[Book Review] The Fourth Part of the World

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History's Greatest MapThe Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map by Toby Lester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read history books the way others read genre fiction. Some of them are well-written and some not, some well-sourced and some not. Sometimes a book claiming to be a work of historical scholarship is actually a political screed. When I read one well-written, well-sourced, and about a subject not often tread, I am in my happy place. The Fourth Part of the World is one of those books and it’s about maps.

To be precise, it is about one map: the first map in the world to name the New World “America.” But to get to that point, one has to go back in time and start with the Medieval maps of the 12th century and slowly move the clock forward through the Golden Horde and the Crusades. The Travels of Marco Polo and “the Book” — no authoritative version of the travels of Marco Polo exists but any number of versions await a reader’s pleasure. The endless fascination and eternal quest to find Prester John, an imaginary king with an imaginary army waiting just over the hills to come to the assistance of the Crusaders and who existed in every unexplored corner of every map. The re-discovery of Greek in Western Europe, lost for a thousand years, and the translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographie, a book with instructions on how to draw maps, described latitude and longitude, and with 8000 places in the ancient world. Great convocations on religious matters where men of learning got together and, for the first time in dark rooms, discussed the forgotten philosophies and mathematics of the ancient world as they were feverishly translated, and exchanged books. The printing press. The invention of the Caravel. Dreams of Japan. The Portuguese and Africa and what they found there. The first trip around the Cape of Good Hope. The men of Bristol who saw something, once, a long stretch of coastline while chasing schools of cod. Columbus. John Cabot. Amerigo Vespucci. de Medicis and Papal Spies and secret societies of Royal mapmakers and the quest for the way to India. Lies and false letters and Monarchies jostling to lay hands on the New World.

And it all comes together with two men in a small town outside of Strassburg, one a philosopher and one a cartographer, who had access to a printing press, a stolen map of the New World, and a set of forged letters full of imaginary extra adventures of Amerigo Vespucci. They fell in love with the alliteration of Africa and Asia and Europe and, with small metal letters and newly translated Latin poetry in their heads, named the new world America. It was a best seller for twenty years but maps being what maps are and they wore out as new ones appeared. The map disappeared from the face of the Earth until one copy complete, in tact, and whole, found… and now in the Library of Congress.

The book ends with a very nice touch of the impact of the maps of the New World on Nicolaus Copernicus who quotes much of the intro text to the first true world map in his On the Revolutions. It leaves proof that, while perhaps not all of his theories of the Earth revolving around the Sun came from this source, it had bearing on his thinking. With the Fourth Part of the World, the old Aristotelean view of the world no longer worked. And if it didn’t work, what else about how the world worked was outright wrong.

The Fourth Part of the World is terrific. For anyone interested in the history of maps and learning in Western Europe, or the Age of Discovery, I can completely recommend this book. It’s a fun read, it’s well written, it’s incredibly well sourced, it is full of pictures of maps to help with the text, and it’s all around great.

Fantastic. An easy 5 star rating.

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[RPG Review] Bookhounds of London (a Trail of Cthulhu Supplement)

Bookhounds of London by Ken Hite
Available from Pelgrane Press

Bookhounds of London isn’t so much a hardcover supplement for Trail of Cthulhu as a tesseract, a sort of space-time aberrant tear where more information exists between the two covers than the physical space inhabited by the book. In no way could so much dense Cthulhu information exist in such small a space. But then again, this is not just some book. This is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement. It may be warping space time around it preparing for its flight to some far-off alien existence.

So that’s a good thing.

Books go naturally with Cthulhu. After all, Lovecraftian horror is full of fun tomes teaming with terrible ideas which worm their ways into the mind and rip it to shreds. Book selllers and buyers and owners of bookshoppes and librarians and occultists are, also, a natural fit. Who else has the books? Hordes the books? Handles the books? Presented is precisely that: new character templates for book sellers and book agents and book forgers to help the supply and the occasional occultist. But that’s not all! Rules for book stores. Libraries. Book auctions. Book sales. The actual books! Detail on the wear on the books. The bindings of books. Why, there are even more books.

About this time I’d be totally satisfied with the supplement. That’s enough to get up a Cthulhu game centered around the buying, selling, and underground trade in evil books but Bookhounds of London is a strange supplement black hole containing far more information than can be contained in a single supplement. The section on 30s London is thick with NPCs, places, rumors, descriptions, and color plates in the appendix. New cults! Expansions on current cults! New monsters! Even more NPCs for rivals and villains and…

And then a very lengthy adventure involving Gods and crazy city magic and German witch hunters and sacred ley lines and, oh hell, Jack the Ripper. Maybe. A book, perhaps, is involved. And murder. And creatures from beyond. And a race against time. And other good stuff. Unlike most supplement adventures, the Bookhounds of London adventure (Whitechapel Black-Letter) does not disappoint — it can be run, and it makes a great intro-adventure to a big Bookhounds campaign.

