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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Wise Man's Fear

It's taken me a while to get around to reading the second book in Pat Rothfuss's series. That's not because I didn't enjoy the first book, it's just it came to my attention on a wave of hype, and it didn't quite live up to it. There was. However, enough to make me buy the second whilst looking for my holiday read from a fab bookshop in York.

The story picks up in its two timelines fairly promptly. The contemporary narrative (in third person) has Kvothe, the legendary hero, hiding as an innkeeper and recounting the flashback to a scribe, the Chronicler. The sleepy village inn has just been rocked by a possessed mercenary being killed in the inn, and the locals are organising a funeral. The events in the present occur over a day (which presumably means the flashback narrative is being written by a scribe that can write twenty times faster than I can type). The motivation of the Chronicler, to record reliably the truth of the heroic deeds of the legendary Kvothe, is further driven by the fae, Bast, who wants to return Kvothe his mighty past. We wonder at Bast's motivation, whether driven by a concern about the ongoing war (which we are led to believe Kvothe has begun by killing a king) or some other reason connected to the Fae (whom we discover more about in book 2).

Noting the above, the meat of the book is in the flashback section. Book one was dominated by Kvothe's first year at the University, his on-off fascination with the mysterious Denna, his rivalry with the rich kid, Ambrose, and the ongoing desire to learn more about the Chandrian, the seven creatures that killed his parents. It culminated in a scrap with Ambrose in which Kvothe broke his rival's arm by 'naming' the wind, namely harnessing its power using magic.

Image from

Unlike book 1, which was dominated by the University, this book takes Kvothe out of the restrictions of academia, and to the lands in the east of the civilised lands. He takes a sort of 'gap year' after a trial draws negative attention to the University and his fees are hiked. Seeking a patron to fund his side-line as a  minstrel, he journeys to the city of Severen where he works for the Maer, a noble. This leads to a series events involving bandits, the Fae, training with a race of pseudo-samurai, and then performing a daring rescue. All of this bolsters his reputation, and finally leaves him with cash in his pocket and a kick-ass sword.

There were so many good things in this book. Kvothe is endearing and believable as a hero. He is moral, but not overly so. His cheekiness and charm bring forth images of the cocky protagonists of so many movies, yet inside he has a deep burning anger at what destroyed his life in the early parts of book 1. This bursts forth in a well written sequence later in the book where he slaughters a group of thieves. He's not above foolishness and arrogance, yet you forgive him those moments because ultimately you root for him throughout.

Kvothe meets Haliax by Brad Sutton art

Rothfuss excels in several areas for me: the intricacy of the magic system, and the detail of the foreign cultures. Of the former, the rationalisation of the various disciplines of magic studied at the University are beautifully done. The near scientific basis of 'sympathy' (manipulation of energy, linking objects thermodynamically), 'alchemy' (portrayed here as advanced chemistry) contrasts with 'sygaldry' (using runes, although in quite a engineering manufacturing artefacts type way) and 'naming' (following the Le Guin idea of everything having a 'true name' which conveys control over an entity or element). I love the idea that philosophical and ethical progress has matched these disciplines, and that they are discussed between characters as degree-level subjects would be in our world. It tickled me that the concepts they discuss I medicine in the book are far advanced from most pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds (the use of the term 'sepsis' for example). It all provides a very believable structure to the narrative.

The second salient point to me was the depth of Rothfuss's cultural creation. Hinting at his skill with the descriptions of the Court of the Maer, with its protocols and etiquette, he excels himself when Kvothe trains with the Adem. The richness in the way the Adem speak, perceive, believe, and regard other cultures is so well written that it made the book for me. I loved the concept of the Katan, even with the corny Kung-Fu names, and the indefinable Lethani ethos. I loved the tree with razor leaves, and the culture shocks Kvothe experienced, especially the idea of singing as 'whoring.' Just great.

Kvothe by Shillesque.

The supporting characters grow as well as can be expected in a largely first-person narrative. The University ones are a little lack-lustre, with perhaps the exception of Elodin, and the curious Auri (who earned her own book). Denna, as I'll note below, irritated me yet was well drawn. Devi I liked and hope we can see more of her in book 3, although I suspect not.

The book isn't perfect. The pacing really struggles at times, and this may be a personal thing. Whereas I liked the period of training in Ademre, and the preceding period hunting bandits, I found the general flow of the book tricky. Certainly it was long, although not overly so, but there were periods of stagnation that really dragged the story. I'm all for the author enriching their world, but some parts of the book felt indulgent and in need of trimming.

