Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Book: Back in the Saddle

 Between Two Kings by Alexandre Dumas, Translated and Edited by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2021

Provenance: Amazon. Birthday present from the Lovely Bride. 

Review: Everyone knows The Three Musketeers. Most people know The Man in the Iron Mask. But between these two posts were a slew of other tales, first those within Twenty Years Later (talked about here and here) and now those within Ten Years After, also known as the Vicomte of Bragalonne. This particular volume is the first 50 chapters of the latter book, which culminated in aforementioned The Man in the Iron Mask.

So were this a simple trilogy, this would be the "saddle" book, the one between the declaration of the problem in the first book, and the resolution in the third. But these stories of the Three Musketeers were not built as such - they were written for publication in weekly journals starting in 1847, so they are a long as they need to be. The volumes of collected work are after-market sales. And it shows - it takes its time getting places, characters can be delayed or engage in chapter-long discussions, and the pacing rolls from action-packed to leisurely. It does pose a challenge for people collecting up the stories into something less than a single massive tome. Yet every chapter holds its own as a unit and encourages the reader to follow along. Translator Ellsworth captures the flavor, flair, and completeness of the original French manuscript.

This first volume concerns itself primarily with the Return of the King, in this case King Charles II of England. Yes, we're back in England, again. We presided over the death of Charles I in Blood Royal, as the heroes were unable to completely contravene history, and now Dumas plays a bit fast and loose with the facts, making his heroes key to restoration of the monarchy. D'Artagnan, still a lieutenant in the Musketeers, has had enough of the young French King, a particularly emo Louis XIV, and strikes out on his own with a scheme to restore Charles to the throne and make a tidy profit for himself. Athos, who was the recipient of Charles I's last words, encounters the son and pledges himself to help restore the young man to the throne, powered by the sense of noble duty. Porthos and Aramis are missing from this text, except for chapters where D'Artagnan goes looking for them and finds out they just left.  Even Athos' son, the Viscomte named in the original title, is mostly absent for the first fifty installments.

Athos, who was a bit of a wet mop in the previous volume, shines here through his own nobility, honesty, and generosity. The same attributes that worked against him in Blood Royal (trust, respect, duty) now prove to be indispensable. He is respected by his potential enemies and taken at his noble word continually. D'Artagnan is more comic than usual, still very much the farmer from Gascony after all these years, and talks himself into (and out of) various messes. Ultimately, each man has his own screwball plan, and together, the plans work. But this is really Athos' book,

The Royals in these tales are generally useless. Louis XIV is kept inert while his Prime Minister, Mazarin, backed up by Louis's mother, Queen Anne, pretty much run things. Charles of England is impoverished and depressed, lacking both cash and manpower to retake his throne. Anne herself, whose diamonds drove the plot of the first book, forgets old allies and servants with alarming precision. Henrietta of Stuart, Charles II's younger sister, was horribly impoverished in the previous book, but after restoration she becomes a coquettish tease. All the rest are pretty unsympathetic, courtiers just waiting for the chop a hundred years later. 

Of more interest to Dumas are the powers behind the throne - Cardinal Mazarin for Louis, and General Monck for Charles. They are the ones that our heroes mostly contend with. Mazarin is effective but venal and greedy. Monck is honorable, such that he takes Athos at his word, and throws in with Chalres when the young King impresses him. Throughout the books Dumas was a fan of Richleau and his ilk, not so much Louis XIII, and it reflects in his treatment of the true managers of state here.

What strikes me most as I move through this book is how in politics people switch sides with frightening regularity. Enemies from the Frondeur are now respected members of the court, and old alliances and services rendered are conveniently forgotten (yes, I'm looking at YOU, Queen Anne). It is very much a case that you need a scorecard to figure out who is currently plotting against who, which Ellsworth kindly provides in extensive footnotes and historical bios. 

This volume is just the first 50 chapters of a 268-chapter story, and while it tells a coherent story, it is all warm-up for the main acts to follow, wrapping up some of looser ends from the Twenty Years After and introducing some of the new cast going forward. It breaks at a correct moment, and sets us up for the what follows. And yeah, I'm here for the ride. 

