Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review - The Sowing by K. Makansi

Short review: Remy's family has fled from the food-dystopia of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium, and Vale Orleán is determined to hunt them down. At least he is until he starts to pull aside the curtain on the Sector's dirty secrets.

Remy and Vale are
Both two sides of the same coin
Fighting over food

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Sowing, the first book in the Seeds trilogy, is a young adult work of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction in which agricultural policy is the tool that ruling elite of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium use to impose their will upon their fellow citizens without most of them even knowing it. Against this nefarious ruling elite is pitted a tiny but determined Resistance whose members are desperately trying to solve a secret code that holds the key to topple the oppressive regime. Oddly, both the ruling Okarian elite and the members of the Resistance are drawn from the same social circle, leaving the downtrodden farmers and the shadowy outsiders mostly out of the picture.

The novel shifts between two main viewpoint characters. Remy is a member of the Resistance, living in difficult conditions, separated from her parents while enduring the tough regime of training to be a guerrilla fighter with inadequate food, shelter, or equipment. Not only that, the opening pages of the book detail the pivotal event that caused her family to leave their lives in Okarian society and join the Resistance: The brutal murder of Remy's older sister Tai and the rest of her class as they were in the middle of a lecture on DNA synthesis. Vale, on the other hand, is comfortably ensconced in the elite of Okarian society, and although his position in the Okarian military means that he has to endure rigorous training, he is otherwise comfortable and showered with all of the necessary and unnecessary comforts of life. The contrast between Remy and her circle of young Resistance members and Vale and his crowd of friends and hangers-on is made murky by the fact that prior to her sister's murder, Remy was part of Vale's social circle, and the two were even somewhat linked romantically.

The book is, in large part, carried by this shifting viewpoint which illustrates both the stark contrasts and disturbing similarities between the lives and Remy and Vale live, and where their outlook on the world differs and converges. And the early part of the book needs this, because one minor weakness of the novel is that the dystopian nature of the Okarian Agricultural Consortium is not readily apparent. We are told that the senior members of the Okarian government were behind the attack that killed Tai, and that Remy's parents spend their time educating workers on the Consortium farms of the dangers their government poses to them, but we aren't really told what those dangers are, or what secret someone would arrange to kill a classroom full of college students to protect until well into the book. As a result, it is somewhat difficult to understand the nature of the conflict or what is at stake. Eventually the perfidy is revealed: The Okarian elite have implemented a program in which they have, via genetic engineering, manipulated the diet of the populace so that those on the farms become stupid and strong, while the privileged elite eat food that is designed to make them more intelligent.

But that revelation is fairly deep into the story, and in the mean time, the reader is able to get acquainted with the two main characters and the cast that surrounds each of them. Each story line involves the central characters chasing down a separate goal, with Remy attempting to unravel a piece of encoded DNA left behind by one of her former professors and Vale assigned to plan and lead a mission to capture Elijah Tawfiq, a key member of the Resistance. As might be expected, these two separate plot lines are on a collision course, and eventually Remy and Vale are reunited, although under less than ideal circumstances. At that point, their stories intertwine briefly, and then each character's story then diverges again, with Vale's trajectory, at least, changed fundamentally by their meeting.

One interesting element to the story is that neither Remy or Vale seem much interested in the larger political issues in which they are embroiled, and to the extent they are, they have very similar outlooks on life. Remy's primary motivation to join the Resistance seems to be the murder of her sister. Vale's primary motivation to excel in his military position seems to be a wish not to disappoint his parents. In fact, until deep into the story, Vale seems completely perplexed as to why anyone would choose to join the Resistance, a stance that betrays a severe lack of self-reflection on his part. This similarity highlights one of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Because almost all of the main characters are drawn from the same social circle of members or former members of the favored elite of the Consortium, there is a kind of bland similarity to the characters and how they view the world. The books has no character who represents the view of the mysterious "Outsiders" until well into its pages, and even that character is only relatively briefly on stage - and is on stage in such a way that really doesn't provide the reader with any substantial information about who the Outsiders are, or what they might want. Similarly, there are almost no characters from the Consortium's farming communities, and the ones who are in the book don't show up until very near to the novel's end. The Sowing is, in some ways, similar to what one would get if you changed all of the viewpoint characters in The Hunger Games to teens from the Capitol.

In one sense, this singularly focused set of viewpoints is a weakness for The Sowing, as the characters attitudes towards the world around them has something of a monochrome aspect. However, this myopic set of viewpoints also works to the story's advantage, as it becomes apparent that everyone represented in the book share some fairly gaping blind spots concerning the world in which they live. Because all of the characters who are ostensibly on "both sides" of the conflict operate under a common set of assumptions, they, and by extension the reader, can be taken by surprise when they encounter a character who doesn't share those assumptions. And once the reader realizes that the conflict as presented is essentially an intra-family dispute between two halves of a single formerly close-knit social circle, the revolutionary nature of the Resistance seems to be somewhat questionable. While life might be somewhat better for the workers on the Consortium's farms should the Resistance prevail, no one seems to have even bothered to consult them on what they might want. And no matter which side wins, things are likely to remain the same for the Outsiders. The realization that the "revolutionaries" don't seem to have really considered interests other than their own gives this book substantially more depth than many other works of young adult dystopian fiction, and provides the possibility of a stronger, richer story in future installments.

Despite the somewhat monochromatic nature of the central characters, they are all likable in the way that only naive, idealistic youths can be. Though the story in the novel presents a fairly simple conflict between heroic freedom fighters and callous tyrants, the elusive hints of a larger and more complex conflict are what raise the novel above the ordinary. In the somewhat crowded field of young adult dystopian fiction, The Sowing is well-ahead of most others, and will be sure to entertain and intrigue anyone who enjoys this genre.

Subsequent book in the series: The Reaping

K. Makansi     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 15, 2014

Musical Monday - Four Dead in Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

Let's have a history lesson. In 1968 Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States, at least partially on the strength of a campaign promise to get the country out of the war in Vietnam. However, in 1970, the U.S. was still mired in the conflict in Southeast Asia, and, on April 30, Nixon announced an expansion of the war that has become known as the Cambodian Campaign, or Cambodian Incursion. The war in Vietnam was already deeply unpopular in the U.S., and this new foray didn't make it any less so.

At least partially in response to the announcement of the Cambodian Campaign, on May 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 1970 students and others protested on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. These protests were not peaceful, often degenerating into police attempting to alternatively disperse or round up protestors, who in turn pelted the police officers with empty beer bottles and rocks. By May 3rd, Governor Rhodes of Ohio declared the protestors "un-American", and then he launched into some truly colorful rhetoric, stating that the protestors were "worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes". He further elaborated that the protestors were "the worst type of people that we harbor in America," and "I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America." To deal with the supposed threat, Rhodes called up the National Guard to handle the protestors.

On May 3rd, the National Guard tried to use tear gas to break up groups of protestors and imposed a curfew. Some reports say that while trying to enforce the curfew, the Guard bayoneted some students. An additional protest was planned for May 4th, but the University tried to ban it, distributing flyers that stated that the protest was canceled. About 2,000 students showed up to protest anyway, and the National Guard showed up to stop them. After a few rounds of advances and retreats by the Guardsmen (including one sequence in which they boxed themselves into an athletic field surrounded by a chain link fence), Sergeant Myron Pryon began shooting at the students with his .45 for unknown reasons. He was soon emulated by dozens of other Guardsmen who began shooting their M1 rifles into the crowd. Sixty-seven rounds were fired in just under 15 seconds. Four students were killed. Nine were wounded.

