Tuesday, September 6, 2011

American Gods: 10th Anniversary Edition

  The lights went out, and Shadow saw the Gods

And, while it took me almost three weeks to savor and get the taste of The Magicians out of my mouth, here we are now, with a book that is the exact opposite: Sweet, genuinely heartbreaking, and filled with plotlines that actually make sense.

I first ran into American Gods in the throes of my Neil Gaiman fanboy period. It was kind of nice, finding out one of my favorite authors and the one I liked the most at the time had a new book out for me, and naturally I reserved the one copy the library had (it wasn't like he had the rock star levels of fame he has now, so it was easy to get) and got around to reading it.
 I didn't finish it, sadly, because it was long and my attention span was too short, and I got the non-specific feeling that everything was going to crash and burn. I usually get the feeling whenever I'm watching a movie, so maybe there are certain emotional cues involved, but I can always tell when things are about to go belly-up. About a year later, I went back, read it all the way through, and finished it. And surprisingly, the first time around, I hated it.

  I think it has something to do with the time and place. At the time, I'd wanted something optimistic, much like Gaiman's other works, and American Gods just didn't strike me as such. It's very bleak in places and overwhelmingly dark: In the most infamous scene (two chapters in, despite what anyone would care to tell you otherwise), a man is eaten alive in an unsettling manner by a goddess, telling her all the while that he worships her. So I decried the book to those who'd listen and put it down for a while, hating that it ended on such a down note.
Ten years later, at Book Expo America, I happened upon the book again. This time, the copy was touted as "The Author's Preferred Text" and "Tenth Anniversary Edition". Given that this was getting an anniversary edition and not the (in my opinion) highly-superior Neverwhere or his other books, my interest was piqued. So, a few months later, when I had the money, I bought my own personal copy of it. And this time, unlike last time, I was blown away.
American Gods is the story of Shadow, a man released from prison after an assault charge, who finds himself pressed into service by Mr. Wednesday, a one-eyed con man who needs a driver and extra pair of hands for a journey across the country. Shadow, whose wife and employer died in a hideous (and strangely convenient) car wreck, readily accepts and finds himself drawn into a fight he cannot possibly comprehend between the old gods drawn to America by the immigrants, and the new gods of media, technology, and other such powers. But there's something else going on, something sinister beneath every surface, and Shadow will have to figure out what it is before it consumes everything.

 Honestly, I'm not sure if the extra twelve thousand words made a difference, or if it's just that I've mellowed out considerably since high school. In either case, the book's plot actually managed to stump me the first time I read it. The clues are all there, of course, but the twist at the end is honestly kind of surprising. The plotting is slow at first, but picks up quickly as the chapters go on, setting the scene for a rather bizarre and unexpected yet completely original ending. While there are places that stop dead, they seem more like needed background and side-stories, detailing Shadow's downtime in between Wednesday's jobs.
The characters are bright and colorful, with cameos from at least one or two of Gaiman's other works. Shadow is believable as a hero because he loses almost constantly and is completely out of his depth until the very end of the story. Most of Wednesday's mystery isn't revealed all at once, leaving him just as unsettling at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. Most of all, though, it's that these characters seem to inhabit the world. They're real. They have their motivations and wants, needs and hidden agendas, all of it colliding quite well. Mr. Wednesday is an especially well-drawn character, as he seems perfectly affable, but every step of the way, one can question his motives and wonder what he's really about. Finally, Laura, the character whose description I can't mention much (because just calling her by name is a minor spoiler) is almost heartbreaking in her arc, from the moment she's introduced to her final lines in the novel. It's someone you sympathize with, and also someone who you want to see more of.

 And finally, the setting is very well plotted out. In his introduction, Gaiman said he tried hard not to write about anywhere he hadn't been, and it shows in spades. The setting is very vivid, and while not quite truly American, it is true enough to the version of America we all tell ourselves exists, the Ray Bradbury America. The America where things hurt and there is sadness, but there's also a lot of good, everything is beautiful in its own way, and there's a strange kind of magic to the proceedings. In other words, the fun America.  
In fact, this seems to be doing what Grossman tried and failed so catastrophically to do. American Gods takes the stories of magic and strangeness, those oh-so-quintessentially American stories from the likes of Ray Bradbury or Matt Ruff, or even Michael Chabon's Summerland, and shows us what happens when the gods and their champions grow up and realize that while the world's magic, it's got a dark side as well as a light-- some of those talking animals tell you to fuck yourself and people do die. Sometimes, they don't even come back to life. Sometimes, it's even better that they don't. American Gods presents a bleaker (but still beautiful, still magical) America than the thousand magical realism books that have come before it, and in the end, while it's still pretty dark, there's a lot of hope.

However, in the interest of objectivity, I have to throw out some points that the book is weak on, and really only one segment comes to mind: "My Ainsel". In this segment, Shadow stays in a small town somewhere in the Northern Midwest, and the story switches tone from a road story to a small-town fantasy somewhere along the lines of Stephen King. And starts that small-town dark fantasy from the beginning. While the stories tie together in interesting ways and eventually leads to a nice neat ending for everything (well, except for Shadow, but he's not too bad off either), the energy of the book and indeed the tone change completely, and one begins to wonder when the hell Mr. Gaiman is going to get back to the plot in progress and on with the show.

But this is a minor quibble. American Gods is a beautiful book, beautiful in that it's all the things one could want at once-- humorous, sad, heartbreaking, frightening, and wonderful. You should own this book. You want to own this book. It's the one book to have won all kinds of literary prizes and still actually be good. That alone means you are obligated to read it. So please, buy the new edition of this book. You will enjoy it. I promise.

Next time: 20th Century Ghosts
And after that: The Sheriff of Yrnameer

The Magicians

 "He's trying to use the Neitherlands to get to Middle Earth. I think he wants to be the first man to have sex with an elf." 
- Janice

   I should immediately point out that I am a fan of classic children's fantasy literature. I've read Harry Potter more times than I can count, once read my sisterThe Hobbit because my dad was working and she needed a bedtime story, hell, I still have a soft spot in my heart for E. Nesbitt, she of The Enchanted Castle andFive Children and It. All of these are lovely books, though a little stilted and of course weathered by time. They've aged well, but even something that's aged well will still show its age in spots. The reason that I point this out is mainly becauseThe Magicians by Lev Grossman appears to hate me. Which is fine by me, because I hate it right back.

Oh yes, dear reader, it's another one of those kinds of reviews.

