Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Week in Stories - Many Games That Start With M

Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week,  Masque of the Red Death

We've played first sessions or early sessions of a number of games in the last week or so, so it's time to get down on the screen what I want to remember about each!

First up, we have Monsterhearts 2.  We've been trying to get this going for quite a while, but the scheduling gods have not been with us. It was the first game with a couple of new people, and Monsterhearts is a heck of a game to throw them into! (I think they had roleplayed before, but this was an introduction to what we so casually call "our style of gaming.") It demands a lot, if you're going to get the most out of it.

Delightfully, everybody meshed really well right away. We had in our group a Selkie, a Witch, a Fae, a Werewolf, and an Infernal. It was Halloween, with the prospect of a beach party that night, despite the recent disappearance of a classmate (merely the latest in a string of disappearances over the previous year.)  I was playing the Fae, and there were a couple of things I wanted to explore with this character, both of them related to my own teenage years.

The first is that my last year of high school was probably my pinnacle of being comfortable with being eccentric. (Not that I've been sparklingly normal in the years since, and as I get older I reclaim more and more of my weirdness.) I got good grades, I never hurt anyone, I was just a little strange, and I loved it. The Fae felt like a good way to explore that, and I gave her one of my quirks right away - that last year, I never sat in a desk. I would sit on top of the desk behind mine, if possible, or on the floor, but I was done with desks. I wasn't disruptive, I just wouldn't do it, and because I was a good student, teachers didn't hassle me about it. (I also tended to take my shoes off somewhere during the day, and then have to retrace my steps at the end to find them. Bare feet always, and that hasn't much changed.)

Click here to see a photo that, to me, captures Crow really well 

That's more of a surface thing, although fun. The other part was how very seriously I took everything. How even though I could tell something was a joke, I'd still respond seriously, because it felt more important to tell my truth than be funny. The Fae, with their absolute seriousness about promises and what people said they'd do, fits with that well also.  When picking options on the character sheet, I added that Crow (I've had a thing with crows recently, so that name jumped out at me) was fae-blooded, and came up with a story of being half-fae, her human father having a dalliance with a fae woman, then 30 years later, a baby being left on his doorstep. She passes him off as her grandfather, and what they both have in common is a burning desire to get back to the Fae Realm.

And when the GM asked us to pick something we wanted for the evening, it wasn't a great leap to say that she wanted the party to be the best ever, as much like the festivities she got to go to with the Fae once a year as possible. To do so, she wanted...chemical enhancement, to help her classmates let down their inhibitions. So of course she went to the Infernal. After threatening a classmate because she'd loaned him a pen, and he'd promised to give it back, and had reneged.

(Honestly, a lot of things happened, and I don't think I can get them all down and have this be a reasonable length, so I'm going to keep it to what happened to Crow.)

Later, she was at the beach trying to get it ready for the party, and changing into her particularly skimpy costume, and happened to be there at the same time as the Werewolf dropped by with her minions. That led to the most direct lead-up to a sex scene ever, as the Werewolf lacked subtlety, and Crow, modesty. It didn't feel like emotionally laden sex, but Crow asked Scarlett to save the first dance of the evening for her.

At the party, the Infernal was late (because he found out the drugs his Power had given him had nasty side effects and decided not to subject all his classmates to that), but that was enough to piss Crow off. Scarlett showed up in a costume designed to upset the Selkie, then turned the Selkie's upset back on her aggressively, and then, switching affect again, that she was there for a first dance with that sexy lady, Crow. Later, she chased the Selkie down the beach, and not in a friendly manner. No wonder Dominique was confused.

Sage, the Witch, came to the party but stayed up on the bluffs, gazing into the abyss to find out what had happened to the most recently disappeared classmate of his, a boy who he'd had a crush on. The answers were troubling, but the identity of the killer wasn't forthcoming. Heartsore, he stumbled down to the beach, just as Crow was passing out the substitute (and not as good) drugs that Xander the Infernal had brought. She asked Sage if he'd come with her into the Faerie realm, and he readily agreed.

