Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Cutting Edge: Part One of A Handful of Men by Dave Duncan


Another victory for the dollar spinner rack from Half Price Books. Good thing too! I went to look at Amazon and see what it would run to pick up the material in e-book format and it's over $7 bones a pop. What's worse is it has a different cover and while I understand that art and graphic design and all that good stuff is a personal matter, and this cover isn't my favorite by far, the new version is made of fail. If you're going to charge premium prices, make sure you've covering all your bases eh? Mind you, this doesn't seem to be too far from how Dave himself thinks if you read his web page.

While I realize that no everyone has access to a local used book store, or a yard sale, or even that you can't find all the books you want in a particular series or setting, I have so many other books currently, and so many more I could buy for well under $7, that I'm afraid unless those books go on sale at some point, Dave Duncan or Tor, the publisher, will never see a penny of my reading his materials.

I've never read any of his books before mind you. That's one of the benefits of the dollar spinner rack. I can afford to pick up a book by an author, like Dave Duncan , who I've never read before and see if it's something I want to continue with.

Having never read any of the work here before, I will note that despite it being a sequel to a previous series, that I didn't have any problem reading it or following along with the characters. It does end on a massive cliffhanger though, so if that is a problem for you, you may want to avoid it.

Below I'll be discussing spoilers from the book so if you'd rather avoid those, read no further.

1. Magic Words. One of the interesting things about the 'magic system' in this series is that there are words of power. Many game systems go different routes to bring such magics to the game, including 3.5  which, like previous editions, had it's various "Word" spells. This doesn't count specific classes like the 3.5 version of Tome of Magic. Here, when you attend an older person, they may sound off their knowledge of a word of magic and if you have 'talent', it will grant you power.

For me, in D&D, that might be a good reason why mages go adventuring at all. Only by fighting and killing other mages can they learn these 'words of power.' Each would can be used to advance a spell level so that you could learn higher level spells. Sure, sitting in a tower may get you access to the material, but if you don't actually know the words of power to unlock the ability to learn a 2nd level spell, you'll never be able to cast it. Here to learn higher level spells you'd have to continue to earn new words of power.

2. The Future: There are a few bits that involve seeing the future here. One of them involves a scrying pool that when you put one foot in, shows you things you should move towards, and if you put the other foot in, it shows you things you should avoid. Another one showcases how a person who is always seeing the future might act. They often get confused with how things are and what is actually happening. It makes them less likely to be taken by surprise mind you but at the same time doesnt' put them in good standing in social situations.

3. A Mage By Any Other Name: The setting is populated by all manner of powerful spellcasters. The most powerful of which, are known as Warlocks. These 'titles' are a manner of honorific as it's revelead that of the 'four' traditional ones, there was a non-Warlock who was more powerful than all of them. It also doesn't account for other variables. This to me, reminds me of the older editions use of names for the different levels of the core classes. Instead of every cool sounding noun getting it's own core class or prestige class or paragon levels or whatever going on nowadays, the titles are ranks or honorifics.

4. It's A Small World After All. Despite the novels' length, it is only the start of the story and some of the.... I don't want to say secondary characters, but characters whose presence in the novel is under felt, have a way to go before their story impacts the core tale. These characters though are from a forgotten and/or lost race and aren't known, in general, to the outside world. Indeed, even among their own people they can hide from one another if they choose. One of the games the mages there play on outsiders is, when ot wiping them out entirely, is of making their journey go in circles. If there is a hidden race or society or group, there should be a sound reason why they're not known outside of, "Oh, no one goes down that street."

5. Love. There is a 'Roman' style society here in its glory. Their ruler is a good man. Not great in ll virtues mind you but a sound leader. His love for his wife however, is almost more of a matter of function and of her attractiveness. This leader's right hand man however, is a lover of the ladies and has already seen himself, in a scrying pool, with his lord's wife. But the way things are developing, you can tell the wife, who is treated more as an object as opposed to a person, isn't against such a potential future because it involves her making decisions. Her sense of values and what she wants out of life are also much different than what her husband wants. She would be content to learn to love her husband and their daughter if they could do so in solitude as opposed to being part of the court life. In many ways, it echoes another famous love story that went wrong show cased in many tales like the movie Excalibur. NPCs, subplots, themes of betrayal and tragedy, can all add deeper elements to a campaign that embraces them.

6. Duty. When good king Rap uses his magical abilities to see what is going on in the grander scheme of things, he is overcome with a sense of great evil preparing to come. He find that it's his duty, his solomon duty, to stand against this. It's an interesting thing because when he's asked if it's to save his own home, he answers that it's to save the world. Failure to save the world would be the same thing as failure to save that home. Characters that need motivation to take up arms or to get out of the tavern, can be motivated when they know that failure to do something, results in the end of the game.

I enjoyed the book and will look for other volumes in the series next time I'm at Half Price books. I like the way the writer is able to transition from deep personal moments to hand waving seasons in order to move characters closer to one another over large spans of land or to age the younger characters in the book without it seeming to be skipping important parts.

Dave Duncan handles a large cast and is able to bring them together to start the real struggle that won't occur till at least the next volume.