DevOps is the way to IT nirvana, magically conjuring up the unicorns of agility, reliability, efficiency, engaged employees, and accelerated implementation schedules.
…Except we know the reality. It’s not about the tools or gimmicks – DevOps is a philosophy, and if an organization is built to, or transforms to follow the right principles those goals can be reached.
I want to address one particular aspect of this philosophy that I have not seen discussed enough – the Big Picture. There are two sides to this.
Back to basics! The point of all the DevOps magic is to achieve some goal in a more efficient manner. Unless the developers and operations teams know what this goal is, and how they can contribute to it, the wrong initiatives and work get prioritized, and the work done is less meaningful in the end. Surprise, there’s nothing dev-opsy about this, it’s all about good, traditional communication and management. The need for clear direction, planning, and execution and communicating it down the organizational structure doesn’t vanish even if the engineers are wizards. Make sure development and operations engineers have a good idea what the organization is trying to do, and let them find ways to contribute. It means better focused work, and more meaningfully engaged employees.
Having a two-way communication between development and ops isn’t really a DevOps thing either; it’s clearly a part of a healthy ITIL, Site Reliability Engineering, Agile, DevOps or pick-your-methodology organization.
It matters for multiple reasons.
First, if there is a division in labor between the operational tasks and the development-oriented tasks, communication helps foster better cooperation between the respective employees and groups.
Second, it makes for better solutions – having operations weigh in on what kinds of things make life easier and reduce unnecessary work and engineering on the front end of projects can be incredibly helpful. (*cough* Proper application-level HA. *cough*)
Third, it is a sign of a healthy organization and makes the role of an operations engineer more rewarding. If the operations engineers don’t have the time or the opportunity to get involved on the front-end of projects, it either means that they’re overworked, or that they’re getting the mushroom treatment and handed projects they have to magically make work without having been able to influence the design. Both of these are significant red flags.
Like so many parts of the DevOps fever, once you unpack the principles behind it, it turns out that there are some good, common-sense ideas at play. It’s not that DevOps is conceptually that different from the ITIL wheels of continuous improvement, it’s more about figuring out how to actually allow that ideal to be reached without falling into the process morass ITIL brought us. Alternatively, in places where strict controls and processes are unavoidable, there are still great lessons to be learned from DevOps and Agile methodologies.
I’m reviewing these two books together, since the Phoenix Project builds largely on The Goal by applying the Theory of Constraints to the IT environment.
The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt is familiar to anyone who has studied management. It tells a fictional story, following a protagonist struggling with production problems at a manufacturing plant. By following the protagonist’s journey in understanding the problem definition, the mechanisms in action, and how to improve the situation the reader gains the same information, is guided through the logic and thought process, and the theory is applied to (fictional) practice. It’s not the most riveting piece of fiction ever written, and Goldratt spends too much time showing just how bad the problem is and the protagonist’s frustration before moving onto the enlightenment steps. That said, it’s certainly a much more pleasant and effective way to convey the concepts Goldratt wants to share than a traditional theory book would be; much like a a textbook it does require the reader to put it down here and there and think through what just happened and was suggested.
The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford follows the same method, but is objectively a much better book. It starts off with a dysfunctional IT organization within a company. Here it shines by painting a picture of archetypal IT staffers and situations with such skill that anyone who ever has worked in IT may be tempted to replace the characters with names from their own organization. The pain-points are also all too familiar. It moves along at a much faster pace while still succeeding in conveying the principles and theory it sets out to communicate.
The Phoenix Project in particular should be required reading for anyone in IT operations or development to get a better idea of organizations as a whole, especially management. Regardless, helping the reader understand how to be more efficient, and how to spot inefficiencies around them, it is helpful no matter the level of an employee. It additionally serves as a great source of references for more reading, such as Personal Kanban, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and The Goal to name a few.
The Phoenix Project I highly recommend; if you want to get into more nitty-gritty about the Theory of Constraints in still a very accessible work, The Goal is a good follow-up.
