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Firefly: The Game
Firefly: The Game
Price: $35.94
48 used & new from $31.00

102 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Privateer, Freelancer, or Elite: the board game. You don't have to be a Whedon fan., November 4, 2013
This review is from: Firefly: The Game (Toy)
I need to say at the outset that I am pretty neutral on the subject of Joss Whedon: I never got into Buffy or Angel or Dollhouse, I have not seen Firefly the TV show although I saw the movie and it was fun. I really liked Cabin in the Woods and Avengers but I am not really paying attention to Agents of SHIELD.

So with all that said, I really dug the hell out of this game and can't wait to play again.

The premise is straightforward: you're all (up to four players) captains of your own Firefly-type ships. There are several captains to choose from and I gather that they're all characters from the show and are differentiated by their skills and by small extra bonuses to certain kinds of activities (as Burgess, I got a free extra piece of cargo every time I completed a legitimate shipping job).

There's a big, multi-stage mission - a heist or something similar, in our case it was to steal the English crown jewels - drawn randomly at the beginning of the game. First to complete the mission wins. But it's big and dangerous and often requires different items from the four corners of the map to complete, so to get the skilled crewmen and gear and ship upgrades that you'll need, you need to take on smaller jobs to earn money and rep.

In other words, it's Privateer or Freelancer: the board game. Like, straight up. You get jobs (go to a place and do a thing, or pick up cargo at point 1 and take it to point 2) and they pay money roughly corresponding to the danger level and distance involved, and you use that money to buy better stuff so you can take bigger jobs so you can buy better etc etc.

Jobs can be legal (deliver the mail) or illegal (deliver contraband) and moral (steal from the evil government) or immoral (steal vaccines from a hospital). Different contacts tend to offer different kinds of jobs, and the mechanics encourage you to find a type that suits you and stick with it, because completing a contact's jobs successfully raises your reputation with them, unlocking the ability to get better deals or do stuff like fence contraband through them. Legal jobs tend to pay less but, as they take place in Alliance space at the center of the board, are fast and safe to complete. A lot of them can be done in one turn. Illegal jobs tend to span larger distances and put you in the position of either making the fast crossing of the central systems (and risk being caught by the authorities) or creeping around the lawless border systems at the edge of the board, where you risk dangerous random encounters, including with the incredibly bad-news Reaver ship. Moral jobs are just regular work, but immoral jobs cause your crewmembers with the Moral keyword to become Disgruntled, which can erode their effectiveness and make them able to be hired away out from under you by other captains.

(Another way to Disgruntle your crew, moral or not, is to not pay them their cut of a completed job. This is a thing you can actually do!)

At spaceports you can buy ship upgrades, gear, fuel, and parts, or hire crew members. Crew come in varying levels of effectiveness and have different job types - mechanics help keep your ship running, pilots help you escape pursuers, mercs help you fight, medics heal wounded crew, etc. There are named characters from the show as well as cheaper generic "henchman #2" options. Ship upgrades are exactly what you expect: they let you go faster, hold more cargo or fuel, spoof distress signals to lure the authorities away from you, etc. Gear is equipped by crewmembers to increase their too, is more or less what you'd expect - guns, medi-kits, hacking tools, and so froth, along with comedy options like a fancy bolo tie or a ridiculous hat.

Traveling through space or doing missions on the ground yields random encounters drawn from card decks; these take the form of skill checks. There are three stats in the game - fighting, mechanics, and negotiation - and every crewman or piece of gear adds to one or more of these. You roll a d6, add your score for that skill, and see what that result yields you. There are usually varying grades of success, like - "1-3, A warrant is put out for your arrest, 4-6, attempt botched, 7+, success." You usually get a choice of a couple different approaches (talk or right, for instance, or ditch a piece of cargo to skip a difficult fight). Most encounters also have an Ace in the Hole: a way to instantly pass them and skip the roll if you have the right piece of equipment or the right crewmember (space hooker distracts the customs inspector, fancy suit gets you past the bouncer etc).

So those are the nuts and bolts. How does it play? Well, like I said, I loved it; I know everyone won't, however. It's fundamentally a race, pitting your head for space-business against your friends' but with only a limited suite of ways to help or hinder them. Player interaction consists of a) when you're in the same space as another player's ship you can wheel and deal to your heart's content, buying and trading crew or cargo or whatever, b) stealing away each other's Disgruntled crew members, or c) siccing the Reaver ship and Alliance patrol cruiser on each other (like, if I draw a card that moves the Reaver ship a square, the guy to my right gets to decide where it goes). The game ends when someone completes the big heist, but there is no timing mechanism beyond that so the length of the game is pretty much entirely up to the lead player. If everyone's ruthlessly efficient, it will be short; if they're not, or if there are a lot of random setbacks (such as the Reavers massacring your entire crew) it will be long.

