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Dungeons & Dragons #16: City at the Edge of Midnight

8th Sep. 2017 | 06:02 pm

City at the Edge of Midnight title card

Original air date: 22 September 1984
Writer: Michael Reaves and Karl Geurs

It’s almost midnight in a pleasant suburban bedroom. A child — later we’ll learn his name is Jimmy Whitaker — is in his bed, groggy with sleep. Jimmy’s a sci-fi / fantasy fan; he has two Dungeons & Dragons action figures on his dresser (Bowmarc with a sword instead of his shield and a miscolored Ogre King with a mace (?) instead of his shield). He also has an “Olter Space” poster, which is weird — who has a poster of “Outer Space,” and why would you put it on the wall with such a horrible misspelling?

Jimmy Whitaker's bedroomAnyway, the floor under Jimmy’s bed turns red and starts to glow. This wakes Jimmy, who calls for his father. This is prescient of young Jimmy, as the red glow starts to pull him under the bed, with strange moaning noises coming from beyond the void. Jimmy tries to hang on to the bedding, but the power of the glow overwhelms his cheap J.C. Penney sheets. His father — pretty obviously voiced by Frank Welker, who gives Mr. Whitaker a mature Fred Jones (from Scooby-Doo) sound — bursts into the room and manages to grab Jimmy’s hands. Rather than trying to hold onto Jimmy with both hands, Mr. Whitaker uses only one, and Jimmy slips away.

The red glow fades. Mr. Whitaker whispers, “Jimmy? Son?” He flips the bed up, finds nothing. He shouts: “Jimmy, where are you? Jimmy!”

Outside, a police car pulls up. It’s a subtle, almost artistic touch.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “City at the Edge of Midnight” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric, Hank, Sheila, and Uni in the desertMeanwhile, in the Realms, the kids are lost in a desert with crystal stalagmites pushing up through the ground. This time, however, the heroes are all about putting the blame on someone. Three guesses who that is, and the first two don’t — yes, you don’t have to shout, I can hear you. Of course it’s the Cavalier who gets blamed. When someone else leads them astray and they end up wandering without an idea of where they are, no one gets named. But let Eric make a mistake, and everyone knows who’s to blame. Eric defends himself: “OK, so I made a wrong turn. Trust me: I figured it out. We just head that way, and …” He’s interrupted by Presto walking by on his knees, croaking, “Water …”

Eric has had enough, and I think he’s got a point here. He hasn’t named names in the past, and this time he’s trying to make it right. The complaining of others, as he well knows from his own stints as the complainer, don’t help. He sits down to sulk, saying he knows exactly where they are; Presto says, sure he does: “Hundred miles from nowhere, and fifty miles from any place.” That’s a good line, Presto, but you’re picking on the wrong target.

Eric's finger almost touches Dungeon MasterEric emphatically points in the direction they should go and is disgusted when he almost touches Dungeon Master. Man, I wouldn’t want to touch him either. Everyone’s overjoyed to see Dungeon Master but Eric, who puts his head in his hands. I’m with you, Eric. Hey, would it kill the gnome to give the kids a compass and a map? No, but it would make them less dependent on ol’ DM, and he can’t have that.

This is the portion of the show where Dungeon Master doles out cryptic advice, and his stooges lap it up. To save time, I’ll give you the summary: “You will find both safety and danger ahead.” (“Do we have to find both?” Sheila asks. If anyone else gave Sheila guff for opinions that would get Eric accused cowardice, that question would be OK, but since no one else will say anything: Shut up, Sheila.) “You must find the City at the Edge of Midnight … You will find your way — or rather, your way will find you — and time is on your side. But heed this warning: There are others who are more lost than you shall ever be. Children from this world, and yours.” (That’s not a warning, per se. That’s advice, or maybe it’s a platitude.) “It is up to you to save them.”

Sparkling sand washes over Hank, Diana, Sheila, and BobbyThis time Dungeon Master adds a new exit into his rotation: he disappears in a blast of sparkly sand. Well, I suppose I’d get tired of just disappearing around a tree or a rock too; even if you leave the rubes open mouthed all the time, you’d want to challenge yourself with a more difficult trick every now and then. The kids show no appreciation for the more impressive escape, showing their usual befuddlement and grousing over DM’s lack of straightforwardness.

When Presto wants to put the responsibility for choosing a new direction on Eric, the Cavalier refuses. “Oh, no … I quit.” When Presto explains he was only kidding, Eric says, “You can find another fall guuuuuuuuuuy —” and falls down a dune into a tree. The writers have one rule they must abide by — never let Eric exit a scene with any dignity — and they put that rule into full effect here.

Eric slams his crotch against a treeA bunch of flowers falls on Eric as he hits the tree crotch first. Evidently, his armor comes with a steel codpiece because his voice doesn’t immediately elevate three octaves. The other kids are just as surprised by the tree (and the oasis it’s part of) as he is, but he insists everything is a mirage, even as Bobby, Diana, and Uni splash around in the pool in the middle of the oasis.

Then the hook horrors attack, making his insistence that his friends are frolicking in an oasis a moot point. (Again, to rob Eric of his dignity, he leaps into the arms of Bobby like Scooby-Doo leaps into Shaggy’s arms. Bobby falls over, dumping them both into the water.)

Who are those guys?” Presto asks, while Sheila asks, “What are those guys?” Eric has the relevant answer: “I’ll tell what they are: They’re surrounding us!”

Hook horrors attackAs the monsters move to attack, Hank eventually realizes he has a ranged weapon and fires, shooting off sparks when his arrow hits the water near a hook horror. That one runs away, but the others aren’t frightened … until a guy in a turban and swinging a scimitar rams his mutated elephant into a nearby wall. “What in the world?” Eric asks, seemingly more amazed by this guy than the hook horrors. I suppose it makes sense: He must be used to all sorts of weird creatures trying to kill him by this point, but someone with style who wants to help them? That’s just bizarre.

“You dare to enter this beautiful oasis!” the most interesting man in the Realm shouts at them. “You dare to frighten these poor, defenseless, miserable little creatures!” He’s winking at the other kids, who are in on the joke, and he immediately picks on Eric. This man knows which way the wind is blowing immediately. “Well?”

Eric standing alone “Well what?” Eric asks, honestly confused by the man’s question. This is a good choice; Eric sometimes quails in front of people who want to talk, but I think having him shout back at them or just talk is a better idea. The man laughs in response, then proposes that they “knock the monsters’ socks off.” While the rest of the group rushes off for a battle montage, Eric remains behind, befuddled. “Will somebody tell me what’s going on? … Who is that guy?”

The man says the party is “hot stuff,” although mainly what they’ve done is annoy the hook horrors. In punishment for Eric demanding answers, the man and the rest of the party allow Eric to be surrounded by the monsters. Just as it seems Eric is about to be eaten for his insolence (read: reasonable questions), the man taps his scimitar on a stone. It becomes a sonic weapon, allowing him to drive the horrors away and trap them in their caves with rockfalls. After this show of effective magic item use — something they rarely see — the kids flock to the man, with Bobby and Sheila quick to embrace him.

Eric complaining to Ramoud while Bobby glares at EricThe kids give the credit to the older man — a reasonable choice — but the newcomer says “we” did it. “What do you mean ‘we’?” Eric asks. “‘We’ means ‘us,’ me and them. I know who they are, they know who I am, but who are you?” This confusing, frustrated question gets the man to introduce himself: Ramoud, a caravan merchant from Qadesh.

Ramoud calls Eric “the brave one” because Eric was the first to enter “the Forbidden Oasis of No Return.” That name is trying too hard, really. “Forbidden Oasis”? Great name. “Oasis of No Return”? Ominous, although you don’t think of oases as things you return from (or don’t return from). But both names together … I don’t know, man. The oasis is sort of an evil Brigadoon, according to Ramoud: The oasis pops up once every year, “a trap for unwary travelers.” So maybe the singers of tales wanted to double down on the warning to travelers, because “spending the night … changed [people] into monsters.”

Ramoud offers the kids a chance to join his caravan, but frankly, we never see anyone in his caravan but him — well, him and his grummels, the mutated elephants that he crosses the desert on. It’s hardly a caravan. The party jumps on that offer like the attention-starved (and food-starved) kids they are. Eric tries to counsel caution, but he hears the cries of the hook horrors from the oasis and quiets his objections. Before the scene can end, though, he has to be humiliated one last time: The command to make his grummel move forward is “k’trash,” but Eric has trouble saying it because he can’t roll his r’s. Hey, I can’t either, so I don’t think it’s funny. Ramoud approaches his grummel while the party looks onWhen he finally gets the grummel to move, it gallops after its fellows, to the amusement of the others.

(Geek aside: Hook horrors appeared in the Fiend Folio. They have no spoken language, speaking to one another with a series of “clacking noises with the exoskeleton — an eerie sound which can alarm the unwary as it echoes around dungeon corridors.” Despite this and the horrors being nine feet tall, “there is only a 10% chance of surprising a hook horror.” I wouldn’t plan a birthday party for one, then. Regardless of what Ramoud says, the FF gives no indication the horrors were once human.

Grummels were created for the cartoon.
)

***

Oh, if you’re waiting for Venger to show up, he won’t. This is the fourth episode, after “Beauty and the Bogbeast,” “The Garden of Zinn,” and “P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster,” that he doesn’t appear in.

***

Despite being the only person in his “caravan,” Ramoud has set up several immense pavilions, and he serves the kids a sumptuous banquet in one of them. What are the other tents for? I think one is filled with his laughter; Ramoud is an overly jolly guy.

Ramoud and the party feastEveryone but Bobby and Eric have finished their meals, with Presto and Uni so overfull they’ve already drifted to sleep. Even Bobby can’t eat forever, though, and he has to pass the rest of his dessert on to Eric, who’s no fool: He knows he can never count on future meals with Hank in charge, so he’s eating as much as he can put away. Eric enjoys the quality as well as the quantity, though: “This is better than anything back home!” he says. Sheila makes a gentle crack about the way to a man’s stomach, which … does Sheila mean Ramoud is trying to romantically ensnare Eric? Or that Eric might now have romantic fixations on Ramoud? I’m confused.

This is Ramoud’s cue to get slightly inappropes with Sheila: “Dear Sheila, your voice reminds me of my daughter. Well … time for bed.” Uh, no, old man — I don’t care how it is in your family.

Fortunately, Eric is not in the mood: “Nah, I could eat all night.” But then Eric makes the faux pas of asking about Ramoud’s daughter. This seems like the sort of oblivious mistake Eric should make, rather than falling down hills and such. The rest of the party glances at each other, embarrassed, and Eric picks up on it. “Did I say something?” he asks.

“She is not here any more,” Ramoud says. “She … disappeared from my palace one night, a long time ago.” Eric asks if Ramoud has looked for her, then stammers that the party can help him look. Hank and Presto voice their support for the idea; “It’s the least we can do!” Presto says. No, Presto — the least you can do is absolutely nothing. If you ever figured that out, you wouldn’t be roped into doing all of Dungeon Master’s dirty work. Ramoud declines their offer, saying, “I know where she is. There is just no way to reach her yet. It’s a long, long story, and we’re already almost to the commercial break!”

Ramoud stands in front of the partyOK — he doesn’t say anything about the commercial break; I lied about that. He tries to get the party back on track by standing and calling them a family, but the colorists make a poor choice here: His pants are the same color as his skin, which makes him look like he’s pantsless and smooth as a Ken doll. He’s acting like a particularly confident and brazen cult leader, frankly. Given that the party has followed him without question for food and affection, I’d say he’s found the right people to welcome to his odd little sect.

Actually, I’m not sure these kids, especially the core Getalong Gang members, should return to our world. If any of them got caught alone by a nice man looking for a puppy or offering candy from his white panel van, they’d just disappear again — until their bleached bones are found in some isolated Southern California valley or alongside some freeway.

***

Hank near the water clockThey are not bleached bones now, though. The kids go to bed, with Hank blowing out the lamp next to the water clock. Hey, did you know “clepsydra” is another name for a water clock? It’s true! Now you know this useless info as well.

Hank tells the others they’ll start looking for “that city,” which I suppose means the City at the Edge of Midnight. The others are united in their grumbling; for once, Eric’s part of the group. “Can’t we stay?” Presto asks. “Ramoud’s awfully nice, and I’ve already promised him all my worldly goods if he keeps calling me his son.” OK, OK — he doesn’t say he’s promised Ramoud anything, but Presto totally would if Ramoud asked.

“He’s the next-best thing to having a real dad,” Diana says, and we get a brief glimpse Eric’s home life when he says, “Are you kidding? He’s better than my dad ever was.”

Sheila crying over a dollThen Ramoud sneaks up on the kids. Oh, he intimates he was checking to see if they were asleep, but I’m sure he was making sure no one was speaking badly of the cult father (i.e., him). He tells them to go to sleep, then gives Sheila a doll (“to hold you safe in your dreams”) and a kiss on the forehead. Oh, of course he chooses the white girl to give the doll to. Poor Diana — even in the Realms, her dark skin makes her second-best to the white girl. The doll belonged to Ramoud’s daughter, Ayesha, and however heartbroken Ramoud is about the loss of his daughter, he’s grooming Sheila as a replacement. Sheila tries to refuse the gift, but Ramoud insists: “If I never find her, I would like to know it is loved by one as lovely as she.”

Exit tent left, Ramoud. Sheila cries while holding the doll. Sheila is a crier, though, so I wouldn’t make too much of it.

The clepsydra counts down to midnight. Uni rouses itself and starts growling at nothing. Unicorns growl, I guess? Sure, why not? The reason Uni growled is soon revealed: The ground under Bobby glows red, and then the glow envelops him as Uni bleats in terror.

***

When we return from commercial break, Sheila is screaming her brother’s name as Bobby is drawn into a grave-shaped hole in the earth. Evidently, both he and Uni moved from his bed in time not to be dropped into a lurid underworld, but now it draws him in, despite his sister’s attempts to hold him in this world. Hank decides the proper course of rescue is to shoot the hole. Sure, why not? Better than trying to hold onto Bobby with his weak, noodly arms — I mean, Sheila’s got that angle covered.

Nightwalker appears in red glittery energyBut shooting into the hole has an effect, as it starts gouting red energy, followed by the emergence of a giant humanoid figure in bondage armor. I suppose I shouldn’t make value judgments about the otherworld; if they want to live the freaky life, how does that hurt me?

Ramoud, who was drawing his scimitar as we came back from commercial, has been waiting for this. “It is him!” he shouts. “I have found him at last! All I had to do was offer him more children!” No, again, Ramoud doesn’t claim to have offered the kids as bait for the creature who stole his daughter. But I think we all know he did. Why else was he lurking in their tent at midnight?

Ramoud charges; the creature uses a breath weapon on him, knocking him to the ground. The monster then picks up Bobby (whose scream is voiced by Adam Rich, the voice of Presto). “This one,” bondage giant says, “is mine.” He then disappears, as does his rectilinear hole in the earth. Sheila beats on the ground where the hole was, which should be expected.

“He is gone, little one,” Ramoud says, comforting Sheila. Hank demands to know where Bobby went, and Ramoud replies: “To the City at the Edge of Midnight. This … this is what happened to my daughter. My Ayesha … stolen by the Beast Who Has No Name. He is known only as the Nightwalker.”

Wait — you just said he had no name, and then, in the very next sentence, you said his name was the Nightwalker. I know you’re upset, man, but start making sense!

(Geek aside: The nightwalker did not appear in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D is what people mean when they say “Dungeons & Dragons”]. This episode is creature’s first appearance; in 1985, the nightshade appeared in the basic version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that had been superseded by the advanced version. The nightshade had three subtypes: nightcrawler, nightwing, and nightwalker. The nightwalker is the only one of the three that does not share a name with a superhero. The creature first appeared in the main D&D game in 3rd edition.)

Ramoud and the party reopen a portal with energyThe clock strikes midnight. Eric recants his resistance to heading to the City at the Edge of Midnight (CatEoM), saying, “Let’s get that thing open!” Which is a great goal, but how do you open a portal to the CatEoM? That’s certainly something they couldn’t figure out before — Ramoud never figured it out, certainly — and they haven’t talked about it since. But everyone seems to know instinctively what to do: Presto conjures purple star magic out of his hat, Diana lets Ramoud activate his sonic scimitar on her staff, and Hank fires his arrows at the spot where the two converge. Voila! A magic reddish-purple grave! Now they can all jump in and die — which they do, with Toei Animation doing an impressive job of shading their faces with the magic light as they fall.

***

The CatEoM is a sort of Gothic European town, built of stone, and completely deserted.
“Somehow I don’t think we’re in Kansas City, guys,” Diana says. Of course you aren’t — everything’s up to date in Kansas City, and as Eric notes, the clocks aren’t working in the CatEoM. They’re a couple of minutes slow — the edge of midnight, one might say. Also, Kansas City has very few demon creatures skulking around the alleys and doorways — at least not since the eradication projects of the ‘80s — and the CatEoM is lousy with them.

Tiny demons pour out of a buildingPresto thinks the party is being watched. Hank, the boy who has never heard of a jinx, says, “That’s OK, long as they want to do is watch.” As soon as he says that, the little demons start pouring out of doorways and windows, emitting weird barking and quack / hiss noises. Good one, Hank.

The party flees, and they let themselves get trapped in a dead-end alley. It was Hank who led them down there, too. But oh, let anyone question Hank’s competence, and that person is the problem. Ramoud still wants to fight their way past the lil’ nightstalkers, but Sheila counsels giving up. She doesn’t phrase it like that, though — “They might take us to Ayesha and Bobby,” she says to Ramoud — and Hank and Ramoud decide surrender might be the best option.

“Sheila, you are as brave as my own Ayesha,” Ramoud says, “but if any harm comes to you, then the Nightwalker will pay.” I … I thought you already wanted the Nightwalker to pay. I mean, he did steal your daughter already — your biological daughter, I mean.

***

As the clocks in the CatEoM strain toward midnight without ever reaching it, the little demons take the party to the Nightwalker and his captured slave children. As it turns out, surrendering was the right idea! It allowed them to get where they wanted to go — inside a giant clock tower — and the demons didn’t disarm them. That’s not being captured; that’s being given an escort.

Kids hammering a chock into clock gearsThe kids stolen from their beds are all working their hardest to keep the clock from advancing: pulling against the gears, driving chocks where the gears mesh, pushing a post like Conan did as a child. One kid, exhausted, falls to the floor; a night creature snarls at her until she resumes her pushing. Diana wonders what they’re doing.

“They hold back the wheels of time,” the Nightwalker says. “They keep time frozen forever, for the clock must never strike midnight.” You know, dude, I don’t think that’s how time works; I can smash all the clocks I want, and time keeps dragging on. But I shouldn’t tell you what to do: You’ve got a successful child-abducting / clock-stopping business going on.

On the other hand: You’ve just told your enemies what you don’t want to happen. They’re going to make it happen, bondage goblin.

The Nightwalker plans to put the party and Ramoud to work with the kids, including Bobby and Ayesha, who are supposedly working high in the tower. The Nightstalker wants to get in a little light blasting before putting the kids to work, though, so he shoots a beam of POWER! at the kids. Eric catches it on his shield; Hank counters with an arrow, but the Nightstalker brushes it aside. The Nightstalker’s little helpers come to Big Daddy’s aid, and despite Ramoud’s sonic scimitar, there are too many to fight. The party is forced to retreat.

The party heads for that thingAs they run toward part of the clock mechanism, Hank says, “Get up on that thing!” What is that thing? Who knows! Three groups of children are holding it down with ropes, though, and once everyone but Eric is on it (he’s withstanding another Nightstalker blast), Hank severs the ropes with his arrow. Eric manages to grab Ramoud’s hand as the surface rises …

… oh, it’s a counterweight. I get it now. So the party has escaped, but Sheila’s already complaining: “Now what? How do we find Bobby and Ayesha?” Diana reminds her that the Nightstalker said the two were in the tower, and that’s where they’re going, so … you know, they’re on the right track, Sheila. Tone down the whining for once. Eric complains the weight is rising too quickly, but Presto puts his blind faith in Dungeon Master: “Dungeon Master said time’s on our side, and he’s been right about everything so far.”

You shut your damn gob, Presto. Yes, DM was right about safety and danger, but that’s so vague it could be part of any sideshow psychic’s bag of tricks. Of course he knew other kids were more lost than you; he can see everything, and you’ve already found kids more lost than you in the past (c.f. “The Lost Children” and “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow”). And yes, your path found you, but that always happens — and frankly, if you start off without a plan or idea of where your destination is, it will always be true. You should believe Dungeon Master because he wants you to safely jump through his hoops, not because he has precognitive powers.

Hank, through a belabored series of exclamations, realizes that getting the clock running again would be to their benefit. Well, if the bad guy’s trying to stop it …

Eric loses his cool at Bobby (offscreen)The grand plan to get off the weight is to jump — I could have thought of that one — although there might have been some attempts to swing the weight back and forth before that. (The view of the characters is askew, but not moving. Not the best job by Toei there.) The weight smashes something at the top of the clock, and the destruction gains Bobby’s attention, allowing everyone to regroup. Bobby immediately asks if they brought something to eat; Eric exclaims, “What? After all we’ve been through, all you can say is — ”

“Cool it,” Hank says. You know what, Hank? F*$& you. When Eric complains about his hunger — in scenes that do not immediately follow large feasts — everyone wonders how he can think about his stomach (c.f. “The Treasure of Tardos”), and you don’t say one damn word. But as everyone just fell asleep stuffed, Eric’s reaction is reasonable, yet you still shut him down. You are the worst, Hank — just the worst: a jumped-up straw boss whose leadership qualifications lie mainly in his coiffure.

Bobby hasn’t seen Ayesha, which enrages Ramoud: “The Nightwalker lied!” I know, right? You used to be able to count on the word of a demon who stole children. As Ramoud’s call for Ayesha draws only little demons, the party goes back to restarting the clock. Bobby smashes … stuff, ropes fray, gears move, and then —

The nightwalker disappears, surrounded by red energyMidnight strikes. The Nightstalker contorts in pain, surrounded by sparkle-magic and red contrails. The children are released from the Nightstalker’s spell; Hank guesses they’re going back home, which is a good guess but not one we have confirmed.

The Nightstalker disappears. The party hears braying laughter, followed by, “That’s the end of the boogey-man.” The laughter comes from Jimmy Whitaker, who wonders how the others got into his dream. The others try to convince him this isn’t a dream and to tell their parents they’re OK and will be home soon. (That last bit is a bit optimistic, but OK.) Jimmy doesn’t believe them, though, as this is the Sunday after (or the same day) the others went to the amusement park. Evidently Jimmy had to stay home to do homework instead of heading to the park. “See in you in the morning at school,” he says as he disappears.

As the party itself disappears to leave the CatEoM, Eric is incensed: “One chance to get a message back home, and it had to be Jimmy Whitaker.” Not one chance; this is the second, after Terri in “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow,” who presumably figured out how to get a message to your parents. Anyway, given that the police have been called and the kids will be missing on Monday, Jimmy will presumably figure things out. “I always told you guys Whitaker was a wimp, but did anybody listen? No! If we ever get home, I’m going straight over to Whitaker’s house and — ”

DM and EricA pratfall is one way to end a tirade of righteous indignation, and because this is Eric, that’s what the writers have chosen. Eric falls off the edge of a dune, falling at the feet of Dungeon Master. “Welcome back, Cavalier!” Dungeon Master says, cheerily. If ever there were a time for you to use a shield bash, this would be it, Eric.