Similarly, the structure is rather odd. The book seems to peak too early, the phase in Ademre and the rescue of the girls is the nearest we get to a finale. Then the book sort of ambles to a conclusion after this, with a fair bundle of hooks for the next book. I accept it is part of a series, yet other authors manage to create a story within their series that comes to a conclusion, that resolves some in-book themes, and that leave you feeling you’ve read a book not an instalment. George RR Martin doesn't, Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch do, and as I read more and more fantasy I'm erring to prefer the latter.

And finally, Denna. I see what Rothfuss is doing, showing the complexity of their relationship, the intricacy of a well written female character. But with two books of a thousand pages we don't seem to be advancing anywhere with her. We're left with the same frustrations as we had ending book one. I'm certain the next book will see her character finally hit the spot, and I wonder whether her abusive patron will be tied up with the actions of Kvothe in starting the war?

And of the third book… I hope Rothfuss doesn't do a Martin on us, and get side-tracked. I can't see how this series will be resolved in just one book, unless he either cranks up the pace, alters the balance of contemporary vs. flashback, or writes another series about Kvothe in the modern day.

We'll see. And I'm desperate to know what's behind the doors…

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Hidden Dragon (DnD tales)

Thought it would be fun for the kids to see their epic finale from module U2 in story form. So here goes...
The hesitant dawn tainted the mists a rusty colour. Despite the early hour the marshland had a stifling closeness, the air seeming dense and obstructive. Progress from the Lizardmen’s lair had proven sluggish, and the stinking water had soaked through Emelia’s boots at least an hour ago.

She glanced at her companions as they fanned out nervously at the edge of the large pool. Long sharp grasses mixed with twisted reeds around the fringes of the murky water, thickening into a copse of slimy trees at the far side. The creature was surely in the water, yet Emelia had an uneasy sense something terrible was watching them from the dark of the wood.

“Stay vigilant,” Loki said. The ranger crouched low, checking the mud around the pool for signs of their quarry.

“Can’t be too hard for you to track a crocodile the size of a house,” Crue, the elven mage chuckled. Loki frowned but did not reply.

“I do declare, it might have been safer to just give the Lizardmen their gold back,” Gideon said. The cleric of Pelor was clasping his holy symbol nervously.

“My spell books don’t pay for themselves,” Crue said. “And besides, we took that gold in good faith before we realised the Lizards’ true intent.”

“We have much to compensate for,” Loren, the Paladin, said. “At least this way we slay the…”

The brackish water erupted as a huge crocodile burst forth. Its speed belied its vast bulk, as its huge mouth roared in fury. Slime glistened on its thick green hide, tendrils of weed hanging from its underbelly.

Emelia’s heart was in her mouth as she sprinted to the side, mind desperately trying to recall a spell that would be of use against such a monster. To her left se could see the huge half-orc, Vicdac, take a more traditional approach and charge in with his sword.

The crocodile sloshed out of the pool, its massive tail swinging through a splintering hail of reeds. Vicdac’s massive sword carved a vicious furrow along its side and dark emerald blood mixed with the slime and marshwater. To the creature’s far side the spear of Oceanus, the Sea Elf, plunged into the crocodile’s flank.

Words of sorcery spilled from Emelia’s lips and she felt the surge of power as a crimson bolt crackled forth. It struck the beast under its jaw in a cascade of sparks. The crocodile focused its attention on Emelia and she felt a surge of terror.

“Try this for size,” Crue yelled from behind a nearby tree. The marshland glowed with the nimbus of sorcery around the elf, and a magical arrow hurtled across the waters and into the monster’s flank. There was a glare of light and then a horrid hiss as acid devoured a chunk of flesh.

I need to find the creature’s vulnerable area, Emelia thought as she darted around the fringe of the pool. Charging in from the front is hardly my style. I’m on this mission to crack locks and dodge traps.

The hide of the crocodile was as tough as iron, and despite its wounds it had slowed little. With a mighty lunge its huge jaws clamped around Gideon as his swing with a mace skittered off its head. The cleric screeched as the dagger long teeth ripped through his armour. Emelia watched in horror as blood spattered across the companions—Gideon’s blood.

“Get him loose,” Loki yelled, jabbing at the crocodile’s throat. “We can still save him.”

Oceanus charged with his spear, and straight into the crippling impact of the crocodile’s tail. The blow sent him hurtling across the water and into a tree with such impact the trunk splintered.

“No!” Emelia screamed, and dashed around the pool. The mud clutched greedily at her boots. To late she saw the trees part and a far more terrible creature emerge.

The water of the pool erupted into flames, and Emelia threw herself back. Her uncanny reflexes had saved her vicious burns from the mystical flames.

