Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Book Review: Gentleman Captain

I’ll admit I cut my teeth in the British Naval novel world with the Patrick O’Brian series starring Captain Jack Aubrey and Irish/Catalan Surgeon/Natural Philosopher Stephen Maturin, all 22 novels (audio-tapes rock for that 30min commute). The era of the Napoleonic Wars seemed ideal for the sort of swashbuckling adventure, terrors of the seas, and British society drama.

Along comes J. D. Davies with Gentleman Captain and breaks the notion that you need Napoleon to have a rousing British Naval novel. Roll back time to the year 1662. Oliver Cromwell has been defeated and Charles II is king once again. Years of civil war have left a nation of divided loyalties and murky intentions. The Navy, filled with Cromwell’s officers, must be overhauled and Charles II fills the officer corps with “gentleman captains” who have almost a disdain for the working knowledge of the sea, leaving that to the ‘tarpaulins’ or lower-class officers and crew.

Enter Matthew Quinton who infamously allowed his drunken ship’s master to wreck his first command during a storm because he did not know how to save the ship. A Royalist who spent time in Brussels during the exile, he is now the younger brother of the restored Earl of Ravensden, brother-in-law to a powerful Dutch ship’s captain, and husband to the beautiful and strong Cornelia. All Matthew wishes is for a commission in the Horse Guards (Royal Cavalry) but with most of the fleet away, he is the most experienced and loyal gentleman to put in command of a Royal ship on a special mission.

There are rumors of a Scottish rebellion fueled by arms purchased on the continent. Quinton is to command the Jupiter and sail north under the lead of Captain Godsgift Judge, a Cromwell-era hold-over, to root out the truth and thwart any threat to the crown. Quinton’s ship was to be captained by Harker, whom the crew loved and who was murdered leaving the vacancy. Quinton has many challenges to face including his own demons to see if can become a successful Gentleman Captain.

I give the book 4.5 out of 5 stars if you’re a fan of British Naval novels and here’s hoping that the author continues the characters in a series as the book appears to set up.

Gaming the Books? The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers

(Found time for a more extended review…)


For anyone who reads my Gaming the Movies column in Knights of the Dinner Table magazine, you know that I can watch a movie or a TV show and get pretty psyched about how I’d GM that property as a table-top RPG.  That same sort of excitement occurs with the best books as well.  The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers knocked it out of the park for me so I had to get some of the ideas down here.  Paul Westermeyer is the book reviewer for KODT so I’ll have to suggest this one for him.

First off, the book itself.  This is a steampunk masterpiece in my opinion, and I’m not someone who has ever delved that much into the steampunk realm.  I still love cyberpunk from the Gibson/Blade Runner era and perhaps there were enough similarities here to make it all the more interesting.  We are presented with a city once ruled by three gods.  These gods were brothers, mortal born who by the impact of their lives and deeds attracted power and divinity to themselves.  Humanity became dominant in the land, ruling over other races like the enigmatic Feyr, the scaly Rethari, and others.  But the Brothers Immortal turned out to be not named perfectly.  Decades before the book begins, one of the brothers,Amon, killed another brother, Morgan.  For his crime he was burned and drowned in the lake over which the City of Ash is built.

Our hero is Eva Forge, the last Paladin of Morgan, still following the ways of the ebbing Cult of Morgan, using invokations of Morgan’s deeds to give her magical powers: speed, endurance, armor, strength, and much more.  (The author even uses the term “buffing” at one point, revealing his own experience as a gamer of some type… and yes, this would make an awesome video game).  Her Cult is fading away in a city of wonders created by the enslaved followers of Amon, now called the Betrayer.  One god remains, Alexander, who rules the city as a god king.

But this is steampunk so Eva carries sword and a bullygun (revolver), the city supports an elevated train system, skyscrapers of steel and glass, wireless communications, and much more, all with a steampunk feel… the El is powered by massive Impellers that drive it forward along the track and the wireless communications are performed through gear that sits on a person’s head.

Each Cult has its own powers: Morgan’s give combat abilities mostly; Amon’s allows for magical Making and Unmaking of things (tearing down a brick building and building another structure with the bricks just with their thoughts); Alexander’s appears to be Healing and Mind powers.

