Tag Archives: books

Geek Book Review: This Book Is Full Of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It

spidersI haven’t read John Dies At The End, but I got to see Don Coscarelli (director of Phantasm) talk about it and show a trailer for the film two years ago at Fantastic Fest.  Well, the sequel is out just in time for John’s film debut this January!

This Book Is Full Of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It is the second book from Cracked.com columnist David Wong (a pseudonym for Jason Pargin). It follows lovable (?) slackers John and Dave (and Dave’s girlfriend Amy) and all the crazy stuff that happens to them when orifice-invading, zombie-making spiders from space attack (think Stephen King’s Dreamcatchers).  It starts out weird even without that, as thanks to taking hits of “soy sauce,” a drug from the first book, the guys are in tune with the land of the supernatural and bizarre, which their home town has in spades – freaky occurrences, mystical portals to porta-johns, etc.

There’s a lot I could say that would ruin some of the twists of the book with spoilers – suffice it to say that this is not a straightforward zombie story by any means, and the sophomoric (though funny!) humor of the book lies alongside a very intelligent look at zombie hysteria and the dangers of human nature in a way more subtle than the usual “the asshole in the cellar is going to let the zombies in to get us eventually” style.

The book is funny, but about halfway through it takes a turn from the zany to the pretty dark, and carries in some honest-to-God psychological horror and depression stuff for the last half. Surprising, but good.  I had just read a collection of modern zombie stories that tried to be edgy (“21st century dead”) and frankly this book beat all those stories twenty ways to Sunday.  I strongly recommend it, and am gnashing my teeth waiting for John Dies At The End to come to theaters January 25th! It’s actually available to stream from several outlets now, but I still like the big screen better.

They even have a trailer for the book (odd, but…):

Bonus trailer for John Dies At The End:

Alternity Book Report: Zero Point

My third Alternity novel set in the Star*Drive universe is Zero Point, but Richard Baker. It is better written than Gridrunner, the book that preceded it, but it shares a number of unfortunate similarities that aren’t to its benefit.

In Zero Point, bounty hunter Peter Sokolov snatches his mark Geille Monashi to bring back to Pict territory on Penates. But they have to make a blind hyperjump and come across a previously unknown alien ship. They are then caught in a feeding frenzy of those who want to exploit it…

I found this book especially interesting because in our Lighthouse campaign, we have actually met and allied with these aliens, the warlike Medurr (or “draco-centaurs” as we like to call them). They keep all kinds of slave races and have a kind of infinite energy drive (“zero point”) that makes all kinds of brute force tech possible. Also, Sokolov is cybered up and you get to see that at work (clearly using the game rules for it). The novel also reveals a lot more about AIs in the setting than previous novels; Sokolov’s ship has an onboard AI named Peri that is a secondary character. For all the alleged hacking in the previous novel, this one has a lot more rubber-hits-the-road examples of hacking ship computers, AIs, and Sokolov’s onboard nanocomputer.

However, I also found it somewhat tiring because of the relationship between the leads – it was weak in general but was more annoying because it was the exact same dynamic as in Gridrunner.  Powerful man captures skilled woman, falls for her for no good reason, they bang, then they alternately betray and/or bail each other out in turn for the rest of the novel.  It’s a little obnoxious once, and a back-to-back dose of it was doubly so.  I mean, I know that when I abduct women they always fall in love with me, but who else could be so gifted? Plus, Sokolov spends an awful lot of time as a prisoner (like half the novel) – good for character interaction and explication purposes, I guess, but it becomes tiresome.

The book was better written than the previous two, though, and besides the aliens and cyber you get to see a variety of Star*Drive cultures at work – more about Lucullus/Penates, the Union of Sol, megacorps, space pirates… Very helpful for players and GMs of Alternity Star*Drive to get a feel for the setting.

Alternity Book Report: Gridrunner

The second in my stash of Alternity Star*Drive books, Gridrunner, details the exploits of Lazarus, a CIB man (space cop), and his prisoner-cum-love interest Sable. She is of course a misunderstood soul who has been forced into the life of a criminal courier by a bad man who has her brother prisoner.  “Gridrunner” is the Star*Drive term for a decker/cyberspace hacker. They perform various undercover work in Port Royal, on the criminal-run planet of Penates in the Lucullus system. We spent a lot of time there in our campaign dicking with the Jamaican Syndicate and Picts and other colorful characters.

