I’m not sure why, exactly, but throughout I found this book to be the definition of “OK”. possibly even “meh”
The author just seems to be tryi2.5 stars
I’m not sure why, exactly, but throughout I found this book to be the definition of “OK”. possibly even “meh”
The author just seems to be trying a bit too hard, by throwing too much in and hoping something sticks. The writing style could hardly be called terse; descriptions are far from purple, but definitely fulsome, and the author has an annoying habit of beginning to draw with subtle shades and then suddenly making his point with almost cartoonishly obviousness - as though starting to build a good metaphor before ruining with a blatant comparison, just in case you missed the point.
The plot suffers similarly from too much happening - our protagonist, Alex, initially becomes embroiled in the nefarious goings on through his own rash actions (albeit for the best of motives), setting up a classically tragic scenario where all that happens can be traced back to that misstep, but then the events come so thick and fast it is all a rush. There are moments to breathe, but Morris doesn’t seem to manage any change of tone so the whole thing feels helter skelter. I couldn’t help thinking of the Man Who Was Thursday, but there the increasingly madcap ludicrousness was deliberate and, obviously, Chesterton a far better writer. And it quickly becomes apparent that even his initial involvement may have manipulated.
Even though the book ended on a cliffhanger, I think I’ll have to be running short on reading material to bother with the second installment. ...more
As with most roleplayers, I first encountered the games in my early teens and via D&D. This would have been about 1983 or 84, with the red box setAs with most roleplayers, I first encountered the games in my early teens and via D&D. This would have been about 1983 or 84, with the red box set of D&D Basic Rules, then the blue Expert Rules. Our group very much took to heart the concept that these rules were a framework, a guideline - now take it and make it your own! While we did buy supplements and Dragon magazine, our fertile imaginations and bottomless appetite for movies and books in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres meant we were more than willing to build (and shoehorn) our own ideas into this basic architecture.
I also played with another group of friends (I’m not sure why the two didn’t really mix, it was just one of those things). This group was less adventurous; we played different games - largely Rolemaster and Paranoia and boardgames - but stuck more within the strictures of the given rules. This was also the group where you didn’t get too attached to your character- perhaps unsurprisingly given the systems, mortality was fierce - while in my D&D group we would run characters and their relationships for years. Of course, both groups split when we reached college age and went our separate ways..
It was some years before I found another group of like-minded friends (I had considered going to one of the local game shops and seeing about joining a group, but gaming had for me always been quite a personal, intimate thing). This group, still going these years later, with some changes, had a much wider experience of games than I did and introduced me to some wonders, and we discovered many more together (one of the rules of gaming: never start to tot up how much you’ve spent on rulebooks…) and one that was an utter revelation was Feng Shui by a man who shall forever be known as The Mighty Robin D. Laws.
The subtitle “Action Movie Roleplaying” tells you much of what you need to know about this game. It is specifically the Hong Kong action movie genre of John Woo, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark, although you can easily adjust it to fit Schwarzenegger movies, Indiana Jones or The Transporter. The main point is that it is Heroic; the characters are typically Big Damn arse-kicking Heroes who can leap off balconies firing a gun in each hand, punch opponents through walls and drive high octane cars down narrow streets at ridiculous speeds.
And it works brilliantly, due to Laws’ superb design. The basic mechanic is stunningly simple. Eschewing the multiplicity of dice I have come to know and love (the old joke is that you out a roleplayer by saying “would you hand me that d6?”) Feng Shui uses two six-sided dice of different colours, a good dice (positive) and a bad dice (negative), added on to a skill/characteristic rating (if you know what I’m talking about, you’re a roleplayer; if not, don’t worry about it). What really works is the level at which this is pitched; as I say, the characters are Heroes, they don’t need to worry about fighting with ordinary minions! This is accomplished by the simple expedient that Mooks (as they are designated here), generally the kind fodder the Big Bad will throw at the heroes to keep them occupied, tend to come in squads of six and each individual is taken out wit a single point of damage - so picture Jackie Chan running through a factory, knocking bad guys from gantries as they try to mob him. This is further enhanced by advantages that the game calls shticks, special abilities of an almost (or sometimes literally, depending on the character type) magical nature. For instance, the common one of never having to reload a weapon or, one of my favourites, the rather more tricky running up the stream of bullets coming toward you to attack your opponent.
