Mud and Horn, Sword and Sparrow

Mud and Horn, Sword and Sparrow by Brandish Gilhelm is the first book by the creator of Index Card RPG and host of the Drunken & Dungeons channel on YouTube.

This was a good, short story. There’s a unique narrative voice and a compelling swords and sorcery adventure. It’s worthy on its own merits, and does not require any knowledge of ICRPG, even though the setting Alfheim is used as a world in the game. The narrative feels deeper and more engaging than the short length would suggest, and it’s actually pretty darned epic.

However, I cannot recommend the ebook edition on Kindle as it is in awful shape from poor conversion. I made 358 highlights as I painfully read through this, and the vast majority of those were about sometimes egregious formatting errors. There were a few other errors, and a couple regular highlights, in the mix, but the formatting issues are overwhelming. So, pick up the print edition, or wait for the electronic text to get updated at some point.

Because of the sheer number of highlights about formatting issues and only having made a handful of non-issue highlights, I’m not making any of them public; but I did send them all to the author directly. (If I hadn’t been making notes to send to the author, I would have given up reading halfway through.) So, I hope a future update will make this good story possible to read for those buying the electronic version.

A Nation Under Our Feet Vol 1

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates, & al., is narratively deep and visually impressive. There’s social, political, and economic allegorical levels to the story, which are welcome complexity to the overall genre. The inter-, intra-, and extra-, relationships that T’Challa must navigate and learn from are well developed and interesting to see explored. The art style is a nifty syncretic of many influences, both pan-african and including the futurism of Jack Kirby’s technological schematic visual lexicon.

This first collection starts out a little slow as it tries to deal with a bunch of previous narrative threads, but quickly picks up and builds a good foundation on which the following volumes can continue to construct. On the other hand, the apparently slow start also did give me a quick primer on the Black Panther series, which I am not familiar with, as this is the first I’ve read of any of them. These previous events are also the collective source of the current state of unrest and turmoil that is core to the developing story for both individuals and the collective groups involved. In that sense, I’ve just completely talked myself out of this being a problem and into it being a strength.

The last part of this volume includes a reprint of the very first appearance of Black Panther, in the pages of Fantastic Four, which is a nice bonus, and provides interesting comparison and parallax to the current artwork and writing, as well as being a bit of history to include.

I’ve already picked up the next 2 collected volumes, and am looking forward to the rest of the story.

I Can Explain

I’ll be honest. I picked up Mockingbird Vol. 1: I Can Explain by Chelsea Cain, & al., because I saw the kerfuffle about the cover for the second volume, and grabbed both to support the series. It then languished in my to-read stack for a long time, but I got around to this and devoured it in one sitting.

This is freakin’ hilarious, and smart. The arc in this collection has a modern storyline with a cool narrative structure. It reminded me of Archer and Deadpool in various ways. The dialogue is witty and sharp, there’s tons of easter eggs in the panels to find, and fun cameos, not the least of which is Howard the Duck! And, it’s a female protagonist who’s the smartest person in the room, in charge, and unapologetic about any of that.

Great stuff I definitely recommend.

Summary for the month of Aug 2017

Here’s a summary of activity for August, 2017.

I’ve been able to start posting more regularly on the blog, with photos of cats and things, and with book and movie reviews. It was a long cold winter, but the cats and I all survived! Lately, it’s been a long hot summer, but luckily I had an AC in storage that I could install so the cats and I have been okay!

Over the last year, a local telco has installed fiber up the highway, and a DSLAM less than 100′ from where I am. So, I was able to get a land-based high speed Internet connection installed, and due to the short distance it’s pretty darned fast too! In a wild twist, AT&T also expanded 4G LTE coverage out here too. From being stuck with only satellite for the last year, suddenly I’ve got all kinds of options!

Unfortunately, the telco has a serious congestion problem on their network at a main interconnection point, so it’s less than ideal, and I don’t see nearly the performance I should. But, it’s not nothing! It works-ish!

The high speed has meant that I’ve been able to start doing online projects again, and have been active over on my geeky Rigaroga persona and the Odd Order blog. I’ve also started trying out a few things for Hermetic Library, like Reader’s Theatre and so forth.