More later,

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Recent Acquisitions


So, games continue to arrive. Some are the result of Kickstarters that have come due, but some are outright purchases off the shelf.  I have read parts of some of these, and have played absolutely none of them, so these are hardly reviews and more akin to first encounters. Be advised.

Traveller: Deepnight Revelation (Martin J. Dougherty, Mongoose Publishing) This was a Kickstarter that grew like kudzu. Originally a boxed set for Mongoose's incarnation of Traveller, the campaign went so well that they just kept adding supplements, so there are six (!) hardback books attached to it by the time it arrived. The idea is that you take an exploratory starship on a 20-year(!) mission to the edges of known space and beyond in search of a potentially cataclysmic opponent. This would be a year's worth of a small company's production and several years worth of gaming and in addition to everything else the boxed set has extensive rules on running a long-term exploratory mission. However, it wrong-foots me at the start, in the fact that I can't figure out exactly how I know where the cataclysmic opponent is. It seems to just be assumed your players will have that information at hand at the start, and even the intro adventure presents the threat but does not make a hard link to the distant system to you are going to. even so, it is so otherwise complete I would strongly consider it if I chose to return to Traveller, or adapt it for a d6 Star Wars game.

Scarlet Citadel: A Dungeon of Secrets (Steve Winter, Kobold Publishing). This 208 page hardbound is a nice Kickstarter dungeon that was offered with a fully laid out map folio. I didn't get the folio, and if you intend to run this adventure, yes, spring for the map pack. In addition to having full-size playing maps for miniatures, the pack has overlays for how the dungeon changes as the players explore it. The dungeon itself has an attractive history (Sorcerer's Fortress), a reason for the creatures to be there, and, what I like most of all, is a dynamic creation, so things you do in one area affect other encounters (None of this "you hit three rooms and the fourth room is still waiting for you to come in"). Steve Winter is my regular 5E DM and I see parts of what we've been running through peeking out here and there.

The Red Book of Magic (Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, Steve Perrin, Sandy Peterson and more, Chaosium). Hardcover, 126 pages. Runequest is my personal tsundoko - having more books than you ever are going to read, or in this case, games you are never going to use. I find Glorantha fascinating, ever since White Bear/Red Moon, and have followed Runequest through its many incarnations (including the AH version and HeroWars), yet never played the RPG. This volume is primarily a spellbook on spirit magic, gathered from many previous sources and brought up to date, and, like all of the modern Runequest material, looks impressive.

The Well (Peter Schaefer, Shoeless Pete Games) 120 pages squarebound. This Kickstarter was recommended to me by a friend (OK, Steve Winter, see above) who worked with the designer at Wizards of the Coast. The concept is compact and neat - You live in a city that is moving slowly down a great well. Below you is mystery, above you are the remains of your past. You go raiding into these past remains in traditional dungeon style, but your enemies are reassembled dead and cleanup crew. New mechanics looks good.  Once upon a time TSR was hot on the idea of a "reverse dungeon" - here you go. Yes, I want to play this.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium  (Nathan Dowdell, Design Lead, Modiphius Entertainment) Hardcover, 330 pages. I still think the original Dune was a fantastic work of SF, and re-read it every so often. Like Lord of the Rings, its prose has the ability to suck me back in almost immediately.  But I will be honest, the series for me peaked with Children of Dune, and then sort of trailed off from there, and I never engaged with the canonical books after Frank Herbert's passing. This one was in my Friendly Comic Book store, and I was stalking it for several weeks before I made the plunge. The book itself is textually dense, first-class production, though can't yet speak to what the mechanics (a 2d20 system) are like. Impressive.

Seance and Sensibility (Finn Cresswell) 60 pages, saddle-stitched, self-covered. This one came with an apology (it was more than a year late, dating back to the PREVIOUS Zinequest) and  the designer included a slip apologizing for its lateness. No apology necessary. I consumed this simply-crafted booklet in one sitting, and emerged for the first time how the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine should work. Other PbtAE volumes should take note. The theme is Jane Austin fights cultists. Worth tracking down.

