Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Devil's Night Dawning by Damien Black review

   DEVIL'S NIGHT DAWNING by Damien Black is a dark fantasy story set in a European-esque setting afflicted by demons, a generational blood feud, and a young woman who discovers running away from an arranged marriage is not as easy in the story books. This was a highly entertaining read and I found it to be one of my favorites of 2018. The book did have some criticisms but it's a solid piece of fantasy straight from the independent circuit.

    The book begins with a fascinating exorcism scene straight out of a horror movie as a priest of the Argolian Order manages to drive a demon out of a young farm girl. The world is filled with supernatural evils which said order fights using a combination of faith and their not-quite-heretical knowledge of magic. Legendary exorcist and witch hunter Horskram soon finds himself on the trail of a much-much more dangerous threat and is aided by his apprentice Adelko. The adventures of the two are disrupted by the Jarl of Thule raising an army to rebel against the king who spared his life when his father did the same.

    I'm actually skipping over a large number of the subplots since this is one of the books which follows a George R.R. Martin pattern of many different viewpoints on the events around them. Damien Black's universe is somewhat more mainstream than Martin's own with clear divisions between good and evil as well as a focus on the failures of the knights to live up to their ideals as heroes. At least in this world.

    Overall, I very much enjoyed the two central plots of Horskram trying to find the missing book of sorcery that his order has protected for centuries. I appreciated the Sherlock Holmes and Watson kind of relationship he had with Adelko, which also reminded me a bit of the protagonists in THE NAME OF THE ROSE. Adelko is probably not fit to be a monk but probably not going to find the life of a warrior to be the romantic one he thought of either.

    Damien Black has excellent world building and while I think he could have done a slightly more thorough job of hiding his influences of differentiating the main religion from Medieval Catholicism, the world makes sense and invokes numerous real life historical as well as religious sources. He incorporates demonology, the Fair Folk, Norse myth, and Greek without missing a beat.

    I think my favorite characters were the few morally ambiguous in the setting. Characters who can't control their homicidal fury at being looked down upon and snooty murderous nobles who are, nevertheless, on the side of the heroes. Seeing them contrast against the heroic Horskram was some of the best portions of the book. I had a similar affection for the King's widowed sister who simply wanted a relationship with her knightly lover but found him treating her terribly in the name of honor as well as duty.

    If I had any complaints about the book then I think at 600 pages, the book is a bit overlong and they could have tightened the book considerably. I never quite bonded with the character of Adhelina and felt her character arc didn't intersect with the main plot enough to warrant presence in this book. I would have moved her to the sequel where she will, presumably, play a bigger role in the story.

    In conclusion, this was an enjoyable novel that I found quite entertaining. It is not quite as dark as it could be and could be a bit tighter but it's, overall, quite a good work. I think fans looking for a solid work of epic fantasy then they'll probably enjoy this.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Camarilla (sourcebook) review

THE CAMARILLA (sourcebook) is an incredibly flawed book that would have otherwise been a 8/10 if not for one incredibly ill-conceived chapter that I think needs to be removed. But we'll get to that. Actually, no, it's probably best to get it out of the way before anything else. The Camarilla (sourcebook) contains a chapter devoted to describing Mordor meets Latveria. There's a murderously evil little country ruled by a vampire dictator which is rounding up all the gays and other innocents to be vampire snacks. Here's the problem, it's a real country. You know, you can describe Montreal as a Satan-worshiping hellhole, that's actually funny. It's considerably less funny when it's a country actually doing the things you're telling people are secretly the work of vampires.
At our table, we have what's called The Century RuleTM. It's a simple enough thing that nothing can be said to be the fault of something supernatural until at least a century has passed and all of the people victimized by it are dead. You can state that the Confederacy was actually a massive Ventrue and Toreador scheme where all plantation owners were ghoul families or vampires. Don't say the Baali were behind the Bosnian genocides. Especially if, in this day and age, you can actually talk to the poor bastards who survived them.

So, I'm knocking off three points from my score because of Chechnya's chapter. It's one of those things which will go down with World of Darkness: Gypsies (The Holocaust was Hitler's fear of Romani magic!) and Himmler the Tremere for really bad ideas. If you're going to make a vampire run country full of blood camps and slaves, at least make it a fictional country. I even made a petition requesting Modiphius Entertainment remove the chapter from PDFs and future print editions: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/remove-chechnya-chapter-from-the-camarilla

But aside from that? Yes, the book is (mostly) excellent! Yeah, I know that's like saying, "Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?" after that opening but it really is strange how the tone of the book is so different from the single offending chapter. Overall, I like the Camarilla (sourcebook) even more than the Anarch (sourcebook). There's some areas where I think they went a little weird for a book about the Camarilla like its Sabbat-like focus on religious practices but, mostly, I thought it was an informative update to the sect and its policies.

For those unfamiliar with the Camarilla and starting their roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade with 5E, they have long been the default sect for player characters to side with. Even the Anarchs were considered part of the Camarilla despite being their archenemies. It was sort of the United States of Vampires and you were a citizen whether you wanted to be or not. Still, they were the guys who cleaned up the Masquerade and it was often portrayed as an overall good thing (for vampires) or at least the lesser evil.

