Badasses of the old west

Badasses of the old west : true stories of outlaws on the edge, edited by Erin Turner


Man, the title and cover really oversell this book. It’s actually a collection of short profiles of criminals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I’m not sure I’d have counted coastal Oregon in the 1920s as part of the “old west” but one of the longer entries chronicles an escaped convict who spent weeks on the lam there, forcing people to cook for him at gunpoint whenever he stopped at a house. Other criminals that are included don’t really seem to rise to the level “outlaw” status — a burglar who murdered a sleeping woman with a meat cleaver, a man who went on a drunken rampage robbing some railroad employees and shooting his brother-in-law, and several other cases of murder. There are a few bona fide famous outlaws mentioned — the James brothers, the Apache Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as infamous killers like John Wesley Hardin and William Quantrill. A few of the less well-known characters are pretty interesting too — Old Tom Starr and Dart Isom, for example. But all too many seem to have been selected for their evocative nicknames rather than their deeds: “Bad Eye” Santamarrazo’s crime was trying to poison a miner, and “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter murdered and dismembered an eccentric old man in order to take over his farm; in both cases these were the only crimes the subjects committed. Worse, a lot of them seem to be included simply because the writers found a lot of details about their trials and executions, which make for pretty uninteresting reading when the criminals were spectacularly inept. So it’s really a very mixed bag, some of it entertaining and some it boring.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly; maybe tales of men who were “badass” by some standard other than simply being killers. Really the vast majority of the people profiled sound like sociopaths and bullies. Most of the killings are ambushes or surprise attacks on unarmed men. I know that this is the reality of most crime generally and most of the killings in the Old West. I guess I was hoping they would be enough true stories where a gunslinger did something that actually was “badass” to fill a book. You know, stuff like this. Evidently not. I know, I know. Most of the people from history who we think of as “badasses” were actually sociopaths and bullies. The “most badass” warrior cultures — Vikings, Romans, Spartans, samurai, knights — were basically sociopaths and bullies who won more by surprise, material wealth, and ruthlessness than courage or toughness. That’s pretty much how human history works. Still, the Old Western idea of a tough individual dies hard, and maybe if we pretend the intent behind this collection was demythologization, it works. Except that the obviously amateur and amateurish articles don’t really address the question, and it’s more on the editor for pretending these are about badasses rather than a collection of crime stories.

I also wish the articles were signed, rather than just having a list of contributors on the copyright page, because the style and tone of the articles varies a lot. I get the impression that the publisher or editor just wanted to cash in on a great title and classic photo for the cover (a cowboy standing on the saddle of a horse and aiming straight for the camera with his gun), reprinting chapters from various “Outlaw tales of…” books in the publisher’s stable. If this is meant to be a “best of” collection, I’ll skip the books they’re excerpted from.

Published in: on February 27, 2016 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Creature compendium by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.

Old School Adventures™ Accessory CC1: Creature Compendium

Oh god, not another monster book, right? OGL/OSR monster books are, all too often, crapulous retreads of existing D&D monsters, with maybe a few variations: these orcs are blue! here’s a 2e monster statted out for B/X! purple, cerulean, and amber dragons! another kind of elf, this one lives in the desert! Less than inspired, you might say. You’ve probably got one two on your shelf or hard drive, and it gives you pretty much all the standard monsters, tweaked for a specific flavor of D&D. Ho-hum.

Creature compendium is having none of that. The monsters are mostly things that are not in any other monsters manual. They are not slight variations or reskins of existing monsters. Well, a few feel a bit like reskins, but they also suggest something different. Even the most derivative monsters in the book are kind of cool. I will give you two examples: Dunters and Cyclorcs.

Dunters are goblin red-cap berserkers. Basically tougher goblins, who go berserk like Berserkers, so that seems like a shitty reskin on the face of it. But they also have the traits of folkloric the Red Cap, a specific goblin who haunts an old ruined castle and dips his hat in human blood to keep it red. Except of course this is a whole race, so they lair in ruins and believe they must keep their caps wet with blood. I’ve certainly seen goblins before, and berserkers, and even Red Caps, but this combination of the three is not terrible.