Those are the downsides. The upside is that it's a gloriously Ameritrashy game, absolutely chock full of really great thematics (again, even to someone with no Firefly experience) and bursting at the seams with chips and cards and models and counters - but it's also simple as hell. Everyone had the mechanics pretty much down by the second turn. And the theme and mechanics dovetail in such a way that everything more or less explains itself; you don't need to think in abstract game terms to understand that buying guns makes you better at fighting or that going through government space with a hold full of fugitives and contraband might get you stopped and searched. It all just makes sense.

Seekers of the Ashen Crown: A 4th Edition D&D Adventure for Eberron
Seekers of the Ashen Crown: A 4th Edition D&D Adventure for Eberron
by Chris Sims
Edition: Paperback
41 used & new from $6.73

50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid B+ effort, November 6, 2009
It seems to be generally agreed that most of the adventure modules produced thus far for 4E Dungeons and Dragons have suffered from similar problems: sparse roleplaying opportunities, large dungeon crawls, and a kind of oppressively generic sensibility. I mildly disagree in a couple of cases (Keep on the Shadowfell's town of Winterhaven is actually a reasonably robust stage for roleplaying and intrigue, and can be usefully expanded upon with minimal effort) but in general I concur.

That's why it is a pleasure to see a module that seems to have taken these critiques to heart, and that (despite the boilerplate advisory that it can be used in any D&D campaign) strives for, and mostly captures, the combination of high adventure and low intrigue that give the Eberron setting its distinctive texture.

Seekers of the Ashen Crown doesn't begin with a bang - its opening segment is a too-long dungeon crawl through a trap-laden and insect-infested tomb - but does a nice job of escalating the tension as the PCs and players slowly realize the true scope of the challenge before them, building up to a couple of very satisfying climactic encounters. The module is also intended to do double duty as a playable introduction to Eberron, and in my experience has functioned reasonably well in that regard, giving me an excuse to work the Emerald Claw, national politics, and warring goblin clans into my game.

There are a lot of well-made and interesting combats and traps laid out in the module, and enough characters, plot hooks, and little opportunities to branch into and out of the main story that running it has felt, for me, reasonably natural and freeform - there isn't quite as much scope for the PCs to act as in one of my own games, where the PCs are free to ignore or short-circuit entire plot arcs - but the module's progression flows in such a way as to not feel like a railroad. What really helps, I think, is that the game is explicitly paced in such a way as to move from roleplaying/investigation to combat to exploration to roleplaying again. As I said earlier, other modules have supplied interesting NPCs and locales to roleplay with - the Forgotten Realms "Tower of Spellgard" module had a great set of characters to interact with outside of its main dungeon - but the modules are structured in such a way that the roleplay is over here to the left, and the dungeon is over here to the right, and never the twain shall meet. Seekers of the Ashen Crown is more integrated, requiring the PCs to interact with NPCs and conduct investigations and explorations right up until the end, and it gets a big thumbs-up from me for that.

There are downsides, however. The mandate to produce a single adventure to carry PCs from levels 2-5 means the book is packed full of combat encounters; more, perhaps, than the amount of story supplied can reasonably bear. I am pleased to report that, in an improvement over previous modules, most of these combats make sense within the context of the story and don't feel utterly arbitrary - however, there is a glaring percentage that fall outside this and feel like xp-padding wastes of time.

The other issue is dungeon crawling. While there thankfully isn't one mega-dungeon the PCs are expected to hack through, the module instead substitutes a number of smaller ones. It's a step forward in the right direction, but it isn't enough. The big problem is that Fourth Edition really is not about dungeon crawling - period. Older editions of D&D had PCs hack their way from room to room in a series of small skirmishes, killing an orc here, a troll there, and hustling through even a large dungeon in a single night. 4E fights are meant to be big tactical setpieces, life-or-death struggles large and significant enough that a single fight is intended to take characters a tenth of the way to the next level. Filling a dungeon with ten of those epic setpiece battles, one after the other, is a recipe for the most extreme boredom. I like 4E's combat, but since it represents both a large investment of time and a large reward for the PCs, I make sure that every fight feels significant and is set up with a lot of story and characterization and avoid back-to-back encounters. The module designers still haven't fully come to grips with this new form of pacing, unfortunately, so Seekers of the Ashen Crown has a couple of spots where it can begin to feel like a grind. Thankfully much of this can be painlessly shortened, to everyone's benefit.

