Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wulf the Saxon by G. A. Henty

Wulf the Saxon
A Story of Norman Conquest
Written by G. A. Henty
$6.99 Paperback

I've mentioned shopping at the Half-Priced Books in Skokie Il before and perusing their dollar rack. This book is another captured from that shelf.

It's not going to win any modern awards, but it is a book over one hundred years old! I didn't realize that when I first picked it up. My cover is so out of date that I couldn't find the right image to put up on my blog so I had to scan it. I've also never read anything by G. A. Henty and was surprised that he had written so many books that I might be interested in as their historical eras are ones that have long fascinated me.

It's the story of 1066 and the battle of Hastings as told through the eyes of Wulf the Saxon.

There are a few bits readers should draw out for their own games:

1. Water is powerful: There are two separate occasions Wulf has trials and tribulations due to the waves he rides upon. One time casting him and his liege at the prisoners of William the Conqueror, the other dashing the boats of the English navy to pieces. This is a common trope in many stories though. If you've seen Frank Miller's 300, there is a scene where the Persian Fleet is destroyed.

Don't be afraid to showcase how wild, powerful, unpredictable and uncontrollable elements are outside of the characters and even their patrons.

2. Death is not to be feared: When the former king of England is ready to die, he's speaking of rejoicing. If the belief in the afterlife is firm, death should not be a trial. It should not be a tribulation. It should be a time of earnest celebration.

3. A celebration of Victories: If the party is in town and the GM needs to give the town some local color, have the players come upon the village while it is in the midsts of celebrating a victory over some regional foe. Orcs, bandits, ogres, trolls, and even hill giants all may be threats to such townships but having claimed a victory over a great force, say perhaps at a ford or river or pass, the town celebrates that victory every year to remind themselves of the cost and the valor of those who died to achieve that victory.

4. Names. There are many ways to go about naming a character. For example, we have William. He's sometimes referred to as William of London or even as Bishop William of London. The main character, Wulf, is known as Wulf of Steyning and eventually takes the last name of the family he's adopted into.

5. Hostages: George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, has 'Reek' who was raised by the Starks only to betray them. Being raised by an enemy is a common feature of history. Your children go as hostages to another lord and are raised under that lord's banner and learn that lord's ways and methods. It can lead to high drama if years down the road those loyalties are tested.

A name can come from a variety of places. Adding the 'of XXX" is a frequent use. We have such individuals of Edwin of Mercia in this book. In fantasy, we have Elric of Melnibone for example. Instead of 'of XXX,' sometimes it's a descriptor, Conan the Cimmerian.

Names can also be of a profession or of a rank. Many nobles may go by Lord or Lady, for example, Lady Agnes. In religious factions, the rankings of the Church should be in full play. Is there a difference between a Bishop and a Cardinal? If you have four or five characters call Harold, you need a way to distinguish them.

They can be descriptive. Elric is also known as the White Wolf as is the most popular of Witchers. In this book, we have Edith of the Swan Neck.

Names can denote heritage such as Harkon the Son of Sweyn.

Names can also be of the House. For example, the House of Leofric. The House of Jor-El.

A character's name can say a lot about him without the character ever saying anything. Use it wisely.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide To Running Extraordinary Sessions

Focal Point
The Complete Game Master's Guide To Running Extraordinary Sessions
Written by Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski, and John Arcadian
Published by Gnome Stew
234 b & w pages

Dusts off blog.

Been busy with work, painting miniatures and day to day living. Been reading a lot of work-related non-fiction and short story anthologies like House of Fear. I bought House in October for Halloween themed horror and am still reading it.


Anyway, in between the mundane, I did manage to finish off Focal Point, a book on game mastering by Gnome Stew by a trio of authors who've done some work for Gnome Stew before.

First off, I hope one day to never see a non-standard gaming book size again. I get that there's some weird small press creed or it's easier to stock or they can be thrown farther or what have you but man I hate the way they look on my shelf.

Layout is simple one column format with different varieties in type to set off special sidebars. Art is solid and goes well with the material. I'd say the cover art is one of the weakest pieces in the book. They might have been better just going with the die and the lighting as opposed to the art there is there. Then again, everyone's an art critic right?

I've been playing since the mid-80's.

I generally play with the same group of people.

Some things in the book will not apply to me.

