22 November 2006

The Cowboy Dog by Nigel Cox

An extremely strange but absorbing novel. In many ways similar to the comic Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, it is a myth of a bit of New Zealand that doesn't actually exist.

Specifically, it's about a young man who grew up as a cowboy on the volcanic plateau of the North Island. But it's not the plateau we actually know - it's a chunk of the US Southwest circa 1910 or so, just smack in the middle of what is otherwise a normal contemporary New Zealand.

The story itself is about growing up and revenge, the kind of thing you might hear in a Johnny Cash song (and those songs get a lot of references in the book too).
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A Regimental Affair by Allan Mallinson

The third story about dragoon Matthew Hervey. The series seems to get better each novel - no more simple, heroic adventures. Instead, the stories illustrate the complexities of the times (in this case circa 1817).

Hervey is also a thoughtful observer of what is going on around him, and this becomes more the focus of the stories. The social side of life is also important, taking up much of the novel.

16 November 2006

Out Of Eden by Stephen Oppenheimer

This is an explanation of the latest findings on how and when people colonized the world. It's interesting stuff, and a lot was new to me.

However, the author doesn't really do it justice. The book has more detail on various genetic markers than I think necessary for a lay audience. Certainly I found that the level of detail detracted from the central findings rather than illustrating them. He also uses the terms 'son' and 'daughter', as well as names (Cain, Abel, Seth, Krishna), when discussing these genetic markers. I am pretty sure that what he means here is that these 'sons' and 'daughters' are descendant lineages from common ancestors. However, the metaphor is pushed pretty hard and sometimes it appears that he might be talking about literal parent-child relationships.

So, interesting but a bit difficult in places. Worth reading if the topic is of interest.
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13 November 2006

Any Approaching Enemy by Jay Worrall

This is number two in yet another Napoleonic naval adventure series. It's definitely ahead of the pack, though. The characters are interesting and the dialog is great (and often hilarious, especially between Captain Edgemont and his wife who is a pacifist).

Well worth looking up if you enjoy this sort of story - possibly up there with O'Brian. And on that subject, a certain Lieutenant Aubrey makes a short cameo appearance in this novel, which is quite fun.

10 November 2006

Honourable Company by Allan Mallinson

The second book about (now) Captain Hervey has him appointed aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington and immediately sent to India on a secret mission.

Happily, he turns out to be absolutely terrible as a secret agent, making his general competence at everything else bearable.

The story itself involves intrigues between some Indian states and the British East India Company, which our hero (needless to say) ends up in the middle of.

Good stuff all round.

08 November 2006

Actual Play Report: OctaNe

Well, we played OctaNe the other night. It worked pretty much as well as it looked like it would.

It played out as a pseudo-Sergio Leone post apocalyptic western as our heroes - a High Plains Drifter, an Ultra-vixen, a Rock and Roll Witch and a Fast Food Ninja all chased a mcguffin around, trying to prevent it falling into the hands of Big Liz the gila monster queen and her army of midgets. A few memorable extras turned up, such as an alien sheriff and Satan. There was also a nice sequence where the mcguffin turned a lazy old dog into a cyborg laser-eyeball death beast, luckily hit with a nullifier ray before it destroyed the Earth.

Comedy delivered: check.
Preperation needed - zero: check.

I recommend this game. At least for psychotronic film fans.

A Close Run Thing by Allan Mallinson

Huzzah! Another good Napoleonic military adventure series!

This is the first in a series about Matthew Hervey, an urbane cavalry officer. This novel generally introduces him and ends with him at the battle of Waterloo.

A generally good read, although Hervey is so supremely good at almost everything that I did not really find myself concerned that he would not come out on top in the end. Of course, in these stories that can be generally taken for granted in any case. But Hervey has none of the brutality of Sharpe or the complete obliviousness to certain areas of Aubrey. Still, the story is gripping and often fun. And his ability to know about almost everything and do almost anything is amusing as well.

The story also reflects Hervey's gentlemanly nature in the detail of battles presented. Mallinson is notably less graphic in his descriptions of battle and the effects thereof than most authors of similar novels. This is not to say that terrible scenes do not occur, but they are not quite as gruelling as some of the battles in the Sharpe novels, for example.

How Invention Begins by John Lienhard

This book is a study of technological invention, looking beyond the stereotyped heroic inventors at the wider streams of change that led to various key technologies. The main case studies are flight, steam power and printing.

Lienhard discusses a lot around each of these topics, building a larger case about the nature of invention and technological change in general. On top of this, of course, there's also the stories of all the other people involved in the same technologies, who didn't quite make it, or improved things afterwards, and so forth.