However, the real revelation for me was a step beyond that injunction in the original D&D to make these rules your own, and that is the encouragement to use description and inventiveness within the game by giving bonuses for descriptiveness, resourcefulness and imagination - along with penalties for being dull or repetitive. Example: in a firefight you can get away with saying “I take aim and shoot” a couple of times, but if you don’t try harder the Director (as the gamesmaster is called) should start to penalise you. Adding some description will counter this, and maybe give a minor bonus (“I leap over the bar for cover, blazing away with an automatic pistol in each hand”) and particularly good/descriptive/crazy ideas should earn you better bonuses (shooting down a chandelier onto a group of mooks, sliding on your back along a stream of lantern oil someone is about to set on fire while shooting, or simply punching/tripping/throwing one enemy into a pile of others. Just use your imagination, or steal from your favourite action films.
The beam of celestial light hit me in my first session playing this game. We were in a New Year parade in Kowloon when it is attacked by Triad goons/terrorists/whatever (I forget the details). My character (a fairly bog-standard Martial Arts Cop, one of the basic archetypes) was on the edge of the parade and I asked if there was a nearby lamppost or pillar I could use to swing around, kick some bad guys in the face and continue to boost up over the parade. Simon, the director, looked me squarely in the face and said “If you need there to be, there is.” Of course: movie logic!
Of course, there is the danger with this that either the players will just be too silly in their inventiveness, of the Director will expect and demand ever increasing invention to avoid penalties, but that is partly where the trust and cohesion of a good roleplaying group comes into things. In any game, the gamemaster (or Director, DM, storyteller, etc) has to set the tone and expectations, usually implicitly but occasionally explicitly, and the players let him or her know whether they are onboard. Roleplaying is a unique form or communal storytelling where each participant adjusts and makes room and reacts and accommodates to move the story forward.
This game was my introduction to the work of (The Mighty) Robin D. Laws, for my money one of the great game designers and writers and someone who has continued to work on games that foreground the storytelling above rulemastery aspects of gaming, while having systems that support and give structure - Nexus, The Dying Earth, the flexible Gumshoe system. I’ve left much out of this review - the setting and background, the influence of magic (this is primarily based on Hong Kong cinema, don’t forget, so we’re not just talking martial arts and gunfights!) but, if you haven’t yet, you should get it, get together with a group of like-minded friends, some wine and beer and chips and dips, and have yourself a real good time. In fact, 2nd edition has recently come out and I’ve not got it yet. Ah, so many games, so little time.... ...more
The second volume of The Secret books of Paradys is more of the same high-Gothic, colourful, arcane, mysterious fiction as the Book of the Damned, butThe second volume of The Secret books of Paradys is more of the same high-Gothic, colourful, arcane, mysterious fiction as the Book of the Damned, but more of a piece, the tales tied together more directly into a consistent single story....more
Octavia Butler’s last book is a typically thoughtful and literary take on a what would more usually be a populist fiction story. The first person narrOctavia Butler’s last book is a typically thoughtful and literary take on a what would more usually be a populist fiction story. The first person narrator wakes, badly injured and blind with no memory, kills and eats an animal and retreats to a cave to recover, a process which seems supernaturally rapid. She finds nearby the burnt remains of several buildings that may be where she came from, and the source of her injuries.
We learn, through the course of the first few chapters, that she is a young Ina - a non-human species that folklore knows as vampires and do, indeed, share many of their traits - and she is the only survivor of an attack on her family.
While there is some mystery - who is responsible for these murders, and why? - and action, the majority of this book is slower and more meditative than you might expect from that description, the plot a framework from which to hang ideas about race and gender, dominance and free will and sex. Butler asks some very uncomfortable questions and does not attempt to answer them all, and happily ignores boundaries of genre and literature.. This is a reminder of what a superb writer Butler was and how great the loss that we didn’t have her for longer. ...more
A lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrongA lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrong term, considering) as the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. An Oxford don and his visitor discuss a pair of works of art that always seem to end up together and may be connected to some deaths.
Atmospheric, and somewhat bringing to mind a Tales of the Unexpected vibe....more
An odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. ThAn odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. The problem is, it doesn't seem to have grown very much; each entry is a page or a little more and there isn't enough in the description of the animal to server as a bestiary nor enough in the few lines of discussion that follow the either flesh out the ideas, give much in the way of Jewish dietary philosophy or even provide much humour.
Definitely one of the best time travel stories I have ever read, The Anubis Gates mixes SF, magic, literary history, Egyptian mythology and herme4.5/5
Definitely one of the best time travel stories I have ever read, The Anubis Gates mixes SF, magic, literary history, Egyptian mythology and hermetic magic into a tale that is superbly plotted and rollickingly told.