Overall the module represents a real step in the right direction for Wizards of the Coast, but there's more work to be done.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 7, 2013 10:53 PM PDT

Dungeon Master's Guide 2 (4th Edition D&D)
Dungeon Master's Guide 2 (4th Edition D&D)
by James Wyatt
Edition: Hardcover
92 used & new from $8.74

96 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anyone who runs RPGs can profit from reading this., October 25, 2009
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As anyone who plays RPGs knows at this late date, the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D4E) has engendered a lot of controversy in the community by breaking dramatically with the game's past in several key areas, replacing decades-old systems like "Vancian" casting and skill checks with power lists and collaborative skill challenges. Where did these innovations come from? "4E rips off World of Warcraft," say people who in most cases know very little about either. The truth is that a lot of 4E's mechanics and underlying philosophy were heavily influenced by the burgeoning independent RPG movement of recent years, a collection of writers and designers that have worked to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in the world of roleplaying games. Games without dice or any random elements, games without referees or dungeon masters, games without rules...a whole new world of strange delights that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson could never have foreseen.

Influenced by these innovators, the people who made 4E went under the hood of Dungeons and Dragons and rebuilt it from the ground up. Nothing was sacred. We've seen the result of their efforts in the rules of the system to date, but now, with the release of Dungeon Master's Guide 2, we see the philosophy illustrated, not with rules, but with storytelling techniques that any DM, for *any* system, can profit from. Very little of the advice is specific to 4E, or even to Dungeons and Dragons. It shows you, with examples, how to harness the power of collaborative storytelling, how to enlist your players in worldbuilding and how to tell stories that engage everyone at the table.

Let me share my own story. The day after getting this I was due to begin a new game of Star Wars Saga Edition with a new group of people - some friends and some strangers - and I was stumped for what to do. I was having serious trouble coming up with characters and stories, and I dreaded showing up unprepared. But I took the advice from chapter 1 of this book and during character creation at the first session, I went around the table and had each of my players describe for me a positive relationship their character has with another PC, a negative relationship they have with another PC, and to name and describe an NPC that they have a relationship with. Here's the thing: that may sound basic, but often, many players have thoughts about their characters and the game as a whole that they never share with each other or with the group - but here, as we went around the table, the characters came to life, not only in their players' minds, but in each other's as well, and they began relating to each other with a level of excitement and drama that in the past took weeks or months of play to form. And meanwhile the players had, completely without knowing it, given me enough story fuel to last for months! The game has been a huge hit and the players love seeing the NPC and setting details they created reflected in the world around them. I've been DMing for two decades and that simple trick had never occurred to me, and now I'll never run another game without it.

The book is full of useful, practical advice like that. But there's a challenge inherent in much of the advice, and it involves being willing to let go a bit of the old ways of doing things. Many DMs are immensely possessive of "their" story and "their" world, and the suggestions in this book will sound like madness to them. They want to stick with what's worked for them. And I can't blame them for that, but what this book has shown me is that even in a field as well-trodden as Dungeon Mastering there are still new things to try. In a way, it's liberating, to realize that after all this time, I am still a learner.

Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, 4th Edition
Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, 4th Edition
by Chris Sims
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $30.03
80 used & new from $9.99

35 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exactly what this DM needs, January 7, 2009
My first exposure to the Forgotten Realms was through the classic PC game Baldur's Gate way back at the turn of the century. The game was fascinating and well-written so I thought I'd investigate the world it took place in. That...was a mistake. I ran up against an opaque wall of impenetrable backstory and a setting where demigods battled through a world I found almost painfully generic; the sort of world I could read about in dozens of better-written fantasy novels if I'd a yen to.

Of course, it's not quite fair to accuse a roleplaying setting of being unoriginal. The point of DN&D, after all, isn't to tell a new story but to let players experience the thrill of roleplaying some of their favorite archetypes. But I found no hook, nothing to draw me in as a storyteller, certainly not compared to the rich and evocative Planescape or the atmospheric Dark Sun.

This brings us to fourth edition. The new edition of D&D captured my group's attention and we've found it meshes with our style perfectly. And since I approved of so much of what the designers did, I figured I'd take a chance on this guide.

I'm so glad I did. While the history of this imaginary place may have been "rich" to some reviewers, I found it a tedious recitation of names. (And of course, it hasn't gone away - they can still adventure to their hearts' content in whatever region or period of time they want.) The new edition focuses on giving DMs - the storytellers - the *tools to tell a story*. Each region has been given a flavor, with enough plot hooks to support a campaign, but enough backstory left unsaid to allow the DM room to customize to his heart's content. This is a good thing, because ultimately WotC or Ed Greenwood doesn't run my table - I do.

Instead of a wall of made-up history, it gives the prospective DM an embarrassment of riches in terms of setting and plot. There are easily a dozen places in the new Realms I want to set a campaign in. I think there's more than enough material here for a single DM literally to game the Realms for the entire likely lifespan of fourth edition, and it's all good stuff. At the book's absolute worst it retains a bit of the old generic-fantasy feeling in certain areas, like Cormyr and the Dalelands, but still provides cool plot hooks for those places, and they stand out and feel fresh anyway by dint of being so traditional in the midst of a world now brimming with exotic locales and monsters.

