Friday, May 26, 2023

It's too damn hot

Much as I remember hating Dragons of Summer Flame by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman the one and only time I read it previously, it wasn't nearly as bad the second time around. This doesn't mean I liked it that much, but , much like the previous rereads of other RPG fiction that once annoyed me, it didn't fill me with bitterness this time around. Mostly.

 So, we open on the Drak Paladin order, the Knights of Takhisis, setting ground on the island of the Irda, a long lost race that in prior times were cursed to become Ogres. The Irda are exceptionally xenophobic, and decide to crack the legendary Greygem open to power a shield over their island. (Background here. In game materials, the Dwarven god, Reorx,  was tricked into containing Chaos, father of the Gods in a gem. It managed to to create chaos in its wake, before vanishing into history.) Needless to say, this is a really bad idea, as Chaos is freed and begins his threat to destroy the world of his children. 

Which brings us to some of the Children of the Heroes of the Lance, particularly Palin, son of Tika and Caramon; Steel Brightblade, son of Sturm and Kitiara; and Usha, supposedly the half Irda daughter of Raistlin. Steel is a Knight, Palin is a White Robe wizard. They end up running through the world together after Palin is captured by the Knights. They end up being joined by Tasslehoff and Usha as the book goes on. 

We get minor updates on other surviving Heroes of the Lance, and the return of a supposedly dead Hero, last seen sleeping in the Abyss. 

And, by the end, alomst everyone is dead, Chaos is banished, and Krynn enters a new age without Gods. 

So, I remember half the reason I hated this had to do with the chump death of a fan favorite. It's still annoying. However, I can say with the amount of crap going on in here, it probably would have worked better as a trilogy, rather than as one big long epic, bouncing around between characters we barely get to know and some major plot points we don't get to see.While I understand it was written to revise the ruleset for the setting (the game itself had undergone a few class revisions that were not present in the setting; they also made a whole new system specifically for the so called 5th Age that as near as I can tell flopped like a lead balloon), I also can't help but remember the next trilogy in the setting pretty much retcons the heck out of this book. 

Yeah, for what it is, it's an ok read, but honestly, it has no real audience, since people who don't read fantasy or know about DragonLance won't read it, and most fans of the series will hate it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The power of 5

 So, today we're reviewing The Quintessential World of Darkness, a collection of 5 novels/novellas/short stories from each of the original 5 World of Darkness games. (Well, sort of.) As such, I'll be looking at each entry as a separate paragraph or so. 

The book opens with Kevin Andrew Murphy's The Lotus of Five Petals, which centers around the Eastern Vampire courts that became their own game somewhere prior to the Revised editions of the mail line games. Interestingly enough, it's the whole reason I bought a used copy of the collection, since this one amused me more than the game ever did. (In theory, Kindred of the East had a very interesting setting and managed to reconcile the main games into one more integrated world. In practice, it tended to turn into vampires doing Jackie Chan or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.) Anyway, this, the only piece of fiction ever published outside of the sourcebook for the setting, tells the tale of Anchalee, knocked up by Minnesota sailor Howard, who gets killed on the streets of Bangkok. She gets her Second Breath (aka becomes a vampire) and gives birth to Howard's baby, who is now a Dhampir. Lady Miao, one of the more enlightened vampires of Bangkok brings Anchalee into her court, where a prophetic game of Mah Jong suggests Howard should come back in the picture. Howard returns, along with his friends Jim and Warren. Lady Miao claims Warren (who is of Chinese decent) as her choice of playmates during the visit, while her female impersonator secretary, Phat Ho, chooses Jim, who, despite being straight, has more than a few Obviously Gay Traits. Howard gets gifted with a blessing from Kwon Yin, and it eventually resolves as best it can. It's very subversive in its humor, and I love it like candy.

The second book, The Silver Crown by Bill Bridges, I actually have as a paperback, and you can find that review here

Third is Mister Magick by Edo van Belkom, which concerns the world of Mage. You can tell this one was written fairly early in first edition, since nothing lines up with more detailed pictures as the line evolved. Our main character, Romano, is an Italian-Canadian who escapes Canada to become a big name Vegas magician. He has two enemies, one of whom is a jealous assistant, and another a televangelist. While Romano is supposed to be a Cult of Ecstasy mage, one gets the sense that all he has in common with the Tradition is Time magic. While it's ok, I had a hard time trying to translate the setting with the later much richer metaplot that the game had. 

Next, we come to the world of Wraiths and Rick Hautala's Beyond the Shroud. I'll be honest, Wraith has a really engrossing setting, but the few times I've played, it runs into the issue of every character actually being Psyche and Shadow, which gets confusing easily. This book does a fairly good job of illustrating this world, with David trying to save his living wife and dead daughter from another Wraith with designs on one of Jack the Ripper's blades that's conveniently in possession David's ex-wife's new boyfriend. 

