Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Hello, Baltimore

Well, we've made it to one of my least favorite clans in the World of Darkness, the corporate centered Ventrue, who's story here is told again by Gherbod Fleming.

And it actually turns out ok. Hardestadt the Elder (who's actually Hardestadt the Younger who ate his sire, but that's not really relevant here. He also is one of the major founders of the Camarilla.) sends his childe Jan Pieterzoon to the States to do what he can about the Sabbat advance along the East Coast. This is after Prince Garlotte of Baltimore, who's hosting refugees from the fallen cities, asks the Camarilla as a whole for help.

So, Jan arrives into a political mess as several chefs are being stirred up by the inimitable Victoria Ash, who's again maneuvering for political gain in council. While most of the story in here centers around the murders of several Tremere within the city and how to defend the Camarilla strongholds left in Buffalo and Hartford, we get glimpses into Jan's problems of how exactly the golden childe will be treated if he fails. Not that Prince Garlotte is exactly benevolent, he kills two of his childers' associates and tortures the third for siding with Victoria.

About two thirds of the way through, Xaviar, the Gangrel Justicar, last seen getting smacked around by a Toreador in Upstate New York, shows up speaking of Antediluvians and uniting with the Sabbat long enough to take down the threat. (Which, while Leopold isn't an Antediluvian, he does possess the eye of one. The one that woke up and destroyed the Ravnos in the last book.) It's here we get the closest to cannon as to what was said that led to the Gangrel clan leaving the Camarilla. Most of this has to do with Camarilla policy being that the Antediluvians are myths, and everyone being much more concerned about losing more territory.

Jan and Theo Bell (the Brujah Archon who we get to see much more of later on) decide to evacuate Buffalo and leave an army of newly created vampires to defend it as a bluff. Which doesn't turn out well at all. By the end, Hartford and Baltimore remain the only Camarilla cities still standing on the Eastern seaboard. But, we are assured, Jan has something up his sleeve. (Which we find out details on in book 13, as memory serves.) Victoria is sent back to Atlanta, since she has some odd connection to Leopold, whom she recognized from surveillance presented to the council.)

This actually has turned out to be one of the better books in the series, even if the focus is less on the signature character and more on moving along the greater plot. Which is fine, since Jan is a stuffed shirt.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Werewolf? There wolf! There castle!

We're back in Werewolf as we explore the wonderful world of Silent Striders and Black Furies by Carl Bowen and Gherbod Fleming, respectively.

We start Silent Striders by being reintroduced to Mephi Faster-Than-Death, who's been in Scandinavia since the first two volumes and has been asked to join the Umbral pack heading off to Huingary to investigate what's wrong in the Balkans. This involves joiningg up with the Roving Winds pack, who have a mixed line up of tribes, including a Shadow Lord whom Mephi knew from her first change. Their goal is a Caern on the Tiza dedicated to memory that has been overrun by the Wyrm. In the meantime, a pack of Black Spiral Dancers is also headed to the caern to perform a rite one saw in a vision.

Along the journey, we learn bits of Mephi's past, and his lack of a pack. (Typical of the Striders, who've been wandering alone since Set exiled them from Egypt in antiquity.)  In the end, the Spirals and the Roving winds wind up in a showdown straight out of bad anime as everyone must first announce thier name and purpose before launching an attack. While Mephi winds up being the last one standing, he also bears witness to new spiritual monsters being born and raced back to Spearsreach to warn the other pack.

Sadly, he doesn't make it back before Mari Cabrah and the Ice Wind pack take off for Bosnia via Crete in Black Furies, nor do his warning reach them before trouble starts later on. Mari, who's been around since at least Werewolf Second Edition (the forming of her pack was the focus of the introduction to that book), is surrounded by a bunch of Get of Fenris Warriors and one other of the mostly female Black Furies. The side trip to Crete to the Furies major Sept allows the eldest Fury to explain the politics of the situation, which mainly suggests that this is a doomed mission designed to get the other tribes involved in Balkan politics. (As we will find later on, it works almost too well.) Anyway, with several Umbral storms passing through, we start losing pack mates and a new type of Bane (spirits with not nice intentions appear, draining the memories of those they touch.) Mari is the only one to make it back to Spearsreach, and able to only utter one word, "Jo'cllath'matric".

