Review: Miskatonic School for Girls

We picked up Miskatonic School for Girls at PAX East 2012 and we’ve since sat down and played several hands of the two-player variant of the game.  Here’s my specific feedback in Exciting Bullet Point Form.

– The packaging and game pieces are professionally done.  Nothing about this game feels cheap due to being kickstarted.  The play boards are sturdy.  The cards have attractive art on front and back.  The instructions are bright and clear.  Pieces return to the box with relative ease.  

– The game itself takes about five minutes to set up for a 2 player hand.  Decks sort into their respective piles.  What goes where is clear after a quick look at the instructions.

– The art for the monsters is top notch and the monster names are adorably Lovecraftian and clever.  The girl cards were bland in art and name, making it hard to tell what was a real “key buy.”  

– We were up and playing a first hand quickly.  The instructions are easy to understand to anyone who has played a Dominion-like deck-building game in the past.  By the way, folks: if you have not played Dominion and you want to play any of the new card-and-board games on the market, find someone who has Dominion and play several hands.  Every hot new game uses some “twist” on the Dominion deck building mechanics.

– Every turn in the “buy” phase, a player buys a girl for their House (ala Harry Potter) and a new member of the faculty of the school who is, naturally, some horrible abomination from beyond the stars.  These go into the purchase pile and always come out next turn.  Like Ascension, Miskatonic provides stock “buys” of transfer students and substitute abominations should a player not be able to buy a student or a faculty that turn.  

– Miskatonic School for Girls has a nice twist on Dominion-like play: when buying a horrible member of the faculty, one plays it into one’s opponent’s deck and, like any “buy,” must come out next turn.  So you, the player, has incentive to buy the biggest, nastiest monster on the board and send it into your opponent’s deck knowing well they must deal with it immediately while at the same time buying the most amount of “fight” into one’s house to defend against whatever is being sent into your deck.  This sets up a nice bit of tension and competition over cards on the board and strategic buys.

– And as a second twist, whenever a monster ends up in a player’s hand from drawing a hand, at the end of the buying phase, the player has to fight the Cthuloid horror with students in the house.  Should the students fail to hold off the horrid Lunch Lady from Beyond, the House as a whole takes sanity damage.  When sanity hits 0, the player is out of the game.

– Faculty and students get shuffled into the deck after buy-and-fight phases ala any deck building game so faculty can pop out of the deck at any time to gnaw on the student’s heads.  Near the end of the game, a player can draw an entire hand of pure faculty which is, as we discovered, bad.

– The game has a built in “sanity death spiral.”  As the decks grow, more faculty come out.  As more faculty come out, more students lose sanity.  As more students lose sanity… It’s a nice mechanic.

– Cards do have different effects on them — both girls and monsters.  They were a bit forgettable, though.  For an expansion: punchier effects!  

– The game does have generators the same way Ascension has constructs.  They felt a little undercosted and overpowered but still… generators are good.

– The game’s play is considerably more Ascension-like than Dominion-like, although the games are close in play and composition.  If you like Ascension, you will certainly like Miskatonic School for Girls.  If you believe Ascension is an abomination upon the Earth and a blight on all deck building games you should stick with Dominion and its 10,000 expansion packs.

– An entire game takes 30-40 minutes, tops. 

We enjoyed it.  I would gladly play it again.  I would lug the game over to a friend’s house to play several hands.  What struck me during play was how well expansions of monsters and students would fit into the gameplay seamlessly so I have some expectation of expansions in the future.  For Fun to 11’s first stab at a commercial product, it’s a success.

Recommended buy for the deck building card-and-board gamer in your life.

Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man's War
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have exactly one essential issue with “Old Man’s War:”

The book ends so well and succinctly I feel no compulsion to read the sequels.

Otherwise, this book is fantastic. So many cool science fiction themes to ponder: the corporatization of space exploration and settlement, “We are the invaders,” the incredible diversity in life and the further diversity in how it tries to kill us, the bizarreness of space battle, and the future of humanity, all packed into one little thin tome. The presentation of the various aliens is fantastic, and so are the ways humans die in space — some great, some terrible.