The four students were Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. Two were participating in the protest. Two were simply walking from one class to the next. None were within 200 feet of the Guardsmen. None of the wounded students were within 70 feet of the Guardsmen (making the explanation given by the Guardsmen that they felt threatened somewhat suspect). The event sparked nationwide protests across the country as more than 4 million students went on strike, causing more than 900 colleges and universities to close. Kent State closed down for six weeks. On May 8th, eleven people at a protest at the University of New Mexico were bayoneted by New Mexico State Guardsmen. Five days after the shootings, more than 100,000 protestors arrived in Washington D.C. The President's Commission on Campus Unrest concluded that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable". No matter how one feels about the Vietnam War, or protestors, or any of the other political issues of the day, I would hope that everyone can agree that National Guardsmen killing University students who were armed with little more than a few rocks is a tragedy.

Forty-four years later, enter schlock merchandiser Urban Outfitters who, today, unveiled a new item in their catalog: A faded pinkish Kent State sweatshirt decorated with bloodstained holes. They claim this was intended to be a joke, but it seems like there's little to joke about in an incident in which four people were killed for, at most, the crime of voicing their dissent. Only someone entirely ignorant of history would think this was a matter fit for a joke. Urban Outfitters has since "apologized" for their tastelessness, but one has to seriously question the judgment of anyone who would have thought this product was a good idea to begin with.

Previous Musical Monday: Persona by Blue Man Group

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young     Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Blogger Hop September 12th - September 18th: 69 Is the Number Bill and Ted Were Thinking of When Talking to Their Future Selves

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews asks (via Billy): What books would you want to read again for the first time?

There are so many books that I wish I could read again for the first time that it is hard to keep my choices down to a manageable number. So here are my top ten, in no particular order:

Dune by Frank Herbert
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, September 12, 2014

Follow Friday - Paragraph 175 Is a Documentary About Nazi Persecution of Gay Men and Women

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Something to Browse and Books to the Tea.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Before blogging (dark times people!) how would you find out about new books or did you?

Before the rise of the internet, I made great use of the library to find new books to read. When I was young, my family moved around a lot. First my father was in graduate school, and then later he joined the foreign service. As a result, for much of my early life I moved every year or two (in fact, when I spent three years in one high school, that was the longest I had ever spent at one school to that point). But every time we moved to a new place, there was always a library.

And each library introduced me to a slightly different set of books. I don't recall when, but at one point I discovered Andre Norton, so my first stop in a new library was always to locate where her books were kept and read all of the ones that I hadn't previously read. When I was in Tanzania I discovered Hergé's Tintin books and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series. This was also I where found the non-fiction books of Ewart Oakeshott. And so on. Once I moved to a new home, I would locate the library and start working through their collection.

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review - American Craftsmen by Tom Doyle

Short review: Dale Morton is an American craftsman, magically gifted and in the service of the U.S. Army. Then a mission assigned by the precognitive Sphinx goes bad and he ends up out of the service and on the run from the corruption within the heart of the Pentagon while trying to protect the Iranian woman he has fallen in love with.

A secret mission
Goes quite badly and reveals
Corrupt conspiracy

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Dale Morton is a man with problems. As a magically inclined soldier in service of the United States, he follows a long-standing family tradition. Unfortunately, part of his family history is somewhat checkered, and  includes the "left-hand Mortons", a family branch that delved into dark magic in an effort to achieve immortality, and so no one trusts him or any of his relatives any more. More problematically, Dale is no longer able to completely control his own magic due to a dying curse placed on him by an Iranian sorcerer. Now, Morton is out of the Army trying to figure out who set him up on his final mission so he can exact revenge.

Tom Doyle's debut novel, American Craftsmen imagines a world that is similar to our own in most ways except that magic is real and "craftsmen", as the members of a handful of magically-inclined families are called, can manipulate its power. In the United States, these families are supposed to have made a bargain with George Washington to provide their services to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and have served the U.S. armed services ever since with their existence kept a secret from the general public. Craftsmen are given credit for raising the fog that helped Washington's army escape from Brooklyn Heights, and with panicking Confederate troops into accidentally fatally shooting Stonewall Jackson. And, we are told, in the United States craftsmen are prohibited from practicing their craft on their own: They are required to serve the government or forego the use of their sorcerous powers.

Through the pages of the book we are introduced to the scions of several magical families in addition to the Mortons, most notably Endicotts, and the Gideons, as well as the Hutchinsons, and the Attuckses. Each family has its own tradition and array of powers. The Endicotts are austere New Englanders, steeped in Puritanism and gifted with the power of command. The Gideons are magical trackers, employed to locate and hunt down rogue craftsmen. In a clever twist, Doyle asserts that the Gideon bibles found in nearly every hotel room in the United States are actually the components of a magical monitoring system connected to the Gideon family. And then there are the "wild cards" - individuals who manifest magical powers but whose background is shrouded in mystery, perhaps intentionally. Among these is the Appalachian, a figure who inhabits and guards the sanctuary where the soul of America is kept. And then there are the "Sphinx", used by the Central Intelligence Agency to predict future possibilities, and "Chimera", used by the Department of Defense for much the same purpose.

It is in this world that Dale Morton's travails take place. After he is essentially forced out of service and barred from practicing his craft again, Morton retreats to his family home in Rhode Island. There, comforted by the ghost of his grandfather and the spirit of the house itself, Morton tries to figure out who is responsible for the disastrous mission that cursed him and caused him to be forcibly retired from Army service. Along the way, he runs into Scherie Rezvani, an Iranian immigrant, who then seeks his assistance so that she may acquire the skills that will allow her to return to her birth nation and fight against its oppressive regime. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Scherie is much more than she originally appeared to be, and her serendipitous appearance in Dale's life seems just a little too much of a lucky coincidence to be believable. But in the world of American Craftsmen magic is described as being the ability to affect probabilities so that the improbable becomes inevitable, which makes the unlikely seeming connection between Morton and Rezvani an example of the power contained in the the collection of countervailing nudges from Sphinx and Chimera.

Morton's efforts, of course, are not unopposed, and as the layers of intrigue are revealed one by one, the nature of the opposition shifts and changes. The most obvious foil for Dale are the Endicotts, as both the politically powerful General Oliver Endicott, and his son Major Michael Endicott harbor a deep mistrust of the Morton family. Both Endicotts (somewhat justifiably) believe that all Mortons are one step away from taking the "left-hand" way and indulging in unspeakable acts of depravity. But General Morton goes one step further: He's convinced (at least in part by communications from Chimera) that Dale has given in to the "left-hand" already, and that the Morton line must be ended. In the Endicotts Doyle has created a pair of characters of a type that are generally difficult for authors to pull off well - misguided but well-intentioned antagonists. Both General and Major Endicott start the book feeling that their distrust of Dale is entirely justified, and their efforts to work against him are the right thing to do. But in Doyle's hands, these two characters are believable and interesting "good" antagonists, although Major Endicott's character arc is, ultimately, much more interesting than Oliver's.

