**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read – King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott Review
So this book represents my first foray into trying to expand my horizons when it...more**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read – King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott Review
So this book represents my first foray into trying to expand my horizons when it comes to the types of novels I read, and more specifically when it comes to reading more science fiction and fantasy by female authors, because looking back at myself has led me to the sad realization that I have not read all that much speculative fiction by female authors. It is an oversight that I plan on remedying starting here. And so while out shopping I picked out a book in my typical fashion, by the cover. King’s Dragon by Kate Elliott meets the standard criteria of having a knight on the cover and a background of castles and such that lets me know that this is a high fantasy and probably is right up my alley. So I picked it up and read the synopsis and, finding it, too, rather standard, decided to give it a chance. It follows (mainly, for there are a few instances where it deviates and visits a few other characters) a young woman named Listh and a young man named Alain. And, seeing as how this is the first book of a seven book series, it does an admirable job setting things up.
Of course the differences between a male written piece and a female written piece become a bit evident early on in the story, mainly because I believe that female authors are much more comfortable being incredibly mean to their female main characters whereas men normally balk because they have to consider how it will seem for them to write something like rape and the like. But not so with females, and the author wastes no time dragging Liath down the depression hole by killing her father and having her sold into slavery to a terrible priest who emotionally and physically abuses her before finally raping her, beating her, and doing just about every terrible thing imaginable to her. It’s that line that women writers can walk over much easier than me, and makes me as a reader squirm a bit because it is so terrible. Still, being confronted by things like that I believe is a good thing as it forces the confrontation with the ugly, sexist parts of society that don’t necessarily punish such action. In a world where rape is sometimes “punished” by forcing the woman to marry her rapist, seeing the brutality of it might be quite helpful in showing people the truth.
But I digress, I suppose. The author does do a nice job of really making her characters suffer for most of the novel. And that works, I suppose, because this is a long series and seems that it will be following a more long-term story. This isn’t like The Wheel of Time or Sword of Truth, where to some degree (especially in the earlier volumes) the books end nicely with a breath or air. This novel at least gives the impression that this series is something that’s going to be going straight through the books. I suppose I will have to find out at some point, but that’s what it seems like. In any event, the author takes a considerable time methodically building these characters, and typically by making them miserable. This works by getting reader investing and wanting the characters to overcome and all that, and is further helped that the main characters are generally good people and seem invested in doing what is right. So by the time things finally swing around and the action kicks into high gear, the reader is eager for it, ready to get into some battle and war and gore and death. And the author does a good job with the battles, with the action and with the drama. Where she excels is in the character work, though, in the setting itself and how that setting is reflected in the sensibilities and mindsets of the characters.
This is a very well researched series, if the front material is to be believed, very much grounded in medieval culture and religion and thinking. The King here is less an idolized version of the post and more seeming like his historical counterpart, and has to deal with the various political situations that pop up. The battles are also more grounded than many standard fantasies, making sure to ground the experience more in cavalry and infantry than in single heroics or in strange strategic maneuvers. At the same time there is a real sense that magic is present but largely sleeping, seeping into the fringes of the world and capable of truly important things. This is not the case where magic has infused everything, nor is it the case that magic is easy to use or free, and that fact makes it all the more menacing. And mixed into all that is a real importance of religion, something that is often glossed over when it comes to fantasy but is quite important. It all works to make the setting seem real, seem alive and vibrant and yet ideal, nor perfect. This is not really anyplace someone would want to live or visit, but that ugliness gives it a sense of dept that is lost when everything is idyllic.
That said, there are few things that keep me from endorsing the book without qualification. Because the setting is so important, and because the level of detail is high, there are parts that seem to drag a little, areas of the book that just fail to truly capture the attention. There are also a lot of characters, and while that’s not a bad thing, it becomes a little difficult to tell who the reader is supposed to be investing the full amount of time into. This is further confounded later in the novel when it is almost difficult to tell who the viewpoint character is, as things are happening very quickly. This isn’t a huge problem as the story is still clear, but the real feel of the character, the filter that would interpret everything is dropped in favor of more objective descriptions, and I was put off a little by that. The novel is at its best when dealing with events from the perspectives of the two main characters, and falters a bit when it reaches beyond that, because other characters just don’t have the quality of voice.
