Ready to Spin the Wheel of Time

cover - The Eye of the World

I just bet those horses have names and histories…

Back in the 90s, I used to read the Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind. I really enjoyed the first couple, but then I realized something: three books in it showed no sign of stopping. A major threat loomed in the background, with implications that this threat would become imminent. And yet more characters came into the story, along with more side plots, and no real progress on what I thought of as the main plot.

I’m not trying to slam the series. I enjoyed the books I read, and what I wanted from the books was not necessarily what other people wanted. I’m just trying to establish my frame of mind here. I had just given up on a series because I thought it would never end.*

Cue my best friend, extolling the virtues of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.

“No,” I said. “No way. I’m not starting another endless series.”

Undeterred, my best friend continued to read Jordan’s books as fast as he could get them and tell me how wonderful they were.

So I relented. A bit. I said, “When they’ve all come out. When the series is finally done. Then, I will read them.”

I’m sure you see where this is going. Robert Jordan died before finishing his series, but Brandon Sanderson finished it for him (with full permission, access to notes, etc.). The final book came out last year.

My best friend was quick to point out to me that this meant that the series was finished. The throat-clearing was implied.

Not good enough for me. I waited to make sure it was the last book. No sudden codas, no newly discovered final book.** I wanted to make sure it was done.

So I gave it more time. Even I have to say, the series looks finished.

So, true to my word, I have started reading The Eye of the World. I’m only about a chapter in and so far I have to say, ye gods! does this guy like to throw names at you. But it seems interesting enough so far, so I’ll stay with it.***

Who knows, maybe after I finish I’ll go back and read the whole Sword of Truth series

Wish me luck.

Have an opinion on The Wheel of Time? Want to gush or warn me about what I’m in for? Let me know in the comments!

*I think this must be because the big threat, Jagang, looked so dangerous and so imminent that I needed to see him dealt with. Contrast that with the Vlad Taltos series by Stephen Brust and the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, neither of which shows any signs of stopping and yet I devour each new book on release.

**A la Gormenghast

***This does not constitute a promise to finish the series. It may not be for me.

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Maybe I Should Have Taken That Left at Hyades…

The King in Yellow Cover

My copy

I was just a kid back in the mid-1970s, when my brother and I were first getting into Blue Öyster Cult. Now BÖC has some … eccentric lyrics, which meant that I would often ask my brother what various lines meant. “Who is Sir Rastus Bear?” “What’s a diz-buster and why do they scream?” That sort of thing.

I’m thinking about this because of HBO’s newish show True Detective. (I have the show on my DVR, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) In case you haven’t heard, word around the internet says that “the key to understanding this show” is in Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. To most people that’s an obscure book. If you’re the sort of person who would come to this site and read these words, you’ve probably heard of it because Chambers is widely known to have influenced H.P. Lovecraft.

But I first heard of the collection because of a Blue Öyster Cult song: “E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)” from their album Agents of Fortune.

I’m in fairy rings and tower beds
“Don’t report this,” three men said
Books by the blameless and by the dead
King in yellow, queen in red

I can still remember hearing that verse coming out of the speakers of my dad’s stereo one afternoon and saying to my brother, “The queen in red? As in Alice in Wonderland?”

“That’s right,” said my brother, not looking up from his novel. (Actually, I think it was the book club three novel collection Three to Dorsai by Gordon Dickson.)

“But what’s the king in yellow?”

His response carried the essence of the correct answer, but he made it sound like the most boring book in the world. In his defense, when your six-year-younger kid brother keeps bugging you with questions, dull answers are the quickest way to get him to stop.

So even when I did start reading Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, I didn’t bother with The King in Yellow. I did find a copy in a used bookstore sometime in the ‘80s, so I picked it up and put it on my Lovecraft shelf, for completeness’ sake.

And all but forgot about it.

Now, nearly forty years after bugging my brother about a Blue Öyster Cult song, I’m hearing people rave about this television show that owes itself, somehow, to that collection of short stories.