Though the plot is somewhat convoluted, with multiple twists and turns, apparent betrayals that turn out to be cunning stratagems, and actual betrayals from unexpected places, it flows fairly well, and in a manner that both feels plausible and unpredictable at the same time. Morton and Revzani wend their way through the double-crosses and double-double-crosses, unraveling the threads of the conspiracy they find themselves hunted by, until at the very end they peel back what they believe to be the final layers and emerge apparently triumphant. But even then, while they relax in their victory, the seeds of the next conflict are sown in the final pages of the book. Along the way, Doyle shows the reader glimpses and snippets of the magical world hidden within the real one, pulling back just enough of the curtain veiling the secrets of the craftsmen and their disjointed and heavily regimented society to make the story hang together, but still preserving enough mystery to leave the reader wanting more.

Although the novel is quite satisfying, there are some elements that are mildly bothersome, or at the very least unsettling. One plot hole that runs through the novel involves the contents of the Morton family house's basement. While the basement is the afterlife prison of the "left-hand" Mortons, it turns out that some rather critical members of that line are not present, although everyone, including Dale, his father's ghost, and his grandfather's ghost, are all certain that they are. This seems somewhat unlikely, since all of the Mortons are very concerned about the whereabouts of their nefarious ancestors, and are also very certain that they are safely tucked away in the nether regions of their family dwelling. The fact that they simply aren't there and no one noticed seems almost entirely implausible.

The second issue isn't really a plot hole, but is an unsettling aspect of the world described in the novel: The almost unquestioned complete government control over the lives of the members of the magically-inclined "fighting families". Subjected to mandatory government service, denied the use of their natural abilities in any other form of employment, threatened with arrest and secret trial for treason if they contravene these rules, and so on, the craftsmen live their entire lives beholden to the whims of government. And those whims are carried out behind closed doors, entirely out of the public eye, allowing individuals like General Endicott to make almost arbitrary decisions to assassinate another craftsman heavily colored by his personal dislike of the target. Not only that, but the members of the families are intentionally kept separate from one another, making them vulnerable to being picked off one by one, and allowing distance to permit old feuds to fester. This pervasive secret government control, to me, is more disturbing than the idea that there are people who can magically control the weather. A system that hides from public view is almost certainly a corrupt system, and the system that controls the "fighting families" is rotten to the core. And this goes almost entirely unremarked upon. There is a passing mention that this might not be such a good idea near the end of the book, but the comment is aimed at the policy of keeping the "fighting families" separate from one another, not the all-encompassing influence the government exerts over the craftsmen.

These quibbles aside, American Craftsmen is quite a good urban fantasy story. Set in an engaging world and populated by likable heroes, cantankerous allies, and villains that range from misguided to vile, the book is, all puns aside, a well-crafted tale of intrigue and adventure. It also appears to be the first in a series, which, given the strong nature of this volume, is excellent news. Anyone who likes their fantasy set in the "real" world and mixed with decent helping of military adventure will almost certainly enjoy this book.

Subsequent book in the series: The Left-Hand Way

Tom Doyle     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review - Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Short review: Krina-114 is a bank historian in a post-human world tracking down the greatest banking fraud in history. To do this she needs to find her sister Ana, but along the way she has to deal with the corrupt clergy of the Church of the Fragile, accountant pirates, and and the paranoid ruler of a floating kingdom. After that, things get really dangerous.

Bank historian
Studies unparalleled fraud
And winds up a fish

Full review: To me, the most amazing thing about Neptune's Brood is that it is interesting. Sure, it is set in the same post-human future as Saturn's Children (although it is not a direct sequel, so not having read the first will not prevent one from enjoying this). Sure, it has killer androids, deranged clergy, paranoid despots, and ruthless space pirates. But the central plot of the story revolves around interstellar banking transactions, a subject that it would seem would be as dry as space dust, but in Stross' hands, this forms the basis for a tense and gripping tale of intrigue, mystery, and danger. Not only that, it is set in a future that is both very alien, and yet familiar enough to make the reader uneasy.

The story follows the travails of Krina Alizond-114, a bank historian who specializes in the history of banking frauds, as she tries to find her sister Ana so they can work together to track down the Atlantis Carbuncle, an item that will unlock vast wealth. As the book opens, Krina has just arrived at Taj Beacon, having beamed in expecting to meet her sister there only to find that Ana has traveled to the nearby water planet of Shin-Tethys without leaving any kind of explanation. This poses something of a problem for Krina, as she had arrived at Taj Beacon without substantial amounts of "fast money", and unwilling to draw the attention that would accompany converting her "slow money" reserve into usable currency. As a result, Krina accepts a working passage under aboard a mobile chapel of the Church of the Fragile under the authority of Deacon Dennett, the temporary leader of the mission.

This delay in Krina's plans allows Stross to discuss the two primary background elements of the novel: The nature of this post-human society, and how interstellar finance is handled in a world in which faster than light travel does not exist. Traveling on the Church of the Fragile - the local representatives of the sect dedicated to preserving and possibly reviving the "fragile" as the androids that populate the universe call humans (due to our easily damaged nature) - reveals just how different this world is from ours. Although Krina wears a human-looking body, this isn't her. In fact, it turns out that the body she wears at the opening of the novel was just created for her on Taj Beacon after she was transmitted from an entirely different star system (apparently as nothing more than a set of code sent on a light beam). One's identity is now stored in a "soul chip" placed inside the head of a body, which is why the high priestess of the Church of the Fragile isn't dead as the result of an on-ship mishap, but is merely incapacitated while Deacon Dennett generates a new body for her.

The other background feature of the story is interstellar banking, which is handled using "slow money", a form of currency that exists almost exclusively to finance interstellar expeditions to found new colonies. This "slow money" is contrasted in the book with "fast money" (which is what we would now normally consider "money") and "medium money" (which covers investments other than building colony ships and funding the needs of new colonies). But slow money is at the root of the interstellar financial system, and at the heart of the story. Because when a new colony is financed, it must go deeply into "slow money" debt, first to pay back the parent colony that sponsored the new one, and then to recruit new colonists to help with the new colony. But the only reasonable path for a colony to get out of slow money debt is to finance the construction of new colonies that will then be financially beholden to it as their parent. In short, slow money is something like a very slow-moving chain letter, and the colonies at the end of the line end up owing a pile of debt they can never hope to repay. The debt-centric nature of this future society even permeates to the personal level, as Krina reveals that people are born (or rather, created) owing a debt to repay their parent for the cost required to incubate and raise them.

One of the interesting unspoken facts about the world that Stross has created is that this "slow money" debt is, almost the sole driving force that for space colonization. In the post-human world where life spans are extremely long, the birth rate is consciously determined, and even if one's body is in a mishap that kills you there is a decent chance you can be brought back, there is no particular demographic reason for humanity to expand to the stars. As trading physical commodities between star systems would be prohibitively expensive, the only transactions between different colonies involve information and not material goods. The only real reason to finance and establish a new colony in another star system is to offload your own debt onto a new venture. This doesn't explain why or how the first extrasolar colony was founded, or how this colony was financed - the system Stross describes requires at least three inhabited star systems to work - but it is the underlying truth of how the system functions at the time the book is set.