No longer.

The Camarilla in the 5th Edition has expelled the Anarchs, exiled the Brujah, and lost the Gangrel. They've also refused the membership of the Ministry (Followers of Set). They have, however, taken the Banu Haqim (Assamites) in as members. They're now, as a result, an elite boys club of the super-rich and influential that will come down on you hard if you don't follow their rules. They're more like the Invictus from Requiem than the Camarilla we knew but that isn't necessarily a bad thing as Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines treated them the same way.

A surprising amount of material is devoted to the Camarilla's complicated relationship with religion. The Camarilla is mentioned to have been involved in the Protestant movement, has numerous ancestor worship cults (Menele and Mithras are both cited as vampire gods), and there's also talk about how they've worked to undermine faith in the Modern Nights only for this to come back at them. The Camarilla is surprisingly prone to naval gazing compared to the Anarchs and its members need some higher power or ideal to guide them.

The book is almost entirely fluff as opposed to crunch, focusing instead on giving a sense of how the Camarilla operates with beloved characters like Victoria Ash. Unfortunately, we're lacking one of our favorite Camarilla stooges in Jan Pieterzoon and no one really replaces the iconic Ventrue apologist. One of my favorite chapters is the discussion of the Gehenna War from the perspective of a Muslim Ventrue who is struggling to deal with the fact he's only a Camarilla agent in the eyes of the Ashirra.

If I have one (of two) other complaint(s) about the book, it's that the Gehenna Wars feel remarkably dull for something so apocalyptic. The Elders of the Camarilla have been summoned there (seemingly you need to be about 800 years old to have it happen as it's shown many-many younger Elders don't feel the urge) and they mostly fight the Sabbat. There's nothing Biblical like secret ceremonies to the Antediluvians, Ur-Shulgi wiping out divisions of US troops with sand storms, and sanity-blasting madness no one can remember because Ventrue has Dominate 10 so he wins. It makes the "apocalypse you weren't invited to" far less interesting.

On the plus side, though, we finally get an explanation how the Second Inquisition works as the Camarilla hasn't been sitting on its coffins waiting to deal with it. They've been gathering information about how the Society of Leopold, Project: Twilight, and other familiar groups have joined together to overthrow the established Kindred order. Basically, it boils down to the fact the governments of the world has more money than even the Camarilla and bigger guns. Also, somehow, they've developed a way to immunize people from Dominate and Presence. Sadly, despite the fact they killed an Antediluvian, the Technocracy is not even alluded to. Nor are werewolves, Pentex, or any other crossover threat which would help justify the SI's success.

I give props to the writers for doing an amazing job with the book's diversity. We have Kindred from all of the world depicted of every color, creed, sex, and orientation in positions of power. The new owners of White Wolf are taking it to the next level in making sure a global community of characters is shown. I also notice it seems to be implying the Kuei-Jin don't exist since no mention is made of them and we get Camarilla rules Tokyo. Honestly, I'm cool with that as the Kuei-Jin were not a great idea, IMHO.

We also get a lot of interesting tidbits about things like Camarilla rituals and practices. There's oaths, rules for vampire weddings (No! How could you marry that Assamite, Victoria! You were supposed to be mine!) and so on. We also get explanations for things like the duties and powers of the Prince, Seneschal, and Sheriff. Finally, there's the details of the V5 version of the Banu Haqim that are described less as a murderous Blood Cult and more akin to a clan of rich jackasses who fit right in with the rest of the Camarilla's leadership.

I'm going to have to also make another criticism in the fact the editors for this book didn't do a great job. I'm not a guy who whines much about typos, grammatical mistake, or misalignments but these were very noticeable. At one point, it mentions Kindred controlled through "vage slavery." It seems much worse than in the Anarch book. The lack of crunch and out of universe narrative material also gets a bit frustrating a the "voice" of characters is rarely neutral so we never know how we're supposed to feel about a lot of things going in the Camarilla. Unreliable narrators can be useful but it hurts the usefulness in the book as you're only halfway through before you realize the man speaking is a baby-eating psychopath.

In conclusion, this is mostly an entertaining but somewhat dry book. The Anarch (sourcebook) had a lot more flavor and were far more wild as well as extreme. Which is to be expected with Anarchs but I was hoping for a bit more pizazz from the Camarilla. The Elysium supplement had a lot of Gehenna cults, weird parties, and other story hooks. This Camarilla seems a bit too focused on organized religion and I say that as a real life theist fanatic. Where's the human chess games where the taken pieces die? Where's the chefs who prepare human prisoners for years before draining them? Still, overall, a very good supplement--with one large exception.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Anarch (Sourcebook) review

THE ANARCH (SOURCEBOOK) is the first supplement for Vampire: The Masquerade's controversial but awesome Fifth Edition. Anarchs have always been something of the middle child of the setting due to the fact they get almost no respect from people who assume they're either part of the Camarilla but whiny poseurs or they're Sabbat-lite in that they're against the Elders but won't go to the extremes necessary to affect real change.