Cyclorcs are one-eyed, overgrown orcs who are distinguished by their slightly better melee skill and worse missile skill; they also speak a dialect most orcs can’t understand. They do not accept leaders of other races, making them more independent than regular orcs. This is, in a way, the worst monster in the book. The only saving grace is that I happen to have a handful of figures that are would be pretty perfect for cyclorcs, so I for one might use this monster too.

And again: these are worst the book has to offer. The rest of the creatures are stuff from folklore or pulp comics that I’ve never seen adapted to D&D, totally new monsters of the sort you might find in the Fiend Folio, or jokey monsters that actually manage to be kind of cool. The introduction explicitly states that this book is meant to fun both to use and to peruse, so: mission accomplished.

There are Carriage worms, which are creepy giant worms covered in smaller parasitic worms. The parasitic worms have a paralyzing bite, and the big worm doesn’t have a real bit attack but can swallow you whole once you’re paralyzed. That is nice and creepy. And it spits a slippery but harmless slime on you. You’re not going to forget this encounter.

A number of monsters appear to be Japanese yokai, like the Whipwhirl, which is a flock of strips of paper that will tangle you up and try to suffocate you. Then there are Revolving beasts, which polymorph continuously into other monsters. These are all solid, and potentially deadly.

The jokey monsters include Ligers (“Ligers are a lion and tiger mixed, bred for their skills in magic”), Rotmouths (the monsters from the movie Critters), and the Mothman.You’ll also find a few monsters from movies (Ymir from the Ray Haaryhausen design, water devils that look like something from Princess Mononoke). But even these derivative monsters are usable. The in-jokes are sometimes subtle (no doubt I’m missing some; but the “Bestial beast” I think must be named in parody of the unlikely names of Fiend Folio monsters) and not all of them are all that funny (Skunkbears). Still, it’s far cry from the full-on stupid of something like The field guide of encounters.

The art is not always great. But as far as I can tell, the author also drew all the monsters, and by the way every damn monster has an illustration. None of those monsters-without-pictures that you skip over in other manuals.

All the monsters are statted out in both AD&D and B/X terms. Those are my two favorite iterations of D&D so I’m happy with that. I’m not sure it’s necessary to give both, since you can kind of derive the briefer B/X stats from the AD&D, but that’s fine. Another thing I like is the index and treasure tables. The index doesn’t just list page numbers, but also gives XP values across several game systems, covering most of the OSR bases.

My main complaint about this book is that the stat blocks are not entirely explained. For one thing, a lot of monsters have a dagger symbol following their name in the B/X stat block and this is never explained (I broke down and sent Mr. LeBlanc an email asking about this, and he said that it just means the monster has spells or psionics or other things not in B/X). There are a few bits of text that either unclear or possibly typos, but nothing as egregious as pretty much anything published for Castles & Crusades. Lastly there is no bibliography or list of sources — a problem pretty much all monster manuals share, so I shouldn’t single out this one. I just wanted to go on record saying it’s something that really ought to be included in every monster book.

I didn’t actually pay anything for my copy — I won a copy in New Big Dragon’s 12 days of OSR Christmas. I’d mention that as a disclaimer, but Mr. LeBlanc did not even ask for a review.  If you want a copy, it’s ridiculously cheap anyway: $2 for the pdf at RPGNow, and print copies are cheap at Lulu (especially if you use a coupon code, right this minute it’s JANEND20 for 20% off; while you’re there look for Paolo Greco’s Kefitzat Haderech and/or Burgs and Bailiffs), or if you’re in the US you can also go straight to the New Big Dragon site.

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm  Comments (3)  
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Attila the Hun (Command series)

Osprey books are usually researched pretty well and always have great illustrations. Attila the Hun is no exception. I haven’t read many titles in the Command series — in fact I think the only other one I’ve read is the older one on Alexander the Great. I usually just get the Warrior and Elite series books when I’m working on a wargaming army, and I haven’t really been as involved in wargaming for years. But — full disclosure — I got a copy of this one for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Previously published with a different cover, the 2015 edition is pretty slick looking.