It is against this backdrop that Krina's quest to unravel what she suspects to be the largest banking fraud in history is set. In a world in which interstellar banking looms over pretty much everything else, being a bank historian who specializes in studying the history of bank fraud is a relatively interesting subject, and Krina is clearly quite intelligent and understands the financial systems of her society quite well. But she is also an academic, and as a result, she is somewhat naive when it comes to the every day hazards that surround her. This combination of obvious intellect and naivete makes Krina a character that the reader can enjoy following about, but who is not so overly competent that she never makes missteps. And her missteps are often what drive the plot. When she takes passage on the Deacon Dennett's Church of the Fragile ship, Krina is oblivious to the lurking dangers that surround her, which in retrospect seem almost obvious. Krina is oblivious to the danger that pursues her, and even when she is taken in by the piratical "Count" Rudi of the Permanent Crimson Branch Office Five Zero, who is trying to locate Krina's sister Ana as his corporation had rather foolishly underwritten a large insurance policy on Ana, Krina is still more or less clueless concerning the direction from which the hazards to her life and freedom are coming from.

But to a certain extent Krina's story, as filled with intrigue, double-crosses, and misadventures as it is, is only the first layer of what makes Neptune's Brood interesting. When Krina reaches the water planet Shin-Tethys and lands in Nova Ploetsk in the Kingdom of Argos, she finds a nation ruled by the despotic and paranoid Queen Medea. But in a world in which one can make "children" who are little more than copies of oneself, a paranoid ruler can populate her bureaucracy with what amounts to one's own clones, ensuring their loyalty. And Queen Medea has done so, creating a self-reinforcing aura of paranoia in her government. But Medea isn't the only one - Krina's "mother" Sondra has herself created a collection of clones and almost clones to staff her bank, including the line that Krina comes from. Although not fully explored in the book, the idea of a world in which those with power can create clones and near clones of themselves to act as their own foot soldiers is both unsettling and, I would venture, a topic that would make for an interesting book.

This is not to say that the book is so filled with interesting world background that it lacks an equally interesting story. After surviving the intrigues of the Church of the Fragile, an assassination attempt by her own clone, and a kidnapping by a band of accountant-privateers, Krina finds herself pressed into service by the Nova Ploetsk police to assist their investigation into Ana's disappearance and presumed murder. In short order, Krina is abducted again, and this time her entire body is resculpted and she is dropped into the depths below the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Argos - because Shin-Tethys is a water planet, not only do the borders of nations have length and breadth, they also have depth, and the realm below Shin-Tethys is ruled by a communist collective made up of people who have not only adapted their bodies to allow them to live at crushing depths, but altered their minds so that they can function as part of a collective society. The sort of additive world-building in which mind-altered squid-people are integrated into the plot, is what makes this story so intricate and fascinating.

In the end, Krina exposes the largest banking swindle in history, which turns out to have its source a little too close to home to be comfortable. Because of the enormous financial stakes involved, the various players try to claim the prize to the best of their abilities, which range from comical ineptitude to unprecedented violence. In the end, the story wraps up in a satisfying manner with an interesting twist that ties off most of the loose ends. The primary weakness of the story is that Krina somewhat stumbles through many parts of the story as a result of nothing but blind luck, and only survives at several points because those around her think that she is more valuable alive than dead. This is mitigated by the fact that Krina is a likable character, and is clearly an expert in her own field despite lacking in "street smarts". With an oddly fascinating plot and a vividly imagined albeit somewhat disturbing future Neptune's Brood is an enjoyable and engaging book that is sure to entertain.

Previous book in the series: Saturn's Children

Charles Stross     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, September 8, 2014

Musical Monday - Persona by the Blue Man Group

Because of the raging controversy on the internet this week revolving around those people who self-identify as "gamers" and a set of allegations concerning journalistic corruption supported by evidence that ranged from flimsy conspiracy theories down to absolutely nothing, I have seen a number of assertions concerning said "gamers" and why they have behaved variously like misogynistic asses, screaming children, and ignorant shut-ins. The most common assertion has been that the identity of "gamer" is something they cling to because they have been uniquely alienated from "normal" society, and thus being a gamer is all they have.

My response to this is to simply say that is a load of crap. While they may believe that being a "gamer" is all they have, they are not unique in feeling alienated, or feeling like society doesn't care, or any of the other justifications that have been offered. As the Blue Man Group's song suggests, the feeling of being alone, being isolated, being alienated from society and oneself is something that is common. And most people don't resort to becoming a "gamer" who spins imaginary webs of corrupt conspiracies that always seem to end up targeting women. Gamers are not special snowflakes, and there is no reason to give them a pass because they were the nerdy kids in high school.

Being a "gamer" is not a pass so you can be either a woman-hating jerk or a clueless loudmouth braying about "corruption" without understanding that the tenuous connections made between game developers and journalists constitute nothing of the kind. There are many people who feel marginalized and victimized in this world, and most of them seem to be able to not end up being misogynists or completely ignorant of reality. To use a silly astroturf meme that a fair number of gamers have passed around, being a gamer is not a shield that will protect you when you act like a screaming child. And far too many gamers on the web right now are acting like screaming children.

Previous Musical Monday: Seize the Day by Symphony of Science
Subsequent Musical Monday: Four Dead in Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

Blue Man Group      Musical Monday     Home

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Blogger Hop September 5th - September 11th: 68 A.D. Is the Final Year Recorded in Tacitus' Annals

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews asks (via Billy): How many bookcases do you have, and are they all in one room or different rooms?

Right now I have eighteen bookcases. This is not nearly enough shelves to house all of my books, but this is pretty much all the bookcases for which I have room. I have bookcases in every room in the house except the kitchen, and the only reason I don't have a bookcase in the kitchen is that one simply would not fit in there.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: There Are 67 Judo Throws

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Follow Friday - A Typhoon Has Sustained Winds of More Than 74 Miles Per Hour

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - The YA Buzz and Whatever You Can Still Betray.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Are you also a writer and what genre or did you ever consider writing?

As with so many of these questions, the answer depends on how you interpret it. In this case, it depends on how you interpret the word "writer". In one sense, everyone who writes a blog is a writer, and I mean that in a non-trivial sense. Kameron Hurley recently won the Hugo award for Best Related Work for her essay We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative, which was published as a blog post on A Dribble of Ink. Granted, Kameron's essay is an outlier as most of us cannot write nearly as well as she can, but that is a difference in degree and not in kind. Our blog writing is as serious or frivolous as we want it to be.

I also write a lot of material for games. I have played role-playing games since I was a preteen, and for much of my gaming life I have been in the position of being on the game master side of the table. And that means writing campaign settings and adventure scenarios so that players can enjoy themselves battling terrible villains. And I have reams of material that I have written for games, in various stages of completion ranging from "sketchy outline" to "polished game settings including player handouts and illustrations". None of them are ever going to be published. Most will probably never be seen by anyone except those people who sit at the table when I am running a campaign. But it is writing all the same.

But the kind of writing that I think this question is actually asking about is fiction writing. As in "have you written any novels". The answer to this question is a qualified yes. I haven't written any novels, but I have written some pieces of shorter fiction almost all of which are unfinished as of this date. None of them have been published as of yet, but they might be at some point in the future. Those who read this blog might guess that the genres I write in are science fiction and fantasy, and that guess would be correct. And though I have not tried my hand at writing a novel yet, I might at some point in the reasonably near future.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Blogger Hop August 29th - September 4th: There Are 67 Judo Throws

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews asks (via Billy): Do you request notifications of new replies when you post a comment on a blog post?