That doesn't make it any less useful to read thought.

When running a game, there are many chainsaws to keep in the air. Any book the helps remind you of things you may have missed, that provides you with ideas on game elements that could be enhanced, that's told in an entertaining way, is worth reading.

The authors use Gemma and her group to frame the 19 chapters. Chapters are organized into wider sections, Lights, Camera, Action. The chapters move and the story of Gemma and her group flows with it. It's a good framing device.

For me? As long as I play with my normal group, things like 'trigger' warnings aren't a problem. Advice on getting people to pay attention to the game? Variable utility depending on who the culprit is. Good to see that I'm not the only one with such problems though.

Advocating game mastery as a way to streamline gaming? Such good advice. I'm tempted to have one of my friends who works with wood put together a sign, "Read the Fucking Book."

I get at conventions or a brand new system, there are going to be things unknown for players who may be dipping a toe into the waters of the game. But four weeks later, few people, especially the Game Master, should be pondering how the skill check system works. Or at least know where it's at.

I'm not sure if it's just me being an older bastich, but watching how some people think that anyone who knows the rules is 'merely' a rule lawyer and they suck, is wrong.

Expertise in a game system is not a problem. Abusing that knowledge over your other players, standing in every effort to move the game forward, arguing with the GM, those are bad elements.

Knowing your game system is not bad.

One of the things that the book hits a few times, is that gaming is a group effort. The gamers need to get along together. They should know how they're going to work in combat. They should have some idea of how things are going to happen once the action starts. They need to have each other's backs.

Now again, as it's important to point these things out least someone go, "But what about..." Yes, if you're playing the Shield or playing some Vampire double betrayal special, then group unitiy in and of itself may not be the end goal of the game.

But even in those instances, system mastery will reward the group as one player is not dominating game time thanks to not knowing the system and having to look up everything over and over again.

Focal Point may read a little dry at times, but it's all solid advice. It'll go on the shelf next to the other books in the series and perhaps one day be updated through a Kickstarter into a big old Hardcover with all three books that can sit alongside the big boy books and leave it's paperback short shame hall.

If you'r a game master, especially a new game master, I recommend not only checking out Gnome Stew's web site, but picking up their books. You may come across bits you already know, but tuck those away and move onto the examples and other bits that may be new territory for you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Murder in Lamut: Legends of the Riftwar Book II

Murder in Lamut
Legends of the Riftwar Book II
Written by Raymond E. Feist & Joel Rosenberg
$3.99 Kindle Edition
$6.34 Mass Market Paperback

I picked up my first Raymond E. Feist book from the SFBC, Magician by Raymond E. Feist, many decades ago. One of the fun things about the internet is you can google the image of the book you used to have.

I haven't kept pace with everything but I have bought a few of the old Midkemia Press gaming books like Carse and Tulan. Recently I even had bought a few more, Jonril and Heart of the Sunken Land.  Be sure to check out their website as they even have a few free PDF products.

I never played any of the Betrayal series, but I have friends who did back in the day and they loved it.

In short, Midkemia as a setting has received a lot of love.

In the Legends of the Riftwar series, Raymond E. Feist allows other others to join him in crafting stories set during that time period. In this volume, Joel Rosenberg, best known for his Guardians of the Flame series, to play in the city of Lamut.

The novel starts with three different introductions, one for each of the main characters. Durine, Kethol, and Pirojil, are mercenaries who have fought against the Tsurani invaders, the 'villains' of the Riftware series, as well as the 'bugs' in the mountains. Throw in goblins and other humans and what have you and you'll understand that these are seasoned men.

The characters are given small arcs to showcase their unique talents but as this isn't one of those mega-novels, their development arcs aren't lengthy or intensely detailed. At the end, the characters are much the same as they were at the start.

Durine is a huge ugly individual whose reknown for his strength and size.

Kethol is known for his wilderness lore. He is the closest we have to a 'breakthrough' character in that he starts to care about the job and the people involved.

Pirojil is the brains of the operation. He sees beyond people's everyday facades and it makes him the one best able to determine who may be a murderer in Lamut.

They are hired by the city's Swordmaster to protect one Baron Morray. As outsiders, as skilled outsiders, they are not involved in the many local factions and ongoing issues that the Kingdom itself is going through. Fans of the Riftwar series will enjoy the numerous references to other events in the series as seen from far away and will enjoy the 'guest' appearance of Fantus the drake.