I found this book through rather interesting channels. When it came out not two years ago, it was well-lauded by the press and poised to become a classic in its own right. As it had been called one of the best fantasy novels of a rather strange and twisted year in my life, naturally, I had to read it. That first time, the book defeated me utterly. I simply couldn't finish it. I found it boring, the characters apathetic, and the plot in general mostly a pointless framework for the author's sneering disdain. However, at BEA, I was "delighted" to find out (in an event I later blocked from memory because of how this book affected me) that Mr. Grossman wrote a sequel, to be published in august, called The Magician King. When I finally remembered the book months later, I remembered only how bad I thought it was, and wondered why it (much like Mr. Mann's efforts are getting a sequel) would have ever made it past the first book.

  With a renewed sense of purpose, I set out to my local library in search of a copy of The Magicians, determined to get through it and look at it from a less-biased viewpoint for the purposes of review. I sat down and read, and read, and read some more, taking two weeks to finish the book and finally come to some kind of conclusion. And my conclusion is thus:
This is the most intelligently-written pile of twaddle masquerading as a book that this site will ever have to review. Possibly until the sequel.

 The problem, of course, is not the quality, but the content therein. For the most part, it's a viciously stupid book, one which has decided upon a campaign of deconstruction and pursues it so doggedly that at times it rivaled its fellows in the deconstructionist fantasy movement for sheer unsubtlety and lack of taste. It does show brief signs of brilliance and potential-- the idea of post-college mages living out a Bret Easton Ellis-style drugs-partying-drinking-sex "I love this oh god I'm empty inside and destroy everything good I know" existence is an idea whose time, I believe, has come, especially now with the final rose being laid on the bier of the Harry Potter series-- but most often, it falls flat. The point it appears to be trying to make (and it's possible I missed the point, but given the quality and tone of the book, I don't care) is that the reality of all these fantasy worlds is a lot darker and nastier than the children's books we grew up with would allow us to believe. That it tries to get this done with loathsome characterization, sequences of events so far apart in their establishment that it almost seems like everything comes out of nowhere, and other, equally glaring faults.

The Magicians starts with Quentin Coldwater vanishing a nickel in a sleight of hand trick. He and his two friends, James and Julia, are going to an interviewer to see about a spot at Princeton. When he and James finally arrive at the interview, the interviewer is dead, Quentin grabs a mysterious folder with a book by one of his favorite authors in it, and receives an invitation to Brakebills College. Following the invitation, he finds himself in a summer garden. From there, the story follows Quentin from school to that time after school, and finally into the land of Fillory, a land from his favorite book series, though one that has not remained static with the passage of time. Quentin will lose friends, grow as a person, and finally realize who he is before the end, and all of it will take a lot out of him.

Well, in theory, anyway. Quentin is the kind of privileged, overachieving shit you always hated to be around in high school, the kid to whom Ivy League status was a foregone conclusion, who passed every test and couldn't afford to be friends with many people because he had his future to think about. He doesn't grow through the book so much as he just sort of shuffles from one scene to the next, often with bitter comments and empty displays of emotion. The book is set up so in places he succeeds almost in spite of himself-- to get into Brakebills, he has to pass the AP exam from Hell, all the magic is based on studying and repeating over and over again, he passes easily through the grades within a few months instead of a few years...the only time he's really challenged is in the last third of the book, and even then, that's only because the author stops writing challenges tailored to him and puts him in the frame of a traditional fantasy.

A problem that goes hand in hand with this one is that the main conflict is internal. Now, I've had no problems with internal conflicts in the past, Richard Kadrey's work is rife with them and one of my favorite books, The Neverending Story has this as the very central conflict. But here, it's Quentin wrestling with questions everyone else, up to and including the reader, already know the answers to. And when he engages in self-sabotage, it doesn't feel like there's anything attached. Some pretentious idiots have attempted to say "but you're feeling what he's feeling!" And the answer to that is no. In fact, utilising my law of precision F strike for reviews,fuck no. If I were feeling what Mr. Grossman insists I feel, I'd put a bullet right through my own eye, like the hero in a (not much) better Harlan Ellison story. Not a single thing Quentin does applies to any particular identifiable logic, save for maybe the denouement, which I'll get to.

Moving to another track, however, we come to the fact that the book openly insults any lover of fantasy fiction who decides to read it. At first it's merely the mocking tone and the overly-technical nature of magic, saying something to the effect of "What, you thought it was going to be easier than this?" as its academically-focused heroes go through complex hand gestures.
But then comes Welters. And the mocking and sneering Mr. Grossman decides he is done with the earlier, subtle mummery and decides to drop it entirely.

And oh, dear reader, you will wish he hadn't. Welters, you see, is a deconstruction of many magical games, most notably Quidditch*. Unlike those games, however, you never get to know the rules (except that they're stupid and they involve capturing squares on a board, and that there's a ball), everyone openly declares that the game is "stupid and pointless", and they play multiple games of it. In a further deconstruction of the trope, the Physical Kids (the book's heroes, named such because they study the physical discipline of mag-- y'know what? Screw it. Not important) lose several matches. However, in one particular scene, a drugged-out student makes derisive comments about "gotta get in my Quidditch robes" and something about "I don't suppose you have a time turner?" which caused me to put a dent in my wall across the room from where I read. Thankfully, the book was spared from further abuse due to my enduring love of the Metuchen Public Library, whom I would have to pay. That Mr. Grossman stooped to openly attacking his targets is lazy, and in fact not even amusingly unsubtle. There are ways to attack one's subjects, and then there are rudimentary methods loved by only the most zealous and pretentious. Such as Mr. Grossman, who places his literary significance above authors of a higher quality and skill.
And this tone doesn't change at all. In fact, the character of Josh seems to be there simply as a mouthpiece for how much every classic fantasy novel sucks, where the character of Quentin is supposed to herald some kind of new deconstructionist hero and a third character, and obligatory love interest named Alice is meant to hew to how the books traditionally work, which of course means she gets killed in a final confrontation with the slightly newer kind of villain. Spoilers be damned, if you made it this far through the review, you're probably only reading the book out of morbid curiosity anyway.

And as a final point, a final capstone, plot elements are called back to in a random fashion. I paid attention to the book, reading it over the course of a week (I could only do it in small doses. You will forgive my failings or at least understand that they come with great intestinal fortitude), and I still couldn't tell where some of the elements that everyone seemed to know about came from until I recalled earlier portions of the book, then went back and read through them. If Chekhov's Gun is the rule that if you have a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it will be fired in the third; Grossman's Gun** is the gun that is unloaded, uncocked, and left in a locked drawer offstage during the first act, only to suddenly go off and blow someone's head off in the third after all and sundry have forgotten it. It makes no narrative sense, and the callbacks are annoying, not informative to the plot.