I can gush about Old Man’s War all day. It’s like an evil Star Trek.

The nut of the book is this: Earth offers its old people a chance at a new life when they reach 75. If you so live that long, you can join up with the CDF, the Colonization Defense Forces, which promises a new life and a Fountain of Youth. Only hitch: you don’t ever come back to Earth. Earth marks you as dead and you are gone into space forever. This is clever — instead of poaching the breeding population, needed for colonization, it poaches the old and infirm who only drain terrestrial resources and have a full life experience. And the CDF makes good on its promise……. in a way.

Ah space, full of aliens to meet, greet and shoot in the face. Humans have a skip drive which allows them to get around in the galaxy and there, the entire cast of Star Control II awaits them. Those things that look like HR Giger’s nightmares? Peaceful underwater mathematicians who want to bond and share with humanity. The wise deer-headed mammalian animals out of Star Trek? They love the taste of human flesh and set up human farms whenever they take out a colony. So be aware, recruit! What you think is huggable thinks you are tasty on rye.

In the CDF you aren’t going to last long because everything in the galaxy wants to chew on your head. So here’s your gun! Here’s your BrainPal(tm) and your body full of SmartBlood(tm). Know that humanity needs to be genetically enhanced on the fly to survive in the harsh and crazy conditions of space. You’re enhanced, now! Go shoot some aliens for the good of mankind!

I have special love for the super intelligent bugs with the shield around their entire solar system to keep out invaders and their religious purity and their weird war games. For should any of these aliens interact with dirty humans they will be pulverized and their molecules shot into the nearest black hole unless it is under the onus of war. Then there will be death! And rebirth! It will be glorious! Woo!

5 stars. Great book and a great look on what humanity being the alien invaders in a galaxy full of intelligent species is like and how the stupidity of life isn’t confined to just Earth. Go read it.

View all my reviews

Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review containers spoilers for Mockingjay.

At one point in the book, Joanna Mason, one of the victors from Catching Fire, has this exchange with Katniss:

“Is that why you hate me?” I ask.
“Partly,” she admits. “Jealousy is certainly involved. I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which make you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

I like Joanna because she sums up why I only give Mockinjay, the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy, a 3.5 — although Goodreads only allows me to give full stars. About half of the book is Katniss moping around or mooning or complaining or whining or otherwise not moving the plot along much at all. Entire chapters devolve into “and Katniss feels bad.” I get she feels bad and she’s had some unbelievably bad life experiences at the hands of the Capital that defy belief but she’s also the main viewpoint character and the complaining got old.

The other half of the book is full of action sequences, one more implausible than the next. And here are some of my bigger plot gripes:

– Anyone notice Katniss gets turned into Hawkeye? Anyone? I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad, honestly. On one hand, thumbs up Avengers! On the other hand… isn’t Hawkeye in the Avengers? It turns out I like the character of Beetee and I did like District 13s crazy cache of technology and weaponry but this felt silly.

– The bombing of District 12 which, on any level of examination, makes no sense. If District 12 is mining, and the military uses coal to run its generators for the mountain military base for the scene with District 2, doesn’t blowing up District 12… shoot the Capital in the foot? Or, as everything seems to run on nuclear — those hovercraft ain’t steampunk — what was the point of District 12 the whole time? A buffer to District 13?

– Everyone forgets Peeta is missing a leg. The whole book forgets Peeta is missing a leg. I suppose the new leg is so awesome it no longer needs mention? And why does Peeta, who, I should mention, is missing a leg sent on a military mission for District 13 after they made such a hoopty-do about military training and people going on military missions being in military fit condition? Why is Peeta thrown in with their squad? This makes no sense whatsoever.

– Why is the entire military of the Capital housed under one mountain in District 12? Can they not… find two mountains? A mountain and a big sprawling fort? I dunno, a mountain and a freaking castle? Who designs their military to have one massive point of failure?

– And my biggest gripe: why the hell did the Capital trap the entire city where normal people live like the Arena? I was completely down with the Arena-like mobile pods of death. Those rocked hard. But when streets opened up into whirring meatwheels of death, I was like… okay, shark? You have been jumped.

