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New World Magischola

Introduction

This June I had the privilege of attending the first run of New World Magischola. This is a weekend-long live action roleplay (LARP) event set in a contemporary wizard school, in the vein of The Magicians, Dresden Files, Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the like. It’s based on an iconic larp College of Wizardry, held in a real castle in Poland, but brought over to the United States, and set in a world specifically crafted to honor and highlight the history of North America’s various magic heritages. In its scale and design it is unique in the United States, and arguably in the world, as it takes the basic idea from the College of Wizardry, and adds a layer of social re-engineering of the world and the running of the game.

One of the promotional videos of the event, to give you an idea of the location and what it looked like in practice.

In summary, New World Magischola was an amazing event which lived up to every ounce of hype that surrounded it. Read on for a more involved explanation of what it was, and why I liked it so much.

Roxanne Laroche showing off her familiar to Brisha Gonzalez. Photo: New World Magischola

What is Larp?

There isn’t a simple or easy answer, but for me a larp is any event where I and others take on a character different from ourselves, and interact as those characters would. This would technically include things like professional people skills training, some forms of therapy, and renaissance festivals, and I’d indeed include those activities.

There are many different kinds of larps. There are “boffer” larps in which people use foam or latex weapons to engage in actual physical battles; there are many different kinds of rulesets, with characters having abilities and skills that are measured with some kind of rating, and there are clear conflict resolution mechanisms, whether rock-paper-scissors or point addition and subtraction. On the other hand, there are much more social larps, and on the far end of that are so called “Nordic Larps,” of which the College of Wizardry and New World Magischola are examples.

The Nordic Larp web site has a good introduction; some of the central concepts are “play to lose” — instead of trying to succeed in your character goals, you’re open to failing in a task or goal if it might lead to a better story. They’re inherently cooperative shared storytelling. They have a heavier emphasis on verbal and social interaction than solving puzzles or physical conflict. They’re WYSIWYG, dispensing with colored ribbons or hand signals to signify statuses such as invisibility or flying. This all feeds into the goal of immersion, of really being the character. You might think of it is method acting. Being in character, feeling as the character, interacting with other characters and helping them experience the world is the goal, not solving a mystery or achieving an external goal.

New World Magischola

Azra Bloom and Delilah Eversong in a heated discussion.

Photo: New World Magischola

The Magischola larp was done via kickstarter, with ~170 tickets for sale. It sold out in about 90 seconds. The organizers added three additional weekends and all but the last sold out. Each weekend is a rerun with the same characters being played by different people (although some players signed up for more than weekend, or played a character in one, a staff member in another, or volunteered). Obviously there’s a lot of desire to experience this kind of an adventure and be a wizard! Many College of Wizardry veterans attended, as did veteran larpers and industry insiders, but there were also many first-timers who had never larped before. There were young people (18 was the minimum age) and there were parents with their grown children.

The event took place on the University of Richmond campus; with its quirky architecture and great public spaces it was a spread out but wonderful venue. We had two residence halls, a central place for organizational support — registration, game running logistics, store and so forth — and a few classroom buildings. It wasn’t a castle, but it was still great.

The setting is a wizard college; you’ve gone through K-12, and are now at a 3-year program. Magischola is set in current time, and current world events are part of the setting — however, magic is real, and so are werewolves, vampires, fairies and other creatures. Those who can do magic are inducted into the secrets of this world of magic, the Magimundi, and especially descendants of well-off wizard families have next to no interaction with the mundane world that we’re familiar with. There is a strict edict of secrecy and separation, and it is highly forbidden to reveal the existence of this supernatural realm to mundane world. It has its own justice system, governance, economy and education system.

The college had various majors, professors, school officials, and five houses that students divide into. The mechanism for house selection was akin to a greek rush or a sports draft; first year students would submit their preference, and could work to get school points (merits) or do other things to impress their desired houses so they would pick them.