Attila is a semi-legendary figure, as we know very little about him apart from what a few Roman writers have recorded about their enemy, and some mythologized impressions of him in the character King Etzel in the Nibelungenlied. What we do know, and much that is presented as reasonable conjecture, makes up the majority of this short book, along with brief looks at some of Attila’s major Roman and Goth adversaries, and short accounts of a few battles. The battles are illustrated with the customary Osprey diagrams. There is practically nothing on the Huns’ equipment, military organization, and orders of battle or army composition — partly due to the limited amount of information we have and partly because the Command series does not focus on these topics, unlike the other Osprey military history series. So if you are interested in knowing more about how the Huns were armed and fought, you need to look for The Hun : scourge of God, AD 375-565 in the Warrior series — also by the author of the present book. This book — being in the Command series — is mainly interested in Attila’s qualities as a strategist, diplomat, and leader.
What little we can guess about Attila’s motivations and psychology are explored in some detail, and though he remains shrouded by the legends that have grown around his name, the book does manage to give a coherent picture of the man. The author compares him, somewhat unfavorably, to Genghis Khan, but then Attila did not have the benefit of an organized propaganda campaign like Genghis did.
The art in this book is generally good, combining period art, later reconstructions, and a lot of indirectly related things (for example, an image of a 20th century Tibetan archer to suggest how the Huns shot their bows, and armor and other artifacts the Huns might have looted from Goths, Romans, and contemporary steppe nomads). The illustrations commissioned for the book are about average for Osprey’s books — reasonably detailed, well-researched, and explained exhaustively in the text. They don’t have the drama and power of the late Angus MacBride’s work, but I can’t fault this book on that score.
The bibliography provided in this book is also very detailed, and we see that the author used a range of sources, from the original Latin and Greek historians, scholarly articles, and more “popular” magazines. There is even an entry for John P. Greer’s Armies and enemies of Ancient China — a very dated work that has a lot of misinformation. I think this reflects more the comprehensiveness of the author’s research than sloppiness though. I didn’t see anything questionable here.

Published in: on January 21, 2016 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker


This book has a gained a small measure of notoriety because its cover appeared in a few places in pop culture and because professional moron Glenn Beck singled it out as a destructive force in American culture. However I can’t imagine many people reading this — it is essentially a short work of philosophy that looks at how twentieth and twentieth-first century horror (in fiction, films, and music) might help us comprehend the unthinkable world we now face: the world that might be: the world after human extinction. (I am reminded of the ancient skeptical quip that just as we do not fear the nonexistence we enjoyed before we were conceived or born, we should not fear the nonexistence that follows our death, but Thacker would probably want to say: The individual’s nonexistence is one thing, the nonexistence of humanity, perhaps even of rationality, is another.)

Thacker’s basic idea is subtle and difficult to paraphrase. If I am understanding him (and as someone who studied philosophy pretty extensively, and in particular a lot of nihilism, as well as someone interested in or familiar with most of the writers he uses to illustrate or explore his ideas, I may be among the relative small minority of people who actually comprise his audience) — if I understand this book, the first premise is that we need to distinguish among three “worlds”: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us. (For my money this distinction alone was worth the price of reading this short but difficult book.)

Briefly, the world-for-us is the world understood instrumentally*, the world as something for our use as humans; the world in relation to humans. This concept of the world is most fiercely promoted in myth and religion, but it is also how we usually think of the world in our everyday interactions with it. Thacker uses the generic term “World” for this world.

The world-in-itself on the other hand is the world as it exists independently of human concerns and interests, the subject of scientific inquiry perhaps but potentially hostile. Paradoxically our scientific investigations generally convert the world-in-itself to the world-for-us because we normally undertake these investigations to solve some problem or gain some understanding of human problems, however it was the rational, scientific mindset that reveals the possibility of the word-in-itself. But philosophically, at least, we acknowledge that the world-in-itself is not just some human construct or a world made for- or by- us. The Kantian noumena (“thing-in-itself”) is obviously being invoked here, but Thacker is not strictly being Kantian here. For one thing he doesn’t necessarily agree with Kant that we know nothing about the world-in-itself; we in fact have a concept of the world apart from human concerns. Thacker calls the world-in-itself “the Earth”.

