Thursday, December 28, 2023

Speculiction's Awards - Best Fiction Published in 2023

The hype machine that is a good chunk of the internet will, undoubtedly, have a lot of positive things to say about speculative fiction published in 2023. Me not so much. Having read twenty-three books published in 2023, the year feels decidedly ho-hum. There are only a couple books I feel strongly about recommending. Why? Maybe because the market continues to be saturated, meaning it's more difficult for books to distinguish themselves or feel distinguished. Maybe because quality is more evenly dispersed. Maybe because identity politics continue to play too strong a role in reviews, awards, and who gets published. Maybe because I'm a thousand+ books deep into my sf&f journey, meaning true satisfaction is more difficult to come by as more and more of speculative fiction's true gems are consumed. They can't all be 5 STARS!!, which is what the hype would have it...

This is all a long winded way of saying there wasn't a lot of competition for Speculiction's novel and anthology/collection of the year. I read the “best” novel early in the year, and if it wasn't for bormgans, I wouldn't even have a “best” anthology/collection. <puff-puff> Let's blow the dust off the velvet curtain and see what they are.

Best Reads of 2023

As is tradition at Speculiction, we post two best-of lists at year-end. One is for the best books published during the year, and the other list—this list—is for the best books we read regardless of year published or form—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, etc.  (For best-of fiction published only in 2023, see here.)  In other words, these are books that have a chance of sticking around in memory, to poke their nose above the thousands of books we have read in time. Without further ado, here are the books still sticking at Speculiction:

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories by Jeffrey Ford – Despite being Jeff Ford's debut collection, the stories collected here show no sign of 'an up and coming writer'. Ford appears to be one of the few who emerged from the cocoon with butterfly wings. As with most Ford collections, there are a few highly memorable stories worth a read, with the surrounding material hanging close. “Creation”, the title story, “The Delicate”, and “At Reparata” are all proper good, with “Creation” being one of the nest I've ever read. If you haven't read Ford, this is as good a place as any to discover he is one of the absolute best short story writers of our time.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Something3 : Get Onboard?

For the unaware, there is a bit—just a bit—of subculture naming British pubs, specifically those which use our most popular conjunction 'and'. The Dog and Duck. The Eagle and Child. The Lamb and Flag. And the list goes on in the US, as well. I recall wandering Boston as a student and seeing the phenomenon. Though the nouns were a bit more radical than eagle or dog, the pattern held true. In fact, it was as if an unspoken creativity contest was being run among pub owners: who can come up with the oddest yet catchiest combination? Elephant and Wheel. Bird and Buggy. And so on. It's like ultra-mini haiku. But what about the similar phenomenon observable in contemporary fantasy book titles? A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. Sure, the authors cube the nouns, adding a third at the beginning. But the titles end in the same pattern: ____ and ____. Question is, does this fantasy phenomenon possess the same degree of potentially potent poetry as a pub name? Let's see!

<sound of keys clattering>

Answer: no. The end. You can go enjoy a beer at your friendly local something2.  Oh, more of a response needed? Ok, here goes...

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Review of Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes: Voice from the Edge Vol. 3 by Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is a name that is threatening, unfortunately, to fall by the way side of contemporary fantastika readership. Which is a shame. In an age when stories are peer reviewed into mediocrity and emphasis is placed on magic systems and identity politics, Ellison's incredible authorial voice goes unmentioned. For a reader who believes that all stories have already been told, it's how you tell them, Ellison is for you. Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, third of five audiobook collections recorded by Ellison himself, is worth looking into. Style matters.

The title story, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, is a tight, dynamic specimen of writing you find so little of these days. Perhaps more fantastical vision than proper story, Maggie nevertheless tells of a man beguiled by a slot machine in Vegas. Ellison's superb voice provides the meat, while the manner in which the man is beguiled provides the spice. “Kiss of Fire” is an overt confirmation of mortality in the face of life extending technology. Ellison mixes his devices a touch (aliens, extraterrestrialism, angels, etc.), but the imagery, particularly that in the final few pages, offers a nice touch. One of several pieces of flash fiction in the collection, “Fever” is a spot of forgettable flash fiction that tells what happened next to Icarus.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Review of Everywhere by Ian R. Macleod