No. I figure if I'm interested enough to comment on a blog post, I'll be interested enough to go back and check on it later. If it turns out that I'm not interested enough to actually check on the status of the conversation later, then it is pretty much assured that I am uninterested in any replies that may have accumulated in my absence as well.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: 66 Is a Sphenic Number

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Follow Friday - SCP-173 Is a Creature Created by the SCP Foundation

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Words I Write Crazy and Please Feed the Bookworm.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Tell us about a book character you’d trade places with.

These sorts of questions are always difficult to answer, because most book characters don't live lives that I would ever want to live. They are often in peril, frequently harmed in some way, either physically, emotionally, financially, or otherwise, and in many cases have disastrous love lives and one or more dead family members. This shouldn't surprise anyone. These are, after all, the sorts of things that make for interesting characters living in interesting plots.

That said, I'm going to ignore my reservations about living the life of a character in a novel and say I'd be okay with being Krina-114 from Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross. I'm picking Krina despite the fact that she is on the run from multiple groups that want to kill her, or at least injure her sufficiently that she will reveal the invaluable information she has to them. And also despite the fact that during the course of the story Krina has to evade a ravenously hungry cannibalistic priestess, a murderous doppelganger, the police force of a paranoid despot, and, at one point has most of her bones and internal organs destroyed. And despite the fact that her own "mother" wants her dead. Because Krina lives in a post-human world where androids have continued a semblance of human culture and expanded into an interstellar civilization. And because Krina's world is interesting, and despite the threats she faces, her disposable body is able to get her through them. And because she ends up incredibly wealthy.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Saturday and Sunday

Me and the
Monster in the Darkness
Saturday: By my own entirely non-rigorous and unscientific estimation, Saturday is the busiest and most crowded day of Gen Con. Most people who get one-day passes to the convention seem to come on this day, and as Indiana schools are already in session, most parents who want to take their school-age children to the festivities do on this day as well. Saturday at Gen Con is also "Cosplay Saturday", and everyone who wants to dress up as their favorite science fiction, anime, or fantasy characters is encouraged to do so on Saturday. This means that the convention halls will be packed on Saturday, and in many cases, packed with people wearing big, flashy costumes that often have wings, giant swords, portal guns, extra-wide epaulets, or other features that make them take up more than their usual amount of space.

Saturday was also the day the redhead and I had our last, and unfortunately, least enjoyable, role-playing game session. I initially had high hopes for the session when we signed up for the game, as it was the first installment of a living campaign called Legends of the Shining Jewel that used the Pathfinder system. I am a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons die-hard who still runs a regular campaign using that system and Pathfinder is a clear descendant of that rules set, so I figured we had a good game ahead of us. But when we showed up bright and early on Saturday morning, we were told that what we had signed up wasn't what was supposed to be scheduled, and they didn't have anyone ready to run the game session that we had signed up for. The on-site event coordinators blamed "Gen Con" for messing up the schedule, but this seems to me like an evasion. Our "wrong" session was clearly printed in the Event Guide, and the coordinator on the spot knew that people were scheduled for this particular game well in advance of our arrival. There was really no excuse for them not to be ready for people to show up for this game session whether or not they intended to have this session or not. Instead, when we arrived, they fumbled about for a bit and then drafted a DM on the spot to run the session, shoved the adventure materials into his hand, and sent us over to a completely different room to find an available table to play at. This was, to say the least, not a good first impression.

Once we had found a place to play, we dawdled about a bit so that latecomers could be directed to our game session. Apparently, once they had decided to actually run the session, the campaign coordinators also decided to use it as a dumping ground for anyone they couldn't place in one of their "preferred" games. We ended up with an odd collection of players of fairly disparate experience and with characters of very different power ranging from first through fifth level. I played a gnome druid, while the redhead played a halfling rogue. We were joined by another, much higher level rogue, a sorcerer, and a barbarian fighter-type. When the session began, the hodge-podge method of assembling the party faded into the background because it became clear that the DM was woefully unprepared to run the game. This was partially not his fault, as he was pressed into service at the last minute, so holding the hemming and hawing as he flipped through the pages of the module to figure out what was going on against him would be kind of unfair. But at various points he was not merely unprepared, but displayed a distinct lack of knowledge of the game by, for example, mixing up what particular weapons or spells could do. But we let those elements go, because they didn't really mess up the session.

But two things really did mess up the session. First, the adventure simply wasn't very good. Three times we started a scene, and three times our characters had nothing to do with the resolution. Two of these scenes were combat scenes, and in both of them our enemies simply vanished or scampered away in the middle of the fight. The resolution of the story had almost nothing to do with our efforts. In short, the adventure could have proceeded quite nicely without any players sitting at the table at all. Second, the DM simply could not resist telling war stories about his adventures. He told us about his 18th level angelic cleric that he played in the Legend of the Shining Jewel campaign. He told us bout his cleric's half-ogre cohort. He regaled us with tales about how he played a drow character before R.A. Salvatore wrote his books featuring Driz'zt, which meant that he knew how to play a drow character much better than all of these Johnny-come-latelys. And so on. Every time the game started moving, the DM would grind it to a screeching halt with another digression about his personal gaming history. In the end, after the adventure had come to its unsatisfying conclusion and we just wanted to pack our bags and move on with our day, the DM passed out campaign information and encouraged everyone to join the campaign in their home region, clueless with respect to our frustration and disappointment.

Angela, Kameron, and Me
From this low point, our day got progressively better. Our initial stop to go see author Kameron Hurley, who, at the time, was merely a Hugo-nominated writer having a book-signing, and get her to sign her four books God's War, Infidel, Rapture, and Mirror Empire. This foray was entirely my idea, as the redhead was only vaguely familiar with Hurley's work, but she humors me when I get enthusiastic about an author, and as I had read (among other things) Hurley's brilliant essay We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative (for which, on the next day, she won one of her two Hugo Awards), I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to meet her in person. When we got to her table, she was incredibly nice and not only signed my pile of books, but chatted with us for a bit.

The Shake-Ups on Stage
From there, we had a slate of concert performances to attend, starting with the The Shake-Ups, a power pop band that had converted all of their songs to be about My Little Pony. Neither the redhead or I are big fans of My Little Pony, but our friends P.J. and Savannah are both in the band, and their music is quite catchy and fun to listen to, so we had a good time. The band played to an audience of enraptured kids plus a collection of Bronies and other fans. Their set included (I think) Pinkie Vibrations, Be My Fluttershy, and Our Little Timelord, but the highlight of the concert was when Savannah took her tambourine out onto the floor and got dozens of kids to put aside their shyness and dance. The band also held a coloring contest for the kids, complete with prizes donated by Enterplay, the maker of the My Little Pony collectible card game. The sheer undiluted glee displayed by most of the audience, especially the younger members, made this one of the most enjoyable events of the entire convention.

