Monday, May 31, 2010

The Conqueror’s Shadow: A D&D Novel that is Different

Like many gamers that started reading fantasy in the 80's my first experience (after The Hobbit) was TSRs line of Dungeons & Dragons shared world novels like Dragons of Autumn Twilight and R.A. Salvatore's Crystal Shard. As pretentious as it sounds, I out grew these stories set in their ridged worlds that evolved with the next gaming supplement that was put out and moved on to the older, richer history of fantasy fiction. Not to say that there were no gems in that mound of dead tree pulp, only that I moved away from it. So it was with expectation and trepidation that I picked up The Conqueror's Shadow by Ari Marmell. This is his first novel that featured his own setting, as he had been writing novels for Wizards of the Coast. Fortunately for him he proved that his writing skill did not come just from the "setting bible" given by the publisher of his previous works.

The Conqueror’s Shadow follows Corvin Rebaine, the once Terror of the East seventeen years after his failed bid to conquer his nation. Now a new force has risen, called The Serpent, he slithers across the land with an army of mercenaries and undead to finish the job Corvin failed to; following Corvin's own battle plans in his bid for power. Corvin dons his skull and bone armor once more and gathers old allies to aid him. He realizes that the war will be at his door step and this foe threatens the domestic retirement he cherishes. Corvin regains the power and allies he once possessed, fighting with himself not to become the man he had been before, yet yearning to do so because of his deep seated belief that he could rule far better than the collection of guilds and nobles that spend more time bickering with each other than dealing with the threat that is before them.

Marmell's world, characters, and plot are well woven; an enjoyable tapestry of pulp and high fantasy. I have my usual nit picks, but the one thing that I was looking for I found only hints of and that is simply a pastiche of his work that came before. So many writers allow the shared world concepts of their previous novels to influence their own world setting. He seemed to avoid this pitfall and made the story impactful and relevant with the omission.

My chief nit picks stem from his writing style itself, the characters are all sarcastic and snipping. Everyone wants to be a wiseass, from demons to trolls, to the "heroes" that stand against Rebaine. Admittedly I chuckled out loud at the humor for my own wise-assery knows no bounds. But it did get tiresome when every conversation is in this vein. As well as the modern speech patterns for the characters; it was jarring to the world setting. As always I fall back on a caveat: The author's intent, or simply style, is very similar to Karl Edward Wagner who wrote the Kane novels in the '70s. Wagner wrote the characters speaking as we do in a sense, because to the characters in their time, that is how they would sound to one another, as we do in conversation. I just prefer a more immersive reading experience.

That said there was far more that I enjoyed in this novel to easily overlook any failing I may have found with it. Marmell has successfully written a sympathetic villain (read: anti-hero) in Rebaine. He has broken from the tropes of the deep seated evil that many fantasy villains carry, and without Rebain serving some dark god or blood thirsty agenda. The Terror earns his name, but is rationalized and, in a chilling way it makes sense. He hates what he must do, but he is driven by what he sees as a clear purpose that will one day benefit those he must first harm. How many tyrants in reality felt the same? This makes him flesh and blood and not a caricature with a curled mustache and black hat. The supporting characters are as well fleshed out with personal motivations and various reasons to hate Rebaine. The battles that are fought are not as detailed as I like, but this story is character driven so that is easily forgiven by me as a reader.

As much as I try to support writers with my dollars by buying their books I was put off by the writer's resume, I had been burned too many times by shared setting writers that could not stand alone, so I picked this novel up at the library to satisfy my curiosity. I regret that I did so, because at the very least I would have picked this book up in soft cover and thought my self well served by the money I spent. Perhaps I still will when it comes out. So to those who want to support a writer that can write and is not simply banking on past success and carry over fandom pick up The Conqueror’s Shadow.

(I dedicate this article on this Memorial Day to my grandfather and my father, Richard served in Europe in WWII, receiving two purple hearts. Raulston Sr. served in Vietnam, leaving a wife and a son on the way. Both men were reluctant warriors that served their country with honor. They were called and they answered. Their memories have always been the moral compass that guides me.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Slys-ayr, Spider-Man from Hell!!!!