But no, the moment passes when Dungeon Master calls Ramoud “your majesty,” and he is reunited with Ayesha. As Ramoud orders a celebration, Sheila approaches Dungeon Master; she’s confused by the title, and Dungeon Master explains that caravan merchant is “a disguise he has used while searching for his daughter. Ramoud is a king — a king of many kings, ruler of a vast land to the east.” Sheila wonders why this great man would call them his children, while I’m wondering how an emperor could just quit being an emperor for a while. I mean, the man has responsibilities to thousands, if not millions, of subjects! What if his viziers can’t handle the responsibility? What if those he handed his duties to are corrupted by power? What if civil war overtakes his lands in the absence of a strong, wise ruler? Ah, but he found his daughter, and that makes it all worth it.

Dungeon Master says, with a sad expression, “That is the next choice you must face.” Dungeon Master is sad because someone might obstruct his child endangerment hobby.

***

“This is for you, Sheila, for always,” Ayesha says, allowing Sheila to keep the doll Ramoud gave her. This sounds generous, but Ayesha’s tone of voice is one of a political prisoner being forced to say something against her will. Has Ayesha traded one controlling master for another? No! It’s just bad voice acting.

Hank and Ramoud embraceRamoud provisions the kids for “many weeks.” Golly! We might not open next episode with them starving or thirsting. He turns to Hank. “How can I ever thank … you?” He gives that last word a sensual emphasis I find disturbing. Hank’s reply — a bashful “You’ve already thanked us, your majesty” — doesn’t help, nor does the embrace Ramoud, in his flesh-tone pantaloons, insist upon.

“I’m sorry we can’t stay,” Hank says. I’ll bet you are. “It’s just that we’ve got to keep searching for the way back home.”

Ramoud agrees and says goodbye. (Evidently he’s also giving them the grummels as well. Generous man!) As everyone is shouting farewells, we get a repeat of an earlier joke: Eric can’t roll his r’s to command the grummel, but when he gets close enough (not very close), it takes off over the desert, nearly throwing him to the ground. Hilarious!

Meanwhile, roll these lessons over your tongue:

  • To open a door to another world, just keep hitting the ground with all your power until a portal appears.
  • Cult leaders and flesh-colored pants go together like Kool-Aid and cyanide.
  • Don’t be afraid to jump into a glowing grave.
  • Hank is the worst.
  • The parable of the good shepherd holds true in the Realms, as long as the lost sheep is a close biological relative. In that case, who cares how many sheep are put in jeopardy?
  • If you don’t believe you have enough time at work to complete your tasks, sabotage as many clocks and watches as you can find to stop time.
Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. They’ve found five portals home; two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

Monster tally: One from the Fiend Folio. Totals: MM: 32; FF: 6; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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2017 Hugo nominee #6: Death's End by Cixin Liu

4th Sep. 2017 | 02:16 pm

So the sixth Hugo nominee is Death’s End by Cixin Liu. I have a confession to make about this book: I could not finish it.

After reading every Hugo nominee for the last umpteen years, I could only get through a third of Death’s End. Because of that, I’m not going to evaluate the book like I did the other nominees. The book was the dullest form of entertainment I believe I have experienced in the last decade. An example: after finishing a chapter in which aliens treacherously betray their human allies, I turned the page to see the next chapter was titled “Ten Minutes to Armageddon.” I thought, “Well, that’s as good a place to stop as any. I can’t imagine anything interesting will happen in that chapter.”

As it turned out, I was right, but I knew I would be correct only because nothing interesting ever happened.

The future, as it turns out, is populated by non-entities, absolute drips who have nothing to recommend them as party guests or conversationalists. They are supremely uninteresting, so the only people the book follows are in the future because they froze themselves so to be revived for cures (or time tourism). The people of the future are as bad at democracy as we are, which I expect is a criticism of the entire idea of democracy by Liu. The woman who is more-or-less the protagonist is a wet noodle of a human being, born in the 20th century, becoming important in the 21st, and dooming humanity in the farther future. (I can’t figure out whether Liu is telling an elaborate joke in which the punchline is, “You had one job — literally one job,” or whether I’m supposed to take everything at face value.)

Science fiction has trouble portraying suitably alien aliens. Although I don’t find the aliens in Death’s End incomprehensible, I do find the storytelling alien. Why am I supposed to be interested in this story full of characters with no personality, a society so unchallenged it can’t maintain a simple plan that involves flipping a switch or even have a contingency plan? I can’t imagine why I would be interested in this book.

But my relief in no longer forcing myself to read this book was disturbed by the near-unanimous praise Death’s End has received both critically and on Amazon. Was I reading a different book than these people? I can’t bring myself to care about the technical challenges to humanity that reviewers marvel about because I can’t bring myself to care about this ineffectual humanity Liu has imagined; the only thoughts provoked by this book was, “Maybe humanity deserves to be eaten by aliens, given current events and what Liu envisions the future to be like.”

Actually, that would be a great twist. I can imagine picking up Death’s End again if I found out aliens did eat humanity, and the last half of the book was a cookbook.

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2017 Hugo nominee #5: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

4th Sep. 2017 | 02:12 pm

Too Like the Lightning coverThe fifth Hugo Nominee is Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer:

Plot: Retro-futuristic utopia — with a flaw! (And I’m not saying that because this is only half a novel.) The 25th-century world of Too Like the Lightning is unlike our own in almost every way. Ultra-fast transportation has made it possible to commute anywhere on Earth for work and play. This transport revolution has made the nation-state and its old rivalries obsolete — why live where you were born when you can live somewhere more compatible to your temperament and still work the same job? The nation-state has been replaced by seven large ethical allegiances, which anyone can choose to join. The family has been radically changed, with biological bonds downplayed for the bash’, a grouping of like-minded people who come together during college to form a household. (A bash’ may continue for generations, adding and losing members as the years go on.) That old divisive topic, religion, is downplayed, with public proselytizing and displays forbidden; nu-priests called sensayers counsel those they are assigned to, giving overviews of many views of ethical and religious thoughts to all life’s problems, and only they are allowed to speak to more than two people at a time about religion. All the ethical arguments the characters have highly depend on Enlightenment thought.

The book kicks off with the investigation of what is a small kerfuffle: one of the 7-10 lists, which rank the most influential people in the world, has been stolen and placed in the house of the bash’ that remotely pilots most of the world’s cars. That kicks off a desultory investigation into who would have done it and why; frankly, the book is more interested in describing the world’s leaders and power structure than plot development. Mycroft Canner, the narrator and a reformed serial killer, is the narrator, and he alternately helps and hinders the investigation, which is not assiduously pursued by anyone we can see.

Lightning is heavy on world-building, and by world-building, I mean justification of the book’s premises through philosophy. It is tiring to listen to characters tell each other (and the reader) just how reasonable the world Palmer has constructed is. I do not care, honestly; I will accept a lot of strange premises and move on, but the more I’m told how logical everything is the more suspicious I get. Perhaps I should be very suspicious — after all, Enlightenment thinkers were mostly upper class and not known as the most enlightened when it came to the common man, and for all their thinking, they weren’t all outspoken about the evil of slavery. Palmer gives some hints we should be suspicious, but they aren’t very strong.

Like Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Lightning is only half a complete story, and the reader is not given an indication of that until pg. 400 or so out of 430. No attempt is made to wrap up a story — any story — in the final 100 pages. The plot twist that caps Lightning is one that would have occurred about halfway through a mystery novel, and it’s not enough to get me to return to the sequel. (Although I suppose the twist’s placement is halfway through this story as well.) To be fair, the incompleteness of Lightning isn’t as egregious as it is in Hyperion; I wanted to beat Simmons around the face and shoulders with a copy of Hyperion after finishing that book, but my reaction to Lightning’s end isn’t that extreme. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Mycroft, the story’s narrator, is a serial killer in a world where that crime is vanishingly rare. Most non-dangerous criminals are used as a slave caste, forced to work for whomever wants them to labor, and their only recompense is food. (Somehow, the world powers believe Mycroft to be neutered, although most of Earth’s populace believed he was executed.) Mycroft murdered an entire bash’, although we are never told why, exactly; it probably has something to do with that influential family’s erroneous political and economic theories. I suspect Palmer is saving the revelation for the sequel / second volume, but whatever his reasoning is would be much more interesting than the story Palmer has told.

Mycroft has connections to every important person in the world of Lightning, and I kept waiting for any indication that that was significant, other than allowing us to get a glimpse of the powerful. Mycroft gives us only the barest hints that he may have a plan that would be facilitated by being close to the world’s elites, and that’s not good enough. I listened to Mycroft for 400+ pages, and I want some indication he has a plan to influence his surroundings, rather than being ordered from half-completed task to half-completed task by overly philosophical, overly smug heads of non-states.

Mycroft claims he is not the protagonist, which is understandable. He doesn’t move the plot, in most cases, even though he chronicles it. However, the person Mycroft nominates as protagonist is Bridger, a 13-year-old boy who can bring the inanimate to life and create anything his imagination can come up with. Mycroft says Bridger is the protagonist because he could change the world, which is true, but he doesn’t actually do so. In the book, he’s a boy who is kept sequestered from the world and is protected by other characters. His actions influence the plot not a jot. He is hunted without taking any significant counteractions to elude his hunters. Really, he’s a Macguffin, not a character.

So who’s the protagonist? Mycroft, I suppose. But he’s a pretty unsatisfying one. 0 of 5

Villains: Who knows? The big plot twist is that an entire bash’ may be serial killers, subtly ridding the world of non-entities that have some connection to the powerful to further political stability. I have no real investment in the idea, as Palmer has so thoroughly directed the readers’ attention away from the idea of instability that I don’t take any of it seriously. The lone survivor of the family Mycroft killed is a rabble-rouser warning of the concentration of political power, but that character is mostly a non-entity, and Palmer also does such a lackadaisical job highlighting the interconnectedness of the elites that I can’t be sure if the rabble-rouser is a villain or if it’s literally everyone else in the book.

I do want to kick a lot of self-satisfied, hypocritical aristos in the crotch, but I have no idea whether that’s because they’re bad people or annoying people. I’d have to read the next book to find out, and the only way I would read it is if I did get to kick those people in the jubblies. 0 of 5

Inventiveness: Creating an ideal society based on a set of philosophical precepts is an idea literally older than Christianity, and a future that is unrecognizable because the foundations of society have been washed away is a mainstay of science fiction. Combining the two isn’t that different either. But I admit, not many books use the Enlightenment so obviously and literally to create a future. I think (although I’m not sure) that the way worldwide transportation has made everything meaningless — distance, nation, allegiances, traditional family, freedom — is different.

The dust jacket says the world of Lightning is “as strange to our twenty-first century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s.” I don’t think that’s true, as many of the ideas are extensions of present theories and technology (growing secularism, more non-nuclear, non-traditional families, hyperloop, etc.). The 25th century is as unlikeable as the 1500s, though. 6 of 10

Fun: Not the least fun book I’ve read this year, although that’s damning with faint (and literal) praise. Usually, even a difficult book becomes engaging enough I can depart from forcing myself to read X pages per night by about halfway through; the book becomes interesting enough reading is no longer a chore. However, it was only in the last fifth of the book that I had any investment in what was going on.

Philosophy does not necessarily make for exciting reading, I’ll tell you that, and the book has no action to speak of. It doesn’t even have any investigations of note to move the plot along; instead, Mycroft is dispatched from locale to locale at the whim of others, learning nothing (in part because Mycroft seems to know everything already), and I can’t bring myself to care. 1 of 5

Total: 8 of 30. A different sort of story, indifferently told.

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2017 Hugo nominee #4: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

4th Sep. 2017 | 02:08 pm

A Closed and Common Orbit coverThe fourth Hugo nominee is A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers:

Plot: The Pinocchio syndrome in space! Except the AI given a body isn’t sure she wants to be human-like — or humanoid, for that matter.

At the end of Becky Chambers’s first book, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, ship’s AI Lovelace endured a catastrophic failure and had to be rebooted, losing much of her memories and accumulated personality along the way. As one of the ship’s crew was in love with Lovelace (and she with him), Lovelace’s continued presence was considered too painful to remain on-ship, so her rebooted personality was downloaded into a humanoid shell and sent away.

Lovelace, who adopts the name Sidra, now must adapt to a life she didn’t choose — her personality before the reboot, not her, had considered being downloaded into the kit — and has to conceal her true nature, as it’s illegal for to AIs to reside in shells that look sentient beings. This is an excellent setup, and it should lend itself to a great deal of conflict and excitement.

It does not. Chambers is conflict-averse, and while Common Orbit isn’t as bad as Angry Planet in that regard, Chambers passes up obvious points to inject tension into the story. What’s the riskiest, most revealing thing Sidra does? She gets a tattoo. What comes closest to revealing Sidra’s illegal nature? A bad reaction to the tattoo nanobots, which displays her nature to the tattoo artist, Tak. Tak is taken aback by the revelation, but quickly comes around; from the readers’ point of view, Tak immediately accepts Sidra’s true nature. The narration says it takes a few tendays, but the conflict is resolved within a few pages — Tak reconciles his previous prejudices with a new point of view. He has to, right? What else could a rational being do in Chambers’s world of tolerance and empathy?

Common Orbit is most interested in acceptance, so characters rarely run into prejudice, runaway egos, or anything dangerous. (“Acceptance” is even used in a back-cover blurb from Wired’s Geekdad: “Sweeping in scope but human at heart, A Closed and Common Orbit is a very moving examination of what we all crave most: acceptance.”) I don’t agree with any of the superlatives — the scope is pretty narrow, given the small cast and limited settings, and I don’t remember ever being moved — but there’s no doubt we’re supposed to agree with or immediately buy into this secular, non-judgmental society whose only hang-up seems to be its AI restrictions (and acceptance of less-than-perfect societies). Chambers spends an entire page on the sexes of Tak’s race — an irrelevant set of details — but that’s more space than we get about any dissenting views to … well, anything. In this universe, prejudices seem to be held because of an unthinking acceptance of current mores; engaging with these erroneous opinions causes them to go away. But that’s not the way humans are, and it makes Chambers’s narrative fall flat: Sidra achieves acceptance, yes, but she does it with so little pushback that it feels inevitable.

Part of the problem is that Chambers splits the book into two, interweaving Sidra’s story with that of her human guide / friend / protector, Pepper. Pepper’s story is exciting — she survives in a junkyard her entire teen years with the help of an AI in a derelict ship — but as the readers already know how it will end, the story’s tension is undercut. Pepper’s story, fleshed out into a full-length novel, would have been a more satisfying read, especially if the reader didn’t know the ending. But as tense as some bits of Pepper’s story are, her tale has no extraneous characters we can worry about, no stakes other than the one we know will pay off. It’s very linear, and it doesn’t even feature much conflict between Pepper and the AI who helps her except for a very brief bout of teenage surliness that runs against the AI’s middle-aged weariness.

I guess what I’m saying is: Throw some damn rocks at your characters. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Ah, the protagonists. Living in a world filled with Pepper and her friends would be marvelous; there would be few arguments about political distractions and trivialities, and they’re easy to get along with. As compelling personalities, however …

Sidra is the main character, and her struggle is mainly internal. This struggle manifests itself externally in such compelling ways as “getting a tattoo” and “wanting to retreat into the artificial womb.” Sidra’s difficulties are mental, despite the ostensibly real, physical dangers of her existence, and that makes it harder to empathize with her conflicts. One could easily find a correlation between the problems her programming makes for her and mental illness, but given the ease with which she overcomes those problems, I don’t think the comparison would do anyone any favors.

Pepper’s early life is difficult, and she’s the scrappy, confident protagonist that it’s easy to like and cheer for. Pepper’s internal dialogue seems a bit juvenile, even for a 10 year old, but I suppose her sheltered upbringing stunted some aspects of her self-exploration. 2 of 5

Villains: The villains are a judgmental society that won’t let AIs have full rights. This is bad, but by this logic, pretty much every human society in history is far, far worse.

On the other hand, Common Orbit can also be read as a careless band of sentients willingly complicit in allowing an AI to change her own programming however she wishes, thus ushering in the soul-crushing rule of the machines … no, sorry, I can’t endorse that reading. In Chambers’s universe, even the soul-crushing rule by AI would be mostly benevolent and accepting. The AI would really empathize with the crushed souls. 0 of 5

Inventiveness: I’m not sure what’s new in this book; nothing even has the veneer of newness. The world of Common Orbit is the same as Angry Planet, and even if we see new areas of the universe, they don’t feel any different. The people certainly feel the same: tolerant, tech-savvy creatives without sexual, religious, or racial biases.

Sidra’s story certainly has been done before, and it doesn’t tread any new ground. The differences between AIs and organic sapients are ignored in favor of their commonalities, so nothing is really explored, and we certainly tread no new ground. Pepper’s story is traditional young-adult territory — a young girl is forced to survive in a hostile environment completely different from the world she was taught to expect — although I admit being raised by a sympathetic AI is a little different. Not enough different for this category, but different. 1 of 10.

Fun: The Sidra parts of Common Orbit are dishwater dull, full of parties that would hardly entice the most ardent social butterflies and contemplation of the small questions of AI, such as, “How can I adjust to one pair of forward-facing eyes when I once had cameras everywhere?” Pepper’s story brings the interest level up; it starts out promising, with an inquisitive 10-year-old girl in a world that is not what it seems, but it frequently gets bogged down with day-to-day minutiae. 2 of 5

Total: 6 of 30. I want to make this clear: Common Orbit is not a bad book. It wasn’t a chore to read, and it was relatively short; I’d read this five times consecutively before I would read half of Blackout or Three-Body Problem. It’s just a book with low stakes, low conflict, and for the first three-quarters of the text, low interest. But Chambers is improving: my interest in Angry Planet was nonexistent until the last tenth.

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2017 Hugo nominees

4th Sep. 2017 | 02:05 pm

So. I missed getting the Hugo posts up before the Hugos were actually announced, way back in the middle of August. I actually had the three recaps done, but I thought I had another week. I did not! I blame the Finns, but really I should be blaming myself.

After I missed the real deadline, I saw no reason to hurry with the posts. The week after the Hugos were awarded, I went to GenCon; the week after that, I watched the eclipse in Illinois and suffered through a cold. Last week I was just lazy.

But now I’m posting what I had written. Although The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin won the best novel award — congratulations to her! — I would have chosen Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Not enthusiastically, but really, no other book came close to it according to my arbitrary and not-well-thought-out criteria.

The full list of Hugo nominees:

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Death’s End by Cixin Liu

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2016 Nebula nominees

20th May. 2017 | 12:34 pm

This year, the Nebulas have only five nominees for best novel. Thank goodness; I’m not sure I could have taken another eight-candidate slate or seven. I’m not even sure I could have made it through six.

This year’s nominees are:

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Borderline by Mishell Baker
Everfair by Nisi Shawl

The Nebulas will be awarded today, May 20. I meant to spread my evaluations of these books over the week before the awards, but, well, that didn’t happen. So that means a quick dump of my thoughts on the five nominees. But it’s not like anyone is anticipating these posts or will read them, so I’m not disappointing anyone or shortchanging myself.

Enjoy!

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2016 Nebula nominee #1 and 2017 Hugo nominee #1: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

20th May. 2017 | 11:50 am

The Obelisk Gate coverThe first Nebula nominee and first Hugo nominee is The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin:

Plot: Middle book of what looks like a trilogy. Jemisin picks up where she left off at the end of The Fifth Season, and if you don’t remember where that was, then tough luck, buddy. You’ll have to figure it out as you go along, because Jemisin isn’t providing a recap or list of characters.

Jemisin’s plot goes through familiar middle territory, slowing the story down and making characters who were of tertiary importance in the original book into viewpoint characters. Essun, the protagonist, has abandoned the search for her daughter, kidnapped by her husband after he murdered their young son. Now she is residing in an underground community, preparing to survive a Season, a long winter caused by volcanic ash and seismic disturbances.

Essun is an orogene, a persecuted and enslaved minority that can control seismic vibrations and (to a limited extent) thermal energy. Her former mentor / lover / friend / rival / enemy Alabaster caused the cataclysm that created the current Season, and as he’s hurt and dying, he wants to teach Essun how to end the Season. But he doesn’t teach her anything, so Essun’s portion of the novel are mostly filled with laments at her slow pace of learning, Alabaster’s poor teaching skills, disputes within the community, and a glacial subplot in which another community comes to attack Essun’s new home. Every time the focus returned to Essun, I groaned: nothing was going to happen, and it was going to not happen very slowly. At the end, everything comes to a head, but it’s too little payoff for too long a wait.

In Gate, Jemisin also shows readers what happened to Nassun, Essun’s abducted daughter; she fled with / was kidnaped by her father, then joined a community with orogenes. Turns out she’s had it rough too! She has had to deal with her father’s murderous anti-orogene feelings, and then she runs into her mother’s previous keeper. Her relationship with her father progresses to a resolution, and her powers develop, but her story feels like a distraction rather than the main plot; her relationship to the powerful obelisks surrounding the planet feels more like a complicating factor to her mother’s relationship with the obelisks.

The less said about Hoa, a mysterious being known as a “stone eater,” and Schaffa, Essun’s cruel former master, the better. Their sections seem a waste. 1 of 5

Protagonists: Essun has lost the single-minded focus on finding her daughter that she had in the first book, and that’s to the novel’s detriment. Essun spends her time waiting for epiphanies, passing time that, with apocalypse looming, seems to demand action. She doesn’t seem to learn much either, all of which combines to make Essun appear weak — especially compared to the combative, chain-breaking badass in Fifth Season. Readers may feel for Essun and root for her, but most of the good will they have for the character was built during the previous book. (Or they might cheer for Essun because her enemies are so evil.) Either way, Essun is a shell of herself, and her daughter isn’t interesting enough to take up the slack. 2 of 5

Villains: The stone eaters, an offshoot of humanity who have evolved in strange ways and acquired great powers, loom behind a lot of the action in Obelisk Gate, and it’s unclear what they want exactly — some of them back Essun, some back her enemies — until the end of the book. Jemisin could play up their menace more, I think, but they get short shrift.

Schaffa, Nassun’s instructor and surrogate father, is a more interesting case. He once “taught” (read: tortured and enslaved) Essun, and now, with his brain radically altered, he has found Nassun. He’s kinder now than when he taught Essun, but he’s more unhinged, and he reveals a sinister intelligence tells him to do cruel things. Here is where the real menace lies in Obelisk Gate: what is Schaffa up to, and when will he snap? And what will happen when he does? 3 of 5

Inventiveness: Well, this is a sequel, with most of what is in this book set up by Fifth Season. Jemisin does bring the stone eaters and obelisks more to the fore, but they are almost as mysterious as before. The stone eaters have mysterious factions with mysterious goals, but that isn’t exactly new.

Every plot element is built upon something from Fifth Season, and there’s no new direction or surprise to replace or serve as a foundation for a third book. (Well, I suppose “genocide is OK, if it’s the right people being killed” is a surprise, but even that builds upon Alabaster’s world reaving in the first book.) The surprising plot structure of Fifth Season, in which Jemisin retold Essun’s life story from three different time periods, when she had three different identities, without revealing they are all Essun, is not replaced with anything as entertaining; the best Jemisin can do in Obelisk Gate is different viewpoint characters. 1 of 10

Fun: Although I’ve gone on about how slow Obelisk Gate is, it isn’t always dull. The prospect of a fight at the end of the novel does give the book a slow build of tension, and the resolution of Essun’s learning about the obelisks is some degree of satisfying — if for no other reason than she can stop not knowing things. Nassun’s storyline also gives a few surprising plot twists as she explores her abilities under the twisted mentorship of Schaffa.