Last year I attended New World Magischola, a weekend-long wizard school live-action roleplay event (larp) where I played a student attending wizard university. Think Brakebills or where Harry Potter would have gone after graduating Hogwarts. I do not consider myself a larper, and I haven’t ever done anything like it – but then again, neither had most of the other attendees. The weekend was amazing fun and I made a lot of great friends. In short, imagine these events as really intense murder mysteries – you pretend to be a character, and go through various events reacting accordingly.
New World Magischola was inspired by the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a similar event held for several years now in a medieval castle (Zamek Czocha) in Poland. The chance was there, and I decided that I can’t pass up the opportunity to pretend to be a wizard in a magical castle, and so I attended the 11th iteration of the event.
College of Wizardry, or CoW for short, is often called a Nordic larp (no mechanical rules, high emotional content, high immersion), or a blockbuster larp (expensive tickets, high production values, great settings). This is interactive entertainment or theater where the participants create the plots and drama. You can be given the outline of a character and some character goals, or you can make your own. All the fellow students and even the professors are other players. There is no provided plot beyond the setting; the first two days of a new semester, ending in a formal dance. There are meals, there is a class schedule, and first years get sorted into houses. Everything else; the interactions, the tension, drama, excitement and love comes from the participants. The content of the classes is made up by the players of professors, and the particulars on sorting first years into houses is made up by the players playing prefects. This is fairly different from many other larps.
You assume the persona of a character Thursday night, and then act as them until Saturday night; in my case even my accommodations were theoretically in-character, so we were expected to act as the student character in our dorms (in reality when you’re dealing with luggage and toiletries and charging your cell phone the illusion isn’t entirely sustainable.)
I had a concept in mind – similar to the manga Inu-Yasha, except in this case I am a student with kitsune blood who gets accidentally bound to another student as a familiar. I still requested to be cast a character, with the idea that if I like parts of it I can utilize them, and if not I can just write my own. As these things tend to go, when I got the character draft and spoke with other players about what I wanted to do, things quickly changed and I ended up making my student character, Loki, a changeling pooka instead. I took some of the background from the given draft, and filled it out with the fae angle and various other details.
Here is the account of who I was, and what happened.
The Character: Loki von Essen
Loki was born in Berlin to Rudolf Alwin von Essen, a renowned hexblood healer specializing in werewolf specific issues such as silver sensitivity, and Lúthien von Essen (nee Aubry), a fae from the Summer Court. Loki is their only child. By all accounts his parents have a strong, loving marriage, as unlikely as that seems between a fae and a human. Still, Loki suspects that his mother is using him as a pawn in some long game of hers. As good of a mother as she tries to be, she is still fae and alien, and the lack of a human mother’s love has left an imprint on Loki; his father is the source of most of the warmth, but as he is often busy and absent-minded, there is a limit to the love he could provide.
The von Essen family sided with werewolves during the Lander werewolf Rebellion; they view the affair as a great tragedy all around. They helped run a safehouse where injured and non-combatant werewolves could hide and be taken care of. The Guardians found the location, and carnage ensued; Loki watched his friends and strangers get ripped apart and burned by silver and Guardian magic, and he watched his friends tear Guardians apart. When it all settled, the von Essen family had lost any chance of remaining in their Conflux and most of their wealth, exiled to their summer house in Ahlbeck on Usedom Island. Any surviving friends that Loki had from his Berlin days were either in hiding or on the run. One of the survivors from this time shared a story of Alexie Cortez and Jaxon Thrace, although Loki realized the significance of this only much later.
Not long after moving to Ahlbeck, Loki began to have visions. At times without any obvious trigger, but mostly when he touched someone; flashes of the person’s future or past. This “gift” together with the nightmares of the rebellion and his identity and self-esteem issues made him a social outcast when he attended the Balt Meddin academy.