Brendan Doyle, a literature professor and expert on the obscure 19th century poet William Ashbless is recruited by reclusive millionaire J. Cochran Darrow for a secret project, which turns out to be a jaunt back to 1810 to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge give a lecture, where Doyle finds himself stranded and involved in plots from all sides.
This is my first read of Tim Powers, and he writes character and action well and his plotting, as I said before, is top-notch - I'd love to see a timeline of the events laid out, in fact. The interactions between those who travel through time and the events that have already happened - either historical or within the story - mesh perfectly without ever seeming forced. The reader does sometimes see these coming, but not in a way that detracts from the enjoyment of reading.
One oddity is that there are points when you feel that this was a much longer book that has had chunks excised - mostly the jumps are unremarkable, but occasionally there is the feeling that the reader could have done with seeing what happened in the gap, such as when Doyle refers to his embarrassing interview in Fleet Street which happened, as it were, off camera.
Minor niggles aside, this is justifiably a part of the Fantasy Masterworks series....more
Valente's writing grabbed me from the first page, and swept me away in just the way that September - the 12 year old heroine of this book - is swept aValente's writing grabbed me from the first page, and swept me away in just the way that September - the 12 year old heroine of this book - is swept away to Fairyland. It is a sublime fairytale, breathless with invention and Oz-like technicolor - indeed, not just sight but every sense is sated as September pursues adventures through the strange world and stranger inhabitants. And this is key; our heroine is not dragged, she is not Chosen (this is made explicit toward the end) SHE has chosen this adventure and continues to be the motive force. At each juncture - while she may be following advice or guidance or orders - she chooses her path and, more than once, she has the opportunity to turn aside and go home but perseveres because of her commitment to the friends she has made.
With nods to Lewis Carroll (and many other magical tales), this is wonderfully told and constructed story which, as should all fairy stories is layered and relevant, a point to the story (more than one, in fact) that is lesson without being a lecture, a moral without being moralising. And, being a true fairy story, there is of course some fear and darkness, some pain and some blood.
I couldn't help thinking that, were this to be filmed, it would have to be directed by Dave McKean, or possibly Henry Selick, the directory behind Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I think my first read of Catherynne Valente has made me a fan. ...more
Aside from the Dying Earth books, I’ve not read much Jack Vance. Which is odd, as I do adore those, the complexity and richness of the language, the sAside from the Dying Earth books, I’ve not read much Jack Vance. Which is odd, as I do adore those, the complexity and richness of the language, the sly wit and dark humour, the anti-heroes so well rendered. Lyonesse is a quite different beast. In some ways it feels far more of a traditional fantasy than the much earlier tales of Cugel the clever and Turjan and Chun the Unavoidable. It is definitely more of a true novel; most of the Dying Earth books are portmanteau made up of episodic short stories, while this is a distinct single tale.
The novel is set in several of the divided kingdoms of the Elder Isles, placed south of Ireland and north of Iberia, roughly where the Bay of Biscay becomes the Atlantic Ocean proper, as shown with a truly terrible map. We gather from the setting and occasional footnotes that this is where so many of the myths of Europe originate; this is Atlantis and Hy-Brasil and the Fairy Isles.
It did take me a little while to find my feet, for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t initially clear to me where this Atlantean land in which the tale unfolds was situated in time; the language and mores felt largely like those of the late middle ages (or, at any rate, with that Arthurian feel of the late middle ages from which much high fantasy takes its tone) but the references did not truly help to place it anywhere - or, rather, anywhen. It is stated that the founding family of one kingdom are also of the line that gave rise to Arthur Pendragon, although this seems to have been some time before. There is a Christian missionary, and reference is stated to the power of the church of Rome. It is, I think, deliberately vague and anachronistic, and it cased to be an issue once I was in caught up in the story.
Also early on, I had a problem with some changes of tone. At the outset the authorial voice is recognisably high fantasy, and becomes somewhat mythic or fairytale at points, but then we have a sudden shift into a rather dry chapter of historical and political exposition, before returning to the fairytale fantasy tone. Not long after this, however, I saw how the separate sections began to come together and that they were threads weaving into a greater tapestry. Vance does this quite superbly, introducing what appear to be obvious directions for the plot (obvious because of the fairytale fantasy inflection of the writing) only to immediately subvert them - and then call back much later on with an unforeseen payoff.
The characters are somewhere between mythic archetypes and actual people, something brought out by the habit of several of the magicians of the books splitting off from themselves scions, or sub-personalities, which begin as an aspect of the original but quickly develop their own characteristics.
For perhaps the first quarter of the book I was enjoying Lyonesse and thought it fine but, by the halfway point, I began to see why this is considered one of the great works of fantasy. ...more