This novel is a mixed bag. It’s reasonably engaging, but in the middle there’s this 50 page long heist/Mission Impossible intrusion sequence that gets really boring.  From a RPG point of view I guess you could mine it for ideas on how to run a scene like that with plenty of technical work and skill checks, but it would still be a bit long for that. The love interest between Lazarus and Sable develops somewhat artificially and is of the “oh I am making career- and/or life-risking decisions because of this broad I met a day ago” type.

The descriptions of Gridrunning are pretty interesting, I can’t help but think “Second Life,” which is fair enough since this was written way before SL came out. It’s a pretty typical Snow Crash kind of setup, with people’s “shadows” in a VR world.

I was a little surprised at the (mild) rape/torture content – I don’t mind it, but usually WotC type stuff is pretty tame. So far between this and Two of Minds the Star*Drive universe is portrayed as pretty darn gritty.

On a personal gaming level, the most interesting part was the description of the Corner, a bar on the space station Lighthouse – my warlion character in our Alternity campaign owns the place.

All in all, this was OK and helped flesh out the milieu (especially Penates, the Lighthouse, and Gridrunning), though the 50 page thievery scene definitely forced me to start skimming for a span.

Alternity Book Report: Two of Minds

I was looking through my bookshelf and realized that I own five, count them, five old Alternity novels!  As I’ve been playing in Paul’s Alternity campaign for more than two years now, I thought it was high time to root them out and read through them!

The first is Two of Minds, by William H. Keith, Jr. The story features Spacer, a tunnel rat living on the crappy Total Recall-esque mining colony of Lison, who wants a bigger life among the stars. A guy he’s conning gets wasted by VoidCorp (evil megacorp) agents and next thing you know he’s joined up with a typical adventuring party and is headed for the planet of Storm to interface with freaky aliens and get shot at by VoidCorp.

It’s decently written, though a couple times I wished the writing “grade level” was a couple higher. The plot keeps on moving and the characters manage to be just a smidge more interesting than they are flat. They have a couple more main characters than the writer can handle well. Although I was entertained by the Rigunmor guy who basically did nothing but occasionally be a jerk until he sacrificed himself to help everyone in the end – mainly because that’s how Bruce’s Rigunmor character in our campaign is.

Really the main point of interest is how Spacer uses a “holotarot” (space tarot) deck his grammama gave him to interpret and predict events, something the fraal (Grey psychic alien) in the group posits is linked to a latent kind of psychic power. I found it inspiring for Pathfinder games as well, where Harrow (fantasy tarot) decks and use thereof play a big part in the world of Golarion.

It’s also pretty good for inspiration for plots about exploring hostile planets and meeting new aliens in a discovery-oriented campaign. The aliens in Two of Minds are very alien and it definitely reveals the setting as being one where there are some pretty cosmic-scale weird things.

The novel does do a pretty good job of establishing a “look and feel” of the Verge, which is helpful for Alternity Star*Drive players. I would call it cinematically gritty – the Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall is probably the best comparison. The book is an average sci-fi popcorn read in general, but to an Alternity player is definitely worth reading.

Pathfinder Tales – Plague of Shadows and Prince of Wolves

In the second in my series of book reports from my vacation in Bulgaria, I thought I’d review the two Pathfinder Tales novels I managed to lay my hands on.  These things must be popular because I’ve been waiting for them to show up at Half Price Books and it’s taken a long time.  (I don’t buy paperbacks at full price…)

I’m a big Pathfinder and world of Golarion fan, so I wanted to see how the novels treat it. I enjoyed them both.  Neither is going to become part of the Western canon or anything, but they were better than, say, every Greyhawk novel ever. (Rose Estes is the worst RPG novel author ever, and Gary Gygax, God love him, isn’t as bad as she is but he isn’t the best either.)

Prince of Wolves, by Dave Gross, covers the adventures of Pathfinder and Chelish nobleman Varian Jeggare and his erstwhile tiefling companion Radovan wandering about in Ustalav.

Plague of Shadows, by Howard Andrew Jones, details the attept by elf-raised-by-humans Elyana to save her old adventuring buddy/lover, the now-married and now-Lord Stefan.

The Good

Prince of Wolves had an interesting conceit, where the chapters alternated being from the perspective of Jeggare and Radovan respectively. They get separated early (well, the book jumps back and forth in timeline a little) and then go about their own solo adventures till they join back up about 2/3 of the way through. In general the action progressed nicely, though there were some repetitive parts. It was well written and engaging in general.

Plague of Shadows was a little weaker in the writing department. I was feeling “meh” about halfway through but then there were some big twists and I was interested through the end. I liked the initial setup where it was an adventuring group that had grown apart and was coming together much later, and not all as friends. I had a 2e campaign that was like that, and it gives a feeling of a lot of rich history.