As a student, you go to classes and engage in whatever a student at a wizard college would. The refrain was “This is a game about being a student at a wizard college!” Not a game about being a student and fighting a great evil or monsters; those things were extra. While it might sound anticlimactic, that wasn’t the case at all. So much play and conflict and drama arose from just having different personalities with different motivations and agendas stirring the pot.

Thomas Hall, one of two dorms for the game.

The Magimundi isn’t a derivative work or fan fiction. It’s been influenced by the world of the College of Wizardry, and indeed both coexist in the same universe, but the organizers of Magischola, Maury Brown and Ben Morrow, set out to create a real, complex universe. Since the game is so large and cooperative, there has been a lot of input from many people, and it arguably has resulted in a framework much deeper than any single person could’ve achieved.

Instead of the way an author might want to completely define their world, however, many things about the Magimundi are left intentionally vague, so each and every player can color in whatever they want. The world defines several fault lines; a prison-industrial complex, indentured servitude, past and current injustices against non-humans, forcible removal or wizard children from mundane families, highly classist society where old, rich families play with entirely different rules as the rest of the population, a justice system that is rigid and has old, obsolete laws and struggles to recognize the rights of some groups of the population (vampires and lycans.) It’s easy to either make, or not make, plenty of analogies to real life societal issues. It gives rise to a lot of potential conflict between players: family rivalries, business interest rivalries, differences in opinion on whether vampires are a menace to society or an oppressed underclass and so forth.

The authors of the game and world had additional design goals; questioning power structures we see in the real world, broader gender identities, encouraging empathy and solidarity across character (and player!) identities, avoiding dominance by masculine identities, non-antagonistic game mechanics, emphasizing safety and the value of players, and many more. While a lot of it may sound radical — and it is — the game world felt natural. Having famous figures be gender-fluid (and shapeshifters), having female figures of power, and letting people pick their own pronouns did in no way make this world feel weird. To me it successfully demonstrated how natural an inclusive world can feel. In that sense the game universe took several steps towards a utopia of sorts, or a desired state of society.

On the other side of the coin, there were several players with alternative gender identities or disabilities who mentioned after the game how amazing the experience was; having people trust them with someone’s safety despite their physical limitations, being able to trust others, feeling included and welcomed. This was not something introduced in speeches or instructions; the behaviors of the players in these issues were inherent and fostered by the framework of the game and the world. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but as a social experiment it appeared quite successful in balance.

Wait… What Do You Actually Do?

There is no central storyteller or narrator. There isn’t even a central story or plot. The game started with workshops, introducing basic concepts of wizard spell duels — the caster verbalizes the spell, which is useful both for dramatic impact, giving an excuse for exaggerated body language and whipping one’s wand around, as well as giving the target an idea of what the spell is supposed to do; the target then decides what happens.

For example, wizard Alice goes, “Ha! Let’s see you be so smug with your hair on fire! Ignitus!” and wizard Bob either ducks, blocks, or begins to run around with his hair on fire, whatever he feels makes for the best story.

There was a safe-word mechanism for lowering the intensity of a scene without stopping it (“Largo”), a mechanism for stopping a scene if there’s a real life issue or the intensity is too much (“Cut!”), an unobtrusive hand signal to check whether another player is OK, and an exercise for using “they” as a pronoun. The workshops actually ran everyone through the various tasks, and while the mechanisms were very simple, once you actually do something once or twice, it fits into your routine completely differently than it would after just listening to a lecture. The workshops also moved towards moving people more and more into their characters; starting with basic mechanics, and getting more into game and personalities as they went on.

There were some inherent activities: you went to class, did homework, went to club meetings and events, to breakfast, lunch and dinner and so forth. There were events for the houses; planning for the selection of first years, open houses, initiation, mentee/mentor assignments to mention a few. The professors could assign homework, for example to use a healing technique on another student, or duel three other students. Some of the faculty could ask students to do tasks for them, or mention mysteries. There were some centrally arranged things; if you went through the forbidden woods at night, chances are you’d encounter something, or a chupacabra would get loose, and so forth. None of these were “central” plots; if you were there, you were there, and could elect to engage in them.