Lastly the world-without-us is the world that is, by definition, hidden from us and beyond our reckoning, and its reality is most plain when we think of the world after human extinction. This concept is of fairly recent vintage because it is only in fairly recent times that we’ve had any idea of a world with no humans. In the mythological/religious past, we could only think of the end humans as the end of the world itself. But climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the threat of extinction-level pandemics, the notion of civilization-ending disasters generally: these possibilities evoke the world-without-us. Thacker calls the world-without-us “the Planet,” because when we imagine the world without us we are considering our world “objectively,” as one planet among many, and not merely in-addition to humanity but apart from and independent of humanity. The Planet is not even hostile to us; it is indifferent to us. This indifference is terrifying to us, because it negates the humanocentric world. I should hasten to add that the alienating thing about the world-without-us does not depend entirely on human extinction. The very idea of the multitude of worlds, the near-infinity of time and space, and the possibility of alien intelligences also invoke the world-without-us.

Thacker’s thesis is that modern horror (in film, fiction, and even music) provides a non-philosophical approach to grappling with the Planet, that is to say: the world-without-us. The bulk of the book tries to illustrate this thesis, drawing on everything from black metal music and Hammer films to H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Bataille. Theological and occult writings on magic and demonology are also analyzed as precursors to modern horror. Along the way Thacker uses a variety of philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Aristotle (!) to explain how the world-without-us can be understood philosophically. Perhaps obviously, Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” very aptly describes the human response to the idea of the world-without-us. Towards the end of the book he suggests a mystical approach to comprehending the world-without-us, using certain “darkness” mystics (Bohme, John of the Cross) to analyze a strange, supposedly anonymous poem that is probably the work of the author himself.

I should finally comment on the utterly strange but effective structure of his book: we are treated to a series of medieval scholastic forms (quaestio, lectio, disputatio) each exploring specific questions or topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thacker does not settle on a clear conclusion, but there are at least two more books in his “Horror of philosophy” series.

*Thacker doesn’t specifically use Heidegger’s concept of “instrumental rationality” here, but Heidegger certainly applies: The world-for-us is the world for Dasein.

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am  Comments (1)  
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False advertising

DMGR1/2112. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide.

This is actually a pretty good reference book for DMs. There is general advice on designing dungeons and indoor environments, and lots of stuff about running a game — practical table-manners type stuff, managing players, DMing style, all that. World-building and mapping and even suggestions on the hows and whys of in-game dungeon construction. It’s co-written by Janelle Jaquay, an icon of early D&D. So it has to be good, right?

It’s a little unusual for a 2e splatbook, in that some of the art is pretty bloody (pages 9, 33, and to a lesser degree 89), and there seem to be a couple of half-orcs among the PCs in various illustrations (pages 11 & 96 — though the guy on page 96 could be full orc).

There are great sample maps of various structures and environments that you might run as “dungeons” (understood here in the most basic sense as an boundaried adventuring environment, limiting where you can go). A pyramid, caverns, a temple, that sort of thing. All done in Sutherland’s neat perspective mapping that he pioneered in the 1e “Survival Guides”.

But you what it hasn’t got? Catacombs. Nothing about them. Nada. The biggest word on the cover & title page, and as far as I can tell the word doesn’t even turn up in the text. Disappointing. That’s OK though; I have something in the works that will cover catacombs.

The other odd thing about this one is the annoying illustrations of a nerdy DM and his gaming group, which is so mocking as to be unsympathetic. It’s supposed to be comical but really comes off as pretty contemptuous.

I haven’t read any of the later editions’ Dungeon Master Guides so I can’t say how much of this was carried over to them — honestly I haven’t even read the 2e DMG in years so I don’t know if this redundant to stuff in there. It does give a very concise set of guidelines that you can use in any game, so it’s worth checking out for that and for the handful of maps in the back. For as much I hated most of the brown splatbooks of character options back in the day, this blue splatbook is surprisingly good.