The other significant effect of his fae blood did not help either: Loki has the ability and outright need to shapeshift into a fox; being a pooka changeling. He soon realized that fae were considered by many to be just another kind of demon, and in any event a dangerous extradimensional creature best banished, and so attempted to keep his nature a secret.
Loki’s fae blood gives him sensitivity to iron, in particular cold iron, and most other things that ward off fae.
Light & Dark
This is verbatim material from the character I was given, and I liked it so kept most of it:
Light Side:You are a good and forthcoming person, who wants the best for all. Some call it naive, others call it an intuitive personality trait. You can’t help carefully prompting people to react in the right way in order to avoid accidents or get good grades. “Do not wear yellow today”, “write home”, “take an umbrella”, “pack extra ink” – those lines seem quite innocent, so you’re hoping that there won’t be any questions asked. After all, if they listen to you, nothing bad will happen and therefore there will be no need to ask… right?
Dark Side:You are afraid. Deep inside, you fear the judgement and rejection of people around you. You hate it when people don’t listen to you or take you seriously. Sometimes it drives you to behave erratically – sometimes it even drives you to hurt the people close to you. Secrets are lies and lies are hurtful. You are maybe not be as good at hiding it all as you think you are. You need to let these secrets out – but how? You can’t stop worrying that, if people find out, you will be forever seen as a lunatic or a freak.
Balt Meddin Academy
Once ready to enter the educational system, Loki was selected to attend the Balt Meddin academy. At Balt Meddin Loki turned out to have a natural ability with plants due to his fae blood, but he chose to not apply himself to botany or herbology. He was an outsider who didn’t fit in and had few friends. He dated Alexis Rafalko until a fateful night where she looked through his memories, and Jadwiga Marszelek until she saw evidence of his shapeshifting and accused him of being a werewolf. Loki publicly bit her in response, and that was the end of any hope of having a sane social life at the school.
He did befriend Jade Rantzau, having had a fateful prophecy relating to her brother Alex, and Deidra Witek, who recognized the fae magic in him, and was dealing with some unusual magic issues herself. He found Wolfram Neumann a good lab partner, had a very awkward connection with Kameela Hussain having accidentally seen her big secret and occasionally using it as blackmail. Balo Ravenn’s father worked with Loki’s father, and they shared research interests as well. He had also seen glimpses of Georgina Baldini’s secrets.
Loki developed an attitude problem, dealing with his fears and insecurities by easily going to the offense – but those who managed to look deeper could tell that under the suspicious, mercenary devil-may-care shell he was fundamentally a pretty decent sort and a competent young healer.
During the end of the Balt Meddin semester before getting into Czocha, Loki decided he no longer wanted to be the bullied outcast kid, and he needed powerful allies. He went back to Rafalko, and met with her and Agatha Winding to enter into their secret society. He made a blood pact with Agatha, preventing him from betraying her or her family.
Planned Plot Ideas
Fae Secret Exposed
Having his fae identity revealed in some public manner that causes trouble. Getting caught in a ritual or ward, or having someone out him. Professor Felicity Wraithwood would flip out, as she was very anti-fae. Some other professors were supposed to drop hints about how troublesome the fae are and how to find them.
Shortly before the game, after she was cast, the player of Arachne Hemlock, the Janitor and younger sister to headmistress Edwina Hemlock and Guardian, Conflux Studies professor Ursula Hemlock, revealed how her plot and background could work for Loki. She had been kept as a servant in Faerie for the past seven years before escaping, and we agreed that the fae that kept her was none other than Loki’s mother, and she was trying to use him to get into the castle to get Arachne back. A particular idea was that Agatha Winding and/or Alexis Rafalko would threaten Loki during lunch, and he’d use his blood right to command Arachne to help him, thereby exposing both Arachne’s story and his own for other players to explore.