The sign of a decent supplement is one good character idea by the end. A great supplement is three character ideas. Bookhounds of London leaves one with ideas for complete Cthulhu variants, teams of rival book stores, and several complete campaign ideas. And this is from someone who doesn’t run all that many campaigns these days. It’s good stuff.

A few things in specific:

* The new skills are brilliant but the best is the Knowledge. Having a skill representing deep and precise geographical information is a great skill for Investigators. Also, claiming to have the Knowledge on a character sheet is damn awesome.

* Bookhounds allows for building a rivalry with NPCs. This cool game mechanic doesn’t exist in normal Cthulhu where the Investigators go and investigate without too much outside pressure beyond “bad guys wish to chew off their faces.” Rival bookstores and rival book auctions introduces a new and interesting pressure on the group without introducing more cackling evil cultist villains. (Although nothing is wrong with cackling evil cultist villains.)

* One can never have enough cults or monsters.

* The new play styles are interesting — Sordid, Arabesque and Technicolor. Yes, one can fill a game full of horrible relationships or trips to Deepest India or like a movie from the 60s.

* The boxes, callouts, rumors — as good as the original book in quality and variety.

* I love the bundle of PDF+Hard Cover. The bundles make me very happy from a customer perspective.

I heartily recommend Bookhounds of London to anyone who bought Trail of Cthulhu. It does require ToC, but if one has ToC sitting on a shelf, it needs a friend. The quality is spectacular. Buy it, cuddle it, read it, run the games for your friends. Definitely pick up a copy. And I still have no idea how all that information got crammed into 128 pages of text.

Meanwhile, I need to finish working up some notes on a Bookhounds of Leverage, a Bookhounds/Leverage crossover game….

Closure

I, for one, celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. He was a pox, a barnacle, a cancer dragging the national psyche into a continuous cycle of fear and hatred. He was a face of national failure. He hit us, he lead us into two wars, and he was still out there, somewhere, lurking. Now we, as an entire people, get closure.

Closure is for everyone. The Middle East can move on. Instead of bin Laden, the face of the Middle East are kids in Tahrir Square bringing down Mubarak or the hideous struggle for freedom in Syria where more are being mowed down by Bashir al Assad’s thugs. Instead of terrorism and drugs and guns and fundamentalism, it’s Democracy. OBL was a tool for dictators to justify the repression of their people. Now he’s gone.

The US needed it, too. A clean break. A victory that feels like a clean victory. And a US-style testosterone laden victory at that. We didn’t use foreign troops or bombs. We sent in Navy SEALS and shot OBL in the head. Movies, television shows, books, video games to follow. After market crash and terrible recession and crazy stupidity and no one feeling good about anything, we needed this.

I disagree that this will dissipate and fade with the next news cycle, too. This is the stuff of mythology. A bad guy, a detective story, a multi-month hunt, a tense President giving the order, brave guys with guns and helicopters flying in the middle of the night, a dramatic firefight. This isn’t reality, this is narrative. Narrative is sticky. The story presses all the little Man with a Thousand Faces buttons.

What have we learned?

– Human intelligence is crucial. Guys on the ground talking to people are infinitely more useful than hoovering up unlimited data and trying to sift through it. The police state is not very effective in finding a guy living in an Islamabad suburb. Who would have thought?

Quality security is infinitely better than quantity security.

– Torture doesn’t work. All the information gleaned that lead to Osama bin Laden came from — shock — standard interrogation techniques. Torture as a method for extracting information should be outlawed. Period.

– Terrorism is a police action, and terrorism is a crime. Sure it took the CIA and the Navy SEALS to take OBL out, but most of the run up was hard-core detective work. Maybe next time the US won’t go randomly invading countries.

– Again, terrorism is a crime. OBL was a criminal. He murdered people.

– Barack Obama has nerves of steel. Man. When he said he had better things to do than mess with his long form birth certificate, the man was not kidding.

– Our guys are flat-out awesome. *wave little flag*

– We need to start really talking about the role of the crazy security industrial complex. Want to find things to cut in the budget? I have some interesting ideas!

So yay. Rock. I’m all for moving past OBL forever and ever and seeing what Egypt and Tunisia and the other countries are going to do in a post-OBL world where the world moves on.