Tales of the Glass Gnomes (Noet Cloudfoundre) 26 pages, saddle-stitched cover. This is an entry from this year's Zinequest on Kickstarter, and is pretty charming, reminding us of the ultimate roots of such personal projects. It has straightforward production values and art that could fit into the original D&D wood-grain box. It presents a new culture for you gaming enjoyment that is not your standard gnomes. Worth looking at.

The Children of Fear (Lynne Hardy and Friends)  This 414 pages hardbound is the latest Call of Cthulhu hardbound, set in Tibet, Northern India, and the interior of China in the 1920's and involving the conflict between the mythical realms/cities/factions/entities of Shambhala and Agartha. While I admire the updating and reissuing of classic CoC material (Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express), it is really, really good to see new original material of this quality.  Picked up both this volume and The Red Book of Magic At Olympic Card and Comics down in Lacey. OCC (also know as Gabi's) has a lot of deep stock in RPGs and carries a bunch of indies and small press that might not otherwise see the light of day. Every three-to-five months or so, Stan! and I make a road trip down there, get lunch somewhere in Tacoma, and make a day of it. Products like this make the trip worthwhile.

Flott's Miscellany Vol. 2 ((Andrew Devenney and others, Superhero Necromancer Press) 36 pages, saddle-stitched cover, This is more of the same amusing material I had in Flott's Miscellany Vol 1, which in turn was based on the Rainy City. It has a lot of bits and bobs that can be slotted into a campaign, with a rather wry, Dying Earth (Drying Earth?) sort of vibe. I like it.

Grey Seas Are Dreaming of My Death (Derek Sotak and others). 108 pages digest, squarebound. This one missed the class picture last time, so I thought I would show it off here, in case you find a copy at the Local Game Story, or elsewhere. If you do, pick it up.

More later, 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Weekending in Seattle

View from the Balcony
I tend to celebrate my birthday by not being around. Often the Lovely Bride and I decamp for some hotel, like the Salish Lodge or Alderbrook, where we get massages and I can sit in a comfortable chair and read. I've spent previous birthdays kayaking on the Bellevue Slough and riding in a zeppelin over Everett. This year, the usual haunts were already sewn up before we could make reservations, and I did not want to travel far. 

And so we chose the Edgewater in downtown Seattle. The Edgewater is a luxury shoreline hotel built over the water before they stopped letting people do that, and the Beatles once stayed there once, which they don't let anyone forget. The interior has been redone a couple times, the most recent in 1990 or so, and has a PNW/Frank Lloyd Wright/Rock and Roll vibe to it. The rooms were large, comfortable, and most importantly for our case, had balconies overlooking the Sound which were perfect for reading books, drinking wine, and watching the sun go down.

The first night out we walked to Ohana, a favorite sushi spot in Belltown (an area north of downtown Seattle, which they are trying to rebrand as "Uptown"). Walking was the exercise of the weekend, even though it meant challenging a particularly steep hill on Wall Street. The food was great, the drinks were strong, and we ended up getting back to the hotel in time to watch the sun drop down in a cloudy sky.

Sudden neighbor
Then, in the early hours of next morning, the cruise ship arrived. The Edgewater is right next to the Port of Seattle pier, where the cruise ships dock, and in the morning our window had a nice view of the Celebrity Millenium, registered in Valletta, Malta, which had snuck in around 5 AM. Despite its sudden arrival, we breakfasted and headed for the aquarium, a short walk south.

The Seattle Aquarium is very nice, but always had a vibe of "work in progress" to me, set up within a renovated warehouse on the docks. It keeps that vibe, since it is currently working on a "ocean pavilion" across the street in the shadow of the Pike Place Market's parking structure. High points were moon jellies, a particularly cranky-looking octopus, harbor seals, and sea otters (the latter in the midst of second breakfast, dining on crabs). Everyone was masked, but there was an onslaught of children, which made me feel a little uncomfortable.