Being Bitten by a Vampire or Werewolf
Being bitten by a vampire, and causing the vampire to get drunk/high from his fae blood. Alternatively, being immune to lycanthropy and having the werewolf clearly tell he’s not human from the taste of his blood.
Iron Covenant / Trouble with Winding and Rafalko
Loki is driven by a thirst of knowledge and a desire to surpass his father in skill and fame; that requires knowledge, and if rules are in the way of acquiring this knowledge, it’s OK to ignore the rules. I expected Loki to be dragged along things like demon summonings, or sacrificing fellow students, or other such endeavors. I intended for Loki to get into trouble, but also out of it before it was too late, so he would end the game on a positive note.
This plot is one of those things the character tells me about. Loki experienced lust on first sight when he learned about Bastian “Baz” Lihs, the prefect of house Durentius, bad-ass werewolf. The dynamics of attraction are complicated, and there’s a core of something more serious, but since Loki was challenged to be bold and the double-entendres write themselves when a house has a rooster as its heraldic animal… For emotional safety, it had been agreed with Baz’s player that either Loki would be successful, or they’d end up friends. There was a lot of very lewd and public play around this theme in online roleplaying prior to the event.
Also arranged in the pre-game online roleplay was that one of Baz’s housemates, Maddy Owen, would help Loki chase the prefect, but only at the price of calling her “senpai” for the weekend. Unbeknownst to Maddy the way this agreement was worded actually made it a fae pact with Loki.
I’m still not entirely sure of the reasons Loki was so attracted to Baz, but I suspect it partially had to do with the way both of the characters were “broken” and how he thought he might be able to help him.
To be more angsty and dark and morally grey than my previous New World Magischola character Mietto, but make sure I end the game on a decent note and if he goes down the wrong path that there’s some redemption.
I wanted to play Loki as somewhat eerie and disturbing, and possibly somewhat stand-offish, quick to take offense to perceived slights.
College of Wizardry 11 – What Happened
This section is a heavily abridged version of the game from Loki’s perspective.
Loki arrives at Czocha, gets his robe, and is both nervous and excited. There are new people, new professors, the promise of learning new things, powerful allies and protectors, and some old acquaintances.
Loki finds the Durentius table and sits across from Baz, trying to catch his eye; Baz tries his best to ignore him. Maddy-senpai pokes Loki and reminds him of the agreed upon first thing he needs to do. Loki begins to apologize and fix his feud with Jadwiga. Overall dinner is a good time, and it’s exciting to see all the new fellow students around. Later Loki is told in no uncertain terms that he’s expected to sit at the Faust table instead, and obeys; he misses the camaraderie from the other house tables. He’s beginning to wonder if his deal with Agatha and Falko was all that smart after all.
Loki joins the tour of the castle given by the Janitor, Arachne Hemlock. He begins to get a nagging suspicion that he somehow knows her from somewhere. The tour gets quickly hijacked by Jonathan the Friendly Ghost and some house goblin, and… it ends up costing everyone a fair bit of points, since the students were lead right into the teacher’s lounge bathroom through the secret passages. Needless to say, the students get caught.
Loki joins the prefect-led second tour of the castle. Riley Krol is leading Loki’s half of the tour, and during the dungeon part straps Dee to the torture table, and… is there something between the two?
Tavern and Curfew
After the tours Loki goes to the tavern in an attempt to socialize and he tries a bottle of the famed honey beer. Just before curfew, he manages to get hall pass from Prof. Morgan.
Departing the tavern, Loki hears screaming from the forest and goes investigate. He finds the aftermath of the Sewing Club (unofficial and illegal fight club) meeting. The club had attempted to summon some creatures for fighting practice, but instead what appeared was a Fae lord, a werewolf and a minotaur. In the ensuing hubbub Riley is injured, but since Loki knows she’s a werewolf, he gives her a special potion. (Unbeknownst to Loki Riley is lying about being a werewolf.)
Professor Felicity Wraithwood shows up and is unhappy, but ends up awarding points for bravery and healing and generally being competent about the situation.