I can go on and on. The whole book doesn’t work.

It sounds and feels like sour grapes for a kid’s book that never made the slightest pretension of sci-fi worldbuilding. I rolled with it in Hunger Games and Catching Fire because the centerpiece, Katniss, and what happened to her was gripping and awful enough to keep the book rolling. Here, in Mockingjay, the actual rebellion is abstracted out as big events unfold offscreen (notably Peeta’s rescue). The whole world is in flames and we see Katniss curled up in a corner. Good sequences, like the bombing of District 13 and the firefight in District 8, are overshadowed by strings of “buh” moments. For a big global rebellion, the book is missing some essential meat. I can’t see it. Even the news updates aren’t enough. Like Katniss, I can only know about it in the abstract, and it makes the first 70% of the book unsatisfying.

The final end is good. Mockingjay gets back a star for the final pages.

I wanted more. I didn’t get more. The book is the weakest of the three. Of course read it to finish off the series, but no reason to re-read a second time.

View all my reviews

Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yeah, look. I don’t like the Two Towers as much as Fellowship or Return of the King, either. Because it’s a damn long dull travelogue where people travel alot and angst a bit and talk and sort of fill out the world and there’s this one giant crazy insane OMG battle right there in the heart of things. Just like Catching Fire.

Except in Two Towers, Helm’s Deep is not trying to actively eat the people within. And Gandolf isn’t a crazy drunk named Haymitch. There is a hot guy, but he has a trident, wears a net, and looks way better than Aragorn.

Granted, the LotR analogy doesn’t hold together upon even the most casual of examination… although Peeta does have a little Samwise in him. But, Katniss and Peeta do their As Required By Law (Literally) world tour where Awful Things Happen and things go from very dull to very very bad indeed with an additional pile of badness because this book wouldn’t be in this particular trilogy if there wasn’t a chance for insane mayhem and death with graphically and lovingly described spurts of gore at the hands of the sadistic masters Panem who, upon reflection, are also very bad at thinking their cunning plans through.

But that is, as they say, another story. Find out! Read the book.

One thread I do like about Katniss throughout these books is, in the face of competent adults with a plan, she’s a seventeen year old girl who doesn’t have the experience. She doesn’t suddenly acquire years of wisdom from the sky. She doesn’t become Super Katniss. She stays a seventeen year old girl. And although she manages to resist the charms of Fan Favorite(tm) Finnick Odair — how can one not love Fan Favorite(tm) Finnick Odair with his intense and unending awesomeness? — she is still seventeen, way out of her depth, and she’s not going to level up through sheer prose. She’s Katniss, she’s good at what she’s good at, she’s terrible at what she’s terrible at, she’s amazing at shooting people with her bow, and the story rolls forward through her oftentimes confused first person perspective.

Middle book syndrome is a downer. Book doesn’t have an oooh aaah beginning. Book doesn’t end because the book after it has the story climax. It has some especially interesting fireworks along the way and fills out the story quite a bit. The broken economics of Panem don’t get much better. Terrible things do happen and characters with actual names die. But it cannot possibly live up to the books before it or after it because it’s entire job is to carry the story along.

And it does. Story carried. Mission accomplished. Bonus points if you bought the trilogy because book 3 starts on the very next page…

View all my reviews

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book should come with a helpful Public Service Announcement:

“While reading this book, you will not eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom. If you do go to the bathroom, you will take the book with you. May cause stress, loud meeping noises, insomnia, and an intense need to grab the next book.”

Thankfully, it’s a short book. Otherwise, I’d have to work out some sort of cunning bathroom-based scheme or come down with a terrible case of one day ebola to get the book done. There’s no reading it over multiple days. This is an official One Day Book where that’s what you do on that day. You read the Hunger Games.

Pretty much everyone knows about this book: dystopia future, brave girl fighting for her life in a sadistic arena, courage in the face of great odds, science fiction, etc. My interest while reading the book was to pull as many sources I could without resorting to the tvtropes page. I recognized:

– Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
– Stephen King’s “The Running Man”
– Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”
– Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Bad Dates.”)
– Theseus and the Minotaur
– Imperial Rome
– Etc.