Published in: on July 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Armor never wearies by Timothy Dawson (review)


'Armour Never Wearies'

But the writing here sure does.  🙂

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book on such an esoteric topic would be dry, but Dawson scrupulously avoids any kind of summary or conclusions. He gives a lot of detailed diagrams of individual scales and possible reconstructions, but no timelines or maps, so it is not always clear what period or area a particular find is relevant to. He also seems unwilling to give any real details about the weight of a suit (or pieces) of the armors, how well it might prevent penetration by various weapons or compare to other types of armor of the same period, and so on — the sorts of things someone interested in arms and armor might wonder about. Instead we have a detailed description of how different types of scale and lamellar armors depicted in period art might have been made, and how various archaeological finds might fit into the reconstructions. He is pretty careful to avoid speculation, but doesn’t always explain why he disagrees with other people’s ideas about the armor or even who specifically he means to criticize or dispute.

Still, it is s probably the only book ever written about scale and lamellar armor, so if you’ll want to read it if you have any interest in armor. The author is an historical reenactor, so he includes photos of actual suits he’s built, even photos of himself wearing them, which is neat. I was able to track down an article he cites in the book (and which he also wrote) that mentions, in passing, his tests of reconstructed lamellar armor against sword, spear, and compound bow, but there is not a lot of data, and no comparative tests against other types of armor were done, so it is hard to draw specific conclusions about the effectiveness of lamellar. He says he couldn’t pierce it with contemporary weapons, and his bow was an 82 pound draw longbow shot at 20 feet, using what sound like bodkin or armor-piercing arrowheads, so it sounds like lamellar is as good as mail or plate; it is stiffer than mail and so would be a little better versus impact weapons, but much more expensive to produce than plate, which explains why it fell out of use everywhere people had access to plate.

The article is “Kremasmata, kabadion, klibanion: some aspects of middle Byzantine military equipment reconsidered,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, vol. 22 (1998) p. 38-50. An open source scan (pdf) is here.

D&D-wise, this book got me revisiting the question of what kinds of armor should a campaign include. AD&D is a grab-bag of stuff from the dark ages through early middle ages (with late medieval full plate optionally added in the DMG). Most simplified systems strip it down to leather, chain, and plate, but  really there is something funny going on in any campaign world where mail armor is cheaper than plate (the amount of work involved in cutting, bending, and riveting all those links is insane). My brother, who as big an arms & armor nerd as me, has argued that mail would really better for adventurers because, among other things, plate will overheat you pretty quickly, while mail acts as a radiator, letting heat escape. (Other factors being that mail is pretty repairable in the field while plate is less so; mail could be removed before you drown, unlike plate; and mail stops weapons almost as well as plate in most cases — remember, knights were jousting with lances before full plate was being made, and they survived.) But mail was too pricey to compete with plate — besides plate looks awesome, and you don’t really need a shield with it. so my point is by the time full plate armor is available, your real choice is between partial and full plate armor, not between mail and plate. D&D “plate mail,” if it is as I assume mail with a few bits of plate added at the joints and perhaps a chest piece, might reasonable coexist as an improvement over mail, and of course mail continued to see use long after they stopped making new suits, as hand-me-downs and inventory from armories, but I’m tempted to reduce all armors to maybe three classes — light (leather or padded); medium (scale or mail, or half-plate or less); and heavy (a full suit of lamellar or reinforced mail, and  any kind of plate armor).


Published in: on May 29, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque

I’ve been down with a cold for the last couple of days and after forcing myself to go in to work one day, I took day off and binge-read a dissertation on H.L.Lovecraft that a guy I know wrote. It is called H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque. You can buy it at Amazon, and should. (Side note: among the things I learned here is the origin of the term “grotesque”, which traces to “grotto-esque” because the excavations of certain Roman grottoes revealed monstrous, fanciful images no-one had seen in hundreds of years. Such imagery was not limited to grottoes or baths but the term stuck, perhaps because the association with caves or the underground fit the demonic images.)