Fine.

I finally took it down from its shelf and read it.

I must say, if it weren’t called The King in Yellow it might have been titled Bohemian Artists in Paris. Several of the stories are set in Paris and involve painters with inconstant affections. In fact, the fictive play “The King in Yellow” appears only briefly in a couple of stories, and not at all in others. Only in the first story is it truly featured (though it does have an important role in another couple).

But when he could stop talking about his inconstant painters, Chambers handled gothic horror pretty darn well.

And I think those scant references lend weight to it, the way it can be more effective to not show a monster in a monster movie, only hint at it and keep it in shadows. If Chambers had shined his light too brightly on dim Carcosa, his work might not have inspired others as it did.

So would I recommend it?

Personally, I think every Lovecraft fan should read the first few stories, to see what the fuss is all about and experience Chambers’ version of gothic horror. And now that I have read it, I am prepared to watch True Detective and find out if it’s as good as people say.

I confess, though, I do hope that their King in Yellow references aren’t slammed in my face. I’ll be disappointed if I find out that what I had learned through literary osmosis was enough to make everything clear.

Still, just the rumor was enough to get me to finally read The King in Yellow, so maybe it was worthwhile even if I find out that the show’s killer is serving the tattered king or dreams of Carcosa, and Hyades, and Hastur, or something like that.

Have you read The King in Yellow? If so, what did you think? If not, and you want to, you can find it at Project Gutenberg.

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Going Berserk

The First Law Books -- cover shot

I dig these covers.

“For when the War God fills this flesh I wear
I am no more your friend I am the spirit of the bear”
– “Don’t Call My Name in Battle,” from Songsmith by Alexander James Adams (as Heather Alexander)

I recently read the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie and I was struck by the character Logen Ninefingers, called “The Bloody Nine.” When I started the first book, I suspected that the character was something of an homage to Robert E. Howard’s Conan and others of the great sword and sorcery heroes of yore.

But I was wrong.

Logen’s roots go much further back, to the like of Beowulf and Cú Chulainn. Both of those mythic heroes were known for the power of their battle rages. Among the Celts, this was known as the ríastrad (sometimes translated as warp spasm).

But the character of Logen Ninefingers does not come from an analog of Ireland. Instead he comes from an analog of the old Germanic tribes, which makes him a berserker.

Berserk — derived from the term bear shirt (also bare-shirted, though this translation is less accepted now) which is supposed to refer to how they went into battle — is the word associated with the frenzied battle trances of certain types of warriors, in which fire and edged weapons seemed unable to harm them. The berserkers were almost unstoppable when their fits were upon them.

Logen Ninefingers is a fearsome warrior, even when he is fully in control of his faculties. But sometimes, just sometimes, a wave of cold overwhelms him, and the side of him that he refers to as “the Bloody Nine” takes over. The Bloody Nine fights on through wounds that would cripple or kill another man. The Bloody Nine kills wantonly, not caring for friend or foe, nor warrior or innocent.

It’s the best portrayal of the berserker I’ve seen in modern fiction.

Logen hates the Bloody Nine. Every sane person fear it. But worst of all for Logen, no one but him distinguishes between the two.

In mythic or epic fantasy, Logen might have become a hero. But Abercrombie’s part of the new school of fantasy that many have taken to calling grimdark. So as far as the people of his world are concerned, Logen is a villain. The reader may understand him and care for him, but this grants him no immunity from the ways of plot.

I’m tempted to say more, but I don’t want to delve into spoilers. The trilogy is quite good, but be warned: it’s also dark and depressing.

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The Ubiquity of the Eldritch

Hanging in Stephen Colbert's living room?

Hanging in Stephen Colbert’s living room?

I went to Dundracon last weekend. It’s a great chance to game and spend time with friends I see all too infrequently.