One of the featured reviewers complains that characters no longer feel like small wheels in a big world. This complaint baffles me. Since my job is to entertain my players, the gameworld is going to center around them. They don't give me their valuable time and attention for me to recount the adventures of a bunch of NPCs; if they wanted that, they'd read a book or watch a movie. I understand that a lot of the diehard Forgotten Realms fans are upset that their imaginary friends are no longer with us, but I find it hard to sympathize.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 1, 2012 9:31 AM PDT

The Lies of Locke Lamora
The Lies of Locke Lamora
by Scott Lynch
Edition: Hardcover
22 used & new from $20.00

348 of 425 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lynch's talent is bigger than this story, August 14, 2006
THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA is a fairly-well-hyped fantasy debut about the charismatic leader of a gang of con artists in a city that does (or tries to do) for renaissance Venice what PERDIDO STREET STATION did for Dickensian London. Overall, I enjoyed it - the prose was technically proficient, the plot hummed along efficiently, the setting was considerably more interesting than the usual plate-mail-and-offal-carts business, and there was a good deal of welcome humor. As debut novels go it's a promising start.

On the other hand, it really doesn't amount to much more than an entertaining confection. The book's apparently been optioned for a movie already, and I can see why: the dialogue's relentlessly effervescent, occasionally stretching credulity past the breaking point (characters have one-liners for every occasion even while collecting broken bones and concussions like trading cards) and the screenplay-friendly three-act structure is too often embarrassingly visible underneath the flesh of the story.

It's difficult to articulate my feelings on books like this. On the one hand, Lynch's technical talent clearly elevates him above the great gormless herd of modern fantasy writers already. And there's no denying that the book is very likeable indeed, while it seems unfair to fault it based only on what it could have been. On the other hand, it's just *too damn safe*. Lynch is going to be a major player in the genre - that much is obvious already - but he has it in him to do something Seriously Good rather than settling for being the next RA Salvatore. But it's not gonna happen until he gets over his fear of failure. PERDIDO had parts that worked and parts that didn't but Mieville wrote his ambition on every page in letters of fire, and the excitement swept me, the reader, away with him. Whereas LOCKE LAMORA felt like Lynch was parceling out his ideas and his talent and calculating every story beat based on whether it would make a good start for a franchise.

In short, it's worth the money, even if you're not big into fantasy - I'm emphatically not, aside from staples like Tolkien, Moorcock, and Martin, and I still enjoyed it. But it's not a *necessary* book.
Comment Comments (18) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 15, 2015 2:38 AM PDT

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.49
228 used & new from $3.10

122 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard work that more than rewards the effort, October 17, 2005
his was one of those things where I'd heard about the book, in bits and pieces, for years: namechecked by William Gibson in Virtual Light and by Garth Ennis in Preacher, yapped about by online friends, and requested every so often by customers at the bookstore where I once worked. You know how this kind of thing goes: after a while, all these name-droppings have a cumulative impact, flipping a little switch in your brain one day and sending you off in search of the item in question. So that's how I came to Blood Meridian - knowing the book by its notorious reputation alone and little else. Having finally finished it, I can say that its notoriety is richly deserved, but that's hardly the whole story.

The premise could be described for the ADD among you as Huckleberry Finn meets Natural Born Killers, which hardly sounds flattering, I'm sure, but bear with me. The story opens on the peregrinations of the Kid, a vicious, knife-fighting fourteen-year-old runaway from Tennessee who in 1848 drifts down the Mississippi first to New Orleans and thence to Texas, where he falls in with a rogue Army unit making a piratical raid into Mexico. After Apaches wipe out the unit in the Sonora desert, the Kid lands in a Mexican jail, where he meets and is recruited by a group of bounty hunters retained by the government to collect Indian scalps as retaliation for a string of Apache massacres in remote border villages.

Here is where the story really begins. The Kid is absorbed into the gang, a collection of opportunists, outlaws, drifters and psychopaths presided over by two domineering personalities: the nominal leader of the group, Ike Glanton, a mercenary ex-soldier with a nasty temper and a deep vein of sadism, and Glanton's advisor, the fat, hairless, urbane, and utterly mercurial Judge Holden. The gang finds an Indian tribe - not the marauders but a peaceful fishing village - and slaughters it utterly. But unable to catch the ever-elusive Apaches, the company elects to pursue easier prey; namely, the defenseless villages and mining camps littering the arid wastes of the Southwest. As their bounty hunt turns into a genocidal murder spree, the gang, and even Glanton, forget their simple mercenary aspirations and become increasingly captivated by the magnetism of the Judge, who tells them they are agents of a pitiless natural law, high priests sacrificing the undeserving to a blood-soaked pagan god.