I have a quibble. It’s not all rosy rainbows. The economy of Panem doesn’t… work. Normally, in a science fiction novel this would bother me but, here, the problem is easily brushed under the rug by reminding oneself that a) this is a Young Adult Fiction Novel and not Foundation or Childhood’s End here b) the economics are not the point of the story and c) why are we dwelling on the internal politics of Panem when oh my God that guy JUST DIED HORRIBLY DID YOU SEE THAT???!? In my book, which, to be fair, is a pretty big book, a good blood splatter covers a multitudes of sins, and a well-written blood splatter written in a tight, snappy, almost Elmore Leonard-like prose covers the sin of failed internal economics. I’m okay with it, and when you read the book, you’ll be okay with it, too. Trust me on this one. It’s a mere quibble.

So I like the book. I liked it I went diving into the next book immediately on finishing the first. Now, granted, I am expecting Peeta Mellack to burst into some John Savage to Mustapha Mond like lecture about the uselessness of the Capital and the trueness of the rest of the world (and not Katniss, Katniss is established as open mouth, insert foot, and I appreciate that about her so it has to be Peeta). Without this, it won’t be Brave New World enough.

I don’t know if I would read it a second time. I’ve read Brave New World something like seven times, a world record in my reading, and it’s not up there. It’s not a great dystopian novel. But it’s one hell of a story and it’s written in snappy, fast prose. Five stars.

View all my reviews

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game

While I’m not a big fan of the Leverage TV show, I am a fan of the Leverage RPG and the unfathomable malleability of the Cortex Plus system.  In the hands of a mad post-it note-er, the game is a fast, wild ride through the rampaging dark caverns of a gamer’s id.   Yeah, it’s a damn fine game.

I come to the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game thinking hard about ways to make it do things it shouldn’t.  When I introduce my list of nerddoms, my affinity for comic books lists ahead of video games or RPGs; comics predates any of those pithy things.  I have comics in my bookcase I bought when I was 10 years old (Ambush Bug vs. Superman!) so ragged and torn they hardly look like books and identifiable only by their iconic Hostess advertisements.  

I’m not primarily supers fan.  The last book I read was “Joe the Barbarian” by Grant Morrison a whole two days ago.  Vertigo is my go-to imprint 80% of the time.  But I do confess… when I reach for supers, I reach for Marvel.  X-Men first, mostly, then Avengers, then Spider Man, then everything else.   

In this framework, knowing Cortex Plus is putty in the hands of the overly imaginative, I read Marvel Heroic RPG and found it… more a comics roleplaying game than a pure Supers game.  I’ve played, much to my eternal sadness and stains upon my soul, certain Supers games and they… were Super games trying valiantly to keep the comics unbalance in powers, relations and cosmic silliness.  Marvel Heroic RPG waggles its hands at this problem and says hey, look, you can play all kinds of Marvel and to hell with worrying about if Kitty Pryde is on an equal level as Captain America in the comics.  Everyone on a level playing field!  We’re going to roll some dice and punch things!

I start thinking… could I use it to play Fables? Could one fight off incursions into Fabletown? How about more abstract? Could one do one’s own version of a new current fav of mine, the Unwritten and stat up dice for characters from literature? Or even more abstract — The Walking Dead? Here’s the thing — Cortex Plus is malleable and adaptable.  These rules for comics.  I think so.

What about the game?

The Cortex Plus system, as a stand alone system, is fast and simple.  Roll some dice, pull out the 1s as HORRIBLE DIRE CONSEQUENCES, add up the top two dice and pick a die as the “size” of the result and compare on a contest.  That’s about it.  One can do fun tricks to add dice to one’s pool to juice the result (including tossing in d4s to encourage horrible dire consequences).  The system is stunt driven — the more a player tosses in wackiness, the more dice they roll, the crazier the result.  