One of these games involved a law firm called August and Howard. Now to me that was an obvious allusion to August Derleth and Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft. I assumed that most other players caught this reference and took it as a sign that occult matters were afoot. I even mentioned this to the game master when we were discussing the game over drinks later.

I was wrong. Most people missed it. In fact, he had used that firm in other games, but people usually missed the significance of the name choice.

That amazed me. I had trouble believing it at first. But the more I thought about it the more sense it made.

When I was growing up, the only people who understood references to Cthulhu (and similar) were those who read Lovecraft.

But that’s no longer true.

Lovecraft is everywhere these days. Cthulhu has made appearances in tech-oriented web comics, cartoons, and even has plush toys. He has his own film festival. Basic information about the Cthulhu mythos is a click away on countless websites.

In short: Lovecraft has become a pop culture phenomenon. People who have never read his work understand basic references the way I understand references to Twilight.

Now this is not a complaint. Personally I think it’s great that so many people get the sort of references I like to make.

I just have to remind myself that just because they enjoy Cthulhu holiday music does not mean they will understand my Whateley knock-knock jokes. But that’s fine too.

What do you think of the Lovecraft phenomenon?

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Fanboy Moments

Blue Öyster Cult Logo

BÖC’s symbol, the symbol of Cronus

At the Super Bowl party I attended yesterday the question came up about the greatest concerts we’d ever gone to. That’s a tough one. I’ve been to many. But it got me thinking about my best concert experience. And for me it was the first time I got to see Blue Öyster Cult.

First, some context. I’ve been listening to BÖC since Agents of Fortune came out, which was 1976, thanks largely to my brother, who bought the album. Mike and I both really got into the band’s entire catalog. We threw BÖC references into our roleplaying games the way some people throw in Lovecraft references.

“Threw.” Whom do I kid? I still do. I just don’t call attention to them and I don’t do it every game.

Anyway, fast forward to 1989. I was a nineteen-year-old college student. BÖC was touring for Imaginos, and they played at a club down the street from my Oakland apartment. The club was The Omni, which was one of the major Bay Area hard rock clubs in those days. But still, it was a club. Not a big venue like the Cow Palace, much less a stadium. (It wasn’t the smallest venue I’ve seen them play, but that’s another story.)

Obviously I bought my ticket at the earliest opportunity. I showed up early on the night (no, I was not the first in line). I only really remember a couple of things from the early part of the evening:

1) I left my place in line to run across the street and help a couple of guys push-start a stalled car. I was the only one who went to help. That still amazes me. Everyone else just watched. But at least no one questioned my reclaiming my spot.

2) There were two or three opening acts, local metal bands. No one worth remembering. I recall one of them made a point of saying “This is a song about vampires,” before starting into a song called “The Vampire Attacks.” It was as bad as you might be thinking.* I remember that another band lifted two of its main rhythm figures from Iron Maiden.

But then the lights went down for BÖC and none of the rest mattered.

The single biggest band in a life filled with music hit the stage, a stage I was pressed against. That’s right, I was at the front of the crowd. I had gone up from the moment the doors opened and I hadn’t budged. Not for a drink. Not for the bathroom. Nothing was more important than being right at the front for this.

They gave an amazing performance. For more than four hours they played, not just all the hits but the more obscure songs that only the more devoted fans would know. And I was right there at the front, singing my heart out with every line.

Sound like a big fanboy experience? Yes. But in fanboy terms you haven’t heard the highlight yet.

You see, lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser could hear me. I know this because every so often he would look up at me, then smile and give me a nod. All through the concert. Me singing along, him looking up at me, getting more impressed as the show went on.

After the last encore, the band came up to slap hands with those near the front, but Buck grabbed my hand and shook it.

How freaking cool was that for a nineteen-year-old me? I still remember the handshake.

Then the house lights came up and the crowd began to thin. While I recovered my voice and my hearing (I wore earplugs, but it was loud), a roadie came out and started gathering up cables. He couldn’t believe some of the songs they’d dusted off to play for us. He told us that we’d just gotten the best show of the tour.