But that’s a relatively small complaint when dealing with a book of this size, and I found myself largely enjoying it, at least after it got past the large stretches where it was abusing its characters. I think that this novel demonstrates why it is rewarding to read a more varied number of novels, because it does show things that male authors really don’t, in a way that male authors really wouldn’t. It’s a fresh perspective, a well done world, a deep story, and I get the feeling like it has the potential to keep on delivering. But then, it will probably be a while before I can track down the next volume and reading. For now, though, I am glad I read this and award it a 7.5/10. (less)
**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – The Binding Stone by Don Bassingthwaite Review
So this marks the first book in the Dragon Below series...more**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – The Binding Stone by Don Bassingthwaite Review
So this marks the first book in the Dragon Below series by Don Bassingthwaite, and is rather a welcome relief after the utter disappointment that was Taint of the Black Brigade. While not a deeply moving work by any means, The Binding Stone is what it seems to be, and does what it sets out to do with a compelling enough style and grace. The characters are more or less well defined, and though some of the novel suffers from the traditional trappings of D&D, like evil for evil’s sake and mysterious villains and unexplained lots of things, at the very least Bassingthwaite provides an entertaining romp through the world of Eberron. The story opens in the Eldeen Reaches, as a Shifter named Geth and a druid named Adolon meet a mysterious woman on the run from aberrations. As far as D&D books go, this book does a fair job of providing instant access to these character, at least in terms of skills and classes and such.
And also as far as D&D goes, the story does a fair job of introducing some interesting aspects of the game into novel form. At least, there are some things that break what some would consider the “rulles” and as such I appreciate that the author is able to write some new tings that make sense for the setting but do not explicitly exist in the setting. Transferring a consciousness out of a psicrystal and into a person and the sorts of other experiments that the villain in the story carries out push the boundaries of magic and psionics in ways that I think work. I am always looking for things like this, in actual campaigns as well as D&D novels, to add that something to the story. Because while the “rules” are all well and good, I think any good story needs to really be doing something new with the materials. So the story does that fairly well, complicating matters while still staying very grounded in the theory behind the magic.
That said, the story is not what one would call the most complex. I have no reservations about it, but the novel is definitely a fighting campaign. Meaning that like any sort of campaign that focuses pretty much solely on combat as the only way to challenge the party, the story moves from fight scene to fight scene. Luckily the fights are portrayed in an interesting enough manner, with a good level of danger, success, and failure that I normally ended up caring about them a bit. I pretty much always knew how they were going to play out, but I was a little surprised by an early death, and while that became really the only surprise in the various combats, it did catch my attention early enough that the combat in the rest of the book felt a bit more dangerous. I’m not sure that it would last further than the end of this book, as the series does go on, but at the very least it worked here.