So now the stage is set for the formation of the Silver River pack and the bulk of the story expressed in the Tribe Novels.

Other than the silliness in the final fight of Silent Striders, it's a fun read. Mephi and Mari are fun characters who play parts later on in Apocalypse. And now, onwards to the next.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Try to remember the snakes of September and follow follow follow

And welcome to the darkness, as we explore Setite by Kathleen Ryan, book 4 in the Vampire Clan Novels. As a bit of background, Setites claim descent from Set, the ancient Egyptian god of evil. (Interestingly, Egypt figures in to a number of game lines, since Set was a busy vampire back in the day. Not long after these came out, we got Mummy, in which the souls of the Egyptian dead started coming back after events in Wraith. Also, the werewolf tribe Silent Striders [who feature into the next Werewolf Tribe Novel] hail from Egypt, although Set banished them in antiquity.) The clan has a weakness more pronounced than others to light, and an obsession with serpents.

Hesha Ruhadze is a fairly well established Setite based in Baltimore. His junior partner Vegel was in Atlanta way back at the start to get the Eye of Hazimel, which wound up with Leopold. Hesha meets Elizabeth in New York, as she's restoring antiques for an upscale shop. Hesha's interest in her leads him to try to ghoul her (feed her his blood while she's still alive), but unknown to him, she doesn't drink his hangover cure.

Hesha's also doing favors for refugees from fallen southern cities. Unlike Ramona, Hesha's a mover and shaker among the vampires.

Anyway, eventually, Hesha winds up taking his entire team, now including Elizabeth (who's having visions) to Calcutta, looking for the source of the eye's power. (It's fairly ill defined in its purpose, plot wise. On the other hand, it gives us a nice view of what happens when Ravanna wakes up.) Any way, yes, the events that end the Time of the Thin Blood supplement do indeed occur in here, as Elizabeth starts having visions of Set, as does Hesha. And Ravanna, King of the Rakashas, wakes up, dies, and pretty much eliminates the Ravnos clan in his death throes. Somewhere after this, Elizabeth and Hesha have a conversation straight out of Twilight about him being a vampire.

Anyway, eventually, they all wind up in upstate New York, where Hesha does get the Eye, although how is left kind of blank, Elizabeth betrays Hesha, Hesha turns her into a vampire and chains her up to face the sun. At the last second, the Ravnos they saved in Calcutta breaks in and the book ends.

So, this is a major improvement over Gangrel, and Hesha is an interesting snake. I could have lived without the fake romance that threads its way through the novel, but I have to assume it was to add something to a character who's essentially a plot device. I'm also curious as to whether or not Leopold's fate gets resolved later on. (I last read these as they were released, and the plot details mostly fade over time.) I will say reading them now, without the gaps in release makes the plot a heck of a lot more cohesive.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

20 years on, and the book doesn't hit walls anymore.

Around 20 years ago, when I first read Gherbod Fleming's first entry into the Clan Novels, Gangrel, I wound up throwing it against a wall several times. In hindsight, much of this had to do with the fact that the clan of beasts is the one I played the most often in Vampire chronicles, and this particular book, in a departure from the rest of the series, didn't focus on an important vampire of the clan at the center. I mean, there were more than a few Gangrel in the overall plotting that could have been focused on in this, but no, we get Ramona, who's only been a vampire for two years and has no idea what she's doing. Her discoveries of her powers are almost Bard-like, in the "Hey, I killed a kobald and wow look at this!" kind of way.

Ramona is currently in Sabbat controlled New York City with two other friends who ran from Los Angeles in the past year. Neither of them have defined clan traits, so one can assume they're Caitiff, aka clanless. Ramona has something of a ward she's looking out for in Harlem, whom she rescues from attackers early on. Zhavon, on the other hand, has a bad habit of becoming a plot hook, getting kidnapped by a suddenly resurgent Leopold.

