Saturday, February 20, 2016

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

I've frequently heard Cormac McCarthy placed very high in terms of writing prowess. I've been trying to branch out more from my traditional fields of historical adventure, fantasy, historical research, science fiction, and horror.

Part of that has been classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Johnny Got His Gun, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All solid books, well worth reading, very rewarding works.

And then there's Child of God.

The first portion of the novel was nearly incomprehensible to me. I'm reading and reading going, "Okay, a few more pages, a few more pages before I put it down." But I don't.

And I get to the second portion of the book, which is so much better written, it encourages me to finish it.

But it's a book whose purpose I couldn't quite fathom. It's like, "Here's some vile individual with no redeeming qualities but hey, bad stuff!" That worked okay in The Road with it's bleak outlook and horrific setting but here it fell flat on its face.

I'm sure there are some that love it but I just couldn't get into it.

Having said that, even though I find the main character, Lester Ballard, a horrid character, he could make a great antagonist in a fantasy RPG.

Imagine a ranger or wilderness survivor who doesn't deal with civilized folks. His own house, which isn't his, is rumored to have burned down and within it's confines, rumors persist that things.... unwholesome things were found in the burnt ruins.

Living in a series of caves now, Lester interacts with horrific sub-humanoids that leave him alone.... in exchange for flesh!

Imagine if you took the monsters from the movie the Descent, took the hinted at nature of the sequel where people were helping to feed the monsters, and had Lester, a survivor who doesn't care what he's dealing with, providing the monsters with people as meet and other things.

Imagine further that Lester's horrors don't end there and that he's favored by foul deities who reward him with undead followers.  Imagine heroes entering a room that has zombies covered in adipocere, "a pale gray cheesy mold common to corpses in damp places, and scallops of light fungus grew among them as they do on logs rotting in the forest. The chamber... filled with a sour smell, a faint reek of ammonia." Lester could have his own brand of zombies who guard their slayer.

The description of the caverns has merit and it's a quick read. If you've got a knack for mashing genres and ideas up like I tend to have, you can pull some interesting bits from it for your own games. But on it's own? Thumbs down!

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Tiger pits a young Richard Sharpe against the Muslim ruler, the Tippoo, of Mysore. It's another strong entry in the series and for me, was a bit different in that this Sharpe is a little more raw, a little more untested, a little more friendless. While his skill set isn't in question, his lack of fine allies like the giant Harper in later volumes, does set the stage differently.

Bernard Cornwell makes India a fascinating and terrifying place. A land of different religions which the British use to their own advantage. In this it is different than other entries in the Sharpe's series as most often, the British are seen fighting fellow Christians.

Hero, the Tippo is a Muslim ruling over an Indian country. But he is a 'bad' Muslim in the novel in that he still pays heed to dreams and has soothsayers on staff in order to provide meanings to signs and portents.

As chronologically, this novel is set before ever other Sharpe novel I read, it was interesting to see Richard evolve. He's seen at heart as a 'good' person, but has a ruthlessness at his core that enables him to act in ways that the 'proper' officers and other individuals would not.

Colorful characters abound in the story. One of Shapre's foes, Hakeswell, had the honor of not dying from being hung and claims that he cannot die! He's also described as 'twitchy' from a disease that was cured with mercury. He's also always claiming "It's in the Scriptures!" for his foul behaviors.

These distinguishing features allow the cast to be more than just backdrops that Sharpe interacts with. They help give him direction and even when in opposition, help set the direction of the tale.

If you're looking for action filled historical adventure, Sharpe's Tiger hits the spot.

Now onto the ramblings!

One of the reasons I'm always advocating reading more, is that it increases your baseline of information. It allows you to enjoy connections that other people simply aren't going to see.

For example, the Tippo employees jetti. "The jettis were Hindus, and their strength, which was remarkable, was devoted to their religion."In the manga Berserk, there is a fantasy analog to parts of the middle east, like India, called Kushan. Among those in the ranks? Individuals that would be the jetti under any other name.

Having that reference allowed me to get an idea of what the jetti were capable of, and the Tippo here uses them as executioners in a horrific manner including breaking the necks of people like chicken's and driving nails into skulls and brains.

It's why, even as life gets busier and things at work get more hectic, I try to keep reading and try to keep reading a bit of a variety of materials. The larger your circle of reference points, the more interconnected things can be in your own mind if nowhere else.

The Tippo is also a 'tiger' man in motif and theme. Take for example, his unclaimed throne, the tiger throne. "...his throne, which was a canopied platform eight feet wide, five foot deep, and held four feet above the tiled floor by a model of a snarling tiger that supported the platform's center and was flanked on each side by four carved tiger legs. Two silver gilt ladders gave access to the throne's platform which was made of ebony wood on which a sheet of gold, thick as a prayer mat, had been fixed with silver nails. The edge of the platform was carved with quotations form the Koran, the Arabic letters picked out in gold, which above each of the throne's eight legs was a finial in the form of a tiger's head. The tiger heads were each the size of a pineapple, cast from solid gold and studded with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds...."

