes depicting the human element of the story's morals, but it remains a decent spot of atypical space marine fiction with a nicely gray conclusion.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Review of Counterweight by Djuna

It's fair to say time has proven Bruce Sterling right; cyberpunk may be a recognized aesthetic, but the underlying themes—corporate power over political power, the separation of people into the tech haves and tech nots, the blurring of the lines between natural and augmented existence—are foundation stones of such fictions. Looking to add a touch of Arthur C. Clarke' The Fountains of Paradise to this scene is Counterweight by Djuna (2023).

A Korean corporate conglomerate called LK is building a space elevator on the fictional island of Patusan in southeast Asia. The elevator's counterweight already in orbit, workers are connecting it to Patusan via a spider line. But things are not going smoothly at LK. The CEO died under abnormal circumstances just a couple years ago and the company's intellectual property is under constant attack from competitors. Industrial counter-espoinage is thus a critical company department. Things kick off when a senior LK ecurity consultant named Mac witnesses a strange incident on Patusan in which a rival corp seems to have made an attempt to infiltrate LK. Particularly fishy is one of the people involved who seems a little too perfect. And so Mac decides to dig a little deeper into them. Events escalating until the elevator itself is involved (natch), Mac gets caught in a tangled web that touches everything in his life, corporate to personal.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Review of Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett

The events of A Thousand Sons shook the foundations of the Imperium. Secrets of the Emperor were revealed, a Primarch was killed, and vast amounts of loyalist and traitor forces clashed in the field at Isstvan V. A companion piece that both parallels the events of A Thousand Sons yet pushes ahead the HH storyline with its own designs, Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett (2011) offers yet another juicy chunk of multi-layered storytelling worthy to sit among the best the series has to offer.

Where the Horus Heresy series can sometimes feel like yet more space marines blasting away at yet more xenos species, Prospero Burns has a very different feel. Things begin on the ice planet Fenris where a representative of the Emperor has crash landed after being shot out of the skies by unknown forces. The local humans are primitive, however, and massive dangers lurk below the ice. Getting into a spot of trouble with a tribe, the man struggles to survive in the frigid environment. Things take a turn, however, when a seemingly magical warrior with incredible fighting skills drops from the heavens to rescue him. Taken aboard a starship, the man's life is never the same. More importantly, however, he learns that his crash landing on Fenris was never an accident. His role in the galaxy is yet to reveal itself.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Review of Ten Planets: Stories by Yuri Herrera

Like many things in life, pretentiousness is subjective. One person's annoyance at a pince nez is another's Saturday walk in the garden (with a cane, natch). And books are of course the same. What the fuck is Ulysses about? Why can't this Joyce guy just come out and say what he wants to say? In Joyce's case, and with many other such dense, difficult to penetrate writers, there is reason to push through the early fog, however. A course, a study, a conversation with a friend—there are ways of illuminating the previously unseen to make the work relatable. But with Yuri Herrera's collection Ten Planets (2023), no, it's just pretentious.

The reason Ten Planets is pretentious is because no lecture, journal article, or learned conversation is going to enlighten to any significant degree. It's pop art, art with pretensions of offering more but ultimately empty, or at least of minimal relevance. The surface might sometimes be flashy or edgy, but pick away the paint with a fingernail and it becomes lacquered egg cartons... or just a black rectangle. (Rothko, looking at you.)

Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Rainbow Prism: A Breakdown of Expandable Card Games

In a spare moment of time I was reviewing BGG's list of Top 100 expandable/customizable games, specifically looking at card games, games like Flesh and Blood, Magic: The Gathering, Android Netrunner, Pokemon, etc. The BGG algorithm does not exclude revised core sets, second editions, or alternate versions of games, which means the Top 100 is more like the Top 60. Of these +/-60 games, it was a surprise to realize I had played a good number. This got me thinking: What are ways of slicing and dicing such games beyond BGG's “the best” or “most popular”? What does the full color rainbow prism of expandable card games look like?

Before exploring the prism, a few quick notes. First, I am a gamer not a collector. I understand the secondary market has a strong grip on certain games, but I care about the table top experience most. Secondly, I don't care about the various acronyms—TCG, UCG, CCG, LCG, etc. I use the term “expandable card game” as a means of encompassing the myriad of card-based games which release a base/core set of cards, and then periodically release new cycles of cards which enhance and iterate on the base experience. Fair enough? Third, there are too many expandable card games for the average person to have played them all. I have played twenty two, which is a good number, but does not include some of the more well known games (e.g. Yu-Gi-Oh). So, I would not take this post as the be-all end-all, just a conversation starter. And lastly, this is a living page. As I play more expandable card games I will be updating the post—and there are a couple dozen new games due for release in the next twelve months.