A creature of legend emerged, its vast snake like coils propelling it towards the companions. A wicked set of teeth leered as burning orange eyes narrowed in hatred. Crimson membranes glowed with power between gnarled spines jutting from its draconian head and back.

A dragon. A coiled dragon. Emelia knew of such creatures only from the dusty tomes of Ulek’s famed library.

Oceanus had stumbled to his feet, wincing in pain and lowering his spear. Glancing back, Emelia saw that Elangos, the dark skinned warrior, and Vicdak, had also seen the dragon emerge.

The persistent jabbing of weapons had prompted the crocodile to drop Gideon’s limp body. In a deft motion, Loren caught his mentor, whilst stabbing ineffectively at the roaring crocodile.

The heat from the flames was unbearable, and Emelia knew she would be better in the cover of the reeds than stood with wavering sword before a dragon. She scuttled through the reeds almost colliding with Crue, who was skulking like a thief in cover.

“A pan lung. A coiled dragon,” Crue rambled. “We’re stuffed.”

“My magic is spent,” Emelia said. “Are you…?”

“I’ve got some left, but the acid arrow almost burned me out. If I’d have known…”

“Easier to scowl at the past than smile at the future,” Emelia said. “This battle is more suited to bruisers like Loki and Vicdak.”

Circling above the pair, their familiars came into focus. The two pseudo-dragons had wisely being hiding in the reeds. The elves smiled grimly, and then allowed their own flesh and clothing to magically adopt the colour of the surroundings.

Even from three feet away, Emelia could hardly see Crue.

“Good luck, my friend,” Emelia said, and then scrambled through the reeds.

The crocodile was trying to bite Loren, but the paladin’s ornate plate mail deflected the attempts. Loki had moved around towards the dragon, with Elangos and Vicdak, but the flames were hard to breach.

Through the reeds, Emelia crept, trying to anticipate the swing of the huge tail. Her hands were so sweaty with fear that she feared she’d drop her sword. The flicker of flames from the nearby water danced across the flawless elven metal.

With a clatter the huge tail slammed into Loren. The magical plate armour dulled the blow, yet it sent the paladin staggering. The crocodile reared to attack, and Emelia knew she had one chance.

Hurtling from the reeds, she plunged her sword into the soft belly of the crocodile and threw all her strength behind the blow. A gout of viscous blood and entrails spilled from the wound, and she kept on moving, dragging her keen blade along the length of the abdomen.

The monster thrashed and gurgled and then crashed to the mud. The impact sent Emelia spinning across the marsh and into Loren. The pair splashed into the swampy ground and then lay laughing in relief.

“Some help…?” Vicdak’s guttural voice echoed across the marsh.

The dragon hissed in pain as a magical bolt arced from the reeds and into its neck. Loki was injured, but still fighting through the flames at the dragon. With horror, Emelia saw the injured Oceanus, staggering in the flaming pool, trying to thrust his spear at the monster.

There is so much I could learn from him, she thought. Erevan help us, throw your fickle dice our way for once.

The dragon snapped down at Elangos, ripping a chunk of flesh from his shoulder. The dour warrior splashed back through the water, as Vicdak hacked furiously against the dragon’s impervious hide. The battle was taking its toll on the companions, and the dragon showed little sign of fatigue.

Elangos had retreated to the water’s edge and was aiming his crossbow. There was something about the dark-skinned half-elf that Emelia couldn’t fathom. Yet she had met few warriors from the northern fringes of Tenh, and those she had were soured by the constant battles in the region with barbarians and orcs from the lands of dreaded Iuz.

Urging her aching muscles to action, Emelia hastened over to the unconscious cleric, Gideon. They had been good friends since meeting years ago in their homeland of Ulek. Although Gideon and Loren worshipped Pelor, God of Light and Healing, and Emelia considered her patron gods, Erevan Ilesere, Elven deity of mischief, and Boccob, human god of magic. Yet Pelor’s disciples were ever tolerant of other faiths, especially when working for the common good (which naturally Emelia did… most of the time).

Blood ran from Gideon’s mouth and nose, and his chest excursion was uneven. Swiftly Emelia tugged loose a vial of potion and carefully poured the contents into the cleric’s mouth. He gagged and spluttered, and was then surrounded by a shimmering light. His eyes flickered open.

“Gideon, are you…?”

“I declare, the dawn has nothing to compare to your fair visage, mah dear.”

“You’re fine,” Emelia said, and dropped Gideon’s head back into the mud with a splash. She stood,  winced, and retrieved her sword. Her friends would need her help, magic or no.

