Monday, August 21, 2017

The Golden Naginata (The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 2)

The Golden Naginata 
The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 2)
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Fantasy/Samurai Genre

When Amazon had their 'prime day', I went in on the Kindle Unlimited. I've been unimpressed by the navigation tools that Amazon offers to get the most bang for your buck with that subscription service. Having said that, I did discover an old series, The Tomoe Gozen Saga, where all three books were available in the Kindle Unlimited Library.

The second book, like the first, uses a new cover. Again, I'm a fan of the old school cover:

The writing is better than the first volume, but Jessica still does a lot of telling instead of showing, or telling and then showing. For example think, "Tomoe had a bad dream" and then the explanation of the bad dream itself. Tomoe continues to be a powerhouse with few rivals. She travels not only in the mortal world but into the depths of Hell itself. Her fighting skills and stances on various subjects are often brought directly into conflict with her samurai training.

The book includes numerous illustrations which are handy if you're unfamiliar with the genre or the topic. These are small black and white images that occur at certain points in the text.

Tomoe is not a fan of marriage. Even though for many, marriage isn't something done for love, Tomoe has more concern with it affecting her ability to enter the battlefield. She resists so much that her relationship with her family becomes strained and it's not until someone else points out the dishonor she's bringing herself and the family that she relents into marriage.

Like the previous book, indeed, like many older books, this is a collection of linked short stories that taken together tells Tomoe's tale. Her search for the Golden Naginata itself is to help her in Hell. She needs a weapon of this heavenly quality to ensure her ability to fight against those who dwell in Hell. The author doesn't just give Tomoe an automatic win either.She has to quest to get it, can only use it for so long, and has to battle a heavenly 'good' creature, a Ki-Rin, in order to claim it. Along the way, she has other adventures and encounters including running into a younger version of herself.

This sets up an interesting dissonance. Tomoe is willing to forgo much in order to continue her adventuring but she is reluctant to engage in a duel with her younger counterpart because Tomoe is reminded of herself. In some ways, it dishonors herself as Tomoe would not have tolerated such a behavior.

Another interesting theme is that despite her swordskill, Tomoe is not very sociable and indeed, even when her sword skills are unmatched, she often winds up failing at things.

My favorite of the adventurers is Tomoe meeting several other 'rogue' adventurers like herself through a hungry ghost that seeks to avenge the death of his family. This ghost is able to reach out to Tomoe and the others because of the sword she yields. The others all also yield blades by this smith. It's a nice change of pace in how the characters meet and why they meet.

In terms of opposition, Tomoe encounters enough mortal enemies to make her the rival of any warlord, but she also battles in Hell against oni, she even meets Emma and his kinder side which tries to help the children trapped in Hell. Jessica also throws some different lore into the mix as Tomoe angers the Namazu or Giant Catfish under Jessica's version of Japan.

Few figures get a 'clean' pass. We have people worshipping deities, people following Buddism, people following Shinto, people having little to no actual religion. It's all mixed in together in a strange mesh as all of them have a hand in the reality that Tomoe finds herself living in.

Another one of my favorite bits? Tomoe fighting a Tengu. It's not that the Tengu is such a frightening match for Tomoe, but rather the humor the author uses. Tomoe clips the Tengu's wings and it falls into a  vat of blue dye and the Tengu remains blue throughout the rest of the tale. The Tengu seeks to have its young nephews play pranks and test Tomoe's patience, but Tomoe manages to convince the youngsters to instead torment their uncle since the older Tengu can't fly after them to punish them. Children being children, they are delighted with the idea.

Jessica avoids the use of 'good' and 'evil' as signposts for Tomoe and her culture. Instead, we have traits like pride, ambition, and hope. Ambition, especially in this era and time, are high on the list and Tomoe rises and falls based not only on her own abilities but with those she's allied with so that the greater events surrounding her pitch her about like a cork on the open sea. 

Despite having the Golden Naginata, Tomoe's final fate in the book is downcast and things are looking grim. Hopefully, the Thousand Shrine Warrior brings Tomoe back to a place where her swordskills shine enough that her dour personality can take a backseat again.

If you're a fan of fantasy elements in your Samurai, The Golden Naginata, despite some uneven writing and a change of cover, is a great place to start. If you're a Kindle Unlimited member, it's even free to read.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

The last DC movie I saw in theaters was Man of Steel. If you see a preview clip for the upcoming Justice League, there's this whole bit about how Superman brought hope and showcased what people could be. Man of Steel showed little of that.