However, despite this, there is some light. The book is astonishingly well-written, the characters do tend to have their own voices, and the descriptions are top-notch. This would actually be a good book if the characterization and indeed the plot weren't such steaming piles of absolute and complete garbage. As for the denouement (I told you I'd get back to it...might be my own little Grossman's Gun there, but it's there), it's the one part of the book I liked. It's sweet, even if it recalls characters who have had no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and it's a nice few passages where things are almost put back into balance for the horrid book that came before it. Almost. In it, Quentin almost appears human, and while Josh gets another moment about how lame all fantasy novels are, it does end things on a little beautiful note.

And then you realize the book has a sequel, which destroys the impact of the ending a little.
So in conclusion, I cannot recommend this book. Ever. To anyone. I do know there are people out there, literary hipsters, let's call them, who will read this and enjoy it. Good for them. For anyone who actually enjoys reading, however, give this book a pass.

Next time:
American Gods
Please, God, anything but this again

* A word which still has not appeared in my spellcheck menu, which both gives me hope and a bit of sadness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I am...who?

Isaac Dian, the character I played.
       I look over the tables again and frown. I'm probably running out of time, and I need to figure out who the hell I am. Taped to each table is a typed sheet listing available characters for the AnimeNEXT Live-Action Roleplay, and I still don't know what I'm going to do. Part of this is due to my not knowing very many anime to begin with. Part of it is also due to about half of the anime and manga I do have a familiarity with being outside the PG-13 guidelines of the roleplay. Finally, I take a step back and think about this, then decide on a thief character, Isaac Dian. I register my decision to the moderators, find a room full of people, and wait nervously for everything to start.

       Perhaps I should back up and explain. This actually starts on a humid Thursday evening when I decided to write for a while. There was a thunderstorm coming in, and I love the feel of humid air, so I went out to fill up my lighter and maybe bang out a few passages in the meantime. My friend Dave, who for five years has been pretty much the other half of a rather awesome duo, messages me and asks if he can hang out at my house. Since Dave lives in Philadelphia, I am more than okay with him dropping by. I would, however, like to know what he would be doing in my neck of the woods. As it turns out, he wants to go to AnimeNEXT, a convention for the tri-state area held just fifteen minutes away from my house by car. I figure I can bang a nice article out about my experiences, and also, it's a con (which I've never done before), so I tell him sure. After a small caveat that he's going to do certain things in particular, he starts trying to sell me on the LARP. I manage to wave him off for the time being and get things ready for the next day, making sure the Hawaiian shirt I wear for covering events is out and that I have enough money to actually do this.

      We head to the convention mere minutes after I pick him up from the train station, and he continues his hard sell once we're all registered and looking around for stuff. I'm a mixture of surprised and annoyed at all of this. I don't do live-action games. Live-Action Roleplay, or LARP, is considered in tabletop gaming circles as “that thing geekier than us” for the most part. While there is overlap, there's also a certain sense of, “No, of course we don't run around in the forest pretending to be elves. But sitting around a table pretending to be elves, rolling oddly-shaped bits of plastic, and constantly doing addition are perfectly okay.” Yeah, I'm well aware of the hypocrisy in that statement. So Dave keeps his hard sell up for a while, alternating between telling me how much I should do this and telling me everything his character did from an earlier roleplay at Zenkaikon, another event. Finally, I can't take it any more and decide he's worn me down. I'll go see what this is all about.

      “All right, already. I'll at least give it a look. It can't hurt to look.”

     And apparently this seemed to pacify him for about ten seconds. Since I didn't know what else was around, and I said I'd take a look, I followed him into the LARP room and took a seat near the back for the opening presentation. And just like that, I'm already curious enough to play. The whole vibe of the room is very welcoming, and these people seem less like complete strangers (which, let's face it, at this point they are), and more just like people I hadn't met yet but really should. It's like walking into a room entirely filled with ten percenters1. The opening demonstration has the same tones of any opening, but at the same time, it's really, really informal, which I'm not used to. Rules discussions usually aren't this low-key, or this nice. Furthermore, it appears my fear of having to wear a costume or some such thing is completely unfounded and the LARP is very low-key, which I enjoy. All of this just convinces me that I should really, really stick around, so I do. I have a few ideas on who to play, anyway, thinking that I can just pick anybody. These picks may or may not have been influenced by Dave leaning over to me and muttering, “At Zenkaikon LARP, we had the largest number of kills on record.”, and the moderator leading the discussion saying “And if you get killed, remember, it's no big deal.”
       While I understand death is part of it, I don't want to make it easy for anyone to kill off whoever I play. Which brings me back to where we started-- me looking at the list of playable characters and deciding on Isaac. Once I get the sheet, it seems like very little time passes before we get started and the opening narration happens. I try to pay attention to everything, but there's a little too much to take in. I try to focus by asking myself what my character would do. That does me no good, because Isaac would probably steal everything not nailed down, and start working on a plan to steal the massive TVs giving the player characters the opening narration. So for the moment, I wait patiently. The moderators finish their narration, and we're free to go interact with each other and work out our various plots and counterplots.
The LARP is contained in four rooms-- one for the moderators, and three for the players and the various scenes. For a while, I hang around, awkwardly interacting in character with the various other people who I was sure I would click with but now am having trouble approaching. 

After a sheepish look to Dave, he leans over.
“Sam, you're playing a thief. Steal something!”
“Go to the moderators. Tell them you're going to steal something.”

     After a moment's thought, I walk into the moderator's room. “I'm stealing a booth from the merchant's guild.” I tell them. “I'm dressing up as the Grim Reaper and stealing a merchant's purpose.”
     There is a brief rules discussion over how this would work, and after a few moments of talk including the phrase “You're Isaac, of course you would do this.”, they reach a decision.

“Congratulations, you now own a booth in the Merchant's Guild.”
“Really. Are you just stuffing it in a bag?”

“Sure, why not?”

This would, unbeknownst to me, set the tone for more than a few of my interactions throughout the game session.