There, everything seemed to pulse and breathe, and it made Sage uneasy, but Crow was finally content. She held out her arms to him, and he came to her. Afterwards, he took a sympathetic token from her, and she asked for his help in punishing Xander for having broken a promise.

It was a great start to the game, and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Monster of the Week

I have finally joined Bill's online game - we weren't sure it would work to have both of us on on the same wifi, but it seems to work okay. I had tried once before, using Roll20, but I have to say that the audio problems we had made it less than an optimal experience. Particularly the way the noise would cut out as each new person would talk, which meant there were a lot of pauses as people waited to hear if someone else would talk, or missed half of what someone had said. It's not insurmountable, but for anything even remotely near dramatic play, that seemed like it would make it much more difficult.

He'd moved to using Discord for the audio, and that seemed to work much better, although the fact that I'm getting over a cold meant that I'm sure I disturbed people with my coughing. But it was time for roving monster hunting! Most of the evening was spent setting up characters, and then we played very late, trying to get the first adventure in.

I'm playing Val, a Crooked, a former fixer who betrayed her former partner and left her for dead, before making a deal with the devil that comes due in a year. We also have a TV vampire host, part of a legion of TV host monster hunters; a Mundane who is a math professor; a Professional with a large organization behind him, and a holy luchador, out to make sure the apocalypse happens on schedule.  

Count Floyd and the luchador, Fantasmo! were both contacted before the mission started. Floyd was told merely to observe the monster we would find, not intervene, and Fantasmo! was told to help the monster in its task.

Alerted by a string of disappearances, the team headed to Detroit. After hitting a bar, they found a neighborhood that had been occupied the day before, but now looked like it'd been deserted for years. A youngster from the next street told them about a house that moved, and they were able to confirm this with some young men who were trying not to look scared.

When they tracked the moving house down, they found it occupied by a Taker. Fantasmo! ventured into the basement and found several young men rotating there in mid-air, being drained. He set them free, and the house started to fight back. Meanwhile, upstairs in the bathroom, Val came upon the figure of the Taker in a pile of stuffed animals. It attacked her, a slick heart held in a metal chest.

The professional tried to help, but was knocked down. Count Floyd, heeding his instructions, stayed out of the fight. But when Val called for help and Fantasmo! came to help his team out, he couldn't refrain from fighting the monster instead of hunting it. While Fantasmo! kept the Taker busy, Val was able to reach into the chest and pull out the heart, narrowly escaping having the rusty metal chest close on her arm.

For a first session, it was fun. I like Discord better for online audio, and I'm looking forward to playing more of this one.

Masque of the Red Death

We also got in a session of our Victorian game, Masque of the Red Death. Roydon, my character, had barely recovered from the bender he'd gone on after seeing his dead fiancee in the crowd at one of his magic shows, and later smelling her perfume in his dressing room. While his sister, Lady Felicity, and the scientist Hewitt took some of the liquid they'd encountered in last session to be analyzed, Roydon went back to the theatre and approached the seat in which he'd seen Carrie sitting. Using his mentalist powers, he reached out and discovered that what was sitting there had been the shape-changing creature that had killed Carrie, toying with him, enjoying the torment it was causing. Which meant (presumably) that Carrie was really dead.

When tracking the creature, he came across one of the leading member of the Daedalus Lodge, Mahi Dev, who was also tracking the creature, which she called a Rakshasa. It had also killed someone close to her. Maybe they could join forces....

(Felicity and Hewitt discovered that the liquid was alive, and seemed to have hypnotic/compulsive powers. And yet they didn't destroy it....)

Hewitt also found out that one of his upstairs neighbours, a medical student, had been dismissed from his position at the hospital for having asked too many questions about a secret ward to which a man who had gone suddenly blind had been admitted. He had snooped and found about a dozen men being held in appalling conditions, but when he made a stink about it, he was summarily dismissed and the ward quickly emptied.