Here are the facets I chose to look at:

  • Best Art

  • The Crunchiest

  • Most Overrated

  • Most Underrated

  • Least Deterministic

  • Most Deterministic

  • Most Customer-Friendly Business Model

  • Complexity




  • Most Unique

  • Most Thematic vs. Most Abstract

  • Best Multi-player

  • Best Cooperative

Without further ado, on to the prism of expandable card games. We'll start with a banger of a facet.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Review of A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill

Undoubtedly some clever person on the web, and now I guess AI, has boiled the Warhammer 40k fiction formula down to a minimum of variables, variables that echo and repeat. At least sometimes that is how 40k books can feel. A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill (2010) begins this way, but slowly and steadily reveals itself to be one of the best Horus Heresy books published yet—anything but bolters on auto-fire.

As the title indicates, the novel centers on the Thousand Sons legion, led by the primarch Magnus the Red. Dabbling heavily in the arcane, Magnus has spent years studying and understanding magic, all the while building a massive library on his homeworld of Propero to collect the knowledge. Curiosity getting the cat, Magnus' work in the dark arts ultimately comes around to bite him, however. Changing the course of the Emperor and Horus' plans, and as a result history, Magnus finds himself in the most difficult of positions. Lose-lose, his decision truly has no good outcome. Nevertheless, he must decide.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Review of The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories by Jeffrey Ford

Diction as effortless as warm butter on toast. Imagination that covers the spectrum of color (perhaps with an emphasis on indigo?). And underlying substance that makes the reading experience worthwhile. Jeffrey Ford is one of the great living writers of American letters. While his novels are quality, there is an argument to be made that short fiction is where Ford's teeth are sharpest and bite deepest. Seeming to emerge from the womb fully fledged, even his debut collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories (2002), loses none of its luster in comparison to the dozens upon dozens of quality stories that came after. But for every good writer, it's always interesting to compare how they arrived on the scene to how they exist. Let's take a look at the first ten years of Ford's short fiction.

One of Ford's best stories of all time irrespective of this collection, things kick off with “Creation”. Fundamentally about the role of parents in their children's upbringing, Ford foregrounds a boy going to catechism and learning the Christian cosmology who. One day he decides to create his own man, of sticks. A tiny tear forming in the reader's eye in the final paragraph, the fact that it feeds into the story's other main themes flips it from maudlin to meaningful. From cosmology to Poe/Lovecraft/Ashton Smith, “Out of the Canyon” is set in the Old West and centers around an isolated well purported to have healing waters. Trouble is, some of the visitors end up the opposite of healed. Ford weaves a tale, but one which lacks drive to bring the story's potential to the surface (no pun intended).

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Review of Walk the Vanished Earth by Erin Swan

Given the deluge of culture the past decade or so, the longevity of success has been shortened. Where the names of well received books released in the mid-20th century still linger, successes in the past couple of decades have faded more quickly as each successive success is released. But do you remember Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven? Erin Swan still does, and she wants to be in dialogue and iterate upon it in Walk the Vanished Earth (2022).

Walk the Vanished Earth is a generational story kicked off by a pregnant, cognitively limited young woman named Bea emerging from the woods of rural Kansas in the 1970s. Selectively mute, she is cared for by the state who ultimately assists with the birth, a stunted boy Bea calls 'her giant'. The boy is named Paul, and he goes on to live in interesting times, aka the general collapse of world civilization after environmental catastrophe. Paul's head full of ideas how to overcome the catastrophe, he puts them into motion, starting with his own daughter. Her story, and the generations of her children carry the story forward in episodic fashion, telling what happens to the human race in the aftermath of disaster.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Not Alone

One of the families we play board games with recently said to me: “It's sometimes troublesome to find a game for our family. My son likes competitive games. Our daughter likes cooperative and my husband likes strategy oriented games. How to make them all happy?” I went to our shelf and picked off the game for them, Not Alone (2016). Heavy-heavy strategy? No, but definitely a barrel of monkeys in terms of mind games, guessing, double-guessing, and triple-guessing your opponent, leading to cheer-out-loud social moments.