For those unfamiliar with Anarchs period, the basic premise is they are the youngbloods of the largest sect of the setting. Born in the past century or earlier, for the most part, they are vampires who rebel against the neo-feudalist society of the Camarilla. In previous editions, they were still considered part of the Camarilla and protected by its laws. That changed in 5E with the Anarchs formally breaking with the Camarilla by killing its head and declaring open war against the sect. The Camarilla retaliated by expelling the Brujah clan from its ranks, removing its deadliest collection of fighters. This was great timing, of course, due to the fact mortal governments were actively trying to wipe out vampiredom behind-the-scenes.

I personally think this is a good change because I've always felt the Anarchs were given the short end of the stick . I find them inherently more interesting than the Sabbat and the iconic player character type for the gameline. Basically, as Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines showed, the most typical way to explore the game is to be a neonate who gets embraced and immediately finds other vampires stepping on them.

The Anarch (sourcebook) has its ups and downs, though, and I'm less universally positive about it is than I am the main book. Oftentimes, the book is brilliant but there's a few places where it wanders of on tangents and feels less like a supplement on Anarchs than it does on Thin Bloods. The book also overly relies on in-universe fiction when I would have actually just appreciated some more straight up stat blocks and character write-ups. One of the most frustrating parts about Hunter: The Reckoning was the books were almost unreadable because everything from done in an in-character voice. This does the same to an extent (but is better written). However, most of my complaints are in absences rather than failures but I'll get into that later.

First, the good, and it is very good. The Anarchs are finally depicted as a legitimate sect in their own right and a terrifying one at that. They have seized not only California but Las Vegas, Berlin, Cuba, parts of Australia, and a few other locations. They have killed the head of the Camarilla and it's clear there's many Anarchs who advocate open war against the sects. The book's primary narrator of Agata Starek is a homicidal diablerist and psychopath who would have probably been at home in the Sabbat were not for its own elders. We also get the redemption of fan-favorite Salvador Garcia, who has his attempts to sell the Kindred to the Kuei-jin retconned as Camarilla propaganda.

I also appreciated the transformation of the Anarchs from being a mostly-American phenomenon to an international coalition of various gangs and organizations. There's scenes set all across the globe and each illustrates the various flavors of Anarch there. Indeed, the book feels like it's slightly more European than American with the Anarch Free States having made the United States' revolutionary movement a bit staid. I would have appreciated more African, Middle Eastern, and Asian treatment but I liked everything I did read.

The book is also an unofficial campaign supplement for the Brujah, Gangrel, Ministry (Followers of Set) and Duskborn (Thin Bloods). Basically, everything you need to know about playing these kinds of characters is detailed within. It leads a bit off the Anarch theme with the Thin Bloods as they're not Anarchs, they're just Kindred who don't want anything to do with vampire society as a whole. We get some great stories about families struggling to live normal lives, however. The horrifying chat about whether it's okay to give a baby vampire blood or not is awesome, though. One of the stand-out bits of fiction in the book.

I give the book major props for its use of guest stars as well. Characters like Jeanette Voorman, Smiling Jack, Damsel, Theo Bell, and even E (a Thin Blood from Bloodlines) all make appearances with updates on their characters. There's also great little character moments like the fact Salvador Garcia is trying not to be jealous of Theo Bell, who has one-upped him in a way that he can't really match. Killing the Prince of L.A. was impressive but not nearly to the extent killing Hardestadt was.

Now for the not-so good, I am going to say that some fans are going to be irritated by the fact it is doubling down on the "edginess" of 5E. There's a section for example of a BDSM couple of Anarchs that adds nothing to the storyline. I also note that "Rudi's Gang" is already making the rounds on forums and driving the usual suspects crazy. Rudi is an antifa internet activist whose group seems deliberately designed to drive certain gamers up the wall. Truth be told, I couldn't tell if he was attempting to be a parody of the people who hate "Social Justice Warriors" (which I proudly identify as) or the people who hate Social Justice Warriors. Which may be the point.

I feel like Chicago's Anarchs, given they mounted a revolt against Lodin in the thirties and sixties both, should have had a bigger role ideologically in the development of the movement. Finding out what other Anarchs think of Modius and Maldavis would have been interesting to me from an international perspective--ditto the fact Critias is the founder of the Hellenistic Brujah. This is a surprising absence since Patricia Bollingbrook (a.k.a Tyler) has become a major figure revered centuries later.

The book also has the same coherent manifesto of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE:

"What are you rebelling against?" 
"What have you got?"

It's never spelled out why, precisely, Anarchs have such a problem with the Camarilla's system or what their specific grievances are. We know they want to embrace who they want, feed in whatever territories they like, and that's...about it. I feel like a lengthier description of what causes Anarchs to hate the organization would be better. As such, their fury is all the stranger because it's contrasted against the Sabbat's that at least has the Antediluvians and witch hunters backing it up.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book that I recommend for people who want to add some real bite to the Anarchs (pun intended). Some people may claim the Setites have been too radically altered, losing the Brujah from the Camarilla hurts the sect, or that the Anarchs have become Sabbat-lite (when they became Anarchs-hard after 2nd Edition). I think this is definitely gives a lot of much needed context to the setting, though. I feel this book could have used a lot more crunch as well as an ideological basis for the Anarchs but, overall, my experience was quite positive.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Interview with Matthew Davenport about Chicago by Night 5E

 Hey folks,

I am one of the biggest fans of Chicago by Night 1st Edition that exists. For those who wonder what the hell I'm talking about, it is a supplement created in 1992 for the tabletop role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. The premise was the city of Chicago was secretly controlled by vampires ranging from the beautiful Annabelle to the unliving Al Capone. Further figures like Critias of Athens, Helen of Troy, and Meneleus were also undead inhabiting the Windy City. You, as newly created vampires, had the job of navigating the city's complicated politics in order to avoid another sunrise.