Overall, though, this is a book that could use something more — more action, more humor, more focus, more revelations. 2 of 5

Total: 9 of 30. I’ve rated a few books this low, and Obelisk Gate is better than all of them; it’s better than some books that are rated higher. But unfortunately, Obelisk Gate coasts on what Fifth Season has created and doesn’t reach for more.

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2016 Nebula nominee #2 and 2017 Hugo nominee #2: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

20th May. 2017 | 03:13 am

All the Birds in the Sky coverThe 2016 Nebula award slate has a manageable five nominees for best novel. The second nominee for the Nebula for best novel and the second nominee for the 2017 Hugo best novel award is All the Birds in the Sky by Charley Jane Anders:

Plot: Harry Potter (without Hogwarts) mixed with Neal Stephenson (without the optimism), set 15-minutes in the future. Patricia Delfine is a witch, although the world tries to convince her otherwise while she’s young; Laurence Armstead is a scientific genius, although everyone acts as if his accomplishments are not noteworthy. As middle-school (?) classmates, they form a bond that isn’t quite a friendship because Laurence is a bad friend and they’re awkward teen / tweens.

As adults, they are thrown into a world that’s rapidly dying from climate change and resource depletion, and they use their gifts in different directions. Patricia’s witch colleagues allow her to use her abilities sporadically in unobtrusive ways; meanwhile, Laurence’s employer has him creating a way to get off Earth and transport as many humans as possible to an exoplanet. When that device has a possibility of destroying the Earth, the previously passive and unhelpful witches become less passive and more unhelpful — even though the device’s creators agree not to use it except as a last resort.

If someone related every bit of the plot and setting to me, I would agree that each individual step makes sense. But having read all of Birds, parts of the novel feel like they don’t belong with other parts, and overall, the book seems to hang together like a suit jacket created by three tailors working at the same time, veering from ridiculous to deadly serious to lighthearted. Also, the world feels barely sketched in at times. The witches’ school at Eltisley Maze is mostly names and room descriptions without mythology; for such an important part of the plot, it gets short shrift. The Nameless Order of Assassins, which Theodolphus, a chief antagonist, works for, feels like a joke, despite Theodolphus’s importance to the plot. The place Patricia and Laurence grew up in —a town in New York or New England? — failed to make much of an impression on me, which is surprising. Anders’s San Francisco is mainly restaurants and other urban gathering places, which have little character.

Also: The answer of “I don’t know” to the riddle “Is a tree red?” is considered a profound response, a climax to 300 pages of story. Perhaps if the protagonists could have used this epiphany to influence the story or their development, perhaps I would buy it. I mean, that answer has some wisdom to it — sometimes you must know when to admit your ignorance — but it’s not a useful note to end a novel on. (Besides, “Sometimes” is a more riddle-like answer and more helpful as an answer.) 2 of 5

Protagonists: Laurence and Patricia are marked as special from the start. Laurence’s brilliance at science is shown throughout the book, even if no one at his school or at home seems to be willing acknowledge or encourage it. Patricia learns how to speak with animals by herself, so that’s impressive, but it’s never mentioned whether that ability is something everyone can learn or if only certain gifted people can. I suppose, in that sense, is no different from Laurence’s scientific abilities: technically, anyone can learn physics, but we all know that’s probably not true. Each mind has its limitations.

Similarly, it’s not clear how Patricia becomes as powerful as she does, but even though Laurence’s path is clearer, the answer is probably the same: aptitude and application. We don’t see much of the application for either — the schooling and early career of both is glossed over —so their growth seems mysterious, and their power at times seems unearned. I understand their growth isn’t the story Anders wants to tell, and at times it’s not germane to the story. But with more than a third of the story being devoted to their crappy youths, leaving out their growth leaves a hole in the story.

Anders does a good job of showing the two protagonists circling each other throughout their lives. They are drawn to each other for different reasons throughout the book; at some points, it’s only familiarity or nostalgia that pulls one into the other’s orbit. As adults, they are strong and independent, each with existences beyond the other, so that even when they come together the reader can wonder whether they will stay together.

Patricia’s attack on energy extractors in Siberia while a student witch is brought up often, and when the story is told in flashback, it sounds as if it should be significant — basically, a student dies when Patricia and her friends launch an ill-conceived attack on a Russian drilling operation. But it doesn’t feel significant, and Patricia usually sounds more irritated when it is brought up than affected by the death of another (and the possible acceleration of Earth’s death spiral the operation caused).

I would have sympathized with the protagonists more if their plights had been more relatable — and I don’t mean that in the sense that I wished their worlds were more grounded. I know I’m reading speculative fiction; I don’t need serious-literature realism. But neither Patricia nor Laurence used their gifts to fight against those who tormented them as children; in a world where the impossible exists, neither one can fight their real (if unrealistically powerful — see below) antagonists.

Oh! There’s also an artificial intelligence named Peregrine, who fittingly wanders in and out of the plot. He’s not important, for the most part, except when he uses his mighty cloud-based plothammer to smack events into the right shape. He’s created by Laurence, mostly, with some help by Patricia, and then is forgotten until almost the end, when he becomes not quite a god but more like amicus potens ex machina. 3 of 5

Villains: The main antagonist is that dread villain Miscommunication. A versatile baddie, he / she is. In the first half of the book, teenage / tweenage awkwardness causes Patricia and Laurence to be unable to express their feelings for one another and not to be there for the other at their moment of need. In the second half, Patricia’s cabal wraps itself in secrecy, and Patricia and Laurence are only marginally better at expressing themselves. In the first half, becoming who they want to be prevents the protagonists from arriving at tragedy; in the second, nothing does. This is the most realistic part of the book, and it is the most jejune.

The conflict in the first half of Birds is fomented by Theodolphus, an assassin-cum-guidance counselor. His secret assassins’ organization has prevented him from killing the two lead children, but since he’s seen that they will someday destroy the world, he decides to use counseling to destroy their lives. I’ve long thought guidance counselor was an underrated profession for villains, and Theodolphus uses the position to further his agenda splendidly.

But Theodolphus’s success hinges on the community’s alternating disinterest and hatred of Patricia and Laurence. In Birds, no adult listens to a single child ever; the mob of children and their hatreds rule all perception, and Patricia and Laurence are always doomed. I know we’re supposed to be impressed by the powers of the forces, both mighty and mundane, arrayed against them, but I think we must consider everyone around young Patricia and Laurence as awful human beings, and their parents — especially Laurence’s — are despicable parents who probably should not have had children.

What I’m saying is Anders lays on the difficulties of growing up different a bit thick. Divorcing Birds’s setting from the real world and making the purportedly special protagonists passively accept their punishments emphasizes the unreality of their tormentors. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: Birds envisions a world that’s mostly like ours except for a few technological twists. Laurence constructs, as a child, a time machine that advances him two seconds into the future, although no one finds that remarkable. This advanced science also exists in a world with witches and secret assassins, although the latter are surprisingly non-entities. The science is not remarkable to the run-of-the-mill population (except for the electronic personal assistant / iPad knockoff unfortunately named Caddy), and none of the witches are allowed to reveal themselves. This emulsion of science and magic is not uncommon.

What this book seems to be aiming for — and based on the cover blurbs, it succeeds for some people — is Whimsy and Enchantment and Insight. (Also: based on the cover blurbs, the science / magic admixture is far more captivating than I give it credit for.) As I mentioned earlier, I do find the book strangely unreal; perhaps that’s what people are picking up on. I don’t find it appealingly so, and I’m not sure the unreality was what Anders was going for. 3 of 10

Fun: Birds is an entertaining book, and it rarely gets bogged down or lets the plot stall. The end of the world is not as gloomy as one would think either. The parts of the book I don’t find convincing were generally breezy and understandable glosses (the witches’ school, the two-second time machine), but I found the San Franciscan tech / hipster bubble the protagonists lived in in the second half of the book offputting. I mean, I know that it’s real (or a reasonable extrapolation of reality), but the characters talking about the end of the world while surrounded by frivolous nonsense and luxury is irritating. 4 of 5

Total: 14 of 30. I have a feeling Birds will win, no matter what my process says.

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2016 Nebula nominee #3 and 2017 Hugo nominee #3: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

19th May. 2017 | 05:35 pm

Ninefox Gambit cover The 2016 Nebula award slate has a manageable five nominees for best novel. The third nominee for best novel and the third nominee for the 2017 Hugo best novel is Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee:

Plot: Space opera mixed with sci-fi weirdness. In the hexarchate, consensus is prized. Similar thinking is necessary not only for its military and government, but its citizens as well; when the citizens begin deviating from the standard thinking, the society begins to fall apart, and the government must “correct” matters — first by propaganda and re-education, then by military power. The hexarchate does this not just because it cannot tolerate dissent but because this consensus gives the hexarchate power. Mostly the reader sees this in formations, in which the military caste can ignore certain weapon effects if they’re in the right mindset and position, and in “exotic” weapons, which can function only if consensus has made the mathematics right for their operation. Although this concept is new and exciting in its implications, the new ideas and terminology constantly and furiously thrown at the reader at the beginning of Ninefox Gambit make it difficult to get past the first 40 pages. Once past that, though, the book smooths out.

Captain Kel Cheris used heretical formations to save her troops while putting down a heresy, so the Hexarchate decides to use her to destroy an even larger heresy. Unfortunately, to get the edge she needs against that heresy, she proposes that she be allowed to have the mind of disgraced general Shuos Jedao installed in her brain. Jedao never lost a battle during his career, but in his final battle, he destroyed both his side and the heretics’ in addition to killing his entire command staff. It’s a bit of a desperate maneuver, but it’s a credible one; Cheris isn’t the first who has tried it.

Together, they try to crack the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Ninefox Gambit is written (mostly) from the point of view of commanders, with Jedao educating Cheris on the unpleasant realities of being a commander — your staff doesn’t need you around all the time, you’ll be fighting for respect and power among your own commanders, you’ll have to sacrifice troops, etc. He even has to tell her to sleep when she can. Military endeavors on the fortress are often related in brief vignettes from the viewpoint of other characters; these stories aren’t necessary, and they don’t contribute as much to the reader’s understanding or narrative as they perhaps should. The reader is also not given an overall view of how the campaign is progressing, but that’s most likely intentional — how do you map the battle for a changing consensus, and even in a purely military campaign, the rear-echelon commanders don’t have the best understanding of what’s going on at the front. (Those vignettes on board the fortress, which illuminate that which Lee has otherwise left dark, makes their presence even more frustrating.) 3 of 5

Protagonists: Cheris is a career military officer, but it’s easy to see why she is where she is — she cares for soldiers and is quick thinking, but she’s not the greatest at political games, and she has trouble working out some of the implications of her actions; she seems to be a decent person, even to the point of being the only human who treats the mechanical servitors with respect. She should be an excellent person to follow in a book in which the action, like so much of war, is relentlessly amoral.

Jedao is a difficulty, however. Readers can never be entirely sure how much Jedao allows Cheris to express her true self and how much he coerces her. Many readers will enjoy this ambiguity, although I find it frustrating; we don’t have enough time with Cheris to get more than a baseline of her personality. Jedao keeps his true personality concealed as well because he’s trying to implement a very long-term plan that would be ruined if he let anyone know his true thoughts. But that does make Jedao more interesting: he has been an unsolvable riddle for centuries, the heptarchate’s greatest commander who suddenly went insane, so Cheris gaining an epiphany on his motivations would be strange, as would Jedao confiding in Cheris. 4 of 5

Villains: The villains are a bit nebulous, heretics hiding away on the Fortress of Scattered Needles. We get a few glimpses of reports filed by one of the heretics, who appears to be working for an outside force, but we don’t get an explanation of who that is, other than an enemy of the hexarchate. As for the heretics’ motives … well, they’re trying to reinstitute an old heresy, but it’s left unclear whether that heresy would help society or government function any better or worse.

Jedao occasionally behaves like a villain, taking control of Cheris’s body and forcing her to do what he wants to make a point or pushing the hard moral choices upon Cheris. But given his ultimate plan, the hexarchate is the biggest villain; to further its own political agenda, consensus is forced upon its soldiers and citizens, and dissent is met with warfare, re-education, and enforced conformity. Its leaders wage internecine struggles. Unfortuantely, we don’t get to see this society working normally, so it’s hard to tell whether the sword’s edge Cheris inhabits is abnormal. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: I enjoyed the idea of weaponizing consensus. We think of consensus as a good thing — everybody agrees we’re going in the right direction, right? — but it’s not always true. Those who fundamentally disagree with a large-scale consensus often find themselves trapped in it, unconsciously agreeing with the consensus’s constructs because they can’t see beyond their immediate disagreements. The fundamental unit of consensus in Ninefox Gambit is the calendar, which makes perfect sense; the Christians, for instance, usurped pagan festivals and made sure everyone lived by their feast days and holy celebrations. The fundamental belief behind the hexarchate’s calendar is never explored, although in some ways, it doesn’t matter: even if our Christmas and Easter are given larger secular meanings, everyone engages with the idea of the holidays with their original Christian meanings at the back of their minds, and woe betide those who get caught in heresy (not giving enough lip service to those meaning).

The mechanism that allows the hexarchate to turn consensus into weapons and protections is never explored, though. Someone made the discovery, and the society instituted it. In many ways, readers no more need to know how belief gets turned into war materiel than I needed to know the physiological implications of Jaunting in The Stars My Destination. Still, this lack of connection makes that initial connection to the book harder to leap.

Once beyond the exotic effects of consensus, the book’s background seems much more mundane. What we see of the hexarchate is its military / governing castes, which are made up of six (as the name suggests) factions. That everyone in power belongs to these groups, and that to get into these groups a person must excel in the group’s particular specialty, is a bit YA and more than a little artificial. We don’t get to see beyond the hexarchate, and only from Cheris and Jedao do we get glimpses that these elites are taken from societies that are much different from the hexarchate. 7 of 10

Fun: This is a difficult category. Ninefox Gambit is a book that takes place almost entirely in battle or on the fringes of battle. The author gives the book almost no humorous touches, other than snide comments by a heretic reporting to another heretic. The protagonist is constantly being introduced to the harsh realities of war by a mentor / tormentor, who also reminds her he could be using or controlling her. She’s encouraged to shoot herself if her mentor starts making too much sense. That all adds up to a grim book that may be riveting or interesting, but it’s hard to see the fun in that.

On the other hand, Ninefox Gambit isn’t a depressing slog. The action keeps the book moving, and the technologies are fascinating and inventive. The humanity of the characters is never lost, which is a credit to Lee and his protagonist, Cheris. Despite the fighting, nothing seems hopeless — matters are often bewildering and usually have a high probability of fatalities, but while Lee acknowledges this, he never lets despair take over the book. These attributes keep the book from being boring or relentlessly depressing, even if it doesn’t make it more entertaining. 2 of 5

Total: 18 of 30. That’s enough to win, I think.

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2016 Nebula nominee #4: Borderline by Mischell Baker

19th May. 2017 | 04:49 pm

Borderline cover The 2016 Nebula award slate has a manageable five nominees for best novel. The fourth nominee for best novel is Borderline by Mishell Baker:

Plot: Urban fantasy combined with mental health / disability awareness. Former student filmmaker Millicent Roper is recovering from a suicide attempt in which she lost both of her lower legs and dealing with her borderline personality disorder when a representative of the Arcadia Project approaches her. The project, Millicent is told, gives second chances: she’ll be a glorified gofer on film projects, but she might get a second chance to make movies.

When she agrees to leave the hospital and join the project, though, she learns the Arcadia Project is something quite different: It serves as a liaison between the world of Hollywood and the world of faerie. She and her new partner are sent to track down a faerie lord who needs to be sent back to the Seelie Court, but he turns out to be harder to find than anyone anticipates, and Millie uncovers a Hollywood conspiracy, an Unseelie plot, and her muse / soul mate.

The plot is satisfying but not as rich as it could be. The plot is just twisty enough to drive the story forward, although the fantasy elements don’t get explored in depth all that often. The focus of the story is on Millie and her struggle with borderline personality disorder; Millie’s investigation comes second, leaving the faerie elements sucking the hind teat when it comes to development. Millie’s psychological problems are interesting, but they risk becoming obtrusive, and BPD in particular makes it difficult for a first-person narrator like Millie explore the other characters in depth. 3 of 5

Protagonists: Millicent Roper has two main problems at the beginning of Borderline: She has borderline personality disorder and she has lost her lower legs (one above the knee, one below) in a suicide attempt. These conditions are intrinsic to who Millie is, and a lot of the book is taken up by Millicent’s descriptions of them.

Surprisingly, the lack of lower legs isn’t as debilitating as I would have expected for someone who has been adjusting to the amputations for only a few months. Millie usually gets around well on her prosthetics, and she doesn’t have to resort to her wheelchair very often. Sometimes it’s possible to forget Millie relies on prosthetics; I’m unsure if this is because of my expectations about how debilitating such a loss should be, because Baker is making a point about disability, or because it is narratively more convenient not to restrict her movement so much.

Borderline personality disorder is a psychological condition related to emotional instability, which can often end in self-harm or suicide. Strangely, I found Millie’s emotions related to her BPD the most easily relatable. The feelings of betrayal and persecution, the wildly swinging and intense, long-lasting emotions, the rage — those all were believable to me, and they felt natural to the character and narrative. Whether this is because of Baker’s writing or because of my own mental makeup is a question I leave to the reader, but I credit Baker.

Millie’s most irritating characteristics have less to do with her borderline personality disorder and more that she acts like the idiotic protagonist of every narrative ever. She hares off into situations she doesn’t quite comprehend without her co-workers — without even letting them know where she’s going — and not informing them of what information she gathered. She runs into danger without considering the consequences, which for someone learning the rules of a dangerous world is moronic. She breaks the rules because … well, she doesn’t have much regard for them. (That last may be because of BPD, however.) For someone trying to impress a superior to gain a place where she might belong despite her problems, Millie doesn’t seem to think about how to get that goal. Or I suppose Millie does, but where that place is changes too much for her to act consistently. People with BPD may act impulsively, yes, but it’s convenient that these actions also drive the plot along faster.

Now that I think about it, Millie’s investigative path isn’t that different from the average amateur sleuth. For someone so cognitively different, that’s disappointing. 3 of 5

Villains: At the heart of the plot is a conspiracy, which gives readers a lot of minor villains to choose from. The main villain, however, is Vivian, a talent agent who is also an Unseelie sorcerer permanently exiled to Earth. She is built up as a terrifying specter — don’t touch her, don’t tell her your name, she has little regard for human life — but she only breaks her veneer of civility at the end, and she’s beaten in a humiliating manner. Vivian is frightening, but only for a chapter or so — imagine if Darth Vader’s arc starts with strangling rebels on Princess Leia’s ship, and then he gets pushed into the sarlacc pit a few scenes later. 2 of 5

Inventiveness: It’s an urban fantasy, so from a genre perspective, Borderline isn’t going to be hailed as a standard bearer for a new speculative fiction subgenre. The urban fantasy element is that all the creative people in Hollywood have met their echoes, who faeries from the Seelie Court who somehow complete them. Such relatively benign supernatural forces in the creative parts of Hollywood doesn’t strike me as unusual. (Unimportant cavil: Iron / steel, especially integrated into human anatomy, is inimical to faerie magic; Baker credits comic book writer Len Wein and his echo for tapping into this faerie horror when Wein co-created Wolverine. But Wein didn’t come up with the metal adamantium being part of Wolverine’s skeleton; that was Chris Claremont and John Byrne.)

What separates Borderline from other urban fantasy is Millie’s personality disorder and physical disability. As I mentioned above, Millie’s disability doesn’t force the narrative to adapt much to her needs, but a protagonist with a borderline personality disorder is an interesting narrative challenge. Baker makes Millie very self-aware to explain the disorder to readers, but that doesn’t detract from the difficulty of writing such a protagonist or fitting her into a narrative. 3 of 10

Fun: Borderline is, in most ways, a standard urban fantasy. While that works against the book in the previous category, it is a bonus in this one. Although Borderline’s plot isn’t unprecedentedly thrilling, Baker rarely lets the action flag, maintains the mystery throughout, and doesn’t let the exposition or Millie’s mental illness get in the way of the plot development. The plot twist in which a female character suddenly gains a supernatural soul mate is too well worn for comfort, but Baker subverts it a bit. 4 of 5

Total: 15 of 30. There’s something to be said about being likeable, I suppose.

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2016 Nebula nominee #5: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

19th May. 2017 | 04:38 pm

Everfair coverThe 2016 Nebula award slate has a manageable five nominees for best novel. The fifth nominee for best novel is Everfair by Nisi Shawl:

Plot: Alternate history in late 19th / early 20th century Congo. The Fabian Society, a band of English reformers, band together to buy large tracts of land from King Leopold of Belgium, hoping to stop the crimes against humanity that the Belgians are perpetrating against the natives to increase the rubber harvest. The Fabians, African-Americans, and Africans band together to drive out the Belgians and found a nation the Anglophones dub “Everfair.”

That’s an outstanding idea for a story. Unfortunately, Shawl elides almost all the large-scale points of conflict. Other than a few daring rescues, little of the battle to throw off the colonial shackles is shown, and almost none of the suffering caused by war is explored. Only one important character dies, and that character’s death is foreshadowed so heavily the actual event loses all impact. Other conflicts that the nascent nation undergoes — involvement in World War I and the rumblings of a civil war — are even more bloodless, with the Great War being restricted to a few dirigible flights and the civil war getting a single dirigible battle and a few instances of house arrest.

(The map at the beginning has a legend mentioning Everfair was forced by treaty to give land back to Belgium, presumably as a penalty for being on the losing side in World War I. This is not mentioned in the text.)

So if the actual struggle for independence and nationhood is shortchanged, what is the plot about? Miscegenation, as its detractors put it, and various romantic struggles. But the troubles experienced by interracial partners is almost entirely inflicted by the other partner — usually with whites carrying racial prejudices they don’t realize they have, although in one couple it’s the African-American who struggles with prejudices. No one suffers through vandalism or intimidation, and there’s little name-calling. Even the lesbians suffer little open opposition, despite their lack of secrecy.

I know not all stories have to have explosive conflicts. But when a novel explicitly spans three wars and involves racial animosities, I can’t see how real human beings could avoid causing the kind of fireworks that aren’t visible in Everfair. 1 of 5

Protagonists: You want viewpoint characters? Everfair has all the viewpoint characters you could want! In fact, it has many, many more than I want. Everfair splits the narrative between nearly a dozen protagonists. That is, on average, about 30 pages for each protagonist, although Lisette Toutournier, a Frenchwoman incorporated into a polygamous English household and taken to Everfair with the rest of the family, gets more than the rest of the characters. To be fair, Lisette is the most sympathetic and interesting character; she sacrifices her love for principle, and she’s a master spy. On the other hand, she’s the most opaque character, as we don’t see her reactions to shocks that would rattle most people to their cores: her introduction to her lover’s current and future wife and her assimilation of her African roots into her identity.

The rest of the characters are forgettable; none of them get enough time on the page to gain the reader’s interest, and most of them aren’t that important to the plot. One of these characters dies, and he isn’t even important enough for us to see his demise. One of them has the ability to control several cats at once, and we don’t learn this until she has been the viewpoint character a few times. Also: THERE’S A WOMAN WHO CAN CONTROL CATS AND WE DON’T FIND OUT ABOUT THIS UNTIL THREE-QUARTERS OF THE WAY THROUGH THE BOOK? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER IS THIS AUTHOR?