Speaking of Leopold, the Eye of Hazimel is giving him visions of his muse, and leading him to upstate New York, where Zhavon the plot hook has been sent by her mother to be raised by her aunt. He stakes Ramona, and takes Zhavon at the urging of the voice in his head. Ramona's creator (sire, in game terms) comes along and unfortunately unstakes Ramona before the sun rises. Ramona grabs her might as well not have been named friends and leads an assault on Leopold's cave hideout, where we find out the eye has given the Toreador a few new powers, like Vicissitude. Both Caitiff friends wind up dead, and Tanner, Ramona's sire, leads her away, and tells her to stay until help arrives. Several of the Buffalo Gangrel answer the call, including one Cherokee Gangrel who teaches Ramona Auspex, I think. She basically sees the spirit world after the stereotype finishes his ritual with her.

So then Xaviar shows up with Tanner. Xaviar being the Gangrel's Justicar with the Camarilla. Who laughs when they find out the prey is Toreador, not Tzimisce as the Vicissitude would suggest. they all laugh, then proceed to get their butts kicked by a Toreador with Vicissitude and some kind of Earth control. In the end, just about everyone is dead but Ramona and Xaviar, who wants Ramona dead for witnessing his failure.

If you can't tell, this still is probably my least favorite in the series. (We'll see if this remains true when I hit Tremere, which has Aisling Sturbridge going on about the children in the well for eternity.) While it didn't fill me with the rage it did initially, I still feel that the plot and the main character deserved more attention.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Shadow of the Get

As promised, I'm alternating the Clan Novels with the Tribe Novels, which follow events in Werewolf: the Apocalypse. When they released this particular series, they released 14 books in 7 volumes, thus why you're getting a twofer with the Werewolf entries.

In this particular case, we get Shadow Lords and Get of Fenris, which follow in particular Oksana Yahniva and Karin Jarlsdottir. Oksana currently lives at the Sept of the Dawn, run by Sergiy Dawntreader of the Children of Gaia. While she's a daughter of Margrave Konietzko (who shows up in Apocalypse), right now she's busy representing her tribe among a rather mixed group of Garou, who are in turn hosting the notorious Silver Fang Arkady, who is followed by rumors of Wyrm taint. (OK, since we're dealing with a setting some readers may not be familiar with,Werewolf runs under the concept that werewolves are mostly servants or the Earth, aka Gaia, with gifts from crazy Aunt Luna, aka the moon. There are three concepts that govern their worldview; the Wyld (primal chaos or creation), the Weaver (primal order, or pattern), and the Wyrm (primal balance, although corrupted). In long ago aeons, the Wyrm got ensnared in Weaver's creations, and became corrupted trying to escape her designs. As such, Wyrm is trying to destroy everything to free itself. Thus Wyrm is bad.) Any rate, the Shadow Lords feeling that they should be the rulers of the Garou Nation rather than the Silver Fangs, Oksana is involved (with plausible deniability) in a plot that winds up roping in Arkady, his cousin, and a fosterling Get of Fenris Cub named Arne Wyrmbane. Since the plot involved Fomori trying to kill off Arkady's cousin, the Shadow Lord Yaroslav Neyizhsalo (who was consorting with the Wyrm corrupted humans) winds up taking the two Silver Fangs and the Get of Fenris cub looking for a tin mine where the Wyrm taint is supposedly coming from.

Anyway, a Wyrm creature does indeed appear, manages to kill Arne, but strangely, Arkady seems to be able to control it. Thus setting up the second half.