I created another ecology for Untold: The Game recently that was recently featured on their website and thought I would share this deadly creature. The slys-ayr can be used in almost any role playing game as a foe or even a race. Enjoy!

The Awesome art is by Chris Miscik


Forest, ruins, cave

There has always been an arms race between nations, since there have been nations, since one cave man decided he needed a bigger club than his neighbor. The slys-ayr are a product of the arms race between nations before the Event: an arms race to build a better soldier. The attempts to create better soldiers met with varying degrees of success from the barbaric, sometimes animalistic Churl to the disciplined, yet unpredictable High-bred. Every nation in the world attempted to create some variant of the super soldier. Norway, the Russian states, Greece, all tried to create a better soldier; Brazil created the slys-ayr.

The notes from Nazi experiments conducted after the Second World War in Brazil and Argentina made their way into the hands of both governments, to be perfected as technology reached the heights the Third Reich only dreamed of. The use of genetic splicing and DNA research had already advanced to the dangerous point of creating chimeras and giving birth to extinct species when the research into creating a more perfect human was in practical trials.

Taking the genetic material from various arachnid species, the attempt was to create something akin to a comic book super hero; what they got was something from a Saturday creature feature. Created as a jungle combatant, mostly in answer to Argentinean encroachment and Columbian raids, the slys-ayr were perfect for the verdant environment.

It was not until long after the Event, however, that the slys-ayr were freed from the coccoon-like stasis-pods in which they had been held. Legend has it that a foolish tribe of pgymy Churl from South America stumbled upon the strangely unearthed pods and unknowingly unleased the first of the slys-ayr horrors into the light. The slys-ayr are human in build and general size, though slender and wiry with a semi-hard carapace covered in small bristling hairs. Slys-ayr stand between one and a half meters to nearly two meters, weighing in a slight 45 to 70 kilos, with six three fingered clawed arms and a pair of legs that end in two toed talons. The features of the slys-ayr are hideously human with a pair of poison dripping pincers erupting from the sides of a fang filled mouth.

Deceptively strong and dizzyingly agile, the slys-ayr have the capability to spin webbing in complex traps and designs. The poison that they can inject from their mandibles is a neurotoxin, causing paralysis and, in those of weaker constitution, painful death. All the skills and traits the slys-ayr inherited from the arachnid experimentation made them effective ambush warriors and jungle fighters, it also made them complete sociopathic monsters, with no regard for humans except easy prey.

The slys-ayr are deadly: using all six limbs in concert during hand to hand fighting. The ergonomics of the slys-ayr's hands are not designed to hold firearms, or use more primitive ranged weapons such as bows. Their lips cannot form a seal to use blow guns favored by the deep jungle Churls of the Amazon. This lack of manual dexterity is compensated easily by the crude hand to hand weapons they do employ: flint headed spears, long bone knives and metal machetes when they can be obtained; even blades created from their own webbing. With their ambidexterity, fighting a single slys-ayr is like battling several foes at once.

The slys-ayr produce webbing from glands within the upper pair of arms, extruding the strands from orifices within the palms of the appendages. Through team work and skill, the slys-ayr use the webbing to create blinds, traps, and snares. The webbing has the tensile strength of a strand of steel twice its thickness and alternates from the cable-like substance to the sticky strands that would rend the flesh off bone for one trying to break its hold on them. The skill of the web weavers and the strength of the webbing allow the creatures to actually "forge" weapons from the webbing. The blades and bludgeons created by slys-ayr webbing is as fatal and sharp as any forged of steel, yet lighter and more durable in the humid environs.

One third of the slys-ayr are born with flexible, veined membranes that spread between their multiple limbs, attached to the thorax, allowing these "elite" creatures to glide and maneuver in the air. With their tree dwelling habits the gliders are the strong first defense of any slys-ayr community. They can deploy quickly to engage a foe while the "grounded" members can follow as they can. The gliding wings allow for a tree dodging agility that is utilized to take the unwary by surprise.

