Review: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am of two minds about this book. Either:

* Everyone in the world should read this book

… or …

* No one should /ever/ read this book.

When The Big Short first came out, I heard about it on NPR, listened to a review on Planet Money, listened to an interview with Michael Lewis on Planet Money, heard several more people talk about this book, and then decided not to read it for ‘rage management’ reasons. Planet Money recently released their recommended books about the crash and the economy and, this time around, I felt enough time passed between the crash and now that the rage would be a lesser rage, that I would not throw my Kindle into the wall, and the teeth grinding would be lessened.

The Big Short is a concise history of Wall Street from 2003-2008. By following the lives, and trades, of several sets of investors who saw the crash coming from miles away, the book delves deeply into the world of mortgage backed securities. As well as anyone can, it explains bond trading, tranches, credit default swaps (CDS), collatoralized debt obligations (CDOs), and synthesized CDOs which are CDOs made, bewilderingly, of other CDOs. Then the book goes on to talk about the crazy trader at Deutsche Bank who ran around selling CDSes on everything, the bond trader group — who used to be equity traders — who went short on everything they could find, the doctor come hedge fund manager who fought endlessly to tell his investors that these no-doc, negative amortizing adjustable rate mortgages with 2 year teaser rates were going to blow up and they did not listen, the kids from Berkeley who tried to make a killing and the people who actually went long on these things.

The pinnacle of the book is the "Wing Chau" scene, where the equity trader met someone on the other side of his trades who, in 2006, when bonds were already going bad, was convinced of the status quo forever and ever. Then the equity trader went home going "oh my god…"

The game was rigged. In theory Americans would refinance every two years from one terrible mortgage to the next to generate endless fees to dump into endless bonds that pretended to be "riskless." In the end, the mortgage deals blew up and the huge bundles of bonds were not riskless. Housing did not increase in value forever.

And yes, the few people who saw it coming made hundreds of millions off the crash, but at what cost to society as a whole? Most of them left, never to return to the game. They made their money but the cost to themselves was so high it wasn’t worth it anymore.

It’s a story of massive collective delusion, of outright greed, of fraud, of lies, of gamed rating agencies, of banks shifting massive untold risk on to their shareholders, of normal banking becoming too ‘boring’, of an industry who sucked up trillions of dollars and produced nothing, and of people who were playing with things they had no hope of understanding. A story of a giant game played with people’s homes and people’s ignorance on a mass scale and turning the American homeowner into just one dot in a giant Ponzi Scheme that was bailed out, no questions asked, by the US Government with even more of the American homeowner’s money.

The book has an incredibly hooky style. It’s clear. It’s concise. It’s sarcastic. It’s entertaining. It’s compulsive. It reads quickly. It’s also a drive by on a twenty car accident on a freeway. I want desperately to recommend it but I feel everyone who reads this book will promptly sell their house, pull their money out of the banks, and go live on a compound somewhere in Western Michigan.

Seriously two thumbs up but now, when I read the economics blogs — all which recommend the Big Short — I am always going to think about one bond trader screaming at another one: "I’M SHORTING YOUR HOUSE!"

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Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A LifeCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"When Egypt Ruled the East" by George Steindorff this book is not.

I have read many books on Egyptian history all the way up through the Ptolemies who, somehow, through some sort of rhetorical magic, were made to be as dry and dull as dead leaves in winter in "Cleopatra: A Life." I have read many history books. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. I even inhale historical fiction. Some of these books have been utter and complete crap. I have manned up and finished books that would defeat a lesser soul simply because it might have a tidbit, a _fact_, a grain of something cool lurking inside.

But wow does this book need an editor. I cannot tell if Stacy Schiff was covering for being far more interested in the Romans than the Egyptians, or simply having more knowledge of the Romans, or just seriously not liking the Latin language or what, but this book is so padded with passive tense that I cannot be certain that she is speaking authoritatively on anything. It comes off like: "Cicero who MAY HAVE somehow sort of rubbed against Cleopatra who MAY HAVE spent some time in Rome with Julius Caesar MAY HAVE said something bad about her but WITHOUT SPEAKING HER NAME so WHO KNOWS." Now read 384 pages like that. You get the general idea. Toss in paragraphs that are overwritten and that’s the whole book.

