Some things I read or listened to this past March that I loved.
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell: Sometimes I want to read a book that’s as straight forward as a well put together cheese burger. This was such a book. Trouble Dog is a sentient warship that commits a war crime, but renounces violence after the war by becoming a emergency rescue ship. This story’s about what happens then.
Prophet by Brandon Graham and various: I read through this all series in a week and it was delirious fun. The whole story feels emergent in a way that might be annoying to some, but which I liked. The overall impression is of an anthology book set in a single creator’s loosely outlined universe. That it’s all inherited from a very different earlier creator is just part of the fun.
Roadtown by Edgar Chambless: I wrote this up as a Yesterweird post over on my Patreon page. My plan is to make all the Yesterweird posts free once I get over the 50USD mark. Maybe you’d like to help make that happen.
Akhnaten by Philip Glass. This has been on repeat for at least a week. Give the first fifteen minutes a listen. It’s a trip.
Mithra by Ager Sonus. I like cinematic ambient drone as much as the next weirdo, but this album stands out from the usual air conditioner hum and whistles. Here’s a link to it on Bandcamp.
This is the write-up of the current state of my d&d game for new players. It’s been going since December and the party is now near 5th level. The game’s set in Jack Shear’s Krevborna, a Gothic Horror setting. However, the longer the game’s gone on the more apparent that I can’t do horror well.
A fact you will see if you continue reading.
THE START: THE RED STAR INN
Three strangers sheltering from a storm at the Red Star Inn wake to screams in the night. They are Caladan and Geb, a half-vampire knight and human soldier, and “Bob”, a spy who has had her name and past stolen by a wandering stranger. They discover the innkeeper and his entire family murdered. Who did it? What did it? This was an investigative adventure where all their fellow guests in the inn were suspects. Caladan was out of his element since there was no clear opponent to kill. In the end it turned out to be an intellect devourer jumping from victim to victim. I wrote it up in detail here, but you don’t need to read that.
After defeating the devourer, Caladan, Geb, and “Bob” escorted some of the survivors to the nearby Abbey of Saint Seska in the town of Wakehollow. At the abbey they met Landar, a foundling raised by the church who seemed to be imbued with divine power. News reached the town that a recent storm washed away the side of a hill and exposed the entrance to an ancient tomb. Landar joined the party in their exploration of the tomb, where they encountered the shade of Bjorn the Bonesinger, former minstrel in the court of the ancient Witch King. Geb died in the battle against Bjorn causing Caladan to descend into despair.
Back in town, the party recovered and made friends with a stranger named Bred, a wild magic sorcerer of shockingly cautious disposition. Bred joined the party and accompanied them west to investigate a tower suspected of serving as a base for a group of raiders.
Very quickly it became apparent that the tower was not the raiders base but they were in fact inhabiting a series of nearby caves discovered by “Bob”. However, Landar believed the tower might hold some secrets and wanted to explore it further. Caladan saw this as a distraction and abandoned the group deciding to explore the caves on his own. Inside the tower, Landar, “Bob”, and Bred defeated a host of shades escaped from Hell and encountered a nothic by the name of Gibberstrike. In exchange for secrets, Gibberstrike told them about the Chaos Priest behind the raids and how a secret passage beneath the tower led into the caves. Meanwhile Caladan defeated a bunch of goblins but got taken prisoner when ogre reinforcements arrived.
THE CAVES OF CHAOS
Caladan founds himself locked up with the survivors of a merchant caravan, a deranged gnoll, and a sullen orc named Maulglum. He befriended the orc and together they hatched an escape plan. Meanwhile, Landar, Bob, and Bred must pass through a haunted crypt to reach the secret passage Gibberstrike described. Barely surviving an attack by the crypt’s ghoul inhabitant, they reached the passage and pressed on into the caves. They arrived just in time for Caladan’s prison riot. A huge melee ensued and the party defeated the hobgoblin and bugbear prison guards (as well as the deranged gnoll).
Afterwards came a big information exchange between party members and prisoners. Landar was for using the prison block as a trap to whittle away at the raiders, while Caladan was for going after the Chaos Priest and “completing the mission”. The surviving merchants (including the shifty slave-trading one who assisted in the fighting) decided to return through the secret passage while Maulglum the Orc stayed with Caladan. Bred and “Bob” sided with Caladan and set off to slay the priest. Before leaving one of the merchants told “Bob” about a village a few days west of the tower where everyone is named “Bob”.