       After thanking them, I leave and go back to the other game rooms. I'm new, so in my fervor to interact, I accidentally barge into a few scenes. Eventually, I figure out that if I hang out in certain “open” areas, then most of my interactions are okay. Somehow, despite my shyness and weirdness around strangers, I start to get the hang of this. It's only helped by my finding a woman named Jess playing a character from the same universe as Isaac, an alchemist named Maiza. Instantly, I latch on to her like a remora on to a shark, she brings me into the group she's a part of, and just like that, I'm off and running, acting as a member of the group she's a part of. Things move in a blur after that, from one scene to the next, me trying to hold on as best I can while events are set in motion around me.
      By the time I have to leave at nine that evening, I'm hooked, possibly for life. I'm figuring out my next moves, tossing out lines, doing a voice (I kind of think of him as bombastic and sounding like a suave hero with no indoor voice, so I do that), participating in dungeon crawls, and every so often going back into the moderator room to steal more things. Just before I leave, I have Isaac steal “energy from the gods” (okay, so he cuts power to the in-universe news service the mods are using for exposition...while wearing a bucket on his head...) and then run off cackling maniacally. I'm already working out plans for the next day, things like Isaac stealing “The future” (all the technology he doesn't understand), and a few other strange ideas here and there. Dave and I make it back home, watch a few episodes of Baccano!, the anime Isaac comes from (me for research, him because he'd never seen it before), and crash into bed, all ready to have at it bright and early the next morning.
       Saturday sees me off to a slow start. My brother, Ben, is with us for the day, and I'm not nearly the hard-sell Dave is. Because I can't figure out what we can do together, Ben wanders off and I'm thrown off for a little bit at first. I'm torn. I desperately want to go back to those four rooms, back to playing Isaac and the people I met...somehow, while I don't know many of their names, and we only met when we were in character for the most part, I felt like I connected on some level with them, and they with me. I spend most of the day with Ben. At his urging, I buy a T-shirt and wear it under the Hawaiian shirt that serves as my journalism shirt. When I get back to the rooms, I notice everyone's in a session. This makes me a little nervous, but I carry it off well. As it turns out, everyone is currently in a scene, leaving me in the hallway.
     I am alone. However, I am not out of things. While I'm milling around, one of the moderators comes by to tell me that due to the current crisis in game, Isaac is currently very, very unwell and losing health and energy at a steady rate. It is here where I unintentionally put a very complex and improvised plan into order, one that would echo throughout the rest of my time in game. When Dave comes by, sees me in the hallway, and once again tells me to steal something, I decide to move my timetable up a little and make my epic theft of the night a little earlier than usual. I stride into the GM's office, head held high, and announce,

“I'm dressing up in a black cloak and pumpkin mask, going to the merchant's guild and I'm STEALING THE FUTURE! Anything more technologically advanced than the 1930s, and it goes into the bag.”

      There's a moment of silence from the moderator in the office, and then he checks my sheet and nods. Isaac gets a bag full of future tech, and I go out to the hallway again to await my impending doom. I start up a conversation with another player who's been in and out during the day, though for different reasons. As we sit in the hallway and bullshit, I can hear what sounds like a two-group PVP going on as moderators go from one room to the other, working things out. Briefly, I try to dynamic-entry my way in with a teleport pad, but there's no way. After a quick chat with my newfound hallway buddy, it turns out his fiancee is playing a healer, something which gives me some amount of hope that Isaac can beat the condition slowly killing him.
    After a quick question to the moderator about healing (as it turns out, Isaac can't heal the way he normally would due to immortality, but he can be healed), it dawns on me that I probably have some medical items, items I quickly put into use, thus beating the GM crisis condition all on my own. While my character is being healed, the game takes a quick break for dinner and GM resting. In between, I have apparently gained a reputation as a magnificent bastard in this little subculture for my stunt. While this appears normal for people playing my character, it is still pretty darn cool.
      Once dinner has finished, the big moments wind down more. There are a few duels I don't take part in, two people have their characters sort of ascend to a higher plane of existence, and I'm involved in a plot to help the woman playing Maiza bring back yet another person from the Baccano! Universe. It doesn't work, but enough headway is made to both satisfy the player, and at the same time, keep the scene from dragging out. Most of the time is spent in a sort of temporary autonomous zone, where a bunch of people sit around talking out of character. This is a common occurrence whenever enough people are out of a scene, though it seemed to happen most on Friday and least on Sunday, the reverse of how I expected it might.
     The night closes with me having stolen a decent-sized drill robot (which dances!) and a sonic screwdriver, which Isaac points at everything and activates, causing both consternation and amusement when he does so. The moderators shoo us out of the LARP rooms with a cry of “You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here any more.” Dave and I leave and get a cab. Outside the hotel where the convention is, things are still lively and the first hints of stragglers are leaving. Two fellow LARPers chat for a little outside about the game, and conventions, and a few other things before they go back to their room to pass out. We get into the cab with a couple bound for New York for their train, when they're informed they can't get there in time. The whole ride home, I wonder if they made out okay. I hope they did. Dave and I spend until three in the morning doing very little but taking a lot of time to do it.