I will openly admit that the sheer terribleness of this book defeated me in mortal combat. I didn’t make it to the end. After a while, I didn’t care any more. I wanted to throw the book against the wall — except that would have broken my Kindle and I would have been sad. And this is me with a book on Egypt. Anything Egypt. Me. Egypt. I will drag people across oceans to stare at dead people from the sands in dusty museums and I couldn’t finish this book! That’s how bad it is.

Some little bits of this book actually had a little sparkle. When it stumbled aimlessly on a topic where Schiff knew enough to speak authoritatively, it was kind of interesting. Contrasts between Alexandria and Rome. Contrasts in Greek Alexandra vs. Egyptian Memphis. Some comments on trade. This bought the book an extra star and kept it from the one star trash can. Every once in a while there is a ray of hope among the rhetorical trash. But then it fades away and I was sad in snow.

But for the most part? Blech. Avoid. This book is a massive disappointment.

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Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s bad, there’s cheesy, and then there is trashy. This book is full-on trashy.

I don’t mean that in a bad sense. It’s difficult to attain truly trashy. It goes beyond bad and beyond tawdry, through cheesy, and out the other side. It embraces its trashiness. This is a book that knows it is just outright stupid, grabs it with both hands, and hugs it until the bad pops out and leaves only the shining goodness behind. It’s the sort of trash that takes work to attain. It takes planning. It’s trashiness is awe-inspiring.

It goes something like this:

Mikael Blomkvist is this super hot financial reporter with a smoking hot but married girlfriend with whom he runs a super hot financial rag called the Millennium. He got a tip off from a friend about this crooked financier and somehow the story was turned back on him and he ended up being convicted of libel. With his career in ruins, he gets a call from yet another bigwig, Henrik Vanger, who hires him to find out the truth about what happened to his niece, Harriet, in 1966. Henrik Vanger is convinced she was horribly murdered but he has no proof, and it has eaten away at his soul for decades. He must know the truth! Along the way, Mikhael Bloomkvist is hooked up with Lisbeth Salander, a smoking hot (in a different way) Aspergery super-hacker covered in piercings and tattoos. Then they uncover a tale of — yes, you can take it from here — deceit and lies and _murder_ and, oh hell with it, yes, Nazis.

There’s sex. There’s lots of sex. Mikhael is smoking hot himself and he radiates "can sleep with any hot chick" in a 40 foot radius. And he does! God, that man sleeps with everyone. He’d sleep with the dog if there was one in the plot somewhere. There’s also rape, too, and although there’s Glorious Vengeance the rape scenes are, fair warning, pretty graphic. That alone makes it difficult to recommend to friends who may be uncomfortable with such things. On the one hand, utter ridiculousness. On the other hand, graphic rape scenes. Milage may vary.

The book has a solid three star plot but the writing kicks it up to an extra star. Stieg Larsson knew instinctively the Elmore Leonard maxim: "Do not write the boring parts." The book does plod in a few spots, especially toward the end where it is all Glorious Vengeance Upon Enemies Of All Stripes — of course, it has to be — but he very very rarely wrote the boring parts. The book is all about "Oh come ON…. /now/ what happens?" I completely understand why this book has sold a million billion copies. It is one of the most head-eatiest, brainwormiest books I have read in a long time. It is compulsively readable, even in the dumb parts.

Are the Swedish names a problem? No, not really.

Will I read the next two books? Most certainly.

Can I recommend it? It’s a fun, trashy thriller. But it has some scenes that may be upsetting. I lean toward yes with a caveat that it might not work for everyone.