His concluding discussion deals with the way education and the ideas about invention have changed, and suggests a thought-provoking thesis that the way we think about these now encourages further change. I'm not sure I completely agree with that, but it's an interesting idea.
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04 November 2006

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

Yet another re-read*. Probably my favorite of the discworld novels, this has a lot of neat stuff going on in it. The basic story - a convicted conman forced to go straight by Vetinari in order to reopen the defunct post office - is fun, and the various subplots and themes are all very interesting too.

* I was ill last week, so ran out of unread books, you see.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Another re-read. This is one of the better of his early books (being only the eighth discworld novel). Fun, and interesting to see again how the watch characters were originally introduced.

Provisional Review of Full Light, Full Steam by Joshua BishopRoby

Note: provisional review means that it's not really thorough. The game's not out yet, so I'm working from reading the pdf that I got for preordering. It's also too long for me to effectively read the full pdf, so this is really just general impressions.

Full Light, Full Steam is a steampunk game about the alternate-Victorian Royal Astronomical Navy. This means, in short, that you fly big spaceships around the solar system, helping maintan Britain's Imperial assets.

The setting is all good stuff. It brings to mind all the good stuff from the old game Space: 1899, as well as an 'expedition to Mars' one-shot I ran a few times several years ago. The setting chapter is good fun, with all the information presented as excerpts from in-game handbooks and magazines.

What sets the game apart from most is the extensive work to make what the players want to do be the center of play all the time. There's a chapter on 'The First Session' that goes over various social issues to consider before getting started on character generation. It's all good advice, although I suspect most gaming groups will be able to move through these pretty quick (probably not even needing to explicitly address some of them).

Characters get various stats, the most important being three 'thematic batteries', each a descriptive word or phrase (e.g. 'rake' or 'mad inventor'). These are used to focus play. Most straightforwardly, the player can 'charge' a battery any time by taking a roll penalty that reflects the battery. Later on, you can use the charged battery to give you a bonus in another situation that reflects it.

I'm also very keen to try the situation engineering rules. Basically, play situations are built by the GM using 'cogs' - individual characters, settings or props - that are built with reference to characters' thematic batteries (and a few other sources of inspiration). This system is all done in a lot of detail, and looks like fun. Also, everyone can join in here - it's not just the GM whe has to do all this work.

The last unique aspect I want to mention is the 'spoils scrip'. Every player starts with one of these, a strip of paper basically. Whenever you make reference in play to another character's thematic battery, you pass it to the relevant player and they sign the paper. You then gain 'spoils' (kind of experience points) - more if this is their first signature on the scrip this scene. The scrip also restricts scene changes - scenes can only end once everyone has signed a scrip or you pass it to someone for a character who isn't present (allowing you to jump to a scene about that character).

Those are all interesting ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they play out. The other thing that really stands out is that this game is just packed with advice on how to play. It all reads as good advice, although a lot of it may be old hat to a lot of gamers. Like Dogs in the Vineyard, Full Light, Full Steam is carefully written to tell you how to play. However, the latter is more like a full (period) technical manual.

I'll follow with another review once I have the paper book in my hands (probably in a month or so).

Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

This was a re-read. Still a great book. The ideas aren't really as interesting as those in Singularity Sky but the story is at least as good.
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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

This is a totally deadpan oral history of a global war against zombies that is allegedly going to happen in 5-10 years or so.

Brooks claims in the introduction that he as chief researcher for a UN research group measuring the costs of the war, and that this is a supplementary volume showing the human stories he encountered along the way as he interviewed people worldwide.

The book is structured to illustrate the development of the zombie problem, starting with small outbreaks in China through to the humanity's global fight to survive and eventual success. The story occurs half in the interviews and half in what they imply in the gaps.

Brooks has done an excellent job of capturing both the style of real oral histories, and creating interesting, often compelling, characters and stories. He lets a few jokes in here and there, but they're for the reader - as far as the narration goes, they are just straight facts of life.

As an aside, reading this made me aware of an important aspect of why I find zombies a fascinating horror genre. As I sat there thinking 'what would I do if that happened to me?' and realised that it is exactly that. The appeal of zombies is:
1. You can think about what you would do if it happened - tactics, tools, where you would go, etc.
2. It will never actually happen. NEVER.
Combined, those certainly make zombies a lot more fun to consider than (for example) climate change, major earthquakes or flu pandemics.

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

This is Pratchett's latest, the third of his stories about Tiffany Aching. It's a bit more mature than the first too, although obviously still aimed at teenage readers.

It's also a good story, with lots of fun bits. At first the various doings of the witches seemed a bit uninspired, covering the same ground he's been over before. However, the story soon kicks off and any feelings of sameness I had were left behind.
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