For lunch walked over to Place Pigalle, in the aforementioned Pike Place market. Place Pigelle is a small restaurant down a hallway right next to where they throw the fish. Light meal of mussels and soup (French onion in my case). Good view of the Sound, and we were serenaded by an accordion and violinist in the courtyard below. I went down to tip them and found that the musicians were wearing full cat-headed masks.So, yeah, Seattle.

View of the city, without cruise ship

Afternoon was the SAM - Seattle Art Museum, which was hosting an Monet exhibit of his work at Etretat.  Etretat is a fishing village on the English Channel that in Monet's time was becoming a tourist destination. Monet (pre-Lillies) was seeking to rekindle his vision, and went to the village to paint the landmark cliffs in ways different than all the other artists of the times were painting them.

As an exhibit I really liked this a lot, primarily because it got really down into the details with the process of painting of the "open art" school. This involved such things as where Monet got his canvases, and the importance of the recent invention of tubes of pigment from America that gave the Impressionists the ability to take their work on the road. The works themselves were small for the space they provided - usually such shows are jam-packed, but this one had a lot of bare walls and creative use of empty space. That's OK, because it gave them the chance to really get into the bits and pieces of the creation of art, how it fit into Monet's life at that moment, what other artists were doing, and his technique and technology. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Lovely Bride
The SAM was also masked and generally less crowded. Many of the galleries were closed and empty at this stage, and the Monet was the major draw. Still, after surveying the area, the Lovely B and made the long trudge back to the hotel, and sat on the back porch as the huge cruise ship undocked and was gone before 5 PM. We had a very pricey, very good dinner at the hotel's restaraunt, repaired to our dockside porch to the finish the wine and watched the sun go down.

And the next morning there was a NEW cruise ship parked outside our window, but we breakfasted, stopped for the groceries at Pike Place (also seriously masked up, but crowded) for smoked salmon, crab, and bread.

And so we return. It was a good weekend, and I got a bit of reading done. And that's how I spent my 64th birthday.

More later,

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Book: Body of Evidence

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers, Avon Books, 1923

Provenance: The volume has an embossed stamp "Library of Janice Kae Coulter" on the first two pages. Ms. Coulter is the spouse of fellow blogger Sacnoth. I do not know whether I plucked this volume from their collection before it went to the Page Turner, or purchased it there for two bucks and change (I suspect the latter). 

Review: This was one of the Books on a Plane, but I found I had too much to say about it to just stack it up against all the Rex Stouts, so it gets its own blog post. This post deals with meta fiction, introducing characters, why Raymond Chandler may have really hated Sayers' work, and anti-Semitism. Buckle up.

Here's the precis: London after the Great War. A wealthy Jewish financier goes missing. A dead body is found naked in a bathtub.The body is not the financier's, but there is a surface similarity between the two.The police assume initially assume the bathtub body IS the financier. Lord Peter, brought in by his mother because she knows the person whose tub the body was found in, knows better. 

This is the first appearance of Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and he springs onto the stage (mostly) fully formed. He had solved a previous (unrecorded) case of missing emeralds, and so already had contacts with the police as a helpful meddler whose societal privilege gives him access denied to the hoi palloi. He also has a "kit" that Batman would approve of - his cane is a measuring stick and has a concealed blade and his monocle is really a magnifying lens/ He has a dutiful manservant who is a camera buff. Lord Peter saunters in fully prepared to get involved. 

While he does so, Lord Peter also talks about detective stories in a very meta way. "Were this a detective story..." the line starts, and then mentions and discards some trope from the fictions. Sayers denies some of them and plays with others - for example, witnesses never remember what really happened on a date two months ago, and the proceeds, with almost casual conversation, to show Lord Peer wheedling the information he needs out of a witness without the witness realizing it. Yet Sayers herself embraces a lot of other detective tropes - the incompetent police inspector, the blind alleys, and the dutiful details of inquest and exhumation.