The party infiltrated the lair of the chaos priest by disguising themselves as acolytes. They reached the priest’s inner sanctum right in the middle of a ritual to raise a host of undead foot soldiers. Another big melee ensued with Bob and Bred lending spell support and Landar calling upon the power of the saints. The party won the day without casualties and the priest was slain.
THE WELL OF SOULS
Landar had a dream that a great evil lurks beneath the well from which the chaos priest sought to raise his army. In that dream he also glimpsed the shield of Saint Seska buried beneath a pile of bones. After the party rests Landar convinced them to climb down the well and put an end to the great evil lurking there. They agreed and climbed down to discover a bone littered cavern housing a portal to the depths of the abyss. Between the party and the portal were a host of undead and terrifying maggot creatures. The party managed (barely) to win their way onto a series of ledges that traversed much of the cavern and avoided the threats on the floor.
Halfway to the portal they each heard a voice in their head drawing them towards a side passage. Caladan was for exploring the passage but Landar was skeptical. Bred said that if anything the side passage might be more defensible than the ledges, so the party decided to explore it.
Down the passage they found an ancient shrine to the Queen of Shadows built in the era of Witch Kings. It had been profaned by the abyssal powers and the party was soon confronted by the undead occupants now lurking in the shrine. The party managed to defeat them and set about resting. The voice, however, convinced Caladan to perform a ritual, bonding his weapons to a shadow spirit. Landar doubted any good would come of this.
The party reached the portal to the abyss where they saw the shield of St. Seska embedded in a nearby tree made from human bones. They crossed over while no undead were nearby and managed to wrestle the shield free from the tree. This woke the guardian beast hidden within the tree. Battling the demon creature to a stand-off, the party led by Landar managed to retreat back to the cavern with the shield before the portal closed (although Caladan was all for battling on with the beast and “Bob” nearly got trapped on the wrong side as the portal closed).
THE PARTY SPLITS UP
Out of the well the party recovered in the temple. Caladan was for assisting Maulglum in leading the orcs against the rest of the caves’ inhabitants. Bob was for going west to check out this village full of Bobs. And Landar and Bred were for returning to Wakehollow. So the party split up, and this bit was played out via messenger using a very rough version of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins rules, a PBtA game.
Caladan and Maulglum returned to the orc-held caverns and managed to impress the orc leader Strak. The orcs agreed that now that the chaos priest was dead it was time for the orcs to reclaim the caverns. They proclaimed against the hobgoblins and their allies. A series of pitched battles were fought in the canyon with Caladan lending his support to the orcs. The orcs nearly claimed the caves early on, but an ambush of fell beasts forced their lines to crumble and allowed the hobgoblins to claim the upper hand.
In the middle of the night Caladan led a raid upon the strongest of the fell beasts with the aid of a squad of orcs and three barrels of gunpowder. Drawn by all the noise a new battle ensued and Strak and the hobgoblin king managed to confront each other in battle. But at the last moment the orc’s shaman (a hobgoblin in disguise) murdered Strak. Maulglum attacked the shaman and Caladan went to do battle with the hobgoblin king. It was a close one, but in the end Caladan won. However not many orcs survived the war. Caladan set about training the remaining orcs into a fighting legion to be employed in protecting the road.
I should say I’ve made the vampires of the setting something like the Roman empire with the orcs having been a regular part of their armies. That Caladan is half-vampire gave him an in when dealing with them.
THE BOBS OF WALLBURG
Bob traveled west staying in remote villages, earning her keep by telling stories. She eventually reached Wallburg the village of Bobs. There she found a much deserted village save for three inhabitants all named Bob. From them she learned that all the villagers lost their names and identities to a wandering stranger named Bob. Bob learned there are more inhabitants in an old building in town and discovered the rest of the villagers have all melted together into one gibbering mass of eyes and mouths. Turns out if Bob doesn’t get her name back she too will be afflicted by the same gibbering disease. Before the gibbering mouther managed to eat her, Bob’s rescued by an extradimensional frog wizard named Zasgam. They’re after the Bob for stealing Zasgam’s prized gemstone. Zasgam offers to help Bob find Bob if she and her companions will retrieve the gemstone. Bob agrees.