Well, I’m still 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store, and only get to town every other month-ish lately, but I’ve got high speed Internet!

The cats have been going through more than 72 cans of cat food and well over 40 lbs of litter every two weeks, if you were wondering. It’s a lot! But, they’re all doing pretty good, even the house cats I moved inside before winter hit. The nine of us have been getting along with only an occasional kerfuffle over elbowroom or places to sleep.

Anyhow, I thought I’d start doing these monthly summaries, in part so I could post them to my Patreon.

If you can, drop a buck in the tip jar or become a Patron to help me create a firm foundation with a Basic Income and also keep the cats healthy and happy!

Here’s a summary of posts on the blog from last month

Demons by Daylight

Most of the narrative in the stories collected in Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell occurs at night. Daylight, my ass. That’s about the level of quality here, with a few brief but truly good creepy spots that shine, in this rather mediocre repetitive-feeling collection not really worth the light needed to read the pages. I ended up finishing this out of spite, not because I cared at all for it. Publishers Weekly, with glowing blurb on the cover, was smoking crack in a gutter, if they saw any stars at all. Keep this in the dark where unpurchased things lurk, and don’t bother.

I made 11 highlights.

Numenera Core Book

Numenera Core Book by Monte Cook Games, by Monte Cook with Shanna Germain, &al., was given gratis as part of my support for the The Ninth World: A Skillbuilding Game for Numenera crowdfunding effort (which is almost a whole year late to deliver!).

Multiple times I forgot I had this, rediscovered the PDF and intended to read it, then didn’t; and, rinse and repeat.

Numenera is a billion years in the future post-cataclysmic science fantasy setting, essentially God Emperor of Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The nuts and bolts are the, separately available but not entirely needed to play, Cypher System which is a framework on which other games can be built, such as The Strange, or used for other settings, such as Predation, but notably not Invisible Sun, which is the forthcoming new Monte Cook newness.

Characters in Numenera, and Cypher System, have three stats (might, speed and intellect) and can be described in a simple sentence, “I am an adjective noun who verbs.” In Numenera, examples of this character statement are:

“I am a Rugged glaive who Controls Beasts” or “I am a Charming nano who Focuses Mind over Matter.”

I am amused to no end that there is an adjective noun in Numenera for “Shadow jack” and if you wanted to play something like Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, this would be right on.

Anyhow, if the rules system stopped near there, it could be great, but then things get a bit overwritten and complex.

The Cypher System foundation is touted for its “elegance, flexibility, ease of use, and focus on narrative” but the rules quickly become strangely crunchy with stats and pools and edges and effort and skills and abilities and tiers and so on and on. Without having read the Cypher System Core Book, I gather from Numenera that there’s a lot of room for expansion on the three possible character types, and short list of descriptors. As “elegant” and “flexible” as Cypher System is supposed to be, the types and descriptors are very specific. These aren’t the broad narrative-driving Aspects of Fate or Clichés of Risus, but end up being very explicitly detailed crunchy blocks of text in the rule book, and, moreover, then, by being so crunchy, leave vast swaths of undetailed unknown others by omission. The more crunchy the rules, the more obvious the omissions.

An example of the kind of issue in Numenera which gave me pause was how the three character types, each which have some core element, clearly didn’t explore the full range of possibility. The core stat for a Glaive is Might. The core stat for a Nano is Intellect. But, the Jack starts with flat stat spread. So, what about a character type with Speed for their main stat? What about a type that is built around Effort? What about a type that is built around boosting Pools. And so on. For all the eventual crunchiness heaped onto the simplicity of the character statement, there’s just a wild amount that isn’t covered or explored. It’s a very strange dichotomy. Without having read the core books for Cypher, itself, or The Strange, I wonder if these other directions are explored there for character types, but, the point is, they aren’t in Numenera.

One of the more interesting things for me in Numenera was the focus on the numenera, the bits of recovered future tech, as a core mechanic and motivator. This reminds me of Index Card RPG Core‘s focus on loot as the method of advancement and ability development for characters. Like a game in a setting of Heavy Metal, the scratching out of some ancient nano-magical future tech artifact from the dust and rubble can change everything, then fails or is replaced, and gets tossed away. This provides a kind of Nomic or Fluxx-like game of self-amendment, constantly changing the rules of the game itself by introducing more or less awesome MacGuffin after MacGuffin.