Although some novels in the series are high magic on the order of gods and things older and worse than gods battling, Murder in Lamut is entirely down to earth. None of the main characters are magicians or magic users, and at this point in time, the series hadn't gone to the higher ends involving the magician's guild.

This makes it a good read for those who enjoy a little bit of gritty work in their series but take note when I say gritty, I don't mean the subgenre 'grimdark'. There are people working hard and the characters have an earthy feel to them, but one never reads the novel as if this was a work where anyone could die at any second and that life itself was but the stuff of stardust dreams.

It's been a long time since I've read any Raymond E. Feist work and even longer since I've read any Joel Rosenberg's work so I can't tell you who wrote which section, but I can tell you that it doesn't feel that it was written by two people. It's a smooth flowing book that a dedicated reader with enough time should be able to finish in a day.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

The Red Knight
Book 1 of the Traitor Son Cycle
Written By Miles Cameron

The internet works in mysterious ways. I bought the Red Knight a while ago when it was on sale with the intention of reading it whenever it fits into my schedule. But as I have a ton of books that fall into that category, the time never seemed right.

Then I was reading on Mark Lawrence's blog about 'grim' fantasy books, and The Red Knight was receiving high rankings in a list. Being a fan of Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorn's book, I immediately went and downloaded the Red Knight.

Fantastic stuff.

It's a massive tome being well over six hundred pages.

It takes place in its own fantasy medieval Earth or at least medieval style Earth. It retains tropes of real-world religion while throwing magic and divisions of that magic into the mix. The 'Wild' that of nature is green in hue and wild in power. The 'Sun' or religious power, is Gold and pure in power.

The Red Knight is a 'nameless' knight known as The Captain for most of the novel. He leads a ragtag band of mercenaries through the war-torn world, currently in an Arthurian country where a true king leads his knights into glory for his beauteous queen.

The author's writing perhaps isn't the pinnacle of 'grimdark', but people come and go with some frequency. Just when you think, "Ah, this character is important to the plot... oh wait, a spike in the neck, nevermind."

Since the Red Knight has a mercenary group at his command, there are a lot of characters to play with. That not being enough though, the author gives us viewpoint characters for the 'Wild' as well, including 'Thorn', the former royal mage who betrayed humanity itself and now looks more like Groot or Treebeard.

The Red Knight himself is almost typical in his design. A young man blessed with an extraordinary power which is filled with heresy because of his emo origin. He's an excellent swordsman, he's a great magician, he's a great leader. Yet he's not happy. His angst makes him less than perfect and makes those around him want to help him.

As more of his background becomes known, the reader has to wonder how much of his rage is justified and how much of it is wasted. For example, when the Red Knight meets one of his brothers, the two are more or less on the same page and join forces.

There are numerous complexities in the novel and multiple factions. The author does what I thought was a great job in showcasing elements that lead you to believe one thing only to turn out to be an entirely different thing.

One of its overarching themes though was that of love and sacrifice. In some ways, it reminded me of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is there to show how love and sacrifice for others can better the world. When the Wild is perhaps closer than its ever been to victory, one of the key players on the Wild side finds that he cannot do what needs to be done to cement that win. I found it ringing true.

But there are also elements that ring about the sacrifice part. The heroes don't just walk away from all holding their heads higher. Many die in the battles, many gain new scars, some scarred in ways they thought themselves immune to.

The Red Knight has a lot of things going for it. The large cast of characters, the numerous factions, the exploration of how magic itself works, the red herrings, all provide hours of entertainment.

Miles Cameron, in addition to his writing chops, is also a gamer, so if you want to support players who write fiction, especially great fiction, you could do worse than the Red Knight.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Red Knight and the Art of Making NPCs

The Red Knight
Book One of the Traitor Son Cycle
Written By Miles Cameron
$11.80 at Amazon

When making Non-Player Characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the question is really how much is too much? How many game stats do we need for the effective playing of such characters?

If you're an artist or have an artist friend willing to help out, portraits are a quick way to customize your NPC's.

If you're strapped for time though, having a list of names and associations with those names is another route. It's a route Miles Cameron takes in the Red Knight to describe many of the mercenaries who follow their nameless Captain, the Red Knight.