*ahem* I’m just saying, that’s kinda awesome, and it seems such an important revelation — one that helps us understand what a fundamental rewriting of reality that this book presents — that burying it so deeply in the book feels like a cheat. 1 of 5

Villains: In the real world. the Belgians were top-notch villains; little positive can be said about how they treated the native tribes in the Congo. Unfortunately, the reader sees little of the Belgians, even as the effects of their cruelty are seen in every one-handed African the book presents — and there are a lot of them. For such a horrific foe, the Belgians are more conspicuous by their absence than their presence, and they are defeated off page. They are not impressive.

After Everfair’s independence and during World War I, a reader might expect the colonial powers — a group mainly synonymous with the nations in the Triple Entente — to oppose Everfair. To this end, one spy / assassin is sent to Everfair by the English. He makes three appearances: in one, he never gets a chance to kill a protagonist, and in another, he almost kills a different protagonist. (In the other, he tries to exert influence in Everfair and is thoroughly rebuffed.) He is not impressive either.

The real villain is miscommunication — lovers who can’t tell each other the truth, rulers and subjects who can’t agree on how government should work because they won’t raise the big questions with one another, Africans who won’t tell the colonists the truth about how they feel about imperialism and progress and paternalism. It’s more realistic than Three’s Company-style misunderstandings, but it’s nowhere near as amusing. 1 of 5

Inventiveness: Counterfactual stories that rewrite history as a result of events that do not relate to World War II or the Civil War are rare; ones that rewrite history as a result of a war that didn’t even happen are even rarer. Setting an alternate history in Africa is the remarkable cherry on the unusual cake.

Everfair also gives its fictional nation immense advantages: transportation, prosthetic, and weapon technology devised years ahead of the actual world, an African god who tangibly and responsively hears his worshipers’ prayers, people who can freaking control and see through the eyes of animals. On one hand, this makes for an even more unusual setting; on the other hand, it seems like Everfair has been given a plethora of assets beyond what would be necessary to change history. All writers stack the deck in the favor of the events they wish to happen, but Shawl gives Everfair every advantage possible, making its victories feel inevitable. Any nation who has a god who gives his priest intelligence and the ability to lob fireballs has a definite leg up on its enemies. 6 of 10

Fun: This is not a book about war, or struggle, or even building a nation. This is a book of relationships, and planning (but not letting the reader see the follow-through), and sidelining action scenes. The switching between viewpoint characters stalls any momentum the book does build. I literally put the book aside for two nights when I was less than 100 pages from the end because the thought of picking the book up filled me with lassitude.

Everfair isn’t the dullest award nominee I’ve read, nor is it the most dispiriting. But it is a book I had no trouble putting down. 1 of 5

Total: 10 of 30. Everfair won’t win, but this isn’t an embarrassing score — especially with all the bad things I said about the book.

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The post on Epsode 16 is delayed, but here's a link ...

4th Nov. 2016 | 12:10 pm

Since I’m now planning how to spend my remaining days before the end of this planet called Earth, I’ll be too busy to write my regular post on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. The next post in that series, “City at the Edge of Midnight” (#16), will be in two weeks. Also: If there are any eschatologists out there making book on how the world will end, put me down for $50 on “Trump” and another $25 on a parlay of “Trump” and “Chicago smugness” working together.

For those of you who are interested, Comics Alliance has posted a video of 12 facts you may not have known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. I knew these things, but hey — I’ve been writing about the series for a while now.

I saw the video mentioned on writer Mark Evanier’s site. Evanier developed the show for television and wrote / co-wrote a couple of episodes. He mentions that despite what the video says, he did not co-create Groo the Wanderer, but everything else seems kosher. Well, not quite: The narrator keeps mispronouncing Venger’s name, making the “g” a hard g (like “penguin”) rather than a soft g (like “avenger”). That’s distracting and makes me wonder why that wasn’t caught. It’s not like the series was ambiguous about the pronunciation, and his name was said almost every episode.

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Three Things about ... The Dark Side by Anthony O'Neill

28th Oct. 2016 | 06:42 pm

The Dark Side coverThree things about The Dark Side by Anthony O’Neill:

  1. The kind of man who cites his sources: Unsurprisingly, given the title, The Dark Side is a novel set on the far side of the moon, although O’Neill points out that “dark side” is not an exact synonym of “far side”: the far side is the side of the moon we on Earth never see, as it’s always pointed away from us, while the dark side is whatever half of the moon the sun isn’t shining on at the moment.

    This observation could be a predictor of one of two things: Either the author is being pedantic / precise or he is trying to be as accurate as possible scientifically. The latter is the case, in an impressive way.

    O’Neill does his best to make the Moon societies in Dark Side as realistic as possible, and he tries to look at the difficulties of roving the lunar surface after years of lunar exploration and colonization. Although O’Neill never skimps on the dangers of living on an airless satellite, the book never seems bogged down by his explanations, nor does it seem like the colonists’ fixes are unrealistic. The narrator considers problems ranging from physiological to material to chemical and physical (in the sense of physics): the effects of moon dusts on humans, how the moving terminator would affect a man in a spacesuit, how a habitat might get rain and what that rain might look like … it’s impressive, and looking through summaries of O’Neill’s other novels, it seems like he’s the kind of writer who does his research and integrates it into his work.

    And he literally ends the novel with a two-page acknowledgements section that lists the dozens of sources he used to get the lunar science right.

  2. Go ahead and detect, if you’re a detective: Because of the science and other aspects of the novel, like the protagonist and the noir trappings, I enjoyed Dark Side quite a bit. But for the next two items, I’m going to discuss things I didn’t like; they are things I wanted more than needed, and my expectations shouldn’t be seen as a recommendation against the book.

    Dark Side‘s protagonist, new Lt. Justus Damien, has a reputation as a dogged detective, but we don’t see him doing much investigation. Partially, that’s because he’s a lieutenant and doesn’t have to do the canvassing and grunt work that is given to detectives. He’s also immediately famous in Purgatory, the corrupt, independent city-state on the far side of the moon, where the press portrays him as the new broom who will sweep out corruption; he’s congratulated and celebrated wherever he goes, making confidentiality and getting information out of common people difficult.

    Soon after Justus appears in Purgatory, one of its high officials is assassinated in a bombing. Justus and his team investigate the murder and subsequent killings of influential citizens, but the Purgatory police department is incompetent and corrupt. That’s the way Purgatory’s founder and patriarch, Fletcher Brass, wants it, or so it seems; throughout the book, Justus is trying to determine if Brass hired him specifically. It seems unlikely, given that Brass is a ruthless capitalist who has always put himself above others, but Brass is also leaving Purgatory for a manned Mars mission. Who knows what the real agendas are?

    Certainly not Justus. His only recourse is to interview people — mostly the important people in Purgatory, such as Brass and his daughter, Q.T. Brass. These are important people in the investigation, but we rarely see what is driving the investigation forward since the forensics investigation almost nonexistent and Justus can’t get information out of his subordinates; he can’t even discipline or threaten them.

    It’s hard to get interested in a mystery when the investigation is completely shrouded from the readers. Justus doesn’t learn much from the Brasses, who are both charismatic liars, and we don’t see into Justus’s thought processes very far. He does pursue some lines of inquiry, making calls around the moon, but we don’t follow those conversations; instead, we learn about them only when Justus’s boss reveals he monitors Justus’s phone conversations.

    In the end, Justus relies on his intuition rather than evidence to pinpoint the malefactor. His solution is the likely one, but the lack of evidence makes it an unsatisfying conclusion. The reader knew the murderer was the biggest bastard around at the beginning, and that’s the main evidence Justus uses against him at the end as well.

  3. Two vast and trunkless threads of plot stand in the (lunar) desert: Dark Side feels like two novels interlaced. Justus’s investigations into Purgatory’s political murders is one of the plots; the other involves a killer robot rampaging across the lunar landscape to get to Purgatory. Unfortunately, the two individual plot threads don’t have enough in common, other than their lunar settings and the way they intersected at the end, to make up one complete novel.

    The killer robot is superficially charming, but his charm makes his interactions with people monotonous: He seems normal, enters their residence or vehicle, then slowly reveals his psychosis (based on the Brass Code, Brass’s rules for ruthless capitalism) as he acquires what he wants from the human before murdering her or him. This does allow O’Neill to show readers a wider selection of lunar residents, and some of their stories are amusing. When someone is following the robot, the story becomes more interesting, but that’s rare, and the robot meets no credible threats to its rampage.

    But the only suspense in those vignettes is whether anyone will survive the robot, and the answer is always “no.” Now, I can see the argument that those scenes are not supposed to be interesting: we are supposed to be seeing the satirical end result of Brass’s cruel philosophies played out with robotic strength and certainty. (Plus his safeguards are turned off, meaning none of Asimov’s laws apply.) However, one or two or three of those would be enough to get that across, and instead, the killing goes on and on.

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Dungeons & Dragons #15: The Treasure of Tardos

24th Oct. 2016 | 04:22 am

The Treasure of Tardos title card

Original air date: 15 September 1984
Writer: Michael Reaves

This is the first episode by Michael Reaves, who — after Jeffrey Scott — is the series’ second most prolific writer. Reaves wrote six episodes and co-wrote another; most importantly, he wrote “Requiem,” the unproduced series finale. (No matter what anyone tells you, there was never an episode where the kids got to go home. That’s just the Mandela Effect working.)

The episode starts not with its usual danger but with a long, loving pan over a pastel landscape, following a pair of birds. I praised Toei last episode, but this opening is not among its more distinctive efforts. When we finally get to the party, about 15 seconds in, Bobby is trying to give Uni a bath while everyone else looks on. Uni is having none of it, even though Bobby insists, “This is for your own good.”

“Yeah,” Eric says. “Nobody likes a dirty unicorn.” I can’t imagine that’s even remotely true, especially since — I assume — a “dirty unicorn” is a sex act somewhere … in the Realms, if not in our world. It is correct, though, that no one should have a dirty unicorn around a 9-year-old boy. Too much of a chance for misunderstandings.

Uni slips from Bobby’s grasp, dumping Bobby into the water. Nobody laughs except for Eric, showing his friends’ hypocrisy: if that had happened to Eric, they would have busted their guts. Of course, it is funny when Eric is splashed with water after Bobby jumps after Uni but misses. Eric takes it in stride, though: “Well, since I’m wet anyway, maybe I’ll just go for a swim.” He even tosses his cape on Presto’s head, covering the Magician’s look of gape-mouthed wonder. You think maybe Presto had been looking forward to this moment, seeing Eric disrobe as he walks into the water, and Eric’s teasing him? I do!

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Treasure of Tardos” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric running from a dinosaurAs Eric is pulling off his chainmail shirt, showing he wears a white wifebeater underneath, a giant mosasaur emerges from under the water. I will remind everyone: This is the shallow water Bobby was washing Uni in and Eric was wading through. Where did this creature come from? Does the river bed suddenly drop from less than a foot deep to a couple of fathoms? Stupid Realms with its stupid geology.

As one does when confronted with a giant, fanged dinosaur, Eric retreats, redonning his chain mail. A roar sounds from far away, and the mosasaur gets a move on, running / swimming / wading down the river away from the party and the roar. “That thing wasn’t attacking,” Hank says. “It was running scared!”

(Geek aside: A mosasaur — or as the Monster Manual describes it, a mosasaurus — is a marine dinosaur. There is absolutely nothing else interesting about mosasaurs, at least in Dungeons & Dragons.)

The party in a ring around Dungeon MasterEric, still frightened, bumps into Dungeon Master, and the source of the mosasaur’s fright becomes obvious. If I were a dumb beast, I’d run from the misshapen runt too. Dungeon Master then tells the kids great danger lies ahead. Of course there is — in other news, water’s wet, Venger’s head is asymmetrical, and unicorn is good eating, dirty or not. “What this time, O terrible tour guide?” Eric asks.

A danger that will keep them from getting home, Dungeon Master says, because it could destroy the Realms themselves. “If this world is destroyed,” he explains, “you will have no chance of returning from it.” Well, he has a point: can’t go home if you’re dead. Also: The Realms is where they keep all their stuff! He names the threat as Demodragon: “A terrible creature. Half demon, half dragon, whose power could devastate the Realm.” The difference between Demodragon and Dungeon Master? We don’t know Dungeon Master’s genetic makeup.

Sheila asks what they can do. Oh, poor, naïve Sheila: you know you’re going to be called upon to destroy / neutralize / terminate with extreme prejudice poor Demodragon. But Dungeon Master is content to point them in a direction and let things take their deadly course: “Seek out the city called Tardos Keep.” He gives them a map — a map! Cartographers rejoice! — and tells them to defeat Demodragon, they will have to help “the one who stands against you.” Eric thinks this vague, and the lack of definite answers enrages him; the tendons in his neck stand out as he rails against Dungeon Master. But the answer is obvious, Eric: It’s Venger. You’re going to have to help Venger.

Map of route to Tardos KeepNone of the other kids have any idea what that could mean, because they’re stupid. When they turn to press Dungeon Master, he’s vanished. They look at the map: they’ll have to go over the Alicorn River (“Alicorn” is a name for a winged unicorn, which is irrelevant) and through the Dustlands to reach Tardos Keep.

While the others head out, Eric turns and starts walking the other way. What’s he hoping to accomplish by this? Wander off, get lost, and die alone? Surely he knows he’s not going to survive long by himself. Or maybe he knows they’ll all end up in the same place, like they did when he split off in “In Search of the Dungeon Master.” Before he can get very far, Sheila has turned invisible, headed him off, and herded him in the right direction. She manages to do so without humiliating him in front of the others, which is nice of her.

***

Party overlooking frozen riverWhile wandering over a dusty hill with skeletal trees, Diana claims the group is traveling through the “Wondrous Woods.” That name wasn’t on the map we saw, though. “Doesn’t look too wondrous to me,” she says. Her tone of voice sounds like she thinks the Realms Tourist Board tricked her into taking her vacation here. The Alicorn River appears in front of them, but it’s been changed to a solid, glossy surface — “frozen,” according to Sheila. “Wait! I get it,” Hank says. “Something’s burned down the woods and frozen the river.” Well, no duh, genius. “The things in front of me appear to be physically changed. I will describe those physical changes and pass it off as an epiphany.” I swear: Sometimes I think you deserve what you get, Hank.

While Bobby wonders what could have caused those changes, they hear a far-off roar.

***

If course the kids are going to be complaining about dust while walking across the Dustlands because none of them have the intelligence to put cloth over their mouths to keep from breathing in the dust. Diana wants water and almost convinces Presto to conjure up some, but Eric discourages him by reminding him that the last time he tried, he conjured up a fishbowl with a goldfish. Hey, it’s still water, Eric, and the goldfish is a good source of protein.

Army camped in front of Tardos KeepAfter trudging across the Dustlands with no scouting and no thinking, the kids come across Tardos Keep. Unfortunately, Venger has camped his Orc army in front of it. The last time they needed to sneak into a castle guarded by Venger’s forces, in “The Lost Children”, they stole robes from some monsters and snuck in — a moderately clever plan made more impressive by my low expectations. So how are they going to get in this time?

Ah, their plan this time is to sneak around the army, staying near the canyon walls, and then … bang on the door to the keep, hoping they’ll be allowed in? Unfortunately, no one is given credit for this brainwave, so I don’t know who to blame. It hardly matters — the kids’ position is given away by a unicorn sneeze, which is probably the cutest way to kick off one’s impending death. The party goes into the final sprint a bit early, as Shadow Demon and the Orcs chase them to the doors of Tardos Keep.

(Also: In 500 words or fewer, discuss whether “Shadow Demon and the Orcs” would be a good band name or merely pandering to Gen-X nostalgia. Points will be given for grammar, originality of argument, and how well you insult Buzzfeed listicles.)

Bobby and an Orc struggle over Bobby’s clubOne of the Orcs grabs Bobby’s club, saying, “I’ve got you, you little alien.” Blond-haired, blue-eyed Bobby has trouble processing the idea that he’s the one who’s weird, but he manages to defeat the Orc with Uni’s help. The others use their abilities as well: Diana vaults with her staff, Sheila turns momentarily invisible, and Presto calls on a spell: “Abracadabra / And all those other magic words / *squeak*!” A stream of marbles flows out of his hat, time they are more obviously helpful than the ball bearings in “Prison without Walls”: the marbles fall down the stairs, tripping the pursuing Orcs. “Who says losing your marbles is bad?” Presto asks, and the lameness of his joke makes me want to reach through the screen and hurt him so much.

Inside, the defenders of Tardos Keep watch the party with interest. “Let them in,” the blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman wearing blue-and-gold jewelry says. Her wealth and Aryan good looks mark her as the leader, even if the other person hadn’t called her “Queen Solinara.” “That way, we may learn what Venger’s plan is.”

As they are about to get in, even Hank pitches in, using his arrow to tie up a bunch of Orcs. They wait for aid from within as Venger flies toward them. He fires a generic white energy beam at them, but Eric’s shield deflects it, and the kids are allowed inside. Venger and his army are left waiting outside, like loser kids who have been excluded from all the cool stuff.

Queen SolinaraQueen Solara and her soldiers welcome the kids to Tardos. It’s a lot bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside! No, that’s a lie: it’s immense from the outside, and it’s built into a rock wall, so who knows how far it extends into the mountain. Anyway, Solinara demands to know why Venger wants the kids so badly. “He wants our weapons,” Hank says, and this causes Solinara to briefly blow at the ear of her chief counselor.

“I see,” Solinara says. “He wants something from us as well: The Treasure of Tardos.” I’m betting it’s the Moment, the doomsday device the War Doctor almost activated in “The Day of the Doctor.” “For years, he has tried to trick his way into this keep.” Solinara snaps her fingers, and her soldiers move forward, triggering an obligatory sad / fightened bleat from Uni. “Speak truthfully and quickly if you would survive: Why are you here?”

Eric stammers out an excuse, blaming Dungeon Master for sending them to Tardos. And Dungeon Master should get more blame! “You know Dungeon Master?” Solinara asks. Eric immediately tries to deny knowing Dungeon Master that well, which is a logical choice when someone points out you’re taking orders from a guy who uses child soldiers.

Hank glowers at Eric “Quiet, Eric!” Hank hisses. On the screen, he looms over Eric; either we’re supposed to think Eric has sinned against Hank, his god, or Hank is about to devour Eric’s soul. I’m not sure which. Hank admits knowing and getting his marching orders from the manipulative old gnome “Ah, this is good!” Solinara says. It’s good for you — Dungeon Master has finally passed his unpaid lackeys on to you. “Dungeon Master is our friend.”

Eric bows and grovels, claiming yes, Dungeon Master is his friend. It’s embarrassing, but I might do the same if I found myself among a city that counted Dungeon Master as an ally. I mean, Dungeon Master continually sends Eric into lethal situations without any reward. What might Solinara do — hook his heart up to power a grist wheel? Make him clean the stables with his tongue? Use his wedding tackle as a fishing lure?

Eric’s humiliation is ended by a knock at the door. Man, I never get saved from awkward situations like that. Solinara takes the kids to an observation platform, where they watch Venger blast the door over and over without effect. He should be shooting at the observation platform, of course.

“Solinara!” Venger shouts. “Yield to me your treasure! Or face the ultimate consequences!” Boy, I bet she hasn’t heard that since He-Man said it in the back seat of his car on prom night. Solinara refuses, going on and on about how great Tardos is, and she doesn’t even tell him about how they can just vanish and go to another time period if they want to.

Demodragon in chainsIn response, Venger makes his grand reveal: Demodragon. Half demon, half dragon, all hideous. It has two heads — one spouting fire, one ice, both helpfully color coded — plus cloven hooves and more tentacles on its body than I’m comfortable with. Venger magically frees Demodragon from its chains, then tells it to attack Tardos Keep.

The two heads alternately hit the keep’s door with fire and ice, cracking it. Solinara claims this is impossible, but Hank plays Mr. Wizard: “The heat and cold are making them brittle!” Hank leads the kids on a sally through the door’s new entrance. Initially, they are successful: Hank’s arrows ensnare all four of Demodragon’s feet, and then Bobby strikes the ground with his club, causing Demodragon to fall over and everyone else to spasm like they’ve got the boogie-woogie flu. Solinara looks on, nearly swooning at their heroism.

Venger holding Hank’s energy arrowHank then turns his attention to Venger, but Venger grabs his arrow right out of the air and tosses an energy bolt of his own, which Eric deflects. As Demodragon snaps his bonds, Eric says, “Let’s not make him any madder than he already is!” C’mon, Eric — retreating is a decent idea here, since you don’t really have anything that will injure a flier, but who cares how mad Venger is? Hank looks pretty peeved himself, and as he’s readying a return shot, his bow is taken from his hand by an unseen force. In short order, everyone’s weapons are stolen, and it turns out all the weapons are in the grips of Demodragon’s tentacles. I knew all those tentacles were a bad idea.

Venger gloats, and the kids are about to get eaten by Demodragon. Now that’s a cliffhanger!

***

After the commercial break, we learn the joke’s on Venger, too: Demodragon’s not listening to him any more. Demodragon resists Venger’s commands, breathing fire and ice on Venger’s troops when Venger demands the weapons. Meanwhile, the kids are falling apart; Sheila says they don’t stand a chance without their weapons, and Eric demands Hank prove himself worthy of his leadership role: “Hank, you’re the leader! What do we do now?”

Demodragon has stolen the party’s weapons“The only thing we can do: Run!” Hank replies. Now that’s inspirational leadership! Eric says, “I could’ve thought of that,” which is true. By not giving the order earlier, it seems Hank might have frozen when confronted with a difficult decision. It’s a poor quality for someone who leads people in battle, although it jibes with the general lack of battlefield direction from Hank. In Hank’s defense, though, Demodragon is turning the area in front of Tardos into a kaiju movie, which should rattle anyone.

Venger demands the weapons again, and for his trouble, Demodragon roasts him, knocking him from the sky. Eric is puzzled by evil turning in upon itself — I suppose that Dragonlance adage was a few years in the future — but Solinara says, “Your weapons have broken Venger’s spell of control.” Oh, yeah? Where did you get your degree in arcane studies, Solinara? The Tower of High Sorcery at Wayreth or Palanthus? Studying with Elminster or Blackstaff? Grey College in Greyhawk? I want to see credentials!

Venger, recovered from his immolation, begins the argument that all fathers fear and all sons secretly long for: The dominance argument, with the elder’s main support is that they gained the moral high ground by once satisfying a primal urge. “I created you,” Venger says, pointing at Demodragon. He sounds more disappointed than angry. “You cannot defy me.” He whups out the corporal punishment as a first move, but Demodragon is too big for him to put over his knee, and the two exchange blasts while the heroes move a large rock behind the damaged door of Tardos Keep.

Demodragon wreaking destructionWhile the kids moan about their lot, Eric says he’s more concerned about his stomach than the battles outside. “How can you think of food at a time like this?” Sheila whines. Hey, an army marches on its stomach. Taking care of basic human needs is a must in a war, and if you can’t see that, you’re going to lose.