Loki goes to bed.
Loki’s been told to quit it with hanging out with Durentius, so he’s obediently sitting at the Faust table. Attendance is pretty sparse, and he doesn’t really talk much.
The class is somewhat basic for Loki, with mixing potions to prevent mundanes from sharing secrets they may have overseen, and each student has to pick a favorite tool, and he has a chance to meet some other students.
This class was interesting, because it involves remotely monitoring vital signs of a creature, and basic first aid so things entirely up Loki’s alley. Students bandage each other and some of Loki’s tools such as his scissors come in handy. A minotaur is brought into class for further practical exercises and the class learns how to interact with a minotaur and calm one down. Baz is also present to observe despite this being a junior class, but nobody seems to know what latin name the spells require to analyze his vital signs; it turns out he doesn’t really know what kind of werewolf he is. Loki manages to play it cool and not focus on him, but makes a mental note to find out more. Loki likes professor Emerald Finn and asks her for more information about werewolves for the next class.
Magical Defense Class
Taught by prefect Alexa “Lexi” Cortez ecause the actual professor, Jaxon Thrace is missing. The exercise is to have two pairs face each other; the attacker of one of the pairs picks a target in random, and then the pair member that isn’t being attacked has to defend their partner, or experience the effects of the spell. It’s pretty tough for juniors, and Loki breaks off from his group for a while when a student is injured. Professor Alice Morgan supervises the class. Loki thinks Lexi in charge is fetching. Loki’s partner is Jolene Rosario. Homework is to come up with a set of four spells, and Loki plans to get together with Jolene for it later.
Loki sits with Faust. Not much happens.
Basics about extradimensional creatures, some discussion of ethics. Homework: find wards around school and figure out what they do.
Ritual Magic Class
I skipped this, but don’t recall why. Didn’t find the location?
Learning about the theory of signatures, and use of plants for visions. Loki gets to listen to professor Felicity Wraithwood talk about how bad Fae are. After class, professor Wraithwood confronts him about being fae. She’s disappointed in him for not having told her before joining a research trip during the semester break. Loki expected her to be a lot more prejudiced and make his life hard, but there’s no indication of such from her. Instead, he’s reminded to come to the 23:30 special class to learn more about himself.
Loki gets a hall pass from professor Rowan Ripley, as well as some vampire blood, as she is one. He’s really surprised at how nice the crazy counselor is, and continues to be a bit suspicious about her not asking for favors or payment.
Loki is called in front of a panel of prefects to answer questions to determine which house he’ll go to. All the questions but two are about how much Loki wants to get into Baz’s pants; Loki asks Baz to the ball and is rejected; Loki asks if Baz’s date minds that they leave the ball together, and it turns out there is more between Jade Rantzau and Baz than they had realized. Loki has been given plenty of tokens to make sure he ends in Faust, and he also comes with a fair number of points. Houses Libussa and Molin also make a claim.
Dinner and Sorting Results
Sorting results are announced and to nobody’s surprise Loki ends in Faust. He has made peace with being in that house, though is a bit nervous about just how power-hungry the culture will be. He is given the blue Faust house tie, and is initiated to Czocha through a ritual administered by the faculty. Unbeknownst to Loki this now means that Czocha is now his home, and hence his fae mother can enter without being nearly as bothered by the wards intended to keep out uninvited visitors as she otherwise would be.
Masked house members take the juniors to the lower courtyard archway. The juniors are blindfolded, and then each is chosen by a sophomore mentor, and lead to the basement. All the juniors have to share a secret, somewhat anonymous since they’re still blindfolded. Loki admits that he is a pawn to his mother’s machinations. Then the blindfold is removed, and they have to choose which junior they would have die if they had to choose; Loki cheats and chooses himself. He feels guilty for not doing the exercise, but can’t bring himself to, even hypothetically, choose anyone else. Afterwards he’s a little bothered by not having had the clarity of mind to see who pointed at him. He also learns who his mentor is, Drusilla Allegro. Loki doesn’t really know her well, but is somewhat intimidated by her intensity and the reputation as a rich hexist student. After the ritual the Faustians move back to the common room, and Loki learns more about the house, that it is co-ruled by the two prefects and three council members (including Agatha and Rafalko). This essentially means that Agatha’s cabal is in control of house Faust. A house tattoo is applied.