Some examples:

Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name.

Ser Thomas: Bad Tom to every man in the company was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brown and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross.

Two Veteran archers - Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating.

Bent, the eldest, an easterner, and Wilful Murder...

Geslin was the youngest man in the company, just fourteen with a thin frame that suggested he'd never got much food as a boy...

The book is filled with such characters. Sometimes a few sentences of description, sometimes not even a single whole sentence.

Giving the characters something for the players and the Dungeon Master to latch onto, makes the keeping of said characters easier, even if you don't list out height, weight, hair, eyes, or even armor. This is probably much more important to keep in mind when dealing with characters that the players are not going to engage in anything more than banter in. Extra work that the Dungeon Master enjoys is never wasted work but is it work that you could be doing something else you enjoy, that will see game play?

Miles Cameron brings his wide cast of the crew to life with quick descriptions and it's a great mining pool for those Dungeon Masters who want examples of how the pros do it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hearts and Three Lions
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 at Amazon

Three Hearts and Three Lions is another book by Poul Anderson that is recommended in the original Appendix N of the original 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Despite that, I'd never read it until now. It's a book fit to be placed in the same realm as the Red Book of The Illustrated Bulfinch's Mythology, the Legends of Charlemagne. While Charlemagne and his paladins are perhaps not as popular as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, heroes such as Roland hail from the time of Charlemagne and one of TSR's green historical books focused on those paladins.

Being an older book, Three Hearts and Three Lions has many covers. The current one is serviceable enough, but my favorite would probably be the following:

Holger atop his black horse, the mighty swan behind him, his wood dwarf comrade at his side. The sense of motion with the clouds moving from left to right. It's a great piece.

Concerning writing, Poul Anderson is a writer worthy of reading just to study his word crafting. His descriptions are not overly long but provide a reader with detail enough to know where the characters are, what the character looks like, and what the mood of the land is. He tells in one book something that another author might have taken six to do so.

The main hero, Holger, is a 'modern' man who while fighting Nazis is grazed in the head by a bullet and awakens in another world. Poul doesn't spring everything on the reader at once. There is a build up of one scene to the next, each increasing the hero's awareness that he is not in his own time anymore, indeed, not even in his own reality anymore.

This time traveling hero bit borrows a little from the even older A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: by Mark Twain and is even referenced in the book itself.  The adventures of 'modern' man in other worlds was a favorite device before it fell out of favor. Even authors like Robert E. Howard used it as a means of taking modern giants of the world into environs more fitting for their strength and powers.

Holger's trip to the fantasy realm is one of the troublesome issues in that he appears to be of this new world. The horse he spies upon awakening seems to know him. The arm and armor he spies fit him perfectly. His knowledge of the language of the world is quickly mastered. His knowledge of deeper issues comes and goes at times prodded to the surface by current happenings.

This book brings many bits to fantasy. Here the troll is not a mythic race like those of the Norse, able to use magic and arms and armor, but rather, a massive brute with a huge nose and black eyes with green skin. Its most fearsome power though is its ability to heal from any wound.

Here is also perhaps one of the earliest examples of Law and Chaos in war. Chaos is wild and free and often evil while Law being civilization and the uplifting of man. Even in his time, Nazis were known for what monstrous acts they'd committed, and Poul Anderson puts them firmly in the grip of Chaos, evil entities intent on ripping down the civilization of humanity.

We also get a taste of courtly love as Holger travels with a swanymay, Alianora, a young woman raised outside of the norms of humanity and kin more to the wood dwarves and spirits of the woods like the unicorn she rides. Being a swanymay, Alianora is capable of becoming a massive swan with powerful wings and a stinging bite.

She does this through a magical garment, gifted to her supposedly from the Valkyries, as opposed to being an innate shape changer.

The use of Chaos and its minions, like the timeless and fey elves, who aren't evil necessarily, but are bored and are capricious at best, are intent on spreading their world. For them, the sun and its light, for example, are anathema. Their own world lies in a subtle shade that protects them, and there is a distinct difference between the world of man and that of the Fey.

The arrival of Holger is during a time when Chaos is on the rise. A time when Chaos may make a great play for the world. A time when Giants stalk the land and when those whose inheritance may have a touch of the old blood, are stirred to action.