Eric summons the “shrimp” to go scrounge food with him, and although Bobby bristles at the label, he follows Eric. Meanwhile, the others listen to Solinara yammering on about Tardos’s problems, the worst of which is probably the broken chameleon circuit. Well, maybe they’ll get it fixed … Venger isn’t interested in that, though — he wants the treasure: Dragonbane, an herb that dragons are real allergic too. Solinara doesn’t want to give it to Venger because it will allow him to dominate or destroy Tiamat. I’m surprised Tiamat’s name is used in the episode, if only because she’s not mentioned in any other way and she’s not even in the intro this season. I’m also impressed at how late Presto is about saying the name “Tiamat”; a second after the rest of the party has figured out the strategic importance of dragonbane, he figures out what’s going on. Nice work, nerd.

He’s also the one who asks, “How come you didn’t just dump some of that stuff on Demodragon?” Because then Venger would collect it, dork. After Solinara explains that to him, Presto does bring up the idea that if Demodragon breaks down the doors, Venger will get the dragonbane anyway. Presto is getting some Eric-like ideas: “Sheesh! You risk your people, your city, us, to protect some —”

Solinara weepingBut Solinara has an excuse; someone who’s friends with Dungeon Master is always going to have an excuse about why they can’t do what you want. For good measure, she even turns on the waterworks as she leads them to the city’s underground (but extremely well lit) pools. “Our people are hiding in a land far away,” she says to Sheila, the softest of a group of soft touches. “We who remain are volunteers. We stay to guard the dragonbane and if the gates fall, to destroy it … then Venger would surely destroy us.”

Meanwhile, Eric, Bobby, and Uni tour the (well-lit, underground) gardens. They come across an old man, sitting on a bench. “I am pleased you like my gardens,” he says. As a gift, he puts a wreath of greenery around Uni’s neck: “It will bring luck.” You know it will because it makes a tinkling noise as the old man puts it around Uni’s neck.

“It's probably poison ivy,” Eric says, and Bobby gives him an exasperated “Eric!” When a barbarian is embarrassed by your lack of social skills, it may be time to admit you have a problem. The awkwardness is cut short when they hear a roaring sound; they dash back to the rest of the party. Meanwhile, the camera pans down off the old man, and we see his reflection change to that of Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master’s reflection in the waterYou know the garland’s dragonbane, right? There’s no other reason for Dungeon Master to take a direct hand for once. It’s fitting that one of his few acts to help the kids is to violate an export ban.

***

The queen’s advisor tells Solinara that Venger’s forces will attack again soon; the queen reacts in a rather unqueenly manner, balling up the report on the situation and running off in a huff. Tardos is stuck with her, though; it’s too late for a revolution. We’ll have to hope for their sakes that the bureaucracy is able to keep the war running smoothly.

When Sheila whines that they have to get their weapons back, Eric says, “You’re out of your mind! How are we going to get them away from Godzilla?” At this point, Diana brings up Dungeon Master’s advice — “by helping the one that stands against you” — and now everyone, even the slow Presto, understands that that is Venger. “I never thought I’d say it,” Hank says, “but Venger is our only hope.” Sure, sure, because Anansi knows Dungeon Master isn’t going to help. Well, help any more.

Eric and SheilaThe kids slip out the crack in the door while Solinara watches impassively, as if thinking, “I thought they’d never take the hint.” The soldiers slide the massive rock back into place, never to be moved again, Odin willing.

***

“Make friends with Venger,” Eric says. “Oh, sure. How are we supposed to do that?” Presto has a decent answer: “Buy him another horn for his helmet?” Sheila wonders how they’re going to find Venger or Demodragon, but since Demodragon is setting the horizon on fire, neither Hank nor I think that will be difficult. (How did Sheila miss seeing what looks like a giant sun setting over the mountains? Is she dumb or blind?)

Orcs advancingVenger watches Demodragon set bits of the desert on fire. I wouldn’t be amused by that for very long, but then again, the Realm doesn’t have Internet, as far as I know. “Demodragon’s out of control,” Venger says, “more powerful than I planned. He will destroy the Realm unless something is done.”

“Together we can do that something, Venger,” Hank says as he leads the party into the command center of Venger’s army. Are Orcs that pathetic at setting pickets and performing guard duty, or has Hank summoned up some reserves of competence previously hidden? I’m betting the former. “You want to defeat Demodragon, and so do we. Let’s join forces.”

That is called “laying all the cards on the table,” I think. Venger is not impressed by the proposed alliance: “You are a fool. Without your weapons, you are nothing.” Bobby counters that they’ve fought Venger without their weapons before “but still whipped you.” Well … Presto lost his hat in “The Night of No Tomorrow,” but that’s hardly an impediment. In “The Hall of Bones,” they didn’t’ so much beat Venger as avoid him long enough to recharge their weapons. In “In Search of the Dungeon Master,” Sheila recovered their weapons before they fought Venger. The best evidence to Bobby’s claim is “Servant of Evil,” in which they defeated Venger and Lizardfolk who were wielding their weapons with the help of a morally slow giant and another guy with weapons.

Venger casting a spellVenger’s Orcs, upset at this insult, advance, but Venger stills them with a word. “I agree to your proposal,” Venger says and tells Hank to hold out his hands. When Hank hesitates, Venger smirks and asks, “Afraid?” Hank is as unable to resist insults to his courage as Marty McFly, so he sticks out his hands. Venger conjures a gaudy talisman as big as a dinner plate and tells Hank to aim the gewgaw at Demodragon and say his name. He doesn’t say what will happen when they do that, though, and the Orcs nudge one another, happy to be in on the joke this time.

“The trusting fools,” Venger says after the party leaves. “Shadow Demon, take the Orcs, and … how should I say: assist our dragonslayers?”

***

The kids find Demodragon without trouble. How could they not? His cries shake the skies for miles around, his fires outshine the moons. “Let’s hope Venger’s gadget works,” Hank says, advancing on the monster with the talisman held in front of him: The power of Venger compels you! The power of Venger compels you!

Hank with talismanOf course it doesn’t. Hank might has well have confronted Demodragon with a tin foil hat and a colander of kale. The talisman does focus a blue pinpoint of light on Demodragon, but it has no effect. Venger evidently gave them a magic flashlight. (What it shows is that Demodragon is evidently two dragons sharing a demon dragon suit. Weird. Realms cosplay!)

“Nothing’s happening!” Eric shouts. “Venger ripped us off!” Well, since he didn’t charge anything, it’s hard to say he ripped you off. He certainly double crossed you, though. Eric knocks the talisman from Hank’s hands, then leads the retreat. The talisman explodes slightly as it slumps against a rock. Typical shoddy Gnomish workmanship. I tell you: If you want quality work, then you have to buy from (or enslave) Dwarven craftsmen.

Hank tells the others to “get down” (and presumably get funky; this is 1984, after all) and cover their eyes. He makes a dash to the broken talisman, narrowly avoiding getting char-broiled, before smashing the talisman. Demodragon thrashes in the glare of the explosion, and Hank is vaporized.

No! Sorry. Mustn’t drift into the fantasy world. Doctor says I need to keep my mind in reality. And take the pills, all those lovely red and white pills …

Demodragon lit up with lightDemodragon thrashes around blindly while Hank rallies the party. “Now’s our chance!” he says, not hearing how idiotic that sounds. Eric picks up on it: “To do what? That thing’s bigger than my dad’s bank account!” No one listens to Eric, of course. They all charge toward Demodragon.

A diversion: I read a lot of statistical analysis of baseball, primarily from Fangraphs.com. The writers will occasionally emphasize that they are interested in a process-driven approach. They want to find the right process. Baseball has a lot of random results, so sometimes the right process (the one that will generate the most wins or runs in the long run) does not pan out with favorable results in the short term. For most of baseball’s history, the game has been results-driven; that is, whatever gets a good result is repeated, over and over, even if it isn’t efficient. Everyone imitates winners, even if they don’t have the personnel to get their results. Even the winners might be doing things “wrong,” in ways that prevents them from getting the best results. Winners don’t care — they’ve won, after all — but when they try to get those results again, they often can’t because the process is flawed.

That’s the difference between Hank and Eric here. Eric’s process is correct: they are unlikely to win. They have learned things that could help them in a future confrontation, but even a blinded Demodragon isn’t vulnerable to their fists. If Hank knew the talisman would explode, the right process would have been to save that explosion for a later plan. Hank, however, relies on a results-based operating philosophy: The party has gotten the right results — survival, mainly — by attacking monsters without much of a plan. Things just work out: see the monster, beat the monster. Simple.

Hank should have been eaten several times over by now. Just saying.

This time both the process and results look awful as Hank and Diana are easily driven off by Demodragon’s flailing tail; in the chaos of the retreat, Eric falls down, and Uni for some reason slumps next to him. Demodragon picks both of them up, and Eric says, “I hope we at least give him a stomachache!” That’s some good quipping, Eric. I mean, I wouldn’t want those to be my final words, but hopefully they’ll keep up the spirits of your comrades as they hear Demodragon’s powerful jaws crunch your bones.

Demondragon turning whiteAh, but remember: Uni’s wearing the crunchberry — sorry, dragonbane — garland. As soon as Demodragon touches it, he becomes as sparkly and pale as a Mormon vampire. Demodragon gently places Eric, Uni, and the weapons on the ground as it goes into its death throes, then vanishes in a sparkly puff. (Also like a Mormon vampire, I guess.)

The kids are gapemouthed and stupid. Diana thinks Presto magicked Demodragon away without his hat, which HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. “I couldn't have done it with ten hats,” Presto says. True. Sheila — who looks weird without her cape, by the way — figures out the truth. Eric claims he knew what Uni was wearing, and that’s why he risked his life to get Uni to Demodragon. “Do you expect us to believe that?” Bobby asks.

But Shadow Demon and the Orcs arrive to interrupt the kids’ exploration of beliefs, demanding they surrender their weapons. Sure, why not demand that? Maybe this time Presto will crack completely. Sheila hides the dragonbane while Hank blusters, but Shadow Demon isn’t buying it. Eric comes up with a decent strategy: “There might be a zillion of you, but we’ve got one of him,” he says, pointing to Presto. “Who do you think zapped ol’ Demodragon, the Tooth Fairy? … Listen, Shadow Demon, don’t get him mad, or he’ll turn you into … uh, he’ll turn you into …”

Presto sweating“Creamed spinach?” Presto asks. Sounds good to Eric, who was really grasping at straws there. Unfortunately, the enemy is not deterred, and the Orcs attack — until they are stopped by a blast from Venger. “Beware what you say when you speak of magic, wizard,” Venger says, “or you shall see who has the greater power.” Presto is suitably cowed. “As for you, Ranger: you have destroyed that which I created. How, I am not yet certain. But you have restored the balance. Now we are even. The next time we meet expect no favors.”

“Likewise, Venger,” Hank says, which is a decent parting shot, although I don’t know if I would sass a guy who made the inexplicable decision to not betray and destroy me like he had planned. To each his own, I suppose. Since Venger is holding all the cards, he gets the last word in: “So be it.”

Everyone is amazed they have been spared. They troop back to Tardos, hoping the Doctor hasn’t left already; Eric just wants a decent meal. Who can blame him? But the talk turns to Venger: “Do you think maybe Venger’s not all bad?” she asks. Eric scoffs: “Sure — and Genghis Khan was a stand-up comic.” Cue laughter from the kids and tears from Dungeon Master.

Dungeon Master crying“You are wrong, Cavalier,” Dungeon Master says. “There was good in Venger once … Everyone makes mistakes; Venger was mine.” Then think of how much trouble you could have saved, Dungeon Master, with a magical prophylactic. If you couldn’t shield your rocket, you should have left it in your pocket. I wonder who the mother is, though? Given Venger’s appearance, I think it’s likely Dungeon Master has a weakness for the bad girls.

You will be able to overcome your weaknesses if you learn these lessons:
  • You have to be pretty perverse to enjoy a “dirty unicorn.”
  • The best defense against a world-destroying monster is a fancied-up pony with neckwear made of herbs.
  • If you find someone who’s willing to do the hard work, let your layabout friends know who to manipulate into getting their work done as well. I mean, even Venger takes advantage of the kids.
  • Results are more important than process, which is more important than eating.
  • Having a group of “pupils” means never having to do anything about that “mistake” you made a long, long time ago.
  • I could’ve made a lot more Doctor Who jokes.
Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. They’ve found five portals home; two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

Monster tally: One monster from the Monster Manual; Demodragon doesn’t appear in any first edition materials. Totals: MM: 32; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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The Baseball Prophet has spoken; Armageddon is nigh

14th Oct. 2016 | 02:35 pm

Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died about a month ago at the age of 81. In his long writing career, Kinsella wrote a great deal about Canada, especially about its First Nations people. However, he was best known for writing fiction about baseball. His novel Shoeless Joe was the basis for the movie Field of Dreams; I first encountered Kinsella in 1986, when I was still in grade school, when Sports Illustrated excerpted his then-new novel The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

The SI version, cut down to a couple dozen glossy pages with illustrations, described the 1909 Cubs playing against an Iowa semi-pro all-star team. The game, originally planned as Game 1 of a July 4 doubleheader, lasts until dark, with the score still tied. The Cubs manager decides to stay in Iowa until a winner is determined; the Cubs’ reserves are sent to play the team’s schedule as the game stretches on for weeks. In addition to the story of the game, there are fantasy elements: a rift in time take two modern (as in 1978) men back to watch and play in the game, Leonardo da Vinci shows up in a hot-air balloon, a stone graveyard angel joins the game on the Confederacy’s side, and play continues without a hitch after a player is struck by lightning and killed. (I still can’t see lightning without thinking, “God’s instrument,” which is what the crowd at the game says every time a flash lit the sky … including the time the rightfielder was struck.)

I enjoyed the mixture of baseball and fantasy enough I read the entire book the following spring, sitting in the back of my parents’ ’86 Tempo as we went to Mississippi to visit some of Dad’s family. I remember the book as a massive tome, a giant hardback that felt like it was 500 pages, but that’s just how memory plays tricks on a person. I have a copy downstairs, and it is an average-sized paperback, a few hundred pages of normal-sized type. It’s not a daunting book at all — it’s a book I could pick up at any time and finish a few hours later.

What SI published left out a lot of stuff … the literary and human stuff, I’d say now, but back then, the narrator’s romance wasn’t of much interest to me, nor was the Iowans’ strange Christian sect or anything else that didn’t directly relate to the course of the game, as strange as it was. Come to think of it, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy was my first encounter with magical realism, and I can’t remember it phasing me at all. Strange things can happen in a baseball game; ask any baseball fan. Even at 10 years old, I think I understood that, even if I realized time travel and animate cemetery statuary were not particularly likely outcomes among baseball’s myriad near-impossibilities.

The Thrill of the Grass coverThe Iowa Baseball Confederacy is my favorite Kinsella work, but even before I heard of his death, I had been planning to re-read one of his short stories because of its relevance to this major-league season. “The Last Pennant before Armageddon” is the first story in Kinsella’s 1984 collection The Thrill of the Grass. In “Last Pennant,” the Chicago Cubs run away with their division, but their manager, Al Tiller, is haunted by dreams of Cubs fans in heaven asking God to let the Cubs win the National League — not the World Series; just the National League. The Cubs had not won the league since 1945 or the World Series since 1908. (Neither of those facts have changed since the story was published.) However, the manager learns through an archangel prophesying to a radio show in St. Louis that if the Cubs win the pennant, it will be the last pennant before Armageddon. (Later, God confirms this in the manager’s dreams; it does not discourage or dissuade the Cubs fans pleading for the Cubs to win the pennant.)

With international tensions heating up after a Soviet invasion / putsch in Sri Lanka, Tiller considers sabotaging the Cubs chances, but there’s little he can do, given his talented personnel and the team’s lead. As America threatens to liberate Sri Lanka and the Soviets threaten extreme retaliation, the Cubs take on the Dodgers in the playoffs. The first four games are blowouts, and nothing Tiller does could influence the game at all. But in the deciding Game 5 — the league championship series were best of five back then — the game is tied in the ninth. His pitcher is tiring; two are on, with two out. Tiller could go to his closer to send the game into extra innings, or he could stick with his starter. Either choice, given the ethos of the time, is acceptable, but leaving his starter in is more likely to lose the game for the Cubs. Which does Tiller value more: winning the National League or avoiding the possible end of the world?

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who wants to read it. Kinsella’s story was prophetic, released in a year in which the Cubs not only won the NL East but also lost in the fifth game of the playoffs. (They lost to San Diego, not Los Angeles, and they lost not because of a manager’s decision but because San Diego rallied in the sixth and seventh, with the tying run scoring on an error by Cubs first baseman Leon Durham.) 1984 was the last year the league championship series were best of five; the next year they became best-of-seven affairs.

This year the Cubs won more than 100 games and have their best team in decades. They are the best team in the National League, something that hasn’t been true since 2008. (That team was swept in the NLDS that year.) They stand a good chance of winning the National League this year, if not the World Series. They even play the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series this year, although it will be in a best-of-seven series, not best of five. The parallels are striking, although Joe Maddon, the manager of the Cubs, is no Tiller; Tiller was an itinerant baseball manager, hired because he’d take the crap the owner dished out. Maddon was highly sought after, the rare manager who was courted as a free agent. The Cubs even gave the “it’s us, not you” speech when they kicked first-year manager Rick Renteria, whom they had nothing but praise for, to the curb. Maddon has proven himself as someone who would get his closer without a moment’s hesitation, making the climactic decision in the story very unlikely in 2016. (Few managers would hesitate to get the closer today.) Maddon has also never struck me as someone who would let the (possible) end of the world stand in the way of a pennant.

But … look, I’m not saying I really believe the world will end if the Cubs win the National League. But with the mess the presidential election is, the rising specter of Trump and the realization of what his seemingly unshakeable support means, the threat of terrorism, a looming new cold war with Russia that could erupt into a hot war over Ukraine or Syria or the Baltics or somewhere else the Russians want to meddle in, there’s an apocalyptic charge in the air. Let’s just say I’m not eager to see the Cubs in the Worlds Series. No, I don’t think the world will end if the Cubs win the National League Championship Series …

But if they win the World Series? I’ll be buying freeze-dried food, hazmat suits, and enough guns to fill a bomb crater.

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Dungeons & Dragons #14: The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow

8th Oct. 2016 | 03:43 am

The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow title card

Original air date: 8 September 1984
Writer: Karl Geurs

As you might be able to tell from the air date, “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow” is the kickoff for Season Two of the series. It’s a relief to me to finally be done with Season 1, but other than my personal sense of well-being, not much changes between seasons for Dungeons & Dragons. The idea for Saturday morning cartoons at that time was to sprinkle a few new episodes — the eight in Season 2, six in Season 3 — into the rotation to give the older episodes a little extra life. Because of this, adding weird ideas like “plot and character development” was forbidden; these episodes were the entertainment equivalent of bread that stretches the meatloaf.

That’s not to say these episodes are any lower in quality than the first season. This episode, for instance, is an excellent episode, with some nice writing by Karl Geurs and great animation by Toei; the only flaws are a few moments that make Eric dance like an organ grinder’s monkey for others’ amusement. But overall, these episodes are more of the same, with Dungeon Master leading the kids on and getting them to do his black bag work all over the Realms.

Oh! One thing that does change is the intro — gone are Tiamat, Venger, and the roll call. For Seasons 2 and 3, we see the kids fighting enemies and hear Venger stating in a voiceover, “There is no escape from the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons.” (The intro on my DVD doesn’t change, though — it always remains the same Season 1 intro.)

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow” on Youtube. (It has the Season 1 intro.) Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Eric realizing he’s not as clever as he thinks he isThe episode starts, once again, with the party fleeing from monsters, this time on a narrow mountain ledge. The monsters in this case are Bullywugs, who stream toward the kids as they climb a … vine, I guess? Maybe a rope, although I don’t know what a rope would be doing there. Anyway, as the party uses the vine to swing across a canyon, a couple of Bullywugs leap after them and to their deaths. Such are the wages of Bullywug sin, I suppose. Eric, who anchors the vine, taunts the Bullywugs with lines like “Your mother’s a tadpole!” When the vine reaches the other side, everyone jumps off, except for Eric, who — chuckling over his own wit — goes swinging back to the other side. When he realizes what has happened, he gives the camera a look like Wile E. Coyote just before a huge rock falls on him. All that’s missing is a tiny sign saying, “eep.”

But Eric doesn’t fall into the canyon, and no boulder falls on him; in fact, nothing bad happens to him. A trio of Bullywugs jump on the bottom of the vine, which makes no sense, given how close Eric was to the bottom to begin with. But rather than just laughing at Eric, which is the group’s standard m.o., Hank helps him, shooting the rope below Eric’s feet and sending the Bullywugs plummeting into the river at the canyon’s bottom. The Bullywugs land on the Bullywugs that had previously fallen — not on their dead bodies, though. The Bullywugs not only survived the more than 100-feet fall but were beginning to stand up. However, having their comrades fall on them probably crushed their spines (or notochord, or whatever they have).

Roller coaster car covered by foliageEric complains he could have been hit by Hank’s arrow as he flies off the rope and crashes into the underbrush; nothing like a pratfall to humiliate Eric as he’s being ungrateful. While he’s still muttering imprecations toward his allies, he stubs his toes on something — a car from the Dungeons & Dragons roller coaster, as it turns out. It’s a nice callback, especially since we’re starting the second season. Bobby thinks the car might take them home, so Hank asks Presto to whip up a spell “to get it working.” I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, given that there’s no power source and no tracks, but that’s not the biggest obstacle — that remains Presto’s incompetence (ignoring the previous episode).

Before Presto can do anything, the Bullywugs cross the canyon, charging at the heroes, who hide. Very well, as it turns out; the Bullywugs, unable to find the kids, take out their frustration on the car. “Filthy barbarians,” Eric says, and while I think Eric’s ingratitude plus his crash into the underbrush is excessive, this seems exactly the kind of elitist thing he would say, even when Bobby reminds him, “Watch it … That’s my nickname.”

And I’m also glad that unlike last season, Eric has decided not to let himself be pushed around by a 9-year-old. “Oh, please, forgive me, Sir Bobby,” he says. “But I’ve had a bad day. Do you mind?” And then he gets jumped by a mutant dog, which knocks him down. The clatter alerts the Bullywugs, although I’m not sure how they heard it over their ineffectual clanking against the car.

Dog tries to eat Eric’s footAlthough Eric has regained his feet, the St. Bernard-ish dog, which looks like it has hooves instead of paws, has grabbed one of them in its mouth. “Would you relax?” Bobby says. “He just wants us to follow him.” Yeah, right, kid. If a dog that size bit my foot, I wouldn’t think, “I should follow this dog!” I would be thinking, “After I bludgeon Cujo here to death, I need a rabies shot.”

Everyone rushes after the dog. “I’m not following something that looks like that,” Eric says, and of course he’s forced to when he sees the Bullywugs rushing toward him. That’s just Comedy 101, although I wish to Crom somebody would move on to Comedy 102.

***

Bobby, Uni, and the dog stare down an unseen enemyWe cut to a bunch of Lizardfolk standing listening to a crying child. Ah, the children of the … men. And women. What music they make! The camera turns, and we see Bobby and the pets standing nearby. Bobby’s club has swollen considerably — shut up, I know he’s a child — and the dog has turned from “ostensibly adorable pet” into a slavering hellbeast. Well, that was quick. The Toei animation here is a little unsettling, and there’s something about the long shadows from the setting sun that adds a bit of emotional oomph.

It turns out it’s a girl, tied to a tree, who is crying. The party charges to her rescue, and save for Eric, too busy trying to warn somebody about the Bullywugs, the kids kick a lot of lizard tail. Even Presto gets in a good spell, conjuring up a door (without saying anything); when a Lizardfolk warrior runs through the door, it disappears, the door shuts, and the whole thing rolls up like a windowshade before disappearing. I’m not sure I’m ready for a world where Presto is competent. It’s … unsettling.