There was a central overarching storyline about an evil wizard having rumored to have escaped and heading to campus for revenge, and corruption among the school leadership etc. This played out in a few big scenes at major events, but again it merely set the stage for people to play on as they pleased. You weren’t expected to necessarily interact with the main events directly.

Aside from the above, players made their own plots. They could be romantic plots to get lovebirds together, or keep them apart, or deal with breakups; they could be enacting rivalries; pranking other players, faculty or houses; casting curses in revenge; engaging in illicit dealings of potions; stealing things; trying to prove that chupacabra are sentient and should be protected and so forth. These plots frequently would involve others and cascade on in complex ways.

Some players had set up text roleplay before the event, and had already worked on common history. For example, an amoral hunter left another character badly heartbroken and engaged in illegal trading of potion ingredients to someone who wanted to make a potion to forcibly “cure” or kill any lycans; they did favors to other characters, and were a loyal member of one of the houses. Before long, people discovered the connections, and were left with hard choices — whether to punish the hunter’s crimes, or value house loyalty. Would the heartbroken former lover turn in the hunter for their illegal actions, blackmail them, or do something else to get revenge? It was really fascinating how such basic ingredients resulted in a very tight web of connections and crisscrossing plots, most of which emerged organically from the histories, motivations and interactions of the characters without any kind of central planning.

Harrison Greene had described these kinds of larps as (paraphrasing) “take every Shakespeare character, put them in a room, close the door, and see what happens.” That might give you an idea of the kinds of dynamics that can emerge without any external plotting.

Bleeding All Over the Place!

One of the concepts that is being academically researched and has been formalized in the context of Nordic larps is bleed, the way the emotions of the player and the character cross the alibi or temenos boundaries. While it’s something that happens in most any make-believe to some extent, it’s particularly strong in immersive larps, and indeed may be the goal of players. They want to feel what their character feels.

The workshops and briefing mentioned bleed and dealing with it. The debriefing gave players ways to mitigate it. Many experienced players thought they were familiar with it. They were wrong. Whether at game, or during the following week, it became obvious just how intense the experience had been. Luckily this highlighted another aspect of the game, and that was the amazing camaraderie and support among the players, and the way they supported each other via hangouts and chats and online discussions afterwards.

This is where explaining the allure and impact of the game becomes exceedingly difficult. You put on robes and pretend to be a wizard student for a couple of days, go to wizard prom, and go home. And yet people would break down in tears days later, and either desperately clung to their characters, or had to find mechanisms to compartmentalize and put the characters away into boxes. People with characters who fell in love had to deal with disentangling those emotions from those of their players. My advice to anyone, no matter their background, wanting to get involved in this form of larp is to be very aware of the intensity of emotions, and to plan, even if it requires breaking character and steering events, to end the game on a good note. And yet, to a person, everyone felt that this was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had, and were hungry for more.

Escapism

I’ve thought a fair bit about what the attraction and draw of this kind of make-believe and play is. I suspect much of this varies from person to person, and even from event to event. For me, the primary attraction is escapism, defined by Wikipedia as “…mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an ‘escape’ or dissociation from the perceived unpleasant, boring, arduous, scary, or banal aspects of daily life. It can also be used as a term to define the actions people take to help relieve persisting feelings of depression or general sadness.”

During Magischola, I was in character. I did not check Facebook or work email; there was a fairly complete isolation from the normal, outside world. I spent several days completely free of the worries of paying the mortgage, datacenter moves, project deadlines, social obligations and mistakes and things like that. In character there certainly were happy things and sad things, but in many ways they are safe, and simplified. Your character meets another character, and you work together towards a goal or against each other — it doesn’t matter which political party their player supports, or which sports team they root for. Three days in this environment was more effective in wiping away work stress than two weeks on a beach.