The Get of Fenris got revised a lot over editions of the game, since in first edition, they came off as Werewolf Nazis. in later revisions, they remained Norse in tone, but lost much of the worst connotations of their Heathen nature. Their Tribe history evidently now is something to the effect that Fenrir wasn't the bad guy, Wotan was. Anyway, Karin Jarlsdottir runs Spearsreach north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. It was from her caern that Arne Wyrmsbane came, and in exchange, they hosted Cries Havoc, a metis Child of Gaia. (Metis are the deformed children of two werewolves. In Cries Havoc's case, his deformity manifests as a pair of ram horns growing out of his head.) Arne's father insists that Cries Havoc must die to pay off the weregild for the death of his son, which manages to get all the other tribes involved. Which gets a boost due to Arkady's involvement in the situation, since he's supposed to be the best of the best, other than the whole being a servant of the enemy.

So, everyone shows up at Spearsreach, including Margrave Konietzko and the Stargazer Antoine Teardrop. The moot ends up condemning Arkady as wyrmspawn, and Karin against the advice of most of the rest of the tribes, does sacrifice Cries Havoc. Although she really only knocks him out and adopts him into the Get to fulfill Antoine's prophecy of a third pack, the Silver River Pack, who we'll hear much more of in 4 books (or two volumes).

As I said when I first read these, the plotting in the Tribe Novels is much more cohesive than the Clan Novels. (We'll see how much that remains true as we go through the re-reads; I think half the timeline issues with the Clan Novels had to do with the eternally delayed release schedule.) While I was never a big Werewolf fan, the fiction was usually better than average for the setting. As such, a volume wherein the story picks up almost directly from the preceding volume is a welcome relief.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Vykos's March to the Sea

Lesson learned, reading Eric Griffin's Tzimisce, the second of the Clan Novels, on lunch is a bad idea.

As a bit of explanation before we get into the actual review, the Tzimisce clan are one of the two founding clans of the Sabbat, and their signature power, Vicissitude, has such abilities as flesh craft, bone craft, etc. They have the nickname "Fiends" for a reason.

So, their Clan novel picks up about 2 days prior to the main events in Toreador, showing the planning involved in the Sabbat takeover of Atlanta, which means we're mostly concerned with a bunch of Lasombra from Miami, New York City, and Madrid backbiting for control along with the nomadic packs that are helping in the attack. Entering into this wretched hive of scum and villainy is the Tzimisce "signature character" Sascha Vykos. While her backstory gets covered in much greater detail outside of the Clan novels (she started off as Myca, a young man of African descent in the days of Constantinople, chose to become female sometime much later, and then became pretty much genderless in more modern eras. There's quite an extensive biography of her out there, if you really want to look. In later books, she starts using the neutral gender terms, or occcasionally "it".), here she's mainly presented at the outset as stirring up the various contenders for control of the raid before taking over events for herself.

Let's see, an Assamite she hired to take out Atlanta's Tremere regent kills her ghoul servant, so she uses Vicissitude to turn said Assamite assassin into a copy of the ghoul, all while turning him into her servant in other ways. It's really kind of creepy to read.

Anyrate, about halfway through, we catch up with the raid on the Camarilla of Atlanta that ended the first book. We get peaks into Prince Bennison's madness, as his power of Dementation transports both the Brujah Archon and the Sabbat pursuers into a battlefield hallucination around the time Sherman was getting ready to burn Atlanta to the ground. Which ends about as well for the Camarilla as it did for the Confederates.

Victoria Ash, winds up among the captured. She gets tortured and eventually gets rescued by Settites looking for Vegel, who died in the last book.

Vykos eventually supervises the fall of the Eastern seaboard as far north as DC, which is about where this volume ends, as the reason for her transformation of the Assamite becomes clear. He fails though, so Marcus Vital, Prince of DC becomes Prince in Exile. Vykos, on the other hand, becomes Archbishop of DC.

It's a well written, if mildly disturbing volume in the series. It does a good job of showing us what the Sabbat had been re-envisioned as in Revised. Unfortunately, the next volume, which I'll be reading after a detour into the Werewolf novels, is the one I kept throwing across a room because it annoyed me so much. Tune in in two entries to find out if history repeats itself. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Toreador, en garde! Toreador, Toreador!