The world building is Silmarillion-level and seems like the writer’s bible to a series of novels, in that it is excessive and clearly thought out even farther than detailed, a full encyclopedia of future history and hints at a forthcoming piecemeal conveyor belt principia.

The core book also contains the short story The Amber Monolith by Shanna Germain, which is available separately. I ended up reading it separately before getting around to the core rule book, and it makes more sense to read it in context.

The art and world are lush, but it all seems like something one collects and reads, not so much plays and develops stories within. I have no doubt that this ticks the bits of brain that drive collectable card game fanatics and the like, but the simplicity and elegance seems to me to get lost for what should be a framework open and welcoming to players at the table.

There are parts that seem fantastic to me, but also there’s some things missing in all the complexity. In the end, I find myself wishing to play in the world of Numenera, but with different rules, such as Index Card RPG or Risus, or, hell, even Toon or Amber, to free up the narrative gameplay from the gaming system.

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way is a rendition by Ursula K Le Guin from many sources of the classic wisdom text about the Tao.

Le Guin’s rendition makes some aspects of the poems much more approachable. For example, she avoids use of the term “empire” or masculine-exclusive language in her version, which she intends to be for a wider audience. She provides extensive end notes about the rendition and a list of her sources ranked in order of utility, and many poems have personal commentary about her thoughts on specific poems in the collection. It’s a personal project. It’s also a fine model of how one might organize one’s own similar project, if one were into that, for this or another source material.

However, there’s still places for me where I’m totally into it one part, for just one example, the anti-capitalist sentiments, and completely repulsed the next, especially in places where I become uncomfortable or disagree with the ideas of what Lao Tzu thinks is good government, involving, for example, keeping the population in the dark about their true conditions and about the tools used by those in power to manipulate them.

On the whole, it just isn’t for me, in spite of a few bright spots. Le Guin’s rendition of Tao Te Ching is okay and interesting, but it’s not astounding or amazing to me. The intentionality in making the text more approachable is laudable. I think a lot of my issue is with my perception of a weakness of the source material, which just isn’t my path or sense of things, though there are a few place where there are hints worth the time to cross the ages and approach the work of Lao Tze as it is, for what it is. It has value, but it doesn’t speak to me in a voice with authority or accuracy per se, so have a hard time recommending it for others. But, if you’re going to approach this material, this seems like is a fine-enough way to do it.

I made 58 highlights.

Benediction Denied

Benediction Denied: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel by Elizabeth Engstrom is the first novel in a new series ostensibly set in the world of Matthew Lowes’ Dungeon Solitaire game. The story itself is a fantastical fall into a strange labyrinth wherein the main character is slowly revealed through his self-discovery while trying, with the aid of some mysterious cards, to escape his condition. He struggles toward an ultimate ending that does not pull any punches. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

This story could be a completely standalone read, both without reference to the other volumes but also without any necessary knowledge about the game, but it is the first in a series already planned to stretch into a significant number of volumes. This is an interesting start. I’m definitely intrigued by the potential of the full series, each volume of which the author claims a particular card from the game.

I made 14 highlights.

Starship Grifters

Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese is the first book in the Rex Nihilo Adventures series, but the 3rd volume I’ve read in this universe.

The first volume I read was the short The Chicolini Incident, featuring Rex Nihilo and Sasha, which I understand is included in the third book in the series, a prequel, Book 0, Out of the Soylent Planet. I enjoyed it enough to read this next book in the series.

The second was The Yanthus Prime Job, a damned fine novella featuring the character Pepper Melange, without Rex Nihilo or Sasha. Pepper Melange makes several appearances along the way in Starship Grifters. There’s also Aye, Robot, Book 2 of Rex Nihilo, which includes the Pepper Melange novella.

In spite of the name of the series, I wouldn’t actually say Rex Nihilo is the main character. The story is told from the viewpoint of Sasha, Rex’s robot sidekick. Rex Nihilo is basically an awful person who is more an antagonistic Murphy’s Law force of nature which beleaguers the life of the well-intentioned robot Sasha. This relationship is not at all unlike Zapp Brannigan and Kif Kroker from Futurama. Rex Nihilo also reminded me, for several reasons, of Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero.

