30 June 2007

White Night by Jim Butcher

The latest Dresden Files book may be the best yet. The action starts pretty much right away and keeps going. A few new bits of Dresden's world are introduced, and several loose ends from previous novels return (mainly to get further loosened, although a few are resolved instead).

It's also got me more excited for the upcoming Dresden Files game, as this novel suggests a few things about the wider world. This isn't so much that this is explicitly mentioned, more that there is some stuff implied that sparked game-style ideas.

25 June 2007

The Sun Over Breda by Arturo Perez-Reverte

This is the third of the Adventures of Captain Alatriste.

This novel concerns Alatriste and Inigo's experiences in the war in Flanders in 1625. It doesn't really have the swashbuckling style of the first two, instead focusing on the brutality of that era's warfare and how this effects Inigo. His own experiences, and Alatriste's example, are clearly forming the man he is to be. The novel feels like it's an interlude in the overall story of Alatriste, which will continue when they return to Spain.

The action is exciting, and works despite the lack of a villain to blame it all on (although the evil Italian assassin gets mentioned in a letter from Madrid). It's interesting to read a purely military adventure novel, without the romanticized escapades that I'm used to in Cornwell's Sharpe books, for example.

More Agon: Isle of Gold 2

We played another game of Agon. With a better handle on the rules (in fact, we have pretty much got them sorted now), it was a lot quicker paced. A few little things contributed to this, like a realization that divine favor is really useful and easy to recover. Use of armor this session made a big difference too!

Perhaps too quick - I skipped quickly through roleplaying in a lot of scenes, where maybe we should have played them out a bit longer before going to dice/battle.

On the other hand, the battles were fantastic. They fought ten scorpion minions and then the Obsidian Scorpion in a fairly epic end to the first quest. One of the heroes took a 5 wound in one of these fights, which was a nice warning to the players - everyone was a little more wary after that.

Then they finished that up, sacrificed the scorpion head to Hera as promised, and got the other two quests for this island. They have to keep the Diamond Spear until one of the bandit kings becomes king of all the bandits, and track down a statue stolen from Hera's shrine in the farming village.

The heroes set off to find some bandits and soon did so. The bandits (a number of minions) demanded the Spear and resisted an attempt at reasoning. They were then slaughtered, except for a final three who surrendered.

That took us to the end of the evening's play, so we'll finish those two up next time.

Again, everyone had a good time. Playing a more tactical game seems to be a good change for us.
I think we'll need to focus some more on ujst playing things out next time, though.

23 June 2007

The Dragon Scroll by I J Parker

This is another volume in the Sugawara Akitada detective stories. This is set early in his career - prior to all the episodes I have read so far. He has been sent to a remote province to check the accounts of the outgoing governor. This job is complicated by the fact that the last three annual tax caravans to the capital have all gone missing.

Needless to say, Akitada makes an effort to work out what happened to them, as well as solving some other murders that occur while he's in town.

This story also tells of his initial meeting with his retainer Tora, which is a good story in itself.

The characters are good, and the mystery is interesting. There's also plenty of action at the end, as is usual in this series.

22 June 2007

Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

This was a pleasure to re-read. Even in this, first of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, the characterization and dialog are fantastic.

O'Brian really nailed the exact balance of a naval adventure novel, too. The action is still there, and exciting, but the novels are always about how the people deal with it. The focus on his characters' reactions, personalities and relationships usually ends up being more tense than the threats to life and limb.

17 June 2007


Watched this documentary about Akira Kurosawa's life and films. Not the greatest documentary, but extremely interesting nevertheless. I didn't know anything beyond his films, really.

The perspective of his whole life was interesting, I hadn't realised either how full his life was or quite how central he was to Japanese cinema. It also illustrated the development of his ideas through the films.

Well worth seeing if you are a fan.

Dogs in the Vineyard Play Report

I just played a first game of Dogs with my wife. It worked well, even though I (and her too I think) were a little unsure how well it would go.

She made up a fierce, repressed Dog who had an unhealthy obsession with sinful sex.