I am not a fan of bands' greatest hits albums. Unlike standard albums which are conceived as sequential wholes of original songs, greatest hits are forced conceptions. Song order no longer matters, which (ironically) dilutes the contrast of what makes great songs great. Secondly, the songs are not technically novel; they've been released before. And thirdly, not to put too fine a point on it, such albums feel more commodity than art. I feel the same about book publishers who release best-ofs, particularly those who release best-ofs for writers still creating at a high level. Unable to find his older collections at a reasonable price, however, I made the choice to go against my own values and indulge in Ian Macleod's two volume 'greatest hits': Everywhere (2019) and Nowhere (2019). Collecting his 'best' novellas (or at least longer pieces of short fiction), let's take a look at Everywhere.

Things kick off with “Grownups”, a story capturing the worldview of pre-teens, often in subtly uncomfortable fashion. Peter Pan-adjacent (perhaps adjacent to adjacent), it tells of a boy growing up in the most bizarre, creepy social fashion, but is at heart looking at the awkwardness, dynamism, and occasional absurdity of becoming an adult. Magic realist in substance, Macleod presents the strangeness as quotidian. The tale builds to a bittersweet ending that hangs and hangs for its relatability, making for a difficult story to forget.

Review of Nowhere by Ian R. Macleod

I am not a fan of bands' greatest hits albums. Unlike standard albums which are conceived as sequential wholes of original songs, greatest hits are forced conceptions. Song order no longer matters, which (ironically) dilutes the contrast of what makes great songs great. Secondly, the songs are not technically novel; they've been released before. And thirdly, not to put too fine a point on it, such albums feel more commodity than art. I feel the same about book publishers who release best-ofs, particularly those who release best-ofs for writers still creating at a high level. Unable to find his older collections at a reasonable price, however, I made the choice to go against my own values and indulge in Ian Macleod's two volume 'greatest hits': Everywhere (2019) and Nowhere (2019). Collecting his 'best' short stories (i.e. non-novellas), let's take a look at Nowhere.

in true 'greatest hits' fashion (sorry, can't avoid the cynicism), Nowhere kicks off with one of Macleod’s most well-reviewed shorts, “The Chop Girl”. It is, rightfully, also one of his best. “The Chop Girl” captures a narrative voice and doesn’t let go in telling the exact opposite of a rabbit’s foot: a British WWII woman who seems to be the downfall of every pilot and airman she comes in contact with. She meet her match, however, a lucky pilot named Walt Williams (no relation to the poet, seemingly) and the fate of the meta-physical world is tested. From WWII to the vague future, “The Perfect Stranger” is an odd story not easy to get your head precisely around until you realize there are two different timelines overlapping the same location. Part trauma, part tragedy, and a polarized dystopia/utopia, it features the relationship troubles of a man and a woman in a single nutshell of time. The reader's like/dislike of the story will likely hinge on how well they grasp the structure rather than the content, which, is relatably human.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Review of His Master's Voice Stanisław Lem

Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground is one of those portrayals of humanity so disturbingly subtle as to set the psychological skin crawling. Spotlighting what might jokingly be called an anti-hero, it features a man who, with all spleen possible, goes about making his life miserable, and if that isn't enough, the lives of those around him as well. No murder, no torture, it's a tough read that compels for its commentary on the human condition. Dostoyevsky scholars will undoubtedly roll their eyes, but I can't help but think Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice (1968) is a science fiction cousin—cousin—to Notes from the Underground.

His Master's Voice is the memoirs of a fictional American mathematician, Peter Hogarth. Top of his class with Nobel potential, he is one of a handful of experts, natural to hard to social sciences, who are called in to examine, analyze, and hypothesize on an extraterrestrial signal intercepted from space. The group of experts come up with all manner of interpretations of the message, absurd to logical, in coming up with humanity's answer to the stars. But is it enough?