Sadly, the actual lyrics from Bizet's Carmen don't do the actual song justice, but it seemed an appropriate title for this.

I've reviewed a few things from White Wolf on here previously, but since I'm waiting on a slim line of reserves at the library and frankly, I re bought the Clan Novels for a paltry sum a while back, I'm back into re-reading the 13 Clan Novels plus the Anthology that followed. I'll likely be reading two, then switching over to the Werewolf Tribe Novels for a volume (for some reason, the Tribe Novels came as a two for one thing) to alternate things a bit.

A brief history here. The Clan Novels started appearing not long after the Revised edition of Vampire: the Masquerade appeared. Thirteen clans, thirteen novels, and they were supposed to release one book a month, serial style. As I'm sure other folks remember, it never quite worked out that way. And indeed, given that there were several different authors on the project, the writing varies from book to book, and not all of them are particularly readable.

The series starts off with Toreador, the clan of artists. Or what passes for artists, sometimes, as our "Signature" character in here, Victoria Ash, has some talent, but one of her other clan members' artistic talent is stripping. Victoria (who showed up in more than a few other White Wolf fictions, including the Victorian Vampire trilogy as well as Gehenna) is a recent transplant to Atlanta, following the ending of the Blood Curse. (Which was a previous crossover double trilogy from when the released Vampire: The Dark Ages. I recall very small bits and pieces of that one, since it was kind of silly.) Victoria is hosting Elysium (essentially a time and place when all may gather without threat of violence) at the High Museum of Art on the Summer Solstice of 1999. Her political maneuvering prior to the event (featuring several sculptures of Cain killing Abel, since ya know, in the mythology, Caine was the first vampire) is designed to set the African American Brujah and Ventrue vampires to take out Prince Bennison (leader of the city), a Confederate officer, who by virtue of being Malkavian, is also insane and mildly racist.

Also floating around the narrative is Victoria's clanmate Leopold, who's convinced his memory has been wiped and Victoria is his creator; Vegel, a Settite functionary who's there on business from his employer (whom we meet in book 4); Rolph, a Nosferatu who has somewhere to be before midnight; and Benito Giovanni, who's in Boston, and who's narrative arc seems mostly to be told to cancel his trip to Atlanta then being kidnapped by Assamites.

Victoria belongs to the Camarilla, the most populous sect of vampires in this setting. The Camarilla is essentially feudal in nature, with a Prince having near autonomy over a city, and Six Traditions enforced to preserve the secrecy of the society. The next major sect, who appear towards the end of this, are the Sabbat, who tend to use leadership titles taken straight out of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. The Sabbat doesn't particularly believe in the Six Traditions, although they too tend to keep secrecy from mortals.(An Inquisition that kills off roughly 2/3 of the vampire population tends to make everyone a bit cautious.)

Anyway, Rolph points out to Vegel that the Eye of Hazimel (the origin of the Evil Eye, and what is apparently a very old vampire's actual eye) is hidden within one of the Cain statues, He plucks the eye out of said statue and provides Vegel with an escape route. Sadly, an unforeseen, by the characters in this book at least, even t occurs as the Sabbat descend en masse on the party and begin the slaughter of the guests. In the confusion, Leopold gets tossed out a window, finds Vegel dead on the street, steals the eye, and cannibalizes Vegel. Oh yes, and he plucks his own eye out and replaces it with the other one. The fate of the others at the party is left unresolved at this point.

In terms of readability, this one is pretty well written, providing enough backstory that someone not familiar with the setting would be able to figure out most of what's going on. There are other bits of the narrative that won't become clear until later volumes, and honestly, have little to do with the actual narrative of this volume, but have to be included here to keep the timeline straight. Of course, it isn't until the end of the series the bits about what's under New York City become clearer. So yeah. We'll see how this progresses, knowing that somewhere down the line a few of these will likely get thrown against a wall again.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Arianism, Monophysitism, Iconoclasm, Filioque, and a bunch of dynasties

Probably not long before this blog began, I, on the advice of a friend of mine, read through John Julius Norwich's Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Then promptly forgot the authors name and only recently, when the original comment thread came up, went and found book 2 of the trilogy, Byzantium: The Apogee.