Wonder Woman makes Diana Prince's entrance into theaters as someone who brings inspiration and hope to those who meet her.

A small portion is given over to how Wonder Woman is raised but it's a rather simple origin. She was given life by Zeus and is the only child on an island of adult, apparently ageless warrior women. Her regimen that she starts as a child, is learning the Amazon ways of war. The island has its own charm and beauty, outside of being a timeless tropical paradise, it's covered with ancient art and is in a timeless pristine condition.

Diana grows up learning about Ares and his terrible plot to bring an endless war to the world of Man. She's shown the sword, the God-Slayer and told this weapon will one day end the threat of Ares.

I'm not like an ancient of the world but as a comic reader since the 80s, I was there for when Crisis of Infinite Earths changed up the Wonder Woman status. I loved George Perez's incarnation of Ares. I enjoyed that version more than the even recent version in the New 52 era.

Note these stories and more are collected in the massive George Perez Wonder Woman Omnibus. If you're a comic fan or want a retelling of Wonder Woman's tale, this is a great source of said tales.

So how does Diana wind up leaving the island? Steve Trevor, being pursued by a WWI German force, crash lands in the waters directly outside Paradise Island. Diana saves him but then she and her sisters immediately have to fight off a German landing party.

While the action sequences are fantastic and showcase a lot of energy and vibrancy I felt a twinge of "The Amazons are amazingly stupid." Atop of a hill, armed with bows capable of shooting further and farther than any WWI weapon, after a quick volley, they dive right into melee with a foe they've never encountered before.

Flesh and bone versus even, by today's standards, primitive firearms, provides something that the Amazons haven't had for perhaps thousands of years; casualties.

Steve, under the duress of the lasso of truth, reveals that he is a spy and has learned of a terrible chemical weapon that is going to be used to kill millions and he must return to London and try and stop it. The Amazons have no interest in 'Man's World'. Except for Diana whose been raised that it is her duty to help. That is it the reason she exists, to stop Ares.

When Diana's mother forbids her leaving, she does what any child does. She rebels. She steals the God Slayer and other assorted Amazon artifacts grabs Steve Stevor and preps a boat for taking off on the beach. A quick meeting with her mother who blesses her but tells her she may never return to the island leads us to the second act.

Diana is able to contrast the cleanliness and beauty of Paradise Island with London. London does not fare well. It's a place of filth, of smoke, of massive crowds and fear. Diana learns the current role of women in 'man's world' and fights it tooth and nail every inch of the way.

After a shopping trip to provide Diana with some less conspicuous clothes, Diana and Steve recruit a group of individuals who act almost as Doc Savage's crew. These are individuals who bring unique or specialized talents to the mission, an actor, a scout, and a sniper. Add in Steve and Diana and you've got Doc Savage and his old crew.

For those who don't know the old Pulp era hero Doc Savage, he was one of the first near superhumans of his era. He was one of the best fighters, one of the best scientists, one of the best people. And he traveled with a group of people who each had their own specialty. But it always seemed that Doc could do everything they could and more.

But Doc couldn't' be everywhere at every time and Diana at least, unlike Doc, doesn't know 'man's world'. Her crew fits her better.

I was impressed that in a WWI film, they managed to squeeze in so much diversity without it feeling pushed or fake. The scout, 'The Chief', works for everyone and is a well-known figure on the front line. The actor, Sammar, the one with the smooth tongue, able to use his 'lowly foreigner' status to fool people into thinking he's less than he is and moves about unobserved. The sniper? A drunk who is haunted by those killed in The Great War, but also a singer and player of the piano. the group works well. A diverse lot like this over the great range of Europe with the variety of people living in the continent makes a certain amount of sense.

Diana's role? The role she believes she has? It's to kill Areas. Based on information she's found so far, she believes it to be the German Ludendorff. She's intent on killing the man, of doing so at an elite gathering, one last 'huzzah' before peace is signed over. Trevor is intent on destroying the chemical supply.

To get to Ludendorff though, they must first cross 'No-Man's Land'. It's another one of the great action sequences in the movie. Wonder Woman in full costume, with shield and bracers, with strength greater than any normal man, advances into the hail of machine gun fire, taking the attention of the Germans long enough for others to make their advance and return fire.

The struggles that follow mire Diana further in the horrors of life in wartime. Innocents, men, women, and children, dying for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. People undergoing the horrors of starvation. People, she might be able to save suffering caravan breakdown as horses become dragged down in mud and muck. She learns she cannot save everyone.