As a pure Marvel game, while I haven’t played yet and only read the examples, my gut tells me Marvel Heroic RPG works.  The new Cortex Plus mechanics of the Doom Pool took a few passes to get the gist of how consequences compound, and I worked through the stress tracks a few times, but I cannot find any obvious gotchas or breakdowns.  I’m struck how the game solves the worst problem plaguing Supers games, the “Superman and Batman” problem, by simply saying Hey, They Have Their Strengths, Let’s Play Them Up and Move On.  Game feels simple, lightweight, and fast.  All good things in my book — I get frowny at games heavy with their own importance.  

The meat of my post — a good things/bad things comparison.

Good Things:

– Cortex Plus is fun! 

– Operations Manual’s layout is sane.  It progresses from basics to Doom Pool to consequences, stress, resources, et al and ends with a helpful “how to play” chapter with a lengthy example.  Only after the book explains the game does the book meander off into how to run the game, how to write scenarios, example scenario, and goodies.

– Game is light, fast and cinematic.  Everything for a character is on a single sheet; no need to paw through stacks of source books to figure out how one stat or power works.

– I found the Cyclops and Emma Frost examples running through the book helpful, despite having no love for Cyclops.  The examples are in blue call out blocks directly after the demonstrated rule.  I did end up reading some examples several times. 

– Dude, one of the two example scenarios is Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  While yeah, I know this comes from a Bendis run, it’s still Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  With stat blocks for dinosaurs!  I admit: I didn’t read the Avengers punch mobs of Bad Guys scenario. I did read Avengers vs. Dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs are awesome.  

– Book is quite nice upon the eyes, for lo, it is a nice looking book.

– On finishing reading the book, I knew how to play (if not run).  Victory for the good guys!  A technical manual that conveys information to the reader!  A mark of a superior product!  How many RPGs have a I read and had no clue?  Answer: most of them.

Bad Things:

– The Doom Pool is a tad confusing.  Another example crammed into the book would have done me a world of good.  It’s my “oh god a new mechanic WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE” instincts kicking in a bit.

– This book will not please the diehard Supers gamers for so many reasons it will take another 1300 word post to fill.  (I’m not one, so all good.) 

– The mix of Marvel PCs is real off.  I understand the need to sell future supplements and give a broad taste of the Marvel ruleset but we’re left with a handful of Avengers, Cyclops and Wolverine with no Jean Grey, etc.  I chalk up the extensive Emma Frost to someone’s fanboyness of the Grant Morrison New X-Men run.  I felt like I bought a Magic starter set and now had an eclectic mix of half-made useful sets and combos.

– References to Characters Not Appearing In This Book in Rule Blocks and/or Art:  Mystique. Ghost Rider. Dazzler(!!). Professor X.  To name a few.   Game is clearly not a contained game but the core rules ala the nWoD core rules with expectations one will buy the add-on packs.  “If you like this you will LOVE the Civil War Expansion!”  This is unbelievably awkward but unavoidable with the architecture of the core book and planned expansions.  The core book has to have all the core “stuff” but needs to sell expansions.  It cannot be a compendium of the top 100 Marvel characters. So we end up with, say, half of Quicksilver’s stats in a random example.  Quicksilver isn’t that useful in the first place and half of him is pathetic.  This left me with the feeling of editorial sloppiness and some poor choices.

NO DOCTOR STRANGE.  -10 points.  As a huge Mighty God King fan, this is unforgivable.  My tiny fist, it shakes!  Seriously, the lack of a Dr. Strange is sad.  I would have dumped any of the example PCs for Dr. Strange.

– The MWP website for the game is tragic.  Yeah, okay, not a game thing, per se, but honestly: the website is tragic.

LOOK, A CONCLUSION!

May be a little skinny on meat and substance for some die hard Supers gamers to get going right off the bat and will become more interesting with later supplements but for $13 at Drive Thru RPG, I can think of no rational reason not to buy the game.  It’s ridiculously cheap so go buy it.  I like it and I feel it has some deep, untapped potential.  It’s a more accessible gateway into Cortex Plus than Leverage or Smallville.  

So yeah.  Excepting a few small quibble, it’s a great game. Good job, guys.