H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of pop icon, at least within a sizable subculture of gamers, horror aficionados, and general “geek culture,” although as the author notes he is more frequently referenced or parodied than actually read. In all fairness, there is a considerable part of Lovecraft’s work that is pretty rough going, due to its conservativeness (e.g. his early work and attempts to copy Dunsany) or due to its unapologetic racism and xenophobia (which even Robert E. Howard, himself criticized for bigotry, chastised Lovecraft for!). However Martin focuses on several of Lovecraft’s most famous and acclaimed works (“The call of Cthulhu,” “The whisperer in the darkness,” At the mountains of madness, and a few other key works), and in doing so makes a powerful case to take Lovecraft’s mature work much more seriously than it hitherto has outside of “weird tales” fandom.
Martin argues, quite lucidly, that HPL can be better understood as a trailblazer in the intersection of two literary movements: the grotesque and the modernist. HPL, he demonstrates, uses modernist devices and concerns, with grotesque themes and situations, to create subtle studies on alienation, subjectivity, and the absurd. Indeed the Lovecraftian sense of “cosmic horror” (a phrase I think Martin circumspectly avoids) is understood here as really being a sense of horror at man’s evident place in the universe (or lack thereof). Martin rather convincingly (to me, at least, as a non-scholar regarding literature!) shows that HPL really fits comfortably in with Conrad, Eliot, O’Conner, Faulkner, and other “modernists,” distinguishing himself more by his use of the grotesque rather than more realist or mundane dramas to sketch his vision of the world: alienating because it is indifferent to human concerns and pride; disturbing because subjectivity makes absolute reality impossible to approach; and absurd because logic and science are just powerless as religion and art in the face of this alienation and subjectivity. HPL’s use of sophisticated literary devices belies his oft-criticized purple prose, and Martin also makes an effort to suggest that HPL uses humor and even self-parody which is lost on many readers.
So overall I think this is an excellent study of HPL, and refreshing in that it mostly avoids the biography that so often passes for criticism and appreciation that passes for interpretation.
Having said all that, this is a doctoral dissertation, and the reader is often reminded of this fact by the repetition of ideas, the exhausting presentation of piece after piece of evidence, pedantic footnotes which some advisor or reader doubtless insist be inserted to clarify or disclaim some statement, and most of all by the jargon of academia. In fact this last part was the most distracting: “connects,” “destabilizes,” “questions,” and similar verbs abound, as I have often found them to in academic literary criticism. Such terms always make me think that either the writer is avoiding taking a clear stance or that they don’t really know exactly what the argument is and these words are meant to say “well this here sort of suggests that, but the logical connection is not clear and I am not positive what the actual conclusion should be.” But then that is the meat and mead of defending a thesis. One must pull back as far into ones shell as possible or face endless debate from the advisor and readers who must ultimately approve the thing. So I can forgive that.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I know the author of this work and he sent me a copy to read (though he did not ask for a review or anything in return). I should also mention that I was intensely flattered to be acknowledged among the people who influenced his thinking, though really I knew him long ago, and I doubt I had anything substantive to say about HPL at that time.
I hope that if he ever returns to this topic, perhaps to edit the dissertation into a format that will attract more casual readers, he will expand his examples to draw on more stories, and perhaps give a little more explanation of some of the more jargony terms of literary criticism, for the ideas herein do a great deal to rehabilitate HPL as more than merely a “horror” or “pulp” writer. He might also address some of the more problematic aspects of HPL’s work and views; however I know from correspondence that he intentionally set out to avoid the pitfall of biography and psychologism that besets so many writers on writers.

Published in: on April 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (19)  
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About reviews

I post book reviews here once in a while, and reviews of gaming materials. My book reviews more regularly appear on, which is a pretty neat web site if you haven’t heard of it. This link goes to my reviews there. Earlier this year I learned about Goodread’s “First reads” program which is basically a system where authors and publishers offer free books to be given away to users, in hopes of getting reviews and/or ratings, and to appear in people’s ‘to-read’ or ‘currently reading’ feeds —  i.e. publicity. The only downside is that I feel a bit obligated to read the books right away and post a review, so I’m probably going to stop entering the giveaways, or cut back, as it has put other things I want to read on the back burner.  I usually manage to finish one or two books a week, though with the holidays I have less time for reading.

