Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Game of Cat and Mouse - and More

Cold Light demon illustration by Les Edwards

This weekend, I completed two more of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane stories, as collected in Death Angel's Shadow.  In the novella "Cold Light", Kane plays a deadly game of cat and mouse in a mostly-abandoned city long ago devastated by plague. It felt like a desert ghost town from a Western. The crusaders who hunt Kane soon become the hunted, and their pretensions of killing Kane in the cold light of "good" only serve to expose their dark deeds. Watch out for paladins... and for their retainers, especially the ones who summon demons. But really all of them. This novella was about 108 pages long, but well-paced for its length.

I'm not sure how you'd make "Cold Light" gameable. To do so, you'd have to structure the adventure so that the PCs gradually reveal themselves to be murderhobos. Some of that could be accomplished using storygame mechanics such as flashbacks, or by PbtA style mechanics in which things go wrong more often than they go right.

The second story was "Mirage". There is an essay called "The Once and Future Kane" in the back of the Centipede Press edition of Death Angel's Shadow, in which Wagner describes his other Kane anthology, Night Winds approvingly as "pure acid gothic". This short story is entirely in that vein. It's a worthy Weird Tale, indeed. I won't spoil it, other than to say that Kane grows from the experience, and learns that undeath is even more boring that immortality.

This story is no more gameable than most of C.L. Moore's Weird Tales. But very enjoyable nevertheless.

Since I am reading the Kane stories in the order of Kane's life, it is time to close Death Angel's Shadow for the moment, and begin reading the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reflections on the Winter of My Soul

Cover art by Frank Frazetta

Wolves, werewolves, madness. A bard, a visitor, deep snow, and a baron's family. On New Year's Day, I finished the Kane novella, "Reflections on the Winter of My Soul" by Karl Edward Wagner. The story evokes Beowulf, with its great hall under siege by a great beast. But unlike Beowulf, the siege also contains a mystery or two: the household slaughter may be an inside job.

As with my previous Kane readings, I am using the recent five volume collection of Kane novels and short stories published by Centipede Press. This novella is in Death Angel's Shadow, which in its Centipede edition collects both early and late Kane stories. Since I am reading the Kane stories in the approximate order of Kane's life, I will be reading two more stories in this collection, and then switching to the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves.

But back to the story. "Reflections" builds a bit slowly, although perhaps I am just distracted by other things I'm reading, and having a bit of reader's fatigue from having already read around 1,000 pages of Kane content (two novels, numerous short stories) over the last month. But that being said, around page 80, the novella really takes off, and maintains that pace for the last 30+ pages.

The story involves both investigation and combat, and could easily be adopted as a scenario for an RPG set in a far northern lands with isolated manors. I can already think of a way to use it with Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Dark Crusade

Dark Crusade cover art by Frank Frazetta

On Christmas Eve, I finished Karl Edward Wagner's second Kane novel, Dark Crusade - as one does. It was about a 100 pages shorter than the first Kane novel, Bloodstone, and a bit less satisfying. Part of what made the novel less satisfying was that the science fictional aspects of the setting were less evident in the novel. It has more of the feel of classic swords & sorcery, and it's entirely possible that there were no long-lost alien artifacts anywhere in the novel.

But I could be wrong.

Another thing that made the narrative a bit less satisfying than Bloodstone, was that the story is a bit more disjointed, depicting the ebb and flow of a bloody religious crusade from several distinct viewpoints. Kane comes across as a (mostly) unsympathetic character, an opportunist, who betrays both sides in the conflict for his personal gain. It's not until nearly the end of the novel that we discover there is more to Kane's agenda than empire-building.

When we do see his real interests, which revolve around an ancient fortress called the Ceddi ("altar" in an ancient tongue) things get very interesting indeed, in a very multiplanar, Everwayan sort of way. Developments late in the novel push in directions that will be very welcome to fans C.L. Moore and Michael Moorcock.