But when Lord Peter solves the case, something happens. He finds the solution, but in the process suffers a nervous breakdown because the solution challenges a lot of his privilege. His recognition shakes him to the core and unleashes his PTSD from the Great War. In game terms, he blows his San check and has to go have a lie-down for a couple days. This is VERY not in keeping with traditional mysteries, in that the protagonist can get angry, vengeance, shot up, physically damaged, but never suffers a mental collapse (Stout has Wolfe occasionally go into a "Fugue state" when stymied, which feels like little more than writer's block).  This is so different from the muscular American detective stories, that I can see why Chandler didn't like Sayer's work much, though he chalks it up to being "boring".. We know beans about the personal history of his Continental Op - Lord Peter has wounds deeper than most of the other characters cans see. 

In doing the research for this review, I came across accusations of the author's antisemitism, and this book is used as evidence both for and against. On the "for" side we have the missing financier being Jewish, and one of the positive figures, Peter's mother, going into a "Very good people" sort of speech which hauls out a lot of differences between the Jewish community and God's Own Anglicans. On the other hand, the missing financier is practically lionized for his kindness and modest living (no Shylock, he), and one of Peter's archtypical upper class friends, practically fresh from the Drones club, talks about wanting to marry the victim's daughter and convert to the faith. And there a servant who is pretty deplorable in his statements, but he is held up as being a low character who is drinking Lord Peter's best brandy. The challenge is, does, in talking about an "othered" portion of the population, does that make you vulnerable to engaging in the same forms of prejudice? Is reporting prejudice the same as perpetuating it?

The meta research here on Sayers does me no good as well. Sayers' long-time companion was Jewish, she notes that the financier was one of the few good characters in the book, and in an early draft Lord Peter recognizes immediately that the body in the tub cannot be the financier because it was circumcised (which would be kinda obvious and make the police look EVEN dumber). On the other hand, Sayers developed into a Christian apologist of CS Lewis stripe, and the work she is proud of is a translation of Dante (which features heavily in the opening chapter of this volume).

Ultimately, I am going to render a Scottish verdict of "Not Proven" on this one, but there may be some reference of her endorsing the Elders of Zion out there without me realizing. it. I do remain committed to the idea that Sayers does not write detective novels so much as novels which feature a detective. And I will stand behind that one.

More later,

Monday, August 16, 2021

Books on a Plane

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1955

Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout, Bantam,  1944

Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1959

And Be A Villain by Rex Stout Bantam, 1948

Provenance: Various. I pick up books from used bookstores - The Page Turner in Kent. The Tacoma Book Center near the Dome. Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill. And I am always hunting down more of Rex Stout's stories of Nero Wolfe. The books were popular on first release, and there have been several waves of re-release since then (including reprints from the 80's marked "As Seen On TV").  Eventually I will run out of them. But not yet.

Reviews: When I travel, I tend to bring paperback mysteries to read. There are a couple reasons for this. They don't wear down batteries. They don't have to be turned off or stowed when taking off or landing. And if dropped or lost, they represent a lost investment of a couple dollars. About a month ago, I made two trips to Pittsburgh, and as a result took a fist-full of books with me.

So, warning, there are spoilers for books that have been in print for decades. 

Three Witnesses - Rex Stout mysteries come in two main formats - book length, and magazine length. When published in book form, the publisher tends to put three of short stories together, and, unfortunately, they use the word "three" and its synonyms in the titles repeatedly (Three at Wolfe's Door, Three Doors to Death, Death Times Three), so I'm never quite sure if I have read this before. Usually I can get ahead of the game with the short stories and figure out "whodunnit", while the novels tend to lose me sometimes. This is in part because in the shortened format, both memory and awareness of what sticks out as wrong is more obvious in the short versions.

And, one of the things that makes Nero Wolfe mysteries work is the background. Archie will crack wise, Nero will be pompous. Inspector Kramer will bluster. The household will eat well. It is comfortable.

The mysteries in Three Witnesses are pretty good, but "To Die Like a Dog" is probably the best. A dog follows Archie home from a murder scene. While Wolfe is usually a bundle of hostility, it turns out he likes dogs. The dog's presence makes perfect. sense, and at the end, the dog has settled into the household. But as far I can tell, the dog is never seen again in another story, which is a pity.