      Sunday comes and the convention hall feels strangely empty when we arrive. There's a sort of quiet air to it...no longer are people hawking things at the front entrance, costumed characters mill around still, but there are less of them now that people no longer need their elaborate cosplays. The hotel's lobby is slowly filling up with baggage, all of it in neat, orderly lines near the entrance. No desperation or nervousness, just...acceptance. The feeling of “Yes, this is all ending. We all knew it was coming, now let's all go.” Even where there are loads of people milling around, somehow it still feels empty. Like the magic is leaving, if it hasn't left completely.
       In the LARP rooms, things are off to a slow start. People gently trickle in, all of us out of play for the time being. There are donuts and other snacks brought in, and the tone, while informal as usual, carries some other kind of weight to it. In one of the rooms, I confess my fears to another player I've had no in-character interactions with. I'm afraid that on today, the grand finale day, the all-or-nothing in game day, I will run out of awesome things to think up. The young lady reassures me that I'll think of something, I respond with self-deprecating humor, and that's the end of that until game time.
      When game time rolls around, people split off into groups and prepare for the final battle. My team is put into a police car, an item whose stats include a durability rating of “one scene”. We're to be part of the “ground team”, the group bringing about the end game. However, as audacious as I can possibly be, my mind is currently blank. While there isn't much I can do, other than wait for the scene to start, it's still worrying. Finally, my part of things begins, and I get very, very nervous, wondering what it is I'm going to do.
      As it turns out, drive the car and not much else is what I'm going to do. I do pull off a wonderful job as wheelman for our four-man crew, getting us down a long stretch, followed by Isaac successfully pulling off a windshield cannon (in a pirate outfit, no less). The four of us successfully drop the defenses and allow the other group to run rampant through the base, and I use a (single-use) jetpack from the bag of future to drop us into that scene. From there, both the ground team and the people left outside during the attack launch a final assault on the machine driving the plot, hoping to take it down and end the scenario cold.
I wind up in the group taking the machine down in what seems like a race between the varied groups-- everyone is trying to reach the end of the hallway, destroy the machine, and rescue whoever we can. Sadly, my bag of tricks is used up (though I did think of trying to ride explosive decompression down the hallway to the machine using a massive sack as a sail...sadly, an aborted attempt), though I feel I do what I can to help out. Whatever mojo I had, though, appears to be lost the same way the tight, magical energy of the convention has started to go. Finally, the machine is destroyed, and after several people (my own fumbling and feeble attempt included) make our way through the epilogue, the game ends with a curtain call for the moderators, an award for the best roleplayer (a young lady who managed to pull of a high-energy character for the entire LARP and remain in character just about every time I saw her, so well-deserved) and a few plugs for upcoming LARPS, all of which I consider. Then, after that, it's time for the Long Farewell.
       If you've ever been in a big group, you know what the Long Farewell is. The process of saying goodbye is never a simple one, and when it's a big group of people and a lot of them want to say goodbye and thank you individually, well, you get the Long Farewell. When done at its most egregious, it can sometimes take an hour or more. I say my goodbyes with a series of handshakes and the occasional hug (and one rather cool jig/dance/thing), get Dave and remind him he has a train to catch, and reluctantly say goodbye to this world. A feeling of loss comes over me as I realize that I know none of these people outside of their characters and brief moments in the temporary autonomous zones, but I want to so badly. There's a brief discussion of future cons as I leave, and I hem and haw a little over them. After all, what if this was a one-time thing? What if all the mojo's gone for good?
The suitcases are all piled outside in the front lobby, our ride is on the way, and the magic is fully gone when we exit the hotel. We've still got the high, though, and can't stop talking about it, even if all we're saying is “If I only did this” or “I could have handled this better.” Somehow, a chance thing that I was partly dragged to has become one of the best experiences I've had. As we drive away from the hotel, now an echo of the high-energy, high-pressure gathering it once held, I turn that question over and over in my head...what if it was a one-time thing? Immediately, the thought is dismissed. Despite not really wanting to be one when I came in, and despite not quite knowing what I was doing, I am a LARPer. There will be other conventions, and I will be at them. I will most likely LARP at them, too. Though the time was short and we were all pretending to be someone else, I feel like I connected with a group of people I'd never connected with before. I'd do it again in an instant.

1 Referring to the theory (expounded most notably in the book Happy Hour is for Amateurs) that there are only ten percent of people in any given situation who are worth knowing, and that they're naturally drawn together by whatever forces exist in any social situation.

I hope you enjoyed the diversion from the normal program.

Next up: Lev Grossman's The Magicians

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Thief of Always

“I’ve heard a little good magic is always useful. Isn’t that right?" 
    - Mr. Swick
When I was twelve, my taste in books was driven by what I wasn’t allowed to read. It was a long list, as no one wants to be the parent who let their twelve year old kid read A Clockwork Orange, or even more unsettling work. But there were loopholes in the parental rulebook. Fun loopholes. Loopholes like authors they didn’t really know outside of maybe a few books here and there, or stuff I’d already read. At the time, R-rated movies and I were no stranger, so the rule felt a little weird, but there it was. And one of these loopholes was Clive Barker. This is, actually, the book that made me a Barker fanboy for a little while. I’ll get to the book that made me stop another day.
I discovered The Thief of Always on a spring day in the library at my middle school, a place where I was treated warily by the head librarian*. I was bored and wanted to find a new book, and somehow the name “Clive Barker” called to me. It may have been that I’d heard it before connected to horror movies of the decidedly weird kind. Or it may have been the Marvel Comics line in the early 90s, Clive Barker’s Razorline, which I always enjoyed. But no matter what it was, the author’s name and the blurb “a fairy tale for adults” on the back cover meant I walked out with the book and didn’t look back.
That was honestly one of the best decisions I made. The book took me a day and a half to read, and I was rapt all the way. When I was done, I took it back and then later took it out and read it again. The author illustrated it as well as writing it, and his creepy pen-and-ink drawings added something to the text, though it also outlined a glaring flaw I’ll get to later. The book is beautifully written, moves at a pace that seems leisurely yet almost too fast, and the emotions are genuine and evocative. This is a book that should be treasured somewhere, and it makes me sad when I realize I’ve only ever found three copies of it.
The Thief of Always is the story of young Harvey Swick, a boy who finds himself rather bored during the humdrum midwinter months and wishes for adventure and something interesting to happen. His prayers are answered by a small grinning man named Rictus who takes him to the magical Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a place where he can have whatever he wishes and the weather is always pleasant and perfect for the season. Winter mornings, summer afternoons, halloween nights, and Christmas evenings happen almost every day but fail to get boring, and no one children ever leave because it’s far too perfect. 
Except as you may have guessed, all is not perfect at the Holiday House, at least, not as much as it seems. There are horrors as well as delights (I’m not about to spoil them, but come on, you saw the “all is not perfect” thing coming a mile away because you are classy and intelligent people), and to survive them and escape the House intact, Harvey will have to call on all the power and cunning he can muster to confront Mr. Hood once and for all. 
What really makes the book succeed is the mood Barker sets for the piece. The tone is bright and cheery when it has to be, with notable touches of melancholy when it calls for it. Harvey is exposed to the idea of loss again and again as the book progresses, and each time, the world he inhabits grows noticeably darker and sadder. That isn’t to say it’s completely without its beauty, as even at its darkest, the Holiday House has a strange, alluring quality to it. But it’s the growing feeling of melancholy throughout the book that drives home the tone and the message in the story. This progression makes it easy to feel what Harvey feels, creating an easily identifiable hero— we know why he does what he does because we experience everything he experiences and understand why we’d do the same.
Another way the book shines is in its images. Not just the pen and ink drawings, but the descriptions. This book is description porn in the best way possible. Everything is described in detail, from the food in the kitchen to the heavily-wooded lake to the roof where the house’s more eccentric residents make their home. The drawings accompanying each chapter (and occasionally the text) further aid one to imagine the various sights and sounds, giving a better picture of the house and its inhabitants. Barker has a certain way with evoking images, and he puts it to work especially well here, showing us both the good and evil of what goes on.
The book should also be applauded for its sense of loss. This is a book, after all, about growing up and losing innocence, of losing friends and loved ones, of seeing them move on. Every death, loss, and sad event serves to turn Harvey into the more mature, more capable boy we see at the end from the perpetually bored and slightly-surly youth we see at the beginning. The Thief of Always is a book about taking back what someone steals from you and dealing with the losses you cannot fix. In the end, while the specter of adulthood and Harvey’s future loom uncertain on the horizon, he seems to have dealt with his misgivings and become a stronger, more confident person.
And finally, there is the characterization. In a remarkable change for a “fable” or “fairy tale”, particularly one that seems to find its way into collections for young readers, the motivations of the characters are actually just as important as the actual characters. In the end, it’s not so much that Harvey fights as why he fights— he’s fighting to save his friends, the people he loves, and even himself. He’s fighting to keep from losing everything he’s ever had, and that makes what he does, be it the final duel that closes the book or his storming the House in the final third of the novel, right. It’s odd to see this sort of thing in a fable where usually the character lines are clearly drawn, but that Harvey fully adopts his role as a “thief” or a “vampire” makes his choice to do good that much more meaningful.
However, there is a major flaw that must be discussed. Barker has very little sense of pacing. While the book moves quickly anyway, instead of the slow build and the eventual shocking revelations and the horror of things, he starts building the creepy right from the moment Harvey enters the house and just keeps building from there. For the most part, this is mainly my reaction to reading the book multiple times and knowing what lies in store, but I felt after rereading it for this review, that things got a little sinister too fast, with the obvious hints a little too obvious and the occasionally unfortunate events a little too constant. The illustrations were no help here, either, the most obvious being the Christmas tree with the monstrous grin about six or seven chapters in, and the cover of the hardcover edition, which features a nightmarish face grinning below a picture of the titular house.
In the end, though, the book should be forgiven for its pacing and spoiling of rhythm. Why? Because it’s a fantastic book. It moves quickly, creates an interesting atmosphere, and its visuals continue to haunt and tug at one long after the book is closed. The final struggle is a question of if, not why, and is much better because of it— the chance that Harvey won’t succeed makes the battle all that more important. This is a beautiful book you should know about already, and if you don’t, you have no excuse now not to go out and find your own copy. Read it once. Read it twice. Pass it on to anyone you think would like it. I love this book, I cannot say that enough, and everyone else should, too.
Next time:
- my LARPing article
- Stephen King
The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker, as well as others by him.
- The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman
* But less warily than my high school’s head librarians, who talked to my parents about me because they thought I was reading too much. No lie. Thankfully, they weren’t long for the school come Junior or Senior year.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Stranger Tides