I already knew.

*Especially compared with, say, “I Love the Night”, which BÖC played later, along with “Nosferatu”.

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I now have an agent!

I am now officially represented by Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary!

I’ve known Laurie for a couple of years, and we’re both on the same page with the hybrid direction I have in mind for my career. I am so psyched to be working with her!

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Hacking is Magic!

Agents of SHIELD logo

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about Agents of SHIELD.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I feel profound irritation every time they dismiss the existence of powers like telekinesis, telepathy, E.S.P. and other psychic phenomena. This show is supposed to take place in the Marvel Universe, a place chock full of psychic powers, not some kind of X-Files show-me universe.

I try to give them slack for that, though, assuming that the audience is being set up for a shocking revelation that all these things are real!*

But there’s been something else bugging me about it, and I think it comes down to the super-hacker character, who can slice into anything, anytime, anywhere. S.H.I.E.L.D. has no hackers than can begin to compare to her. Heck, from what we’ve seen on screen, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have any hackers, apart from her.

That realization pointed me to the answer: hacking is magic.

She never has to deal with signal issues, or download bottlenecks. Not so much as a dropped packet could hold her back.

It hardly seems like technology at all, the way it works out on the screen. Look at the scientists on the show for comparison. They develop new toys, and need time and iterations to make these new toys work right.

But the hacker? She can give someone else a flash drive to plug into a USB port that will download hundreds, maybe thousands of files from a variety of directories (without prior access to their file organization system) in seconds. She faces no limitations or obstacles except those that the plot requires to keep her from solving all the problems in the first five minutes of the show.

And I don’t think this is only true for Agents of SHIELD. Most modern shows have some character who is an eccentric outsider who speaks the arcane language of technology, who can wave a keyboard and conjure forth occult secrets from the aether.

Now, there has been a realism gap in computing on screen as long as movies and television have been portraying programming and hacking. But that makes sense. Why should its portrayal be any more accurate than the way the screen portrays the military, law enforcement, the legal professions, the medical professions, or fiction writing?

I’m not saying they should. These are dramatic portrayals, and no one wants to watch, say, the way an actual criminal trial would play out, or the reams of paperwork that make up most policemen’s work days.

Actual hacking would be boring to watch.

But here’s the thing: these shows have several lawyers or police officers or doctors or forensic scientists. Yet they tend to have one hacker / tech expert. This person, unlike the others, does not struggle past problems intrinsic to his/her profession. That is not that character’s role. That person is there to provide answers, to perform miracles.

In fantasy that character would be a wizard. But in a contemporary or SF show?

Hackers are wizards.

What do you think? Am I on to something here, or do you see it another way?

*No. I don’t really believe it will happen. But it would work.

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Yet Another D&D?

Illithid Sorcerer

Does not officially worship Cthulhu. Nope. Not even a little.

D&D Next is coming. Yet another reinvention of Dungeons and Dragons. And I do mean a reinvention. When AD&D came out there were changes, sure, but it expanded and deepened the game we were all playing.

When Second Edition came out, it was the same sort of situation. There were more changes, but AD&D characters could be converted with minimal effort. Some new options were popular, like the increased number of specialist wizards and specialty priests, and the introduction of nonweapon proficiencies (replacing second professions). Other changes drew rampant mockery, such the removal of devils and demons and replacing them with the off-brand baatezu and tanar’ri.

But then with 3rd Edition the game was entirely revamped. Devils and demons came back, but experience and hit points were reworked, THACO was thrown out, and the statistics were broken down along modifier lines. And these are only a few of the changes. Converting characters could still be done, but required significantly more work, not least because of the new feats and skills systems.

Those last two represented the largest single mechanical changes to the game since its inception. They represented methods of customizing characters beyond their classes (taken further with advanced multiclassing and new prestige classes) and began to represent with mechanics what had only been done with roleplaying before.

