The Painted Man

At the weekend, I finished reading the first book in the Demon Cycle by Peter V Brett, The Painted Man. This has been a book series that I’ve been thinking about getting into for a number of years now, as I kept seeing the beautiful covers on the shelves of my local Waterstones when browsing the fantasy section, but had always somehow held myself back. Well, no longer! I started reading the first early last week and, while it did take me a while to get into, as soon as I was there, I was absolutely hooked.

The first novel in any series like this is inevitably going to suffer from some pacing issues as the world is built up, though I must admit to being particularly impressed at the way the story almost seemed to know when it was beginning to lag, and picked itself up. At 544 pages, there is actually a lot of story packed in here, as we cover a period of about 14 years in the world of Thesa.

As ‘the Demon Cycle’ might suggest, the book is set in a world of magic and demons, where the people are plagued by nightly attacks from a nether world of demons referred to as the Core. The Corelings are split into a number of elemental types, fire demons and rock demons, etc, and rise up from below to terrorise humanity every single night. The humans manage to protect themselves through the use of magical wards which, when lined up correctly, form a protective barrier around their homes, though there is always the risk of these wards being somehow obscured, leading to the net to fail.

We follow three characters across the course of the book, though the trio don’t actually meet up until the final portion of the book, which can cause some disconcerting leaps in the narrative. We start with Arlen, who watches as his mother is killed by a demon, his father standing aside in fear as it happens. This causes a breakdown in the father-son relationship, and eventually prompts Arlen to flee from the little village of Tibbet’s Brook. He manages to survive in the wild by being particularly good at drawing wards, which impresses the messenger Ragen into taking him along to the free city of Miln. Messengers have something of an exotic appeal, as they spend days on the roads, defying the coreling attacks. Arlen wishes to become a messenger himself, but at first is apprenticed as a Warder, where he quickly makes a name for himself, though never losing sight of his ultimate goal.

Leesha is a young girl from Cutter’s Hollow, who seems to have her life planned out by her overbearing mother, though has a spark of something that makes her wish for something more. Quite by accident, she finds herself apprenticed to the herb gatherer Bruna, a crotchety old crone who teaches the girl everything she knows. Herb gatherers are the medicine-women of the world, though also guard the secrets of science that once held sway before the demons began their nightly war three centuries previous. Over the years of her apprenticeship, Leesha comes to learn much, and is eventually sent as a sort of exchange to the free city of Angiers to work in the hospit there.

Finally we have Rojer, a small boy who watches his parents killed in a coreling attack, but is saved by the jongleur Arrick, who takes him under his wing somewhat begrudgingly, and over the years teaches him the tricks of the entertainer’s trade. Rojer was maimed in the attack that killed his parents, losing two fingers, but nevertheless displays an aptitude for playing the fiddle, though any money he manages to make Arrick drinks away, and the two are forced from the city of Angiers to work around the villages and hamlets. While on the road, Arrick flies into a drunken rage and nearly gets Rojer killed, but manages to fend of the corelings long enough to save Rojer, who discovers that his music has a way of either hypnotising the demons with its calming melody, or else driving them off through discordant notes.

Arlen becomes a messenger, relishing the freedom it allows him, and using his time to search for lost treasures in long-ruined cities. While at one such ruin of Anoch Sun out in the Krasian desert, he discovers a tomb etched with many long-forgotten wards, along with a metal, warded spear. At the city of Krasia, where the men still fight the demons, Arlen joins them in their holy war, and his prowess with the spear does not go unnoticed by the first warrior of the city, Jardir, who betrays Arlen and takes the weapon. Arlen manages to return to Anoch Sun, and his mind begins to work over the idea of how the wards on the spear repelled the corelings. He paints offensive wards onto his hands, and the next night does battle with a sand demon, managing to kill it. Slowly, he begins to paint more of the wards onto his skin…

At Angiers, Rojer is badly beaten by a rival jongleur and ends up in Leesha’s hospit, where the two become friendly. However, news reaches her of a plague sweeping through her old home, and she leaves the city with Rojer pledging to help her on the road. They’re attacked not long after, and Leesha brutally gang-raped, but before the corelings can get them, the mysterious Painted Man appears to help. He accompanies them on the road, and the three slowly grow to bond, though when they reach Cutter’s Hollow, they find the village a shadow of its former self. Arlen, as the Painted Man, incites the villagers to fight the demons, and while the toll on the people is great, they manage to survive the night, fending back the demons for the first time in centuries. The people begin to look upon Arlen as the fabled Deliverer of myth as they rebuild their city in a warded defense pattern. However, there is another figure riding out of the desert claiming to be the Deliverer, wielding the warded spear from Anoch Sun…


This book is just fantastic!