Not Alone is an asymmetrical, one-versus-many game for two to seven players, but certainly best with four or more. The setting is an alien planet where a ship of humans has crashed landed. While the humans are crossing the planet to get to their rescue ship, an alien creature finds them and begins mind hunting. In the game, one player takes on the role of the alien. Their job is to hunt the humans and wear their minds and bodies down to the point they have been assimilated into the planet. Assimilate the humans before they get back to their ship, and the alien wins. The other players' job (the shipwrecked humans) is to get to the rescue ship. They need to work together to survive long enough. Do that, and the humans win. Competitive and cooperative, yes?

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Review of Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement

I am among the group of people who believe that what is commonly referred to as the Silver Age of science fiction is in fact the Golden Age. What was being published in the 20s-40s is better described as the Pulp era. But I get it. The color nicely complements the image of a sleek, finned space ship pointed skyward, bringing mankind to the frontiers of the unknown, there to continue doing what mankind does best: explore, discover, conquer, and be clever—the optimists' view. Encapsulating that image wonderfully is Hal Clement's innocent Mission of Gravity (1954).

One of the original hard sf texts, Mission of Gravity is set on an oddly shaped planet where gravity is 3x Earth-standard at the equator and 700x at the poles. Populated by a centipede-esque alien race (better to maintain grip on the surface, natch), the novel opens with a human scientist, named Lackland, in need of help from them. A science probe lost deep in the ultra-gravity zone, Lackland embarks on a journey with one of the centipedes, named Barlennan, to retrieve it. Adventure, as they say, ensues.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy" expansion for Marvel Champions

Marvel Champions is a fast-paced, combo-tastic, cooperative card game. Every turn is a burst of two, three, four or more moves that reward creative play. While distinctly lacking in narrative (odd for a game based on a comic book enterprise), FFG has done its best to inject what little story it can into the model by releasing campaign boxes. Following in the footsteps of the first campaign box “The Rise of Red Skull” is the second, “The Galaxy's Most Wanted” (2021). Let's see if it evolves the game in positive fashion—as expandable card games should.

The five scenarios and two heroes contained in “The Galaxy's Most Wanted” are centered around the Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the many subsets of the Marvel universe. In timeless fashion, our heroes are just minding their own business when the Brotherhood of Badoon starts to unveil its nefarious plans. Our plucky heroes springing into action to stop them, the galaxy needs protecting. Yeah, quite generic...

Monday, August 28, 2023

Review of Fulgrim by Graham McNeill

I consulted a handful of informed opinions online in looking to go deeper into the Horus Heresy series. All universally defined the first five books as foundational. Decisions on individual novels could be made after, but the first five were necessary. So I pushed ahead. Having now read the first three novels, they indeed contain critical story points. But only 50-60% of The Flight of the Eisenstein, the fourth novel, pushed the core story, leaving me a little skeptical going into the fifth, Fulgrim by Graham McNeill (2007). Are the internets to be trusted?

As the title suggests, Fulgrim focuses on the eponymous primarch. A golden child, Fulgrim leads the Emperor's Children with beauty and power. A perfectionist, he looks to compete for glory with the other Astartes legions by secretly enhancing the geneseed of his space marines. But things take a turn when, leading space marines into battle on a non-compliant planet, Fulgrim discovers an ancient weapon. Too beautiful to throw away, he adds it to his arsenal, and in doing so unwittingly charts a new course for himself into the future.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Sleeping Queens

My son learned basic arithmetic not at school, but playing Karak. He needed to add the results of two six-sided dice to ascertain whether he'd defeated the monsters that pop up in the dungeons. Math was the way victory. That was two years ago, and now our daughter, age six, is also learning basic math. Monsters in dungeons are not really her thing, though. Queens, kings, wands, and potions fit much better. Enter our family's newest tutor, Sleeping Queens (2005).

Sleeping Queens is a card collection card game for 2-5 players. Twelve sleeping queens lie in the table face down. Each has a points value, somewhere between five and twenty. The first player to collect queens worth a total 50 points or five queens in total, wins. The question then is: how to get queens?!?!

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Review of Glassing the Orgachine by David Marusek

And the winner of the award for most esoteric science fiction book title of all time goes to... Sorry, envelope's gummed up... Glassing the Orgachine (2019) by David Marusek! <cue orchestra> <David bows to the crows and walks toward the stage> This is David's first award in this category. He was nominated in … But really, what could a reader possibly think seeing those three words together? Google search singularity, hello!! Even readers of the first book in the Upon This Rock trilogy, First Contact, won't know what to make of it.

Which seems fitting. First Contact was, if anything, a singular science fiction setup. Wilds of Alaska, hardcore Christian prepper family, tough park ranger, mysterious object landing from space—those are four ingredients which make a stew the likes of which sf readers have yet to taste. Glassing the Orgachine serves a steaming portion.