[Book Review] Pulphead

PulpheadPulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulphead is more of a 3.5-3.75 star book than a 4 star, but the rating system will not allow me to award partial stars so I’m rounding up.

I found Pulphead on the Guardian’s “Best Books of 2011” list and I was itching for something new to read. The review pimped it out as being analogous to David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.” To be fair, this pushed my expectations a little high because almost nothing except, perhaps, Hunter Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt” comes close to the above essay about going to a huge commercial luxury cruise (no Mr. Pibb!) but I found essays to enjoy in Pulphead anyway.

No collection of essays is ever completely even or completely excellent. Here, we find three essays worth the price of admission:

– The Axl Rose retrospective about old, fat, no longer touring with Guns N Roses but pretending to tour with Guns N Roses Axl Rose and his original home town in Indiana. The essay is pure Fiasco RPG fodder. And hilarious while, at the same time, horrifying beyond words.

– The essay about Michael Jackson wanting to break away from the Jackson 5 and strike out on his own away from the controlling interests of Motown. Excellent focus on his relationship with his sister Janet and brother Randy, the winning of Grammys for Off the Wall, his obsession with his nose, and the NBC broadcast where Jackson first performed “Billie Jean” and did the Moonwalk.

– The tale of going to the Christian Rock festival and the hollowness of Christian Rock. Opens with a great story about renting an enormous RV (but just enormous enough), the weird tensions between different groups of Christian Fundamentalists, and the limpness of the music they all came to hear.

A few other essays, the one about renting his house out to a TV show on the CW, the story of the Rastafarians in Jamaica and story of the caves in Tennessee are all interesting but not as good as the above three. And like all other essay collections, the rest are mostly filler. Sullivan is at his best when he is writing about music, and decent when he is writing about something other than himself, but when he starts to inject himself into the narrative things tend to go a little off the tracks.

Pulphead is a good, enjoyable, breezy read. Except for the retrospective on Axl Rose, none of the essays really linger. They aren’t thick, meaty longreads. These aren’t the sort of essays you roll around in your head for days and pick apart and analyze and then go argue with people on the Internet. I don’t put Pulphead anywhere near the same level as David Foster Wallace. They’re good and fun but, for the most part, light reads.

View all my reviews

[Book Review] Snuff

Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a huge fan of the Discworld and the City Watch books in particular but I didn’t care for Snuff as much as I could have — or should have. Down in my gut I feel Commander Sam Vimes has had a great run but now he’s so over-powerful, so unbeatable, and full of so many powerful allies (Vetinari, Lady Sybil, his unstoppable assassin-butler, the demon who lives in his head, every City Watch post ever, etc) he’s no longer much of a joy to read. He has no challenge. He has no mountain to climb. The term for this is Mary Sue, and Vimes has become a Mary Sue character.

I would have happily rolled with Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork if the book had turned into a commentary on Upstairs-Downstairs like it promised in the beginning, or would have kept to the city and focused on the goblins, or simply had more focus /in general/. Too much was going on and not enough was going on that had focus. We had some Class Warfare AND smuggling AND murderers AND drugs AND poor oppressed goblins whom no one understands AND What Happens to Fred Colon AND Vimes Taking Charge… the book lacked focus and the lack of focus took away from the more interesting action sequences and themes. Oppression bad, yes. But it didn’t have the feeling of freeing an oppressed people like, say, Feet of Clay did, even though it was, at its core, the same story.

I would have been happier, perhaps with two books: Vimes investigating a MURDER in a Countryside Upstairs-Downstairs and a more focused story about the Goblins. Or something to that effect. Much like Unseen Academicals, Snuff is a long way from being unreadable but I had to force myself to finish it. It didn’t grab me the same way Discworld books normally do. It’s no “The Times” or “Going Postal.” If I had to rank them, Snuff would dwell somewhere in the bottom third.

A high point: the continuation of Wee Mad Arthur’s education as a Nac Mac Feegle from _I Shall Wear Midnight_. I adore the Feegles and having one who isn’t Rob Anybody’s crew is always good.

Here’s hoping PTerry still has a few books left in him — and if they are City Watch books, they star Carrot and Angua and Cheery and the crew.