I’m kinda pissed that by the very end of the novel I had been tricked into being sympathetic to Rex, because he’s really a total shit, but it was a good twist. I’ve had more than enough of people like him. I’m really just over it, even for humour factor. But, when taken as an antagonist within the story, Rex is certainly easy to hate.

But other than Rex’s constantly creeping ick factor while falling trippingly into success after success in spite of himself, usually being saved by other characters trying to survive the situations Rex creates, the story is amusing, and in places laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a lot of scifi in-jokes, especially at the expense of Star Wars. I guessed some twists way early, but others were well and truly surprising.

I read this synced to the audiobook, and both are well done. The one criticism I have for the audiobook is that the portrayal of Rex’s voice never quite seemed right to me. Maybe it’s an expectation from Zap Brannigan being obliviously boisterous, but for the audiobook Rex has a kind of gravelly voice that sounds like a smarmy Mark Twain to me, and doesn’t quite match the character in the story, or the image on the cover for that matter, to me.

I’m slightly ambivalent about reading more in the series, though it’s good enough. And, I’ve already got the next two books, so I’ll probably get around to them eventually. I find I’d be much more interested in Pepper Melange and Sasha teaming up, but realistically they’d be unstoppable; and Rex is a walking talking crisis creation device, so … Yeah, I just don’t really want to read about Rex anymore, but I might anyway for the rest of it.

I made 29 highlights.

Shibumi

I picked up Shibumi by Trevanian, pen name of the late Rodney William Whitaker, because it appears on screen in John Wick 2, and I was curious. I felt I found some inspirations from the book, but the two are very different.

For the first tenth of this book, I was increasingly righteously pissed off at how shitty it was: poorly written with massive continuity errors; and misogynistic, sexist, racist, prejudiced, semi-literate MRA wet-dream drek. I almost threw this book across the room into the trash. I tried to excuse it because the book was published in 1978, but that didn’t excuse narrative that seemed more a backward drop into the 40s or 50s. But then I realized something. I was reading satire. This isn’t an early James Bond novel. This is Our Man Flint. Partly. It turns into an oblique philosophical treatise, for the most part. At least, once I got over the expectation, the rest started to come into focus.

In fact, this is not at all a spy thriller as it seems to be billed in the promotional copy. There’s damned little spying, and what action around spying there is in this is drawn lightly on paper thin pages. This is a character study in contrasts, a kind of episodic explanation by what seems to be the author’s notion of an ideal man in conflict with a less than ideal world. There’s also a fair amount of resentment and vitriol about the world that seems very much like the author taking the opportunity to vent hardened personal feelings about life experiences not directly biographically detailed here.

In the front matter, the author writes with dry humor that “[a]ll other characters and organizations in this book lack any basis in reality—although some of them do not realize that.” And, there’s an early moment where the author reveals he’s completely self-aware of the tone: “He was out of patience with this fool, who was more a broad ethnic joke than a human being.” The thing is almost all of the characters in the first tenth are broad jokes. These remembered two hints allowed me to re-appraise the first tenth of the book, and I came to terms with most of my early criticism, even that the novel was poorly written. The most egregious continuity error was eventually explained, though not all were resolved.

This is the last book in the saga of Nicholai Hel by the original author, and my first read of any book by Trevanian. An earlier book in the series, The Eiger Sanction, was made into a movie, which I really don’t remember, though I’m sure I’d seen it; and besides, apparently, the author felt it was crap anyway. Trevanian makes several comments about Hollywood in the text and about the movie in footnotes which demonstrate the bad feelings he had for the experience of being adapted to the silver screen.

Nicholai Hel is without a doubt an ubermensch mary-sue, not, frankly, too unlike John Wick, to be honest, and, perhaps, an attempt by the author to paint his own idealized self-portrait. Like Hel’s companion Beñat Le Cagot is a fictional persona adopted by the fictional character. It’s really all onion peelings though when one realizes that the author Whitaker published “translations” of “Le Cagot” stories. Perhaps the foolish characters weren’t the only broad strokes to be found, eh?