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Review of Vulkan Lives by Nick Kyme

Upon completing the third Horus Heresy novel, Galaxy in Flames, I was in awe of the new level the 30k galaxy had been taken. The stakes were huge. But I was mildly disappointed at the relative lack of weight given to events on Isstvan V. Where Isstvan III was the “quiet” moment in which Horus revealed his revolt internally, Isstvan V was the “loud” moment, the moment it became known to the wider universe. Despite being larger in import, however, the story didn't seem to have the same respect for the battle. Know No Fear and its representation of a sub-battle delivered more weight to the Word Bearer's book-length attack on the Ultramarines than does Horus' betrayal of all humanity in Flames. I held out hope that perhaps future books/stories would explore it in more detail. I'm not sure Vulkan Lives by Nick Kyme (2013), twenty-sixth novel in the series, is my hope rewarded, but it certainly is a deeper dive into the events on the black sand planet and the primarchs involved.

Vulkan Lives is told through two storylines which alternate back and forth in the narrative. One is the time pre-Istvann V, the time when Horus' rebellion was unknown to the wider universe and all the primarchs and legions still think of themselves as brothers. The other is directly after the events of Istvann V, the time of the disappearance of Vulkan, primarch of the Salamanders. Thought dead by what remains of his Legion, he is, in fact, in the captivity of Konrad Curze, primarch of the Night Lords. A Groundhog's Day scenario playing out, Curze tortures Vulkan through death and back again, that is, until the cycle breaks. What breaks is of interest.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Review of Fear to Tread by James Swallow

After consuming fifteen Horus Heresy books over several months, I took a break. I've been following's recommended reading list, and as Vengeful Spirit closed what they consider Act I, an intermission seemed natural. Scenes and battles had started blending together, meaning it felt right to pause lest I burn out. I'm back now, refreshed, ready to raise the curtain on Act II with Fear to Tread by James Swallow (2012).

Fear to Tread opens on an explosive, pre-Heresy moment. Horus and the Lunar Wolves storm the battlefield against a juggernaut of a foe that would seek to subjugate humanity (ironically in not so different a way than the Emperor). The battle more difficult than anticipated, the Blood Angels, led by their primarch Sanguinius, swoop onto the battlefield, swaying things distinctly in the Legion's favor. In the aftermath of the battle it's revealed some of the Blood Angels are suffering from a peculiar blood sickness, a sickness that causes a frenzied madness to overtake those afflicted and become aggressive and malevolent toward anyone, friend or foe. Seeming to want to help Sanguinius with his problem, Horus sends the Blood Angels to a distant planet to fight, promising them the solution to their blood problem lies in wait there. Trouble is, Horus has more planned for the Blood Angels than just a healing mission.

Review of The Primarchs ed. by Christian Dunn

If readers had to identify the single thing which keeps bringing them back to the Horus Heresy series, keeps them believing the 60+ books are worth it, it has to be the primarchs. Demi-gods of the far future, they dominate their scenes and generate excitement when one faces another. It makes sense then, that among the dozen anthologies you include in the series, one is designated for the super-human sons of the Emperor, yes? Let's see if The Primarchs (2012), edited by Christian Dunn, capitalizes.

The Primarchs consists of four novellas, and four novellas only. Each focuses on one of the titular demi-gods. For those counting, that's four of the eighteen known primarchs. The first is ”The Reflection Crack'd” by Graham McNeill. The story follows a swordsman named Lucius of the Emperor's Children as he begins to suspect Fulgrim's demonic possession. Suspicion converting to vested interest, he begins tailing Fulgrim in his private life to learn the truth. Lucius does discover the truth, but in hindsight perhaps would rather have not... McNeill's strong writing is (mostly) on display, but that cannot rescue this tale from the redundancy of Angel Exterminatus. A repeated concept, the novella is really only for major fans of Fulgrim and the Emperor Children's storyline.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Review of Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin's Armageddon Rag (1983) has been sitting on my to-read pile for years, literally years—not because I didn't want to read it, rather because of expectation. With positive reviews and words like 'hidden gem' being bandied about, I wanted to save Martin's unknown novel for the 'right' moment. The right moment came last week. After such weight of expectation, better be good, right?

Armageddon Rag channels 60s and 70s arena rock in fantastika fashion. Think Black Sabbath with a spark of the occult. It's told through the eyes of Sandy Blair, a former journalist at a small-time version of Rolling Stone called the Hedgehog. It's now the 80s and Blair is writing novels rather than articles. He Blair gets a call in the opening pages from his former editor at Hedgehog with a gig offer. A famous music promoter from one of the 60s biggest bands, The Nazgul, has been murdered in a remote Maine cabin and the editor wants Blair back on the payroll to cover it. Mystery, as they say, ensues (with a big splash of rock-n-roll).