After finishing Dark Crusade last night, I started in on "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" the first of a few short stories collected in Death Angel's Shadow that set the stage for the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves. "Reflections" starts in the immediate aftermath of Dark Crusade, and the tone is wonderfully atmospheric. Wagner is a good novel writer, and a great short story writer.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Reading Kane


Over the last three weeks, I've read about 800 pages, including both a number of  short stories and a novel, featuring Karl Edward Wagner's swords & sorcery hero, Kane. I'm reading the stories in more-or-less the inferred chronological order in which the stories occurred in the life of Kane. I started with the first Kane novel, the Bloodstone, and then progressed to the short story collection, Night Winds. Sunday night, I began the second Kane novel, Dark Crusade. I think it's entirely possible that I may read all three novels and the two short story collections of the recent Centipede Press edition by the middle of January. Maybe even by year's end.

Last summer (2016) I re-read the original Elric saga, and Kane is in the spirit of Elric in the sense that he is a not entirely sympathetic protagonist. He's violent and selfish. Pragmatic in the extreme. There is a psychological depth to his character and to the Kane stories that you don't frequently see in swords and sorcery.

Like Elric, Kane is both a puissant fighter and a skilled sorcerer. There's a legend about him, and many intelligent people try to stay out of his path. Others are attracted to his intellect, or to his potential for wreaking destruction on others. I'll be posting more about these stories in the near future as I continue to progress with the reading.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Moorcock Mondays: The Stealer of Souls

Stormbringer RPG supplement
We just finished The Stealer of Souls this past weekend. The title was the first Elric "novel" that Michael Moorcock published. It's a fix-up of the first several Elric stories he wrote. The book begins with Elric mobilizing the fleets of his allies, the merchant princes of the Isle of the Purple Towns, to sack the home of his forefathers: the Melnibonean city of Imrryr. The first story ends with Imrryr's destruction in flames. And the destruction of the raiders' fleet, thanks to Melnibonean dragons.

I read the first Jerry Cornelius novel earlier this year, so I understand exactly what Alan Moore meant in his essay, "The Return of the White Duke", when he points out that both sequences begin with the hero (Elric or Jerry) setting out to burn his father's home to the ground, AND rescue an imprisoned female kinswoman. In both cases also, it is a servant who opens a back door to allow the hero ingress to carry out his plan.

For Alan Moore, this is one sign that Elric has a presence, even within many of Moorcock's more literary and experimental traces. There's lipstick traces of Elric everywhere.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Moorcock Mondays


The Second Foundation Reading Group will be taking on the work of Michael Moorcock, especially the Elric and other Eternal Champion stories, for its meeting on Sunday, September 11, 2-4 PM at Parkway Pizza on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis. People who are interested in Moorcock are most welcome to attend!

I am currently reading the first volume of the recent Del Rey Elric series: Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melnibone, Volume I. This volume contains two fixup novels, The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer. Judging from the first volume, the Del Rey series appears to be structured primarily in the order in which the Elric novels were originally published. In other words, some of the "later" episodes in the life of Elric of Melnibone were published first. 

The collections also feature art from various Elric publications, maps of the Young Kingdoms, various essays by Moorcock and others on Elric, the Eternal Champions, and Moorcockian fantasy, as well as samples of related or not-so-related works and inspirations for Elric (such as the Sexton Blake pulp detective series). I remember being really irritated by the Del Rey volumes' "jumbled" order of Elric stories-cum-Moorcockiana. But essays like the evocative opener by Alan Moore, which reveals the plot homologies between The Stealer of Souls and the first Jerry Cornelius novel, are adding to my appreciation of the texts as I encounter them again.

Each volume also contains new art by a featured artist. Volume I's featured artist is John Picacio, whose work strikes me as somewhat vacant; the cover at least is vibrant, I suppose.

I hope to finish The Stealer of Souls in the next couple of days and then begin rereading Stormbringer.  The stories are great to come back to again; I haven't read them since the '70s. The Elric stories are more literary than I remembered. Not bad at all.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ryuutama Saturday


This is the "world map" for my Ryuutama session at Diversicon 24 this weekend. The game happens from 1-4 PM on Saturday. My favorite game to run this year has been Ryuutama. Its rules are easy for players to learn. The characters are interesting. The monsters range from cute to terrifying. The game's mechanics are very traditional, but the writing and art do most of the heavy lifting in creating a Miyazaki mood. Come join us if you're coming to Diversicon.