Her first job was the town of Canaan, where her cousin happened to have got into some trouble over being courted by an unbeliever. The situation was pretty messy, but she managed to find a solution to the situation that suited everyone (the man converted, the cousin agreed to obey her parents in future, they are to be married). This was despite the fact that her character, Sister Hester, had been prepared to shoot her cousin in cold blood for fornication when she first heard what was going on. And she managed to get this done the day before the man and his friends were going to 'rescue' the woman from her family, which would have been sure to end badly.

Reflecting on the situation was interesting too. Sister Hester is already beginning to soften already, taking an increase in Heart (i.e. compassion, sociability) from the minimum of 2 and improving her (crappy) coat with a gift from her cousins.

Everfree by Nick Sagan

I really enjoyed the first two of Sagan's books in this series (Idlewild and Edenborn) but the conclusion is even better.

The series is about (spoilers for Idlewild follow) a world in which a terrible plague killed all humans. The first book begins as the protagonists find this out - they're a group of engineered posthumans who were created to find a cure to the disease and cure those 'survivors' who got into cryonic suspension before they died.

This book has the posthumans beginning to waken and cure these people, and deals with the problems of getting society working again with only a few thousand people (almost all from the extremely rich or politically powerful classes).

It's a fairly cynical book, but there are victories as well as defeats. Sagan also does a good job of exploring his posthumans' reactions to the situations. He also differs from almost every other similar story I have read in not pushing any overt political message here. It seems to be more of a pessimistic humanism pervading the story - definitely a particular philosophy, but not a suggestion that one political arrangement will sort everything out (especially as it seems like the suggested system is usually some kind of libertarian arrangement).

It also seems like it would read well as a stand-alone novel - I certainly had forgotten most of the details of the first two books, and that didn't really matter. The previous novels inform the motivations and relationships between the posthumans, but as this story is about their relationships with the survivors, that's not really so important.

Overall, great novel.

15 June 2007

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder

Technically this is science fiction. Really it's just a great adventure novel that happens to be set in the future. It even includes some naval stuff, as it's set in a giant life-supporting bubble. So the various countries have navies of ships/aircraft that fly through the zer0-gravity air.

Good stuff, I look forward to the rest of the series.

Openland by Michael Liddy

Another book I abandoned. It was actually kind of promising, until the author hit me with something totally unbelievable.

In this case, about half way through, he has his protagonists discover that humans are not native to Earth but are extraterrestrials who have only been here about 40,000 years. With no other explanation at all. And the characters, an archaeologist and a geologist, just accept this with a "Oh so that is it." He even mentions that this makes us totally unrelated to all other life on Earth, but makes no attempt to justify it at all.

I mean, really. You might as well claim that everyone is made of plastic and nobody happened to notice. It's not even that you couldn't tell a story in which humans didn't evolve on Earth - but you need to at least address the fact!

11 June 2007

Agon Play: The Isle of Gold

We played a game of Agon today, and it went very well. I'd spent my lunchtime hunting down some miniatures, which added significantly to the feel (good work cheap plastic Greek spearmen).

Character generation went fairly fast and gave a solid, brief idea of each character. There's not much to differentiate the starting heroes, but what there is seems important. The achievements section at the end really helped here, as well as giving a quick intro to the conflict system.

Then I dropped them on the beaches of the Isle of Gold, and Hera informed them that they needed to go slay the Obsidian Scorpion for her. I had a couple of other quests sketched, but figured one would be enough for our first session. This one had three objectives - find out where it lairs and travel there being the first two, and the ones that we managed to play through this session.

In any case, our heroes initially split up, one looking for scorpion trails and the others off to talk to local farmers. The hunter turned up some tracks heading towards the mountainous interior of the island. The others found out that the local king had died and a funeral was being arranged. They convinced the town bard to tell them where the scorpion lairs in return for a promise of it's head as a funeral sacrifice for Hera.

The next morning they headed off to cross the mountains to the other side of the island to find the Scorpion. They met a couple of bandits who tried to charge them a toll. We played this as our first combat - they were pretty crappy minions of one of the island's bandit kings, and were rapidly dispatched. Dorothea the Amazon made a point of paying their toll afterwards - putting four copper coins over their dead eyes.