But she manages to save a  town and they celebrate the victory with dancing and even a rare photograph, the methods were far more primitive than simply pulling out a smart phone and selfie stick.

Diana manages to sneak into the party and is about to attack Lundendorff when Steve stops her and tries to bring her to his side of thinking. While that goes on, a shell of the weaponized chemicals is shot into the village Diana just saved.

Outraged, Diana blames Steve for all these peoples deaths and goes on to fight Lundendorff!

This fight was well done but such a red herring that it even had me fooled. See, Diana is far more than human. At this point in the story, she's not on Superman level or showcasing an ability to shrug off tank shells, but she's able to lift a tank, cover tremendous distances with a single leap, outfight whole rooms of trained soldiers and such.

Lundendorff is given some type of super steroid by 'Dr. Poison', the genius responsible for coming up with the chemical weapon in the first place. It's apparently enough to give him the ability to fight Diana on equal terms.

When she slays Lundendorff and the Germans don't stop loading a massive plane with the chemical weapons, learning that man is indeed monstrous even without the advent of Ares leading them on, that further breaks Diana's heart and she cannot understand why this is still happening.

Steve Trevor, a man on an almost single minded mission though, asks for her help again and she refused. Steve and his allies move on against the still loading plane and debate best on how to take down this terror weapon without activating the chemical agent in an occupied area.

A guy named Steve and a dangerous plane? Anyone see where that's going?

As Diana considers her options, the 'real' Ares shows up. There are several stages to this battle but it starts off with the simple act of truth. Diana rams the God Slayer at Ares who not only blocks it with an open hand but destroys it.

Turns out the God Slayer isn't the sword, it's Diana herself. Diana who in this incarnation, turns out to be a goddess, the last legacy of Zeus to the mortal world. This part wasn't as big a reveal to anyone paying attention to the beginning with all of the "Diana cannot know what she is!" bits but to those unfamiliar with such nods in the super hero genre, it may have come as a surprise.

Diana picks up her game considerably her. She moves faster, hits harder, and fights with more innovation.

Ares is unimpressed and thrashes her easily. At one point knocking her so far away from the battle that she falls from the sky and tumbles across the ground like a skipping stone where Steve finds her and a deafened Diana can't hear his words to her and ponder the meaning of Steve giving Diana his father's watch.

Diana returns to the conflict while Steve boards the plane.

Diana continues to suffer at the hands of Ares while Steve flies the chemicals high enough into the air that he feels confident that setting them off won't endanger millions. The explosion is seen on the ground where Diana undergoes a transformation.

Normally I hate Dragon Ball Z power ups.

1. Fight somewhat equal but villain having an edge.
2. Villain showing 'true' power and beating hero easily.
3. Hero seeing loved one slain and gaining an immediate power up.
4. Hero becoming more powerful than the villain.

In this instance, it fits the evolution of the character. An Amazon whose only learning that she's a goddess. An Amazon who as Ares asks something along the lines of "let's see what type of god you are."

Turns out she's the goddess of love. Not lusty love. Not love of self. But an unselfish love for all humanity.

As corny as it sounds, the actress pulls it off. Her defeat of Ares isn't Wonder Woman conquering Ares, it's peace, hope, love, overcoming war, despair, and hate. It fits the movie far better than say, Superman snapping Zodd's neck.

Wonder Woman has a great score. It has great scenery. It has fantastic action sequences. It is a great showcase of 'The Hero's Journey'.

In terms of super hero movies, I was impressed that they went with the Great War instead of WWII. I also enjoyed that the movie takes itself seriously. I enjoy a lot of Marvel films and appreciate that they go to great lengths to avoid 'grimdark' that DC movies seem to seep themselves in. Wonder Woman however, doesn't use needless comedy and despite the subject matter, despite the Great War background, it has a lighter hearted feel than Man of Steel. Diana is a hero because she's a hero. It works for her. It works for the audience. She's earnest in what she seeks to do.

Wonder Woman is a solid film and a great super hero film. While I don't hold a lot of hope for the upcoming Justice League, I am hopeful that others will look at the different ways that great story telling in and of itself, can be used in a super hero movie and continue to push the boundaries of the genre.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

The Bloody White Baron
Written by James Palmer
Published by Basic Books
$15.99 ($10.98 from Amazon)

The Bloody White Baron is a book I saw one of my fellow G+ users reading along with a pile of other books relating to Russia, Mongolia, and China. It looked more than interesting enough with a subtitle of "The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia."