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Review of Drood by Dan Simmons

One of the limbs on the body of Dan Simmons' oeuvre is historical fiction with a fantastical twist. The Crook Factory, Black Hills, Terror, and the list goes on. Let's call it a leg. One of Simmons' most successful pieces of such fiction is Drood (2009).  Let's see why he stands on it.  (Sorry)

Drood centers on the (late) lives of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. But where the story is told through Collins' eyes, it is Dickens, and Dickens' inner demons (or maybe not?), which are the story's focus. The novel begins after Dickens survived the Staplehurst Rail incident. A near-death experience, Dickens half-consciously wanders the wreckage of his train, lending survivors aid and lamenting the dead. At one point Dickens is approached by a man who identifies himself as Edwin Drood. Cloaked, shadowy, and with slits for a nose, he makes a distinct impression on Dickens, such an impression in fact, that Holmes—I mean, Dickens—goes looking for the mysterious figure in the days which follow the train crash. Devolving into an obsession, Dickens, accompanied by his close friend Wilkie Collins, start digging deeper and deeper into the identity and intentions of one Edwin Drood.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Review of Androne by Dwain Worrell

Every morning I wake up and check the news, hoping someone has assassinated Putin in the night. Literally. I'm invested probably more than is healthy for me in the war in Ukraine. The injustice is the primary reason, but seeing a war play out in media like no other war ever has is fascinatingly real. GoPro cameras capture trench warfare as Hollywood never could. And we're seeing drones deployed like no backyard hobbyist likewise ever imagined. It was thus somewhat natural reading the blurb for Dwain Worrell's Androne (2022) that my attention was drawn.

Androne is the story of Paxton Vare. An everyday Joe, he spends his time as a mechanic, repairing ground-based war drones (what the military calls landrones) and preparing to be a father. Short of experienced operators, however, the military calls Paxton up to perform a month-long shift as an androne pilot. Bipedal mechwarriors operated virtually, Paxton straps his arms and feet into the control booth of an older model called the Spartan. The world is still reeling from an event dubbed the Ninety-Nine, a mysterious phenomenon which wiped out 36% of the world's military infrastructure and instantaneously destroyed twenty-seven of the world's major cities. Everyone knows the source of the destruction is not aliens or AI and assume it must be have been done by an invisible enemy. In these ambiguous times Paxton is given strict parameters for his androne's desert patrol route. But things start to fall apart when a fellow operator gives him a metal marble that bypasses security protocols; Paxton can now take the Spartan anywhere. But where? The answer changes his and humanity's lives forever.

Console Corner: Review of Slay the Spire

This blog likes expandable card games. Go look. It loves Seasons, Flesh and Blood, Ashes Reborn, and pretty much anything by FFG (Android: Netrunner, Warhammer: Conquest, Star Wars: Destiny, etc.). There is something about taking a set of first principles and layering onto it a system of cards that allow for dynamic, tactical card play against a competitor. It tickles the spot in my brain which looks for efficiency, optimization, and opportunism. When I heard that a similar experience was available in video game form, my ears perked up. Let's look at Slay the Spire (2019).

Slay the Spire is a card game that takes the idea of a standard deckbuilding game and adds to it the possibilities available only in digital format. Think Hearthstone, but in a single-player, campaign-based experience. In each campaign, players start with a basic deck of cards. It features a few attacks, a few blocks, and a couple cards with special powers. The campaign starts at the first level of a spire, with each level of the spire featuring enemy encounters, from garden varieties to elites to bosses. In an encounter, players use their cards to to reduce the enemy's hit points to zero while preserving as much of their own hit points as they can. Beating a level results in the possibility of adding a new card to your deck, as well as potions and other buffs, and thus potentially having a stronger deck to fight enemies. On their path up the spire, players will likewise encounter merchants and treasure chests that can grant powerful relics and allow players to refine their decks. The overall campaign is divided into three acts, with a boss waiting at the end of each act. Defeat all three bosses and you win. Sounds easy, right? Right....