There is constant discovery — new magic, new creatures, new people and new mysteries. Not only that, but you can feel the character you are inhabiting learn more about themselves and grow; you get to start from a nearly blank slate, and engage in self-discovery and experimentation in how to solve moral and social challenges.

In Summary

The event wasn’t perfect. Many things went wrong technically (although I only found out about many of these after the fact), and neither I nor several other players quite knew how to get the most out of it, but for a first run it was a spectacular success; really, it was a success even absent any such qualifiers. In particular, the organizers (Maury Brown and Ben Morrow) really care deeply about the experience players have, and are promptly tweaking things that could be better, both technically, world-wise, and in the game culture. Knowing that the feelings and opinions and experiences of the players mattered is a surprisingly powerful detail.

The event, and the world, for all its apparent simplicity was very, very cleverly crafted, and resulted in an utterly amazing experience. I made many new friends, which is unusual for me. This is, without a doubt, the kind of game I want to play in. If this is something you have an interest in, and you ever have a chance to attend one of these games, please do. It’ll be amazing.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Leigh Bardugo: Six of Crows

I encountered Leigh Bardugo and the first part in her trilogy by being invited to a YA book club meeting to discuss the book.

During my teenage and young adult years I read a lot, thanks to the excellent Finnish library system, although I never really had the concept of YA as a separate genre. Perhaps it’s because there are so many memories from my formative years, or perhaps because there are many tremendously strong fantasy and urban fantasy authors that publish under the YA pigeon-hole that I quite often find myself reading works from that section of the bookstore.
This book club is being sponsored by Inkwood, a local brick-and-mortar (or rather restored bungalow) independent bookstore, and I actually ventured there to purchase the hardcover version of the book. It’s been quite a while since my last visit to a bookstore; much like libraries, they’re magical and wonderful places. The visit left me very conflicted. I absolutely do want to preserve the magic there is in these places, but having to drive forty minutes through rush hour to a store with limited hours to purchase a book at more than twice the cost of a Kindle version… I wish I knew how to make the economics work.

In the case of Six of Crows, though, the hardcover is worth the price. The book is wonderful. I was going to make some comment about separating the physical form of the book from the content, but then I realized doing so really wouldn’t be fair; the presence and quality of the book in my hands absolutely contributed to the reading experience.
The book itself was good. Not great, but good. The basic structure is a number of street urchins from a fictitious medieval world banding together for a goal that promises them all which ever kind of dreams or hopes they have. There are strong influences from medieval Dutch, Scandinavian and Venetian trade empires, coming together in a fairly distinctive and original setting.
The story is told in chronological order with interspersed chapters of the history of the various characters. The prose is good, and the pacing is solid. Unfortunately, once again, something triggered my feeling that the book was too carefully planned and put together. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as we find out things in a nice, measured, balanced way, the characters complement each other and work well, but something just feels too artificial and missing an organic soul.
Nevertheless, there’s enough depth in the plot and the web of relationships, a lot of exploration of self-worth, finding oneself and balancing of conflicting priorities.
As befits a set of youth trying to eke out a living in a ruthless world, things aren’t nice. The characters all have various traumatic pasts, and even the actual story gets pretty grisly at times. YA certainly doesn’t mean PG-rated by any means.
I completely missed the mention of it being a part of a trilogy, so the ending that leaves a fair bit of things hanging was a tad jarring; be aware that getting into this series likely requires commitment of three books.
Four out of five, with a bonus half point for the gorgeous presentation.
Posted by Toivo Voll

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3)

This contains some possible spoilers of the previous two books.