Evening Free Time
Loki runs into Baz in the hallway, and manages to have a brief serious talk with him and begins to build better rapport.
Basement Beer Brigade Meeting
Loki rushes to the Basement Beer Brigade meeting in the tower. Thanks to it being dark, I can actually climb there. The tower is dark, so climbing in the light of my wand means I never see the heights; I’m in a little bubble of light. The tower is full of students looking for hidden wards and sigils, but they come up short and vacate, and then the rest of the beer brigade crew arrives. The story of Arachne Hemlock is revealed. Loki’s suspicion is confirmed, leaving him in a very awkward mood knowing that Arachne is his mother’s escaped “servant.” Loki knows that what her mother did is wrong and cruel by human standards, and wonders what his guilt and culpability in the matter are, having known about it and done nothing to confront his mother.
Tending to a Werewolf Bite
Loki leaves the BBB meeting early to get to the Herbology extracurricular class. Before getting to the bottom of the stairs, he’s grabbed to the Faust common room to deal with a student who has suffered a werewolf bite. Loki does what he can, but it’s a virtual certainty that the lycanthropy has taken and the student will turn; it’s just a matter of trying to support the process and make sure it’s a good change and providing the student with peer support.
Ladies Agatha Winding and Alexis Rafalko order Loki to follow them to the dungeon and to ignore his herbology class. Baz, Jadwiga, Artemis Dupont and professor Nathaniel MacKenzie are also present. Loki is really uneasy about standing up professor Wraithwood, but isn’t willing to disobey Agatha.
Once in the basement, Agatha summons demons so people can bargain with them. Loki hides in a corner whimpering in terror because he knows he’s among the tastiest treats the demons know. Rafalko is ecstatic with his terror.
The summoning is busted. People try to escape, but most get caught; Ursula Hemlock and worse, Felicity Wraithwood are Very Disappointed and promise repercussions the next morning.
I had suspected something like the summoning would happen, but getting caught was a complete surprise. Shell-shocked, in-and-out-of-game, I go to bed. I then message the player or Arachne out-of-game, realize our Saturday plan is shot, get back up and spend until late trying to coordinate and fix things with her.
On the way back to bed I get intercepted by Agatha and Falko – Agatha feeds on Loki’s fae blood, Falko on his terror, and she takes Loki’s memories of what happened during the demon summoning so he cannot testify during his upcoming interrogation. This was a fantastically intense scene, and I enjoyed it a lot.
People talk about things that happened the previous night with the werewolf bitten student, and Loki is clueless, confusing the others that were part of the event. Loki is perfectly happy because he has no recollection of what happened, until there’s an announcement that he’s to show up for an interview. He’s surprised and unsettled. When he shows up, he is told to go to class instead and that he would be fetched later.
Loki is on pins and needles and worries about what’s going on, but goes to class. Not long after the start of class Loki is dragged out by professors Jaxon Thrace and Markus Scholtz and relieved of his wands.
Ursula Hemlock, Markus Scholtz and Jaxon Thrace begin to interrogate the terrified Loki. He doesn’t have any idea what the commotion is about, and by now it’s obvious that someone has messed with his memories – his talks with Baz and other important stuff is gone too. He’s terrified, and has no idea what to do. He only remembers Alexis Rafalko’s eyes. The interrogation goes further, and triggers his blood bond, causing him to writhe in agony; Ursula seems not bothered at all. To escape the torture, he calls on his mother’s bond and commands Arachne Hemlock to protect him. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. The interrogation stops, and he’s dismissed so the Hemlocks can deal with the revelation about Arachne.