Monday, November 13, 2023

Review of Dracula by Bram Stoker

Like every Westerner I am infinitely familiar with the vampire trope—fanged teeth, white skin, black cape, receding hairline—as well as the innumerable ways there are to kill and repel vampires—wooden stakes, garlic, crucifixes, etc. But where did all that cultural knowledge originate? A vacation to Romania this summer inspired me to finally read Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

Dracula is the story of, unsurprisingly, Count Dracula. But what may be surprising is the fact the famous vampire is rarely presented from his point of view. Stoker chooses to tell the vampire's tale through the eyes of those around him, starting with a London solicitor named Jonthan Harker who, in the opening pages, takes an overland journey to the mountains of Romania to handle paperwork for one Count Dracula who is in the process of purchasing real estate in England. Things steadily twisting surreal for Harker, he is forced to escape, only to discover that the fanged Count has followed him to London.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Review of Vengeful Spirit by Graham McNeill

I have been following's Horus Heresy recommendations, looking to get through the 60+ books in style. This is also known as: what is the golden path through the saga focusing on the key moments? Their recommendation described Graham McNeill's Vengeful Spirit (2014), twenty-fourth book in the series, as the end of Act I. What does that mean for the series and the book's story?

Horus' character was the focus of the first three HH novels. But the novels since have significantly spread out, showing how wider events in the galaxy both set the conditions for his rebellion as well as inflamed it. Vengeful Spirit is a return to Horus as main character. It is a check-in to see how things are going for the rebel and, in video game terms, give him an upgrade.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Review of Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Several of the Horus Heresy novels thus far have been primarch “character studies”--in and as far as that term can be applied to superhuman demi-gods. A Thousand Sons focused on Magnus. The First Heretic on Lorgar. Angel Exterminatus on Petruabo. Fulgrim on Fulgrim. And so forth. Buckle up, guard your morals, and get a towel (for the blood), Angron, a primarch many people likely wanted to see a novel focused on, is finally here in Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (2013).

Betrayer is a novel set in the midst of the massive battle between the Ultramarines and Word Bearers after the events of Know No Fear. Lorgar asks the World Eaters for assistance subduing the Ultramarine world of Armatura, and Angron, battle axes in hand and blood in his eyes, gladly accepts. Behind the scenes, Argel Tal, Erebrus, and other Chaos-infected Word Bearers play games with the knowledge they've gained from the Warp, all the while while Ultramarine ship captains look to position the fleet to absorb the Word Bearer and World Eater's attack. It's a savage fight, both between enemies and among supposed allies, and by the end major characters have fallen and a new phase in Horus' rebellion has been reached.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Redline: Tactical Card Combat

Battletech TCG is a fun expandable card game. It scratches that itch of giant mechwarriors bashing around on a tabletop. But the game is relatively simplistic.  Players construct their mechs, put them into battle, compare stats, destroy mechs, and repeat.  Tactics are needed, but the game doesn't go deep.  In 2021 Saving Throw Games saw potential and Redline: Tactical Card Combat was born. Mechwarriors are still front and center (called efreets), but the game adds a degree of nuance and need for battlefield strategy that fleshes out tactics and upgrades into a more complex, satisfying experience.

In Redline, as with most expandable card games, two players build decks prior to play and sit down for a duel. Decks are 60 cards in size and are comprised of cards a player would expect to find in such a game: efreets (mechwarriors), upgrades (cannons, lasers, missiles, etc.), resources, and tactics (event cards for one-time effects). Spread out between the players is the 'redline': five missions drawn randomly from a deck of twenty.  Each is unique, with its own capture value and bonus effect, meaning every game is different. The player's goal is to control all five missions, but they can also win by razing their opponent's HQ to zero (eliminating all cards in their deck).

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Review of Aztec Century by Christopher Evans

Despite the explosion of culture - the eruption of books, films, series, games, etc. the past decade, it remains far from a given that good, let alone great storytelling will be inherent to any of those efforts.  One would assume that lessons learned would have steadily accumulated to the point basic techniques would be the norm.  But such is not the case.  Most popular books these days feel like they have been peer workshopped into mediocrity.  Stories with a razor sharp plot edges that generate genuine momentum are few and far between.  These are great reasons to appreciate Christopher Evans' fantastically sustaining Aztec Century (1993).