After Sheila frees the girl — you know, I’ll just bet this girl dreams tomorrow, probably on a regular basis — she starts calling out for Diana. “Get her away from the tree!” she shouts. Diana steps away, and two Lizardfolk fall from the tree onto the two Lizardfolk she was fighting.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the teeming, hurrying Lizardfolk troops, Eric’s prancing around like he needs to find a bathroom, except instead of needing to take a whizz, he needs to shout into the toilet that the Bullwugs are coming. In the end, he grabs a Lizardfolk and yells about the Bullywugs at it. While he’s being chased, though, Sheila, Diana, Bobby, and Uni are having a nice chat with Terri, the Blue Girl (dressed in blue jeans, a blue shirt, and shoes that match the shirt), as the chaotic battle rages a few feet away. It’s good of the Lizardfolk to give the girls (and Bobby) some privacy.

Bullywugs and Lizardfolk spearing EricEric’s running about takes him face first into a Bullywug, and pretty soon he’s captured by Bullywugs. Then he’s captured by Lizardfolk. Then the two groups keep tossing him into the air like a ragdoll with their spearpoints. Oh, it’s hilarious! Grudgingly, Sheila says, “My turn,” before going to help Eric. Sure, Sheila, you’ve done so much this battle — you untied a girl! Nicely done. Meanwhile, Eric was trying to get vital intelligence to you. Some gratitude you have.

Sheila does the old divide-and-conquer bit, albeit in a hemiglutteal fashion: she calls the Lizardfolk leader (he’s got a shirt, he must be the leader) “snake face,” then slaps his ass. Why, Sheila — I had no idea! Fortunately, the Lizardfolk leader knows it’s sexual harassment, and he doesn’t have to take it. Unfortunately, he seeks redress against the Bullywug leader (he’s got a dumb hat, so he must be the leader) and tosses him out of the scrum. High-level reasoning: The Bullywugs haven’t spoken a word of Common / English ever, so it’s unlikely a Bullywug called him “snake face.” The falling-out between the two groups becomes more violent; before, they were fighting over Eric, but now they’re fighting over pride! And blood. And to find out who’s better at killing violence.

Sheila pulls Eric out of the scrum, remembering to stay invisible, while Eric, frozen, babbles incoherently. Terri expresses concern over Eric’s trauma, but Hank shrugs it off: “Eric just gets like that every once in a while.” He adds, “We abandon him to fight monsters all the time while we just watch and mock his inability to handle intense danger and near-death experiences. It’s a laugh riot! And then we passive-aggressively call him a jackhole when he doesn’t kiss our asses. You’re gonna love it.”

Well, no, he doesn’t say that last speech. But he probably should have, to let Terri (and her dog, Freddie) know what she’s in for.

***

Campfire on a plainOut on the Serengeti, in the light of the three moons, the kids build a bonfire that can be seen from space as Terri tells them how she got to the Realms: through the D&D ride, just like them. Her dog jumped onto the car before they could stop him, “just like he knew something was going to happen,” which raises the obvious question: What amusement park, even in 1984, allowed non-service dogs? That seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Presto wants to know how Terri knew to warn Diana: “You got a crystal ball, or what?” Terri tells them she had a precognitive dream the night before, her first in the Realms. “Except for you guys, everything in this world has been a bad dream,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” Eric says as he tries to sleep, tossing aside a bug that makes a disconcerting squeaking noise. Then he buries his head in frustration as he sees Dungeon Master striding into camp. “Ah, not now!”

Forbidding mountain peaksTerri is amazed Dungeon Master knows her name; Bobby says Dungeon Master knows “all kinds of things.” “Huh,” Eric says, “everything except the way home.” Not so, says DM: “A portal to your homeworld lies within those mountains.” Everyone looks adoringly onto the mountains, which look like they may be called the Impalement Peaks. Eric, of course, wants to know what the catch is. Man, do you see those mountains? They make Caradhras look merciful in comparison.

But Dungeon Master says the catch is that “before they leave, they must destroy [the way home].” “And if we destroy it, it can’t get us home, right?” Eric says, disgusted. “Sheesh.” I’m with you, Eric. This seems like a bug hunt.

Presto wants to know how they can find the portal, and even though I expected Dungeon Master to disappear rather than respond, he gives an answer: “The portal lies within the Maze of Darkness. To find it, you must first become lost.”

“I’ll tell you who ought to get lost: You, you little … invisible …” Eric trails off as Dungeon Master has disappeared. Unsurprising! Also unsurprising: Hank is consoling Terri, telling her they’ll find the way home. Of course, he makes no claim that they’ll actually get home, because even Hank has some scruples about lying to children.

After Bobby gets across a subtle diss about Terri’s age and inexperience, Terri still wishes him a good night. Bobby replies with a perfect disinterested, “Yeah, g’night.” As clouds roll in, Shadow Demon flies away to tattle to Venger.

***

“They defeated the Bullywugs and my Lizardmen?” Venger shouts, his reverb up higher than usual. “They must have fought well.” Well, kinda. But Shadow Demon doesn’t contradict him; he puts the blame on Terri. Yeah, that’s what made the difference. I have to admire Shadow Demon’s ability to slough blame here: “Your soldiers aren’t incompetents defeated by light horseplay! They lost because a 9-year-old told someone about her dreams.” I admit that I would run screaming from someone who tried to tell me about their dreams, but that’s not what happened. Unsurprisingly, Venger is interested in acquiring this young girl.

***

Sheila and Terri, asleepBack at the camp, team mom Sheila has fallen asleep in probably the most uncomfortable position ever, sitting upright with her legs beneath her and leaning against a rock. She’s allowing Terri to use her lap as a pillow, though, so it’s for a good cause — especially after Terri’s heart-shaped locket twinkles, and she begins to have another of her special dreams …

The portal appears as a huge glowing light above a pyramid, and it sucks the kids into it. Hank is overjoyed as the Realms Rapture begins; he always knew he’d be chosen. But Bobby, Terri, and the animals are left behind, and their way is blocked by a Venger-shaped shadow. The shadow changes into a five-headed pyrohydra, which grabs Bobby and Uni; Bobby shouts for Terri to run. Terri flees into an immense labyrinth, and in her mad dash, she runs into a gigantic hole. I mean, the hole is obvious, and it makes Terri look as if she spontaneously decided to end it all. Like many dreams, it ends with her falling, falling, falling …

When she wakes up from her bad dream with Bobby and Sheila hovering over her, she immediately lunges into Bobby’s arms and begins sobbing. Not the reaction I would have expected, but OK — I suppose if my prophetic dream showed me to be suicidal or terminally stupid, it might be upsetting. Eric, sleeping apart from the rest, asks, “What’s all the racket?” When Presto tells Eric that Terri had a bad dream, Eric says, “This whole place is a bad dream. Tell her to shut up. I’m trying to —”

Diana and Hank conferBobby angrily cuts him off before he can finish, but for once, Hank’s on Eric’s side: “Cool it, Bobby. Let’s get back to sleep.” Sounds like someone doesn’t like kids much. Was there a pregnancy scare in your past, Hank? Don’t worry — I won’t judge. No, that’s a lie: I will totally judge. Maybe Diana will too: “Hank, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I’m trying not to,” Hank says, with a resentful look back at Terri. Oh, yeah. He’s totally a guy who doesn’t want to be tied down by a kid. No, I’m joking; he says, “I sure hope Terri’s bad dream wasn’t about us.”

***

In a confectionary landscape, Eric announces breakfast is on its way. “I thought you said Eric couldn't find food if it came up and bit him,” Terri says. This is slander! None of them can find food. Actually, the only time I remember anyone finding food was in The Garden of Zinn, when Eric tried to filch Solars’s basket of food. That puts him ahead of everyone else.

Bobby and Terri riding lizard chickensIn this case, he tries to use Terri’s dog to rustle up something. His “friends” suggest breakfast will be stinkweed stew or boiled beetles or dragon dumplings (those are really good — I suggest you try them if you ever get a chance), but hearing some clucking, Eric thinks it will be chicken. Unfortunately, Freddie flushes chocobos from the brush. Terri and Bobby briefly ride the lizard birds before being thrown. The two kids think their lack of chicken-riding ability is hilarious, which makes me suspect the flowers they fell on are hallucinogenic.

Anyway, while Diana and Sheila snicker behind him, Eric is incensed they couldn't capture the giant chickens, using the “couldn't catch food if it came up and bit you” line on them. He is, of course, correct. The question of who can or can’t find food is interrupted by the five-headed pyrohydra from Terri’s dream, who wants to make all of them food. Funny how the incompetent, disinterested hunters becomes the hunted. It’s a story as old as time.

The hydra grabs Uni as an hors d’oeuvre; Bobby, rather than charging, tells Terri to run, just like in the dream. Terri — most likely remembering how that went in her dream — decides to go out swinging … her impotent fists against the hydra’s caudal area. Shamed by Terri’s bravery, Hank finally starts firing arrows. Presto keeps Sheila from doing anything heroic as the hydra drops Uni and Bobby. The kids are fine, though, and they are even finer when Eric uses his shield to block the hydra’s fire breath. The hydra has evidently squeezed the sense out of Bobby, because he asks what Eric’s doing. “Being stupid,” Eric says as the kids retreat under a handy waterfall.

The party under a waterfallPresto, always one to look on the bad side, thinks they’re trapped, but Bobby knows brute force and ignorance will win out over pessimism every day. He smashes the cave wall, and instead of drowning them all as the water from the lake above flows into their cave, the water knocks over the hydra and washes it downstream. I’m not a geologist or hydrographer, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it should work. On the other hand: Magic club.

(Geek aside: The pyrohydra is one of three types of hydra, a multi-headed giant reptile, in the Monster Manual. The pyrohydra is differentiated from the lernaean hydra and the regular, vanilla hydra by its ability to breathe fire. Hydras have five to twelve heads — roll 1d8 and add 4 — but pyrohydras rarely have more than seven heads, according to the MM. Even so, this pyrohydra, with only five heads, is a smaller one. For those of you who know classical mythology, only the lernaean hydra grow new heads in 1st edition D&D.)

As everyone walks out of the cave, Bobby proclaims Terri’s attack on the hydra “the bravest thing I ever saw.” She tries to deflect the attention onto Eric — his shield did save them from being vaporized — so Bobby says, “That was only the second bravest thing I ever saw.” That’s fair, because as Bobby points out, Terri didn’t have any magic.

Eric’s a bit put out by this, as you might imagine; “Hey, don’t everyone thank me at once,” he says. Presto and Sheila, walking behind him, say in a singsong chorus, “Thank you, Eric.” That made me laugh unironically. It’s a good joke all around; it doesn’t make up for Eric being a prancing dipwad throughout the scenes with the Bullywugs and Lizardfolk, but it’s still nice.

But Venger, who’s following the kids, is no joke. “I must find the source of the girl’s power,” he says to himself. OK, man, but I think the source is that locket and My Little Pony fanfic, and neither one suits you. But he’s focused on his goals: “Then I will see into tomorrow, and she will dream no more.” The threat is almost Shakespearean, in its way.

***

Party among obsidian spikesSince the Realms hates the kids, their path leads them through a field full of sharp obsidian projections. After Eric tears his cape and Diana shouts in pain, Hank says, “Be careful: some of these rocks are sharp as knives.” Yeah, thanks, Hank. Your hindsight is working perfectly well.

Presto decides to call up a spell that will turn the rocks to rubber. That’s an idea, Presto, but Standards and Practices is not OK showing a field full of rubber, vaguely phallic objects. S&P sends the Venger-shaped shadow from Terri’s dream to intervene; the shadow twists and turns into a sandstorm. The wind starts breaking off the tips of the rocks and pelting the kids with sharp, rocky debris that should be ripping the flesh from their bodies. But it’s a kids’ cartoon, so instead the party reacts like it’s just windy. As Hank shouts out helpful directions, like “Stay together!” and “This way!,” Bobby decides he wants to beat the crap out of the wind with his club. I don’t know what you’re trying to hit, Bobby, but good luck to you, man. It didn’t work for King Lear, but hey, he didn’t have friends he could trust (or a magic club), so maybe friendship’s the key to battling the elements.

***

After the commercial, the dog leads them through a large stone gate, and Hank and the others push it shut after themselves. Whew! I thought they’d have to do something more than casually saunter on a windy day.

The Maze of DarknessAfter they shut the door, they find they’ve trapped themselves in the maze Terri saw in her dream the night before. That’s bad, but there’s an immense portal home on the other side of the labyrinth. That’s good! But it’s full of traps — that’s bad. Eric wants nothing to do with the maze — “You’ll just get lost,” he says, and he’s unimpressed when Presto brings up Dungeon Master’s advice that they have to get lost before they can get home — but before he can convince anyone to help him open the door, it’s melted shut from the outside.

“Three guesses who did it,” Eric says, and Bobby responds, a quarter questioning, “Venger?” I personally would have stumped for Dungeon Master; I mean, he really wants you to go through the maze, and he’s not the kind of being to brook insubordination. But the culprit is Venger, who tells his suddenly wingless nightmare, “Now let the young fools dream of going home.” OK, then.

The maze does turn out to have traps; Eric almost falls into a pit trap as Presto says, “That’s the third trap in the last two hours.” That seems somewhat less than “full of traps,” but I suppose the volume of traps would seem larger if it’s your life on the line. The party has Diana doing perhaps the most 1st edition D&D thing I’ve seen: testing the floor for traps using her staff. She needs a longer staff, though; it’s tradition to use the ten-feet pole from the equipment lists. (Or a donkey, or a hireling; these are also seen as good trap testers, although I don’t think either would fly on Saturday morning TV.)

Old, empty suits of armorAlso: Bobby puts his arm around Terri as they stride down the corridor, while Terri puts her face in her hands. Smooooooth, Bobby! If anyone asks, you’re just guiding her.

In another part of the maze of straight, huge passages, all alike, a wall slides shut in front of the party. Another wall cuts them off from behind, leaving them trapped in an area full of (empty) bronze suits of armor. Terri screams and starts crying, which I was tempted to mock, but on the other hand, that seems a rational reaction to the Realms from a child … or anyone else, for that matter. If I mocked anyone, I suppose I should mock the jaded kids who are no longer shocked by having their lives threatened and stumbling across martial memento mori, but I feel guilty about that too: maybe it’s some form of PTSD or a survival mechanism, where those who don’t become jaded don’t survive.

“There must have been a battle here,” Hank says, and noting the spider webs on the armor, he adds, “And a long time ago.” Presto notes they’re all wearing the same armor, suggesting they were on the same side, but they appear to have fought each other. “And they all lost, too,” Diana says. Well, you don’t know that for sure, Diana; survivors could have continued on, although I admit if you’re talking only of the dead, sure: all the dead are losers.

Eric, taken over by the enchantment“And — and we’re lost,” Eric says, kicking the armor. “And it’s her fault!” He points at Terri. “Do you hear me? She — she got us in here.” The screen loses most of its color as Eric begins his diatribe; the sky is illuminated in reds, oranges, and yellows, while the characters are shown in light, red-tinged shadows while their faces alternate between corpse pale and shadows. It’s an incredibly effective way to show how the situation has suddenly changed and taken on a more sinister cast. Toei, the Japanese animation studio, is really earning its money with this scene; I don’t know if another animator at the time would have done this.

Bobby shoves Eric while Freddie growls. “What’s the matter, little boy?” Eric asks. “Don’t you like me insulting your goody-goody girlfriend?” (Donnie Most really sells Eric’s taunting anger here.) Presto grins evilly, while Diana and Sheila cheer on the fight. Uni squeals in discomfort. Only Hank can keep control of his emotions; he tells the rest to stop, and when they don’t, he shouts, “Knock it off!” and fires an energy arrow into the air.

Somehow this ends the mind-controlling magic. The colors return to normal. Bobby awkwardly apologizes, with little to no memory of what happened. Hank blames the maze for the largely normal teenage resentments that manifested; it’s not like it isn’t normal to have trouble controlling emotions when exposed to life-threatening danger. But Hank says, “It’s affecting our minds!” Eric disagrees: “Your minds, perhaps. You forget the old Cavalier has a brain as strong as a steel trap.”

Eric with a helmet with glowing eyesEric taps a helmet to emphasize his point. The helmet’s eyes glow green, and a ghostly voice says, “Beware, Cavalier!” Eric, of course, drops the helmet and runs. I would too.

***

Hank uses an energy arrow to tie an energy line around a (non-energy) spike on top of the maze. “All right!” he says, staring at the gigantic, coruscating ball of energy that is supposed to be a portal home. “Wish you could see this! We’re really getting close!” Well, why can’t they see this? It seems like attaching a rope to a spike wouldn’t be that hard, or maybe they could climb the energy line. Or maybe — and this is just spitballing — everyone could get to the top of the wall and walk on the non-maze parts to the end. You might have to climb back down into the maze from time to time, but those spikes look more decorative than discouraging. That does not occur to Hank, who is focused on the end goal. “Another couple of days —” And you’ll be dead of dehydration or starvation, most likely. But Hank stops not because he realizes they lack the necessities but because everyone is sleeping, exhausted. “So what do you say we take a break?”

For Terri, of course, a nap is not just a nap: it’s a chance to add to PTSD or depression. While she sleeps, her necklace tinkles, and she has a vision of herself at school. A nightmare, many people would say. Not me — I was good at school. I wish I was that good at something again. I wish I was that good at anything.

Bobby and Terri in the real worldAnyway. Bobby shows up, not in barbarian clothes — ah! Now it’s a nightmare again! He’s holding her necklace; Terri, realizing what this means, rushes to Bobby and hugs him. The dream is interrupted by Dungeon Master saying her name.

When she and the others wake up, Dungeon Master is there. Ugh. It’s worse than a nightmare now. Dungeon Master explains Terri’s dream will come true, then tells them the maze is a tool of Venger’s. “For a thousand years, his Maze of Darkness has lured unwary travelers with the promise of the portal home,” he says. “Many have tried; all have failed.” He then informs them the suits of armor had once been inhabited by “pupils of mine, of a time long past.” Nice job, Dungeon Master — it’s nice to see your hands-off style of leadership has consequences … well, consequences for others. It doesn’t seem like you’re all that bothered by it. “If you succeed, the portal will remain, luring countless others to their doom.”

“What do you mean, ‘If we succeed’?” Eric sneers. Dungeon Master tries to frighten him, but Eric knocks on the wall and says, “Ah, this place isn’t so scary.” An earthquake immediately begins, because as much as the Realms hates the kids, it hates Eric the most.

Terri leaps her dog as Bobby looks onTerri’s excited, though. “Hey, I remember! I remember! From my dream last night — I remember the way out!” I’m torn about this: if she did see the way out, should we have seen it? On one hand, it’s boring to see it twice; on the other, it seems like a bit of a cheat. Oh, things are falling apart — as in, literally: the walls are falling — and you conveniently know the way out? But I’m not sure this maze is going to get any more interesting, so I’m OK with just getting it over with. Hank stops and calls back for Dungeon Master. Presto pulls him forward, saying, “You think he’d hang around here at a time like this?” The old gnome is allergic to danger … and to spending any more time around the kids than he has to. He’s gone, Hank-O. Deal with it.

Everyone’s excited to be at the end of the maze, hugging random mammals. But Venger is there first — riding a flying evil horse, even one that loses its wings occasionally, is the best way to beat a maze — although he’s not there to stop them. “You are free to enter the portal and return to your homeworld,” he says, “But first, you bring her to me.” “Her” is Terri, of course, and the party responds to that about as well as you’d think. Not even frequent collaborator Presto wants to hand her over, which is astonishing.

“We passed your test, Venger,” Hank says, trying to appeal to Venger’s sense of fair play. Good luck with that, Hank. “We beat your maze. Terri comes with us.” Venger disagrees, so Diana says, “You want her? Come and get her.”

Venger’s demon formIt’s more confrontational than the kids usually get, and it enrages Venger; red magic energy pours from his hands, transforming himself into … oh holy god it’s staring at me from the screen it’s going to eat my soul help me jeebus —

Brrrrrr. I don’t know what Venger has turned into; it looks like a demon or devil, but again, Toei’s animators have outdone themselves: whatever Venger is, it’s a damn sight scarier than anything the outsider artists who illustrated the Monster Manual could come up with. The closest I can find is the nabassu, a major demon from Monster Manual II, which would have come out the year before. It’s got the long muzzle, wings (although the nabassu’s wings are scaled rather than bat-like), and three-fingered, clawed limbs. Venger’s a little hairier, but maybe he improved on the design. On the other hand, the nabassu doesn’t have those spiked tentacles, and that’s seems like a big deal.

Hank decides he’s going to hold off this immense monstrosity by himself; he puts Bobby in charge of getting Terri and her dog to the portal. Because of course — why let, you know, Diana or Eric lead when you can put things in the hands of a 9-year-old who’s even more emotional Venger’s larger demon formthan the teenagers? Although Hank says he was going to fight alone, it’s the party that battles the abomination; Presto conjures up a lot of mousetraps, which snap on the beast’s tail and enrages it, causing Eric to express his admiration for the spell.

At the top of the pyramid, Bobby gets to play Rick to Terri’s Ilsa, telling her she has to leave while he and the others hold off Major Strasser. If you don’t leave, Bobby doesn’t say, you’ll regret it — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but definitely when you’re eaten by Tiamat. But what about us? Terri doesn’t ask. We’ll always have the Maze of Darkness, Bobby doesn’t growl, looking her in the eyes.

Bobby carries her toward the portal while Terri reassures him he’ll find his way home. Then he tosses her toward the portal, which sucks her and the dog in. Ah, childhood crushes! So sweet. I used to throw girls into glowing portals all the time when I was in grade school — at least until I got suspended from school from huffing that phosphorescent paint.

Somehow, in defiance of physics, Terri manages to throw her locket back to Bobby. Maybe the portal draws in only organic matter?

Eric does a fastball special on BobbyTheir primary mission completed, the group moves on to the secondary one: destroying the portal. And their method of destruction turns out to be the fastball special: Bobby runs to Diana, who interlocks her fingers and tosses him toward Eric, who swats Bobby toward the pyramid with his shield. Once Bobby hits the pyramid with his club, everything blow up.

***

And then Bobby and Uni are sitting on the sand, looking at Terri’s locket. How long has it been since the explosion? Where are they? Who knows? I don’t, and I don’t particularly care, since this is Bobby and Uni we’re talking about. Hank tries to comfort Bobby in his fumbling way, but Bobby brushes him off. To make the pain go away, Bobby winds up his arm to throw the necklace away, but Dungeon Master shows up to stop him. To soothe Bobby’s pain, Dungeon Master violates player / Dungeon Master confidentiality, telling Bobby about Terri’s last prophetic dream. Maybe he tells Bobby that to keep him from littering. Dungeon Master’s kinda built like Woodsy Owl, although thankfully he wears more clothing.

While they wait, Eric polishes his shield. Presto tells him to quit the “spit and polish,” but Eric will have none of it: “You can never have too much polish, Presto. Of course, I ran out of spit an hour ago.” It’s a nice line, so Hank wanders into the scene to bog things down with pablum and treacle. Fortunately, he’s interrupted by Bobby’s exultant cries as he promises to tell them “what’s going to happen.”