Alchemy Class Continued
Unsettled and very frightened, Loki goes back to class, which ends almost not soon thereafter.
The class is interesting, and there’s talk about dragons and some unknown creatures. Loki thinks the two unknown creatures probably are fae. Students can sign up for times to tend to animals. Loki has trouble paying attention because he’s distracted by the trouble he’s in; nobody really asks him about it.
Loki and a number of other students accidentally end up in sword class instead of magical defense, due to miscommunication about where it was. Loki discovers he’s rubbish with swords. A goblin watches the class, and for a brief moment is armed; this doesn’t end well, as he’s rather peeved about something.
Loki gets package from secret admirer. Overall it’s still very awkward. He asks Maddy to go to the ball, and in the end they agree to have a date in detention instead.
Professor Rowan Ripley and Lexi ask him to do a blood test to find whether they’re related, using the blood Rowan already gave him. Yes, they are.
Teaching a Fae about Magic
Professor Felicity Wraithwood takes Loki to an alcove in front of the dungeon, and teaches him to control his fae magic so he can try to break away from Agatha. This was also the turning point of Loki’s redemption arc. He verbalized the regret of his earlier indiscriminate thirst for knowledge, and his understanding of the humanity and compassion that was driving him and the need to nurture them instead of sacrificing them in the search of knowledge for any price. There is knowledge that is not worth having, because the price is the inability to use the knowledge for what one wanted it in the first place.
Loki rushes to his class. Thankfully it’s in the forest; Loki finds the setting calming and it’s fun to be there with permission. Professor Sholtz has arranged for the class to meet some dryads and talk with them about the relationship of nature and Czocha and other issues. It’s very nice, although a rain makes things chilly and cuts the conversation short. When everyone else is out of earshot, Loki apologizes to the Dryads for the mess his mother’s been causing with her attempts to force into the castle. The professor doesn’t seem to treat Loki any differently, despite having dragged him out of class earlier.
Something happened at this point to make me significantly late to the next class, but I can’t recall what it was.
Ritual Magic Class
Loki arrives late to ritual magic. There’s a faun with lost memories. Participate in ritual to bring them back, helpfully knowing fae magic. There’s bleed, and Loki’s scrambled memories return, except for the actually removed ones. He’s pissed, but immensely grateful to remember his talk with Baz again.
The herbology class was a combined special class. Everyone was called into the library, and then an injured minotaur appeared through the secret passage. Students had to recall their lessons from herbology and beastology to calm it down, diagnose and treat the wound. Loki ended up tending to it up close while other students prepared healing rituals and attended to other wounds. Towards the end Loki took the minotaur’s hand, and in agony it crushed his. Luckily he had the skills and ability to heal himself after the class.
Bargain for Arachne’s Freedom
Loki’s mother is summoned, the fae lord appears as well. Professor Sholtz, one of his students, Arachne and Edwina bargain for Arachne’s freedom. Loki’s order to Arachne is cancelled, and as payment for that service Arachne only needs to return for one day to serve Lúthien. Loki is very awkward, and knows his mother isn’t happy with him, but she departs before he has a chance to talk to her.
Faust House Photo
Photos are taken in the auditorium. Faust house members are told to attend a meeting in the Faust common room after dinner.
Dinner and Sentencing
Loki is unsettled at dinner. Many of his friends have reconnected, made up, broken up and everything seems to be in flux. People are talking about the ball, and he’s still trying to come to grips with Baz and Jade being an item, and Jade having found his way to his heart.
At the end of dinner an announcement is made. Agatha is expelled, the rest of the group is under Restriction and is only allowed wands and magic under supervision during classes. Loki’s shocked, but he was really fearing expulsion or being thrown the Pits, so he’s very relieved. Loki still doesn’t know what actually happened.