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Review: White Teeth

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a funny book. White Teeth is about a whole bunch of things — growing up an immigrant in 1980s London, the feelings of displacement at trying to make a living in another country, World War II, Muslim fundamentalism, atheism, science, and alienation. Archie Jones marries Clara, a Jamaican immigrant and daughter of Jehovah’s Witness Hortense while his best friend and Bengladeshi immigrant Samad Miah Iqbal marries (the much younger) Alsana via an arranged marriage. They have Irie and the twins Magid and Millat, respectively. As Samad watches the children grow up, he wrestles with feelings of alienation and makes a fateful decision to send one son back home to Bangladesh to be raised "properly" while keeping the other one in London. They all intertwine with the Chalfens, an Oxford-educationed Jewish-English family.

The plot is a bit thin as is in any post-modernist novel drawn as a "portrait of a life" but the characters are compelling and distinct. Where these novels fall down are thin characterizations that cannot carry the narrative but that is not the case here. The women, especially, are clear and real and each one different than the rest. They aren’t just thin caricatures designed to hang off the main character’s arms and spout platitudes. They feel like flesh and blood.

For a longish book, it is a surprisingly quick and easy read. Highly recommended.

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Review: White Noise

White NoiseWhite Noise by Don DeLillo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don DeLillo won the National Book Award for White Noise in 1985. Theoretically, as marked as our Great Minds as a Great American Novel, I should be very for this book. I picked it up because I am a fiend for all things David Foster Wallace and I know he had an ongoing professional relationship with Don DeLillo and took some of the craft of his dialogue for Infinite Jest from this novel.
So why didn’t I love it?

It’s a couple of things. The Kindle edition has a double space between each paragraph which throws off the flow of the dialogue which, I’m sure, was a mitigating factor. Some of the black comedic assessments of our media culture seem dated simply because they were so prescient. (A friend recently pointed out that science fiction that fails to come true is fascinating; science fiction that does is cliche. Think of the 20 page digression on SSH in Cryptonomicon. It was certainly interesting for its time and a pointless digression today.) Partly because the book seems, in the end, like it is trying to be a meaningful meditation on modern existence and it tries too hard.

Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney is a professor at a small midwestern college in Hitler Studies. He and his current wife Babette have numerous children from previous marriages. One day there is an enormous industrial spill — the Airbourne Toxic Event — where they all pile in the car and flee. During which, Jack is infected with a small dose of industrial compound and is informed that, some day in the future, it will kill him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Eventually. The last half of the book is consumed with Babette’s addiction to a drug Dylar, Jack’s obsession with the way Babette acquires the Dylar and the Dylar itself, and Jack’s obsession with death.

So we have the big themes: rampant consumerism (lots of scenes in the grocery store), death, more death, media saturation, underground conspiracies, the family, and violence.

Not really for everyone, no. White Noise is a black satire. It is humorous in places, and has some incredible bits of craft in imagery and language. I found myself highlighting some of the better and more interesting passages. But in the end, the story didn’t hang together as well as it could. This novel is definitely Your Milage May Vary.

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Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is the Coen Brothers meets Blade Runner.

It’s the 23rd century and global warming has run amok. The great cities of the world are under water. Enormous corporate conglomerates genetically manipulate strains of wheat and rice to feed the world while extorting the last bit of cash and blood. Countries incessantly war over resources. Genetically created diseases ravish societies. And the Japanese genetically generate the New People, their perfect servants to support a rapidly aging and non-replenishing society.

Set in Bangkok, Thailand, the book follows the stories of four main characters “Song of Ice and Fire”-like: Anderson Lake, the American ‘calorie man’ coming for Thailand’s stock of genetic diversity, Hong Seck a Chinese Refugee from the US, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai a “white shirt” Tiger of Bangkok who works for the ministry that polices the health of the country and Emiko, a discarded “windup,” a genetically modified human turned into the perfect servant but now without a master.