Immediately following the Shake-Ups performance, the performance area was cleared to prepare for the Five Year Mission concert. But before Five Year Mission could take the stage, their opening act Ford Theater Reunion played a set, and it was, well interesting would be the best word. Unlike the previous year's opening act for Five Year Mission's Gen Con performance, Ford Theater Reunion wasn't bad, they were just very much off the beaten path when it comes to music. With an accordion and a clarinet, they don't present as a typical rock band, and their style seemed sort of like Fiddler on the Roof meets punk rock. I'm not sure I would go out of my way to listen to them perform, but I'm not sorry that we heard them the one time. During one of their songs, their lead singer did do a funny "the floor is lava" routine, and they had a very creepy collection of dolls on display. Despite hauling around a suitcase full of very creepy old dolls, when I asked, the band members had never heard the Jon Coulton song Creepy Doll, which I found mildly odd.

Chris, Mike, P.J., Noah, and Andy
But then it was time for Five Year Mission to take the stage, now at full strength after Chris' recovery from his health scare on Wednesday. As usual, they were simply fantastic, and delivered a great performance of high octane nerd rock. In the set they played (among other songs) Space Seed, I, Mudd, The Naked Time, and Metamorphosis, as well as Mike's Klingon rap version of The Trouble with Tribbles. If you like Star Trek, there are few things more fun than going to a Five Year Mission concert. And the only thing better than a regular Five Year Mission concert is a Five Year Mission concert at Gen Con. My only regret is that they seem to have phased several of my favorite songs from their Year One CD out of their live act, such as The Cage, Charlie X, Balance of Terror, and Shore Leave.

Sunday: The final day of Gen Con is a day of exhaustion that involves most of the attendees trying to cling to just a few more hours of convention time before they have to go home and rejoin the real world. The redhead and I spent the morning of the last day volunteering at the ENnies information booth in the Exhibitor Hall. For those who do not know, the ENnie Awards are a set of awards that recognize excellence in role-playing games that have been handed out at every Gen Con since 2001 with categories including Best Cover Art, Best Family Game, Best Cartography, Best Blog, Best Podcast, and so on. For the most part, our job was to hand out ENnies-themed buttons, direct people to the list of games that had won the previous Friday, accept submissions for the 2015 ENnies, and keep people from making off with the displayed copies of the winning games. The last task was needed more than I would have thought, because apparently some of the game companies that had their own booths in the Exhibitor Hall had sold out of their products, so the only seemingly available copies in the building were in the ENnies information booth. And those were not for sale. The redhead and I had to turn away some very disappointed gamers whose eyes had originally lit up when they saw something they were desperate to acquire sitting on the tables we were guarding.

Exhausted post-Con
at Jo Anne's
Volunteering at the ENies information booth turned out to be quite a bit of fun, but like all good things, it came to an end. After our shift, we didn't have anything else scheduled for the rest of the day, leaving us the time to wander the Exhibitor Hall for a bit. Eventually the redhead elected to camp just outside the Exhibitor Hall and eat lunch, while I made a few forays into the packed room to make a few last minute purchases. Based on my observations, several dealers do discount their remaining stock on Sunday, probably because they don't want to incur the expense of packing it up and shipping it home themselves. If you wait until Sunday, you can probably pick up some good deals. On the other hand, if you wait until Sunday to try to purchase something, a vendor might sell all of their stock before you get there. So waiting is a calculated risk. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, and came away with a few pretty good deals. Before we knew it, it was time to leave. We stopped at Jo Anne's on the way back to where we were staying - both Savannah and Lorraine loved Angela's Star Trek fabric dress and wanted her to make them each one, so we needed to get fabric. After what seemed an interminable amount of time getting fabric, we made our way back to our friends' house, packed up our car, and headed for home.

We'll be back in 2015.

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Friday

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Friday

Friday is, in my opinion, the best day of Gen Con. By the time Friday rolls around, very few people are stuck in lines trying to get their badges and tickets. Most of the opening day chaos of Thursday will have died down and events should be running smoothly. The surge in attendees that accompanies Saturday and makes the convention a virtual madhouse packed to the gills hasn't hit yet. On Friday, the bone-tired fatigue of Sunday is still in the future.

But as fun as Friday is, it is still in the middle of a marathon of gaming, and if you don't want to be drooling on the carpet of the Exhibitor Hall on Sunday morning as people step over you, you need to plan at least a little bit. I fully endorse the Undergophers' "3-2-1" rule that states that a Gen Con attendee should get at least three hours of sleep, two meals, and one shower every day. That's per day, not per con. And that's a minimum. More of each would probably be better. And no, a Snickers bar is not a meal. But to expand upon the Undergophers' general advice, here are some specific tips on how to survive this endurance test.

Bring a water bottle. You can buy drinks at several places in the convention center. They are expensive. You can also get chilled water in several locations to fill your water bottle. This is free. You will want to stay hydrated through the event. So plan ahead and bring a water bottle. The redhead and I also fill our back packs with drinks, snacks, and our lunch. Sure, you can get all of these things at the convention center, but as one would expect, they are all sold at a fairly steep mark-up. If you bring your own, your wallet will thank you. You can also go outside to the food trucks or nearby restaurants, but this will be something of a hassle, as the lines are quite long, and will take time out of the middle of your day.

For dinner, we planned on eating at the food trucks on Georgia Street right outside the convention center. Most of the trucks serve good food (and usually generous portions of it) and if you plan well and schedule your dinner break for an off-peak time, the lines are quite reasonable. Note that which food trucks are on Georgia Street changes, as they rotate on a regular basis. The french fry truck that was there during lunch time will almost certainly be gone by dinner, and the truck serving engine block tacos at dinner will certainly not be in the same place tomorrow. And it may not be back at all. I think (although I don't know) that the food trucks have to sign up for a spot on the food truck row on Georgia Street, and can't be there except at their designated time. So if you see a truck that serves something you think you would like, don't wait until tomorrow to get it, because it might not be there. As an alternative, Noodles & Company is right around the corner from the convention center, and it is fast and inexpensive.

Also, unless you are staying at one of the Gen Con hotels, you're going to need to find a place to park your car. Even if you are staying at a convention hotel you might want to park your car elsewhere, as I have been told that some of the hotel charge quite a bit for parking. Most of the parking right next to the convention center is quite expensive, ranging up to thirty dollars a day for a spot. But if you are willing to hike a half a mile to a mile to get to the Con, there are numerous parking garages and lots where you can rent a space in advance for a very reasonable price. The redhead and I use Parkwiz to solve this problem (as we have never actually stayed at one of the convention hotels), and it has worked out very well for us thus far.

Friday: Our day started with a role-playing session titled The Heroes of Altamira that used the 7th Sea game system. By all accounts, the 7th Sea game system is intended for swashbuckling role-playing - one of the base statistics for characters is even called panache, so the redhead and I selected characters who would have been right at home in a Three Musketeers-inspired story. I played a swordsman from Montaigne (the "France" analogue in Theah, the fantasy version of Europe the game is set in), and she played a courtier from Montaigne. We built a small back story in which she was a diplomat from her country visiting Altamira in Castille and I was her bodyguard who was smitten with her. Once we sat down, it became apparent that none of this would matter in the slightest.

One issue was that the adventure scheduled for the session was part seven or eight of a series of adventures, and once again, multi-part adventures for convention games are, in my experience, often difficult to pull off. Fortunately, we weren't expected to step into the shoes of pregenerated characters, so there was no pretense that we were emotionally invested in the previous adventures. We did have a player in the group who brought a character named Don Gallo who had played through the previous adventures in the series, but as he had played through them over the course of several years at Gen Con, he remembered almost nothing. Despite this, the GM kept expecting everyone to understand the heavy significance of the various people, objects, and events that he dropped into his narration of what was going on, and when we didn't it seemed to frustrate and fluster him. His usual response was to simply repeat the significant information, and when that didn't work, launch into a lengthy explanation of why what he was referring to was important. This, as one might expect, slowed the game to a crawl at several points.