"You used it up too fast."
- Benjamin Hurwood

Due to it being just as easy to post up here, I will be updating both the Tumblr and this simultaneously when I have a post. It's just neater for me.

Sweet Hell. That is all.

      Okay, maybe not all. As long-time readers of this blog may know, I am a Tim Powers fanboy for life. I've read his worst (the stable time looperiffic The Anubis Gates takes top prize, in my opinion), I've read his best, and I've read everything in between. And none of them-- that's right, a grand total of none of them knocked me on my ass the way On Stranger Tides did. I once said that a writer's job is done when he or she makes the reader feel anything at all, even revulsion. Not only has Tim Powers done that, he did it so well and so frequently that even at the book's most manipulative, I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. The man is a genius, and more importantly, a genius who continues to write to this very day. And this is easily one of his greatest works, one of the two best things I've ever read by him. The ripples it has made in pop-culture further cement it as a classic, and if I didn't own it myself, I would be kicking myself again and again.
      On Stranger Tides is the story of John Chandagnac, re-christened Jack Shandy after he was captured by a rather liberally-minded (and possibly anarcho-syndaclist) group of pirates crewed by a man named Phil Davies. Shandy is on the trail of his uncle, the nefarious Sebastian, who ruined both his life and his father's. Soon, he finds himself embroiled in sorcerer's duels, reincarnating pirates, zombies, voodoo curses, and the Fountain of Youth. To survive and rescue the woman he loves from her vile personal physician and other evil forces, Shandy must survive all these things, win a duel with Blackbeard, and contend with powers beyond human control or understanding. And all of it is fantastic.
Part of what makes it so fantastic is Powers' copious research into his topics. From very early on, he makes it clear that he's done all the research he can on large sailing ships, voodoo, and the politics of the Caribbean area. None of it feels rushed or handwaved, and all of it is very, very authentic-feeling, even when it's fictitious or the details are fudged. Powers also handily sidesteps the problem of having historical characters interact in his universe by way of the copious research. I never had time to think "But Blackbeard never acted like that..." because between the realism of the setting and the way the characters act, there's really very little room for doubt. 
       Another area with very little room for doubt is the characterization. All the characters are very three-dimensional, partly because Powers understands that it's not enough to have one's characters do things because they're good, or evil, but important to understand the why of their reasonings. Shandy may be one of the heroes, but he is forced, both by Davies and by his love for the book's romantic interest to occasionally do terrible things, to the point that he no longer recognizes himself. Davies may be a dashing pirate, but he's also a brutal murderer, because that's what he has to do to survive. One of the book's major villains performs actions that border on mind rape and are definitely unconscionable, but by understanding his motivation and the point that he's reached, you understand a little more of why he felt it was necessary, making him a more effective villain by showing that he'd reached that point (trying to resurrect his dead wife). 
       The magic in On Stranger Tides is also handled fairly well. Instead of "this is power over everything", it's a more practical approach-- eternal life means magical postponement/reincarnation (a common theme in Powers' work), rituals handle things instead of incantations and handwaving (though the minor spells are that), and everything is geared towards asking the loas, or gods politely "Could I please bend the rules of reality?" While there are a few exceptions (Blackbeard being a big one, the sorcerer's duel with Friend being another), most of the magic is very low-key...people gesturing a little, or tossing a ball of dirt into the air, or saying the proper rhyme. Because it isn't a high-magic setting, this also helps keep it believable and all the characters nicely grounded. 
And lastly, the book has a remarkable sense of humor about itself. Most of this humor is delivered through the character of Philip Davies, who snarks his way through the book while both embodying and deconstructing the lovable dashing rogue stereotype. Some of it comes from Jack figuring out how to interact with the strange world he's been dropped in. All of it is as dark as one would expect for a setting this creepy, but it makes sense that the humor should match the tone of the book and not run counter to it. 
      On Stranger Tides is not without its flaws, though. Well, flaw. The book leads its readers on a merry chase through the Caribbean, but falls short in the last three chapters with the final confrontation. After watching Shandy pursue his goals tirelessly through the book, sometimes doing absolutely grotesque things in the name of love and justice, to have the book resolve Shandy's revenge and his rescue of the damsel in distress in such a way is a bit of a let-down. While Powers recovers nicely, the flaw is too glaring not to at least bring up. Also, calling the final chapter an epilogue when it doesn't really tie up any loose ends but just ends the book is a bit of a strange move. 
      But this flaw is negligible. This book is a classic, one that should be read and remembered for decades to come. Read it. Buy it. Request it for your libraries. Do whatever you have to so you can read this book. It is important that you read this book. It is equally important that this book survives. It has made it easily to the top of my list of things to read, managing to surprise me and engage me, usually at the same time. Read this book. This is too good a book to be remembered by thePirates of the Caribbean movie based on it. You will like this book. You must read this book.That is all.