The four main plotlines sort of wander along telling four parallel stories that cross over and intersect and explode in exciting ways while exploring this science fiction future of ecological devastation. This is not an uplifting or positive book — it is /very/ Coen Brothers where people are generally awful in an ever increasing tide of awfulness until the plot explodes on everyone in a mess of fiasco.

It definitely does move. As a book, it is well written, if not meandering at times. The problem is that the plot does meander and some of the stories don’t feel terrifically satisfying. The story of Emiko the Windup Girl is by far the best of the four stories in the book but the other three tend to fall flat at times without drive.

I knock it one star for occasionally losing its point. As a science fiction book its a thinker. A downer, but a thinker.

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[Review] Smallville RPG

Smallville RPG by Cam Banks, Joseph Blomquist, Roberta Olsson and Josh Robey
From Margaret Weis Productions

I would never have picked up the Smallville RPG if it wasn’t enthusiastically evangelized to me from multiple sources. I avoid games based on licensed properties for a number of reasons.  It has the double whammy of being JLA and I am allergic to JLA in all its forms.  “It has a great relationship system!” they said.  “Character creation is neat!” I can be worn down by shameless promotion and, despite never having seen an episode of the show and breaking out into hives if I pass old Green Lantern collections, I picked up a copy from DriveThruRPG.  Never say shameless promotion doesn’t work.

First Impressions

The Smallville RPG PDF is one of those PDFs used as a demo piece to show off how well RPG PDFs can look.  The colors are sharp and crisp.  The font is clear and easy on the eyes.  The art is mostly, with some exceptions, stills taken from DVDs and photograph-clear.  It’s a pretty, professionally laid out game with top notch graphic design.  Dark blue on white for callouts is more effective than bold or italics, and the text scans easily.  It reads easily, too: the text is clear and takes an optimistic, upbeat tone.  I found few errors in the text throughout the book and found it surprisingly easy to comprehend. RPG texts are notorious for being muddied and confusing, but not so here.

The PDF itself has the same attention to detail as the art, text editing, and layout.  It reads a single page/screen on my iPad so no squinting required.  It has bookmarks.  However, the table of contents is not hyperlinked.  I never missed that feature, though.

The content flows from overview of Smallville -> overview of the game system -> character creation -> playing the game -> game resources -> Smallville reference.  The only issue I had was in flipping between the “overview of the game system” chapter (called “The Basics”) and the actual play chapters (“The Scenes”), and that character creation and character resources are separated by the chapter explaining how to frame scenes — a little awkward.  I never felt confused by the presentation and the information was well grouped together.  I just found it mildly strange going from the Basics to Scenes and back again to understand how to play the game.  It also had a bit of inexplicable filler in the form of an “online” chapter which should have been cut or placed at the back.  From 5,000 feet, I understand why the overview of the system is placed before character creation.  Otherwise character creation makes no sense.  How can a player buy anything in character creation without some passing familiarity with the system?  But still, it felt off.  Speaking of character creation…

Character Creation

Character creation is where the Smallville RPG shines.  It is a game within a game; a game session where the text recommends one puts out snacks because everyone is going to be awhile.

The heart of the Smallville RPG are character relations.  All of the player characters (called ‘Leads’ throughout the book) have interconnections. Character generation proceeds in rounds where each round is a stage of life.  During that stage characters increase in power, pick up major life connections, and move to new locations.  As characters change and grow during their formative years connections grow or whither, and some disappear all together to be replaced by new connections.  The process is visual where the GM draws circles and squares on a map to demonstrate the connections.

This section of the book is… stupendous, actually.  Not only is it chalk full of explanations and examples, but the book walks through the creation of a full map complete with all the important connections and life changes.  The end product is a dynamic game where all the players have a stake in each other’s lives.  Characters are not just people who hooked up in a bar and went off to go kill orcs.  These are people. And it makes me want to play the game. It deeply makes me want to play the game.

The character generation chapter is worth the price of admission alone.

