29 March 2009

The Escapement by K J Parker

The final installment of the Engineer trilogy. Ties everything up without too many surprises, in a satisfying manner. I really enjoyed these books and shall be reading Parker's other couple of series soon. They work on a few levels, combining world-building, a little philosophy and an exciting plot. The characters aren't exactly deep but they're well-drawn enough that I got drawn into their trials as the story went along - even a couple of them who were basically terrible people got some sympathy here and there.

26 March 2009

Evil For Evil by K J Parker

The second book of the Engineer trilogy, which I liked more than the first. All the characters who seemed to be good at everything begin to lose control of the forces they had unleashed in this story, which seems much more plausible. The story itself begins to weave the characters together much more closely and thus becomes a lot more exciting.

I realised that in some ways Parker is writing about similar themes to those in Pratchett's works (particularly his newer ones) but without the overt humour - there's a certain black cynicism here, still, but the books certainly aren't comedy. That aside, there's a commonality of interest in how societies can be efficiently or corruptly structured and the effects of technological change.

25 March 2009

Books Catch-up Post 3

Moving Target (aka Marque and Reprisal), Engaging the Enemy and Command Decision by Elizabeth Moon. The next three in the Vatta's War series. All very good. The only flaw is a tendency to have the characters be a little too awesome, which is forgivable in space opera.

The Guns of El Kebir and Siege of Khartoum by John Wilcox. The next two in the Simon Fonthill series. Both good and up to the standards of the previous novels. Things are beginning to go a little less hard on Fonthill in these ones.

Cretaceous Dawn by L & M Graziano. Adventure story about some people who accidentally time travel back to the time of dinosaurs and have to trek across the countryside to a particular point to come back. Good characters, science side of things is not explained at all (which I regard as a plus - if it is never explained it can't be nonsense), think of it as a superior Jurassic Park without all the waffle about 'Man playing God', chaos theory or kids (although there is a dog).

Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden. Second in his Ghenghis Khan series. Good, and a lot more exciting than the first one, mainly due to this one including Ghenghis beginning to conquer the rest of the world (specifically China).

16 March 2009

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

An absolutely fantastic read. It's superior space opera, told as a chap in a bar recounts the hunt for an ancient artifact to a bard. It takes a little while to get going but I got drawn into it more and more as it went on. The characters are fantastic and Flynn really makes you care about their motivations and histories as the story unfolds. Plus the storyteller and bard have their own little story that comes out in the interludes.

All this has as a backdrop a really interesting world, a celtic-influenced human galactic ("Gaelactic") empire that seems to be the result of a few interstellar wars over a few thousand years. The cultures of each different planet are vibrant and fun (although he does have some annoying dialect used, luckily not to excess), and feel like places that might have developed in the world he describes.

Great stuff. Read it.

The First Wave by James R Benn

The second Billy Boyle mystery, this one is just as enjoyable as the first. A few of the bad guys are pretty obviously telegraphed, but that doesn't really detract from the story as a whole.

11 March 2009

Devices and Desires by K J Parker

I enjoyed this more than The Company, possibly because it is drawn on a somewhat larger scale. There's certain common elements - extremely competent characters driven to extremes by various flaws and it is possibly set in the same world.

It tells the story of an engineer sentenced to death for making improvements on a mechanical design, one of the worst crimes in the city-state where he lives (they are the renowned machine-makers of the world). This sets into motion a cascade of events that causes war and destruction, and looks set to cause even more in the following couple of volumes in the trilogy.

I also approve of Parker writing fantasy without magic, monsters and all that stuff. Just people in a different, apparently totally normal world doing their thing. Admittedly, his main characters are almost supernaturally good at everything they do, but only to an unlikely extent rather than an unbelievable one.

09 March 2009

Gaming Catch Up - Mouse Guard in Play

I've played three more games of Mouse Guard in the past few weeks. One has been with my wife and daughter, the other two with my regular gaming group.

The family game went as well as the first two, although it was somewhat constrained by bedtime. They had to defend a caravan of parties supplies from some mouse bandits - this led to a fight, which was a great success. They then had to deal with a bluejay trying to steal cake, which they had less luck with. Continues to be fun with a young kid - she had no problems at all with the concepts involved in the conflict mechanics for the fight, either.

For the regular group, we played out "Deliver the Mail" and then a mission to see what some mysterious sightings on a certain road were being caused by

The intricate details of these games aren't really such a big deal - the thing Mouse Guard really shines at is ease of play. You can sit down for 5-20 minutes and come up with some good ideas for a mission, but if you don't have time for that you can just pick a couple of things as you crack open the rulebook at the beginning of your session. The characters' beliefs and instincts give you really big clues as to what sort of things the players want to see, too.

As you play, failed rolls allow you to provide twists to the story, which is a perfect way to elaborate things as you go whenever you have a cool idea for what could happen next. The trait mechanics encourage players to choose to make rolls harder for themselves in order to gain checks to use later (I can see this becoming more common as people play more sessions and begin to really realise the power that checks have), which contributes too.

It ends up with the game seeming to reflect the choices that the group as a whole makes about where things should go, but without anyone having to try really hard to make it happen. I continue to recommend this game!

Books Catch-up Post 2

The Goddess and the Bull by Michael Balter: An account of the excavations at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, and overview of what has been discovered about the stone age town there and more generally the region. Lots of information about the people involved in the archeology, too, and a history of the various fashions and arguments that have gone through the discipline (as they relate to that site). Fascinating stuff, reawakened my interest in prehistoric human civilizations.

All the other Vorkosigan stories by Lois McMaster Bujold. Solid space opera with a mystery/thriller (and occasionally romance) twist on them.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi. Good, but not stunning. I found this retreaded the story of The Last Colony a little too much for my liking (I realise that he wrote it for a different audience, so this probably is not that big a deal). It did, however, clear up some problems that the other novel had so it was nice to see what was supposed to be happening with those.

Billy Boyle by James R Benn. A mystery novel about a Boston cop drafted in the Second World War and attached to Eisenhower's staff through a family connection. In London, he immediately ends up investigating some unusual goings on. It's a good story with some satisfying twists and a really good main character.

The Magicians and Mrs Quent by Galen Beckett. This is from a similar inspiration as Strange & Norrell, although this story is significantly lighter. It begins as essentially a fantasy take on a Regency romance and takes a detour through gothic too. Not really very serious, but fun and exciting. I am looking forward to the second in the series.

The Company by K J Parker. A group of retired military veterans start up a colony at the behest of their old unit leader. Things steadily begin to fall apart as their old rivalries come up, old secrets are revealed and so on. The fact that the leader has kind of stolen an island off the government is just one of the problems that they have to face. An exellent character study of things falling apart, reminiscent of Fargo (without the jokes about accents).