While there are some moments that feel like Brett is trying to channel George RR Martin with his brutal depictions of corelings dismembering humans, there is actually a lot more to this book than one gruesome tableau after another. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of moments where I felt reviled (to say the least), and I thought the attack on Leesha and Rojer on the road was a bit too out of nowhere, but in the main, it’s the actual substance of the story that drives this book forward, and there is plenty of substance to be found here!

The magic in this book has a fairly sensible feel to it, and the story overall has a really grounded sense that makes me believe what is happening within the plot. Does that make sense? I mean, some fantasy novels are just that, with all manner of outlandish things going on. Here, there is a very clear sense of rules at play, and the world makes sense within that context. It’s always an important point for these kinds of books, but I have to say, it definitely succeeded there. There is also a highly developed sense of history within the book, and I found myself really interested in learning more about the fabled age of science, and of the ruins of Anoch Sun. Stuff like this gives the book real depth, and I hope we dive into that in the subsequent books in the series!

The three main characters of the book quickly established themselves in my affections, to the point where I found myself really rooting for them when things took a turn for the worse. The whole section with Arlen in Krasia I read in one sitting, as I just had to find out what happened next. Of the three, I think Arlen definitely came across as the most interesting, even though at times his constant need to be a free spirit did come over as a bit petulant-child-like. His willingness to fight the demons, and his transformation into the Painted Man of the title was an entirely believable character arc, and I can’t wait to find out where his story is going next!

Overall, this book is highly recommended!!

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Quartet

It’s birthday week here at spalanz.com, and as part of celebrating all things fantasy, I want to feature a book that I’ve come to enjoy, the Earthsea Quartet from Ursula le Guin!

Back when I was in college, my long-time gaming buddy Tony recommended this omnibus to me, and I picked it up but never actually read it. In moving house a few years back, I’ve evidently lost it as I cannot find it anywhere in my flat, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed it in the local Waterstones and decided it was high time I picked it up to see what all the fuss has been about.

There are now six books in the Earthsea series, one of which is a collection of short stories that are also set in the fantasy realm. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, was actually published in 1968, and the sixth, The Other Wind, in 2001. As of writing this blog, I’ve actually only read the first two stories, but I’m just so excited about this series that I couldn’t wait to start talking about it here!!

The stories are all set in the archipelago of Earthsea, a collection of islands surrounded by a vast and uncharted ocean. The main island, Havnor, is apparently analogous to Great Britain, though the cultures of the archipelago are not intended to be derivative of real-world settings, which is something that I really enjoy. Indeed, there is so much to recommend these stories that I cannot praise them enough!

A Wizard of Earthsea
The first novel in the series follows the magical training of a young boy from the island of Gont, named Ged. Names are actually very important in Earthsea, and the foundation of the magical system – by knowing a thing’s true name, a wizard is able to use magic to influence it. Ged is therefore known as Sparrowhawk in the course of the story, as he learns how to use his powers first as an apprentice to the wandering mage Ogion, and later at the magical academy on the island of Roke. Ged is first tricked into reading a book that summons a strange shadow which Ogion banishes, but later, at the academy, he is goaded into displaying his powers by raising the dead, at which this shadow reappears and begins to pursue Ged across the world.

The novel – it’s actually more of a novella – is just so impressive, I don’t really know where to begin! I love fantasy stories that are in this sort of post-Tolkien, pre-Game of Thrones period, where there is actually a lot more wonder and, really, a magical feel to the world, when authors didn’t feel the need to fall into prescribed story beats and such. A Wizard of Earthsea is actually quite small-scale in comparison with a lot of more modern fantasy novels, but this can be deceptive as we learn about the world of Earthsea in a protracted, progressive way, which I do enjoy quite a bit.