Landar and Bred returned to Wakehollow where they split up because Bred wanted to go to a big city. Landar presented the shield to Mother Disaine at the Abbey and learned that a Witchfinder was in Wakehollow pursuing a heretical outlaw. Landar joined the Witchfinder and his group as they tracked the outlaw to Murkmire, a nearby seaside ruin. They found Murkmire overrun by sahugin and discovered that the outlaw hoped to awaken a great evil submerged off the coast with the help of the sahugin queen. Much bloodshed ensued and only by the Witchfinder’s sacrifice was the outlaw slain. Landar however was shaken. He returned to Wakehollow and decided it best to remain as the town’s protector than wander the roads as an adventurer.
THE QUEEN IN LAVENDER (PART 1)
While on his own Bred wanted all the culture he could get and nothing says culture like the theater!
So he heard about several upcoming plays in nearby cities and decided to see The Exuberance of Pinfolo as performed by Wiswym Nonce & Players in the city of Creedhall. Bred hoped to audition for a part, but unfortunately when he got there he found Wiswym to be drunk and depressed because his actors had all abandoned him. It turned out that two great cosmic events were unfolding in Creedhall at that time and no one gave two shits for the theater.
First, the archfey Queen Maeve was celebrating her procession and her devotees thronged the city with their floats and parades. Second, the star Amalfi was oscillating along the chromaspectral wavelength an event of such celestial import that half the city had become amateur astronomers. Undeterred, Bred managed to convince Wiswym that the show must go on and the two hatched a plan to put on a play so sensational that all of Creedhall would be forced to notice. To this end Wiswym decided to put on a production of the infamous play The Queen in Lavender. And to avoid the play’s habit of driving its actors mad, Wiswym chose to cast inmates from the local asylum for disturbed individuals in most of the parts.
A whirlwind rehearsal ensued, and several dangerous mishaps occur. On opening night Bred started to have second thoughts. Especially after half way into the performance he noticed all the fake stage knives had been replaced with very real sacrificial daggers.
Muttering his battle cry (“One. Two. Three. Fuck it!”) he stepped onto the stage. The show must go on!
THE QUEEN IN LAVENDER (PART 2)
(Around here we got back to playing D&D 5e)
A few days before Bred’s big night, Zasgam the Frog Wizard and Bob dimension doored to the tower where they met Caladan as he trained his orcs. Caladan appointed Maulglum as chief while he was gone and joined Bob and the Frog Wizard. Landar, however, decided to remain in Wakehollow as he believed the town would benefit more by his continued presence. Bob and Caladan bid him well and continue on with Zasgam to Creedhall. As they get closer Zasgam informed them that a cosmic disturbance prevented the Frog Wizard from getting close to the city and Bob and Caladan would need to go on alone.
They managed to reach the city and learned where Bred was, arriving at the stage just at the climactic sacrifice scene unfolded. The sacrifice was a success and a rift opened to where the Queen in Lavender and her star spawn horrors dwelled. Mayhem ensued. Most of the cast was slain or in league with the star spawn horrors and an audience member proved to be an archfey in disguise (Prince Vorash, Lord of Misrule) come to watch the play for the lulz. Caladan and Bob attempted to rescue Bred. Bred attempted to stay alive. Wiswym Nonce got his face eaten and Prince Vorash was so amused he decided to polymorph Caladan into a gorilla. More mayhem ensued, but in the end the star spawn and cultists all died (except one, who escaped giggling and laughing into the night…)
A day later Zasgam was able to enter Creedhall, and asked if the party was ready to retrieve the gemstone. They said yes, and so zimzamallakabam Zasgam transported them to the stone’s current location on the astral plane.
Which is where we will begin next time!
Morien by Jessie L. Weston: A 14th century Dutch poem about Sir Morien, the Moorish knight of the Round Table. I wrote it up on my Yesterweird patreon. Short version: I recommend it!
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun: This is a very Thomas Ligotti sort of book and I am not a Thomas Ligotti fan, so I didn’t really like it, but maybe you will. A stranger comes to a hellish city to do an unpleasant job and paranoia, misery, and degradation ensues. One thing I couldn’t shake while reading this is that Hye-Young Pyun was imagining what it must feel like to be an expat living in Korea, except she can’t shake a tendency for self-loathing and making misery porn.
Digger’s Game by George Higgins: A quarter of the way into this I realized I’d read it before, which is fine, it’s a quick read. Higgins wrote about Boston’s criminal underworld like an anthropologist and it’s fascinating to dip into that worldview. Although if you’re only going to read one thing by him The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the one.
Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.
Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.
Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.
Today’s trip to the vault brings us two science fiction stories from 1962 both written by women and both being contemporary snapshots of their era. But that’s about all they share. The first, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant, is pitched as melodrama. The second, “The Glory of Ippling” by Helen M. Urban, is pitched more as satire. I’ll put links to each at the bottom of this post. Both are worth the few minutes they take to read.
First up, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant. Spoilers abound.
The artwork “by Schelling” hooked me before I even started the story. It’s like a still from a black & white TV show or soap opera or even an episode of Mad Men. The teary-eyed woman, clutching her handkerchief, the indifferent man with his horn-rimmed glasses, the décor in the background, all of it looks less like science fiction and more like a day-time television show. All before the story even starts. Interesting.
The story itself is about one Lucilla “Lucky” Brown, a secretary for a Los Angeles advertising firm. Lucky seems to have everything going for her at least as far as her boss and coworkers think. So why then does she leave the office at 4:30PM three days a week to see a psychiatrist? No one can believe it let alone explain it. Especially not junior executive Paul Chapman who all fall and winter was very interested in Lucky Brown, but by spring and summer wasn’t interested in anything much at all.
Well, turns out Lucky is telepathic and has been all her life. As a child she found great joy in this, but then her parents taught her to be ashamed of her ability. After that she managed to mask her powers from herself by simply believing herself “lucky”. For years that worked. But then she and Paul Chapman had to work together on an advertising campaign and while they seemed so sympathetic in so many ways, the outcome led to collapse for both of them. During the campaign, while doing project research, they read old pulp science fiction magazines, and Lucky found great comfort in their stories of people with fantastic powers, but Paul derided and mocked them. This made that old shame return. Only now it was worse. It brought nightmares of isolation and despair with it. Hence her trips to Dr. Andrews.
This is that sort of science fiction story I believe we are supposed to find uplifting, but which, mainly because I’m a horrible person who likely was hugged the wrong amount as a child, I can’t help but read as both sinister and too treacly sweet. The reason Lucky is going to see Dr. Andrews is because she feels shame that she’s different. Except the different she feels is of that sort that makes her special and there by better than the people around her. I know that’s absolutely not Constant’s intent, but that’s me. It’s absolutely valid to write the stories that reflect the world you wished existed or provide you with those connections you feel you lacked. But those aren’t the stories I like.
On to the “Glory of Ippling”!
Helen M. Urban’s “The Glory of Ippling” is also set in the world of 1962 California, but the vision it shows is one of wrestling events, burlesque parlors, and advertising gone rampant. It’s less Mad Men and more Mad Magazine and quite possible to read as a lampoon of a certain UFO cult that still exists to this day. All of which makes it almost the exact opposite of “The Sound of Silence”.
In “The Glory of Ippling” the Ipplings are a vast space empire of superior elitists who come across as caricatures of 19th century Austro-Hungarians. They’re big into uniforms and the excellence of their way of doing things. One of their number, one Boswellister who received his post less by skill and more by his social connections, has been sent by the Ipplinger Cultural Contact Group to make contact with humanity. Unfortunately Boswellister is finding it hard-going as humanity is a craven superstitious species, beholden to sensation whether in the wrestling ring or on the stripper’s runway.
When he finally does manage to get our attention, we see him not as the superior specimen of an intergalactic empire he absolutely believes himself to be, but as a salesman pitching a new product. The UFO technology, the dazzling lights, it’s all just more spectacle to get people to buy something. When Boswellister fails to produce the requisite “free samples” a riot ensues, forcing Boswellister and the rest of the Cultural Contact Group to abandon their mission and flee Earth.
This is a very silly story, but a quite fun one that delights in skewering pretensions. It’s a story where everyone is not simply ugly, but absurd. Humanity is absurd. The superior Ipplings are absurd. Especially Boswellister, Boswellister is extremely absurd. He is that guy who calls everyone else sheeple, prides himself on his logic, and laments the vulgarity of the modern world while harassing sex workers. If Boswellister had only waited until 2016. The USA would have elected him president.
Here’s the link to “The Sound of Silence”.
The next Yesterweird read will be Plague Ship by Andre Norton. If you like these sort of reads please consider supporting my Patreon.
The first two are from December and can stand in for my favorite reads from December 2018 post.
Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman: Lamat is a mountain guide and Disaine is a religious woman come to climb the sacred mountain. A really marvelous piece of fantasy writing that does away with a lot of the grand epic storylines of modern fantasy to focus down on the personal and philosophical.
Semiosis by Sue Burke: Classic science fiction of the First Contact sort where the human colonists must figure out how to communicate and survive with an intelligent and arrogant plant. Also, weirdly, has a heavy undercurrent looking at parenting and partnering styles.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Everything changes for a quaint New Hampshire town when a mysterious auctioneer arrives. Soon people are giving away all their prized possessions so as to profit from the auctions, but the trouble keeps ratcheting up because the Auctioneer always wants to sell more. The scariest book I read this year.
Black God’s Drum by P. Djeli Clark: Fun alternate history fantasy adventure novel. A young pick-pocket in the Free City of New Orleans overhears a group of Confederate dead-enders plot to abduct the Haitian scientist responsible for the construction of Haiti’s deterrent super weapon. From such beginnings pulp adventures are born!
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: I read a few Eric Ambler novels this year, and I loved all of them. This one might have been my favorite because the protagonist, a sleazy taxi driver caught up in a criminal plot, is the most interesting. I also recommend A Coffin for Dmitrios.
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: A story about an elderly midwife and her apprentice living on the margins of a rural English village in the 1960s. It’s a deep dive into a small setting that’s almost folk horror but not quite. Highly recommend it.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: The Hong Kong gangster kung fu fantasy novel I didn’t know I needed until I read it. This was a ton of fun. And with the sequel set to come out in 2019, I’m eager to learn what happens next.
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: In the aftermath of a terrible intergalactic war, the galaxy’s intelligent species have decided they will instead settle their disputes through a musical contest much like the Eurovision contest of our world. Now it’s Earth’s turn to perform, and if we lose our planet is doomed.
Silent Hall by NS Dolkart: A fantasy novel about a world with very active gods and how awful that is for all. This reminded me a lot of the sort of fantasy I devoured in the 1980s, David Eddings, Weiss and Hickman, except Dolkart’s able to update that style with self-awareness to make it appeal to a more contemporary audience. I need to read the sequels.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymir by John Crowley: A story about a crow that’s sort of immortal as he lives on the margins of our world and watches human civilization develop. Bleak and beautiful.
The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington: A non-fiction history book that’s the biography of a single man, Franz Schmidt the 16th century executioner in the German city of Nuremberg. The portrait of Schmidt that emerges is that of a man of honor and integrity in a time and place that hardly warranted either.
An Unhappiness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: A science fiction novel set onboard a generation ship and as is usual with that subgenre, everything that can go wrong does go wrong so the society that emerges is a horrible one. But despite all that, the book’s not one you can look away from.
A last nod to 2018 with a sunrise picture from December 30th.
Things published this past year:
“Periling Hand” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies: A story about a guy, a take-out delivery guy, dealing with his shit, on an alien planet where people harvest pollen using living tractors and they make alliances with intelligent stone circles that might or might not be about to fight a civil war amongst themselves. Basically, a mumble-core space western.
“A Ghost Can Only Take” at Reckoning: Not a story but an essay about walking in the grand tradition of “a person takes a walk and won’t stop talking about it” style of essays. (Although heaven forbid you actually go for a walk with them and try to have a conversation then. No. No. That is forbidden.) Strange thing about this essay is that I could keep writing and writing and writing it, because landscape is always happening. Whether it’s cyclically changing with the season or evolving as development occurs, landscape is not a steady state and not even memory can capture it. The latest issue of this magazine is out now.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you have a Happy New Year.