When we travelled out to Deptford, Felicity did so with her mother in tow, and revealed that she'd been in contact with her brother, which distressed their mother. Roydon was still being obstinate and refusing to give up the shameful stage and being openly affected by grief. Felicity tried to reassure her mother that she was hoping to be a good influence on Roydon.

In Deptford and the nearby tony neighborhood, the team split up. Kim went to the home of the doctor who had been in charge of the special ward (but was not on any medical register) and found it being guarded by tough-looking men, and a light in the upstairs window. Hewitt went to the hospital and made his way to the deserted ward in the basement, seeing for himself the despicable conditions these men were being held in, and getting information from a friendly (or, at least, bribable) porter.

Roydon found the pub that the first disappearing patient had frequented, and was directed to his wife, who was greatly distressed that she'd taken her husband to the hospital, and now no one could tell her where he was. She revealed that the blindness had started very suddenly.

Back at Felicity's off-season house, Roydon came face to face with his mother, and that didn't go well. Then he found out that Felicity had told everyone about Carrie, and was upset that she'd betrayed his confidence. Felicity tried to reassure him that perhaps everything he'd been seeing meant that she was alive, but he shut that down. She was dead, he said flatly. And whatever had killed her was tormenting him, deliberately.

Kim and Hewitt came to the house as well, and the group started to make plans for an infiltration of the doctor's house, where, they believed, the patients were being held. Hewitt had brought a strap from the one of the beds he'd found in the ward, and Roydon took it to perform psychometry. He was immediately (and thankfully, temporarily) struck blind. He could sense some of the things to which the patients had been subjected, but even more importantly, could tell that the patients were feeling drawn there by a strange call....

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Chaos Choreography by Seanan McGuire

I am skipping around in a series again, and this time, it appears to be a series where that's perfectly okay. I read the third book first, then jumped ahead to the fifth. While that may mean I know how previous books turned out, I'm still eager to read them, but don't feel like I lost anything in jumping around. Each book feels quite self-contained.

Of course, not only is this book about cryptids, this particular one is also about a So You Think You Can Dance-style reality show, and since I watched that obsessively for a few seasons, you could easily guess that I'm all in. Verity Price, who was on a previous season of Dance or Die in disguise, made it to the top four, but not to the very top. She's back for an all-star season, and for her, it's a last crack at maybe getting to explore a life that is not protecting cryptids and humans from each other.

She's a different person from her first try, though, with a new husband in tow as she dons her red wig and scanty costume and comes back. The show hostess is a dragon princess, and is at least a little behind the reunion show, wanting Verity to help procure a husband dragon for her daughters. (Many of the cryptid species seem to have female members who look like humans, and males who are very, very different. In the case of a dragon, big as a Greyhound bus different.)

But soon after the show starts, Verity finds a couple of just-eliminated fellow contestants truly eliminated, that is to say, dead, and their blood used to try to summon a snake god, which Verity is quite sure would be a very bad idea. Shortly thereafter, her grandmother Alice shows up, looking younger than any of them, and you know the shit is getting ready to truly hit the fan. (As I write this, from Twitter I know that the real Alice, a cat, has or will shortly leave the world, and it made reading the book a bit more poignant than it would otherwise be.)

I cannot dance to save my life, but boy do I like shows like this - not Dancing with the Stars, just people who actually, genuinely know how to dance. It's got a good mixture of camaraderie and rivalry, just like I'd hope.

And, of course, snake cultists killing dancers. Oh, and the Aeslin mice, who continue to be delightful!  I had this and another book with me when I worked a medical school exam a month or so ago, and an older woman who was also working it had forgotten her book. Since I was halfway through the other one, I loaned her Chaos Choreography for the evening. I wouldn't have pegged her as a genre reader, and wasn't sure what she'd make of it - as it turned out, she loved all of it she read, but particularly the mice. They are an inspired creation, and enliven every scene they're in.

But back to the snake cultists. With the help of other contestants who might only appear human, as well as her husband and grandmother, Verity tries to find out who is behind it before the next elimination round, only to find herself up against a very big snake indeed.