And the characters aren’t too bad, though they tend to suffer from being a bit simple. The fact that Geth and the magic user Singe have a history was interesting, and the Kalashtar character provided some nice contrast, what being all crazy and her body being possessed by a psicrystal. The villains pretty much uniformly lacked good characterization, however, and as most of them were aberrations or brainwashed hunters, they felt quite flat. I imagine that we would find out a bit more about their motivations in the other books, but to this point all we are really told is that they are evil. Which is obviously enough for the main characters, who resolve to fight against this threat rather quickly. There are quite a few elements of convenience running throughout the plot, where characters just happen to be there, and I can see the shape a campaign like this would have. And for a D&D novel that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So I guess what I can say most about the novel is that it is good for what it was. It is an Eberron book, taking up the areas of the Gatekeepers, the Dragon Below, the Last War, and things of that nature, though perhaps because it happened a bit out in the boondocks it feels a bit like it could be in any fantasy setting. There wasn’t a whole lot of the trappings of Eberron, nor the feel of mystery that I tend to look for. But, a bit like Lady Ruin, it delves into an aspect of the setting that isn’t quite as recognizable, and does a fair job being interesting and entertaining. At the end of the day, this is a D&D book. I probably wouldn’t like playing it as a campaign because it really does seem to be pushed along a very set track, but as this is a novel I can forgive it. It is combat heavy and intellectually light, but still enjoyable. And so I am left to give it a 6.25/10. (less)
**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – Taint of the Black Brigade
So this is the second Eberron licensed novel that I have read now, this one...more**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – Taint of the Black Brigade
So this is the second Eberron licensed novel that I have read now, this one by Paul Crilley, and for all intents and purposes one would have assumed this one would have been the more representative of the setting than Lady Ruin, which was set in Karnath and had more to do with symbionts than with anything else. Here, in the further Chronicles of Abraxis Wren, we see what a lot of people would expect when they pick up a book with the Eberron label. The main character is an inquisitive in Sharn. In truth he is very much a louder and less intelligent Sherlock Holmes type character, complete with the dwarf Watson. And that is interesting to a point. The problem is that the story and the characters jump around far too much to be convincing or very compelling. Though Wren has hints of complexity, these are dropped and then picked up again as the mood strikes, and don’t seem so much an integral part of his character as they are parts of a back story that is often ignored.
And is that sense I come to really my main complement and criticism of this book. Because, out of all the licensed D&D novels that I have read, this one most closely mimics an actual campaign. This is a compliment in that the novel does capture the feel of a campaign, the way D&D works and the shape that many campaigns take. However, also present are the petty PC bickerings, the obvious hand of the DM, the strange and convenient story structure, and random twists and revelations that don’t come off as clever so much as contrived. I mean, I recognized so many of these NPCs as the stereotypical mob bosses, bartenders, and shadowy villains that I have witnessed in actual sessions. Which is all right, except for the fact that I never really enjoyed any of those particular aspects of D&D. It just seems lazy to me to try and create a setting and characters and say that it is mysterious when really it’s just unknown and revealed at the time the DM thinks is best. It’s not like Sherlock Holmes, or at least not like good Sherlock Holmes. The mystery there is complete, and Sherlock solves it because of his keen observations and logic.
With Taint of the Black Brigade, the mystery is never fully formed until it is resolved. Key clues and pieces of information are withheld to keep the PCs (and the reader) in the dark so that the twists will feel more like twists. Only in the end they come off as artificial because they weren’t allowed to build to anything. The revelation at the end about the villain, Traven, and Melisorn Pel just didn’t seem earned. We are just told that we didn’t figure it out, that it is a surprise. Only the surprise is stupid, and in good bad D&D fashion, the PCs are unable to do anything as the DM finishes his “story” regardless of anything they do. It is more than frustrating to have all this stuff just happen, because it ruins the agency of the characters, their ability to be effective. Worse, because I as a reader have to identify with them, I am left without a release of tension that is satisfying.
The book just tries too hard. It is at the same time a mystery, a riddle solving adventure, and a bank heist story. It tries to do too much and so none of it feels that well done. It’s all fragmented, all rushed. The mystery isn’t a mystery because we don’t get the clues. The riddles are all D&D riddles, where it isn’t logic but insider knowledge that eventually solves them. I really hate D&D riddles that aren’t riddles, because normally the DM (the author in this case) assumes that they are riddles when really they are unsolvable unless you are the DM. And I have been guilty myself of doing this sometimes, and it just never works. The same applies to this story, because the riddles didn’t work, even for the characters, without specific knowledge that had nothing to do with the riddle itself. In effect, they weren’t riddles at all. And the bank heist was rather uninspired and downright cliché in how it was resolved given that Ocean’s Eleven did it years before.
