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April 2018

Books in March 2018

The Sword, The Crown and the Unspeakable Power (Todd N. & Tom J.)
This was an RPG I backed indirectly last year on Kickstarter thanks to Steve Ellis pulling together a group order. It promised a ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ engined game aimed to create the kind of power politicking seen in Game of Thrones, as endorsed by Niccolò Machiavelli. On an initial read through, it may well have achieved that aim. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the playing, and unfortunately this arrived too late for me to try at Revelation 2018.

The default setting is the traditional western world take on fantasy, but there are notes on using other settings and mythologies. Playbooks have a variety of archetypes who can be common or elite, and may be patrons or agents of others. You can be Crown in this game, but it does expose you nicely. The initial play defines mythology and also who controls what resource. Some moves are powered by spending your honor (effectively a stat that shows your reputation with the faction to whom you are aligned). Each character will have a faction (which may not entirely overlap with their core activities).The Unspeakable Power is magic, from whatever source it comes from.

The game is definitely PVP, across all areas (social and physical) and there is guidance for making sure that the players are all comfortable with this. The X-card gets a run out, as do lines and veils. As one of the playbooks is effectively the Palace Torturer, this is probably a good thing. In conclusion, on initial read this is one of those games that makes me want to get it to the table. I hope it delivers.

Alice (Christina Henry)
I’d seen this book on Amazon a while ago, and had dropped it on my wish list to pick up at some point. When I saw it on the daily deal for Kindle, I snagged a copy straight away. I’m really glad that I did. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is one of those books which I read, repeatedly, at a young age. Partly because it was one of the few books suitable for me at my grandparent’s house, but I enjoyed the story as well, especially the clever dark edges to it as reality turns out to be something different to what you expected.

Christina Henry’s take on this is delicious. Alice is locked up in an asylum after a terrifying experience with the Rabbit and more. Her next door cell-mate is Hatcher, an insane murderer who becomes her friend. Events ensue that leads to them escaping the asylum, and heading off to seek revenge on the Rabbit and find Hatcher’s family. They travel deep into the Old City, a dystopian urban nightmare of competing gangs, violence and abuse run by bosses like the Rabbit and the Caterpillar. Although the magicians were banished from both the Old and New City years ago, magic remains, and the Jabberwocky is stalking Hatcher.

I really enjoyed this book; there’s an energy to it, and a darkness that pulls you on. It’s not a nice book; violence and abuse are everyday events in the Old City and both of the protagonists are broken and quite brutal when provoked. If anything, this is partly a journey of them finding what remains of their humanity. I really enjoyed this book, and found it hard to put down.

The Red Queen (Christina Henry)
Having finished Alice, I immediately bought the sequel. Rather than being an urban dystopian nightmare of gang violence, this book is a quest. Hatcher and Alice travel beyond the City to try and find Hatch’s daughter, entering the lands of the White Queen and Black King.

This is not as strong a book as the first novel, as it is far more traditionally linear, more conforming to classical fairy tales. What happens is far less of a surprise and less twisted than the first book. That said, it was satisfying and enjoyable, and I’d love to see more in this setting.

Elysium Fire (Alastair Reynolds)

A new Alastair Reynolds story is always something to look forward to. A story set in the Revelation Space universe even more so. This tale is set in the Yellowstone system (featured in Chasm City, The Prefect (now Aurora) and more), at the height of the Glitter Band. The character Prefect Dreyfus is, once again, at the heart of the story (although it’s more of an ensemble piece with his team this time), and Panoply tries to prevent an existential threat to society whilst dealing with agitation from member communities to secede. I guessed part of the reveal towards the end but not the whole thing. I’m hoping that there are more books about Dreyfus and colleagues.

The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher)
I picked this up on impulse; it’s the late and sadly missed Carrie Fisher’s diaries from the filming of Star Wars. The more recent commentary has a lovely, relaxed, almost conversational tone. This is the book where she revealed the truth about ‘Carrison’ as she called the relationship between her and Harrison Ford.

Notes from the Upside Down (Guy Adams)
This was prep for running the Delta Green/Stranger Things mash-up I have planned for North Star in late April. Best reviewed of the various ‘Unofficial Guides’, this seems to be more focussed around the influences on the show rather than the show itself. It’s fair to say that I’ve learnt a lot about John Carpenter, Stephen King and media trivia from the Eighties, but I’m not convinced that I got out of this what I was looking for in terms of material to plumb. Certainly an interesting read.

The Reservoir Tapes (Jon McGregor)
I picked up the novel of the BBC Radio 4 series written by Jon McGregor. It’s an interesting concept. The author describes it as a ‘who dun-what’ rather than a ‘who dun nit’. There are 15 different points of view, supposedly from interviews by a reporter, all about the disappearance of a 13 year old girl while on holiday in a small village in Derbyshire. The book is quite literally the script for the BBC version (which can be downloaded as I write this), and each chapter is an episode. I was hooked from the first interview, which takes the form of an overheard conversation. I have picked up the linked novel Reservoir 13 to read later. It has to be said that I really enjoyed McGregor’s first novel – “If no-one speaks of remarkable things” – but somehow missed the work that he has done since. Something that I need to remedy.

Stranger Things - The Companion (Nick Blake)

A very concise and focused overview of both series of Stranger Things which was much more what I was looking for, yet still managed to cover many of cultural references that Notes from the Upside Down focussed on. Think of this as the gruff Northern version, not wasting its words yet providing more information in a more easily usable state. That said, it didn’t have the edge of dry humour and wit that its competitor had, but it also lacked the many digressions. I preferred this book.