Holger's travels bring him against wild men of the woods, fey courts, and one of the most powerful allies of the Fey and of Chaos, Morgana of Avalon.

The novel ends with Holger knowing who he finally is and wielding his sword, Cortana, a blade made of the same material as King Arthur's Excalibur and Roland's sword Durendal. In the restored Holger, better known as Ogier the Dane, a hero who, like King Arthur, went to dwell on Avalon until he was needed, rides forth to save the world form Chaos.

Given how far removed modern readers are from the story, it's hard to emphasize how unique and enjoyable this book must be to someone who's spent years reading Games Workshop's various tales and their own Moorcock inspired tales of Chaos. How far Dungeons and Dragons have taken the rare and powerful paladins of older editions and made of them another class that's equal among the others with their own distinctions.

Given its age though, the novel's prose remains top notch and easily readable. If you're looking for a way to kill an afternoon and to wonder at where some of the foundations of modern fantasy come from, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions fits the bill.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

The Broken Sword
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 Amazon Kindle
208 pages

Let loose the red tide! Let the men be heaped like reaped golden wheat! Fall back in this telling in one book what would take modern authors a dozen times more pages!

Poul Anderson, one of the original quoted Appendix N authors in the original Dungeon Master's Guide, brings a tale of Norse revenge across generations.

If you are a fan of the show Vikings, if you're a fan of Elric of Melnibone, of cursed swords, of dire destinies, or cruel, uncaring gods, or things that never were but fit into the tales of old lore, then you should read The Broken Sword.

Poul Anderson weaves together some things that we say now are not true, such as the winged helmets of the Vikings, as well as land conquest as England suffers the raids of the Vikings. Of the rise of the One True God against those gods who used to rule. It showcases many different elements of mythology into one where there are still differences, but the mythological world is shared.

The gods of old Ireland are half gods, the elves here, not mere mortals with long hair who are good with bows. The trolls here are ancient and elderly powerful creatures that are not mere brutes that only know how to howl, but how to plan, how to set forth on ships warded against the wild seas, of using weapons of massive stone and bone because their strength allows them to do so.

The elves here are masters of magic, they control the weather, they can heal, they speak with the dead and are all things cruel and capricious. But they are few in number and even as they are timeless, they are not immortal. So when the opportunity arises to steal a man-child and add his mortal strength to their own, they take it.

Sadly they take this man child from a family that has wronged natives of England, and one woman who survives grows powerful in the dark arts of Witchery and sells all including her soul to darker powers to cast dark fate against the family that slew her own.

Into this mix comes the elves who when they capture the man-child, replace him with a troll born changeling. A heartless brute who has sisters and brothers and who will find his destiny leading the trolls against the elves and their kin.

Here the elves and trolls share a weakness to iron, they share magics even if the trolls are not as advanced as the elves, the two are both moral-less entities that are unseen by men as their battles are not fought in the mortal world. They both dislike the sunlight...

Poul Anderson crafts the tale and moves through the lives of these twins, the elf raised Skafloc, a champion more elf than man, more inhuman than human, and his pale troll kin shadow, Valgard.
Their lives intersect in unknown ways as the witch sets her sights on Valgard, a non-human raised among men whose brutish lusts for battle and his desire for the women who manipulate him through the whole of the story.

So much happens in The Broken Sword, that Poul only hints at some of it. When Skafloc must seek to mend the Broken Sword, this cursed weapon forged long ago, a weapon whose fate spirals down time with such doom, that mighty Thor himself shattered it, Skafloc seeks out the heroes of Ireland. He sails with the lord of the Sea to the lands of Jotun where the sword is forged anew but the travel there and back is merely hinted at.

Even at the start of the tale, when we are introduced to how much of the culture of elves flows through Skafloc, we are given a description of Imric, the ruler of the elves, the one who stole Skafloc, fighting against "with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers."

That in and of itself sounds worthy of more pages! Who were these old mad things that were once gods?

Other gods, more familiar, are still about. The Dark Prince himself, claims to have known Odin in the guise of Loki and liked not the one-eyed Lord. Odin, the master manipulator, the one who pulls strings, who would be a good fit for Merlin from Excalibur, weaves a fate to the son of Skafloc that is again, only hinted at here. The final fate of the gods, or mankind, or the Broken Sword itself? Vague prophecy but no finality.