Something that I really liked was the way the wizarding academy on Roke did actually feel like a more medieval version of Hogwarts, where students could build friendships and rivalries, and both enjoy and dislike their lessons. While Harry Potter blends the fantastical with the realistic in a really great way, Earthsea is obviously a lot more clearly fantastical, and yet it still feels grounded in an almost believable way.

While I am quite firmly of the belief that this shouldn’t be an issue, it’s also worth pointing out that Ged – and most of the people of Earthsea, for that matter – are black. Much like the Drizzt novels I’ve talked about on this blog previously, having a black hero / central character in genre fiction is still really quite a big thing, and I think it’s important to note that fantasy has often been ahead of its time in this respect.

The Tombs of Atuan
The second book (also a novella-length story) completely changes tack, as we travel to a small island in the far east of the archipelago, and delve deeply into the religious cult of the Nameless Ones. There is a Dalai Lama-style ceremony where the late priestess of the Nameless Ones is reincarnated as a child born at the exact moment of her death. The child, Tenar, is consecrated as the priestess at the age of six, renamed Arha, and trained for her service. As the years go by, Arha is inducted in the many mysteries of the religion, namely the labyrinth underneath the temple complex, where she one day discovers a thief – Ged. He has come searching for the lost half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe, half of which he came into possession of during the course of the first novel. Arha traps him in the underground labyrinth, but he becomes a source of fascination for her, and she eventually comes to help him escape, and the two leave the island having reforged the ring, which is said to have the power to bring peace to all the islands of the archipelago.

The Tombs of Atuan is a definite change of pace after the first book, and I was initially quite surprised when I read it, having expected to have more tales of Ged the wizard. While he does of course appear, this is most assuredly a story centred around Arha, and the two books have been said to form both male and female parallel coming-of-age stories. Despite being surprised by it, however, I actually really liked the tightly-woven story, and my curiosity only grew with each chapter – in this respect, I think it is more definitely a page-turner than the first book. However, both were tremendous stories!

I said earlier that these books fall into the sort of early-modern fantasy genre, which is of course quite difficult to describe further, but I suppose the main attribute they possess is a sort of self-awareness – these books know that they are fantasy, in fact they knew they were young-adult novels before young-adult novels were a thing, and they don’t try to be anything more. As such, they are a truly fantastic read in the very real sense of that word. There’s no attempt to spice things up for a different market – these are fantasy books, written for people who want to read fantasy books. Aside from the racial ideas I mentioned earlier, there’s no attempt to politicise the story, either. It does what fantasy should be best at: providing escapism.

I could proselytise all day about these two stories, but I think the best thing would be just to read them for yourselves – each one is really short, and provides such spellbinding storytelling that you can get through them quite quickly. If you haven’t already done so, definitely pick them up; if you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

And stay tuned for more on Earthsea as I make my way to the remaining books in the series!!

Unbreakable Bonds

It’s a game day extra here at spalanz.com!

As it’s Fantasy Week here, in celebration of the blog’s third birthday on Friday, I wanted to talk a bit about the upcoming Unbreakable Bonds expansion for Runebound third edition, which provides a co-op/solo alternative to the game.

There hasn’t been a great deal of news for the new edition of Runebound for quite some time, which has had many folks fearing the sky would soon be falling on the game. But feat not! This bad boy is coming in the third quarter, with new stuff (including new heroes) to add to the game.

To start with, there are five scenarios presented in the expansion – two new ones, and co-op/solo versions of both base game scenarios and Caught in a Web. I like this idea a lot, as I feel it could leave the door open for FFG to produce further co-op/solo expansions that do the same for any subsequent expansions they put out. I’m sure plenty of people will complain that this not only requires the base game, but also other expansions in order to play, but I’m sure there are plenty more completionists for whom this won’t be an issue. And the smaller expansions FFG have put out so far seem so packed-full of stuff, I don’t think you’ll be wasting money on them…

The way that combat is being handled in this expansion has interested me a great deal, as rather than having specific rules to essentially bolt-on a monster AI, there are new “combat boards” for four different monster types, along with the respective combat tokens. This could well future-proof the game for Unbreakable Bonds to work with whatever is next for Runebound third edition – though of course, we’re still waiting to see any kind of big box expansion come out here.