Eventually, the focus of the game changed as it became less about city-based gameplay and more about globe-trotting adventures between sects. Chicago by Night had a good half of its vampire population slaughtered by werewolves and after a follow-up edition, Chicago by Night 2nd Edition, ceased to be relevant to the setting for the rest of the original line's history.

However, the legend of Chicago by Night would not die. With the return of Vampire: The Masquerade after a decade-long absence with the Vampire 20th Anniversary line, it was to my delight they managed to bring back the supplement. I had done a read through of the supplement on RPG.net and also had been touting it for years. I wanted to see how old friends, fictional or not, had adapted to the 21st century.

Presently, they're raising money for the supplement on Kickstarter. They've already passed the funds necessary for the supplement but are now raising funds for supplements to the setting. I hope people will chip in a bit and pick up a copy if they have any interest in vampires and role-playing games. What I've seen so far of it has been awesome.

Thankfully, Matthew Dawkins, one of the writers of the supplement has decided to sit down with me and give an interview about this awesome book. He was a chief contributor to Beckett's Jyhad Diary and is the man behind the excellent Gentleman's Guide to Vampires Youtube video series.

1. What inspired making a 5th Edition of Chicago by Night?

Chicago was the iconic city for Vampire: The Masquerade for the longest time, so it made sense to revisit it, give it a facelift, a lot of new plots and characters, and bring it forward into fifth edition.

2. What was your thoughts on the original supplement?

I'm a big fan of a lot of the old city sourcebooks, with Chicago being in my top three. Chicago was the template that many books went on to follow, and my hope is that any city sourcebooks following this one will match or build on its design.

3. Do you have a favorite Chicago-area supplement to that period? (Diablerie: Mexico, Milwaukee by Night, Succubus Club, Under a Blood Red Moon, Ashes to Ashes, Blood Bond)

My favourite supplement for that period and location would be Milwaukee by Night, which still ranks as my #1 city sourcebook. I love it due to its simplicity. It has a lot of stereotypical characters in its pages, but I enjoy that, and consider it an excellent introductory book for anyone looking to get into Vampire.

4. Did you prefer 1st Edition or 2nd Edition?

I don't really have a preference between first and second edition Chicago by Night, as they both have a lot of strong elements. The thing I feel is missing in second edition are the chronicle hooks at the back of first edition, but it makes up for it with a more diverse, interesting cast of characters.

5. What can players expect from this supplement?

Players can expect rules for playing the Lasombra, lots of interesting Kindred with whom a character can form alliances or rivalries, benefits and drawbacks for operating out of certain parts of the city, and a beautiful campaign setting in which to grow a character.

6. What was the design philosophy for updating Chicago and its characters to the year 2018?

The core design philosophy was to ensure this book had the horror of the Beast, Humanity, and Hierarchy. Bleeding out from that we strived to introduce a diverse cast of characters with multiple interesting agendas, plentiful plots a Storyteller can introduce to their chronicle, and to make the book feel exactly as Chicago should. 

7. Do you have a favorite character from the book?

My favourite character is a new Nosferatu named Adze. He's a lot of fun and teases the possibility of Chicago moving away from the Camarilla.

8. What sort of changes can we expect to the setting with the transition to 5th Edition?

There's a new Prince, some new Primogen, old foes might have fallen, new ones may have arisen. The changes to the Camarilla and Anarchs in fifth edition sends ripples across Chicago as well, meaning previously quiet clans receive prominent position while others, once powerful, sink into the shadows.

9. The Lasombra clan will be detailed in this book. Can you explain why they'll be included in this book, in or out of universe?

I pitched for the Lasombra to be included in this book for a few reasons: 1.) I wanted them playable in V5, 2.) There's a strong metaplot reason for them to be in the North American crown jewel of the Camarilla, and 3.) It adds an exciting plot vein to this book.

10. The Kickstarter lists some additional supplements that have already been unlocked. Can you tell us a bit about them?

The Chicago Dossiers will be books largely consisting of in-universe artifacts you can print and use for your chronicles, though there's the hope it will receive expansion so we can include some more characters and loresheets in there too. Let the Streets Run Red is a chronicles book a little like the Succubus Club sourcebook of old, with as many as four decent-sized chronicles, the first being set in Chicago, the last (if we reach it) going out as far as Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

11. How has your experience been on writing for 5E?

I've enjoyed my work on V5 a great deal. Certainly, it's had its stresses from time to time. That's natural for a new edition of a game, especially when a new team has been put together. It can also sometimes prove tricky to create something that exactly matches what the licence owner (White Wolf, in this case) would like to see. But all in all, I'm very pleased with how V5 has turned out, and especially how Chicago is looking.