Brief recap of the concept and some of the tech assumptions of Leckie’s world: AI exists, humans can have implants that allow them to communicate with, or be completely controlled by said AI, war ships have a number of such humans, called ancillaries, at their disposal; they’re individual intelligences and consciousnesses, but synchronized as parts of a greater whole. There’s an interstellar empire that is keeping peace by conquest, ruled by one apparently immortal empress. A few alien races exist, but they’re alien, and generally keep to themselves as do the humans.

The protagonist is one of these ancillaries; after the destruction of her ship, her part of the AI is all that remained. While this book plot-wise can largely stand on its own, it really should be read as part of the trilogy, since the protagonist’s nature and relation to her crew are otherwise left less explored than it should. Notably, the use of gendered pronouns when referring to an artificial intelligence was intentionally muddied in the first book; by this third volume any assumptions of the accuracy, relevance or meaning of sex or gender should not be taken at face value.

The plot continues from where it left off at the second book — the empress consists of multiple clones, and they’ve unsychronized and are now waging war amongst themselves. The premise is dicy: arguably the current system of rule isn’t perfect and might makes right instinctively doesn’t sit well with the reader or the protagonist, but even beyond that all the loyal subjects of the empire are asked to pick a side, even when they just want to be loyal to the concept or system, and since all the sides are supposedly the legitimate authority, the choice is impossible.

We learn more about the Presger aliens, and this is generally that they are alien. Leckie does a good job at making aliens, their behavior and motives alien.

The themes familiar from the previous works continue here — trying to find the right choice, trying to decide what is just, navigating class and religion and fallible and imperfect people, as well as exploring the nature of the AIs in more depth. Between the three books concepts such as identity, self-determination, end justifying the means, ones responsibility to oneself and others are pretty well examined.

There’s action as well, and the novel works well as space opera, but the added aspects really elevate the entire series a notch above even good space opera.

The pacing is good, the prose competent — while it might not be most elaborate writing on its surface, there’s a clear level of consideration that has gone into it.

Four out of five

While this “concludes the trilogy,” there’s room for future exploration of the universe, and I’d definitely welcome it.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Tanya Huff: An Ancient Peace (The Confederation of Valor #6, Peacekeeper #1)

While this novel is oddly part of two series, continuing the adventures of gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr of the Confederation Marines, it can stand on its own as well, as the setting is pretty familiar science fiction trope territory.

The genre is space opera on an individual scale; the action isn’t space fleet battles as much as boots on the ground in the dirt. It’s feel-good pop-corn reading; the eminently competent sergeant Kerr is thrown into any number of dicy situations and manages to get her and most of her people back out of them, showing integrity and honor and all the romanticized values of a military in the process.

The above shouldn’t be taken to imply this book isn’t good. Ms. Huff continues to deliver the tropy feel-good romp with great skill. Everything is just a notch above what one would expect: the characters, while by no means deep, are interesting and sympathetic and different; the world building feels natural; while the protagonist manages to overcome the plot challenges elegantly enough to satisfy Hollywood sensibilities, a lot of politics and morality and big picture setting somehow still manages to come through.

The basic plot: A group of grave robbers are about to unearth ancient weapons from one of the Elder Races, and it’s up to Kerr and her no-longer-marines company to stop them before their actions can cause another war. The plot pacing isn’t perfect; a lot of the book is a dungeon crawl with one group following the other, and consequently covering some of the same ground. While this allows for comparison between the motivations of the two groups it still felt a bit annoying. The story follows multiple viewpoints as needed in chronological order, and it flows very naturally. The prose is good, albeit not extraordinary.

In summary — if you want a competent, tough-but-good idealized version of a space marine leading a motley crew of races on a romp for justice, this is a book for you.

Three and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass (The Cinder Spires 1)

Jim Butcher does steampunk.

Oh, I’m supposed to say more? Fine.

Mr. Butcher can produce great, fun stories that are a step above the average disposable urban fantasy (in the case of the Dresden Files), although his foray into actual fantasy (Codex Alera) appealed to me considerably less.