Oh, yes: He’ll tell them what will happen. He will tell them what the prophecies and his dark (Dungeon) Master have revealed to him. There will be blood, and fire; he will hear the lamentation of his enemies’ women; and he will tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet. Or maybe that’s a prophecy about another, more interesting barbarian. I don’t really care. I just want to see the Realms burn.

But I do care about these lessons:

  • The love of a good dog will overcome everyday concerns like amusement-park regulations, Lizardfolk abductions, and evil magic.
  • Lying to children, especially by omission, is an accepted leisure activity in the Realm.
  • Dreams are powerful. Tell everyone about your dreams. Live your life by them. Use them as weapons against a random, uncaring world.
  • Brute force and ignorance will win out over pessimism every day.
  • If your mentor shows you the horrible fate that befell his former students, do not think about the implications.

Going home tally: This is the fifth time they’ve found a portal home. Two of those times they’ve briefly gone through the portal.

Monster tally: One from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 31; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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Some Random Things about ... Monsters of Faerûn

2nd Oct. 2016 | 01:32 am

Some random things about Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn by James Wyatt and Rob Heinsoo:

Monsters of Faerûn cover
  1. From “Aarakocra” to “Zombie, tyrantfog”: Many of these monsters were familiar to me — mainly through the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual — and I had wondered why they weren’t in the original Monster Manual. Since I don’t play any of the TSR / WotC official settings, I hadn't realized the bird-men (aarakocra) and lion-centaurs (wemics) were based in the Forgotten Realms. The same goes for the bullywug, the laughable frog-men that get killed when your players have had enough of spitting orcs on their longswords. (The bullywugs predate the Forgotten Realms by half a decade, and they are best remembered for being incompetent villains in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.)

    I welcomed some of these familiar monsters to the 21st century like old friends: the badger-headed, stag-bodied leucrotta, the shrieking gibberlings, the flying stag peryton. The leucrotta and peryton both predate the Forgotten Realms, but it’s nice to see the creatures in any form. On the other hand, only the Forgotten Realms could have created brown dragons (really?), deep dragons, song dragons, and shadow dragons. Also: emerald, ruby, and diamond golems, which I thought were dumb even back in the mid-‘90s. For those who want more beholders, Monsters of Faerûn has the beholder mage prestige class and three beholderkin: death kiss, eyeball, and gouger. (The latter is the nickname of the junior hockey team Apu sponsors on a Simpsons episode, so I think of them as beholders on hockey skates. They aren’t, but it’s a better idea than what the gouger beholderkin actually is.) And, by Mystra, werecrocodiles. Werecrocodiles? Really.

  2. Helpful hints: Again, I don’t play or run Forgotten Realms games, but the “In the Realms” sections at the end of each entry is useful — for ideas, at the very least. For example, Monsters of Faerûn suggests the bullywugs are fighting a long, bloody war against another monster race, but the bullywugs have already lost, and their opponents keep them alive only as a buffer state.

  3. Radioactive spider-god: No book concerning the Forgotten Realms would be complete without a few spider-abominations. So, for your Lolthian amusement, Wyatt and Heinsoo have included the chitine, humanoids the Drow have experimented on, turning them into spidery things; choldrith, the priests of the chitine; half-fiend draegloth, which are the union of a Drow priestess and a demon; and myrlochar, demonic servants of Lolth. I think what we’ve learned from Monsters of Faerûn is that Lolth is not a goddess who is content with the direction that evolution has taken, even when that evolution is spurred on by mortal magic.

    For the more mundane arachnophile, there are hairy and sword subterranean spiders. Because you needed more spiders.

  4. DIY evil: Monsters of Faerûn includes three spells for the creation of specific monsters: create chosen one, create crawling claw (a human hand), and create darkenbeast. I understand the impulse behind the idea, but I don’t think most DMs (or any players) will need these spells. If the monster description had said, “These beasts can be created by wizard / sorcerers of Xth level or greater,” that would have been enough. The details don’t add much, and I hope the PCs don’t ever have to use the directions to create their own little abominations.

    On the other hand, some of the creatures listed in the “Templates” section are disappointing. Ghosts and liches don’t need more powers, especially if the listed powers aren’t balanced by a corresponding increase in CR. (I could increase the CR myself, but I am bad at guessing how challenging monsters / encounters are.) As I intimated above, the world did not need rules on werecrocodiles, nor was anyone asking for weresharks. (All right — someone was asking, but no one needed to listen.) I am amused by the idea of illithid liches — the illithilich or alhoon — because an illithid with levels in a spellcasting class and the lich template approaches the Order of the Stick’s half-dragon half-troll lycanthropic fiendish snail adversary.

  5. Proof of quality: So what would I use from this book? Maybe the leucrotta and gibberlings. I have a soft spot for spider-like creatures, so I could see myself throwing a chitine or three against the PCs. Others I might use:

    — Baneguards. Intelligent skeletons who can fire magic missiles at the PCs. A simple idea, and their low CR (2) gives me a chance to throw several at the PCs.

    — Thayan golem: A wooden golem that shoots magical arrows.

    — Helmed horror: A construct with good tactics and variable magic weapon abilities.

    — Tyrantfog zombie: A zombie with damage reduction that sickens and infects their opponents.

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Dungeons & Dragons #13: P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster

23rd Sep. 2016 | 05:43 pm

P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster title card

Original air date: 10 December 1983
Writer: Jeffrey Scott

We have finally reached the end of Season 1! This meant little, really, when the episodes were on air; the first season was dumped onto television without any breaks (not even for Thanksgiving), and later seasons were spliced into the running order to give the first season a bit of variety. In syndication, seasons are even more meaningless, especially when the characters have little development and the plot doesn’t advance. But the first season finale means something to me: It’s the first real milestone in this little project.

Stegosaur on forest pathAt the beginning of this milestone, the kids are on the run from some bellowing beast, soon revealed as a stegosaurus. I’ve never been fond of using dinosaurs as monsters in D&D, not unless the party has been thrown into The Lost World. It just seems lazy, you know? “Oh, I need something that’s big, scary, and has a thick hide to menace the players with. I know! I’ll go all Jurassic Park on their asses!” (By which I mean: on their donkeys, which are carrying their treasure.) Plenty of big reptiles, flying and not, exist in the Monster Manual already. Why dredge up a big dumb beast from the Natural History Museum and put it into a deciduous forest with a huge dirt road running through it? It just lacks imagination and cohesiveness.

At least Gary Gygax’s use of dinosaurs predated Jurassic Park and a consistent idea of what D&D could be.

Anyway, Hank wants to fight Dino. Eric, as usual, is the voice of reason: “Are you nuts? … Personally, I have no desire to be peeled off that thing’s foot like a piece of chewing gum.” Vivid image, Eric, but let’s face it: No one’s going to be around to peel you off the beast’s foot. It will have to scrape you off on a tree or a rock, so it’s more like you’ll be cleaned up like dog dirt rather than chewing gum.

(If you need background on Dungeons & Dragons, you can read the introductory post. If you want to read my recaps in order, go here. If you want to follow along with this recap, you can watch “P-R-E-S-T-O Spells Disaster” on Youtube. Since that is technically piracy, I will also point out — without judgment — that you can buy the series cheaply on physical media.)

Diana in Hank’s arms.Whether it’s from Eric’s out-of-breath counsel or the rest of the party’s good sense, Hank’s “plan” is ignored. The party runs into a cave, which the stegosaur can’t fit into. “For a minute there, I thought we were going to be the main course,” Sheila says, and her obvious relief is the cue the Orcs who inhabit the cave needed to announce their presence. Caught between Orcs and a dinosaur, the kids decide to attack the Orcs, but they are quickly outmaneuvered, even though Eric knocks an Orc over for once. Even Diana’s fancy tumbling gets her only a few moments in Hank’s arms as he catches her.

“Oh, boy,” says one Orc as he holds Uni. “Unicorn stew.” Tiamat bless you, Orc soldier. Now, let’s have a conversation about that wardrobe: a purple cape does not go with your green skin or red tunic. I don’t care if it is part of the latest Venger collection; it’s just not you. And you deserve better! Especially since you don’t even react when Bobby uses a racial slur, threatening to “make bacon out of you.”

Soon Presto is the only party member left free as the Orcs threaten to throw the kids into the nearby magma. (Did I forget to mention the magma? Oh, yeah: there’s magma in this cave.) Eric, caught under a net, pleads with Presto to do something. Presto, after a bit of prodding, begins his spell: “Hocus delirium / Pocus inferium / Spell me a spell / To get us out of here-ium.” A tiny tube of winds emerges from his hat, growing as it hits the cave floor. The Orc near him flees, followed by his comrades. (Their morale must be low, if getting one to run causes an Orc stampede.) Unfortunately, the spell follows the rest of the party, backing them into a dead end. “Presto, shut it off!” Hank yells.

The party about to be sent away by a magic purple whirlwindPresto doesn’t know how, of course. Well, this is how such things go: When you live by the uncontrollable magic, you die by it. It’s been a good run! (And by “good run,” I mean “lucky” and “stupid.”) A few moments later, the cyclone and the party disappear in a peal of thunder. Only Presto and Uni are left behind. Unable to find his friends afterwards, Presto comes to the stupid conclusion that his spell sent them home. Really, Presto? That’s the conclusion you come up with? The Realms is an awful place, dedicated to torturing you. Realms magic — your magic — isn’t going to have that kind of effect. It’s no wonder Uni is wearing your hat; it would probably be a better wizard than you.

***

The rest of the party finds themselves in a forest clearing. It doesn’t take long for them to realize what happened, although they don’t know where they are. They hear a monster somewhere in the distance, and once again, they’re running. Eric — selfish Eric — is the first to realize Presto isn’t there, which says something about Hank and his socialist lackeys. Of course, Eric only notices Presto isn't there because he’s speaking badly of Presto’s magic skills, but hey, that shows more awareness than the rest of the group. (Bobby realizes his beloved pet — the one he’d gladly sacrifice people for — is missing soon after. Maybe you're not ready for a pet, Bobby.) “Presto must be taking disappearing lessons from Dungeon Master,” Eric says, and it’s telling that he doesn’t say “disappearing lessons from Sheila,” the member of the party who can turn invisible.

Bobby insists they have to find Presto and Uni, but the monster’s cry — closer this time — scotches that idea. They run until they hit an invisible wall, and Eric is left to mutter threats against Presto.

***

Dungeon MasterWell, crap — now we’re back to Presto and Uni, the incompetent and the incomprehensible. Not how I wanted to spend my afternoon, especially since the stegosaurus seems to have wandered off, as bored with Presto and Uni as I am. To add to this crapulent mix, Dungeon Master arrives, and I realize I’m being punished. I thought Presto had the same idea: “Dungeon Master! What have I done?” Unfortunately, he means, “What have I done to the others?”

“Your spell was a good one,” Dungeon Master lies, malicious eye askance to watch the working of his lie upon Presto’s. “But you put a bit too much twiddle on it.” Uh-huh. That’s nonsense, of course, and Presto realizes it. But Presto is focused: “Where did I twiddle them to?”

“A far-off land, where they face enormous danger,” Dungeon Master says, which is not at all helpful: “far off” is unspecific, and “enormous danger” doesn’t differentiate it from anywhere else in the Realms. To get them back, Presto will have to “climb to new heights of courage.” This sounds important and vague — great for a quest — but knowing Presto would only screw up without more help, Dungeon Master gives him a checklist:
  1. Meet three strangers.
  2. Lose something “very important to you.”
Not a long checklist, but still … given that Presto has only two things of importance — his hat and his glasses — I can’t wait to see the results. Or maybe he can lose Uni! The unicorn might not be important to Presto, but his kneecaps are, and Bobby is going to atomize them if Presto loses that deformed pony.

Dungeon Master disappears after this advice, thank Hera, and Presto wanders off to get eaten. No, to meet three strangers! Sorry. I forgot this was a kids’ show for a moment.

***

A slime beastThe creature used by guards to chase the party back into prison in “Servant of Evil” approaches. While Sheila and Eric lose their minds, Diana asks what they’re going to do. I will note they don’t even consider attacking the creature, which would be my first response — or at the very least having Hank attack it from a distance, to see if he can scare it off. But Hank does some thinking (you can almost smell the smoke) and realizes that if the force field “feels like glass, then it might break like glass.” You know, it might be glass. Bobby whacks the wall, which shatters, and the kids make a break for it.

After they break out, Hank says, “Look at the size of this place.” As it turned out, they were trapped inside an enormous terrarium, which sits on an even larger table inside a gigantic room. Diana brings up the idea that they might have shrunk, but Eric is not interested in such moot points, reminding the rest they need to get going. They flee across the table until Eric trips over a fork larger than he is. After Eric asks “what kind of jerk” leaves an oversized fork lying around, Diana points off-screen: “I think a giant jerk, Eric.”

Giant staring at kids“Yeah,” says a hairy giant as he is revealed to the viewers. “A giant jerk who eats little jerks like you for breakfast, Eric.” While Eric tries to flee — a rational response — I admit I’m intrigued by the mug of orange stuff on the table. The mug is more than twice as tall as the kids, and the orange liquid looks like orange juice. How many oranges does someone have to pulp to fill that mug? And are they normal oranges, or are they giant oranges? If they’re normal oranges, does a giant have to fiddle with crushing all those oranges? Or is it part of a tribute the giant gets from the locals? Maybe he buys it, which would seem prohibitively expensive, but maybe not — maybe he has treasure, like a golden-egg laying goose. Like in “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Oh my Freya — they’re totally going to do a “Jack and the Beanstalk” riff, aren’t they? This deal keeps getting worse all the time.

The giant cares not for Eric’s attempts at flight or my economic / culinary digressions, picking up the kids. “Ow!” Eric shouts. “Hey! Watch out, you big dope.” The giant is a bit sensitive about this, although I’m not sure how sensitive you can claim to be after you’ve already threatened to eat someone. At that point, their insults become less hurtful and more accurate. “You’ve got a big mouth for somebody with such a small head.” Eric answers, “Yeah? Well, you’ve got a small brain for somebody with such a big skull.”

Giant holding the partyYou have to admire Eric for showing some sand for once, especially since the Get Along Gang are already giving up. I’m surprised they didn’t chastise Eric immediately for being so rude to someone they’ve just met. “Good News” Moose tries to shoot an arrow at the giant, but he misses horribly, and in shame, stops trying. Good one, Hank. Diana says, “Nice try, Hank,” but it wasn’t, really; how can you miss a giant so close to you? Do you need glasses, Hank? “You gotta lot of guts, too,” the giant says. “No wonder you thought you could steal my golden eggs.”

Oh, no. I was right. Jack and the Beanstalk. The only thing left for me is to cry while waiting for a clever spin on the idea. I might have a long wait, though.

“Eggs, schmeggs,” Eric says. I can’t believe CBS’s Standards & Practices allowed such language on the air in 1983. How many children’s lives were ruined by such vulgarity? “We don’t want your eggs. We don’t even want your chicken. We just want to get out of here. Now let us go!”

The giant is unmoved by Eric’s claims; besides, he doesn’t have a chicken. He does have a slime beast named Willy — the thing that chased the kids in the terrarium — and a love of games. The game he proposes is “hide and eat”: “It’s simple! You all go hide, and Willy will come find you … and if Willy finds you, he gets to eat you.” The kids duck under a door; Eric becomes momentarily stuck until the others can pull him through. “What took you so long?” Eric asks.

“Shut up and run!” Hank says. Well, nice to see Hank being short tempered. Or are we supposed to think that he’s being the rational one here? It’s not exactly a plan, you know, and even Gandalf’s “Fly, you fools!” had a rational component to it.

(Geek aside: Slime beasts are made up for the cartoon series. The creature doesn’t appear in any manual or adventure. Giants, however, are all over place. The Monster Manual has six kinds of giants — cloud, fire, frost, hill, stone, and storm — while the Field Folio has fog and mountain giants and the Monster Manual II has the Gaelic giants: fomorians, firbolg, and verbeeg. None of them are as hairy or as large as the giant in this episode, though. The hill and mountain giants are the most hirsute, and they “typically dress in rough hides or skins” like this dope, but I think it’s more likely he’s a cloud giant: they “usually reside in crude castles built atop mountains or on magical cloud islands.” The castle isn’t crude, but it is on a magic cloud island. Maybe the hairiness is from hypertrichosis. Also: “There is a 50% chance that evil cloud giants will have 1-3 captives … in their lair.”

***

Furry man running out of barPresto and Uni wander into a town. I don’t think we’ve seen a functioning town for a while. If you don’t count the castle in “The Garden of Zinn” or the bogbeast village in “Beauty and the Bogbeast,”, you have to go back to the second episode, “The Eye of the Beholder,” to see a functioning town. Are they afraid of Venger’s informants? Or is it a way for Hank to keep control of his little cult of personality — if they saw other people could be happy, the rest of the party might realize they don’t have to be hungry and miserable all the time.

The town Uni and Presto are walking through is sleepy — one person on the street appears to be literally asleep — and a bit run-down. Still, I don’t think it deserves the review Presto gives it: “I don’t like the look of this place. The three guys we’re looking for couldn't be around here — I hope.” You spoiled suburban brat … who cares where the three guys are from? Just because you saw an orc stroll out of the random bar you’re entering doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. I mean, it’s the Realms! You get all kinds there! Including a strawberry fuzzball who dashes out the batwing doors and faceplants into a puddle. (Another victim of hypertrichosis?)

Uni immediately proves its value by charging into the bar and finding a three-headed ogre. Of course the ogre — almost certainly the “three strangers” DM mentioned, because this guy’s plenty strange — wants to steal Uni and sell it, but when Presto gets pulled into the bar and asserts his ownership, the ogre is willing to trade: three magic marbles for Uni. Presto scornfully refuses, so the ogres go on to the skull game, which is the shell game, except it uses skulls instead of shells. Presto tries to refuse again, but the ogre’s anger and his goblin servant pressure Presto A three-headed ogre demonstrates the skull game. into accepting. The ogre moves the skulls too quickly to be seen; Presto chooses the middle skull, which is wrong. The correct one is “the head on the right,” but when Presto picks up that skull, nothing is beneath it. The ogre meant its own head, which is cheating, whatever it says. The ogre takes Uni — better it than me — and Presto is tossed out on his hinder. The ogre throws the “worthless” marbles out after him.

Presto wanders out of town, into the darkness, berating himself for his incompetence. Good! Maybe this will, you know, inspire you to Frigg-ing practice your damn magic. Maybe you’ll learn how to do something! I’m also good with his final self-insult: “You ought to do everyone a favor and make yourself disappear.”

But before he can learn a lesson, he tosses the marbles away in frustration. Because this is a Jack and the Beanstalk story, the marbles immediately grow into a gigantic petrified tree. Well, I supposed petrified is interesting, but I don’t know what it means. Presto doesn’t want to climb it, but he realizes Dungeon Master might have been making a pun with that “climb to new heights of courage” line. “There’s nothing that can make me climb up there,” he claims.

Presto considers the treeYou know, of course, that he’s going to be climbing that tree. What’s the impetus? Well, Uni breaks free of the ogre and follows Presto’s path to the tree. With the ogre in hot pursuit, Presto and Uni have no choice but to step inside the tree’s entrance. The ogre, dumber than a post, thinks the tree has eaten the boy and the unicorn, but the tree is just hollow inside, with a set of stairs. As we fade to commercial, we see the shadow of someone watching Uni and Presto.

***

Coming out of the commercial, we get thrilling stair action. Watch a baby unicorn get tired from climbing stairs! Hey, I wonder if unicorns are like cows: they can’t climb down stairs. It would be a shame if Uni had to be abandoned at the top of the stairs, left to be eaten as an appetizer by the giant or Willy.

Sinister doorway “I wonder where this stairway is taking us,” Presto says. Well, given how it keeps going up, it’s obviously a stairway to heaven — and you didn’t even have to buy it! Lucky you. Presto wants to chicken out, but glowing panels above a doorway frighten him. On to new heights of courage, Presto!

***

Back in the castle, the party is hiding in a giant broom. But when they emerge from the bristles, Willy is there waiting. I wonder if the giant does his own sweeping. He certainly doesn’t seem the type; maybe he has a wife or housekeeper who does instead. Or maybe a domestic partner! Perhaps this giant lives in a brutal-yet-progressive cloudscape that allows for both gay marriage and the torture and devouring of other sentients. It’s a model giant community!

The kids make a break for the window, but Willy manages to steal Bobby before he can get over the sill. Well, we’ll miss you, Bobby. We’ll hold a memorial service for you, maybe see if Dungeon Master can recover your bones … who am I kidding? That giant will grind your bones to make his bread, so there’s not going to be anything left of you when it’s all over, except for maybe your club in the giant’s stool.

Diana throws her staff at the slime beast, which has BobbyBut Hank, exhibiting his usually-say-die approach, stops Diana from tossing her staff — here called a “javelin,” despite its lack of pointed ends. (Also: Diana throws her staff so that it spins horizontally. No one throws a javelin like that.) Hank has a plan! When he’s ready — because it takes so long to set up an always-strung magic bow — he has fake-javelin-girl Diana throw the staff close enough to the slime beast to scare him. Willy drops Bobby, and Hank shoots an arrow that hits a water bucket. The water bucket slides under Bobby, and because falling hundreds of feet into water head-first has absolutely no side effects — just ask the people who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge — Bobby is saved.

Willy hasn’t given up, though. With Sheila shouting such helpful advice as “Bobby, look out!,” Willy lands near Bobby and menaces him while Bobby wildly swings his club. Hank, rather than attack the slime beast which has been trying to dismember him and his friends, hits a ricochet shot that connects with Bobby’s club, carrying Bobby all the way up to the window sill again. (Bobby’s screams in this cartoon, interestingly, are obviously voiced by Adam Rich [Presto] rather than Ted Field III.) Bobby insists to his sister that “that giant parakeet” didn’t frighten him at all. Why were you running from it all episode, then?

Willy makes another run at the kids, and this time, Diana’s staff knocks the shade off a kerosene / gas lamp, trapping Willy beneath it. Golly! It’s amazing what you can do if you just fight back sometimes, especially if you have magic weapons! Of course, magic weapons might not be much use against Super Yeti, who has been standing idly by and watching. He frightens Eric by yelling, “Boo!,” then taunts Eric when he almost falls off the window sill. The giant easily — Giant taunts the kids on the windowsillcontemptuously — captures the party as the clock strikes nine. He declares this to mean another egg has been laid, so he frees Willy to go get it.

“Hey, I’m bored,” the giant says, bringing the kids back to the table. You and me both, brother from another, much hairier mother. But whereas I would alleviate my boredom by doing cruel things out of a maladjusted 9 year old’s brain to the kids, Fuzzy Was-He puts Sheila and Eric on the back of little mechanical dragons that bob back and forth at each other. Bobby takes umbrage. “Isn’t that cute?” the giant says. “The little boy has come to rescue his sister from the mean old giant.”

“Laugh at this, Fuzzface,” Bobby says as he smashes the device Eric and Sheila are on. That’ll teach him, Bobby — mess with you, and you’ll destroy his knickknacks. Then run! Because that’s what the party is best at: running. To cover their retreat, Hank uses his arrows to cut down the curtain behind the giant, which falls over his head. As they run across the floor, Hank urges the group to “Hurry!” If you need further encouragement to run than a several hundred feet tall giant following you, then man, I think it’s going to take a pack of Purple Men to motivate you.