Console Corner: Review of Little Nightmares II

There is a sub-niche of puzzle games that I call side-scrolling death dealers. Limbo, Inside, The Swapper, Never Alone, Black the Fall, and others feature a spritely main character who marches sideways across the screen, encountering seemingly impassable situations, and dies repeatedly until the player makes the situations passable. Little Nightmares is one such game. A success, developers decided to dip their toes in the water again, and in 2021 came up with Little Nightmares II.

Little Nightmares II is in almost every way more of the same. Developers changed the motif from quasi-Oriental to small town America, but the game's mechanisms, design, and gameplay loop are the same. For those who wanted more, II delivers precisely that. In fact, you can could read my review for the original Little Nightmares and be well informed about II. Art, mood, and length remain strengths.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Critique: Witcher Witcher Witcher: Third Time Not a Charm

There are a lot of words being bandied about the internets regarding the Witcher series on Netflix, particularly in the wake of Season 3. A lot of the feedback negative, it got my brain gears turning. What follows is an opening of the flood gates where the show deserves criticism, and a curbing of the flow where it should be defended. Things are not black and white.

To get the obvious things out of the way, it is the right of the The Witcher's showrunners to interpret the source material as they see fit. It's just as obvious, however, that audience perception is what determines the show's success. For better or worse, that is the model we in the the West live in, and what Netflix uses in determining the funding of future projects. Season 1 was a huge hit. The showrunners did their job. Additional seasons were funded. Season 2 slipped in terms of commercial success, but another season had already been budgeted and was underway. We are now post-Season 3, and the people have spoken. It's a low point. Season 4 is not confirmed.

Over the three seasons of The Witcher, cinematography has been consistent, personnel consistent, budget consistent, special effects consistent, and the story generally consistent with the novels. So why the downturn in success?

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Review of The Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow

The events on Isstvan III shook the human-known universe; Horus pulled back the covers, revealing his grand revolt against the Emperor. The Astartes' legions forced to choose sides, their conception of the world is now in tatters. Offering an alternate viewpoint to events on Isstvan III is James Swallow's 2007 The Flight of the Eisenstein.

Flight opens on a lengthy space marine battle against xenos, lead by Captain Nathaniel Garros. After dealing with the xenos, Garros is called to Isstvan III to help Horus battle a world ostensibly rebelling against the Emperor. Garros is tasked with bombing the planet, but when he discovers what the bombs are, he is forced to choose sides, and choose quickly, nothing certain as the planet burns.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Review of When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Sola

It is, of course, well established that story is one of the tip-top most complex forms of human expression. (19th century philosophical texts might take the blue ribbon.) Not only is there immense variety of purpose, there is likewise large variety of style. And it is distinct from poetry. Poetry is not required to have an arc—a transpiration of events toward a conclusion. What then, when you combine poetic style with narrative arc? Enter When I Sing, Mountains Dance (2023) by Irene Sola.

When I Sing, Mountains Dance floats above the Pyrenees, shining a light on the various members of a Catalan family, as well as the flora and fauna who likewise call the mountains home. The sunbeams casting forward and backward, Sola skips around in time. The narrative is anything but linear as it tells of relationships made, children birthed, mushrooms formed, roe deer leaving the nest, teenage romances, and many other inflection points of existence—mostly human, but plant and animal, too. I hope I'm not cutting too close to the bone, but it is more garden of story than story.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Review of The Bad Angel Brothers by Paul Theroux

I've heard it said that there are only two kinds of fathers: those who build quality relationships with their sons, and the opposite, fathers and sons who end up at a distance from one another. I've observed the same of brothers: they seem to either compete their entire lives or are best friends, little middle ground. Looking at the latter in often humane, sometimes sensational fashion is Paul Theroux's The Bad Angel Brothers (2022).

The Bad Angel Brothers is the slopping-waves-on-the-ocean story of Frank and Cal Bellanger. Born into a small Massachusetts town, Cal eventually heads off into the wide world to make his fortune as a miner and geology expert, whereas Frank stays close to home building a successful law office that has fingers in pies all over town. At odds since birth, the pair subtly antagonize one another in ever subtler ways as they grow older, leading to an event that changes both their lives forever.