These are not deep books, but they're fun and entertaining and I would highly, highly recommend them. Particularly if you love things that go bump in the night.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

Somehow I am still reading this series. I wrote about the first book that it snuck up on me, despite its over-reliance on 1920s slang and showing all the author's research. I'm happy to report that while these are still not deep books, the second entry in this series tried less hard to impress me with the Roaringness of the Twenties, and continued to be enjoyable. If you're looking for young adult fiction that is not particularly challenging, you can't go wrong with this one.

This is totally book popcorn - I probably won't think about this book often in the future, but I'll also probably pick up the next one and enjoy it while I'm in the process of reading it. And since I like a good dose of book popcorn along with more complex fare, when it comes around on one of my lists, I'll be in.

So, in the aftermath of defeating the villain of the first book, Evie has become a radio star, and gotten even more heavily into the sauce and 1920s New York nightlife. She is confused about whether or not she likes Jericho, and Jericho knows he likes her, but doesn't really do anything about it. Then there's Sam, who is awfully attractive to Evie too. But this isn't the main storyline.

The plot has to do with an outbreak of sleeping sickness, which starts after an excavation opens up a closed subway line, and initially seems to centre on Chinatown in New York, leading to a rise in racism. In Chinatown, Ling, a girl deeply interested in science, can also walk in dreams and talk to the dead there. Henry, who was in the first book as Theta's roommate, can also walk in dreams, although without the additional talent for the dead.

Those who fall into the sleeping sickness, we see, are enticed or coerced into staying asleep so something can feed off their dreams. It takes our main crew to defeat it, pretty much all of whom are Diviners (people with supernatural powers), even if they don't know that about each other in every case. (Theta seems to have pyrokinesis, albeit pyrokinesis that hurts, but she doesn't tell anyone. Her beau Memphis doesn't broadcast his healing powers. Sam doesn't want anyone to know he can make people not notice him. All of these come out in this book.)

The plot is there all the time, but the book takes its time, giving us plenty of chapters with each character going about their lives, pursuing their own agendas. Sam's plotline here seems the most larger-world relevant, as he searches for his mother, who, it appears, was also a Diviner, and taken by the government.

We start to get a sense of shadiness going around, and a bit of the history of the government interest in Diviners, which has seemed to grow more and more menacing over time. It feels like that will be the focus of the next book. But by the end of this, Ling and Henry are trapped in dreams trying to get each other out, watched over by Jericho and Mabel, while Memphis, Theta, Evie, and Sam are in the subway tunnels, trying to avoid dream-based husks of human beings.

It's a quick read, and easy one, and not as insistent on shoving all the slang into every line. It's fun.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Moving Mars by Greg Bear

*Spoilers Below*

I kind of can't believe this book was nominated for a Hugo. I mean, Greg Bear is often a very good writer, and I've enjoyed previous books of his. Not this one, though. This one was just plain bad and there were several points where I thought about putting it down and walking away. When I was scrolling through my Hugo spreadsheet and realized that it had been nominated, I was flabbergasted.

The science in this science fiction is interesting, but the fiction, particularly the characters, particularly the main character, is just really not good. The lead is, from her internal monologue, dumb as a post, both in regards to the things she's supposed to be smart about (politics) and about other people and human relationships.

All her reactions seem so far from being human that I not infrequently stared at the page in disbelief. This woman is mercurial beyond belief (or the author kept forgetting what she was supposed to be like), petty, sulky, and childish. And yes, she's young, but even when she's sent to Earth from Mars on a diplomatic mission, she behaves like she can't understand anything. Inexperience is fine. Willful avoidance of thinking anything through, when you were sent as one of the best and brightest? Less fine. And not every character has to be brilliant, but characters who don't know anything at all are not that interesting.