Anyway the interesting thing about this, and the impetus for this post, is that Goodreads is pretty conscientious about pointing out that reviewers need to indicate whether they are getting any kind of remuneration, including free review copies, wherever they post their reviews. I think it is common sense to do so, but I see a lot of reviews on blogs and some people might need this reminder. The FTC guidelines on this, if you’re curious, are here. (Presumably, a review of something that is free for anyone & everyone who asks, like free pdfs on someone’s site, would not need a disclaimer — I’m not a lawyer, though, so don’t take that as legal advice.)

So, have you ever posted a review for something you were given for free, with or without the expectation of a review? Do you think it influences your review? I have read that people are more likely to give positive reviews to things they had to pay for (because consciously or not, who wants to admit they made a bad choice when they bought it?*), but on the other hand, a free copy of a thing is a kind of remuneration, and you might feel like you “owe” the giver something. The funny thing is that the reviews in “regular media outlets” are almost always made from free review copies (or reviews of events made with free admission, etc.) and no-one needs to be told the reviewer didn’t have to pay for the item or the ticket to the event — presumably because everyone knows that that’s how it works.

*BTW one of the best RPG review sites, Ten Foot Pole, does not accept free review copies, as far as I can tell, but gives very thorough and useful reviews, calling a turd a turd and finding good stuff buried in dross.

Published in: on November 25, 2014 at 6:25 am  Comments (2)  

The woman who would be king


Hatshepsut was a pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. The most interesting thing about this pharaoh is that he was a woman, and despite her nephew and successor’s efforts to eradicate inscriptions and monuments relating to her rule, we know enough about her for her to be the subject of this book. Actually this book is largely composed of speculation and inference, as all of our understandings of the pharaohs must be, since the Egyptians mainly recorded accomplishments and praise, rather than any minutia about everyday life, motivation, or really the human side of the these god-kings.
The author, an archaeologist and Egyptologist, is clearly very knowledgeable about Egyptian daily life and religion, and her speculation is careful and convincing, perhaps most of all because she admits to many lacunae and areas of uncertainty. This book is a fascinating account of daily life in the royal household of ancient Egypt, and if anything goes into more detail than the casual reader can possibly digest. I eventually found myself skimming the details about ritual practice and some of the architectural projects. The author goes into a lot of disturbing detail about royal incest and the extremely sexual nature of some of the temple duties of priestesses and queens, but the intent is not to shock or titillate so much as provide a more complete picture of Hatshepsut’s world. (Still, it does make me wonder if the people who keep trying to appropriate Egypt’s legacy — Freemasons, Afrocentrists, etc. — understand what they are actually in for!) Cooney’s asides about Victorian museum curators hiding away certain ithyphallic reliefs and statues of Amon and Min due to their rudeness injected some humor. There is also a bit of gruesome detail about the prevalence of disease and parasites in ancient times, and a matter-of-fact but gory description of the embalming process, neither of which you’ll want to read while eating.

I read an uncorrected proof (through the Goodreads “first reads” giveaway), which had a few plans but lacked any illustrations. I assume the finished book must have a number of plates or details from the statues, inscriptions, and monuments to which the author constantly refers.

The author makes some great observations about the tendency for people — historians and regular folk alike — to ascribe bad motives when a woman expresses the desire to rule, but unfortunately is unable to really connect these observations to Hatshepsut specifically. From what we can tell, her rule was extremely effective, bringing wealth and prestige back to a tottering empire, and innovative in terms of reorganizing the political hierarchy to ensure loyalty to the pharaoh. She also has the distinction of seizing a throne without spilling a drop of blood, and in fairness to her and her nephew, I should point out that Thutmose III did not try to eradicate her memory entirely, but only conceal the fact that she rules not merely as regent during his toddlerhood but as full pharaoh for her entire lifetime, once she took the throne. This was not so much to destroy her legacy as to reaffirm his own legitimacy, and took place many years after her death, which Cooney interprets, quite plausibly, to mean that Hatshepsut’s rule was popular.