Console Corner: Far: Changing Tides

In Polish, the word oko means “eye”. It's thus when I see the name Okomotive that I automatically think “eye motion”. And indeed that is what Far: Lone Sails, the company's first game, is. Players spend the majority of their time driving a steampunk(ish) rig across a dilapidated environment—pushing buttons, pulling levers, and releasing valves to keep the rig moving forward, occasionally solving an environmental puzzle. Doubling down on the idea, Okomotive released Far: Changing Tides in 2022. The eye motion chugs on.

Switching from land to sea, Far: Changing Tides sees one player take on the role of piloting a steampunk(ish) vehicle, in this case a sailboat cum mechanical paddle boat cum steam turbine. Requiring love and care, players raise the sails and feed the vehicle fuel propelling it through a watery, anthropocenic, post-global warming world. Environmental puzzles once again impede the player's left to right progress on the screen. But the rewards of speed and sitting back to watch the world go by, remain.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Review of Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale is a capable writer in most genres. Western, mystery, gothic, fantasy, science fiction, horror—the author's oeuvre covers a wide spectrum. And lengths also; he has written flash fiction to novels.  Bringing together a selection of nineteen short stories located around the theme of crime is Things Get Ugly (2023, Tachyon).

And ugly indeed. Sadists, malcontents, deviants, and degenerates populate the stories.  Only occasionally do sunbeams of light push back the evil. It's crime, more often than not from the criminal's perspective. A couple are stomach churning, but most are visceral entertainment to be consumed like candy.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Review of Wake Up and Dream by Ian Macleod

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, alongside Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Zamyatin's We, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, is one of the four horsemen of literary apocalypses. Each depicting a human-capable, dystopian evolution of society, they each extrapolate upon our reality in creating their cautionary visions. Of the four, Huxley's may be the most controversial—at least as of 2023. Highlighting the degree to which technology could penetrate the natural order of life, his book features scary but plausible scenes across the spectrum of society. One seemingly innocuous tidbit underpinning the sexual freedom of his world is the “feelies”. Cinema in which the viewers sense what the actors on screen sense (touch, smell, etc.), our version of pornography in 2023 is nothing in comparison. Grabbing this innocuous tidbit and running with it in an alternate history Los Angeles tale of detective noir is Ian R. Macleod's Wake Up and Dream (2011).

Wake Up and Dream is technically dieselpunk, but in Macleod's sure hands the taxonomy fades to the background. It's more a Los Angeles in which feelies technology has shoved aside the moving pictures industry to form a new cultural phenomenon. Black and white stars whose names we know today have been overwhelmed by celebrities in the new medium. An alternate '40s LA with a big splash of Brave New World cinema, it tells the tale of Clark Gable, private eye at your service. In the opening pages, Gable, as with much noir, has a woman named April Lamotte come knocking at his door requiring services. Married to a successful but alcoholic Hollywood writer named Daniel, she convinces Clark to do what he used to do before becoming an investigator: to act, in this case to pose as Daniel while signing a lucrative script contract. Daniel too drunk to do it himself, Gable agrees to dress and play the part for a tidy fee. One tailored suit, script, and handshake later and the contract is signed. Simple, right? Of course, not. There wouldn't be a book otherwise. And so the skeletons in Hollywood's closet come knocking.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "The Innsmouth Conspiracy" expansion for Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Note: This review covers both the Campaign and Investigator expansions which comprise The Innsmouth Conspiracy experience. It will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole and the new investigators. All other card, scenario, and story details will be untouched.

What a merry, tentacle trip it's been. Jungles and snakes. Small New England towns and ghouls. Excursions into dreamland. Stuck in the middle of warring Masons and witches. And of course, witnessing a theatre production that may not have been theatre. To date, Arkham Horror: The Card Game has delivered a half-a-dozen campaigns that showcase the heights which the base system is capable of achieving. Something fresh, innovative, and new added with each campaign, it's time to see what the latest “The Innsmouth Conspiracy” (2020) has to contribute to the trip.

Unlike all the major campaigns to date, “The Innsmouth Conspiracy” forgoes back story. It throws the players into the frying pan on the first sentence with no preamble. Caught in a rocky basin as tide waters rise, the first scenario asks players to find a way out of their wet predicament before they drown. No time to spin a yarn, the need to escape is imminent. For players who do escape, a window is opened onto the setting, the small town of Innsmouth, Rhode Island. Strange things brewing in the watery underworld, it becomes the investigator's goal to find out how and why they were in the tidal basin before the threat consumes Innsmouth. Once they learn, they may not want to explore further, however. The fire proves to be just beyond the frying pan.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Article: A Spade a Spade: Verifiability in Book Reviews