The Kid, his ego subsumed by the group organism, essentially disappears from the book as Glanton and the Judge assume center stage. Occasional chapters deal with other members of the gang - an apostate priest, a runaway slave - but their individuality is eventually consumed too. The narrative becomes increasingly distant and godlike - rather than seeing their surroundings through the eyes of the gang, we see the gang from the point of view of, for instance, the wind passsing through their camp. They go beyond a place where most readers could follow, so like elusive elementary particles, we have to look for understanding in the marks left by their passage.

The book is a fantasia of luridly-described, Hammer-horror violence set against a landscape whose harsh geography is, like the wildernesses of the Bible or the open seas of Melvile, spiritual in nature as well as temporal, a place where men come to commune with higher or lower powers. In fact, as a quick glance at Amazon shows, it's nigh-on impossible to review this book without invoking Melville or the Bible. McCarthy's prose seems to have rumbled out of the hollow places of the earth itself; even his descriptions of innocuities like tumbleweeds and roadrunners can sound like passages from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Let me be clear: this book is not a "revisionist western." It is not an apologia. McCarthy is not tut-tutting and bewailing the fate of the proud, noble Indian; in point of fact, many of the Indians in this book are as messed-up and psychopathic as the whites. His vision is bigger than that. He's talking about the nature of violence - the little stain of destructive insanity in all of us that is not adequately explained by genetics or psychology or class theory. Original sin, if you like. The problem, as McCarthy sees it, is not that white people are bad. It is not even that civilization is bad - the natives, as McCarthy reminds us, had a civilization too. The problem is that people have evil inside of them at a fundamental level, and when they're cut loose from their moorings and isolated in an unforgiving environment, that mindless, all-consuming blackness is free to bubble up to the surface.

So yeah. The book is as dense and heavy-duty as it sounds - indeed, even at a slim 350 pages it's tough going. I had to take a couple of long breaks to cleanse my literary palate with lighter fare. But even so, I predict I will be coming back to Blood Meridian often in the future - like a pile of bloodsoaked treasure, there are ample rewards here for people willing to get their hands dirty, and like murder, it can only get easier with practice.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2016 5:43 AM PST

Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Cloud Atlas: A Novel
by David Mitchell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.52
450 used & new from $0.01

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, brilliant, and revolutionary. Hyperbole? Hardly., May 20, 2005
This review is from: Cloud Atlas: A Novel (Paperback)
I'm not sure where to begin talking about Cloud Atlas; my enthusiasm keeps bubbling over and upsetting everything I try to say before I can fairly begin. I could say that it's the best novel I've read in, god, I don't even know how long, or I could talk about how important I think the book is from a creative standpoint, how it could point the way towards a new and distinct literature of the 21st century. But that would require the marshalling of arguments and the accumulation of carefully-chosen examples, and all I really want to do is bounce on my heels excitedly and, like a nine-year-old, recount all the really cool stuff that happened - at length, and with voices and sound effects.

Okay. Deep breath. Let me see if I can get it together, here.

Cloud Atlas begins in 1850, with a story called "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing." Ewing, a penniless San Francisco lawyers' clerk, is returning home to his family from a business trip in Australia aboard a private schooner called the Prophetess, whose mercenary, devil-take-the-hindmost captain and crew are barely more than criminals. As his diary begins, the ship has put in for resupply at a tiny and desolate Pacific island whose native tribe, the Moriori, has been subjugated and largely exterminated by Maori from New Zealand (who learned the gentle art of conquest from their British overlords there).

Detested by the ship's crew for his weak constitution and standoffish manner, the sensitive and naive Ewing befriends a shady and eccentric British physician named Henry Goose - in exile on the island for some unspecified offense - and the two men bond over chess and discussions of philosophy. But when the Prophetess resumes its journey, Ewing discovers he has another companion - a Moriori slave who has escaped his captors and stowed away in the American's cabin, an act that could earn both of them a one-way trip overboard if discovered. The plot develops along the familiar lines sketched in similar stories by Melville and Joseph Conrad, but then the story stops, midsentence, and we find ourselves in

"Letters from Zedelghem", which takes place in 1931, the dreary post-WWI Europe of Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. Composer Robert Frobisher - young, bisexual, charismatic, and more or less utterly amoral - escapes his numerous creditors in London first by jumping out a second-story luxury hotel window, then by fleeing to the Continent and charming his way into the household of a brilliant, dying maestro. Working as the man's amanuensis (writing sheet music from the old man's dictation) inspires Frobisher to begin his own magnum opus; he also avails himself of the remote mansion's many diversions, including the library (where he becomes fascinated by a book called "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" - unfortunately, the second half is missing) and the favors of the composer's wife and daughter. Frobisher's escapades are wittily and unapologetically recounted by him in letters to his old lover, physics student Rupert Sixsmith -

- whose murder in the early 1970s is the subject of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery." This story, written in the breathless style of a Robert Ludlum thriller, follows a plucky young reporter's investigation of her friend Dr. Sixsmith's murder, which leads her (in the slightly improbable way thrillers do) to a corporate coverup involving a dangerous nuclear power plant that could irradiate the entire West Coast. It also leads her on another, smaller quest: to find a rare recording of the beautiful "Cloud Atlas Sextet", composed by the obscure genius Robert Frobisher, who committed suicide in 1932. We leave Luisa hanging from a cliff - literally - and jump into the next story.