Next up:
- I try an anime Live Action Roleplay
- Either Electric Barracuda or Nuclear Jellyfish by Tim Dorsey
- Other things as they arise
- Hopefully, the tenth-anniversary edition of American Gods.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving Blues

As of today, this blog is moving over to its address at srmbc.tumblr.com. Some of you may notice that all the comments and at least one of the reviews may not survive the move, but all of the content should be intact. This site will stop updating, and I hope I could join you all over at the Tumblr one.

As always, thanks for reading'


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Enigmatic Pilot

Everything truly dangerous is afraid of itself, and cannot resist a mirror
- The Narrator

           Constant readers of this blog doubtless know that I am a big fan of the works of Kris Saknussemm. My very first review was nothing short of glowing, and Zanesville, while flawed, was a fantastic debut novel. That this is the case makes it hurt even more that he has managed to disappoint me in such a manner with his current book. When I heard it was coming out in March, I was nothing less than overjoyed. That joy only grew when I found out he was doing it as a prequel to Zanesville, which meant in all likelihood that the same irreverent, gonzo tone that I'd found so endearing the first time around. When I finally interlibrary loaned the book and brought it home, I settled down to read it and was promptly so disappointed that I threw the damn book across the room.
           I don't know what I was expecting, but a limp, quasi-historical steampunk book was just about the last thing on my mind. The book starts off in the middle of a civil war reconnaissance mission, which ends with a strange figure bearing the familiar wheelbarrow-and-fire symbol of the good guys throwing a blanket across the sky and performing other strange, unsettling tricks. Then we jump to Zanesville, Ohio in the mid-1800s, and the events of the prologue (while they hint at the strange figure on the battlefield being Lloyd) are never mentioned again. The book follows the strange messianic figure from Zanesville, Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, a mechanical and scientific genius even at age six, during his youth. Lloyd and his family get a message from an uncle in Texas, telling them that they're needed. Because a free black family in Antebellum Ohio doesn't go over too well, they jump at the offer and set off on a riverboat towards the town of Freedom. On the way, Lloyd meets an unsettling cast of characters, all of whom want to use his gifts for their own ends, and many of whom are more dangerous than they first appear. It plays out as a coming of age story with one final twist that I have to admit, was kind of surprising and cool. But overall, I couldn't stand this book.
            I suppose my problem with it is multi-part. The first of these would be that it just doesn't match the same out-there tone of his other work. Where Zanesville was a black comedy in fun-house colors and Private Midnight was James Ellroy on bad acid, both very much insane and yet entirely acceptable in their own way, Enigmatic Pilot felt like Saknussemm trying and failing to restrain himself...to write something fairly conventional and still having odd elements here and there. Were this anyone else, or were it a first novel, then I'd praise it. But once again, as with Richard Kadrey, I know Saknussemm can do so much better and he just doesn't. This feels like someone trying to emulate Saknussemm, or even Tim Powers, and not really getting it. In fact, this feels like someone going on a steampunk binge, then an American history binge, and then trying to write a novel combining it all together. While there are some cool ideas, including the music-box people and the character of St. Ives (a gambler with the steampunk equivalent of a bionic hand), there just isn't enough to hold my attention for three hundred pages.
           Which leads me right to my next problem. In a book about people travelling across the country, things tend to stop with almost astonishing regularity. Each section of the book spends a significant amount of time in one of the cities that the Sitturds stop in, most of the time because it's significant to Lloyd's development, and occasionally because there's something important to the plot that goes on there. What's supposed to happen is a frantic chase from city to city as they get driven to the next location and must contend with the dangers and whatnot there. What happens instead is a halting narrative where the cool ideas collapse under the groaning and lethargic nature of the plot. Despite the occasional threat of two ancient conspiracies (both who want Lloyd because of his massive intellect and abilities), the plot and indeed Lloyd's development as a result are in no hurry to get anywhere. For all the time it took, you would think the book would get to Texas by the end, at least to set up the next book (this having been billed as a series, after all)
            But no. While by the end, there are some interesting dream sequences (or are they?) and one of the best final lines I've had in a book, they never get to Texas. In fact, there isn't even a real ending to the book. It just stops short of answering any questions. Now, while before I'd be willing to forgive Saknussemm for such a thing, that a book like this ambles along without giving us any idea of what's going on and doesn't even include a payoff is just unacceptable. Books can have no ending, but the non-ending has to occur organically. If your plot just stops and shrugs and goes "that's it, that's the end of that", then I can't condone it. 
           Finally, the book explains mysteries that never needed to be explained to begin with. I think this is the most egregious of its sins. Part of the fun of Zanesville was the mystery surrounding the protagonist and his origins. Now that the mysterious benefactor/god figure of the last book has been laid out in perfect, pretty detail in front of us, it's kind of pointless. If you know everything about the story, if all the mysteries are solved and very few new ones introduced, it's just kind of sad. For example, knowing that Vitessa (from Zanesville) is not only an evil corporation, but has existed since the eighteen hundreds and is run by an ancient conspiracy that might be from another dimension only serves to further distance this book from its predecessor. Part of this is the curse of the prequel...that any prequel to a work will only raise questions and explain things that don't need to be explained. And part of this is just the annoying nature of the book.
          So while there are bright spots, give this one a miss. It's a sad misstep from the previous nuts books. While I still look forward to anything Kris Saknussemm does, this is just disappointing and definitely not worth your time.

Still to come:

- Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda
- Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy
- Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides
- And when I can fit it in, a new "doorstopper" series with Thomas Pynchon's classic novel Gravity's Rainbow 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Player of Games

"This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game. The man is a game-player named 'Gurgeh'. The story starts with a battle that is not a battle and ends with a game that is not a game.