On their way back from a library staffed by Amon’s cult, the head of Eva’s Cult is captured.  Strange “cold men” appear to do the deed.  Others attack her Cult as she tried to understand what is happening and like any good paladin, generally bulls her way through things.

I’ll not give away the mysteries, but the writing is very evocative.  I could picture everything clearly, the CGI of my mind working at peak performance.  Eva ends up moving through many areas of their society, giving you a good look at the world.  His use of language is of particular note, changing enough terms to keep what could be read as modern, dry technology feeling more fantastic.

I’d give the book 5 stars out of 5 and a Must Read for any steampunk fan.  If you like playing with Weird Science in Savage Worlds, it would also be excellent inspiration.

Gaming the Book

Now, on to some specifics I’d focus on if I wanted to run the City of Ash as an RPG.  This is a quick list to elaborate on later

Undead: The “Coldmen” are sewn up corpses whose innards have been replaced by leather and glass pistons (clockwork). They wear whole body suits with goggles sewn in that contain the icy cold air around their bodies.

Icons: The members of the three cults all wear icons.  Here is something about Eve’s icons: “We all wear icons, the scions of the three Cults of the Brothers Immortal.  My armor is an icon, as are my sword and revolver. Very practical icons.  But I wear others, noetic symbols of the power of Morgan.  An iron fist pendant at my neck, the bound copper wire around my wrist, tattoos on my chest and legs.  There is a holy symmetry to my symbols, brought to arcane life by the power of Morgan.”

The powers the scions have is based on tapping the power of their patron god through symbols of that god’s life and legendary deeds.  They may call out “Rite of the Stag Hunt” to give themselves added speed, referring to a feat in the past by Morgan.  These powers can be invoked and layered as fast as the scion can speak their names, loud or soft.  Silence a scion and they cannot engage their powers.  The harder the chant, the more powerful the invokation will be.

“Icons of the faith are powerful tools for channeling the invokations of Morgan.  My sword was an obsessively precise mimic of Morgan’s own blade, the Grimwield.”  At higher levels of power, icons are more obscure, referencing lesser known parts of the god’s life.  Powerful scions also wear a lot of fakes, to misdirect which ones are real.  “It was only the knowledge of these things that powered them, and that knowledge was carefully guarded by the ranks of the initiated.”

Healers: Scions of Alexander, put on rings and bracelets of silver as icons when they need to heal.  Touch the victim’s temples, wrists, and ankles.

“Names are part of the Song and should not be given away.” – a hint to names having power over people in the right hands.

Cool Quotes

“It was well past noon when I gave up being patient and kind, and decided to go ahead and be a Paladin of Morgan.  It was my nature.”

“If they come for you… swim.”

“Swim,” Owen said, “and pray to Alexander for deliverance.”

“As you like,” I said. “But mostly I would swim.”

Book Review: Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers

Well I don’t have time for a full-blown book review, but I gotta shout about “Horns of Ruin” by Tim Akers.  It’s fantasy with technology that isn’t classic steampunk but isn’t modern either.  The expressions of using magic are visceral as we follow along with a Paladin named Eva Forge.  She’s trained with combat magics, a big sword and her “bullygun” (i.e. a revolver).  Akers just uses words in a fresh, evocative way that really pulls you in.  There is a godking, the last of three Immortal Brothers, undead walking around with steampunk hearts, a cult of assassins worshipping one of the dead Immortal Brothers called the Betrayer.  Just good good good stuff.  I’d love to play in a game set in this world, but everyone would have to read the book first to get the feel and understand how the ‘world’ works.  Back in our high school days, that might have worked out, but alas, not today. Still, it’s one of the few books I’ve read lately that just teems with gaming ideas.

Book Review: Ex-Heroes

Okay, straight out I’ll say that I’m not a big fan of the whole zombie-mania.  I mean 28 Days rocked and the new “Walking Dead” TV series is pretty good too.  Zombie+ClassicLit did NOT work.  So my hopes for Ex-Heroes, a novel crossing superheroes with zombies, were not high.