Last, we have the short story The Muse by Jody Lyn Nye. In this one, a Scottish artists finds a fairy muse who wants to return to Arcadia. Nothing really happens where the narrator can see it, so we're left with a guy who loves to draw the lady doing strange things who eventually disappears on Samhaine. 

As you can tell, the fiction within is kind of a mixed bag, and not all of it particularly resembles the source material. But, if you can find a copy, or just want one of the volumes, it will entertain.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The continuing story of a quack that's gone to the dogs

 We return to brooding with P. N. Elrod's I, Strahd: The War With Azalin, in which we continue the previous Strahd volume and hear the vampire's side of the story that was covered in Gene DeWeese's King of the Dead. Our framing story has the fearless Von Richten listening to his regular book dealer in Mordent agree to consignment sell a book with the further journals of Count Strahd of Barovia. 

So, basically, Azalin arrives in Barovia from his kingdom on Oerth. He and Strahd get on like oil and water, but wind up in a codependant relationship, as both need each other to try to escape the mists. There's also a Vistani prophecy concerning Azalin's arrival, leading to Strahd working more carefully than normal for the years Azalin is trapped in the domain. 

While the "War" is a bit of a misnomer (the only open battle is a big skirmish during a point when Barovia and Darkon shared a border; most of it is married couple bickering between a vampire and a lich), it remains fun reading. Particularly since unlike Azalin, who knows exactly why and how he's being punished, and understands that he could end it at any time, Strahd is fairly circumspect about what's going on in his domain. He understands that additions occasionally crop up on his borders, and everyone begins to forget that they didn't used to be there, but he has no real awareness of exactly what is going on. 

While not as fun as the first vampire confessional, it remains engaging.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

On the other side of the proscenium

 I preordered Chita: A Memoir by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco as soon as I found out about it. For those unaware, I've had a great love of Chita since seeing her perform at the Tony's for Kiss of the Spider Woman. This was followed by getting to see her live twice, first on the last preview of The Visit, and later her One Woman show at Carnegie Hall, which also marks when I converted my husband to the Church of Chita. As I've read different Broadway histories and biographies of the stars, she turns up in quite a few places, and it's absolutely wonderful to get the stories in her own words. 

As should  probably be expected, she opens with West Side Story, where she originated the role of Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. We hear of auditioning at Leonard Bernstein's apartment with Steven Sondheim on piano, and how they taught the role to her as they were writing it, and the sheer joy of getting costumed for the "Mambo" number where Tony meets Maria. We hear of the touches she added to it (things like only wearing one earring, and learning to not show off the dress with flourishes until the time is right, and how even now, she sees men of all shapes and sizes walking through Hell's Kitchen and Midtown wearing her dress, and how she always wants to give them the advice her costumer gave her when she got the dress. 

Then we go back to her family and growing up in DC, and how she got enrolled in ballet school after breaking her mother's coffee table. (There are a few sad moments in here; by far the one that his me hardest was when her mother sold her father's clarinet and tenor sax to pay bills after he died.) 

From there, we hear of her getting a scholarship to the American Ballet Academy in New York City, and living with her Aunt and Uncle in the city. While she trained in classical ballet, she also fell in love with modern dance, and wound up accompanying a friend to an audition for a touring show, which Chita ended up getting in. (Call Me Madam which had Ethyl Merman on Broadway, and Elaine Stritch on tour.) 

From there, it's a whirlwind of tours until West Side Story, and then on to other shows, Los Angeles, and Italy. She had a daughter named Lisa with her husband (a Jet in West Side Story)...

So many stories. We hear of a performance for the Queen where she met Judy Garland for the first time (along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There's actually a really sad tale in here about John calling for Judy to show her wrists; seems Judy had likely tried to kill herself prior to the show.) 

We hear about her affair with Sammy Davis Jr. during the run of Mr. Wonderful.

We hear tales of Fosse and Verdon, of Liza, of Paul Lynde and Dick Van Dyke, and we hear both the good and the bad and the love she feels for all of them, and her love for the creatives behind the shows. 

We hear of her doing cabaret shows during the hiatus of Chicago when Fosse had a heart attack, and how she, like a lot of up and coming and come back artists were performing at gay clubs and bath houses. We relive the bad part of every Broadway history, the early 80's when Broadway literally died. 

The last two chapters deal with Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit and the sadness involved in the death of Roger Rees during the run of the latter. 

There are so many other things I could add here, but honestly, I'll suggest everyone get a copy and read it. There's a reason Lin-Manuel Miranda calls her out as a legend in In The Heights. This was worth every penny I paid too get it at release.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The great granddaddy of them all

 So, one of the biggest releases in the Ravenloft line (I think it was the only one released in  Hardcover), and I can now say I've read it 30 years after the fact. 