And for this book? It works perfectly. It casts the net of the tale against a background much larger than what we see here. We are visitors to the tragedy that besets violence and only for a limited time. We see how the effects of the coming of a new religion forces out the old, we see those ancient powers still mighty, still magnificent in their own realms, know that their time is limited even as they themselves are timeless.

Poul Anderson brings us no glowing heroes. There are none here who escape without the reader seeing their faults. The elves, proud and haughty, the witch consumed by vengeance, the old gods striving to survive, the trolls, equally proud and equally haughty, the old glory of Ireland, the sorrow of the fauns who survived the passing of the old Gods of Greece and Rome... it's a tale that set forth so much more than modern readers, especially those who say enjoy A Game of Thrones, might even be aware of.

If you want to see where the roots of modern fantasy come from if you want a rousing Viking tale of old gods and cursed blades, The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson is the perfect fit.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Thousand Shrine Warrior: Book Three of the Tomoe Gozen Saga

Thousand Shrine Warrior
Book Three of the Tomoe Gozen Saga
Written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Free on Kindle Unlimited

Thousand Shrine Warrior struck me as the best of the series. And for once, I'm not that thrilled with the old cover either!

Unlike previous volumes, this one is one told from start to end with no need for joining short stories. The book continues to use black and white illustrations to highlight parts of the story.

Tomoe Gozen has forsaken Bushido but remains a deadly swordmaster. Her skills continue to bring her into conflict with the world about her, but she approaches it with different eyes now.

Tomoe still wields her unique blade, identified by the craftsmanship, the sword of Okio, a renown master of weapon forging. A weapon so powerful and augmented, that it can affect those of the other world, those demons, and undead that stalks the fantasy land of Naipon.

This time around though, she wanders the land as a nun, a member of the Thousand Shrine sect. This allows her to go to any shrine and seek food and shelter from the elements. While she does not know all of the prayers, she is a master of her flute and it brings ease to the dying and wonder to the living. This suits her perfectly and makes her a wanderer in all but name.

On her travels, she runs into a young girl running away from drunken samurai in a small province. She quickly dispatches the drunkards but is then drawn further into the intrigues of the area. This brings her to the White Beast Shrine, where she drops off a near albino snake and meets the shrines master.

She learns of the strangeness going on and is thrust fully into the strangeness. She learns that the lord her is a near slave to Kuro the Darkness. When Tomoe uses her former status to gain an audience, she learns that Kuro is actually an ancestor or hers, but she later learns that Kuro is not only an undead ancestor, a cursed spirit but also possessed by a demon.

Things aren't what they always seem though, and Tomoe has to fight her way through various alliances, find old friends, meet new enemies, and ponder what her place is in a society that is not drenched in war and has little need for full armies of samurai.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson brings us a Tomoe whose enjoying her freedom, her ability to wander the land. Tomoe is getting old though, and the author brings something into play rarely done to a swordmaster, arthritis in the hands!

Thankfully when she's at White Beast Shrine, she meets the shrine keeper Bundori who knows how to create a salve that works like say, Tiger Balm or another ointment to ease the pain of sore knuckles. At this shrine, the strangest thing is the animals, most of which are shapeshifters who when Tomoe isn't around, take human form. They are described like elves of old being almost too beautiful to be contained in human form.

The nice thing about this element is that it gives the author more characters and provides some different opinions on what needs to be done about Kuro the Darkness. Things don't always work out as one would wish however and the disharmony caused by the disputes eventually convinces Bundori that he needs to continue his travels.

While Bundori's actions were not great in terms of what he could do, he does provide background elements that showcase that the shrine is more than just a place for nuns and travelers to rest. It must be maintained. It must remain free of blood and viscera. It is a place of power for him and one that Bundori feels he can hold against Kuro if things take a turn for the worse.

While the magic in the Tomoe series and the world of Naippon has been minimal, it's there in the background and elements of it sometimes poke out.

Among the samurai fallen on hard times, is Kuro's retainer, Ittosai Kumasaku, a man who fought for a general who fell. A man without a lord. Not willing to take on the role of monk though, he hires himself out to those who will take him for his value. Kuro doesn't do such and instead puts Ittosai to mundane drudge work that is ill befitting a samurai. He does it without fail although complaints are heard.