And so on, and so forth. There are three more tales - a comedy in present-day London, involving a proud and sarcastic old book publisher precipitated through a series of misadventures into a shady nursing home and the not-so-tender mercies of its staff, then a trip to 22nd-century Korea for a tour of a dystopian future society that references everything from Orwell to Bradbury to Blade Runner, and finally a glimpse of a distant postapocalyptic future, where history begins again as Stone Age tribes war for control of what was once known as Hawaii. Each story, except the last, stops halfway through - then we read the last story in its entirety, and then plunge backwards in time, reading the second half of each of the stories in reverse order, until we end where we began: in the Pacific Ocean, with Adam Ewing - who, it turns out, is not so naive as when we and he began.

"Revolutionary or gimmicky?" asks Frobisher about his "Cloud Atlas" symphony, and the question could fairly be (and has been) leveled at the book itself - but as for myself, I knew which side I would take before fifty pages had passed. The book is brilliant - or rather, not just brilliant, but incandescent. It works on so, so many levels. Artistically, there is absolutely no questioning Mitchell's talent. He successfully mimics (and in many cases surpasses) any number of literary voices, from the aforementioned Melville and Somerset Maugham, to classy potboiler authors like Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carre, to modern satirists like Philip Roth and Martin Amis, to genre sf writers like Bradbury and Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin.

But this isn't all some bloodless postmodernist Frankenstein experiment - Mitchell isn't mocking or parodying these writers, but paying them reverent homage, and finding the common threads of art and humanity that link their writing and their subject matter. The revolutionary thing that Mitchell has done here - the floodgate he has cracked open - is to do exactly what all great novelists before him have done, namely to tell an important story with an important theme in a totally new way.

And it is an important theme. It's not just that Mitchell holds our eyes open and makes us look, really look, at the innumerable and numinous connections that link us to our dimly-remembered past and our unknown future - the webs of chance and fate and coincidence that rule us all - but that he makes us see the incredible urgency of our time - and of any time. Every story deals, to a greater or lesser degree, with war, with death, with imprisonment and escape, with coercion by violence and the exploitation of the weak by the strong, with morality versus expediency, with the politics of sex and race and class, and with our amazing capacity for both baseness and nobility. The novel's stunning last few pages constitute a call to action not just against merely temporal and temporary enemies like the George Bushes of the world, but against the real enemy, the eternal enemy - the relentless demons of human nature that have dogged our steps from the treetops to the caves to the fields to the cities, and who now hold in their claws the buttons for Armageddon.

And Mitchell doesn't fall into the polemicists' trap of offering a prescription, other than, of course, the univeral one of hope and charity and conscience and energy - energy most of all. The book left me electrified in a way I haven't felt in years. You know how every high-schooler - well, every smart high-schooler - has that one book, that one author - be it Kerouac or Burroughs or Ayn Rand (blecch) or Sylvia Plath or Tolkien or whoever - that defined those years for them and set (to one degree or another) the course of their lives to come? I'm sure you have a book like that - I know I do. Well, I'm twenty-five, and Cloud Atlas made me feel that way again - and that's all I can say, really.

Stations of the Tide
Stations of the Tide
by Michael Swanwick
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
26 used & new from $0.53