Me? I'll tell you about me later.
This is how the story begins."
- The Narrator
            It's so wonderful when something I've been recommended to read by someone else works out well.  A lot of the places I frequent have listed the Culture series by Iain M. Banks as either essential reading, or at least a really, really cool series. Usually, when something like this comes along, I'm skeptical of it. People give me many recommendations, some of which have shone out, but most of which (like most things in my life) end in what could be called some degree of disaster. But after hearing about the Culture Novels endlessly, I finally broke down and sought them out. Since everyone suggested I read Consider Phlebas (the first book in the series and an introduction to The Culture as a whole), or The Player of Games (the most accessible of the series) first, I put them both on interlibrary loan and let them race it out*. Whichever one got into my possession first, I would read and put up here. As you saw with the review and the little book-cover graphic, The Player of Games beat Phlebas (arguably the hardest book to bring up in conversation without sounding ridiculous) by about a day. 
          It is, by far, one of the best space opera books I've ever read, barring maybe Dune. And I'm not making that boast lightly. Player of Games should be a classic if it isn't already. Iain M. Banks takes the kind of plots that already exist in science fiction, and he screws with them to the point that they're much less recognizable. He deconstructs, plays things for laughs, reveals certain key details that only have meaning much later, and in general does everything he can to tell these stories in a new and interesting way. By the time the book finally drops to a close in its final downbeat moments, the plot will have twisted and turned every which way possible, from the games and counter-games played on the planet of Azad to the possible interference by the shadowy group known only by the "oh crap it's innocuous"** name of "Special Circumstances". And I loved it every step of the way. 
        The Player of Games is the story of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the most famous board game player and theorist in a futuristic Utopian society called the Culture. The Culture is a true utopia-- there are methods of immortality for those who wish it, people rapidly evolve to adapt to any new environment, anything about a person can be changed, there is an all-encompassing tolerance, and pretty much everything that can go right does. There's a shadowy side to it all, but we'll get back to that in a moment. For now, all anyone needs to know is that the Culture is a splendid place to live and Gurgeh is an unbeatable games master. But Gurgeh's life is getting dull. The games are all too easy, his friends are more concerned with reveling in small pursuits than progress and accomplishment, and the delights of the Culture are starting to bore him more and more. One of Gurgeh's companions, an AI-controlled robotic drone named Chamlis, cajoles him into talking to Contact, the Culture's diplomatic division, in the hopes that they might have an assignment for him. Gurgeh is eventually reached by a drone who claims to be from Contact (but might actually be from Special Circumstances) with an assignment: go to the Empire of Azad, an entity the Culture has had limited diplomatic relations with, and play their national board game, the game that governs their entire society and way of life, where the ultimate prize is the rank of emperor and side bets frequently include body parts and imprisonment. While Gurgeh declines, a blackmail plot by a drone "friend" of his forces him to accept the deal and go to the far-off Empire to play the game. As Gurgeh advances through the tournament, though, the bodies and enemies begin to pile up, leading to a showdown on a fire planet that seems both completely predictable (in that it's a climactic showdown) and completely unexpected (in that holy crap does nothing go as planned). 
         What makes the book great is its fully-formed world and the people in it. The Culture and Azad have their own languages, names, ideas, and various traditions. No planet seems generic, nor do any of the characters or concepts seem anything less than fully fleshed out. While Gurgeh's friends (both human and organic) don't feature often, they do seem like they have their own lives and pursuits, all congruent with the portrait we're given of the Culture. Even the ship names, such as Conflict of Evidence and Lack of Subtlety are unique to the Culture, though a bit of a running gag. While the villains of the work are monsters, to be sure, there's a certain twisted rationale behind their motives and methods. None of it seems manufactured or rushed-- you get a really good sense of who these people are and what their motives are, as well as where they fit into their cultures. Even more impressive than this is that the book is only three hundred and nine pages and manages to pack all the setting in without creating a ton of info-dumps. That every page can tell you both information and plot and still keep one interested is no mean feat, and Banks does it here effortlessly. 
        Furthermore, for a book about playing a board game over and over, the games are written more as fight or battle scenes than straight games. This is established early on with the board games played in the Culture, and carries on through the action of the book. Banks handles his action sequences with much more intensity and grace than most people would. In fact, most other authors would probably have either made the game a lot more hands-on, or played the sequences out with more internal stakes, so they could drive up the intensity but keep the game placid. What Banks does is that he actually goes out of his way to keep the turns interesting and yet still keep the game on its course. While I would most definitely lose, I find myself wanting to play Azad more and more from his descriptions of the game. Also, Gurgeh even loses games. Not enough to kick him out of the tournament, but where someone else would make their hero win every game, that Banks allows his to lose, sometimes to be utterly crushed, is a good touch. This further cements one in the events of the book.
        However, in the interest of some objectivity, I must point out a few things. One, that in certain places, the book slows down and does not regain its pace until much later. The pacing is normally great, but in a few moments here and there (usually between games), it kills the rhythm dead. The other major flaw involves the blackmail plot. It makes sense that Gurgeh is blackmailed for cheating in a crucial game before he leaves for Azad, as that drives the plot and makes it more sympathetic-- he can't leave or refuse the offer, because the blackmail is hanging over his head. But there is no real reason why he would cheat. He's not seeking glory, or playing simply for the accolades of his accomplishments, and he himself even says he could easily win the game without cheating. Add to this that the drone character who forces him into things is incessantly annoying, and the whole thing is just wrong. But these are small flaws, and best left forgotten.
       In the end, I am kicking myself because I don't own this book. I should own this book. I should not have to take it out of the library, though I do admit the sense of urgency and danger of late fees add to how quickly I finishd it. The Player of Games is a brilliant adventure story filled with dastardly villains, multilayered intrigue, narrow escapes, and some very interesting world-building skills. Pick this book up. Read it. Love it. I'm sure you will, as there's  precious little to hate about The Player of Games. I fully recommend this to anyone who likes a good space opera, and a good read in general.

*Which was arguably the most amusing way of acquiring books for review that I've featured here. I kind of want to do it again. Any suggestions, put 'em in the comments thread.

**The general rule of weird fiction, when not going completely out there, is this: The more innocuous a department or organization name, the more you should run away from it at top speed. If there's ever something called the "Department of Assessment", it usually means they're responsible for destroying the world if a crisis gets too large and their influence borders on the omnipotent.

Next Time: Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm, the prequel to his whacked-out classic Zanesville.
- The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
- Electric Barracuda by Tim Dorsey
And just in time for the movie and a comparison review:
- On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers