Here I am.
I have insomnia.
Let’s talk about books.
Embers by Sandor Marai: A Hungarian novel from 1942 that’s a rediscovered masterpiece yadda yadda yadda. This book’s about two old guys who haven’t seen each other for forty years. One’s a general, and the other was once his best friend. One day they and the general’s wife went out hunting. THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED. Now the two guys meet again and sit down for a long dinner. The book’s pretty much the general making a long speech that boils down to “Did you fuck my wife?” While that makes it all sound trite, I got hooked by Marai’s exquisitely lean prose that evoked a lost world.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl: 1970s sci-fi that hits the right spot of being smart and entertaining, without having aged too badly. Humanity’s finds a trove of alien spacecrafts on an asteroid near Venus. We have no idea how to operate or control them, but we know they work, and so we send people out blindly in them to travel around the galaxy in the hopes that they make discoveries. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, a lot of times they die trying. The story’s told via flashbacks as Robinette Broadhead goes into therapy after making an astounding discovery.
The Foot-Path Way: An Anthology For Walkers, edited by Hilaire Belloc: This one was a Patreon read. I suggest you avoid it.
Lucian’s True Story: This was another Patreon read. It’s better than the Belloc book. I absolutely recommend it. It’s a hoot!
How to Make Friends With Demons by Graham Joyce: I read this ten years ago and it stuck with me. Rereading it now I still found myself caught up in it. Joyce has written some of my favorite books. He’s also written a book that I hate. Both that book I hate and this one revolve around a guy who has fucked his way into a nervous breakdown, but I feel like here Joyce makes the most of that concept by really putting the screws to his character. On a technical level, I feel like it’s a masterclass of not so much plotting as laying on so many complications that they start interacting with each other and moving the story on their own. Also, it’s about an art forger, and what’s not to love about that?
I tried to read The Silmarillion this month and stalled out at page 150ish. There are so many names. Also it’s not that exciting. This is probably my fifth attempt to read this thing. I will say Tolkien sure liked himself some stark black/white binaries. All the books listed here were read alongside or to take a break from The Silmarillion.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs: I live across the street from an English language library (ELL) now. Most of what it has are YA and MG books, although there’s a surprising amount of other stuff. Bellairs was one of the authors listed at the back of the Basic D&D rule book, and so has always stuck in my head as someone to read. I quite liked this. A young orphan goes to live with his Uncle. The Uncle and his friend turn out to be magicians, and it’s on the three of them to stop a long dead wizard’s plan to destroy the world. If you’ve ever read a MG book, you’ll know what to expect, but this has Edward Gorey illustrations and it’s still early enough in the genre that the whole thing is rough around the edges. Could you get away with Uncle Jonathan smoking a hookah and funny smelling hand-rolled cigarettes now?
Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray: Another one from the ELL. This one is a fun, coming of age novel that’s a bit high school drama with some light espionage. (Is Harriett the Spy the ur-text of girl’s literature? And if so, is Harriett based on Nellie Bly?) Leia comes across as likable, savvy, and confident, and this is a must-read for any Admiral Holdo fans. The final moments hurt a bit, because you can’t hate a character who puts the fate of their planet ahead of the galaxy’s.
Gates of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh: I was a big Michael Moorcock fan growing up (Corum more than Elric) and loved the idea of the Eternal Champion. This novel about the woman Morgaine is very much in that mode, but with Cherryh’s more down in the dirt style. It helps that the POV character is not Morgaine, but the honorable outlaw Vanye who’s pledged himself to her. If you’re hungry for some good sword & sorcery (that has some SF underpinnings) you should give this a shot.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Part memoir, part essay, part indictment of the USA, this is one of those books you need to confront face on.
Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene: This was my antidote to Tolkien’s stark binaries: a nice blackly comic novel about moderately awful to awfully awful people. Retired bank manager Henry meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time in decades at his mother’s funeral. Quite quickly he gets swept up in his septuagenarian aunt’s world and is soon accompanying her on trips that may not be quite 100% legal. Soon Henry finds himself caught in a web that involves CIA agents, the police, a drug smuggler, his aunt, hippies, and possibly a Nazi war criminal. Parts made me laugh out loud, and there’s nothing that isn’t lampooned in this book.
Working IX to V by Vicki Leon: This book describes over 100 jobs from the eras of Greece and Rome: funeral clown, orgy planner, arm-pit hair plucker… it’s a long list. While Leon’s tendency to make pop culture references (that have already dated themselves) gets annoying at times, overall the book’s informative and entertaining. And the fact that it’s all short entries makes it perfect to read on your phone when you have five minutes to kill.
I am a fan of the English Person Goes For A Walk genre, which seems to have been a thing in the 19th century, but which still crops up today, although, thankfully, the scope’s broadened out quite a bit. And while the English Cream of it all can be more than a bit much at times, plenty of writers I like took a hand at writing essays about walking. So my plan for July and August over at my Patreon is to do something a bit different and take a long leisurely stroll through an early 20th century book called The Footpath Way: An Anthology For Walkers. It contains essays, poems, and bits by such notables as Chuck Dickens, Wally Whitman, Tommy De Q, Bob Stevenson, Bill Hazlitt, and everyone’s favorite cinnamon doughnut eater, High Definition Thoreau. The plan’s to read thirty – forty pages a week over the next eight weeks and make a weekly post.
Feel free to come along!
Faces Under Water by Tanith Lee: The first book in Lee’s alternate Venice series full of alchemy, masks, magic, and skullduggery with a lot of the vivid prose Lee is known for. I had a great time with this. When Furian finds a strange mask floating in the canals of the city of Venus it leads him into a conspiracy full of madness and murder. Of course, he’s an obnoxious ass and the book’s full of all sorts of the awful and horrific (rape’s a plot reveal), but as someone who grew up loving Clive Barker and Sword & Sorcery this felt like the two streams coming together. This cover, however, is crap.
Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney: The first book in Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series about Thomas Ward, who’s the seventh son of a seventh son and the apprentice to Old Gregory the Spook of the county. Spooks are basically ghost finders and witch hunters that protect a region from supernatural foes. The setting’s vaguely 17th century after the English Civil War of Not Quite England. I’m not sure if Thomas is the main character of the whole series, or it shifts to others. I’d say it’s alternate history fantasy with horror overtones.
Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser: Walser was the guy critics compared Kafka to before critics started comparing writers to Kafka. I wrote about Jakob Von Gunten over at my patreon. You can click here to subscribe and read it.
To The Resurrection Station by Eleanor Arnason: This is an early book by Arnason and mashes up science fiction tropes with Gothic ones. It’s a book that’s fun, but a product of its time, and likely Arnason would do a better job with the same story now. For me, the charm was in protagonist Belinda Smith’s “magic power” that bends reality around her and makes the impossible possible. It was a neat conceit.
The Cloudship Trader by Kate Diamond: I liked this book, but I also reacted weirdly to it. This is the first book in my memory that instantly brings to mind a Studio Ghibli movie. It doesn’t matter which one. It captures the Miyazaki aesthetic and sticks with it. The plot revolves around enslavement of non-human characters, bad things happen, one character is fleeing an abusive relationship, but there’s nothing systemically bad in the world, hell, there doesn’t even seem to be any force of entropy or the simple cussedness of inanimate objects. All the evil is performed by a few bad actors acting mostly in isolation and the characters believe that if they calmly state their case and reveal the facts to a person in charge, everything will be okay. No one could abide letting an injustice occur and would go to great lengths to repair the wrongs done, even if that meant destroying a cultural object of great significance or tearing apart a treaty. I like a good comfort food read from time to time, and this is certainly one, but it’s also Comfort Food as an aesthetic and I found myself at time having a hard time swallowing that. But the appeal of such an aesthetic is clear.
I got lazy. Then I decided to move. Then I moved. Now I’m getting back to it. So here are the books I read and liked.
The Comedians by Graham Greene: A novel about morally compromised people making bad decisions as the world falls apart around them. Here we have Mr. Brown, a jerk of a hotel operator, obsessing over his affair with a diplomat’s wife in Papa Doc’s Haiti and the friendship he strikes up with two other dubious characters, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. Their nondescriptness is what draws them together. Overall the whole thing comes off as a farcical tragedy. Somehow through a series of awful events characters’ patheticness and pettiness manages to get twisted into something almost virtuous. I can think of plenty of reasons why someone would hate this book. It’s about privileged people being petty and awful in the face of suffering. And yet, or maybe because I am an awful person too, I love it.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie: A self-contained fantasy novel!?! Who would’ve thunk it possible!?! The thing I really liked is that Leckie manages to write a bottle story where the characters are confined to a single place and time, yet she still manages to make the scope wide and far-ranging. This is a world full of politics and gods, but also individuals and their day to day problems. I feel like this book is one that could serve to welcome people back into the fantasy genre.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World by Erica Benner: I loved, loved, loved this book. And blathered about it on my Patreon. Did you know I have a Patreon? This is my Patreon. Why not support my Patreon? SuPpOrT mY pAtReOn. Support me and my writing, and receive my gratitude in return!
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: This book depressed me. You should read it.
Far North by Marcel Theroux: A grim post-apocalyptic road novel that’s as stripped down and lean as The Road but a bit more interesting because the narrator has a richer backstory. She’s the descendant of a religious back-to-the-land commune that sought to escape the impending collapse by settling in Siberia. The book nods heavily at the Western genre and its utopian yearning for some promised land that must exist just out of reach over the horizon.
Edges by Linda Nagata: Far future SF with downloadable minds, lives lived on various layers of virtual reality, and sentient alien artifacts that outlive their creators. The characters are a bit broad strokes, but the world and technology are fascinating. In particular I love the ideas that humanity’s great knack is our ability to subvert technology and merge with it no matter how alien it might be, and the universe is less populated by aliens than it is by the systems and devices they left behind. Fun stuff and while it stands alone it brings back characters from Nagata’s Nanotech series.
Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason: This is an alternate history novella of the quiet sort (as opposed to the Rommel-and-Patton-team-up-to-fight-Hitler-and-Stalin-oh-my-god-I’m-so-hard-right-now sort) that posits the existence of wooly mammoths in the American West during the era of Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark expedition, and what their continued existence means in relationship to and as metaphor for the coming struggle between Native Americans and European settlers. Not much happens and it’s very much a told story, but I was caught in it and enjoyed the ride.
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!