But the main problem with the session is that the adventure simply didn't deliver much in the way of swashbuckling fun. The players were gathered in a bar when a drunk walked in and accosted the one character who had been in previous adventures. After sending him on his way, we found rooms for the night and woke up to being arrested for the drunkard's murder. But the local law quickly revealed that they didn't think we murdered him at all, and asked us to investigate the matter. So we went to where he had rented a room, bought all his possessions, and found a journal that talked about corruption at a nearby prison. So we trooped back to the local law and they worked with us so we could infiltrate the prison posing as a group of Eisen mercenaries who had recently been arrested. From that point on, the railroad tracks became very apparent, as instead of investigating as prisoners, we were thrust into a series of unavoidable prison brawls that culminated in the warden revealing that he knew all along that we were spies and directing a hundred prisoners to kill us and when that didn't work sending a wildly overpowered and heavily tattooed enforcer to fight us.

If we had had a chance to make any decisions along the way in this process, this might not have been so annoying. But any time anyone tried to deviate from the preordained script, the GM would just grin and say "no, that won't work". For example, both the redhead's courtier and Don Gallo were characters who primarily had social skills, but any time they tried to do anything to defuse a brawl or investigate, they were shot down by the GM and compelled to resort to punching people in the face instead. Further compounding this railroading, the final "boss" brawler was essentially impervious to the characters. As a word of advice to GM's: If you create an opponent for the characters to face in a railroaded combat scene who is so overpowered that he is almost untouchable by the characters and on the rare occasions when they do, he shrugs off the damage, then you screwed up. The appropriate response is not to sit on your side of the table giggling and preening over how awesome your non-player character is. You're the GM. Creating a wildly overpowered opponent is trivial. It isn't an accomplishment. It is a failure on your part.

In any event, the game eventually stumbled to a close. Some of us chased the fat warden down, whereupon he made a confession and died of a heart attack. The others finally scared the overpowered brawler away by firing a cannon at him (swords and daggers having been entirely ineffective). The GM then read to us the list of things we found in the Warden's office, which were supposed to be meaningful references to the previous adventures, but even Don Gallo had no idea what he was talking about. This was not the worst game session we participated in this Gen Con, but it was only saved from that designation by the chaos and disorganization of our Saturday morning game and that GM's self-absorbed cluelessness.

The redhead modeling her dinosaur
dress with Aubrey and Angela
With The Heroes of Altimira behind us, our day was sure to get better, and given that our next event was to go see the Doubleclicks perform, the upward slope was quite steep. Making this even more fun, our friend Savannah was able to join us for the concert. I have written repeatedly about my love of this band, and in their second appearance at Gen Con, they were as brilliant as usual, fully justifying the fact that when we planned our convention schedule, their concert was the first thing we signed up for. They played several of their old favorites including This Fantasy World, Spock Impersonator, and Clever Girl, A Lullaby for Mr. Bear, and Oh, Mr. Darcy, as well as their powerful anthem Nothing to Prove. Angela and Aubrey also mixed in some of their new material from their recently released Dimetrodon CD including Love You Like a Burrito, Wonder, and Ennui (On We Go). The only problem with their performance was that it wasn't long enough, which is a problem I have with every one of their performances, but that might be because I could sit and listen to them play for hours. One of the most fun parts of going to see the sisters perform are the funny and snarky on-stage interactions between them, and they were as good at this as ever. After their performance, we got the only thing they had that we didn't already have: A purple dinosaur button to go with the redhead's dinosaur dress. They were brilliant, and if they appear at Gen Con next year, we'll be in the front row again.

Me and Brian Patterson
Our final scheduled event of the day was the mostly one-person panel hosted by d20 Monkey creator Brian Patterson (sometimes better known as Brian Fucking Patterson) titled d20 and Dick Jokes. Before the panel kicked off, Brian's lovely fiancé Lisa distributed "Brian Bingo" sheets to anyone who wanted to play, which featured squares to mark off for such events as "Says the phrase: jerk knee", "Talks about Karthun", "Says he's a whore/hooker for Christmas", and "Asks to see the bingo cards", as well as a number of other silly and funny quirks and mannerisms that only someone who knows him very well would put on a Bingo card about him. And as the panel unfolded, it became quite apparent that Lisa knows Brian very well, and before too long the room was filled with the sound of pencil-scratchings as audience members checked off one box after another.

Most of Brian's panel was a question and answer session, and he fielded questions on a broad range of topics from cast changes on the d20 Monkey comic, to his creative process, to why there has not been any pixelated dragon wang on the web comic. He also talked about white Christmases, his impending move to Colorado, his evil cat Emma, the current "dungeon run" story line on the comic, his love for bards (and his recent preview of the bard class for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons), and a variety of other topics. But then he brought Tracy Barnett to the front and together they announced the merger or Sand & Steam and d20 Monkey into a new venture named Exploding Rogue Studios. And then they announced that their first joint project would be to create a publish a multi-system sourcebook for Brian's campaign setting Karthun. There was, as one would expect, much rejoicing at these announcements. This was the only "panel" we went to at Gen Con, and it was well-worth it.

Afterwards, the redhead and I ate dinner with Dustin, one of the members of the cast of the Undergophers, and he gave me an extraordinarily generous gift. As we ate, we talked about GMing games, our experiences with old game systems, and the fact that we were missing the ENnies. Even though the primary focus of Gen Con is supposedly the gaming events, panels, and concerts, I think the best part is being able to meet and talk to people like Dustin and share stories about our common love of gaming. I can't think of a better way to create and maintain friendships between gamers from around the country than attending Gen Con and other events like it.

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Wednesday and Thursday
Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Saturday and Sunday

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Wednesday and Thursday

The redhead and I both love gaming. Therefore, attending Gen Con every year is a priority for us. So we packed up our very new, very small car and made our way from Virginia to Indiana for the best four days in gaming. Well, actually, it is more like the best three days in gaming framed by two half-days on each end, but I'm not going to quibble. I have noted before that Gen Con is a huge convention, with over fifty thousand attendees and a large portion of the convention is conducted in role-playing or board game sessions involving small groups of six to eight people or so. As a result my experience is not even close to representative of what the event is like overall. The only thing I can say with confidence is that this was what the redhead and I were up to during Gen Con.

Wednesday: Because we were able to schedule the drive to Indianapolis to take place over two days, we arrived at the convention center mid-afternoon on Wednesday. Even though Gen Con doesn't officially start until Thursday, the quasi-official warm-up events have spilled over to Wednesday evening, mostly centered around the Sun King Brewery's annual geek themed beer, which was named "The Froth of Khan" this year. I didn't make it over to try the brew, but I have been reliably informed that it tasted like a smooth combination of coffee and beer. I'm not sure what to make of that, but that's all the information I have.