12. You wrote about the Ministry (formerly the Followers of Set) for the Guide to the Anarchs, right? What can we expect to find out about them in that book?

The Ministry have gone through a bit of a re-brand, ostensibly accepting a plethora of non-Caine faiths into their ranks and re-embracing their polytheistic roots. They're the spiritual arm of the Anarch Movement, providing advice to fellow Anarchs on how to temper their Beast by working for a higher power, while of course profiteering from other vampires' spiritual corrosion. I've heard a lot of good things from fans of the Setites who were apprehensive about the Ministry, but enjoy the fresh coat of paint the clan's received.

13. What projects will you be working on after Chicago by Night?

They Came from Beneath the Sea!, the Contagion Chronicle, Book of Oblivion, Mummy: The Curse, and Shunned by the Moon are the big projects on my list right now. There's also the stretch goals following the Chicago by Night Kickstarter, but we won't get started on them until we know how big they're going to be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Halloween (2018) review

    This is the third time the Halloween series has been rebooted and the second time with Jaime Lee Curtis coming back to take on the role of Laurie Strode. The first time when Halloween H20, which, honestly, I kind of like better. The ending to that film was ruined by the execrable Halloween: Resurrection but said more or less everything that needed to be said. That's going to be an unpopular opinion on this film, that it's good but not great but I really loved H20. Michael died there so we don't need to write "another" death scene for him. We're also skipping over Rob Zombie's remake of the franchise because he really wanted to understand Michael Myers' psychology and the answer is--you can't.
Good to see he found another pair of overalls.

    Still, I went to see it in the theaters as soon as I could make time. I wasn't about to miss the return of the slasher movie to cinemas since the genre fell out of favor. While some attempts to return it to the big screen (like Hatchet and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon) have been made--bluntly, the genre never recovered after Scream and the later Cabin in the Woods. I say this as a huge fan of the genre. So, how was it? Pretty good.

    Jaime Lee Curtis remains the Queen of Scream Queens, a title she rightfully inherited from her mother the Kingdom of Scareville's founder, Janet Leigh. At age 59, Jaime is still spy enough to be killing slashers in self-defense and does her best to doll down herself as a crazy old lady despite the fact she still looks gorgeous when not playing a crazy survivalist lady in this film. Indeed, as a picture shows later in this article, they really had to work hard on her old lady face makeup.

    There was no way I was not going to see this movie, especially since it also starred my favorite Archer and Arrested Development star Judy Greer. Judy has a somewhat thankless role as the daughter of Laurie Strode who has done her best to forget every survivalist lesson her mother taught her. She has to play the "normal" one in the family and only gets to make use of the decade of training her mother gave her in preparation to be a Final Woman at the very end. Which is a shame because I think Judy could have been a great horror icon herself if she'd gone that route instead of romantic comedy best friend.

Special Effects Failure: Old Lady Makeup only applies to face.
    Andi Matichak plays the role of the third generation of the Strode family, a young woman who is attending her Halloween dance with her boyfriend and gets the even more thankless task of being in the shadow of two well-beloved icons. I actually give her props for being extremely good in her limited role, however, but I do think the film could have done every bit as well with just its main stars.

    The premise is Michael Myers was captured by Doctor Loomis and a Deputy moments after the events of Halloween, wiping out all the other sequels from continuity. Apparently, being five times in the back was enough to slow down even the Shape. He's spent the subsequent forty years locked away in a mental institution and it's hard to get over the fact he's supposed to be the most terrifying man in the world when he's sixty-two and "only" has killed five people. It's even commented on in-movie that since the 1970s, spree killers more "successful" than Michael Myers are a common part of life.

I feel like Judy missed being a Scream Queen herself.
    Laurie Strode has been warped by her experiences in the original movie with the two of her two best friends and stalking by Michael Myers. She raised her daughter in what is implied to have been an abusive (or at least unhealthy) environment that resulted in her being taken away at age twelve. She's paranoid about Michael escaping at any time and has turned her house into a fun house of death for the (what she believes to be inevitable) rematch with the Shape.

    Unfortunately, the Babysitter Murders have become a topic of podcasters and pop psychology. A pair of would-be journalists have somehow managed to get their hands on Michael's mask and try to get him to respond before he's transferred to a maximum security federal prison. They try to get Laurie's story but only end up offending her. Laurie's granddaughter, Allyson, wants to reconnect her mother, Karen, with her granddaughter but this is thwarted by far too much history that neither daughter or granddaughter understand.

Allyson is pretty but not terribly interesting.
    The movie is entertaining throughout but, unfortunately, just isn't all that scary. We know Jaime Lee Curtis is going to make it out of this movie (or has lived a mostly full life). We also suspect the other members of the family will do the same. As such, the only victims we fear for are people served one after the other to the all-consuming gods of Slasherdom. The ending is especially disappointing as the Shape really deserved a more dramatic final scene. Not even the promise of more sequels can delight.