I recently finished reading Erin Swan's Walk the Vanished Earth (2022), an atypically structured generation novel centered around the idea we are living in a golden age of humanity, i.e. appreciate what you have because it could already be slipping away without you knowing it—and do be wary of people peddling suspect solutions to fix the problems. It's not the greatest novel ever written, nor is it the worst. Swan's structural strategy works well and there is enough uncertainty threaded throughout the plot for the reader to want to press ahead and learn how the loop is closed. However, individual devices and scenes are not always set up well, the prose mostly plods and occasionally excites, and character/character voice sometimes have trouble with singularity. It's a decent read with relevancy—more than most books on the market. As I often do, I looked into other people's thoughts online before writing a review. It's there I encountered Alexis Ong's review for (link here). And it's there the straw broke the camel's back. We'll look at the broken animal, but first the straw.

But the book is also self-aware of the shortcomings of white narratives—for better or for worse, there’s a recurring thread of meta commentary about history, historiography, and mythology that often undercuts the power of Swan’s ambition (herself, a white American author) for the novel. For better or for worse, WTVE is very much a product of its creator in the way it approaches everything from gender to class and race (even the minor Southeast Asian character of Chantrea, particularly, felt a little careless) and at times I felt that it deliberately avoided prodding humanity’s uglier side for the sake of its overall message about self-determination and survival.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Review of The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

By definition, meta-modern could be anything. The relatively linear progression of cultural mediums fragmented sometime around the start of the 21st century, meaning such mediums now largely exist in pockets and niches. Fantasy, for example, is no longer dragons and knights, or monsters and horror. It's been deconstructed, and mixed, and matched, and mixed again to the point it's... meta-modern—something you can't put your finger precisely on. Picking up a book or story with the generic label 'fantasy' requires deeper inquiry. Let's take a look at Moses Ose Utomi's fantasy novella The Lies of the Ajungo (2023).

The Lies of the Ajungo is the story of Tutu. A teenage boy, he is raised in a society which, once per year, must pay homage to the neighboring kingdom of Ajungo by handing over all of its adults' tongues. Yes, tongues. Communicating with sign language, they have traded their tongues for water, something their desert home is in precious little supply of. Many people and children have been sent into the desert to look for a steady supply, but none have returned. One day Tutu's mother's thirst becomes so dire she nearly dies. He appeals to the leader of his city to let her have a little extra so she may live, a request that is granted so long as Tutu's goes into the desert for one year to try to find a source of water. Tutu's agrees and heads out into the wilds, there discovering more than he or his society could ever dream.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Review of Talon of Horus by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

And so my exploration of the Warhammer universe of fiction continues. Certain places on the internets seemed to agree that Aaron Dembski-Bowden is one of the better writers in the universe (of Warhammer, that is), thus it seemed appropriate to explore in that direction. Talon of Horus (2014) is likewise something mentioned by several internet voices, and so without any better guide, I jumped in.

Talon of Horus is a post-Heresy novel. Horus' insurrection against the Emperor is over. But the warband he whipped up in mutiny remains convinced of its mission. Enter Iskandar Khayon. Writing from captivity, he starts the tale of how the infamous Black Legion was formed to continue Horus' mission. Khayon a sorcerer with powers derived from Chaos, at his beck and call are demons and dark elves. Beings tethered to his will, he uses his diplomatic skills and outright threats to contact the former leaders of Horus' army in an attempt to rebuild the insurrection. He succeeds to some degree, and to some degree does not, his network of contacts more powerful than he ever thought.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Labyrinths of Lunacy" expansion for Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Like stop gaps, Arkham Horror: The Card Game standalone releases have curbed players appetite for the game between the larger campaign releases. The standalone releases often coinciding with game expositions and major conventions, designers have shown a penchant in recent years for catering to the multiplayer crowd. Doubling down on this, “Labyrinths of Lunacy” is a standalone scenario playable at small numbers but intended for a large group.

Certainly playable at 1-4, “Labyrinths of Lunacy” nevertheless goes out of its way to make an experience for more. Up to 36 players (emphasis on “up to”), it takes the concept of the Saw movies and puts it into card-game form. Players find themselves in a locked room and must find a way to escape. Or die. An evil maniac monitoring the room, escape only takes the player out of the frying pan and into the fire—water tanks, poison gas, and other surprises await.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Review of North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud

It's one of reading's top three joys to discover an excellent new writer. (Don't ask me what the other two are.) It literally opens a world to be explored. The best part may be, however, you don't know the writer is excellent until you are several stories deep. Such is my discovery of Nathan Ballingrud, something which his debut 2013 collection North American Lake Monsters (aka Monsterland, 2020) has hammered home.