But what we were really on Georgia Street for was the music, and we were treated to performances by Sarah Donner and Five Year Mission, both of whom were amazing as usual. Sarah was up first and she delivered a great set that included The Rebuttal of Schrödinger's Cat, All My Guns, and With Pride. She also sang a very recently completed song about Settlers of Catan (and revealed that she is obsessed with getting the "Longest Road" achievement in every game she plays)  and a song that will appear on her upcoming album that will consist entirely of songs about cats. Donner's music is beautiful, her lyrics range from heartbreaking to comically nerdy, and her voice is angelic. Needless to say, her set was excellent and if you ever get a chance to see her perform, I recommend that you do so.

After Sarah's performance, Five Year Mission took the stage. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: Five Year Mission is, hands down, the best Star Trek themed band I've ever heard, and one of the best "nerd" bands of any kind. The band delivered an great first set that included (among other songs) The Naked Time, and the hilarious non-love ballad I, Mudd. The band took a break after their excellent first set, and then disaster struck, as Chris Spurgin was laid low by a recurring health issue that required him to be taken away in an ambulance. The rest of the band forged on despite being a man down, and with a little help from the audience, they were able to complete a second set. While the event was scary, the good thing is that Chris was thoroughly checked out and given a conditionally clean bill of health.

In addition to attending the two performances, the redhead and I picked up our badges and tickets at the will-call booth on Wednesday. Although the line looked intimidatingly long, it moved quite quickly and we were able to get everything we needed for the convention in relatively short order. If you are picking something up at the convention (as opposed to having it mailed to you) I suggest doing it on Wednesday, because it seems that the lines are shorter and move quicker.

  Thursday: As in 2013, Thursday was our most gaming heavy day. It was also our earliest day, starting at 8:00 AM, and our latest day as well, not ending until close to midnight. Because I have been gaming since about 1979, and the redhead has only been gaming for a couple of years, I let her pick most of our schedule for Gen Con, so that she can play all of the games she wants to play. Usually this works perfectly, but sometimes her lack of experience creates some modestly humorous situations, like our first game of the convention, an introductory session of the brand new 5th edition D&D system titled Defiance in Phlan. This was humorous because when she signed us up for the game, the redhead didn't realize what a big deal 5th edition is, and so she was slightly shocked by the volume of people waiting in line to get to the tables. After some mild confusion that included us having forgotten the characters we had made specifically for this session, the game got underway. Because Wizards of the Coast seem to have wanted to run as many players through this session as possible. the game only lasted for an hour, and as a result, the adventure more or less just dropped us into a scene and had us jump to combat pretty quickly. The redhead played a halfling rogue, and I played a tiefling sorcerer. The system seemed okay, more or less like going back to a slightly more fiddly version of 3rd edition D&D, although I did get to have demonic tentacles drag a thug to the pits of Hell, so there was that. On the whole, there was just enough time to get an itty bitty taste of the new system and not much more.

Our second game of the day was a Hero system based game titled The Resistance - Let's End This in which the players portrayed members of the human resistance against the magical invasion of the denizens of the faerie realm. Apparently, at some point in the past, the gates between our realm and the fairy realm had been opened and the denizens of fairy had invaded, taking over the world and imposing a regime of magic where humans were second-class citizens at best. The scenario we played out was apparently the third in a three part series of adventures, which made the game somewhat less than compelling. I understand the desire to create a series of adventures for role-playing sessions. After all, most role-playing games work best in a campaign format in which the players build upon their previous experiences from session to session. But the key is that the players have to be invested in the story arc, not the characters, and in a game session in a convention, many, if not most, of the players in the adventure won't have played in previous sessions in the adventure arc, and won't play in future ones. The result is that you have players who aren't emotionally invested in the outcome playing through a truncated part of a story, and in many cases, not caring as much as they would have if the adventure was self-contained into this one session.

The other problem with the game was the pregenerated characters provided for the session. There were eight players, and nine pregenerated characters, which seems reasonable at first. But then the GM suggested that the "linguist" character was the one that wouldn't be missed by the party and we should choose from the remainder. This, to me, is a warning sign. The GM had complete control over both the adventure and the pregenerated characters made for the adventure, so why would one character be not particularly well-suited for the scenario? After we got into the adventure, it became apparent that several of the characters were less than well-suited to the scenario, which made it somewhat frustrating to play. Even the characters, like mine, a Native American Shaman, who had a "critical" role to play in the climatic conflict of the session, were somewhat dull to play, as my role turned out to be to simply keep chanting a magical counter-chant to prevent the faerie queens (and king) from accessing magic while some of the other characters did the fun stuff. On the other hand, the redhead got to play a sneaky Egyptian spy who was good at stabbing things, so she had lots of fun things to do.

But the real problem with the session was a couple of the other players who simply had to have a micromanaged plan for every possible contingency. Granted, some planning is necessary, but in a game in which you only have four hours to play, spending more than an hour coming up with a plan for every single "what if" you can come up with seems to me to be a waste of valuable time. The only thing that allowed us to actually complete the adventure despite this self-inflicted delaying action is that (according to the GM) we apparently unraveled the mystery of what were were supposed to do quite swiftly - although to be honest, it seemed rather apparent to me from the outset that we were supposed to use the three magic daggers to kill the two faerie queens and one faerie king. In any event, we made our way to the inner sanctum of the faerie lords and surprised them mid-ritual at which point I chanted and the redhead stabbed, and along with the rest of the party we triumphed. This wasn't a great session, but despite the niggling problems, it was enjoyable.

The heroes are menaced by plant tentacles
on the International Space Station
Our final game session of the day was Manhunters, Inc., using the Ubiquity system produced by Exile Game Studio, a system we had played twice before at the 2013 Gen Con and enjoyed quite a bit. Although the Ubiquity system is normally used for pulpy adventure gaming in the vein of Doc Savage or Tarzan, the GM for this session had done some work to adapt the system for use for super-hero role-playing, and it worked marvelously. The players were a group of super powered humans organized by displaced alien law officer Lone Star to track down and bring to justice prisoners from a Galactic prison who had escaped to Earth. I played Lone Star, while the redhead played Titan, who was more or less Henry Pym in his Giant-Man incarnation with the serial numbers filed off. The group also included a speedster, a swashbuckler with a sword made of black meteorite iron, a guy with fire and ice powers, a character who was basically Plastic Man by another name, and a few other heroes.

The adventure itself was something of a space romp. The big news of the day was that the previously unknown (and manned) Voyager III space probe had returned and docked with the International Space Station. At the start of the session, Voyager III's lone crewman was flying back to Earth accompanied by two of the Space Station's crew when they were diverted from their original flight path to our location. Upon arrival, it turned out that they had been infected with some sort of alien virus that warped their minds and gave them all super-powers. As this was a super-hero adventure, we had to punch, slash, and shoot them into submission in a thrilling action sequence. Once the fracas had ended, there was nothing for us to do but fly Lone Star's spaceship up to the ISS and investigate. We quickly found more mutated humans with super-powers and bad attitudes, and once again we were in a fray. Eventually, we discovered the source of the infection - a giant pile of bacteria wandering around the cargo bay of the ISS dressed in most of a space suit. We had to figure out what to do with this ambulatory pile of goo, and our solution consisted of ejecting it out the air lock. Manhunters, Inc. was, in my opinion, the best role-playing session we had at this year's Gen Con with a fun self-contained story, lots of action, and enough mystery to break up the fighting.

Gen Con, August 13th-17th, 2014: Friday

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