In this case the setting is interesting — humanity lives in huge spires, the surface of the planet is too dangerous to venture on, ether technology and power allows for all kinds of things, including flight, and trade, war and privacy happens via ships powered by crystals and ethersilk sails, and iron and steel rot quickly and are an unreliable basis for machines, and cats can talk. There is a tremendous amount of mystery about why things are the way they are, and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be a major plot point moving forward.

The book introduces a cast of characters from various backgrounds and interests, and there isn’t a clear single protagonist. The plot, instead, begins to craft a team of the various characters, and lies a groundwork for higher adventure.
While the novel is clearly a way to set up for another series, it stands well enough on its own, and doesn’t feel like it sacrifices too much for being a pilot episode.
The characters and setting are good, and I found myself wishing I could see the visuals Butcher may have had in mind for many of them. The absolutely biggest shortcoming of the work is unfortunately the prose. It sounds like the first attempt to speak at a steampunk RPG or convention, mixing overly polite and proper archaic English with modern enough concepts and an alien setting. He doesn’t take it nearly as much over the top as some others (Gail Carriger, I’m looking at you), and to me it just always felt annoyingly tentative. I either got used to it or he figured out the style towards the end of the book, though.
The plot, once it starts rolling, is heavy on action, and here Butcher has struck a much better balance between describing cinematic battles and not getting carried away than he did with Codex Alera, and I found myself enjoying the fights, which is not too often the case. Of course, perhaps as part of the genre, the outcomes are about as predictable as anything on primetime TV.
In summary, I enjoyed the romp a lot more than I really ought to have, and will be keeping an eye out for the next installment.
Three out of five, at least half of those being for just sheer fun.
Posted by Toivo Voll

Holly Black: Red Glove and Black Heart (Curse Workers 2 & 3)

Since I quite liked Holly Black’s first Curse Workers installment, I went ahead and read the rest of the series. All the things I liked about the first volume continued to work on the next two, and if anything they got better. The magic and abilities are present in the world, but mostly in the way it shapes society and interactions, and are very rarely actually used.

The clear strength of the series are the relationships between its characters. A mother who means well but is dramatically inconsiderate, siblings who have their own motivations, and friends who have their own problems.

It’s very refreshing to not have simple Mary Sue / Marty Stu settings, or unnecessarily dramatized relationships. The protagonist’s friends will be unhappy if they’re not treated well, but nobody will cut off ties for a single slight of some kind. Everyone has their own motivations, and occasionally they’re unrelated, occasionally they coincide with those of others, and occasionally they’re in conflict, and the character will have to make value judgments, just like real life.

The pacing is generally good; the books aren’t the most action-packed thing out there, but they easily held my interest. The love interest plot is devilishly complicated and clever in its set-up, and as some other situations, the protagonist is faced with multiple choices, all seemingly less than ideal.

The first book is readable on its own, the next two do better as part of the full trifecta.

Four and a half out of five for the whole enchilada.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Holly Black: White Cat (Curse Workers 1)

I’ve had a few false starts with books recently, where the book I started just doesn’t manage to keep my interest even to the point of wanting to finish it. It was therefore a welcome change to pick up Black’s White Cat and get promptly sucked into the story.

The setting is mild urban fantasy / alternative history. Magic exists, but very few people can do it, and the magic is hexes where witches (or curse workers) can shift someone’s emotions, dreams, etc.

I’m not sure whether this book falls under the umbrella of Young Adult literature, but I don’t think it matters; the characters, their relationships and problems are just as applicable to YA readers as to anyone else.

It’s those relationships and characters that make this book so great. Everything feels new and original and fantastic and not like just another fast food version of a literary adventure. Things are complicated, the way they can be in real life, everyone’s flawed, and there is not really black and white.

The pacing isn’t perfect: the story spends some time with us getting to know the protagonist and the demons haunting him, but once the plot kicks into gear it doesn’t let go and I finished the book in a single sitting.