As the slys-ayr are primitive, using only natural weapons they are very conscious of the technological advantages that their enemy may possess over them and prepare accordingly, removing the tactical advantage of firearms and introducing their own in hand to hand combat. They use their web creating ability to make elaborate mazes in the jungle to herd prey into a chosen killing ground. Like arachnids, the creature can move about its own webbing without becoming ensnared, so a favorite tactic is to design a web across a road or known path near the twilight or early dawn hours to catch the unwary patrol, or traveler. Once trapped, the prey is easy victim to the attacking slys-ayr.

Slys-ayr are not social creatures, though they can coordinate and move in groups of two to two hundred sometimes forming loose-nit communities. The slys-ayr live in the leafy tops of jungle growth where they can find safety to weave their nests from their webbing and the surrounding vegetation; creating honeycombed structures from tree to tree when several form a band. These bowers can be very complex but always well concealed, even the great cable and intricate webs that connect separate platforms are hard to distinguish from the surrounding vines and branches.

The leaders are invariable female, as they are larger and more aggressive than the males of the species. The only way to distinguish females from the males outside of size is the female slys-ayr has a greater flare to their hips; this is just a vestigial trait from their human ancestry and no longer serves the purpose in aiding child birth. Reproduction among the arachnidan monstrosities is a thing of horror and any afflicted by it would be best served with a swift death. Slys-ayr reproduction involves impregnating a host with the egg. A female will implant as many eggs as there are hosts available. The male follows behind to complete fertilization. The living host is held suspended in a web cocoon as the larva grows and feeds until it emerges from the host as a miniature version of its parent, fully capable of fending for itself as it grows to full maturity within two years.

The slys-ayr are natural predators, with few enemies save men. Though the only creature that the slys-ayr seem to actually fear are klik, with their armored, mechanical bodies, they are immune to all but the most punishing of physical damage that the slys-ayr can cause. The klik do not have the human revulsion and fear of the spider-creatures, with the high-powered saw blade attachments that many klik possess they are little threatened by webbing, no matter how strong. Their logic engines that serve as brains do not become disoriented by the maze structures of the slys-ayr. Many human units that hunt the slys-ayr try to form alliances with klik for that very reason.

The silk webbing that the slys-ayr produce would have numerous practical uses, from the obvious cable and rope manufacture to the weaving of malleable armor from the strands, to the application of super adhesives. No one has thought of a way to harvest the substance at the present time.

The slys-ayr are deadly and cunning; vicious and merciless. Devoid of humanity they live to devour, destroy, and feed. What's far worse, however, is the fact that they are spreading...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Assegai: Pulp Africa

Assegai by Wilbur Smith is a part of his “Courtney” novels, a series of adventures in Africa and the environs that follow a family line through the centuries, very similar to L‘Amour’s “Sackett” series. Much like L’Amour’s heroes, Leon Courtney learns the skills that will aid him in his adventure and receives “gifts” such as a signature weapon, to aid him in that quest.

The novel is set in the early 1900’s in British East Africa, with Courtney as a young lieutenant in His Majesty’s service. Events are immediately set into motion that leads him and the reader on a grand adventure. Courtney becomes a big game hunter and guide in the bush for rich, bored, adventure seekers, but also a spy for the British military as the scent of war is on the air. With Germany sharing a border with the colony, if war comes it will be from that direction. The Boer War is fresh in the minds of those that would side with Germany and the British who fought in that conflict.

Assegai is something H.R Haggard would envy, with the details of Africa’s vast country, its people, and the plentiful game that men sought after to prove themselves. Courtney is involved with Teddy Roosevelt’s safari of 1909, forming a fast friendship with his son Kermit. His actions during the famous safari make him popular for others seeking grand adventure. With careful guidance from his patron uncle who is on the fringe of military intelligence, Leon takes on German clients, learning vital information; bringing him in contact with the lovely and enigmatic Eva and the main villain Graph Otto.

The story is the splendid weaving of character, action, intrigue, and world building that I have encountered before reading Smith’s Birds of Prey. This is a great novel and story, with plenty of pulpy goodness to be found between the covers. Cliff hanger action and daring do and the hints of mysticism from Leon’s adoptive mother make the novel the stuff of Saturday Matinees.