It’s definitely an interesting twist, and has come at a time when I’ve actually been on the cusp of trading off this game as one that I haven’t played since my first foray almost a year ago. I might just keep hold of the game and wait to see what Unbreakable Bonds has to offer me, after all!

Conquest of Nerath

Hey everybody!
It’s game day here at spalanz.com, and in celebration of my blog’s third birthday this Friday, I’m making this Fantasy Week! What better way, therefore, to celebrate, than with a game set in one of the most archetypal fantasy universes ever conceived: Dungeons and Dragons! Okay, so I’m not going to be looking at the RPG itself, having never played it, but instead, I’m taking a look at one of the stand-out board games from the product line: Conquest of Nerath!

War has come to the Dungeons & Dragons world! In the north, the undead legions of the Dark Empire of Karkoth march against the fragile League of Nerath, determined to sweep away the human kingdoms forever. To the south, the infernal Iron Circle launches its own goblin hordes in a campaign of conquest against the elves and corsairs of Vailin. From the snowy expanse of the Winterbole Forest to the sun-warmed coasts of ancient Vailin, four great powers struggle for survival.

Conquest of Nerath

I’ve only actually played with this game once, back in 2013, and had an absolute blast! It’s basically the sort of area-control game that is a lot like Risk for those familiar with more mainstream boardgames, where you control a faction from the D&D world and attempt to take over the board as much as possible. The board itself is beautifully illustrated, and each of the four factions comes with a whole host of miniatures that represent the hordes they can bring to bear, from foot soldiers and siege engines to warships and storm elementals!

Rather than me go through the rules of the game here, let me present Rodney Thompson, one of the D&D lead designers from back in the day, and who has presented a load of video tutorials on D&D games:

The game is a lot of fun. It looks deceptively complex, as there are a lot of pieces on the board, from all of those miniatures to all of the tokens and cards involved, but the rules are actually really streamlined, allowing you to focus more on the narrative and fun, than on game mechanics and such. There isn’t a great deal of magic involved, aside from the wizards’ First Strike rule and, I suppose, the way some Event cards work, which also helps to keep the game straightforward. Each faction has the same sorts of units, and yet feels quite different in the way they play, which also adds to the ease of gameplay.

Conquest of Nerath

Of course, what would a D&D game be without, well, dungeons or dragons? The dungeon delving aspect of the game is one that adds a lot of the flavour of the setting that I think is otherwise missing from the game. The four factions, while being traditional fantasy tropes, are just that – tropes. The dungeon guardians, however, include some of the more iconic D&D monsters and villains, including the Beholder and Drow Raiders. Defeating these guys will give you the gold to buy reinforcements, as well as treasures to use in your battles against your enemies, but the mechanic is crucial, for me, to keeping the game on-theme overall.

Conquest of Nerath was released in 2011, and aside from one promo treasure card released at GenCon that year, there has never been any kind of expansion for it. Which is absolutely fine, when you think about it! So many games in my collection have been expanded unto death, it feels oddly satisfying to have a game that is completely self-contained like this, and the strategic depth involved in your conquest is something that can keep the game going.

Highly recommended!

Fantasy Week!

Hey everybody!
My blog is turning three on Friday, 21 April, and in the tradition of previous Birthday Weeks here at spalanz.com, I’m having a theme week where I explore all manner of stuff in something of a microcosm of what my blog is about. This year, I’m declaring it Fantasy Week, and will be taking a look at all sorts of media with a fantastical setting.

This could of course be contentious, as some things will naturally be left out. I’ve got blogs lined up that will be taking in Dungeons and Dragons, the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy, as well as some other odd bits that I hope you’ll enjoy! Of course, one week of blogs can’t encompass everything, and there will naturally be some things that fall somewhat by the wayside – most glaringly, Lord of the Rings isn’t being featured this week.

Why?