Before getting to the stories, it's good to highlight the things they have in common which make the collection excellent. All the stories are hard-hitters examining the darkest recesses of America's poorest, least educated people. More human than victim, Ballingrud has a true knack for presenting the reader with a living, breathing member of the US's lower class haunted by proverbial (and sometimes literal) demons of varying origins. But that is just the beginning. Many a literary writer has successfully gotten into the head of their blue-collar characters. But Ballingrud takes these broken people on atypical journeys. There is not one story in the collection which can be predicted or follows the traditional arc of intro-body-climax-conclusion. Somewhere between vignette and story, there are recognizable beginning and endings to each selection, and upon the conclusion of each the reader feels as though they've been upon a journey. It's only that the traditional landmarks of plot are irregular, leaving the reader feeling surprised and refreshed at such an approach. And lastly is the usage of the fantastic. Every story has splashes to varying proportions, and in every story the fantastic complements and enhances the tale being told without overtaking or interfering—a key facet considering the ultimate goal is realism of character. Like a hat that complements an evening gown, you can't imagine one without the other despite the fact both are successful on their own. I did say this was an excellent collection, yes?

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Review of The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is a household name—at least in Europe, and is yet gaining ground in the US. Millions of his books are still sold despite the near decade since his unfortunate passing. But every cake starts with a mixing bowl, which in Pratchett's case is the 1971 novel The Carpet People. Let's take a look.

The Carpet People tells the story of the Munrungs, a tribe of humans who call a vast carpet home. Led by the strong by stupid Glurk, they thankfully have his rational brother Snibril to help keep the ship afloat. And wise leadership is needed as threats, from monsters hiding in the carpet hairs to the phenomenon of Fray, randomly appear to wreck havoc on the Munrungs. An event of such magnitude transpires, however, which forces the Munrungs out of the established groove of their lives and into the wilds of the carpet, there to meet all manner of people and animals, savage to civilized. Can they co-exist?

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Review of Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames is my third step into the MASSIVE universe of Warhammer fiction. (Is there a bigger universe?) The first two books in the Horus Heresy series (Horus Rising and False Gods) were shocking surprises for this jaded reader. I'd never encountered franchise fiction of that quality. But a series penned by multiple authors seems to be innately susceptible to dips in quality. Let's see how the third Heresy book penned by a third author, Galaxy in Flames (2006) by Ben Counter, pans out.

As False Gods did for Horus Rising, so too does Galaxy in Flames pick up in the aftermath of its predecessor. Having made a miraculous recovery from being tainted by chaos, Horus is riding high on the power and admiration of his Luna Wolves, now christened the Sons of Horus. A rebellion is brewing on the planet Isstvan III, a rebellion that Horus decides is the perfect place to establish dominance and start a Sons of Horus campaign. Bringing together some of the most violent Imperials the universe knows—Word Eaters, primarchs, the Death Guard, and Emperor's Children, they bring a serious fight to the planet. Trouble is, Horus has much more in plan for Isstvan III.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "The Dream-Eaters" expansion to Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Dream-Eaters, as well as the six Mythos packs which complete the campaign. It will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole and the new investigators. All other card, scenario, and story details will be untouched.

To date, each of the five Arkham Horror campaigns has given players a fresh take on the game without abandoning its first principles—a wonderful feat. Thus while gathering clues and killing monsters are a given for any scenario, exactly how that happens has always changed itself up in crunchy, wonderful ways. If there is a secret to the game’s success, that might just be it. Those waiting for the shoe to drop and Fantasy Flight Games to release a dud campaign, however, will have to continue waiting with “The Dream-Eaters”.

Rather than an eight-part campaign, “The Dream-Eaters” is actually two four-part campaigns: the dream-side and the waking-side. It's able to be played independently (four in a row for the dream side and four in a row for the waking side) or together (like a ping pong volley of eight between the two sides). As such, designers have taken a step in a new direction to offer players a package somewhere between the standalone scenarios and the longer campaigns—a breath of fresh air for those who thought stories in eight parts were too lengthy but wanted more than stand-alones. The other opportunity it provides is the chance to put all those player cards released to date to good use. Players will need two investigator decks rather than one to tackle the entire campaign. With twenty-six possible investigators (assuming you have all the expansions to this point), it can feel like being in the candy store. Given each campaign is only four parts, there is less room for collecting and spending experience points, however, designers are more generous with victory points, meaning you are able to upgrade faster than normal. Overall matters more dynamic and diverse in this campaign, it’s just what you’d expect from dreams.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Review of Space Marine by Ian Watson

In my burgeoning exploration of Warhammer fiction, I'm perusing lists, posts, and reddit, trying to find something that pokes its nose above the literally hundreds and hundreds of novels and anthologies published in the universe. I'm scared of all the author names I do not know—authors' styles being the primary reasons books are or aren't enjoyable, regardless content. It was thus seeing Ian Watson's name pop up, a name I'm pleasantly familiar with from other areas of science fiction, that piqued my interest. But the Reddit user's quote for Space Marine (1993) pushed me over the edge: a neon cocaine vision of war's future.