I, Strahd by P. N. Elrod covers the Dark Lord himself, Strahd, and explains his life story in his own words. (There's a nifty framing device where Van Richten sneaks into Castle Ravenloft and reads Strahd's folio of recollections on Eternity.) 

And what do you know? It's actually both well written and entertaining and not wholesale ripping off other works for plot points!

We hear about it all. Strahd's conquest of the castle from a bad Baron, his brother the Paladin who fell in love with Tatyana, only to have Strahd kill him to make Tatyana love him instead, his deal with the Dark Powers that turned him into a vampire, the greedy soldier who slaughters almost everyone in the castle on the day of Sergei and Tatyana's wedding. We see Strahd bind the land to him, thus causing the mists to encroach...

Oh so much. And so juicy to read. While I assume Elrod had canon that had to be included/not changed for plot purposes, they do a great job keeping the sound of dice rolling in the background out of the plot, fleshing out a character who isn't exactly an anti-hero, but for whom evil is a way of life. 

Honestly, as much as I've avoided this one for a few decades (I thought there were more interesting Dark Lords; the only other P. N. Elrod book I ever tried reading I couldn't get in to), I kind of wish I had read it in release.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Finishing up

 I had hoped Planar Powers by J. Robert King would finish out the Blood Wars trilogy in a readable style, but sadly, it was not to be. 

Let's start with Aereas. As we found out through the last book, he's now a disembodied spirit working as a Judge-Excecutioner for the Lady of Pain. However, now he has a closet, a cantrip allowing him to shrink people and things. Which he uses to smuggle condemned prisoners out of the torture/execution rooms and create a world as The Closet Lord. 

Nina, on the other hand, is living in Celestia with Phaeton, as well as Aereas's kid Tara and Nina's son Aegis. The Devas aren't happy to have lesser beings among them, so we get a rehash of Milton as everyone gets kicked out of heaven. 

We also have Leonin, last seen standing in the Beastlands waiting on Nina to return, now realizing he's missing his ribs and picking up a hag and passing through the machine realm. (Which includes a parody of a Disney song that actually made me laugh. And we get a side story (a few paragraphs after every chapter) discussing the disposition of the door in Boffo's shop that opens on a Prime Material world. 

While this was the most cohesive of the series, it's also really really deeply...flakey? I mean, the wonder I felt reading the setting is nowhere to be found anywhere in the trilogy. Even the war the trilogy is named after really had nothing to do with much of anything in the series. 

While I'm not sorry about reading it, I don't think it rates a reread any time in the near future.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Speaking of Hell...

 So, I returned to Planescape with Book 2 of the Blood Wars Trilogy, Abyssal Warriors by J. Robert King.

While this one was much more entertaining than Volume 1, it suffers from a few issues. 

Anyway, Nina, last seen following a Tiefling into the Abyss, has gone looney and is raising an army to take over Layer 337 of the Abyss. Aereas, last seen being denied audience with The Lady of Pain, is still looking for her. The Dead God Leonin, who's sort of living his life as a cafe in Sigil, is instead being reanimated on the astral by insect demons. Before he loses all control, he does summon a Deva (Angelic being) name Phoeton to go help Nina and Aereas. 

Let me see if I can get this straight, since time in the Planes operates according to the needs of whomever is telling the story. Seems Uncle Artus adopted a girl in the Beast Lands, who was unbalanced with fire. That would be Nina. Using an artifact, Aereas tries to find Nina, but instead finds another girl like Nina, in similar straits. Whom he ends up mating with and having a daughter. 

In the mean time, Nina is raising 12 legions of demons/fiends/whateves and making her Tiefling love her. 

Eventually, the Lady summons Aereas to lead her armies into the Beastlands to defeat Nina's army. There's a lot going on here, and we get a few chapters of what amounts to Nina and Aereas flying through Sigil in giant acorns. We're also lead to believe Artus and Boffo traded bodies somewhere along the line. 

Any rate, we're left with everyone mostly unhappy or dead. 

By far the biggest problem in here is that one of the big twists at the end makes zero sense. Like literally, it would involve on character being in two different states of being at the exact same time. 

But, like I said, it's easier to get through than the first one, so...

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Not today, Satan!

 So, we return to dark academia and Leigh Barduga's follow up to Ninth House, Hell Bent

AKA how Alex got her Virgil back. 

So, again, we're kind of floating around the timeline, with the beginning chapter returning as present about 2/3 of the way through. Alex and Dawes are trying to figure out how to get Darlington out of Hell, made more difficult by the fact that the Emeritus members of Lethe don't want them fooling with Demonic Magic. That and a new Praetor who doesn't think women should be at Yale, let alone one of the Societies...