With Loren at her side, she rushed forwards. The dragon was wounded, the water bubbling ferociously around it as the heroes splashed across the muddy banks. Loki was retreating, multiple cuts dirty with swamp water. Oceanus had slumped on the bank, and the flames licked greedily at his burned legs.

A shrill sound sprang from Elangos, an ancient Flan war-cry that sent shivers down Emelia’s spine. Some dormant memory arose within the dragon, and it turned its sinister gaze towards the dark figure on the edge of the pool.

The flames illuminated Vicdak’s mighty blade as he lunged forth. His huge muscles propelled the sword deep into the dragon’s throat, and he roared a prayer to Wee Jas as a fan of emerald blood coated his pale Suel features.

In a flicker the magical flames were gone, and the companions stumbled wearily before slumping into the marsh. Checking the coast was clear, Crue emerged from the reeds and retrieved the dagger he had thrown moments before. His camouflage faded, and he smiled spritely at his exhausted companions.

“Alright, maybe Gideon was right. Paying back the gold would have been an easier option.”

Emelia closed her eyes and smiled.

Details of the adventure to follow soon.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (U1): the adventure begins.

One of the coolest things about Stranger Things is that it's rekindled my kids' interest in DnD, and ever the opportunist I've planned out a campaign from level 1 to 12, squeezing in all the classic modules in the Greyhawk setting. And what better place to begin than U1- The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.

The characters, 6 in total are:
Loren: half-elf Paladin of Pelor (a Crusader) from Celene
Loki: human ranger from Duchy of Geoff
Emelia: half-elf thief-magic user from County of Ulek
Vicdak: half-Orc fighter-cleric of We Jas. His mother was Suel, hailing from the Wild Coast
Crue: elf Magic-user, from County of Ulek
Elangos: half-elf drow assassin (Flan origins on human side, from Duchy of Tenh, then onto Greyhawk city)

A rather bizarre group, with Elangos obviously masquerading as a fighter-thief type, with the dark Flan skin hiding his shameful Drow connection. Plenty of fun stored up for later in the campaign there (especially when they get to D1-3).

So the premise is that they are accompanying a cleric of Pelor called Gideon, who is delivering a secret message from the church in Ulek to some merchants in Hold of the Sea Princes, at Bale Keep. The first five are comrades, with Elangos employed by the Sea Prince merchants to guard the message. Gideon leads them overland through Keoland, via Dreadwood, to the marshy land on the edge of the Azure Sea.

The camp is disturbed by (apparent) bandits whom the party defeat but the horses scatter. Gideon's message is taken by a dark garbed figure, who calls an illusion of a stone dragon to cover his escape. Then he disappears into thin air!

Irritated by this Scooby-Doo style villain, the gang descend into the fishing town of Saltmarsh. Initially staying with the Blacksmith and his family, they sneak around and spy on a council meeting hearing an old sailor rattling on about ghosts and flashing lights at t'old manor. Eager to question him, Elangos and Emelia kick off a tavern brawl so as to snatch the sailor. He reveals the mysterious going on up at t'manor. The local constabulary give chase, and the pair do a runner over the rooftops.

Next day the fuzz turn up where they're staying, and after some Paladin sweet talking, go to the Council. They argue a fair bit, but ultimately offer to fund the characters to nose around the Haunted House. And so into the adventure!

It's soon apparent there's more going on than simple Scooby-Doo, and giant spiders and bugs. They go to the cellar pretty quick, find a secret passage into rooms used by smugglers. The legacy of the alchemist, a bunch of skeletons, and some golden apples. Then they find a passage and stairs to the hidden caves wherein an illusionist (the dude from earlier), with two gnolls, and a bunch of smugglers are laying in wait...

A great scrap ensues, with the characters victorious and they retrieve their message as well as clues about the Sea Ghost, the smugglers ship. The Council pay them to seek out the smugglers, and on the night the boat arrives they arrange signalling from the house whilst they row out. Gideon uses silence o mask their covert approach, and they board the ship via portholes. Sneaking through the rear of the ship, they tackle a bunch of crew in the hold, and then storm the deck. The battle is pretty close up above, but helped by a Sea Elf Oceanus. Just when the battle is almost won, three lizardmen burst out, and they win by a slim margin, but with no deaths on their side.

The adventure ends with a victorious return to Saltmarsh and a bundle of cargo to sell. And, of course, curious information about the  lizardmen and their purchase of weapons from the smugglers. Which leads neatly into the next module in the series, U2- Danger at Dunwater.

All in all a totally great time with old school AD&D, and one we hopefully will continue through until the Giants-Descent-Drow modules!