The first book covered roughly 500 years from Diocletian to the crowing of Charlemagne. Book 2 starts right after and guides up until the beginning of the reign of Alexius I, not long after the Turks have come into Asia minor and much of the Western Mediterranean has fallen to other hands, which is about 300 years, 3 or 4 dynasties, several Patriarchs of Constantinople, and one big schism between the Roman Church and the Eastern Church.

So, even though some of the concepts in the above title were discussed in the first book and the reason behind a few councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, here are a few definitions, since heretical notion keep coming back into play. Arianism contends that the Son was created by the Father and therefore not OF the father, thus God would not be a trinity. Monophysitism contends that the Son, rather than being both fully divine and fully human, was instead fully divine and given flesh. (These beliefs still show up in the modern era. However, since Christology is above and beyond my scope here, I'll point out that wikipedia has a couple fine articles discussing which branches of Christendom still have these in practice.)

Here in Book 2, we get more into the wars between the Iconoclasts and the Iconodules, as different Patriarchs either start smashing iconography or allowing it to flourish, generally depending on which Emperor is on the throne at any given point in time. One thing of interest to me in this war is that when the Iconodules eventually won out, the icons created were generally mosaic works or painting. Sculpture never really made a comeback in Byzantium. I should also note that when the Iconoclasts were in power, friction was increased with the Western Church, who venerated Icons much more prodigiously than the Eastern Sees ever did.

While we're speaking of religious matters, I should also discuss The East West Schism of 1054, which is chronicled near the end of the book. The roots of this lie in a host of issues that had long been simmering between the Latin speaking Western Church and the Greek speaking Eastern Church. When the Sees were first formed, all the Patriarchs were on equal footing, with the Roman Patriarch (Pope) First among Equals. However, particularly following the fall of Rome, the Latin speaking Roman See started doing things much differently from the much more inclined to debate Eastern Sees. (As I recall, of the Eastern Sees, Constantinople was the furthest West.) The Latins enforced celibacy among the clergy (or at least claimed to), where the Greeks would ordain married men. The Latin church used unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the Greeks did not. The Latin church inserted the Filioque into the Nicaean Creed, the Greeks thought the concept was heretical. (For the record, the Filioque concerned language that suggested that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the both the Father and the Son. Those not in favor of this believed that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone.) And the Western belief of Papal Supremacy, which the other Sees weren't particularly inclined to support. (A few Emperors did, since it reinforced the notion that the Byzantine Empire was still the Roman Empire.) Although, honestly, the actual Schism happened because 3 Bishops visiting Constantinople who had axes of their own to grind and empowered by a Pope who happened to die prior to their arrival excommunicated the Patriarch, who returned the favor. Somehow, this translated into the Latins and the Greeks excommunicating each other.

As for the Imperial Dynasties, I'm beginning to understand why Surveys generally only hit the highlights and lowlights of long term governments, since honestly, most of the dynasties bleed together, with the more interesting parts having to do with how any one leader gained or lost the throne. (There's a lot of Tonsuring, castration, blinding, and plotting involved in most of the successions.) While the author (who may just be following the lead of the few extant sources left) seems to favor the more Military aligned Emperors, more than a few here in the Apogee also revise the civil life of the Empire. Usually not living to see the person replacing them reverse those changes.

We hear of wars on the Western borders with the Bulgars and the Magyars, the Saracean capture of Sicily, the Eastern adoption of Venice, ad wars with several Caliphates to the East, where the Imperial breadbasket really came from.

These have been fascinating reads to me, particularly since most Western Histories mention the split between the East and West, then really don't mention Byzantium again until the Crusades. Given exactly how much knowledge survived in the East, this is almost criminal. Then again, most Western histories, particularly here in the US try to present history as inexorably leading to the US's founding, the apex of Western Civilization, skipping over other cultures entirely as unimportant.