Playing the Game

The system is dead simple.  Every stat, relationship, power, asset, or resource in the game has a die value associated with it (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12).  When characters get into conflict, they have a contest — and contests can be over far more than mere punching.  The Smallville RPG has no combat chapter, as combat — if it actually comes to blows — is another kind of contest.  When having a contest, one picks the associated drive (basic stat) and whatever relationship/asset comes into play, reads the dice value, rolls them, and adds the values together.  Whoever is highest, wins.  Whoever loses takes some stress.  That’s… pretty much it from what I can gather without having played it.

The simple system hides some neat subtleties.  The stress tracks ride along five different tracks: Anger, Exhaustion, Injury, Afraid and Insecure.  A contest can bring stress into play.  As a character takes more stress, the more an opponent can use it against them until the character ends up not in a hospital but curled up in a ball of fear or so angry they lash out at all around them.  It is very cinematic.

Why would anyone want to get into a contests?  Because contests yield up Plot Points, little bits of currency to spend in-game to make cool things happen.  New relationship!  New details!  More dice!  Activate powers!

The system works well with the recommended way to play the game: in tv show-like scenes. While most of this information feels a little filler at times, it does have good advice on how to frame, begin and end a scene so the game moves quickly. The chapter on how to build episodes through building on the existing character maps is interesting, especially when it explodes out into how to build in tension and conflicts into a gaming session.  Good stuff.

Examples, examples, examples.  The chapters with actual game information are full of examples.  The material presents so many examples even I can follow the basic gist of the system while reading the book.   Between the Basics, character generation, scenes and episodes, I find myself wanting to run the game.   It’s simple!  It uses dice!  It’s highly cinematic!  It looks like it is tons of fun.  But… then again…

Other Stuff

The Smallville RPG is still a licensed property, so a good third of the book is dedicated to setting information.  I cannot attest if this information is useful or not — I found it amusing to read some of the JLA members (Flash!  Black Canary! The Martian Manhunter!) written up as various characters in the show.  If nothing else, the large sections full of characters work as great examples and templates.  It’s all in there somewhere.

The episode writeups came off as a bit flat.  Having written these myself, I know they’re a drag to write.  Most of the seasons are hyper compressed into summaries.  Only the last two seasons are exploded out into full capsule summaries of each episode.  And having never watched the show, I couldn’t do much with the information.  It is aimed at the original audience of the game: fans of the Smallville TV Show.  It is telling that, on the strength of its game system, it has wandered past its intended audience and into the hands of the uninitiated.  It doesn’t help that Netflix doesn’t have Smallville on streaming.

Also, I so docked the game points for having writeups of the Wonder Twins.  I don’t care if they do or do not show up. Dude, no Wonder Twins.  Seriously.  I’m duding the game here, man! *shudder*

Overall

The Smallville RPG is a strange game.  I heartily recommend the character creation and the basic game system.  Typically, the mark of a good game is three game ideas after reading the source material.  But instead of three game ideas, I have three other games entirely I want to run and/or play using this system.  It is the perfect system for playing “The Tudors RPG” based on the (incredibly tawdry) TV show.  Or “The Reign of Elizabeth I — THE GAME.”  Or any soap opera-like game — it would be perfect for Amber RPG.  If I was going to pick a system for Amber, this would be it, the full on supers soap opera game.

I’m left with a mild glass-half full feeling.  Smallville fans will likely find the exhaustive list of leads, features, extras, villains, and locations satisfying but may not be completely happy with seasons 1-7 summarized and only seasons 8 and 9 broken down into individual episodes.  Those not a fan of the show may wish for more ways to adapt the system to other worlds and find the task of coming up with new Pathways or assets a bit daunting, and wish for a more generic game.

These are mild complaints.  Overall, it is a well written, well produced game with a clever system at its heart.  Character creation makes me desperately want to gut it and play my own supers/soap opera game with the rules.  This is a rare game where not only is playing a villain a viable option, it’s a desirable option supported by the game system and game mechanics.  The villain, the ultimate supervillain bad guy, has loves and hopes and wishes and backgrounds and has value as a PC — and that alone is worth the price of admission.  You can be the Professor X and you can play Magneto and you have dice on your sheet that shows their adversarial relationship — and they come into play.  Isn’t that what comic books are?  Soap operas with punching?