It's a long and glorious description of a truly masterwork of a throne. As a symbol, it's a powerful image. Much like George R. R. Martin and his now famed Game of Thrones and it's bladed throne. The imagery of tigers prevades the novel and gives this particular foe a specific theme.

When building enemies in your own games, or when making characters, think about having a particular motif. Is there a visual cue that your characters rely on that goes along with a name? Unique weapons and items?

Sharpe's Tiger also bring a different type of goal into the picture: Rescuing a well placed individual and delivering information back to the army.

In many ways, such a rescue is as old as a fairy tale: Rescuing a princess. Change the princess to a specific character with their own goals, motivations and other high end utility and well, you've got Sharpe's mission.

Having to recon the area and gather information is another part of the game.

Having goals that might be different than the standard, and having the opportunity to act on that information, can provide a bit more variety to a campaign that going into a dungeon and killing off all the monsters. You can go into the dungeon and kill off all the monsters for a specific cause!

Sharpe's Tiger is a solid historical adventure book and well worth a read if you're looking for something other than Sharpe fighting the French.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sharpe's Eagles by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Eagles by Bernard Cornwell is listed as the second book in the series. As I've been buying the books from various sources, I've never read them in the correct order.

I can say that those looking for a quick book review, that Bernard Cornwell knows his era. He's able to pull language and scenery that the reader could easily imagine being accurate. His voice for Richard Sharpe and the rest of the cast ring sincere and the pages quickly turn in order to find out what the end result of Sharpe's latest adventure will be.

Sharpe is very much in a 'Conan' or other adventurer in that he is called on for a wide variety of missions, called on to be better than his station should permit, but not quite so good that he easily rises in their ranks. He often finds himself at odds with his 'civilized' superiors and in many aspects, would be much better off in an older world that only rewarded cunning and physical prowess.

Sharpe is in fine shape in this novel. His unusual weapon in play, a saber, among his regular riflemen. It helps him stand out form the regular soldiers. His friend and ally, Harper is also unusual in that he's an Irishman fighting in a English army.  Not to mention Harper's massive size and skill with archaic weapons...

Sharpe also knows how to read. Something that many soldiers in the time do not know how to do.

There are others that have little things about them. Sharpe notes an American... a young lad notable for his very youth, a few others who are notorious pickpockets or other little characteristics that allow the author to quickly ping the character.

These little unusual details help the characters stand out and it's always a good thing to nick for characters in your own game. Imagine if you're playing a group of Chaos Warriors in a Warhammer Fantasy setting and you go against type with a White Blade that never bears any stains? There are others who fall into the 'beautiful' campaign, but they are often on the side of a specific chaos god as opposed to Chaos Undivided.

Sharpe's numerous tales are also filled with a variety of characters who both help and hinder him.

In terms of both, as Sharpe is a soldier, these often include his superior officers.

There is contrast drawn in how promotions are handled. In the British military, payment is often the single greatest indicator of advancement.

Sharpe being an ordinary soldier, often doesn't have that type of money.

On the other hand, looting is a real thing and Sharpe does okay for himself.

But looking again at those promotions, when they are handed out for wealth, this is not an indicator for skill. It is this lack of skill, that puts Sharpe against his superior, a superior officer who does so poorly that to cover his own mistakes, he writes a letter condemning Sharpe for Sharpe's failure in an attack against the French.

So Sharpe has to do something spectacular to overcome this damnation.

This gets to another potential plot point.


The British lose their one of their flags.

Flags are powerful symbols.

Look at war games.

Look at America and the rules and regulations on how flags must be handled.

Think about what losing such a symbol might mean to an army, a nation, or even the characters themselves.

Sharpe resolves that if he can't get his country's flag back, the better thing to do, is to steal an 'Eagle', which is what the French often use as Flags.

If anyone's seen the old show Rome, you might remember there was an episode with an Eagle involved. Again, symbols, and their place, perhaps even if they are not financially valuable, are things of great significance.

In a fantasy setting, such flags may actually have power. They may embolden men against fear (allow people to reroll a failed saving throw) or even make them immune to magical fear. They may protect against mind control or mind reading. The options are limitless.

In a more standard setting, one that might take itself too seriously, characters could be tasked with recovering a flag or making sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands. The value of their pay depending on which option they succeed at.

Of course there's always the opposite. Taking away a flag from an enemy. If the enemy is known to have great reverence for a specific flag, perhaps one flown in the capital city, it may fall to the players as renowned murder hobos, to take this flag from the enemy and teach them their place!