I enjoyed James Palmer's writing style. I use transparent note stickies to hit passages I want to return to. The book is covered in them. Its flow is a little rough though because James provides a lot of backgrounds so we move chronologically back and forward. It's not Event X happened at year A in the start and event Z happened at year C at the end. There are numerous bits to try and catch the reader up to the larger picture around the Bloody White Baron.

Due to when the events happened, it's interesting to look back at how people saw the Bloody White Baron, also just called The Baron. Descriptions of him include having the power to cloud men's minds. That he was the child of crusaders and privateers. That he fit certain Mongolian legends of a White Savior.

His actual historical deeds? Monstrous is a quick way to describe them.  Not quite a proto-Nazi, Ungren was firmly anti-Semitic. In some instances, the mass murder of Jews was 'simply' for the acquisition of their property, wealth, and other mundane bits.

In others? I'd hate to say 'typical' anti-Semitic nonsense but a look at America in 2017 and chants of blood and soil and Jews will not replace us should give you a small peek into the mind of someone who has an earnest fear of Jews and that killing them was the only way to be safe, the only way to follow the 'true path'.

Ungren was not kind to his own men either. He was a torturer and a sadist in using typical Buddha hells in order to come up with new and horrific manners in which to punish his own men. Note I said his own men, the Soviets. Those who followed him from the start, those who joined up with him later ignoring the warning signs. He did this because he could not indulge his sickness against his Mongolian allies.

Part of this was practical. He relied on the Mongolians for shelter, political alliance, and other understandable bits. Part of it was religious based. He was a man who sought out Oracles. A man who believes in Mystics. A man who despite not being very good with his own religion, was one who tolerated all religions as seeing them under the same cosmic umbrella.

He was a man who came from a country where the threat of the 'Yellow Peril' was widely spread. A man who came to see his own country as being weak, as being corrupted. A man who sought to behind the scenes to help a new Asian emerge, to bring forth a new realm of divine kings.

Ungren was also unusual in that he was not cut from the civilized cloth. He thought of horses and their role in combat and mobility as being unstoppable. He hated paperwork. He fought on the front lines often and was rarely injured there.

He disagreed so much with those in the civilized courts that he was often banished from their halls. His removal from numerous schools growing up was only allowed to advance as far as it did due to his family's background and nobility.

It's fascinating in many ways because James Palmer doesn't let us forget the poor bastards on all sides who get caught up in this madness. Russia at the time undergoing horrific civil wars. China undergoing a loss of monarchy and the rise of communism. Mongolia? Stuck in the middle with both sides claiming ownership of it or at least ownership over parts of it at different times.

One is not sure who to feel worse for. Those poor souls condemned to various monstrous torture under Ungren that were his own soldiers, the Chinese soldiers who are nomad like in their wandering from war to war seeking to merely survive day to day or the Mongolians whose fate under Russian 'leadership' left millions and millions dead even as their own culture was stripped from them.

If you don't know a lot about the time and reigion, a very specific time and reigion, The Bloody White Baron is a good place to start and a solid read.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Disfavored Hero (The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 1) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

The Disfavored Hero
The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 1
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
$6.15 Kindle format or free on Kindle Unlimited

While I'm pleased with the selection of graphic novels available on Kindle Unlimited, I'm less so with actual novels. I'm also on the lookout for interesting stories about non-western fantasy as it's a field ripe for exploration. I was pleased to discover The Disfavored Hero where the whole trilogy is available in the Kindle Unlimited library.

I will say though, that the publishers of the kindle book have gone the 'classic' yet cheap route on the cover. Look at the original from 1981:

That looks like it came right out of the 80s and it's glorious.

That's also something going for it. Jierl of Joiry gets a lot of credit for being one of, if not the first female heroes in the fantasy field and one of the first by a female author. But Jierl was not a great hero in her own tales. That might have been an artifact of the time but her sword skills and actual abilities always seemed to get the beat down being saved by the weird even more so than the original Conan tales.

Tomoe suffers defeat herself but her abilities are on a far superior level.

The book itself?

Less so.

It's hard to describe the writing. At first, I thought this was a translation because it moves between telling the reader what happened and actually having some dialog between characters. It's more of a style thing that didn't gel with me. Heck, may be an 80's thing. In some ways, it reminds me of old fairy tales or legends.

It's also a bit rough in places in terms of transition.