“From that moment, Nicholai’s primary goal in life was to become a man of shibumi; a personality of overwhelming calm. It was a vocation open to him while, for reasons of breeding, education, and temperament, most vocations were closed. In pursuit of shibumi he could excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses.”

And, of course, the way to “excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses” is to become an infamous international assassin. What. What? Yeah, okay. Turns out it’s just the day job that paid for the semi-retirement-that-can’t-last. Turns out you can’t actually take the mary-sue out of the Great Game without blowback. Oops. Who knew?

In fact, I find Nicolai and Han reminding me a lot, in a general way, of the characters Colin Campbell and Gwendolyn Novak in Robert Heinlein’s later The Cat Who Walk Through Walls.

The thing is, even in contrast to the buffoonery of the antagonists, Hel is still a white German (even his mother’s family history in Russia is excused by her being pure unmiscegenated Habsburg) ubermensch of lofty breeding. There’s a definitely a strong case played out of eugenic superiority here, even if canonically Nazi notions are dismissed, by way of making Hel’s actually Nazi German father a kind of simple idiot sperm-donor. Ultimately this is not so much a contrast the the broad jokes, but rather an attempt to retell those jokes in a serious way. That attempt to seriously detail Hel’s mary-sue eugenic superiority, especially as a white person in Asia excellent at culturally specific tasks, mundane and mystic, became for me strikingly uncomfortable to read in a “white saviour” way.

As the framing story proceeds, almost as an afterthought, or as just enough excuse to tell the rest, the meat of the first half of the book is all biographical flashbacks offering insights into the life and character of Nicholai Hel. The story is travelling through time, catching up to the framing story eventually. Its an interesting mechanism, and lends to the dreamy lofty philosophical stance the is the primary payload delivered by the sneaky conceit of the framing story.

So, not at all a spy thriller. This is a kind of narrative manifesto about what the author feels a superior man is and does and thinks, especially in parallax.

I want to note that while I criticized the writing, the truth is more complex. There is a simplicity to the language which should make this novel very approachable for anyone, there is a technical depth of knowledge within that informs that approachability, and there is occasionally surprisingly erudite language. I ended up at the end feeling oddly ambivalent about the writing.

Many things about this book are both strong and weak. It’s good but not great. It’s interesting but also frustrating. I’m glad I read it, enjoyed a lot of it along with a large number of passages I found myself considering as highlight-worthy, but I have a hard time recommending it fully. Maybe if I’d read some of the earlier novels first, I’d have been less put off by the first tenth, but I feel I’d still be uncomfortable with some things I’ve mentioned that are essential throughout. I just can’t completely divorce the philosophical intrigue from the philosophical flaws. It’s a journey, though. So, take it for what it is in whole, if you’re interested.

After finishing Shibumi, I am less than interested beyond idle curiosity to check out the previous installments in Hel’s saga, and, that’s okay: I’ve no doubt I’d just find this installment the most interesting of the bunch anyway. I find I’m far more interested in the author Whitaker as a person. I’m likely to pick up his autobiographical The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, and am definitely curious about his forthcoming magnum opus, posthumously finished by his eldest daughter, Street of Four Winds.

I made 113 highlights.

Capitalist Realism

I picked up Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by Mark Fisher, from Zero Books, as my first read and first exposure to Fisher’s work. When he passed away by his own hand, in January 2017, I was struck by how many people were talking about him, and since I hadn’t known of his work before, thought I’d dive into something, and Capitalist Realism was of note.

Although the work contains examples that are a bit dated and specific to the UK or UK academic experience, the topics are particularly fresh in this year of governance by Reality TV, a kind of apotheosis of capitalist realism and late-capitalism. A discussion of the context and meaning of a period with an apparent end of neoliberalism becoming a dystopia of reality warping PR symbolism over substance is new again these days.

The strongest part, but also probably the most dense in references, of the overall work for me was the last, Marxist Supernanny, which provided the hint of a takedown of narcissistic infantile Traditionalist individualism and proposed a direction forward toward organizing around a rejuvenated progressive collective will to address root causes instead of symptoms or distractions.

Overall, a timely-again volume worth reading in these days of surreality in discourse but dark dystopia in events that offers not hope so much as encouragement that hope is at least possible to contemplate.

I made 86 highlights.