Both novels used Golarion to good effect.  Plague of Shadows did a lot with Galt and the French Terror-esque revolution there, and Prince of Wolves used the gothic nation of Ustalav and the gypsy-like Sczarni. They illuminated the world nicely.

The Bad

Both of the novels suffered from D&D.  Or from Pathfinder.  Mainly the magic system.  They use the game system’s rules too obviously in their fiction. “Time to rest to regain my spells!” “I don’t have that memorized today!” Suck. And they kinda went that way with the magic items too, though Shadows was a little more clumsy about that than Wolves. The mechanical wonkiness of D&D spells do not good storytelling make – Jack Vance used it but these guys are no Jack Vance. At least these authors don’t do like Gygax does in his Greyhawk novels where his storytelling is dictated by the combat rules too (seriously, Gord got 3 attacks every 2 rounds, and he let you know it), but the D&D magic system – for all its in-game merits – invariably comes off as lame in fiction.

And a small nit – I didn’t like the big Golarion glossary in the back. If your writing doesn’t stand on its own, definitions aren’t going to help you. I think it’s much more interesting to wonder about parenthetical references than have them defined for you – hell, that’s how Lovecraft and Howard and those guys’ prose captured the imagination. I am sure they’re trying to help, but cut that out of future novels please.

Conclusion

Both were better than most gaming fiction. I’d give Wolves 4/5 and Shadows 3/5, maybe. Fans of Golarion will enjoy them because of how they showcase the world, and normal fantasy fans should find them diverting enough. I definitely plan to hunt down the rest (though am not inspired enough to start paying full price for them).

Book Reports

Ah, I’m back from two weeks of hanging out on the beach in Bulgaria.  Didn’t know there were good beaches in Bulgaria?  There are!


I got a lot of book reading in.  I read scarily fast, so I went through 11  books by my count. As with everything else in life, I mine the books I read for RPG related insights, so I thought I’d report in and give you some thoughts.

A Game of Thrones

First off, I read A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, books two and three in the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, as you might know it).  I’d read the first book but hadn’t picked up the others till now. I was lucky to find them at Half Price Books, the HBO series has emptied the shelves pretty well.  Each one is 1000 pages of murder and betrayal.

Game of Thrones has some interesting similarities to RPG campaigns.  The resolutions of plotlines, and life or death of major characters, does seem like it’s at the whims of fate – some characters that seem like “made men” get murderized like the lesser men. Some people feel that character death in RPGs “ruins the story.”  These novels are an object lesson in that not being the case.

Also, the story does drag on like many a fantasy campaign I’ve been in (and run, to be honest).  Things do keep happening, but sometimes you want to say “Yes yes, could we progress a little bit more here please?” I’ve tried to take that to heart, because even though session after session might be engaging, there is such a thing as too slow of a pace at a high level.

The books also highlight how prudish the RPG community is. Every deviant behavior you can think of is in these books, from incest to dwarf sex to rape to torture to slavery. There’s not even a warning label on them, gasp.  But in the RPG realm, when people start talking about “should sex be in an RPG” or “how much is over the line and ‘squicky’” they seem to be using some kind of 1950′s neo-Victorian standard that other art forms aren’t subject to – these aren’t fringe works, this is the most popular fantasy series in the world and has spawned a TV series.  Get your head out of your ass, RPG community.

Dresden Files

I wanted to pick up some of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books and some of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, but all I could get from three Half Price Books was Fool Moon, book 2 of the Dresden Files.

It was pretty good.  I assume you all know the general setup – Harry Dresden, modern day wizard/detective. I read some of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels recently and this definitely owes them a debt. This one had everything from werewolves to bikers to chronically naked chicks to dream sequences.

Anyway, these novels have good insight into how to run a supernatural-in-the-modern-world game (like any of the White Wolf oeuvre).It’s funny, most of those games stress the active hiding of the supernatural.  In Dresden’s world, he’s really open about being a wizard, just no one believes him. The supernatural is a small enough part of the world that it’s just not all that relevant to  Joe Sixpack.

The hard part is that Dresden (like Marlowe) spends large portions of the story totally beat to shit. But he rallies and does stuff.  This is hard to model in most RPGs, especially ones like the DFRPG where you get progressively large minuses to do anything when you’re hurt (the “death spiral”). Having Harry powerless for a bunch of the story is OK, but when it’s your character it tends to be less enjoyable. Heck, the couple times I had villains beat up on the heroes in a supers campaign I ran, even though it was genre appropriate, the players went into open rebellion.

Next time – Pathfinder Tales! And then, the wonderful world of travel writing.