Worth purchasing on PDF.  I would run this game.

Smallville RPG: 4 stars out of 5

Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 stars is, alas, the most stars I can give this book. But I give it an extra imaginary star just for good measure.

What can I say about a book that, in concise and funny verbiage, examines some of the worst parts of a mission to Mars? Things you never, ever think about? How do clothes get washed? What happens if you have to go to the bathroom? What about food particles? G-forces? Can you jump out of a crashing space lander? How much food does it take for a two year manned mission? Can you have sex in zero-G? And really, how do they design the toilets?

And more. I loved Mary Roach’s previous books but this one is the best of all of them. If you are interested in manned space flight at all, this book is incredibly educational. And it will make you really think about the engineering of getting human beings to Mars.

Absolutely recommended. Brisk, fun, educational read. Available on the Kindle.

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[Game Review] Diaspora

It’s not too often I sit down and read a new RPG.  Okay, it’s never that I sit down and read a new RPG these days.  I’m always like, yeah, sure I’ll read stuff but…  I was sufficiently intrigued and I actually purchased an RPG and read it, and that RPG was the excellent Diaspora.

Diaspora is a hard science fiction game based on FATE 3.0, a snazzy storytelling system that does many things well and other things perfectly and smooths out many lumps in the gaming experience.  It’s also a toolkit and it can be used for anything.  Once it was used for Pulp, it’s quite popular right now in the urban supernatural genre, but me, I come from an old Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Robots and Empire background so I was mighty interested in hard sci-fi and see where it could go.

This is not a book about other people’s fancy characters. The guys who wrote this game are not interested in telling you about their campaign.  (Yes, the campaigns are used as examples but it is not the crux of the book in any way.)  This book is a toolkit with a minimal hard science fiction gimme — the faster than light drive for space travel between worlds and some very excellent background on technology — and then hands everything else over to the gaming group.

Diaspora is essentially an RPG wrapped around six internal mini-games, all powered with FATE and using FATE dice: cluster creation, character creation, personal combat, starship combat, platoon combat (!) and social combat.   The first two only come into play when starting a new game while the other four are set pieces for different parts of the game.  These are optional, but Diaspora would not be Diaspora without them.

Cluster creation I could play all day long and never get bored.  Using FATE dice, one rolls up sets of words and defines them with three attributes (Technology, Environment, Resources).  Each of the three attributes has a -4 to +4 sliding scale.  One can have a string of low tech garden worlds full of rich bounty for the harvesting, or a vastly technological world raping its system to the core to make a ringworld, or a system just starting to explore space.  Or all of these.  Then dice define how the cluster is put together.  This is the local Diaspora universe and each game is different.  Simply talking through planet and cluster creation brings up tons of ideas for scenes and games and entire campaigns.  None of them feature Cthulhu.

Character creation is very much standard FATE character creation with a heavy emphasis on weaving the PCs into each other’s background.  This is standard for every FATE game.  Diaspora has a nice list of skills and stunts.

Where Diaspora shines for me are the mini-games.  Diaspora takes what could be very crunchy, mini-requiring wargames and turns them into fast, furious and fun games baked into the juicy FATE shell.  The best part of the mini-games is that they stand alone; one only needs to either make some characters or take some pre-genned ships or platoons and go to town.  They do need a whiteboard and markers to work properly — these are the sort of mini-games that require props — but the results feel so satisfying.  The examples are clear and to the point.  They don’t muck around much with story.  They show you what they need to show you and get out of the way.