    Weirdly, the best part of the movie not involving Jaime Lee Curtis is the segment with Virginia Gardner as Vicky, Allyson's best friend and designated Victim 3# or 4#. She's a likable protagonist and ticks many of the boxes which would normally go to the Final Girl. I actually wanted to see her survive as her primary reaction to seeing a child endangered by Michael Myers is to try to get him to safety. It makes her automatically more sympathetic and interesting than Allyson, whose primary concern is her boyfriend and his best friend both want to kiss hot women at inappropriate times. I also saw a certain character's betrayal coming from a mile away despite the attempt to set them up as someone to be trusted.

"You're not my brother! No Halloween candy for you!"
     One element I do like about the movie is it's fairly clear Michael Myers picks out his victims randomly. He's not interested in hunting down hot teenage girls exclusively like so many of his imitators did. This isn't a sexual thing. He kills adult women, young men, adult men, children, and spares others indiscriminately. There's no rhyme or reason and he does it because he feels like it--that's all the reason he needs, really. I will give Nick Castle, a seventy-year-old-man, kudos for coming back as Michael, though. Yes, obviously he had a stunt double for some scenes but I think that's entirely understandable.

    In conclusion, Halloween (2018) is a good movie. It's a fun movie and it's a love letter to slasher films, particularly its own franchise. It's not an especially great version of the film, though, which was perhaps impossible since there have been many remakes of the franchise and reboots. They could have gone further with the meta-humor or they could have removed it entirely. Getting rid of the idea Laurie is Michael's sister makes Michael more random in his attacks but then you have to wonder how he ended up in her backyard. Was it just random chance? Very possibly if this movie is to be believed. In the end, the Shape will always be the archetypal psycho-killer and almost (but not quite) indestructible.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

20 Recommended Indie Fantasy and Sci-Fi

 Hey folks,

    One of the things I struggle with as both a fantasy and sci-fi reviewer as well as a fan is the fact I want to support independent authors but can't really wade through it all. In this age of digital publication, there's tens of millions of titles available on Amazon.com but no way to say "This one is really good" and "this one is really bad" save reviews. However, no one wants to wade through hundreds of reviews either. Also, what if a new book hasn't gotten many reviews yet? It's the struggle of the independent author (of which I am one as well).

The list will not include self-promotion.
    So, I decided to make a list of twenty lesser-known titles which I've really enjoyed and that were published by smaller, indie presses. All of these are books I've read, enjoyed, and would recommend other people pick up. I have quite a few others I would recommend people pick up but I figured sticking to this many was already pushing it a bit.

    I know a couple of these guys but I haven't been paid for any of these and my opinions are completely honest. In fact, sadly, I had to leave a few friends off this list because I just felt the books weren't quite as awesome as in this collection. Still, take it for its worth as I've purchased a copy of each and every one of these books with my own money.

    One thing I will comment on is the fact that the indie market has exploded in recent years and this has broken the monopoly on literature held by the "Big Five." No longer do we have to rely on bookstores to get our books into your hand and while this has its downsides (I love bookstores), it has massively increased the convenience of acquisition. Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, Nook, and other sources mean we can we can enjoy works from self-published, small press published, and other sources.

20. To Beat the Devil by Michael Gibson

It was a choice between this and STAKED by J.F. Leiws. Sadly, Lewis is now published by Pocket Books and he's betrayed the compact. Technomancer by Michael Gibson is the story about how Armageddon happened in the year 2001 and God forgot to show up. Demons now rule the Earth but appreciating their iPods, the internet, and capitalism--having let humankind build a cyberpunk paradise for them. Our protagonist, Salem, is a cyborg smuggler who gets recruited by an old man who has an idea on how to take down the Demon Lords forever.

19. Paternus by Dyrk Ashton

It's weird but this book reminds me very strongly of the Transformers. It's about a bunch of gods born on Earth waging an epic million-year war against one another behind the scenes. Anubis is five or six other gods fighting against Moloch who is a half-dozen others. Our heroes are a pair of teenagers caught up as observers of the epic struggle between them--which used to be over but has gone hot again. Dyrk Ashton's research and incorporation of more than Greek and Norse myth is to be commended.

18. Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy by Steven Campbell

Hard Luck Hank is a series which is hard to put into words but if I had to describe it, I'd say that it's a series about a space station that's the Mos Eisley Cantina except the protagonist is Patrick Walburton and most of them have superpowers. Hank is an indestructible lummox and breaks legs for hire. He doesn't aspire to be anything else and the series highlights how, across the centuries of his immortal lifespan, he doesn't get any better no matter what happens to him. Its also damn hilarious. I recommend the audiobook over the physical copy in this case.

17. Faithless by Graham Austin King

I first became familiar with Graham Austin King's work from his Riven Wyrde Saga, which is a conspicuously dark Young Adult series that involved slavery, genocide, and theocratic manipulation. So, I picked up Faithless the first day it came out and was blown away by its story of a young man sold into slavery to a corrupt smithy god's temple. I didn't like everything, perhaps because of it reminding me how I left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism, but it was still an amazing work. Faith, work, slavery, politics, and treachery.

16. Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike

Orconomics is a deliberately Pratchett-esque take on the typical Dungeons and Dragons/World of Warcraft-esque fantasy world. The premise is that the monsters have been hunted to near-extinction or WORSE, have tried to assimilate with the "good" races. That means they can't be murdered for their gold. This results in a complicated plot by the guilds to fulfill a prophecy they hope will keep the money flowing from genoc...err, I mean adventuring.