I was proven dead, er undead, wrong.  Peter Clines’ novel is original and an exciting read.  He has his own original heroes which don’t clone popular existing heroes.  They exist in a world that also has comic books so heroes tease each other about whether or not they could beat Spider-Man.  He is effective in his use of flashbacks to fill in the origins of the heroes and the threads of the plot leading to the current day.  The cause of the zombie outbreak is also explained in a cool way that you never see coming.

I’d give it a great recommendation whether you like zombie or superhero novels.

Book Review: Lamb

I received this book (Lamb by Christopher Moore) at a church “bring one, take one” book exchange.  A friend of mine snapped it up and pushed it into my hand.  I’m glad he did.

This is my first taste of Christopher Moore’s sense of humor and I’m enjoying it quite a bit.  He’s got a great mixture of character attitudes relevant to the time of the story layered with sarcasm and snarky wit of a modern mind.  (Okay, sure, I know I’m being ‘age-you’re-living-in-now’-ist, but they haven’t outlawed that yet.)

The concept is that a Jew named Levi (nicknamed Biff for the sound it made when his mother had to whack him upside the head) was Jesus’ (known in the book as Joshua rather than the Greek Jesus) best friend as a kid and all his life.  With humor, it mines the story from when they are about 8 years old onward, encountering angels, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, but also filling in the gap of the first ~30 years of Jesus’ life.  In the story, “Joshua” and Biff travel to find the three Magi who came to see Joshua’s birth.  Their travels take them across Mesopotamia, into Afghanistan and down into India.  Woven into the travels are the ways Joshua is educated or exposed to the many religions and other influences which some might say helped to define “New Testament Christianity”.  I happen to think that makes 100% sense, but I’ll leave religious debates aside.

So while the book is irreverent, it is also true to the characters.  Joshua struggles with knowing that he’s the Son of God but being unable to tell the world about it.  He knows he’s different than anyone else in the world and it makes him very lonely at times.  Biff acts as a sort of comic relief, but also a stalwart and true friend as well as an honest man to help the Messiah on his journeys.

I’m definitely going to try some of Christopher Moore’s many other titles.  With luck, I’ve found another author to help feed my humorous book addiction while waiting for the next Discworld novel from Terry Pratchett (Lord, let him live to 150 years old…)

Book Review: Burn Notice: The Fix

After writing one of my Gaming the Movies columns on the TV Show Burn Notice, I had to try out the Burn Notice novels.  I took advantage of the discount you get in the DVD set of Season 2 of the show and ordered The Fix and The End Game.  The Fix came out first so I’m starting with that.

The author, Tod Goldberg, has done a very good job of capturing the voices of Michael, Sam, Fiona, Madeline, etc. as well as the pace and content of a Burn Notice episode.  You get a little bit more background on them here and there but nothing that couldn’t have popped up as an aside in a future episode.  Some of Michael’s comments to the viewers are more lengthy than a TV show would allow, but all in all, the feel is remarkably similar.

So if you’re looking to the novels to be different or more or better than the show, they won’t be that.  You won’t see characters change much if at all, which is a hallmark of most long-running stylish TV series.   You expect Michael to be snarky, Fiona to be hot-tempered, and Sam to be, well, let’s just say Sam.

If you just need your fix for new Burn Notice stuff before new episodes air, I think the Fix does just fine.

Book Review: Who Can Save Us Now?

Third in my series of Superhero books takes a look at a collection of short stories edited by Owen King and John McNally (both of whom have entries in the book). The book is divided thematically into:

  • The Most Unlikely Beginnings
  • The Beast Within
  • A Shadowy Figure
  • Behind the Mask
  • Super Ordinary

I found all the story concepts to be quite original but they were uneven in quality of execution. One story, the Somewhat Super by David Yoo, stood out in my mind with a neat setup, good characterization, and an ending that made me go “Wow!”. I’ll leave that one for you to discover, but give you a taste of some others.

Man Oh Man – It’s Manna Man by George Singleton tells us about someone who discovered that he could reach through the television set and put words into the mouths of the people speaking there. In order to do good works, he focuses on forcing corrupt televangelists to call for money to be sent to places, people, and organizations in true need.