We had an interlude next, mainly so people could see how it worked. Some impairment was removed, and sacrifices were made.

Then we had a challenge to cross the bandit territory - I made this a basic obstacle challenge with a chance of harm. The bandits did some damage to our heroes on the way.

Then they reached the mountains, where a nasty ghost lived. She attempted to ambush them but was defeated - the heroes ambushed her instead. This fight was a lot tougher, and a lot of fun. Two of the heroes took some nasty damage before she was slain with a round of good results and a bunch of divine favour spent to imbue a spear with power to destroy her.

We were getting close to our session end time, so we had a final interlude and finished up. This interlude stood out for the first real use of oaths - one hero compelled another to heal him, and then the victim compelled him right back to be healed.

The combat was a really good level of tactics. There is plenty to do - much we didn't bother with due to it being the first game (like armour, which was totally forgotten for both penalties and resisting damage... so, retroactively, you were all in just chitons and sandals, guys). Everyone got quite into the positioning part of combat (I'm really looking forward to the next fight with loads of scorpions, for more of that action).

As a GM, it's fun to stat out and play the bad guys exactly as the heroes get run.

Lastly, at the end we totaled up legend and deeds for the session and immediately I saw that the competition between players will work well.

Good stuff - Agon absolutely delivered on the promises in the text. We're looking forward to the next one, and once they kill or are defeated by the Scorpion, I'll be interested to see how they deal with the more complex quests that follow it up.

10 June 2007

The Blood Knight by Greg Keyes

Bad. I didn't finish it - maybe I would have pushed ahead if we weren't visiting the library today, but I'd rather return it than keep at it.

To all fantasy authors: adding more descriptive text does not make your novel better.

09 June 2007

Three Days To Never by Tim Powers

A new Powers novel is always a treat. This one is a little unusual, in that it seems a little less punchy than usual. That's not to say it's bad - in fact, this style may be better than usual. Partly this is due to being told from the point of view of fewer characters (and none who are evil, as in some of his novels). In fact, even the bad guys aren't as horrible as some of his other villains.

The plot itself involves psychic powers and a time machine, and various plots and conspiracies to get hold of the machine. The main characters are the people who are inadvertently in possession of the device as the story begins. I'm generally pretty skeptical of time travel as a story element (especially now, after watching Heroes) but this is an interesting take on it.

The story also feels compatible with the world of Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather. There aren't any actual crossovers (at least, none I noticed) but I wouldn't be surprised to see some in the future.

04 June 2007

Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story

Watched this video the other night. This is one of the funniest films I've seen for a while. It's hard to know exactly what made it work - the humour is in several areas that I regarded as basically played out (e.g. jokes about making the movie itself).

Between the actual story of Tristram Shandy and the freshness and fun of the cast, it really worked.

I guess I need to go and read the novel now, to see how it fits in. I suspect that it has almost no relation to the film, except maybe in an absurdist attitude to itself and everything else in the world.

The Diamond Warriors by David Zindell

This fourth volume concludes the story of Valashu Elahad. The final battles that he must fight are not so harrowing as some he has been through, although some grim events still occur. When Morjin is finally defeated, the ending is moving and thrilling - partially just because of all that the heroes have suffered through in order to get there.

A fantastic end to the series, I am strongly motivated to immediately read them all again. Zindell is, in my opinion, one of our top science fiction/fantasy authors. He's also strangely obscure - I've met few who have read his books, and it's hard to find them amongst the hundreds of inferior novels that abound.

I've also thought that in some ways the Neverness stories are an updating of Dune. In the same way, the Ea books can be seen as a modernized Lord of the Rings (or Arthur cycle). In both cases, the themes in Zindell's books are different to Herbert or Tolkien's, but the concern with things that actually matter is there.

I also love that Zindell is an almost terrifyingly humane writer, and his characters all have a great love of life, and peace, that I respect. He does, in the course of his stories, pressure them to breaking point but this just makes their victories that much more poignant. The finale of The Diamond Warrior is one of his most glorious of these, a much more positive end than poor Danlo the Wild had at the conclusion of War In Heaven (the final of the Neverness books).