The cast of charactes is not wide. There are a handful introduced throughout the series with a few originally introduced making their way back towards the end but it's not a huge cast, no Game of Thrones. 

But the meat of the story itself?

A lot of fantasy goodness there.

Tomoe herself is almost too powerful. When she's first introduced, she's a samurai who's already been on an important mission to the mainland of fantasy China to kill a traitorous swordsmith who was making weapons for the mainland.

She kept two of those swords for herself and along with three of her friends, grew into a legend. Again, this is before the book starts. When the book gets moving though, we see Tomoe use her two Chinese longswords against an army and win. Mind you the author notes that it's not that unusual for a highly trained, heavily armored and armed individual, to be able to cut through poorly trained chattel but Tomoe takes it to a new level.

In the doing so, Tomoe is injured unto death and is only saved through dark magic that temporarily enslaves her. During that magical enslavement, she commits acts of treason under a Chinese mystic but is restored by her Samurai honor being tested. Her honor proves stronger than the binds put upon her.

Now free, she wanders as a Ronin and encounters the people of fantasy Japan, which here the author calls Naippon, a slight change of wording to indicate it's relationship with the real world. Other authors, especially Gary Gygax, would do this with Oerth, Aerth, etc...

In this tale we get to see ghouls that when hacked apart, put themselves back together again with whatever is available. We get to see ogres and oni. We get to see kappa and dragon queens. We get quasi-planes and transportation through strange dimensions. The author does a solid job of bringing the fantasy and the unusual to her version of Naippon.

The tale and test set in the first section of the book come full circle in the end when Tomoe gets to met the only one to easily beat her but did so only because of the 'unpure' style she initially was using. It's mythical in the cyclic nature it takes.

As a side note, there's also several black and white illustrations in the novel. It's a nice change of pace for the standard walls of text and I enjoy seeing how an artist interpets the scenes and characters.

I recommend the novel to anyone who's looking for something outside the standard westernized elves and dwarves. To anyone looking to run a game of Legends of the Five Rings or old school Oriental Adventurers.

The most difficult time I had with those settings when younger, was looking for inspirational material. The Tomoe Gozen Saga has it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Kindle Unlimited: Old School Fantasy Picks

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial

With Prime Day coming up, Amazon recently did a bit where if you were a prime member, you could subscribe to Kindle Unlimited for 2 years at 40% off. It's not cheap by any means, but I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I could afford it.

My main purpose was to give my mom access to move reading. She has near unlimited time being a retiree and she's much less picky about starting something new than I am. She's read dozens if not hundreds of books that initially I purchased from a Daily Deal or monthly deal.

But did that mean there was nothing for someone who grew up in the eighties? Someone who grew up reading Michael Moorcock and David Smith among others?

This is kind of a trick question in many ways. For example, while The Fellowship of the Ring is part of the Kindle Unlimited bit, I read it. If you've stumbled upon my blog, you may not know, but I rarely go back and reread anything as I have dozens of books I haven't read at all. Among those 

The Silmarillion, which is also available in Kindle Unlimited.

When trying to find titles, it's a massive miss. For an electronic company, the ability to sort the options in Kindle Unlimited suffers vastly. There is no way to sort by author. What an amazing lack of forethought here. You can sort by featured, price, average review, and publication date.

But not by author.


You'll also note that you can't sort by title. One of the most basic functions of sorting and you can't do it here.

You can use the various options on the left side of the screen to cut down and chop up the options, but again, no ability to search by author.

Some might be thinking, well, how about using something like the sword & sorcery to cut down the sexy mage ladies?

That gives you options like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Whoever is setting up the meta tags clearly has no idea of what they're doing.

Failure Amazon. 100% pure failure.

It does hit some popular titles. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is in the Kindle Unlimited package. So if you, like me, have missed that particular icon of modern fantasy, well, there's a lot of hope for you.

And if you're willing to just dive into a fantasy series, man, you've got your options. Some of the covers I recognize from long deals that Amazon has had on the series. Others look like supernatural fantasy modern day 'Buffy' style books that my mom devours daily.

Most I don't recognize at all.

But a few do stand out!

The Princess Bride: Despite greatly enjoying the movie, I've never read the book.

Llarn Cycle: There are many great authors that I didn't read when I was younger because when I found out about them, the books were out of print. Nowadays that isn't such a problem IF the books are in e-format AND I remember them. Garder F. Fox is one of them. Some of his stories were even reworked into Marvel Comic's Conan. Heck, most comic books fans will be familiar with Garder from his work on the comics that did things like introducing the multi-verse to DC.