There's yet another unrelated murder everyone gets involved in prior to Alex and Dawes finding out the library actually has a portal to hell in it, requiring them to get Turner (AKA the cop who works with Lethe) and a random Bonesman who evidently failed out to descend into hell to free Darlington. Oh yes, and Alex is also dealing with her old California drug dealer, who wants her to be his enforcer, which in turn leads her to finding out Vampires are real, and generally don't like humans.

We also get into a bit of revelation as to what the hell Alex is, since the villain in the last book (and a few of the demons in the one) refer to her as a Wheel Walker. Mind you,l she can also call ghosts into herself for extra stat bonuses with a bit more ease now, so...

Any rate, I rather enjoyed this sequel more than, say, The Atlas Paradox, and even if it is getting in to an "eat the rich" message slowly, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Through the tobacco stand

 As I may have mentioned previously, found a bunch of my old D&D novels recently, and got a wild hair and decided to try rereading J. Robert King's Blood Hostages, the first book in the Blood Wars trilogy, which is set in the Planescape setting. Let me preface this with saying while I at one point had a bunch of D&D boxed sets, I rarely if never actually played with any of them. I hate being a DM, and during the era, all anyone who wanted to game would play was Forgotten Realms. Planescape was cool, expanded a bunch on a supplement I loved, and basically really solidified an idea we're seeing a bunch of again in several fictional universes, The Multiverse.

Anyway, this particular novel either wants the reader to be as clueless as the main characters (cousins Nina and Aereas) or just assumes anyone picking it up has read the boxed set in the past 6 months. While some of it was still familiar to me, a heck of a lot of it had me checking different fan wikis trying to refresh my memory. 


Aereas and Nina live with her father/his uncle on a non-supplement detailed world. Artus, gives his journal on his travels over to Aereas at the outset, saying he's old enough to appreciate it now. A few pages later, Artus is being dragged through a portal in his tobacco stand by gargoyles, with Nina and Aereas jumping in behind them a few hours later. (Which, when they arrive in the city of Sigil, turns out to be a week later.)

We meet a gnome named Boffo, who in turn leads the pair through the city of Sigil first to the spirit of a Dead God, and then a Tiefling who knew Artus. (For the record: Sigil is/was the starting city for the setting. Basically a city that's an enclosed ring at the center of everything. Kind of like a pumpkin roll where the filling has buildings.) We find out Artus worked as a spy for the nominal ruler of Sigil, The Lady of Pain. And then, we follow the kidnappers through a fight in a foundry, which ends up with everyone falling through a portal into the 665th layer of the Abyss, which it seems is a bottomless hole.

Eventually, they wind up in Gehenna at the palace of Sung Chiang, who is the Power behind the kidnapping in the first place. Seems Artus had keys to all the portals to the planes from Sigil, and he's now on sale. Which brings in the Baatezu and Tanar'ri, two of the major factions fighting the not really defined in this volume Blood War. (If I remember the lore correctly, it was something about Demons on one plane fighting devils on another plane.) This again leads to another chase, where the wind up on the corpus of the dead Power they met early on. And then the tiefling and Nina wind up in the Abyss again, while Artus and Aereas wind up back in Sigil. 

While the settings are fun, the characters are all kind of flat, beyond Sung Chiang (who as a God of thievery has a bunch of stuff to do) and Jandau (the tiefling, who is playing his own game.) We get lots of Aereas trying to justify incest with his cousin (who may not actually be his cousin, but still, EWWWWWWW), Nina falling for the shady Tiefling, and in what may be the best supporting character in here, Krim, the Wizard with the body of a hovering Manta Ray. 

I'm hoping the next two volumes improve a bit on this, leaving us a bit less confused as to what is actually going on. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Whne crazy meets crazy

 One of the major themes running through Seana McGuire's new InCrypted nove Backpacking Through Bedlam revolves around the difficulty of reintegrating during homecoming, and it kind of struck a nerve, particularly in the bonus novella tucked in at the end of the book. 

We pick up where the last volume ended, with Alice, Thomas, and Sally leading refugees from the Crossroads bottle dimension to hopefully a new home dimension. Which involves Alice and Thomas learning to love each other again after 50 years apart, and Alice learning to find a way to deal with Sally, who was more or less adopted by Thomas during the exile. 

About halfway through, after visiting the dimension where Sarah ended up dropping a college, they wind up back on Earth, where Rose and Mary wind up sending the trio to New York to help Verity and Dominic chase The Covenant out of New York and away from the dragons. 

The novella concerns James learning that Sally has been rescued, and dealing with his feelings therein. 

While the first half of the novel really doesn't quite feel as intense as previous novels in the series, the second half and the novella strike the chords I've come to love from this particular series. Really fun read.