Well, because my love and enthusiasm for Middle Earth really needs its own week – maybe when it comes time for the fourth birthday…

I’ve enjoyed fantasy books since I was a child, and regularly used to devour them over all else in the school library. In later years, particularly after discovering there were Star Wars novels, I’ve moved more into the sci-fi realm, though always find myself full of unbridled enthusiasm whenever I discover something new, such as The Elenium or the Powder Mage trilogy. Indeed, even modern classics like the Legend of Drizzt, I’ve come to quite late-on! I’m hoping to share some more of these fantasy classics as the week progresses, however, so stay tuned for more amazing stuff!

I’ve already waxed lyrical about how much I love a good fantasy novel, covering a fair breadth of the staples in this blog from 2014, so I’ll say no more for now, but let’s get on with the show!

The Real Ghostbusters!

It’s time for some more Saturday morning cartoon nostalgia!

Back in the late 1980s, Columbia made a cartoon series based on the original film that ran to 140 episodes across two seasons, which always sounds a huge amount, but then something like He-Man had roughly the same number, so I guess it was something of a standard. As a fun fact, the cartoon was called “The Real Ghostbusters” because of a dispute with Filmation, the company behind He-Man, Brave Starr, and many others – Columbia actually had to license the name for the film in 1984, and it led to the storyline of the first episode (shown in the youtube video above) that shows a rival group of ghost hunters trying to steal the work of Egon, Ray, Peter and Winston.

Anyhow!

As much as I love the franchise, I have to say, I’ve never really found the same kind of love for the cartoon as I have for the film(s), even given my previously-mentioned toy obsession, the toys of course being directly made from the cartoon and not the movie.

Looking back, I don’t really remember any particular episode from the cartoon series, though I do have vague memories of watching the show as a child. For some odd reason, the clearest memory of the Real Ghostbusters was a book/audio tape combo called The Cabinet of Calamari, based off episode 63:

The cartoons are pretty goofy to watch them today, and while I’m a great apologist for a lot of this sort of stuff (check out my Ring Raiders, D&D and Visionaries blogs in this category!) I just can’t bring myself to watch these things without cringing a little! I mean, Slimer is the Ghostbusters’ pet, for heaven’s sake!!

It is worth mentioning that a few of the ghosts from the new Cryptozoic game have their origin in this cartoon series, including the Boogeyman and Samhain. There is a definite nostalgia value here, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to buy these on DVD any time soon…

Birthday Week Game Day Extra!

It’s birthday week here on spalanz.com, and time for a bit of game day extra, as I take a look at some more nostalgia from my childhood: The Real Ghostbusters: The Game!

Ghostbusters retro games

Oh, this one’s hilarious! Dating from 1989, the game is a tie-in to the cartoon series of the same name (more on that tomorrow!) You play one of the four Ghostbusters, or Janine or Slimer, and travel around the board trying to trap ghosts – once all the ghosts are trapped, the winner is the person who had the most.

Ghostbusters retro games

Along the way, there are mechanics for player interaction where you can attempt to “spook” your opponents – basically by playing rock/paper/scissors – to take their kit cards. Without all three pieces of kit (proton pack, proton gun, trap), you can’t trap ghosts and so cannot win the game. When you come to trap ghosts, the “bust-o-meter” is spun to determine the strength of your stream: if it’s higher than the ghost’s slime value (listed on the side of the board), you trap it. That’s pretty much all there is to it, though Action cards do allow you to interact with the game a little more, such as moving to ghosts to trap them etc.

I had this game from new, and seem to remember trying to get my brother to play it with me back in the day. I found it in the attic when I moved a few years ago, along with another awesome retro game that will be featured here no doubt eventually, and convinced my regular gaming buddy Tony to play, but it didn’t really stand up to the test of time.

Something I wasn’t all that impressed by was just how easy it is to knock somebody out of the game entirely, by winning just one round of rock/paper/scissors. Given your ability in the game is based entirely on something so arbitrary is just bizarre, I thought – it feels more luck-based than any kind of dice game, somehow! Maybe I’m just not good at rock/paper/scissors, though?

At any rate, it was fun to revisit the past, but I can’t say I’d recommend hunting down a copy on ebay anytime soon!