Which is nothing compared to how badly the relationship scenes are written. The dialogue is so hackneyed, the things they say, they ways they say them...if this book had any sex scenes I have absolutely no doubt they'd be going into my Bad Sex Writing In SF Hall of Fame. Oh, and the gender politics, ugh. I can usually take old science fiction, even when it is a little less than what I'd want, but any time a book goes into great detail about how a second date means a woman owes a guy marriage, because on Mars, people don't mess around with relationships, my antennae go up. I mean, what? When you're in your early twenties? And you have free choice of marriage, not arranged by anyone, and you're supposed to know from one date if you want to pairbond for life? What the hell kind of sense does that make?

(Which isn't to say a science fiction author couldn't come up with a society where this was the case, but they'd have to do a damn sight more thinking about how and why that would arise, and let the reader in on it. It would have to permeate more than just that one aspect of life, the cascading differences such a change would make.)

And then we get into the main character's father lecturing her about how much power women have, and how inviting Charles to visit should mean an engagement or else she's just toying with him, and for all I don't like the main character, she's feeling fairly understandable reticence to decide her romantic future in a couple of meetings, and this scene made me feel kinda gross.

Then, THEN, she meets someone and falls in love with him, and none of it comes across on the page. The character says she falls in love with him, with about as much description as that, and it's so shoehorned in that it's apparent that she's fallen in love with someone so the author has someone to take away from her later. You can practically taste the cardboard. The whole marriage is so distant and unconvincing that it doesn't matter, even though it should.

AND THEN! IT GETS WORSE!  Near the end of her book, her husband dies during an altercation between Mars and Earth. And the dude she didn't marry from the beginning of the book, who her father told her she was leading on by wanting more than two dates before marriage, comes to her, and starts to put all his goddamned emotional labour on her! He wants her to reassure him that she doesn't blame him for the death of her husband, he wants her to take care of him. When she is just fucking widowed and he has lost no one.

AND SHE DOES! AND GOES ON TO TELL HIM SHE ALWAYS LOVED HIM! This is a dude you kick to the curb and don't look back, honey, not one you then decide to spend the rest of your life with.

So, if human relationships and characters are not this book's strong suit, I guess I can talk about what is. In tone, it's extraordinarily like Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. It's about Mars asserting its independence, and the political machinations thereof, although Bear jumps to Earth attacking Mars very quickly.

But then there's a new technology thrown into the mix, just to keep things interesting. Quantum something or other means that the scientists on Mars learn they can manipulate the fundamental descriptors of reality, including moving objects, the larger the better. With the title of the book, you can guess where we go from there. This is genuinely interesting! It would just help if the characters and relationships matched the idea.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Liz

If there is a truism about our world as it exists now, it could be that teenagers will be assholes to each other and everyone around them. Not even necessarily on purpose (although sometimes quite intentionally), they tend to be feeling everything and not yet have the skills to deal with emotions and people, or know how to get into or out of situations that spark those intense emotions without being cruel.

Moreno-Garcia knows this, and her teenage characters are frustrating and engaging both, and the adult versions of the same people still recognizable, and in at least one case, still lashing out to stay away from emotions. Of course, since that character is coming home in 2009 to attend the funeral of her dead father and clear out his apartment, emotions are everywhere.

Parts of this book remind me of Y Tu Mama Tambien, a movie by Alfonso Cuaron that I'm very fond of, in that both centre around teenagers who have no idea how to really broach the silence and admit that they want, that they desire, that they, even more scarily, have feelings for each other. In a weird way, bodies are easier than the vulnerability of emotions.

In 1998, three teenagers who feel like outcasts are friends. Meche (short for Mercedes), obsessed with music and better at science than humanities; Sebastian, poor, loving literature; Daniela, still slightly childish, prone to frilly things, but kind. Meche and Sebastian are really the main characters here, although Daniela is the malleable glue that holds two strong personalities together.

As they negotiate the treacherous terrain of high school, and the fact that there are unacknowledged or partially acknowledged depths of feeling between them, Meche discovers that she can do magic, with the right record, the right song. She pulls Sebastian and Daniela into this with her, even as her parents marriage is dissolving.  It's a heady idea, that you can change the world as a teenager, make it more right, more what it should be than it is.