That whole bit is a win for me. I appreciate that not all of the oldies are goodies. That a lot of what has come since has been done better or is more fitting for modern politically correct times.

But I also like seeing where the genre came from and that includes things that are rarely touched on like Planetary Romance sagas.

Also included among other series by Garder, is his Kothar series. A pastiche of Conan? Perhaps but more fun stuff from back in the day.

Witch World: Here's a series I'd HAVE to reread because my reading of it was all messed up due to the publication of the original series in how I bought them. Andre Norton has a LOT of books in the Kindle Unlimited bit and that alone almost makes it worth the purchase for me.

Sword & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber:  While it's great to see some original Appendix N love here, it's almost a tease. The first book in the Kindle Unlimited, the rest? Nope.

There are other features to the Kindle Unlimited I haven't got to yet. For example, there are a ton of comics.

But again, no easy way to see the authors I like or even to list it in plain alphabetical order. Again, an immense failure by Amazon.

I'll keep digging into the Kindle Unlimited and noting some of the gems when I run across them.

Those who who already have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, are there are comics, fantasy, science fiction, historical, or business books you'd recommend? I'm going to try to get some utility out of this even if I initially bought it for the mom.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski

Baptism of Fire
The Witcher Book Three
Written by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated by David French
Trade Paperback: $16.00 /$11.34 Amazon

The numbering of the Witcher series confused me at first. The first book is the Last Wish and that makes this the fourth book.

But it's only the third book of the 'series' as the Last Wish is a collection of short stories. Nothing too complicated but it does throw the numbering off on different sites.

Baptism of Fire brings us Geralt, the White Wolf, the Witcher. He is a highly trained warrior of an order of monster slayers whose origins lie in the use of mutagenic potions to augment the human body past its normal limits.

His standard companion, Dandelion continues adventuring with him. In many ways, Dandelion is a good 'companion' style character, much like Monglum of Elric fame. He's not a great fighter, but can at least thrust a sword. His background and socialite ways give him a far different, perhaps more civilized outlook, to the Witcher's monster butchery.

There are other new companions along the way that join the Witcher in his 'Baptism of Fire', including a hunter, an old enemy, and one who should be an enemy. Other characters met along the way, like Zoltan Chivay, will be familiar to anyone who's played the video games.

The translation work is fairly done. It's not obvious that this is a translated work in terms of rough passages where you ponder what the author meant. There are times, however, when a lot of telling the audience what's going on instead of showing the audience what's going on happen.

On one hand, tell not show does save a ton of space. On the other, it's not as effective.

There's also some weirdness where a storyteller is telling children about the Witcher's tale. It's not badly done, just out of place compared to the previous chapters that didn't use a wandering storyteller.

Yennifer, the sorcerer who is at times the Witcher's lover and ally, has a brief spot in the book but it's more of a set up for future novels. Much of the material involves the Witcher save for a few brief spots on other characters just to see what they are doing.

Like previous novels in the series, this one ends not quite at a cliffhanger, but close enough that the reader is left eager to pick up the next novel.

In terms of stealing for a game of Dungeons and Dragons or other Fantasy RPGs, the game is ripe with ideas.

The Witcher in and of itself is a title bestowed upon those who pass a series of tests that make them more than human. Many die in the trying due to their bodies rejecting the potions that transform them. Others are changed in ways far more horrible than pale flesh and white hair.

The Witchers are supposed to be neutral, not serving any particular king or kingdom but instead, dedicated to the cause of killing monsters for profit.

It would make an excellent PrC or Paragon Path in 4th edition. The real trick is what do you bring in? In the novels, Geralt isn't that much of a showcase for Witcher power. Oh sure there are times when the author has the White Wolf cut through soldiers, but the novel starts with Geralt incapacitated due to wounds and it takes him a long time to recover. We also don't see any fancy spellcasting from Geralt in the novel nor even herb use or lore.

False Princess

Ciri, the 'foretold one' if you will, the girl with all the bloodlines, is supposed to be a noble character and bearing.

Instead, she travels with 'the Rats', a youth bandit gang that is murderous.

Play with player's expectations of how characters will be. Have them met people and later on find out that those people have undergone changes that might not seem normal, but are part of the growth they've been forced to experience by the harsh realities of the world.