View all my reviews

[Book Review] Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law, #2)Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ah middle books of a series. Books with neither a beginning nor an end. Nothing but big honking chunks of middle.

Before They Are Hanged follows three separate stories with no overlap. Of the three stories, two of them are excellent and one doesn’t work. Two out of three isn’t bad but the weak story is, in comparison, clearly weak and it costs the book a half a star. (It’s a 3.5 stars book).

In the Union, Inquisitor Sand dan Glotka, our intrepid evil torturing hero, gets an upgrade to Superior Glotka and is sent off to the far-off exotic city of Dagoska on the edge of the Gurkhul Empire to find why Dagoska’s last Inquisitor Superior disappeared. He finds a city under siege by endless armies, some sophomore attempts at underhanded politics, a military in disarray, and a city crumbling. The strongest part of the book — and clearly Joe Abercrombie’s favorite character — Glotka demonstrates why he’s a man not to be messed with, even with his broken and crippled body.

Up in Angland, the Union forces face the implacable Northern armies of King Bethod. Colonel West witnesses the Union crumble as their overestimate their own abilities and underestimate Bethod’s willingness to reach into every kind of evil imaginable to crush his foes. West finds himself traveling through the Northern winter woods chasing down an army with Logan Ninefinger’s old crew, Rudd Threetrees and his Named Men. Excellent battle scenes riddle West’s viewpoint section as they chase through the woods to take out Bethod’s scouts and the story unfolds to some setpiece battles.

Meanwhile, Logan Ninefingers, Bayaz and friends cross an empty continent on a quest for a rock. Road trips can be interesting but this roadtrip wasn’t; the characters went through some battles but mostly they roadtripped across a vast, empty continent full of ruins. Easily the weakest part of this book, it didn’t bring anything to the table except explain some of the doings of wizards thousands of years before.

When “Before They Are Hanged” is good, it is very, very, very good. Joe Abercrombie pulls off what most fantasy authors fail to do: he writes almost Tolstoy-esque battle scenes with huge set pieces all moves through the woods. The battle scenes are great. When they’re small, they’re personal. When they’re huge, they’re immense. The wars — from the Gurkhul sieging Dagoska to the huge battles in the woods in the snow between armies — these parts shine. But when the characters have nothing to do except talk to one another, the books just sort of fall apart.

Clearly good enough to finish the trilogy. It’s a pretty decent fantasy book. It’s just a middle one. So it is what it is.

View all my reviews

[Book Review] The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Dad foisted the Joe Abercrombie books on me as revenge for getting him hooked on Martin’s the Song of Ice and Fire. And, as for a book in the “tits, blood and scowling” genre of fiction, the first book in “the First Law” trilogy is surprisingly good.

I’m not a huge fantasy fan. If I’m going to read fantasy, I want it to be something more than the old Raymond E. Feist books. I want wars and politics and backstabbing and good stuff! Less magic, fewer fairies and unicorns, and more stabbings. More sweep of history with real people, less magic spells. The Abercrombie books fill that bill: not much in the way of sex (none in the first book) but plenty of battles, lots of blood, and tons of politics. We’ve have the fantasy tropes here: the barbarian/ranger, the mysterious Gandalf-like mage and his apprentice, the whiny handsome nobleman with the flashing sword, the evil kings and corrupt empires. But then we have the Inquisitor, once a jumped up nobleman himself but after being a POW not so jumped up any more, and the politics of the Throne, and wars, and the hard men of the North. Put together into a stew and churn and what comes out is a story with some cool characters and a story that moves along. The world is well realized with plenty of history and backstory and politics with the races being the races of men instead of guys with pointy ears.

The Blade Itself is clearly the first third of a book too big to publish as one standing novel. It is all setup with no conclusions or follow-through. As all setup, it’s a compelling read but again, the book just sort of ends with the expectation that the reader will go grab the next one. Sort of the way the Song of Ice and Fire books just sort of end — stuff and things happen but nothing gets wrapped.

It’s worth it to go for the next book. Recommend for people who like their fantasy books to read more like historical novels than fairy tales.

View all my reviews