So really, this book is great at showing what D&D is normally like. Not what it is at its best, or what it can be, or what it should aspire to be, but what it most often is. And that really isn’t that great. It’s not terrible, and it does some things right. But the characters are inconsistent and it is left to the author telling us that they are complicated instead of showing us. It leaves a lot to be desired. And at the end of the day I want better. I want better because D&D should be better, and D&D novels should definitely be better. So while I enjoyed reading this, I am still giving it a 4.5/10. (less)
**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – Lady Ruin
This represents my first venture into Eberron novels. I am not new to D&D licensed stuff...more**spoiler alert** Stuff I Read D&D Edition – Lady Ruin
This represents my first venture into Eberron novels. I am not new to D&D licensed stuff, as I have read an Ed Greenwood novel and quite a few R.A. Salvatore novels. But Lady Ruin by Tim Waggoner is the first D&D Eberron novel I’ve read. Not that it is a huge distinction to make, as the novel didn’t turn out too different from other D&D related novels I have read, but I just want to qualify that this is slightly new territory to me. I picked this novel in particular because the book store had no other Eberron novels that were the first in the series. Three book twos and a book four, but this novel is supposed to stand alone, at least for the time being. I am a little hopeful that the book will get a sequel, as the story itself really didn’t reach a satisfying conclusion, but so it goes. It was easy enough to spot that it was a D&D related story, as the novel took the form of a rather good first campaign, though the party wasn’t all there. The titular character was the daughter of a Karnathi general and the niece of an artificer interested in Xoriat and symbionts in particular.
The story involves a secret part of the military to which these people are attached and their research and experiments into creating warriors that can use the symbionts to fight. The research inevitably goes wrong and after quite a few deaths the woman’s uncle is touched by a daelkyr lord and turned into a flesh-shaping, evil lunatic. If there was one thing about this novel that I would have to say kept me out of it the most it would be the lack of good villains. The villains here, in the shape of the uncle and other evil creatures tied to Xoriat, are just evil. They want to recreate the world in Xoriat’s image, mainly because they are insane and see order of any sort as limiting. Which is interesting for a couple of minutes and then just devolves into chaotic evil. It is sort of sad when you can read the alignments of the characters, because to me Eberron represents to me a setting that isn’t quite so bound to alignments. But each character is pretty easy to tell right away. There is the lawful neutral general and the lawful good cleric. There is the chaotic neutral (or maybe chaotic good, but I doubt it) shifter and the main character seems to change slightly from lawful good to neutral good. And that sort of gets me out of the story a bit, because it makes the characters so predictable and flat.
The main character, at least, does seem to change some, which is refreshing, and as she interacts with the symbiont the reader can see clearly the transformation taking place. This would be, if it weren’t written, good PCing, as the character is reacting to her surroundings and circumstances and is growing as a person. The author tries, perhaps, to have the shifter grow a bit, but that really isn’t accomplished very well, and seems rather obvious and forced and fast when it happens, which is much more like real D&D, where PCs care about each other without ever earning that. But this is a D&D novel, so I guess I can forgive it a little. It does live up to the D&D style fights, at least, which are well rendered here and against a variety of quite interesting foes. As this deals largely with Xoriat the novel makes good use of aberrations, and from twisted flesh creatures to more traditional beholders and mind flayers to the Eberron specific dolgrims and dolgaunts, the monsters are suitably weird and the battles rather intense. There are times when you can see the will saves being made or failed, or things like that, but again, this being a D&D novel, that almost helps at times.
Overall the novel succeeds in capturing a part of Eberron, from the politics of Karnath to the state of Xoriat and the soldier’s mindsets. By the end of the novel the party has formed, and the main evil has gotten away. Unfortunately, the ending basically takes away the one villain that seemed more complicated than insane and evil, but the ending left things open to happen later. Most of who I would have called PCs are left behind (the general, the cleric, and perhaps the warforged) while the main character and the shifter join up with one of the soldiers (who I felt was more of an NPC, but whatever). But I can hope that the story continues, if only to see where the characters will go from the end of the novel as characters. That, as always, intrigues me. But the novel is a good Eberron story, and gives a bit of insight into symbionts and the like, an area that is not gone over too much in the various Eberron supplements. And it was a good, trashy read for my vacation. So I give it a 7/10. (less)