They also represented a shift in the philosophy of the game. Through Second Edition the mechanics had been focused on combat and left everything else to the players. It also worried little about game balance, leaving the control in the hands of the Dungeon Master, for better or worse. 3rd Edition expanded the role of mechanics, trying have them cover both game balance and roleplaying.

This shift continued through 3.5 and into 4th edition, where game balance became central to design (primarily through combat effectiveness) with roleplaying a major secondary concern. This had the effect that characters from previous editions were left behind. They could not be converted, per se. Too much had changed. They could be recreated with an eye toward concept, but that’s it.

Is 4th Edition fun? Absolutely. Hell, I ran the most successful D&D campaign ever using 4th Edition. (Of course, that was more the result of the players working with me than a direct effect of the game mechanics).

But is it D&D?

Apart from certain identifying intellectual property (like Mind Flayers), 4th Edition doesn’t have much more in common with early Dungeons and Dragons than GURPS Fantasy has. Or Dungeon World. Or Burning Wheel.

And now D&D Next is coming, yet another stripping down the system for a complete overhaul.

For the first time since I started playing back in 1976, I don’t know if I care. I’m thinking that if I want to play D&D again, I may just homebrew some of the changes I like from 3rd and 4th Editions onto Second Edition and go from there.

I don’t know. I’ll have to play with the idea some.

For the D&D players out there, what do you think? What’s your favorite version? And if you wanted to remix your own version, what would you do?

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My Favorite Schemes

Advertising lairs is a bad call…

“My Favorite Schemes”

Baffling policemen with puzzling riddles
Robbing museums to steal priceless fiddles
Series of murders all following themes
These are a few of my favorite schemes

Taunting the heroes with bright shiny clues
Building their deathtraps in big giant shoes
Using my gadgets to enter their dreams
These are a few of my favorite schemes

Kidnapping sidekicks and threatening their lives
Hiding my minions in giant bee hives
Designing my lair to magnify screams
These are a few of my favorite schemes

When the heroes strike
When the plots fail
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite schemes
And then I don’t feel so bad

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The Joy of Discovery

The Mountains of Mourning

Not how I pictured it, but whatever…

There’s never enough time. There always seem to be more books to read, more movies to watch, more songs to hear, more games to play, more things to learn, et cetera. We all do what we can with the time we have allotted to us, but some recommendations inevitably fall by the wayside for varying lengths of time.

For me, one such recommendation has been the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Sometimes recommendations get lost because of circumstances. I think that was the case here. The first person (who shall remain nameless) had been a little too clearly in love with his own opinion, had been a little too dismissive of some science fiction novels I had enjoyed for me to take him seriously when he said I should read those stories.

And the way you first hear about something tends to color your view of it. In this case, Vorkosigan had become, in my mind, associated with this particular blowhard and subsequent recommendations tended to glance off of me.

Until recently.

As homework reading for a class, I had been assigned The Mountains of Mourning. I’ve always been a good student. I do my homework, and read ahead as far as I am able at the time. So I buckled down and prepared to read something I expected to be as pompous as the original recommender.

Boy was I delightfully wrong.

The Mountains of Mourning was a mystery with solid, involving characters and smooth storytelling set in a subgenre I have always loved: space opera. I loved every page of the story and was pleased to learn that it had won a Hugo award. Best of all, I knew that there were more stories waiting for me, novels and short stories and more.

I think that’s the most fun in discovering something new that you love – finding out that there’s a lot more waiting for you. It’s like hiking in the mountains and tripping over a gold nugget, only to discover there’s a whole vein of gold behind it, waiting for you to grab a pick.

Alas, I cannot simply sit down and pour through all of those novels one by one until I’ve absorbed everything written in the saga. I have novels of my own to write, and other books to read as well. But half the joy of this sort of discovery is knowing that the stories are there and waiting for me.

What about you? What have you discovered that seemingly everyone else already knew about? How did you enjoy it when you found it?

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