Aztec Century is set in what was Evan's present day (early 90s), but with a major twist. Centuries ago Cortez was unable to subdue the Aztecs, and in the time since they have evolved to become an aggressive, global power. Occupying all of South and Central America and a lot of North America, the kingdom of Mexica, as they call themselves, sets its sights on Europe at the outset of Aztec Century. Taking England and Wales quickly, the Mexica force the British royal family to flee, including Princess Catherine. Despite being a woman with a backbone, she finds herself hiding out for months in a Welsh cottage, together with her sister, husband, and servants. But when the Aztecs learn their location and send gunships, Katherine is forced to flee, again. Trouble is, she doesn't get far.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Review of Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud

Discovering Nathan Ballingrud has been fresh and invigorating—a strange statement considering how dark and heavy most of his stories are. North American Lake Monsters was brilliant—something I still feel strongly about dozens of books and several months after having read it. In that mental 'best ever' list most bibliophiles keep, I've penciled it in. Not expecting lightning to strike twice but secretly hoping so, I jumped at the chance to read Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell (2019) when the chance arose.

The stories bookending Wounds are its highest quality content as well as inter-related. The left bookend is “The Atlas of Hell”, a bloody, dark, Weird tale of the occult in the back alleys and bayous of New Orleans. About a rare book dealer who dabbles in old magick, his business dealings find him in over his head as a powerful buyer wants one of his artifacts returned. A trip to the deep swamp needed, things twist, then twist again. Savage, unflinching, and chilling in its skulls, candles, and encounters with the inexplicable, it nicely tightropes the fence between existential and body horror.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Review of Angel Exterminatus by Graham McNeill

If there is anything a lengthy series has a chance of pulling off, it's a good bad guy novel. No need to provide the hero's story in a paucity of pages, every little niche has potential for exploration when 50+ books are planned. Angel Exterminatus by Graham McNeill (2012), twenty-third volume in the Horus Heresy series, is just that. Conflicts within conflicts, it pushes ahead the main storyline of the series in dramatic, exciting, and occasionally twisting fashion with anti-heroes at the helm.

If the Horus Heresy is a tree, then Angel Exterminatus is a Fulgrim branch, with leaves of Emperor's Children, the Iron Warriors, Salamanders, Raven Guard, and Iron Hands. Set after the events of Fulgrim, it sees the narcissistic leader of the Emperor's Children approach Peturabo of the Iron Warriors looking for help locating an ancient weapon of immense power. The weapon located in a seething riot of Chaos in space, Peturabo agrees to help but keeps to himself his own secret plans for the weapon. Meanwhile, an assassin from the Raven Guard tracks Fulgrim, looking for an opportunity to avenge the death of his primarch.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Review of Lovedeath by Dan Simmons

Picking up a Dan Simmons book you never know what genre, or genres, you are getting. Capable of writing everything from science fiction to horror, fantasy to realist, past, present, to future, the only constants are clean prose, largely realistic characters, and an eye to perpetually engaging story. While the majority of Simmons' output is novel-length, he puts the same attention to quality into his short fiction. Capturing a particularly creative spurt in Simmons' productivity is the collection Lovedeath (1993).

There are only five stories in Lovedeath, but all are at least novelette-length, a couple being novellas, and one practically a novel. More importantly, each is sharp, distinct, and with a strong eye to character and story. The collection kicks off with a downer of a tale written in Simmons' smooth, effervescent voice. “Entropy's Bed at Midnight” tells of an insurance adjuster who has suffered a little more fate than the average person. From Vietnam to parenthood, the exigencies of life have dogged him, giving him a cynical view of the world. Save for one fine moment.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Review of Getting to Know You by David Marusek

David Marusek is one of many science fiction writers who holds down a day job to pay the bills. As a result, there can be years between published stories. The flip side is that each story is a considered, distinct piece of fiction that stands on its own. At least that's the idea. Getting to Know You (2007) is Marusek's one and only collection to date, and it contains a couple of the early 21st century's tip-top pieces of short science fiction.