15. The Immorality Clause by Brian Parker

I've got a few science fiction noir books on this list and Brian Parker's Easytown novels are one that I liked so much that I participated in an anthology set in the world. The premise is it's about 2070 and prostitution has been legalized with incredibly life-like androids. The protagonist is the crusty, slovenly cop who finds the whole thing skeevy--right up until he meets one who seems as human as anyone else. Basically, Blade Runner if you remove the overtly dystopian elements and make it something a bit more down-to-Earth. I really liked it as just a very "fun" book.

14. Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher

Ghosts of Tomorrow is a crazy book with cyborg cowboy samurai, kidnapping children to harvest their consciousness, and over-the-top gun battles. It's a solid cyberpunk story that I loved from start to finish. Really, I'm kind of upset I put it at the bottom of the list here but I am doing so because the sequel isn't out yet. It's a solid piece of science fiction and also squarely fits into the grimdark movement of writing.

13. Damoren by Seth Skorkowsky

The Valducan series is a series about a group of monster-hunting antiheroes with magical weapons. They're ruthless, cruel, and yet have a strong brotherhood. I really felt this series was one of the best urban fantasy series from the indie scene. My favorite character is Matt Hollis, the gun-slinging cursed soldier that is hated by his own people, and is the star of the first novel.

12. Drones by Rob J. Hayes

I've dabbled in the cyberpunk genre before. Drones is a book set in a world where emotions can be harvested from people and transplanted to buyers. The protagonist is an emotionally dead "Drone" who sells all of his emotions on the black market. Of course, this being cyberpunk, there's a conspiracy to make billions more by doing something awful. Our protagonist has to decide to do something about it or just keep living the life of a numb zombie. I had a huge amount of fun with this book and hope the author makes a sequel. I also recommend every single other series by the author, especially his Best Laid Plans series.

11. The Elder Ice by David Hambling

The Cthulhu Mythos is one of the most successful public domain franchises in existence, rivaled only by Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur. The Elder Ice is probably my all-time favorite spin-off save possibly Titus Crow by Brian Lumley. The protagonist, ex-boxer and WW1 vet Harry Stubbs, is a working class hero who frequently finds himself encountering the terrifying and surreal in a Spanish Flu-ravaged London. I really love the characters, research into real-life occultism, and twists that always kept me guessing as to what was really going on.

10. Satan's Salesman by Matthew Davenport

Satan's Salesman is a book which I enjoyed purely for the simple premise: a executive finds out the Devil is real and is offered a job with a business which buys souls. The cavalier attitude which the main character takes these revelations and how much damage he immediately starts doing is incredibly entertaining (and horrifying). It's a short but solid book for someone who wants a horror-fantasy without violence but plenty of selfish cruelty.

9. Brutal by James Alderdice 

I really enjoyed this book simply for the premise: a mercenary goes into a town with two feuding wizards and a beautiful duchess then plays them against one another. Combining A Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo with high fantasy is something I very much enjoyed. I think he may have taken the "Nameless" element of the Man with No Name a bit far but I found the main character tremendously entertaining. Sometimes, you just want to see a smart mercenary put the screws to the bad guy with his mind as well as sword.

8. The Finder at the Lucky Devil by Megan Mackie

If this was an urban fantasy recommendation then this would be at the top, perhaps even 1# as The Finder at the Lucky Devil is my favorite book of 2017. It's just such a delightful character and enjoyable setting. The protagonist, Rune, inherits a Chicago bar in a setting where magic and technology collide. She soon finds herself enamored by a mysterious cyborg secret agent named Saint Benedict who works for the megacorporations that rule the world. Rune has a special gift, finding, that might lead the megacorporations to a program that will guarantee their control over the world forever. It also might bring up the past she's determined to keep buried. It's just so damned fun!

7. Gideon's Curse by David Niall Wilson

I'm a fan of David Niall Wilson's books for multiple reasons and was tempted to go with Remember Bowling Green: The Adventures of Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler (which is Doctor Who versus Donald Trump in America). However, I instead believe Gideon's Curse is even better. It is the story of a cursed plantation that carries within it a grim story of a romance, an attempt to do better by the local branch of Christianity, and the horrible but all too realistic consequences by a society that justified slavery. It's heavy subject matter but one of the horror-fantasy novels that has stuck with me even years later. I really think it's a work everyone should read.

6. Mercury's Son by Luke Hindmarsh

Mercury's Son remains one of the best independent science fiction books I've read in a long time. It's basically a Blade Runner-esque world except instead of Replicants, it deals with the fact the polluted post-cyberpunk world has been replaced with a militant theocracy. Our protagonist the last cyborg alive, forced to work for his pseudo-environmentalist Luddite bosses. Surprisingly, it keeps its noir tone and we get a good deal of fun exploring the hypocritical dystopia that hates humankind as well as technology but depends on both to survive.

5. Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehmann

Shattered Dreams is a story about a multiple point of view war that analyzes everything from religion to the concept of treason in a feudal society. Its protagonist suffers PTSD before they had a name for it and really gets into the nitty gritty of a lot of interesting fantasy concepts. Basically, how do people react to an invasion, do they stay or flee, and what sort of reaction do the local religious authorities have? Things you don't normally see when Sauron's forces come calling. I felt it was dark and brutal but not overwhelming. I also loved the sequel, Shattered Hopes, which is a direct continuation.

4. A Wizard's Forge by A.M. Justice

This is a story I really enjoyed because it's the perspective of a woman who goes on what she thinks will be a epic journey of self-discovery, gets captured, brutalized, and emerges as a much darker as well as cynical figure. I like the contrast between her internal torment with the somewhat idyllic fantasy world she's found herself in. I can't wait for the sequel. I don't think I would have enjoyed this novel nearly as much as I did if not for the fact it takes the typical "coming of age" journey and then goes really dark with it.

3. 1000 Scars by Michael Baker

Grimdark is an arguable label but when you have a murderous band of marauders led by an insane necromancer as your hero in a Persia vs. Greek-esque war then you have a pretty good argument your series qualifies. I feel this book is incredibly underrated and really could use with a lot more support. The protagonists are people I want to see die horribly but ones I can't turn away from either. I also love the perspective of the one decent person in the group who is stuck with them and trying to steer them to save the world.

2. Darkmage by M.L. Spencer 

M.L. Spencer is one of the best independent fantasy authors today. As such as I love Anna Stephens and Anna Smith Sparks, I'm going to say she's my "Queen of Grimdark." This is ironic given her books are something you could probably film as a PG-13 series. The difference is that they're focused on the intellectual issues of morality, good vs. evil, and what happens when it turns out there's no such thing as a "right" answer in a typical fantasy world? I also love how the prequel opens with the idea of a rag-tag band of misfits FAILING to save the world. I don't think that happened anywhere else in fiction but Final Fantasy 6.

1. Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell

KINGS OF PARADISE may be one of the great undiscovered gems of 2018. It is one of those rare grimdark books which may actually stand with the likes of Lawrence, Abercrombie, and Martin. The premise is a tropical island kingdom is within spitting distance of a volcanic hellohole of one where life is doubly harsh for its Viking-like inhabitants. A deformed berserker, a spoiled prince, and a (possibly) deranged nun all end up involved in a complicated story to determine its fate. Really, all dark fantasy fans should check this book out.

Honorable Mentions: Steel, Blood, and Fire by Allan Batchelder, Song by Jesse Teller, The Sorcerer's Ascension by Brock Deskins, The Blighted City by Scott Kaelin, We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson, Confessions of a D-List Supervillain by Jim Bernheimer, and The Secret King: Lethao by Dawn Chapman, Exile by Martin Owton

Monday, October 15, 2018

New novels out - Predestiny and Blackest Knights

Hey folks,

I know everybody is waiting for me to release THE TOURNAMENT OF SUPERVILLAINY and I'm extra excited about that. However, in the meantime, I've got two new releases which I hope people will check out.


By. C.T. Phipps and Frank Martin

Robbie Stone thought he was on the right side of history. He wanted to make a difference by protesting Butterfly, a megacorporation slowly taking over the United States in the near feature. But after he’s attacked by a group of assassins, Robbie’s rescuer, a mysterious white-haired girl named Jane, makes a startling claim: the assassins were sent to kill Robbie and prevent his fate of becoming a merciless dictator responsible for the genocide of millions across the globe. 

Horrified by his destiny, Robbie must now face a choice: give up his vendetta against Butterfly or risk becoming the worst mass murderer the world has ever seen.

I've always been fascinated by time travel morality. In this case, Robbie is the guy who might turn into a monster in the future. Is it right to kill him before he can? Is history more complicated than heroes and villains? Frank and I had a blast writing this. I also got a chance to get in on the Young Adult dystopian sci-fi market. It's not quite cyberpunk but nicely sets up a world where those qualities are facts of life.

Available at Amazon.com


Edited by C.T. Phipps

Honor is just a word.

Throughout fiction, there have always been heroes who have fallen from grace. Champions of honor, decency, and order who have become villains through some traumatic event or a deep personal flaw. Blackest Knights is a collection of 19 tales by some of independent fantasy's best authors that follow a collection of those heroes who fell to temptation. From tales of bloody-handed hypocrites to space pirates, you'll find some truly fascinating works within.

Contains fiction by: David Niall Wilson, C. T. Phipps, James Alderdice, M. L. Spencer, Paul Lavender, Ulff Lehman, A. M. Justice, Matthew Johnson, Matthew Davenport, Frank Martin, Allan Batchelder, Martin Owton, Richard Writhen, Jesse Teller and Michael Suttkus.

I am a huge fan of dark fantasy and grimdark storytelling. More the former than the latter. I'm also a huge fan of independent fantasy writing. So, I decided to combine two great tastes which go great together and make an anthology featuring my favorite indie fantasy authors writing stories about dishonored heroes. Fans of my Bright Falls Mysteries, Straight Outta Fangton, Wraith Knight, and Lucifer's Star series will also note that I've included stories from those worlds inside. Its paperback is already available and the ebook release is on October 20th!

Pre-Order from Amazon.com