And yes, I made a little squeeing noise when I saw the platoon combat mini-game.  Me!  I did!  All I could think about was Aliens.  But my favorite of the four by far is the social combat mini-game.  It’s the best RPG social gaming simulator I have seen since Chris Aylott’s “Dynasties and Demagogues” for d20, a system that never did social combat well but tried.  Unlike FATE which does social combat, and with the Aspect system and compels and social maneuvers, does it well.  It feels like the ebb and flow of social combat.  It feels like the board has pawns and bishops and queens and the players can push them all around by making cunning rolls and burning FATE points.  Maybe I am very visual and I like being able to see the little dots on the field and know what my political target is and how far there is to go to win or lose, but it clicked with me on a deep level.  I want to take Diaspora’s social combat system and use it everywhere.

Yeah, I would totally play Diaspora.  It appeals to my deep gearhead geek.  It gives me toys and gets out of my way so I can go play.  I would probably lose at the starship battle and platoon battle the first several times I played but FATE allows one to lose gracefully so that’s all good.  I’m sure there are now fancy Indie gaming terms I have completely forgotten to codify why I like it but in my terms it is: excellent narrative structure for flow of play, incredibly clean and clear game rules, excellent examples, lots of ships and weapons out of the box, and the process of creating a cluster filled my head with ideas.  It passed my test — if I could think up three campaign ideas while reading the source book, it’s a damn fine game.  If I could think up three ideas and understand the rules clearly then it’s a win for the good guys.

The PDF is only $13, so it is slightly above the “I would buy it just to skim it” price.  It looks fantastic on Good Reader on the iPad, so if you have one of those, you’re in business.  I hear it’s in paperback now, too.  So go buy that. You can even go buy it here.

Not quite 1000 words on antihistamines and cold medicine on a game.  Awesome. Also, it occurs to me that I do not mind reviewing games as long as they are available in PDF that displays on Good Reader on the iPad.

[Review] Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”

I am not an enormous fan of fantasy* but I have been known to make exceptions for urban fantasy. Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” popped up on a book list recommend by the lit snobs over at Slate. As I cannot resist lit snobbery, and it comes in convenient e-book form, it appeared on my Kindle.

Quentin, our super brilliant emo protagonist who normally would be in line for the new Arcade Fire CD, is whisked off mysteriously to take a bunch of entrance exams for some mysterious Wizard College. He gets in after some brutal and bizarre exams, because he’s the main character, and he gives up all the vestiges of his old life to become a wizard. The first half of the Magician’s is a bit of Harry Potter meets College Angst meets the X-Men. Quentin meets a whole bunch of other proto-wizards, makes a bunch of friends, and learns to become content with his weird wizarding self. This part of the book is more “New X-Men” than “Harry Potter” frankly — it feels more than a little like Professor Xavier and his secretive school for Mutants in Upstate New York than Hogwarts, especially once the students start to differentiate into different magical power specialities.

The second half is post-college early-20s angst with magic. The book picks up here. It feels like the characters are in a holding pen until they are let loose to go wreak havoc on the magical world. The book becomes funnier and it moves faster once it acquires something that resembles the vague outline of a plot; before then it was just a coming of age story set in a fantasy background. This book does have a lack-of-plot problem. The big evil is not well formed. The fantasy on a fantasy world is pretty vague although, to be fair, it is supposed to be. The fights are written well and the plot ends satisfyingly enough.

The book is highly readable. It doesn’t feel bogged down with turgid prose and it moves at a brisk pace. It mixes modern sensibilities and pop culture references (D&D references; fight club; drinks and drugs of all kinds) with urban fantasy into a nice little whole. The writing gets better as the book goes on, leading me to believe this is a sophomoric effort and leading me to hope for a possible sequel — something with a firmer plot with the same characters would make for a better story.

Originally I gave this book 3 stars out of 5 because I read it immediately following Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” If you have read Umberto Eco, you know it’s hard for a fantasy novel, let alone any novel, to follow up that act. I docked it a star merely because it came after a better written book. It’s unfair and I give it back half a star and upgrade it to 3 1/2 stars out of 5. It is good. Not great. Not fantastic. It is solidly a good and entertaining read.


* Exception made for Game of Thrones.