Not Quite Dead Enough consists of two war year stories. In the first, Archie cobbles together a mystery to help recruit Wolfe into the War Effort. In the second, linked with that, an experimental grenade goes off in an military office downtown. The first is actually something I would call "lesser Wolfe", since Archie gets foxed and his oftimes girlfriend, Lilly Rowan, gets unusually possessive. The second sees Wolfe returning to a form not seen since Fer-De-Lance, the first Wolfe novel, where he metes out his own justice outside the system. Interesting for a completest like me.

To Be A Villain and Plot It Yourself are interesting in that I got to the whodunnit, but not by normal course of events. Rather, the murderers act in a way that makes little sense if they are merely a suspect or potential victim, but makes sense if they are the murderer. 

Plot It Yourself involves the book industry, and the relationships between authors and publishers. Wolfe is hired by a group of publishers and authors who are being hit with a plagiarism scam. Not that other authors are stealing their work, but rather these other authors are coming forward claiming that the published authors stole their stuff. And they offer proof in the form of manuscripts and letters that show up in the published authors files from before publication. Its a good book in that it covers a variety of author types, and the perils of working for a committee.

And Be A Villain has a nice initial curve-ball - Nero Wolfe goes looking for a gig, in order to cover his tax bill (Wolfe has a long list of things he does not want to do, which the stories inevitably make him do). He  offers his services to a radio personality who has a guest poisoned on the air. Sudden death, relatively small number of suspects. Again, I got to my lead suspect not through evidence, but through character reactions to the crime. Further, the crime itself (and its followup) calls for a relatively thin window of opportunity, and can go horribly awry. I still like the writing in both cases, and the characters, but the mystery at the core feels a little weak.

This series has become my popcorn, my easy reading. The stuff I will take on a plane and not have any other greater purpose. There's one more, which I am still thinking about writing up. More later,

Friday, August 06, 2021

Political Desk Pop-Up: Results

 Short version? Meh. Extremely low turnout, even for an off-year election (under 24% for King County). Incumbents did well, generally. A veritable lack of pitchforks from any quarter on my ballot. There is still one local election that I don't vote for, and therefore normally don't cover (Seattle Prosecuting Attorney) which is still too close to call between three candidates, but things have shaken out without a lot of fuss. Boring, boring democracy.

As a rule of thumb, if you're an incumbent and have more than 50% of the vote you're doing OK. If you're a challenger (or there is no incumbent) and you get more than 30%, you're in a good place. Not everybody who votes in the General will vote in the Primary, so that's just a rule of thumb.

Oh, and for out-of-towners, it takes a few days (sometimes more) for Washington State to finalize ballots. We vote by mail out here, which is a pretty good system, and ballots that are postmarked by election day have to be counted. Older and more conservative voters (Venn diagrams show some overlap) tend to vote regularly, so they carry more weight in small elections. Younger and more liberal voters (again, not always the same group), tend to vote late and swing the numbers as the counting goes on. So final figures may tweak a few points. Just so you know what takes them so long and why the candidate you favor who was leading on election night suddenly changes position.

Here's how things turned out:

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy for Children, Youth, Families, and Communities.  Approved at 60%

King County Executive - Dow Constantine (53%) vs, Joe Nguyen (31%).

City of Kent Council Position No. 6 - Brenda Fincher (78%) vs Larry Hussey (13%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4 Awale Farah (43%) vs.Bradley Kenning (31%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 5 Tim Clark (54%) vs Sarah Franklin (29%)

Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Proposition No. 1 Continuation of Benefit Charge - Yes. (73%)

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Position No. 5Logan K. Wallace (53%) vs Alice R Marshall (31%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 2 -  Jim Griggs (47%) vs.  Dustin Lambro (44%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 4 - Monique Taylor-Swan (36%) vs Katie Banchard (35%

And with that we dissemble the pop-up and move on to the general election. See you there. More later,