Of course, since Meche isn't a particularly nice teenager, that soon spills over into revenge. At first, passed off as righteous anger, but then the power of being able to hurt people moves into retribution for smaller and smaller things, and her friends pull away.

All this is interspersed with Meche excavating her father's apartment and enduring the days of his novena. Daniela and Sebastian come back into her life, even though she screams at them to come out. They were with the emotions she buried, those she has kept at bay as she fled Mexico to work in Norway. Of course they bubble up.

All the feelings of high school, of wanting and not having words, of being afraid of wanting, of hurting and wanting to hurt - this book evokes all those feelings that remain complicated into our adult lives. Meche may have learned particularly little in the intervening years, but she's a prickly, slightly obnoxious host into this world where magic has a cost and friendships are broken.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

*Spoilers Below*

I don't know who I am anymore. For a long time, I had a strict no-horror policy, on the theory that I am a huge chickenshit and really like sleeping. But now I have not only read a zombie book, I have read enough zombie books, enough thoughtful zombie books, that I have enough to propose as a theme for my science fiction and fantasy book club. Horror as written word seems to be something from which I'm no longer staying far away. (Movies, with visuals I can't get rid of, are different.)

This wasn't that scary a horror book, horror more by benefit of the presence of zombies than anything else, I guess. It's really the story of a young woman discovering who she is. That who she is happens to be a "hungry" is part of the journey she takes with some of the last humans in England.

I am finding it very hard to talk about this book without referring to Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend, and doing so in a way that would spoil both books. So, from this point in, if spoilers matter to you and you haven't read one or the other, you may want to tap out.

It feels like The Girl With All the Gifts owes a lot to I Am Legend, even though the original book is not about zombies, recent movie versions notwithstanding. Because under all the horror of the last few humans alive is the promise of a new civilization being born in the ashes, and the ways in which the humans trying to survive/thrive is threatening to what is a new world order. We're already extinct, we just don't know it.

But that's not where we start. It doesn't take long to figure out that Melanie is a hungry, but it's not said explicitly for a while. All we know is that she's a child taking classes, but buckled tightly to the chair and muzzled before she's taken out of her cell. She loves one of her teachers, Miss Justineau, deeply. She starts to figure out that some of the children, when they are taken away, don't come back. She encounters Miss Justineau without the endocrine blocker all humans wear around hungries, and starts to become aware of her own nature.

Then the scientist in charge decides to try to saw Melanie's head off. She is callous about killing her charges, seeing them as specimens rather than infected humans, needing to cure the disease that created zombies at all costs. Miss Justineau is perfectly ready to see them as children, to the point where she is distressed to see Melanie when she gets too close without the endocrine blocker, and Melanie is transformed, for the first time she herself can remember, into a hunger with legs.

Melanie is not dissected, and she, Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell (the scientist), and two soldiers end up on the run out through what's left of Britain. Around this time, the narrative shifts from being mostly from Melanie's point of view to being mostly the adults. I only noticed this when I started to think about it, and it's a pity. Even when Melanie finds a colony of other hungry kids - unlike the adults, retaining human capabilities of thought and speech - narratively we live in Miss Justineau's head as the story is told.

The reason that this bothers me a bit is that this is also around the time that Melanie starts being able to control her hunger, her involuntary reactions to the smell of humans, and as she starts to be able to suppress it, we don't get any of the internal monologue of what that is like, how she does it and why. There are a few brief glimpses, but it's really kind of handwavey, glossed over very quickly. Gaining control over an involuntary response caused by a disease is really pretty remarkable, and I'd have been happier if we'd been in Melanie's head for the struggle to do that, as we were for most of the first half of the book.

And then there's the ending, which is very similar to that of I Am Legend, as Miss Justineau becomes perhaps the last human left alive, in an iconic role for the hungry children who will survive the end of the human race as we were, before we find out what will come next. Where the protagonist of I Am Legend discovers he's become the bogeyman for a new race, Miss Justineau will be the intellectual mother.