Red Herrings

The Witcher is bound to Ciri from events in previous books. This isn't just an older warrior feeling parental over a young child. Rather Geralt knows what's happening to Ciri through dreams and the dreams foretell a life less than happy.

Initially, Geralt hears that Ciri is in one country and is being prepped for marriage to seal an alliance. He spends a lot of time and effort moving across the land in order to get there.

But the information is wrong. It's false information to keep people off the real trail. The time lost in seeking out this false hope is considerable.

When you're running your own campaigns, don't be afraid to toss red herrings into the mix. If they players are seeking someone with a common name, do they have the right person? Are there multiple crypts with the same name? Is there a crypt and a tomb? Is there a lost library and a lost labyrinth? 

War As An Obstacle

Outside of the normal problems that war presents, in a war where the players are not part of any army or part of any nationality involved in the war, they are at risk for being attacked by all sides.

This can present it's own unique opportunities though as character get involved in the strangest things. For example, in Baptism of Fire, Geralt winds up saving a queen and becoming knighted. 

The other problem with being in a war zone is that humanity is terrible. There are rapes, murders, genocide and other wretched factors that happen in the real world all the time. In a fantasy setting? Who knows what strange things may happen. For example, many settings ranging from the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, to more modern Eberron, have some part of the campaign setting scarred from a 'big weapon' that ended a previous war.

War As A Resource Drain

In addition to the dangers of getting killed outright, there are dangers of a more subtle yet still potentially dangerous origin.


In their travels, the Witcher and his allies come across a logging operation. It's a vast operation and takes up a lot of space and slows their advancement as they cannot easily cross the logging operation. The trees cut down are shipped out for supplies elsewhere.

Anyone who's seen the Lord of the Rings knows that one of Treebeards biggest factors in influencing his decision to fight against Sauraman the White was the logging of the forests. "A wizard should know better."

And in many cases, it's not going to be just trees. Food, metal, and in a campaign setting with available magic resources, any of those, will be up for grabs and become crucial points of potential conflict with the enemy.

The Witcher continues to expand the setting and touches on some modern issues while at the same time remaining fundamentally a fantasy story. If you're looking for something to inspire interesting characters as a player or different monsters and monster origins as a Game Master, Baptism of Fire is a good pick.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray

Devlin's Luck
The Sword of Change: Book 1
Written by Patricia Bray
Published by Spectra
434 pages
$7.99 Kindle
$7.99 Paperback

A great thing about having a Half-Price Books close by is their random and changing selection of $1 books. It's a lot easier to take a chance on an author you've never heard of when you're only out $1. Same is true of the old Kindle books when they hit the various sweet spots on sale.

Devlin's Luck is a solid fantasy book for someone just starting the genre. It uses a small cast, small kingdom, and easy missions to get the reader involved. If you're looking for 'popcorn' reading, Devlin's Luck has you covered.

At the end, the book looks to expand in size and complexity allowing the setting and scope to grow with the series.

Devlin's Luck is a perfect 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons book in many ways. The 4th edition D&D default setting was a points of light setting. A generic kingdom where things used to be better and the world was more dangerous than it should be. Devlin's Luck takes place in 'The once mighty kingdom of Jorsk is in decline, its borders beset by enemies, both worldly and otherworldly. The king has retreated to the capital, abandoning the far-flung provinces."

That's not only a 'points of light' setting, it's a fairly standard low-level setting in most instances. There are things that need to be taken care of and the heroes are the ones to do it!

The hero of the story, Devlin Stonehand, is a former farmer and metalsmith from a rugged frontier part of Jorsk, recently conquered by the superior militia of Jorsk. He's come to the capital city to become 'the Chosen One', an old institution where a champion fights for the people of the country. It's been so dangerous lately that the kingdom pays the new Chosen One and binds them with magic to only work for the safety of the kingdom.

In the 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of the Chosen One would have worked as a 'kit'. The profession initially doesn't seem to have a lot of character enhancing powers but does have a lot of social responsibility to it and does have a lot of social perks that go with it. The kits in 2nd edition were notorious for trying to use social issues in place of game balance.

For a small setting, the book throws the deities names out immediately. Part of being the Chosen is picking a patron deity. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons introduced new deities in part by stealing them from other settings and by adding new ones like the Raven Queen.

Here we get:

Haakron, the Lord of Death.

Lady Geyra: Healers

Lady Sonja: The War Goddess.

Lady Tea: Mother Goddess. Patroness of those who worked the land.