As the title hints, Space Marine is the story of a fresh recruit in the Emperor's galactic army. Needing to escape juvenile delinquency on his backwater planet, Lexandro D'Arquebus signs up to be a marine and starts the inexplicably arduous transformation from human youth to augmented soldier. Extreme pain, extreme body modifications, and extreme psychological indoctrination is just the beginning of D'Arquebus' fractured journey, rawboned recruit to chaotic battlefield.

Console Corner: Review of Desperados III

There are games like the Dishonored series and the original Assassin's Creed, games which emphasize stealth. But playing them, the feeling of stealth is always limited given the first-person perspective and space it share with other aspects of gameplay—rpg, story, side quests, etc. On the other hand there are games like Hitman, games which truly force the player to think how they are going to navigate a space to set up a kill and accomplish an objective. This is precisely the bread and butter of Desperados III. Cowboys sneaking and shooting their way across the Wild West, it makes for some of the best, truly stealth experiences in modern gaming.

Desperados III is a real time tactics (RTT) game. Map by map, players take on the role of a group of five heroes attempting to stealthily navigate spaces filled with enemies to complete objectives—kill a certain bad guy, get everyone in the group to a specific place, collect an object, etc. The baddies all move in preset patterns and have detection viewcones which sweep the areas. If they see/detect one of the heroes, they raise the alarm and attack, which usually means game over.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Review of False Gods by Graham McNeill

Highly skeptical cracking the book open, I was pleasantly surprised, perhaps even shocked, how good Horus Rising by Dan Abnett is, first book in the Horus Heresy series. Where a lot of franchise fiction tends to be commercial (mediocre writing, cheap plotting, cheesy dialogue, low expectations for readers, etc.), I was in awe of how well a book based on a tabletop game could capture many of the ideas inherent to the best fiction about war and colonialism. The fact there was space marines blasting away at aliens (aka eye candy) laced throughout the book had me wanting more. Enter Graham McNeil's False Gods (2006), second book in the Horus Heresy. What could a different author do with the second installment in a multi-volume story?

False Gods picks up where Horus Rising left off. Due to the events on the planet Murder, Horus has consolidated his power among the Luna Wolves and is now looked at as a god among men by his brethren. In one of the opening scenes, the group are deciding where to pacify next. The elder Erebrus comes to the center of the group to declare that one of the worlds previously thought pacified by mankind has rebelled, and declared itself in opposition to the Emperor. Affronted, Horus decides to personally lead the Wolves into battle and tear down this planet once and for all. He may get more than he bargained for stepping personal foot into battle.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Review of Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway is one of few writers I get genuinely excited about when hearing of an upcoming book. Part of it is good timing (Harkaway releases a new novel once every three-five years, so there is ample time to appreciate those which have been released and be expectant for those to come—the next Beatles album). But most of it is authorial voice. Like David Mitchell, Catherynne Valente, Paul Di Filippo, Michael Chabon, and others, Harkaway's style is so colorfully dynamic as to offer pure joy in the act of reading itself—regardless plot, character, what have you. 2023's Titanium Noir—six years since Gnomen—was thus exploding on my radar. I went in literally knowing nothing save the author's name on the cover.

Titanium Noir is a piece of straight-forward detective noir. Set in the near future, gene therapy is available to the ultra rich, a process which both rejuvenates the body to puberty but likewise adds height and weight, thus creating modern titans. As with many a good piece of noir, our consulting detective, Cal Sounder, is called to the home of the deceased at the start of the story. In this case, it's Roddy Tebbit, a titan. Neat bullet hole in the head, he's been the subject of an execution-style killing. A lab researcher with an immaculately clean home, the reasons for his death are not immediately visible, and talking with the neighbors doesn't turn up any clues. It's only in digging into the nature of Tebbit's research that the trail gets hot. And likewise with any good noir, it's a trail that leads Sounder into a den of lions, super-sized ones.