Jessica weaves an interesting world. Elementals falling in love with devils, divine children falling in love with mortals, ancestorial worship versus the evil things that the ancestors do in the modern world... all these things come to a head.

And I feel like one of those old commercials, "But wait, there's more!" In her past live as a samurai, Tomoe was a famed figure. An old general 'collects' such wives but as a nun, Tomoe is not going to relinquish her freedom easily and the general sends three of his mightiest warrior wives after Tomoe. These battles happen between Tomoe's other quest and make for a nice variety in the action and sequence of the story.

Tomoe Gozen ends up better than it started off as a series. Tomoe is a strong warrior but one with scars. She's fated to meet an old animal comrade who continues to fail in his life's karma and so, continues to come back in lesser and lesser forms, but perhaps with hope for the future. Her own destiny is cursed until she finds actual love, either in this life or the next, and she is wandering in a country where the need for warriors is winding down but is not over yet.

Who knows, with all of the other comebacks we've seen, perhaps there is hope for a Tomoe Gozen return? If Charles Saunders could bring Imaro out after decades and bring more volumes to that saga, anything is possible.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Vol 31
The Hell Screen
Written and Illustrated by Stan Sakai
208 b & w pages
$17.99/$12.16 at Amazon

It'd been so long since I'd checked in on the rabbit ronin that two volumes had come out! Thankfully Amazon had both in stock and both discounted so with a few clicks they were mine.

Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing Usagi for decades at this point, and he has the character and the setting well in hand.

This volume brings us the following:

The River Rising: Usagi is unlike many of the more traditional samurais. As the tale starts, he is knee deep in mud and rock enforcing a man made wall as rain bring torrential floods. As Usagi helps out the peasants who weep about their miserable fate, about the loss of so many of their men during the last war, the farmers suffer further.

Bandits make off with their food stores.

Usagi leaves the villagers to handle the reinforcement of the wall as he hunts down the thieves. Only the bandits aren't bandits. They are homeless rabble who are starving. They are thin, poorly garbed, possess no weapons and no training.

Usagi quickly gets them back to the village where they help the village survive the rains. But after the rains, Usagi himself is nowhere to be found. Which leave the villagers with the question of what to do with the bandits.

It's not quite up to the scene in the Batman movie with the Joker and his two boat plan, but seeing these people understand that the 'bandits' are just regular folk and offer them a place in the village is a touching scene that reminds us that the world isn't necessarily filled with villains as much as people who need help and a place to fit in.

Kyuri: So what happened to Usagi? It's important to note that Usagi's Japan is more fantasy than just the humans being animals. There are things like Kappa there as well. Usagi is no stranger to the Kappa having fought them in previous volumes.

Usagi sees one of the villagers being taken by a Kappa and follows it. Usagi is too late to save the villager but manages to follow the Kappa to its cave system where it escapes in the darkness. Descending further into the cave, Usagi finds a young Kappa and its mother, who swear that they are not allied with the savage or 'hairy' Kappa.

It's interesting that villagers who get seconds of screen time are given names, but the Kappa do not. The author throws a curveball at the audience as Usagi suffers a career injuring wound to his arm as the 'Hairy' Kappa uses its might to bring a stone against Usagi's sword arm and shatter the bone.

But this being Usagi's comic, he's saved from that f ate by the female Kappa who uses the healing arts that the Kappa is known for to save his arm. However, it does leave his sword arm weaker, and she warns him of this.

Kazehime: Stan has introduced many characters through his run of Usagi Yojimbo. Some of them make numerous appearances while others are introduced and are killed to showcase that the world Usagi lives in is not a pleasant one. In this case, the ninja Kazehime falls into the latter category. It's a poignant tale and it's one that Stan has hit on before and will hit on again. The Ronin who outlives those around him.

The Secret of the Hell Screen (Three Parts): This is the meat of this collection. Usagi comes across a temple where his old friend the Inspector Ishida. Like many of his longer tales, especially those involving Inspector Ishida, there are numerous elements at play here. There are several possible suspects, there are rumors of treasure, there are fallen samurai who've become monks, there is the terrible Hell Screen itself, a masterful piece of demonic art that shows the punishment of Emma's Hells. There are political forces at work trying to claim the land for hunting grounds as well as trying to fight against those claims.