Starting off the collection is one of Marusek's best received, and indeed best pieces of short fiction, “The Wedding Album.” A fractured narrative for a fractured reality, it is the story of Ann and Benjamin, ostensibly a newly married couple. Set in the late 23rd century, the couple have been making virtual copies of themselves at various points in their lives, and now that they are married, have agreed to make the copies available to one another. The variety of virtual selves covering a span of evolved technology, some pass sentience tests while others do not, and each is only half-certain of the difference between the virtual world they live in and the actual happenings in the original’s life since the last time they were copied or reset. A splintered view of life the result, Ann and Benjamin’s personal lives collide in virtual reality to the point their lives in reality are affected. Perception of identity and self-identity fractured enough as it is, the story is brilliant commentary on personality and identity in the digital age. (Longer review here.) A companion piece to “The Wedding Album” found in this collection is “A Boy in Cathyland”. An age-old human story about suppression (regardless by tech or something else), it is a brief tale but packs a proportional punch.

Cardboard Corner: Review of "Fortune & Folly" stand-alone expansion for Arkham Horror: The Card Game

The gift that keeps on giving, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is one of those rare expandable games that, despite dozens and dozens and dozens of releases (i.e. chances), has yet to produce a true dud. The game's principle rule set rigid enough to deliver a consistent, fun experience yet flexible and open enough to create new, evolutionary experiences with each release, the game has provided players hit after hit. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, but it hasn't—including the most recent release, the stand-alone expansion “Fortune & Folly”.

Ocean's Eleven with cultists and something Eldritch waiting to be stolen from the casino's vault, “Fortune & Folly” is a rollicking, sophisticated bit of heist fun. As investigators, players are tasked with staking out the casino in part 1 of the scenario, trying to get as many advantages as possible, then executing the heist in part 2. Gambling an integral part of gameplay, players will be spinning the roulette wheel, hedging bets at the baccarat table, and playing poker on their way to stealing the strange Wellspring of Life artifact.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Review of Mark of Calth ed. by Laurie Goulding

The Horus Heresy series is one of the largest (fictional) narratives ever attempted. So large, in fact, Horus' rebellion against the Emperor needs be broken down into its key conflicts. The largest of these, kicked off on the planet Calth in Know No Fear, is the Ultramarines vs the Word Bearers—the emperor's most powerful legion versus the deeply infected source of Chaos. The 2013 anthology Mark of Calth ed. by Laurie Goulding expands and extends this conflict in both relevant and spurious fashion.

Mark of Calth kicks off with the origin story “The Shards of Erebus” by Guy Haley. Telling how the eight Chaos daggers came into being, it is a glimpse into the evil machinations or Erebus, and an explanation how Cor Phaeron escaped the end of Know No Fear. On top of being a solid opening, it likewise frames the anthology, specifically the role said daggers have to play in several of the stories which follow. Second story in the anthology is not only the best piece of Warhammer short fiction I have read (admittedly a relatively short list), it is also begging to be a movie. “Calth That Was” by Graham McNeil is a sub-layer of Know No Fear. Where Know No Fear focuses on the fight on Calth's surface and in its atmosphere, “Calth That Was” occurs underground. It is centered on Ventanus and his defense of the underground arcologies where the citizens of Calth have migrated due to the Word Bearer's attack, and runs an excellent gamut of scenes as the Word Bearers try one last trick up their sleeve to once and for all wipe out the planet. It ends on a massive, silent bang that will have the reader—at least this reader—exhaling hard. While a lengthy story (half a novel), it presonifies the crunchiness of what Warhammer and Horus Heresy have to offer. Twisty, turny, climactic, great HH stuff.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Review of Dark Benediction by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Walter M. Miller Jr.'s name has gone down in history as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz. 'Landmark' feels too strong a word to describe the novel, but it certainly is one of the noteworthy novels in the context of science fiction's evolution, particularly the genre's early period. Essentially Miller Jr.'s only novel (a sequel to Leibowitz would be released post-humously), however, most people overlook the fact the author published dozens and dozens of short stories prior to Leibowitz. Bringing some of the author's best work into one collection in 1980 is Dark Benediction (originally published as The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr.)