The Thirteenth Egg by Scott Snyder looks back to the atomic bomb experiments after World War 2 and the man infused with all that energy. The real story is what happens when he gets home, discharged from the service without any guidance and little control of his power. What happens to him as he tries to adjust to life as a civilian again.

The Rememberer by J. Robert Lennon examines a life where nothing is forgotten, ever. How can it be of use? How vital is the ability to forget for our sanity?

This anthology is labelled as “No. 1″ so I hope they keep trying. There was enough intriguing ideas and deft writing to make it worth the read.

Book Review: Playing for Keeps

Time for another book review! We’re continuing our look at Superhero Novels with Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty. (Full Disclosure: Ms. Lafferty is a columnist for the Knights of the Dinner Table magazine where I am also a columnist).

“The supervillain attacked at the most inconvenient place and time: right on Keepsie’s walk to work. She looked into the sky at the costumed combatants and groaned.

‘Why did they have to do this on a Thursday?’ ”

Those opening lines quickly set the tone of the book. Powers exist, superheroes battle supervillains, and the rest of us still have to worry about paying the bills. In her version of the world, superheroes were created in waves. The First Wavers are classic superheroes with great powers. Our heroes? The Third Wavers with powers like the ability to hold a serving tray and never spill a beer, or to heal you… a little bit. They gather in a bar, a haven belonging to Keepsie, and complain about the arrogance of the heroes.

The book builds quickly using the familiar trope of ‘useless’ powers that slowly become more useful through creative thinking. Lafferty does it well without telegraphing it early. The tension rises as the problems at hand get bigger and bigger. Our heroes refuse to cave in to heroes or villains and become key to the battle of the day.

Lafferty’s sense of humor is subtle and keeps the book from becoming an outright parody of the genre. The heroes and villains are very creative and the powers would be very interesting to try to model in an RPG.

I’d recommend the book as an amusing read with a lot of original ideas. I hope Ms. Lafferty is writing another already.

Book Review: Superpowers

Hi, my name is Jim and I’m a superhero-themed novel junkie…

(Chorus) Hi Jim!

I’ll admit it. I like superhero comics and I like superhero novels. I’m drawn to comics that have a tinge or more of reality. I liked the deconstructionist stuff of the 1980s and 1990s. Watchman is a great graphic novel and while I enjoy the superheroics of Batman, it’s when he struggles with the strange position being Batman puts him in. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn mostly to the Marvel characters: Spiderman and Daredevil in their solo titles in particular. A good mix of harsh reality and the freedom of having superpowers.

Anyway, I came across Superpowers by David J. Schwartz a few months ago while trawling for superhero-related titles in Amazon. There were some reviews about it being too soap-opera-y though most were favorable. It was worth a shot.

The story centers around five people loosely connected as room-mates or friends who inexplicably develop superpowers over night. Each of the five gains one power: speed, strength, mind-reading, invisibility, and flight. These revelations are at first treated a little casually by the author, not spending too much time in the initial shock of them. Each power has its liabilities and issues firmly grounded in asking a simple, realistic “what if”? If you suddenly had super strength, how would you keep from breaking things? If you gained super speed, would you start to have trouble slowing down?

Once they understand their powers and they learn who all got powers, one character drives them to follow the superhero paradigm: wear costumes/disguises, do good, don’t get caught. They ponder the equally weighty viewpoints on powers:

Ben Parker (Spiderman): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
John Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Now in a typical superhero tale, there is a foe worthy of superhero powers: a supervillain, alien invaders, something out of control of normal authority. In Superpowers, there is no supervillain. Our five heroes foil burglaries, domestic abuse, robberies, and save people from burning buildings. They are powerful, but they aren’t perfect. Things don’t always turn out nice and clean and they have to deal with that as well.

This all plays out over the summer of 2001 in Madison Wisconsin. Knowing the tragic date that is coming lends a dark undertone to the whole book.

All in all, it turned out to be a book I couldn’t put down. I got invested in those five people and in how Mr. Schwartz was handling the ‘reality’ of superpowers. It wasn’t a four-color, Hollywood ending but isn’t that the real fantasy?