Smith’s writing is historically rich, his descriptions vivid and bright. Conservationists and animal lovers be warned! Hunting is a major component of the novel’s narrative, with the wanton slaughter of many beasts wrought in gruesome detail. The author’s eye does not blink from the accuracy of those hunts for trophies and ivory. Great animals shot and left to rot and feed the carrion birds so that hunters can have a pelt or tusk. It is hard for the modern mind (and the mind of the hunter) to wrap around the idea of killing whole herds for sport, not for meat, or survival but to satisfy blood lust or to prove oneself in manly pursuits. Smith’s story telling abilities puts you in the middle of it, sighting down the barrel, taking the shot, and finishing the kill.

If you are looking for a new author or just a good period adventure, Wilbur Smith is worth the look. Assegai is a novel that is multi-layered as the title actually suggests. Though an assegai is the short fighting spear of the Zulu warriors and is highly visible in the book, the word has multilayered purpose throughout.

Great adventure and story telling at its best!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Anticipation of Thor: Please Let the Movie RAWK!!!!

Since Spider-Man and The X-Men movies got the ball rolling, the super hero movies for Marvel have been big budget and met with varying success. But it seems that over the last decade the superhero movie has gained legitimacy in the main stream consciousness. Look at the most recent popularity of Iron Man and the massive boost to Robert Downey's career.

Now Thor is slated for a 2011 release, and I am awaiting it with a mixture of child-like giddiness that I have not felt since the 1988 release of Batman and trepidation not unlike that brought on by the Star Wars prequels. Thor is my absolute favorite superhero, hands down bar none. I have followed his comics since I was a kid in the 70s'. From stories of civil unrest in NYC to the gawds awful Secret Wars, his battles with Set of the Egyptians, to the ill fated Lord of Asgard story line, till now and the ruinous story lines that Marvel has spun in the wake of its crappy Civil War arcs.

Why would I stay with it? Because Thor and his allies have remained true to their lineage, as it were. Thor has always been the honorable, sometimes failing, leader of men and gods. The stalwart unfailing strength of the character in the face of insurmountable odds, and his constant striving to straddle the mortal world that he loves and protects to the immortal one where his duty lies as a prince of Asgard has been a constant and compelling story. Loki's machinations and the epic battles don’t hurt. I can go on about the various artists from the Immortal Jack Kirby and on to the writers like Straczynski but this is more about my anticipation of the movie.

The film stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, his mortal love interest, Anthony Hopkins as Odin , and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. The plot is as follows, according to

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present the epic adventure, "Thor," which spans the Marvel Universe from present day Earth to the realm of Asgard. At the center of the story is the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a powerful but arrogant warrior whose reckless actions reignite an ancient war. Thor is cast down to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and is forced to live among humans. A beautiful, young scientist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has a profound effect on Thor, as she ultimately becomes his first love. It's while here on Earth that Thor learns what it takes to be a true hero when the most dangerous villain of his world sends the darkest forces of Asgard to invade Earth.

I like the synopsis; I think it touches on the original idea of Thor's banishment from Asgard for his sin of arrogance. The idea sounds epic enough to give the god a challenge, something sorely lacking in the Superman re-launch. The fact that Kenneth Branagh is directing fills with me hope, as I have loved his Shakespeare interpretations. My concerns come from the main actor, Chris Hemsworth, what little I have seen of him does not tell me how he would handle such a powerful role. Now a comic book character doesn't seem to be a challenging role, but this is an icon of epic proportions. He needs to be arrogant as the young Thor was, but still make him the leader he needs to be, the hero that he should be; to project majesty and command yet to set aside that arrogance. I think to do it right will take awesome direction, writing, and acting, so everyone has to hit on all cylinders. This film will have to walk the fine line between bombastic and epic without coming off campy. I can't wait to see the first trailers just for a taste of what is to come.

The first picture of Thor has hit the net, and the costume is faithful to the comic and Hemsworth looks good, but the outfit looks rubbery. I hope, like with Iron Man, that this is the "working" costume and there will be enhancements with CGI. If not, I hope it looks a little less cheesy in motion than in a still shot.

Thanks to Mangus for catching this for me. So I am optimistically hopeful, but mindful of past disappointments. I will be there for the midnight showing in breathless anticipation. I will return here to offer my thoughts, feelings, and hopefully, joyous elation over an awesome movie.