52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, canny, and powerful, April 10, 2004
I finished reading STATIONS OF THE TIDE last week; I would have written about it sooner, but it's taken me this long to process and digest my thoughts about the book into something approaching a coherent whole.
The book's plot feels like nothing so much as an SF take on Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. Like that book, its protagonist is a nameless functionary (he is called simply "the bureaucrat" through the entire length of the novel) sent to a backwards hellhole (here, a decaying colony world) in search of a dangerous renegade. The world, called Miranda, has an erratic orbit that causes its ice caps to melt every couple of centuries and drown every inch of dry land; the native life has evolved to thrive under these conditions, but the human settlers have not. As the inept and corrupt local government tries to evacuate the populace in the last few weeks before the flood, the renegade - a man called Gregorian, who claims to be a wizard or magus - gains a following by offering to remake the Mirandans into amphibious creatures capable of surviving the deluge, for a price. The offworld authorities aren't sure if Gregorian is a simple fraud, murdering his followers for money, or if he's employing forbidden offworld technology; either way, he must be dealt with.
The book is difficult to get into at first, and part of this is because Swanwick respects our intelligence enough to throw us into the deep end right from the beginning. As with Mamet's movie Spartan, rather than giving us exposition, he expects us to follow along and patiently assemble the facts of the story by picking them up in context. Once we get over not having everything spoonfed to us, the sense of discovery as the text progresses is intoxicating. The prose is finely-honed and cutting, getting to the truth of a scene in a few skillfully-chosen words. These two factors combine to keep the book brief but dense - it clocks in at less than 250 pages but feels as packed with character, ideas, and incident as a book twice its size.
Swanwick is a disciple of Gene Wolfe, and this is most evident in the way the book's plot takes (or at least seems to take) a backseat to the meandering travelogue of the world on display. And that's fine, because Miranda is a fascinating place: kept forcibly low-tech by the offworld authorities for reasons that are not immediately made clear, it is a planet of swamps and rotting manor houses and superstitious villagers, where travel is effected not by spaceship or hovercraft but by zeppelin, motorboat, or foot. The local religion is a strange blend of voodoo/tribal ritual with Aleister Crowley/Grant Morrison/Alan Moore-style sex-and-drug "magick", and secret brotherhoods of witches and shamans are more feared and more obeyed by the locals than the ineffectual planetary government - but as the planet's watery end approaches, the locals increasingly ignore all authority and give themselves over to either lawless violence or frenzied, nihilistic partying. The resulting atmosphere could best be described as Sci-fi Southern Gothic, like William Faulkner remixed by William Gibson. The bureaucrat doggedly slogs through this milieu, encountering smugglers of alien artifacts, looters, shamans, a family straight out of a V.C. Andrews novel, and possibly a shapechanging alien.
Despite its charms and fascinations, the novel isn't fully emotionally engaging for a lot of its length, and much of this has to do with the rather unsympathetic nature of the main character. The bureaucrat seems to be everything his title would imply: a colorless, charmless, unimaginative automaton, meticulous in the performance of his job and utterly inattentive to everything else. Even his talking briefcase has more personality than him, and his detached blandness makes the starkest possible contrast to the fascinating and intricate world he moves through. Nobody cares about the bureaucrat's mission but the bureaucrat, and despite his dutiful, passionless persistence he seems ever more unequal to his task: the local authorities will not cooperate with him, everyone he talks to lies to him and stonewalls him simply out of spite, he is armed with apparently no knowledge of the world or its customs and culture, and Gregorian's followers are fanatical, ruthless, and seemingly know his every move even before he does.
But this is science fiction, and science fiction is about overturning expectations. Nothing in this book is what it seems; not the central conflict, not the bureaucrat, and least of all the plot, which is about as "meandering" as a Swiss watch. The chief pleasure of the novel, aside from Swanwick's prose, lies in seeing a million utterly disparate threads skillfully drawn together before our eyes and woven into something much greater than the sum of its parts, something not only intellectually engaging but emotionally powerful: we know the bureaucrat at the end, and against all odds we care for him, and his fate moves us. So many SF novels peter out in the final act, but the last fifty pages of STATIONS OF THE TIDE are among the most intensely satisfying I've ever read. We leave the book with a feeling of profound contentment and toe-tapping joy, as if we've satiated a need so deep-seated that we were heretofore unaware of its existence. It's one of the best reading experiences I've had in a long, long time; it's one of those books that burns to be shared with everyone you know.
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The Knight: Book One of The Wizard Knight
The Knight: Book One of The Wizard Knight
by Gene Wolfe
Edition: Hardcover
80 used & new from $0.01