***

Back to more scintillating stair-climbing action! Boy, I was afraid we wouldn’t see every agonizing step. I mean, how could I know Presto and Uni climbed all that way if I don’t see all of it? Presto’s almost as tired of it as I am: “If I ever get back home,” he says, “I swear I’ll never goof off in gym class again.” Well, since you’re never going to get home, that’s what’s called an “empty promise,” Presto.

Presto’s progression through the bargaining stage — only two more stages for you, Presto; I can’t wait for depression! — is interrupted by a squawking sound. Because we don’t have enough “cute” animals on this damn show, Presto and Uni discover a weird lizard thing dangling from a petrified branch; somehow Presto identifies it as a “baby dragon,” which turns out to be correct. Presto climbs onto the branch and almost falls off immediately. He catches himself, but the branch is cracking. “I can’t even twiddle my fingers to whip up a spell,” Presto says. Yes, like that would be likely to make things better.

Uni casting magic with Presto’s hatAdding to this potential tragedy — although when a stupid kid is hurt doing something stupid, it’s less a “tragedy” and more of an “inevitability” — is Uni, who climbs onto the branch as well. “Uni, go back! There’s nothing you can do!” Presto says. He’s wrong: What Uni can do is humiliate him in front of a dragon. Uni scoffs in its horsey way, steals Presto’s hat, and conjures up a flying carpet. If learning a half-witted baby unicorn, which can’t even speak a recognizable language, is a better wizard than you isn’t enough to sledgehammer your self-confidence into dust, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, the carpet lasts only long enough to get them back into the tower, so Uni isn’t that great.

Just as Presto reassures the baby dragon, “We’re safe now,” the creature’s mother arrives. Well, I think it’s the baby’s mother; the baby is gold, and the wingless dragon is more of a baby-crap yellow-brown. Presto tries to get the little monster to “go to Mama,” but it has grown attached to him. Eventually, Presto manages to toss the baby dragon to the floor and beat cheeks (with Uni) up the stairs. Since the adult doesn’t eat the baby, I’m going to assume Presto was right and they are related. (Although some creatures eat their young. Definitely not judging that decision, though.) Despite regaining its child, the dragon still seems incensed the human has touched its child, firing a gout of fire after Presto.

Dragonfire, evidently, is the answer to the question, “What’s needed to inspire Presto to new heights of courage?” He and Uni hit the exit running, still pursued by the dragon, but somehow Presto manages to trip over Uni. Then they both become amuse bouche for the dragon. I bet Uni would be tastier than Presto; as Presto intimated with his bargaining, he hasn’t developed the tasty muscle and instead is probably too stringy. Also: wrapped up in disgusting clothes. I bet he’s never washed that robe, and we’ve all seen the foul places it has been. Double also: Another magic weapon to be found in stool.

Willy stealing a golden eggBut no: after another burst of flame, the dragon spots Willy stealing another golden egg — a golden dragon egg, it turns out. The dragon lumbers after Willy, seemingly in no particular hurry, leaving Presto in a stew of his own sweat and urine (and possibly Uni’s as well). Presto notes the dragon and Willy are headed to an “enormous” castle, then remembers Dungeon Master said something about “enormous danger”; he wonders if that’s where his friends are. A desperate scream from Eric confirms it. “I’d know that panic anywhere!” Presto says.

Inside, the kids are still managing to outpace the giant, who can cover significant fractions of a mile with a single step, until Eric trips. The giant is distracted from squishing the intruder flat by Willy returning with the egg. Pleased, the giant gives Eric to Willy as a reward. Hank pulls Eric to his feet, informing Eric that it’s Willy chasing them now. “What is this,” Eric asks, “tag-team chasing?”

Whatever it is, Presto’s treating it as a spectator sport, as he watches the chase go by. “I sure hope I get the twiddle right this time,” Presto says. Oh, Presto … your optimism is both heartening and depressing. “Alaka-shims, alaka-sham / Give me a spell / To get them out of their jam!” Nothing seems to happen for a few moments, other than the inside of the hat glowing. Presto almost hit by a magic blast“Maybe my fingers aren’t loaded,” he says, just before a blast of white light shoots from his hat and almost takes him head off. A few more inches to one side, and he would have become the wizardly version of the rednecks who try to use a shotgun as a callus remover. The blast of light hits Willy, and a cage forms around him, trapping him.

A happy reunion occurs. “For a minute there, I thought I’d spelled you right out of existence,” Presto says. Then the giant’s voice booms out, remind them all that, hey, you know, there’s still a giant wandering around that could flatten them. “You’ll wish you had when I get through with you!” he shouts.

More running — ever-heroic running. Presto leads them toward the exit until he realizes they can’t leave the dragon egg with the giant. Fortunately, the giant still has the egg in his hand while he’s groping under the table they’re all hiding beneath, and Presto yoinks it from the giant without the giant reacting. Presto then tosses the egg to Eric while expositing — because, hey, he’s the idea man and competent leader at the moment; he doesn’t have to be the one hauling loads around — despite the horror the casual dragon endangerment and information overload causes Diana and Eric. They courageously run away again, but this time, the egg hatches in Eric’s arm, revealing a surprisingly dinosaur-like dragon. The dragon licks Eric, and Eric says, “Cut it out! I’m not your dada.”

Baby gold dragonOh, Eric. Why did you say that? It’s an invitation to get mocked. Please … the next time a baby animal does anything to you, just drop kick it and keep quiet. It will be better for all of us.

Running running running … the chase exits the castle, and the kids make it back into the hollow tree before the giant can get them. The giant starts climbing down the tree while they take the stairs … oh, we can all see where this is going, and it’s nowhere good.

The kids encounter the dragon again, because after its egg was stolen, of course it would just give up and not enter the castle the kids had no trouble running out of. Why not? The dragon grabs both its deformed newborn and Eric, and I find it’s touching that Bobby is willing to “make a suitcase out of that monster” in Eric’s defense. Hank stops Bobby, though, secretly glad the only one resistant to the group-think he and Dungeon Master peddle will soon be dragon chow. But instead the dragon has taken to Eric as if he’s one of the dragon’s kids … Look, this is just stupid. Dragons are intelligent. They aren’t going to be fooled by smell, and they have the visual acuity to recognize what shapes are like theirs.

The party encounters a dragon.After realizing the dragon was “friendly” — why is it friendly? It tried to roast Presto and Uni and failed, curse the luck, and I haven’t seen anything that would change its mind about whether the kids are a hazard to the younglings — the kids dash down the stairs, with the dragon family in pursuit. After Diana realizes there’s no door at the bottom of the tree, Bobby uses his club to create an exit. Bobby smash!

Somehow the kids have arrived at the bottom well before the giant. Instead of having Bobby knock down the tree, Presto steps forward: “Don’t worry, guys! I’ve got this twiddle thing down cold … I think.” His friends are shocked — everyone, not just Eric — and Hank tries to stop him, but since he’s backing away rather than tackling Presto, we’re going to get another Presto special: “I’ll fiddle with my twiddle and diddle with the middle and make a magic riddle that will turn the giant little.”

Eric hides behind his shield and says, “Oh, great. Now he’s doing nursery rhymes.”

The giant surrounded by spell energyBut it works! Mostly because in Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant dies while climbing the beanstalk, and theme is more important than logic here. A helix of red energy circles the petrified tree, surrounding the giant. The tree itself disappears, and the giant is shrunkified into nothingness. He’s dead, or as good as, given that the dragon uses the tower’s former base as a nest. “That was real fancy fingerwork, Presto” Hank says, and I am going to avoid all thoughts about what other work Presto’s fingers have done.

“Your spells are improving, Wizard,” Dungeon Master says. Well, they should be! Their lives often depend on his spells. He should be practicing to get better and stop being such a load!

“Improving?” Eric says. “It was his stupid twiddling that got us into trouble in the first place.” This is 100 percent true, of course, but Dungeon Master deflects the criticism: “Your trouble worked for a good cause.” Is it ethical to risk someone else’s life without their knowledge or permission if you know they will achieve a greater good? Dungeon Master believes the answer is yes; I believe Dungeon Master is a scruple-less bastard who should be tried for crimes against humanity. We will have to agree to disagree.

Hank smilesThe good the kids have done, according to Dungeon Master, is to save the last of the golden dragons, a type of good dragon. (That’s how it is in D&D, often; ethics are genetic. Which makes me wonder what kind of jackholes the rest of Dungeon Master’s race is.) Eric goes for the obvious line: “The only good dragon is a —” The dragon, which after all is good, knows something racist is coming out of Eric’s mouth, so it picks Eric up by the scruff and deposits him in its nest. Of course. It wouldn’t be a Dungeons & Dragons ending without humiliating Eric. “You were saying, dada?” Hank asks, his stupid face pushed out of shape by his attempts to smile.

“The only good dragon is a golden dragon,” Eric says, defeated. Well, that’s not true — the only good dragons are metallic dragons, such as silver, copper, and bronze. But it’s OK, Eric. I know you’ve been hurt.

So, to wrap up this episode, the only good lessons are these lessons:
  • When your enemies are genetically evil, it’s OK to demonize them, even to intimate that you’ll eat them. You’re good! You can get away with that.
  • If you have two problems that seem overwhelming, deal with one of them, and the other one might get bored with you and go away. You’ll never know until you try!
  • Violence should never be your first resort. Or your second. Or your third. Or your final resort. Violence should never be resorted to, I’m saying. Run instead — it’s better cardiovascular exercise.
  • When a creature that can’t speak and has no opposable thumbs is better at your job than you are, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the choices you’ve made.
  • Dragonfire is one of the world’s great motivators.
  • Nothing adds interest to a story like mindless running and endless stair climbing.
Going home tally: No portal is mentioned this time. Four times they’ve found a way home, but each time they have failed. Twice they’ve briefly returned to Earth, though.

Monster tally: One from the Monster Manual. Totals: MM: 30; FF: 5; L&L: 1; Dragon: 1.

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Three Things about ... Snakewood by Adrian Selby

18th Sep. 2016 | 02:43 am

Three things about Snakewood by Adrian Selby:

Snakewood coverWhose story is this, anyway?: The beginning of Snakewood is narrated by Gant, one of Kailen’s Twenty, a defunct but legendary mercenary group. It then switches to Galathia, who has hired her own mercenaries to hunt down the living members of the Twenty, and then to Kailen himself; later, a mysterious slave becomes the focus of the narrative. Putting aside the mystery man for the moment, this leaves open the question: Are we following the ragged few survivors of Kailen’s Twenty who haven’t been killed yet, or the killers seeking their righteous (?) revenge? Because it makes a big difference. Until I know which way to go, I don’t know who to sympathize with. The mercenaries could deserve their fate; they could be hunted by nutjobs. Who knows, and why do we care?

I can imagine Selby is trying to throw the readers into a gray area; a horrible thing was done to the assassin, although he’s an unpleasant guy, and even though Kailen’s Twenty is being hunted down, they’re mercenaries who have killed repeatedly. However, all the members of Kailen’s Twenty that we meet (Gant and Shale) are innocent of the crime they are being hunted for. In that sense, there’s no ambiguity: The assassin is wrong, given that his killing is indiscriminate (plus he committed his own war crimes), while Gant and Shale’s actions are covered by the legitimacy of the battlefield.

The book is allegedly compiled by a scholar named Goran, the son of one of Kailen’s Twenty, as a historical document. But the lack of focus and lack of background at the beginning of Snakewood shows it is not organized in a way a scholar would assemble the first-person accounts. “I have put all these documents together in a way that I hope makes sense of the fate of the Twenty,” he says, but Selby intentionally does not give us the information we need at the beginning to make sense of anything about the Twenty. This means Goran is awful at compiling and editing, although I have to admit he’s very good at finding historical documents. But given that editor is Goran’s only job as far as the readers are concerned, Goran comes across as incompetent. A logical, historical organization would spoil the mystery of why Kailen’s Twenty are being killed, though.

Riddle me this: But I’m not sure that mystery is worth keeping. Since we know very few of the stories of Kailen’s Twenty and have emotional investments in only a handful of its members, what does it matter what the betrayal was? The author is stringing readers along for a payoff that means nothing to them. If Selby wants us to have any sympathy for those seeking revenge, we need to know there’s some righteousness to his cause; just by reputation, readers know mercenaries might have done something deserving of revenge. Letting us know what the grievance is lets us choose sides, but not telling us puts us on the fence.

The only vaguely sympathetic character is Gant, but he’s just as in the dark as we are. The truth is only some of the Twenty knew what happened, and we don’t get the insight of anyone who knows. (Well, that’s not entirely true — Kailen knows, but Selby is coy and never lets the reader know what Kailen knows, for no reason other than to preserve the secret.) We never become invested in the Twenty; we meet only a few members for longer than it takes for them to die. The cover copy promises, “A lifetime of enemies has its own price,” but that’s not what happens at all — nothing the mercenaries did as a group causes their later downfall.

I’m not sure the twist on who the assassin is holds up, though. He says the Twenty betrayed him, but when he was done wrong, the Twenty didn’t exist: the band had been dissolved by Kailen. So he thinks he’s been betrayed by friends, but both he and those he attacks make it clear they weren’t friends at all; they used each other to their own mutual benefit when they were part of the Twenty, but most of the group didn’t like him. Kailen figures out who the culprit is, but in the meantime, his own organization is killing the Twenty as well. He’s supposed to be a tactical genius, but given that he’s working at cross purposes with himself, that seems unlikely.

Selby wastes a lot of our time describing, through the assassin, how the Twenty have died. It isn’t interesting, since we know all the people he’s killing are already dead and we’ve never met them before, but the assassin’s descriptions go on for pages without drama or variation. (The targets have grown soft or let him get close enough to kill them because they think of him as a friend.) It’s … not interesting. “Oh, hey, I poisoned this guy. Then I got close enough to this guy to knife him; the knife had poison on it. Then I poisoned a few more guys, then knifed a few more.” It’s pointless exposition after the mystery has ended, and we don’t care about those being killed.

A technology more complicated than fire: The lackluster attempt at a plot enigma and the lack of connection with the characters hamstring an excellent bit of worldbuilding: the extensive use of biochemical aids in war. All blades and arrows are envenomed, which isn’t that remarkable, but every soldier has antidotes with them that can counter the expected poisons. Every soldier has access to fightbrews, short-term performance enhancers that take a toll after they wear off and color the soldier’s skin permanently afterward. Arrows tipped with drugged dust are a common part of battles, and soldiers wear masks to counteract. Chemists / physicians called drudhas are feared and respected for their poisons, cures, and enhancements.

The ubiquity of these biochemical boosts is remarkable, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in any other book. (Well, maybe in Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs by Adrienne Mayor, but that’s nonfiction.) In Snakewood, war is a constant battle between measures and countermeasures; the potency of a drudha’s recipe and “plant” (ingredients) can tip a battle between equal forces or even make a weaker force victorious. In theory, recipes and plant should make for a biochemical arms race, with the best plant being a cause for repeated battles and drudha colleges or guilds churning out the best drudhas. Instead, advances in recipes and competition for plant seem haphazard, a side effect rather than a major cause of the world’s geopolitical order.

In the end, that’s the most disappointing failure in Snakewood. Many novels have split narratives that slow the books’ momentum or readers’ engagement with characters. Untold numbers of novels have unengaging enigmas at their heart. But novels that have such interesting threads woven into their fabric without following those threads to their conclusion are always more frustrating because they come so close to excellence but fall short.

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Some Random Things about ... Fiend Folio

4th Sep. 2016 | 12:42 am

Some random things about Fiend Folio by James Wyatt:

Fiend Folio cover
  • Someone took the “Improved stat block” feat: You can see they were tinkering with the stat block in preparation for transition from 3rd edition to 3.5. Wizards of the Coast has added a few bits of information that weren’t in the Monster Manual II: The book gives a separate line for the creature’s base attack and its grapple modifier, and it separates the creature’s primary attack from what it can do with a full attack. This change does add some needed clarity to the monster entry, especially since the creatures in this book often have grapple attacks. I can’t imagine what a pain in the ass it would be to have to figure out some of these creatures’ grapple modifiers, given how difficult it usually is to correctly execute the grapple rules.

  • Call back to something you probably wanted to forget: Let’s face it: The original Fiend Folio (a “Tome of Creatures Malevolent and Benign”) was not very good; in fact, it was laughably bad at times. If you look down the list of creatures in the first-edition Folio, it’s hard to find an iconic monster. The Githyanki and Githzerai are the best; maybe you have fondness for the nilbog. There are others that get some use, like the slaad and the kuo-toa, and the bullywug even showed up in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. (So did the shadow demon, for that matter.) But that can’t outweigh the sheer awfulness of the dire corby and the tween and the volt and the flail snail and the shocker … and those are just the names. Plus the umpleby. Umpleby! Who could be afraid of the umpleby? The actual descriptions are worse.

    (It’s not just when the Folio came out; the later Monster Manual II had yuan-ti and the tarrasque and modrons and the drider and duergar and the Lords of Hell and a bunch of other creatures I used in 3rd edition without knowing where they came from.)

    But D&D fans (and usually designers) love tradition — one of the reasons 4th edition bombed — so Wizards of the Coast put some of the creatures from the original Folio in the 3rd edition version: 14 of them, by my count. The Githyanki and Githzerai have already been in two other books (Manual of the Planes and Psionic Handbook), but some of the best of the rest are included: the iron cobra (my favorite wrestling move), necrophidius, huecuva, crypt thing, yellow musk creeper … one of my favorite constructs, the caryatid, is in both. The kelpie comes from myths, so it’s got that going for it. These aren’t the greatest monsters ever, but they all serve a purpose. Like most monsters, that purpose is to wait in a dungeon and get beaten up by adventurers. Still, it’s a solid purpose.

    That’s more than I can say for other creatures in both. The dark creeper and dark stalker are reclusive humanoids that live in the Underdark … they’re so reclusive, in fact, I forgot about them a few minutes after I read them. The weird disenchanter, an anti-magic anteater that sucks the charges from magic item, joins the “DM dick move” pantheon with the rust monster and various oozes, jellies, and cubes. The best thing you can say about the blood hawk and terror bird is that they are definitely birds. They are also utterly boring, but that isn’t very nice. The death dog has two heads; good for it. The skulks have a dull name and go downhill from there.

    Some of it isn’t the fault of Wyatt or his editors; the best Folio creatures had been used elsewhere. On the other hand, I see no reason why a blood hawk or terror bird had to be updated for 3rd-edition. I’d rather have seen a nilbog.

  • Repetition is the key, which is repetition: The Folio is the third of the monster manuals for 3rd-edition and the last before the conversion to 3.5. But when you get to the third monster manual, there is a rule: you have to load the book up with subtypes of established monsters. Three demodands. Seven demons. Three formians. Just two giants, which shows amazing restraint. Four golems, only one of which makes any sense. Three imps. Another slaad. A swarm of insect swarms.

    You get the idea. The Fiend Folio isn’t bad at this, as such things go. But man, if I never see another entry for an infernal creature again it will be too soon.

  • Lolth approved: Three of the fourteen creatures from City of the Spider Queen — the quth-maren, the abyssal ghoul, and the blood fiend — are repeated in the Folio. The two books were released six months apart, so it’s not a coincidence; Wizards was obviously getting creatures they thought were good into a monster manual, where people who actually wanted to know about monsters could see them. (Or maybe they were filler for the Folio. I have no direct knowledge.) In any event, I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn't read the two back to back.

  • Upgrades: Several creatures in the Fiend Folio can be summoned via summon monster or summon nature’s ally spells, but unfortunately, there’s no easy chart that summarizes these new, handy-dandy options. Allow me to rectify that:
    Summon monster I: None
    Summon monster II: Nerra, varoot (N); Kaorti (NE)
    Summon monster III: Bacchae (CN)
    Summon monster IV: Nerra, kalareen (N); Imp, bloodbag (LE); Imp, euphoric (LE); Imp, filitor (LE); Yugoloth, sheroloth (NE)
    Summon monster V: None
    Summon monster VI: Formian, winged warrior (LN); Nerra, sillit (N); Slaad, mud (CN); Demon, skulryn (CE)
    Summon monster VII: Deva, movanic (G); Formian, armadon (LN); Relmani, ferrumach (N); Yugolot, piscoloth (NE)
    Summon monster VIII: Maelephant (LE)
    Summon monster IX: Deva, monadic (G); Formian, observer (LN); Rilmani, cuprilach (N); Demodand, faratsu (NE); Devil, wastrilith (CE)

    Summon nature’s ally I, II, and III: None
    Summon nature’s ally IV: Bloodthorn; Spriggan; Yellow musk creeper
    Summon nature’s ally V: None
    Summon nature’s ally VI: Fossergrim; Oread; Swarm, viper
    Summon nature’s ally VII: Dire rhinoceros; Kelp angler
    Summon nature’s ally VIII: Sporebat
    Summon nature’s ally IX: Kelpie; Octopus tree

    For those of you who are wondering, you can also add “Crypt thing” to your create undead spell description. Casters have to be 14th level to create a crypt thing.

  • Bhut!: There is a creature called a “bhut.” I could go into its background, such as it being an unquiet ghost from Indian folklore or that its alternate spelling (“bhoot”) indicates I’m mispronouncing it for comic effect, but I think all I really need to say is that it’s named “bhut.”

  • Preparing for the future: Fiend Folio was released a few months before the 3.5 revision, so it’s not surprising the rules take the coming edition into account. The sidebar on how 3.5’s changes were incorporated into the Folio’s 3.5 rule set, however, is minuscule, which might have suggested to DMs (and players) the changes would be cosmetic at best. The sidebar indicates three skills and one feat were renamed, and two feats were slightly altered. The changes in 3.5 edition were larger than that, but I can’t say how great they were; in any event, incorporating these small changes early was a good idea.

  • Any method to screw the PCs sounds good to me: Fiend Folio has two appendices. The first lays out three prestige classes for evil outsiders; they don’t do much for me, but I’ll admit giving fiends the power to slowly corrupt PCs and NPCs could be useful. I just don’t use evil outsiders that much.

    The second appendix is more interesting, as it covers grafts and symbionts. The idea is the same, though as with the fiend prestige classes: tempting characters into committing evil acts. I could see using either one. The grafts have the added benefits of giving a bump to underperforming monsters and cheating the PCs of treasure; the Fiend Folio says to treat grafts as part of the monster’s treasures, and since it requires the graft flesh feat to attach the graft, the PCs will find it difficult to get any use from the graft even if they wanted it.

    Symbionts aren’t treasure, but they do literalize the internal struggle of good vs. evil. They also add another use for the Ego score that has mostly been used for intelligent magic items, which is nice. Since most of the “symbionts” are actually parasites, I can’t imagine any characters allowing them into their body or not dealing with the surprise visitors immediately, but it might be fun to try them on the PCs.

  • Many shapes, many sizes, some on my back: Look closely at that cover. Embiggen it if you have to. See it? Right below the “I” in “Folio”? Right — a nipple. A pierced nipple, to be exact. And before you ask how we’re looking through something with a nipple to a scenic panorama of Mt. Doom, there’s another one right above the “o.” Now look at the back — two pierced nipples, to the left of the text.

    I can’t explain it. If you can, leave a comment. I don’t know what the cover artists, Brom and Henry Higgenbotham, were thinking, and I really don’t want to.

  • Fabulous: The senmurv comes from the folklore of Persia and nearby cultures, where it’s called the simurgh, simorgh, and simoorg, among other things, but it looks like it’s right out of San Francisco. Yes, yes, I know — stereotypes. But seriously, the senmurv looks like the first homosexual monster created in D&D. Less so than the joke image the artist, Larry Dixon, originally sent in.

    And of course it’s lawful good.

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