This isn’t popcorn reading. There will be complicated emotions and bittersweetness, but it’s well worth it. This is the kind of book that makes me happy for having read it, and wanting me to recommend it heartily.

Holly Black is often mentioned in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, and as much as I hate to go that route, I think this novel clearly shows why.

Four and a half out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll

M. L. Brennan: Tainted Blood (Generation V)

I started to read this series because of the kitsune deuteragonist, and I had some quibbles with the first two books. Many of them are still present in this third installment: the main character is annoyingly dim-witted and oblivious at times and the plot, while well paced and reasonably complex etc. seems like it came from a “how to write a good noir PI story in 57 easy steps,” just somehow a bit too planned and clinical. I couldn’t begin to say why a properly executed and planned plot bothers me.

What the third installment has going for it, in addition to the kitsune and the decent murder mystery, is the vampire aspect. The way the novel addresses the practicalities of its vampires, and the protagonist has to confront what he is and what he will have to do to survive was wonderfully refreshing.
There is some repetitive introductory material, presumably for people who want to start from the third installment. Otherwise, the storytelling has improved a bit from the previous two installments, and the book is fine pop-corn reading. Sufficiently so that I actually am about to buy the next installment.
Three and a half out of five, with an extra fox star.
Posted by Toivo Voll

M.L. Brennan: Generation V (Generation V)

I started to read M. L. Brennan’s urban fantasy series because of a post TOR made regarding a major kitsune character.

The basic premise is pretty usual fare; there are vampires, kitsune, witches, sidhe and other legendary/supernatural creatures. The main character is a fresh vampire trying to survive as a minimum-wage barista with a film degree. He ends up with a competent, beautiful, and tricksy kitsune bodyguard.

The bad: the author is trying to sound authoritative about things they don’t really know, like firearms. The main character is, on purpose, a wet noodle; judging by the way the second book is going, this is so character growth can happen. Regardless, it rubbed me the wrong way. The worse feature is that he’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and things that are clearly telegraphed to the reader as well as other characters completely go past him and make me want to slap some sense into him.

The OK: the plot is competent; in some ways too competent. Somehow it seems like a carefully crafted construct, with all the necessary conflicts and expositional components rather than an organic story. The cast of characters is of reasonable size has promise. The prose is competent, with a smattering of unusual words thrown in.

The good: So far, the kitsune are awesome. I’m not convinced that he author is particularly knowledgeable about Japanese culture or mythology, and the major character is pure fan service, but even so the trickster nature of the kitsune comes through wonderfully. The book reads well, and is very engaging popcorn reading.

Three out of five, with an extra star for foxes.

Posted by Toivo Voll

Elizabeth Bear: New Amsterdam Series

Here be a list of some nifty vampire novels:

  1. New Amsterdam
  2. Seven for a Secret
  3. The White City
  4. Ad Eternum
  5. Garrett Investigates

Elizabeth Bear does vampires and steampunk. Enough said.

Okay, I’ll say more. The series consists of several novels and one collection of novellas, following generally the same set of protagonists. Aside from being alternative history whodunnits, they play with the idea of what the immortality of a vampire means in the context of friendship and love with mortals. One of the main draws to me in the series definitely was the way in which Ms. Bear gives some of these themes more than the usual lip service.

The series jumps around in time a bit, and we get to see the same protagonists in several periods along their lives, and as the world changes around them. The narrative choices are well done, although I have to admit that the series leaves me wanting more, and there certainly is plenty material in the world and set of characters for countless more books. Bear’s web site suggests none are planned, but doesn’t exclude the possibility.

There is tragedy, but overall the stories are light enough to remain enjoyable. The prose is throughout competent, although not amazingly exceptional, the pacing is nice and the characters are interesting. Overall this was a pretty refreshing series, so I’ll give it four out of five.

Posted by Toivo Voll