I usually append some thoughts about how one might find some grist for D&D in my book reviews, but I did not find myself taking any notes while reading this book.  I would absolutely recommend this book if you intend to run a game set in a Egyptian style ancient kingdom, or if you were going to run the “Valley of the Pharaohs” game. It might also be source of ideas for a campaign involving courtly intrigue, and the intersection of religious and political power, since Hatshepsut had to work so hard to hold together her unique and unprecedented place.


Published in: on October 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Eric Brighteyes

H. Rider Haggard — best known for his adventure tales set in Africa, like King Solomon’s Mines and She — wrote one of, if not the first, modern English sagas in the Icelandic model. (William Morris’ House of the Wolfings was published at about the same time, from I’ve read so far it also models itself on the Icelandic saga, though it is set in earlier times.)

Haggard wrote this shortly after a visit to Iceland, and he did his best to incorporate the best of the sagas — poetic descriptions of landscapes, seascapes, and battle, clever word-play and dialogue, and above all the muscular paganism of the Viking world — while leaving out the most tedious part (long catalogs of lineages and digressions about minor characters). So this is a lot more accessible than similar works like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the strong or Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s saga — both of which are excellent in their ways and worth reading too!

Haggard’s hero is a fairly typical type of saga hero: brave and honorable, strong and handsome, and doomed by tragic character flaws and choices. The story has a fairly simple set-up: two half-sisters both love the hero, and his choice between them causes the scorned sister to wreak a drawn-out, perfidious revenge.

Along the way Eric fights a berserker, makes powerful enemies who have him outlawed, and sets sail on a viking expedition where he joins the court of an English king. His fights against warriors, witchcraft, and the deadly forces of nature at land and sea, and eventually returns to Iceland to face his destiny.


The pacing and action are excellent, and his slightly archaic language evoke the sagas well. The plot details all feel appropriate to the genre, but are also inventive and don’t just copy the sources. The elements of magic and mysticism are also appropriate, and reminded me of the more fantastic sagas like Grettrs Saga.

I listened to a dramatic reading of this via LibriVox, and the reader’s enthusiasm for the story made it an especially good LibriVox recording, though some of the voicing, especially for the female characters, was unintentionally funny.

So the above is what I posted to for my review.  But what use is this book for D&D?

If you’re looking for ideas for use in a Vikings type campaign, there’s plenty of grist, of course, in terms of interesting places and events you could incorporate into a game, as well as names — Haggard does not fall into the all-too-common trap of using only stereotypical Norse names (Thorsson, Thorssonsson, etc.).  A number of characters are Finnish, and have distinctively non-Norse names; others just have very usual sounding names like Ospakar and Gizur — which are actually names from the Edda and so forth.  Haggard manages to pack in just about every trope you could ask for in a Viking saga: revenge killings, ‘holmgang’ duels, a wrestling match, berserkers, the Allthing, a doom-ring, chases and battles at sea, snow storms, outlawry, thralldom is inflicted, oaths are taken and broken, rune-reading, names and -nymics are bestowed, barrows robbed, a hall is nearly burnt, and on and on.  It is in fact a checklist of just about every interesting plot device you find the sagas, though in many cases Haggard uses them inventively.

The magical elements of the story are confined to a few spells/potions (a love potion, a fast-acting poison, a sleep spell, and a pact with a demon that causes a shipwreck) as well as numerous visions and foretellings (the introduction dryly notes that such things would probably be interpolations by later writers/editors of the legends), the occasional appearance of a familiar or and a magic/cursed sword.  An arresting event early on involves a severed head prophesying doom to the one who slew the owner, but for the most part magic is furtive, “off-screen,” and open to interpretation, so there is really nothing you couldn’t equally well steal for a game in a purely historical setting.

I found myself wondering too whether Tolkien had read this novel, or if it is a case of both Haggard and Tolkien using similar sources, because many events and characters could have walked right out of Middle Earth.  (The more I read stuff like Haggard, William Morris, and the like, the less original Tolkien’s work seems to me…or rather what is distinctively Tolkien’s is less interesting than the common sources they share.)

Anyway Eric Brighteyes is well worth a look!

Published in: on July 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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