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wolfe's winning streak continues, April 10, 2004
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This may seem hardly surprising, given my well-documented worship of Wolfe's oeuvre, but the truth is that my expectations had been lower than usual this time around because I honestly wasn't sure about the choice of subject matter. Consider: the book follows a young teenage boy from present-day America who wanders into the woods and emerges in a strange mystical otherworld, and after being enchanted by a fairy queen is transformed into a adult man of Schwarzenegger-like proportions. Upon reading the synopsis, I wondered if THE KNIGHT would be the book that heralded the decline of Wolfe's powers. But that was silly of me, and I should have had more faith, because I can now say with almost perfect certainty that THE KNIGHT is not going to be at all what you'd expect.
The book reuses a lot of Wolfe's favorite tropes, especially the trick of the unreliable narrator and the picaresque narrative structure. In THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Severian had perfect memory but lied to the reader to make himself sound better. In SOLDIER OF THE MIST, Latro tried to be honest with the reader but was cursed by Hera to forget everything that happened more than twelve hours previous. Here in THE KNIGHT, the narrator, who assumes the knightly name Sir Able of the High Heart long before he's earned a claim to the title, is unreliable because he has the mind of a pubescent boy and doesn't always know what's going on around him. His adventures seem unfocused, guided only by auctorial caprice, with characters and plot threads appearing and disappearing seemingly at random - but put the emphasis in both those clauses on *seem*, because it's a Wolfe novel, which means that everything is connected to everything else with Swiss-watch precision; it's just that the onus is on the intelligent reader to parse the plot and figure out what's really going on, because the truth is hinted at only obliquely. Though much will not be apparent until the second book, the careful reader will find his effort amply rewarded with fresh insights into the characters, the plot, and the world.
It's obvious that with the book Wolfe is consciously returning to fantasy as it was before Tolkien and his legions of imitators; Wolfe's taking it back to Malory and Lord Dunsany and the other old masters of fantastic fiction, both in terms of form (the dreamlike, hallucinatory progression of events) and content (the magical creatures have more to do with Norse and Celtic myths than standard-issue generic elves, dwarves, and dragons). The setting Wolfe creates, a place called Mythgarthr, is fascinating: heavily influenced by the Norse view of the world, Wolfe posits a seven-layered reality where vertical travel (up a mountain, for instance, or down to the bottom of the ocean) can transport a person from one world to the next. In an oblique way, Wolfe is working along the same lines as authors like George R.R. Martin or China Mieville; it's just that he's trying to reform the fantasy genre by looking to its mythological roots rather than turning to real-life history (Martin) or importing ideas from horror and SF (Mieville).

Deus Ex: Invisible War
Deus Ex: Invisible War
Offered by DealTavern
Price: $18.75
156 used & new from $0.01

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As deep and immersive as the first - instant classic, December 4, 2003
Here's the thing: right now I'm wandering nighttime Seattle, having escaped the opening invasion of my shady spy academy/genetics lab by creepy hooded cultists. I don't know where I'll go next or what I'll do, but odds are it will be violent - I was never a man of peace in the original Deus Ex, and I am true to form this time. During the bravura opening sequence, one of the school's security guards told me to sneak out the back way while she dealt with the cultist in the next room; instead, I followed her out the door in crouch mode, let the cultist riddle her with bullets, then grabbed her gun, snuck around the darkened perimeter of the room, and capped the guy from behind. Of course, I didn't *have* to do that - I could have knocked the cultist out with my nightstick, or distracted him by throwing something at him, or I could have followed the guard's advice and avoided the situation entirely.
That decision lies at the heart of what made DEUS EX a game for the ages. And that heart is still beating in INVISIBLE WAR, which, like KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC, brings a deep PC-game sensibility to a new audience of console gamers.
DEUS EX is about creating immersive gameworlds that feel like the next best thing to reality; worlds where you make choices that have real consequences. Will you focus on stealth or go in like Rambo? Will you preserve life or end it? No matter what you choose, your actions will come back to reward and haunt you later in the game, as NPC characters remember where you have been and what you have done. Even your initial choice of character gender has repercussions on down the line.
The game feels right at home on Xbox, with solid, intuitive controls and an easily-navigable inventory system. Unlike other roleplaying games, or for that matter other first-person shooters, your inventory is limited to what a real person (or at least a real bionic agent) could plausibly carry.
But even though you can't lug around twelve suitcases' worth of weapons and medkits, you'll never be at a loss for tactical options, because you can almost always improvise your way through situations using the environment around you. Need to distract a guard? Send a beer bottle sailing into the alley behind him. Turret chewing you up? Upend a steel table and take cover!
The graphics so far are absolutely lovely; the fully dynamic lighting, in particular, has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, the human characters are animated rather stiffly - though better than in the original game - but watching the light play across the folds in their clothes as they move around is impressive. The environments aren't very big, and apparently none of them approach the huge outdoors levels of the original, but on the other hand the set design is finely-detailed and convincing - the lab, for instance, is built and laid-out like a lab, not like a secret labyrinth fortress of death.
The voice acting isn't up to KOTOR levels, but it's not bad, either. The lip-synching is also done admirably well. Your character has a lot more personality than JC Denton, though I admit that I found Denton's flat inflections kind of endearing.
The writing so far has been first-rate; the mysteries are piled on thick and more keep coming. This is clearly going in a different direction from the original, though: DX1 may have been all about conspiracies and secret societies, but the story was a pretty straightforward good versus evil setup, and you were never really in doubt as to which was which. In DX2, though, your choices are a lot more uncomfortable - right now, for instance, I'm being pulled to either support the big bad capitalist elite or the creepy hooded hippie cult. Neither option is particularly appealing, and of course neither group is exactly forthcoming with its real intentions. Which will I choose? Or will I play both sides against the middle? I don't know, but so far every path I've chosen has been fascinating and rewarding - and I have no doubt that the rest of the game will be as well.

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