The collection kicks off with a nicely voiced story which ends on a note that reminds the reader this is old school sci-fi (or enhances the story, depending on expectations). “You Triflin' Skunk!” is an excellent mood piece built on bayou heebie jeebies of the uncanny variety. It tells of a scrappy loner and her son living in a swamp as a storm sweeps over their rickety home. Prior life choices (corn squeezin's!) come back—not to haunt the woman, but to challenge her. “The Will” is a heart-touching tale about a boy named Kenny with an illness doctors cannot cure. In love with a tv super hero named Captain Chronos, Kenny slowly becomes more obsessed with a cure existing in the future, and despite his parents protestations, is determined to get there. The ending rips your heart out with the claws of hope.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Review of Gaze Long into the Abyss by Dalan Musson

We all have different ways of internalizing stories while reading. I'm a visual reader/imaginer. Not only do descriptions and exposition put images into my head, but the author's style defines the backdrop and frames—the visual mood of the piece. Gaze Long into the Abyss by Dalan Musson (2023) was for me a graphic novel with a black and white simplicity to the panels.

Gaze Long into the Abyss tells of the cross-country journey taken by an old man and boy to challenge a mysterious evil. Set in an apocalyptic setting swathed in darkness, the two's foot quest has eyes in the shadows, strange noises, and an air of cosmic evil hanging over it. Their interaction full of contention, the pair attempt to come to terms with one another and their histories as they walk. It all leads to a black place where nothing is certain.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Review of Consider Pipnonia by David Marusek

Glassing the Orgachine, second book in the Upon this Rock series by David Marusek, was something of a semi-controlled explosion. Blowing the series' storyline in multiple directions and significantly expanding the possibilities of the setting, it was a jump from first to fifth gear. Getting a grip on the steering wheel, the third book in the series, Consider Pipnonia (2021), calms and soothes the series in satisfying fashion.

Picking up directly where Glassing the Orgachine left off, Consider Pipnonia opens with the world in uproar. The “little nudge” having failed, the rogue planetoid is still on a collision course with Earth. People are fleeing the lower 48 for Alaska, and local town leaders are taking the opportunity to implement new rules, rules that are harshly authoritarian resulting in civil bloodshed. The strange alien presence telling Jace he needs to go on an out-of-body trip to the planetoid to change its course, he recruits Deut Prophecy, and hand in hand in the pair take a trip into the unknown to try to save the world from Jace's bedroom.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Earthborne Rangers

Since the early 90s, expandable card games have become a major niche of table top gaming. But it wasn't until 2011 that the first cooperative game of the type came onto the market, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. Slow to take off and slow to see iterations in other games, to date there are still very few cooperative card games using the expandable model. That being said, what few games that are available are extremely popular, Marvel Champions and Arkham Horror: The Card Game among them. Looking to expand this sub-genre in a unique way is Earthborne Rangers (2023).

A cooperative game for 1-4 players, Earthborne Rangers uses the base model of almost all expandable card games (deckbuilding, resource management, heroes, events, upgrades, etc.) but injects its own identity in a few key ways. First is the emphasis on storytelling. Where Lord of the Rings and Marvel Champions are primarily about using the game's mechanisms in effective and intelligent fashion, Earthborne Rangers gives players open-world choices for the direction in which they want to take the game/story. Like Choose Your Own Adventure, each round in the game is a day in which players encounter various beings, features, and obstacles as they try to complete main and side missions. Yes, Arkham Horror is also a narrative-based cooperative card game, but Earthborne provides more of an open world feel. It also places more emphasis on exploration and discovery.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Reviw of Know No Fear by Dan Abnett

For those who read The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, fourteenth book in the Horus Heresy series, they will remember that the story kicks off with the Emperor sending the Ultramarines to Khur, the Word Bearer's home planet, to cleanse it of abomination, i.e. raze it. The Word Bearers in disbelief, they seek the darkest roads to understand how they fell out of favor with the Emperor, and ultimately are sucked into Horus' rebellion through their seeking. Know No Fear by Dan Abnett (2012), a book-long battle, tells of their revenge on the Ultramarines—at least its first chapter.

The architects of Horus Heresy fiction have done their best to change up the formula with each book so that the series does not devolve into repetitive bolter porn. Know No Fear follows the lead and changes things up by offering a book length battle. A battle from beginning to end, it tells of the destruction of the planet Calth. On top of this, Abnett writes in the present tense to give a sense of urgency and action to the scenes. And further still, the narrative changes point of view many, many times, giving readers a massive, widescreen view to the downfall of Calth.

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.