Kanjti: The God of luck. A God with no temples or priests. Some called him the bastard god, the only one of the seven whose origin was a subject for hot debate. A god with no family. (pg 21-22)

Heavenly Pair: Father Teo and Mother Tea.

Another thing that Patricia Bray does, is not shy away from languages. Even though the setting is small, there are a variety of languages spoken by the people including older languages like High Jorsk. Even today in countries like China that are 'one country', there are multiple languages spoken. Never underestimate the value of languages in creating the setting that you're running.

Adventure Seeds:

One of the things I enjoyed about Devlin's Luck is it doesn't pretend that it's trying to rewrite and rework the fantasy genre or some of the simple things that can be done with it.

"There are reports of a band of marauders living in Astavard forest, who prey on travelers along the King's old highway." (pg 77)

"There was no invading army, no great battle in their future. Instead the Kingdom was dying for a thousand tiny pinpricks." (pg. 90).

Another example of how a potentially long campaign can be designed. It allows the players to pick and chose what incidents and events they will investigate and so move the campaign in a direction of their choosing.

How much more classic than bandit attack can you get?

Character Actions

If you want the players to be engaged with the setting, both in the dungeon and out, make sure that others are paying attention to what they do for both good and ill.

"His self-discipline was contagious, and she noticed that her own guards trained all the harder for his example." (pg. 249)

"As he tried to read t he mage's expression he realized that for the first time in their acquaintance Master Dreng's eyes w ere clear, and the hand that clasped his was steady. A remarkable change in one who was reputed to spend his entire life deep in his cups." (pg. 256)

Humans are social animals. We try to be like others, we try to make organizations and achievements with others. Seeing someone strive to be better may encourage us to be better. Seeing someone who needs us at our best may encourage us to be at our best.

If you show that the actions the players take off the battlefield have consequences in the setting, the players may decide to go with that. If you want to encourage that type of behavior and the player's don't normally do such, have the background be influenced by others. You can either act or be acted upon. When the players see people taking after X, Y, or Z instead of them, perhaps they'll be more motivated to be part of the setting as opposed to rogue loners. 


"I trade with many, but always with Brigia deMor, daughter of Nesta of the Mountains. She has given me the blessing of her name," the woman said proudly.

A blessing was a powerful thing indeed. In the literal sense, it meant that Brigia deMore regarded this woman as a member of her family. It was rare for any outlander to receive such an honor." (pg. 35)

When designing an adventure, a setting, a character, or a quest, what role does the background of the people play in it? What are they known for? What are their codes of conduct? What makes one valued among them?

Culture doesn't have to be a whole society. It can be a part of the society.

'A copper armband lay on the workbench. Favored by soldiers as a luck token." (pg. 59) The history of an organization, of a society, or a group of individuals, can be telling in many ways. It can be tattoos, it can be slogans, it can be art. 

Points of Light

"Devlin's foot skidded across a slippery stone, and he flailed wildly before regaining his balance. At the start of his journey, this road had been paved with interlocking stones, with a raised crown that allowed water to run off into the ditches on the side. The farther he traveled from Kingsholm, the worse the road became. The stones showed signs of wear, than cracking, and then weeds had begun to appear. By now, nearly two weeks' journey from the capital, there were many places where the stones had vanished altogether. And the drainage ditches were choked with weeds and debris so that instead of draining the water, the roads were covered with mud washed won from the fields on either side. (pg. 95) 

That's a great example of how a point of light campaign can be described. What was one mighty has tumbled. What once was great, is not even standard. It shares themes with Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales where the Viking raiders are in awe of the Roman structures left behind in England. 

Taverns and Inns:

"The Singing Fish is in the old city, near the river. It's not fancy, but they have good food and a very fine cellar." (pg. 30).

Devlin is new to the city. He's new to this part of the country. Where better to hear how the common folk act that in a tavern in the old part of the city? Where the common folk mingle? It's an old trope to be sure but it's continued use showcases that it's still a viable way to gather information and to have a gathering place.


'But then the rains had come. For the past three, days he had slogged on, ankle deep in muck.' (pg. 94)

Never forget that the sun may rise in the east but the players don't necessarily have to see it. Clouds, fog, mist, rain, humidity, the dew point! All of these things can make the setting seem more alive than just using standard sunny days when the characters are traveling from point A to point B.

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray is a solid fantasy story that contains many little nods to realism from numerous languages and social structures, to the evolution of Devlin Stonehand as the Chosen One. I look forward to eventually reading the next books in the series.