In the three parts, Stan throws a few red herrings at the reader including the nature of the wounds suffered by those murdered but in the end, it takes more the simple deception for Inspector Ishida to be thrown.

The Fate of the Elders: Another reminder of what a harsh world Usagi lives in. In his standard method of encountering people on the road, Usagi comes across a son and mother. The mother is going to visit her husband. Only when Usagi gets to the mountain with the mother does he realize that she is going to stay and die there so make room in the village for her grand child. It's another sober moment in the Usagi setting and serves as a reminder that life is fragile.

The Hell Screen is another solid collection of ronin tales. If you've never read a volume before, check out the previews from Dark Horse Comics.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies
Book 30
Written by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Publishing
184 b & w pages
$17.99 ($12.10 at Amazon)

There are few comics I buy in physical media anymore. Storing comics is not an easy thing when you've been collecting for years. Usagi Yojimbo is one of those I still do buy. I've been bad at keeping up however and I missed both this and Vol 31, The Hell Screen. A few quick clicks from Amazon though and they quickly arrived and were quickly read.

Stan Sakai has written over one hundred and fifty issues of Usagi, not counting his side trips and alternative takes like Space Usagi. Unlike most traditional super hero comics from the big two, Stan takes the 'long' approach. Usagi ages. He meets people who sometimes perish immediately, and others he sees years later. It gives the series some depth that can sometimes be lacking in one of the Big Two's series when you have to wonder what universal change is going to negate a meeting, marriage or even character existence

We get the following tales in this collection:

The Thief and the Kunoichi: While this is a fantasy Japan filled with animals instead of people, Stan still slips in little bits of terminology such as 'The Hour of the Ox'.  Usagi himself though? He's still wandering and still running into people in trouble. In this case, it's Kitsune, the rogue, who in the middle of a heist, runs into Chizu, a ninja.

Usagi knows both of these women and is the peace maker between the two of them as Chizu is far more fatalistic in her approach to thieving whereas Kitsune and her prodigy, are more about the money.

Stan gives the readers a little taste of espionage as Chizu reveals behind a painting and hidden by a heat activated chemical, an agreement between merchants and lords to monopolize ginseng is afoot. Yes, that's right, ginseng!

I love that Stan uses mundane and standard items as a means of showcasing corruption and alliances on all levels. In the past, we've seen tales involving soy sauce for example. While Stan doesn't delve deeply into ginseng, the root and its healing properties have been used for other fantasy tales.

The One-Armed Swordsman: The One-Armed Swordsman is a popular trope of martial art films and stories. Stan has brought readers other honorary versions of such characters before, such as a 'Blind Swordspig' to stand in for a certain Blind Swordsman. In this tale, Usagi meets Mizuna Takashi, a warrior who lost his hand to a cruel samurai whose infamy spreads from his habit of cutting off the hands of those who raise their blades against him.

The Distant Mountain: Another look at a bit of Japanese lore. This time Stan gives us suiseki, the art of stone appreciation. Usagi helps a samurai guard a Toyama Ishi, a distant mountain stone. It takes its usual twists and turns and Usagi's sometimes grim humor comes out the winner in this one.

Death of a Tea Master: A swashbuckling foreigner in the courts of Japan wishes to see the art of Sepukku. The one called up for this duty is a tea master that Usagi knows. When the foreigner wants to see it again, Usagi steps in.

The Bride: Many tales of Samurai involve the loss of freedom to love who one wishes. This is true of the merchant class as well. In this instance, Usagi helps the daughter of a sake brewer escape death. Stan uses a few twists in the storytelling here as well showcasing that not everyone is as pleased to follow duty when other options are available.

For those who've never seen the art in a Usagi Yojimbo book, Dark Horse provides previews of most of their books. Thieves and Spies can be previewed here:

Thieves and Spies provides a quick glimpse into a fantasy Japan that never was. It provides a peak into the lives of heroes and the everyday people they meet. Stan's writing suffers a bit from the episodic manner in which the tales are told, as often Usagi just happens to be at the right place at the right time as opposed to actually seeking out purpose, but that's the nature of the beast. It's a character showcase when we get to see Usagi meet old friends and make new ones.

Thieves and Spies continues a tradition that has taken Stan over one hundred and fifty issue and here's looking forward to another one hundred and fifty.

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.