Rafalko is very upset about Agatha’s expulsion and tries to get Loki to understand that she’s doing things for his own good.
Dahlia Ferro asks Loki for help with her friend Willomeina Jones, Willow for short, who is missing and she suspects she might be in Faerie, but there’s not much Loki can do other than offer to help with location spells.
Faust House Meeting
Riley has arranged to stage a coup. Unhappy with the way the demon summoning cost the house points and its shot at the house cup and the infamy it brought the house he’s arranged for a vote. The council is dissolved, and for all purposes Agatha is expelled. This is very tense; Loki has sworn loyalty to Rafalko and Agatha, but it’s obvious by now that it was a mistake. Riley, the werewolf prefect, and a number of other Faustians, including professor Wraithwood, the house monitor, are clearly united against Agatha and have runes to protect them against demonic possession and control; the rest of the house might not have ethical qualms with the dark ladies, but goes along with the coup. Loki is put on the spot and asked to vote against Agatha; he physically can’t, but even his attempt is counted. Despite everything, that moment of betrayal shames him deeply.
Loki is trying to be more responsible and address past misdeeds. Loki confesses to Maddy that he’s half-fae and had tricked her into a fae pact with him. He dissolves the pact and apologizes. Maddy says she wasn’t OK with being tricked and gets serious for a moment.
Detention is cancelled, so Loki takes Maddy to the party instead and has a dance with her. He plans to claim his promised dance with Baz, and overall socialize and make sure he’s on good terms with people. Partly this is driven by my out-of-game desire to tie up loose ends and spend at least a little more time with people I felt I had not see much of.
Instead, Loki is whisked away to help save Willow, who has returned, but is slowly turning into a full-blooded fae. Loki uses a black feather and fae magic to give Jonathan the ghost a corporeal form so Willow can dance with him. The fae lord also hangs around, and eventually a deal is struck with him to allow Willow to retain her humanity. All the participants in this deal, including Baz, Ursula Hemlock, Lexi and Loki lose a year of their lives. Loki comments that Baz is now a silver fox. It’s later revealed that Ursula had 15 months to live, so will now never see her next school year.
Back at the Ball
To his surprise, Agatha spontaneously releases Loki from his blood bond before leaving Czocha. Rafalko also attempts to make up and explains that she had good motives for all she did. Loki is convinced that she truly believes it, as horrifically twisted as her world view is.
I line up for photos with Baz. The Faust prefect Riley approaches Loki and offers to support him in switching houses because she knows he was coerced into Faust. Everyone’s commanded into Knight’s Hall for announcements.
Losing speeches are delivered, and the larp ends and becomes an afterparty.
Line up for photos again, and actually get photos with Baz.
Things that happened at some point
After feeling adrift with Baz clearly unattainable, Loki and Maddy talk about vanilla ice cream and licking bowls clean of delicious desserts, and the need to not always eat the same dessert. Loki tries to tell Maddy how much she appreciates her having been there for her and a good friend.
Loki’s masochism and submissive nature, and attraction to the likes of Falko and Agatha are probably due to his mother (and the PTSD from seeing his friends killed and killing in front of him as a teen during the Lander werewolf rebellion.)
What Actually Happened with Plots
Iron Covenant / Trouble with Winding and Rafalko
This worked out great, though I had a bit of anxiety over it, and I didn’t get to make it as fun for the villains as everyone had hoped. The main problem was that I had very little time or interaction with Agatha and Rafalko, and a lack of communication on what and when people wanted to do.
In the end Loki ended up with a proper redemption arc that was nice and neat and better than anything I had planned, so this really did work out in the end.
This was a ton of fun for everyone leading up to the game and during the game. Obviously not getting the guy was a bit of a downer, and there were some details afterwards that warranted some clarifying with other players after the game, but overall this worked out well. A lot less actual play than I had hoped, though, because again there were very few occasions where Loki actually ran into Baz. The lesson that one should approach any kind of romantic plots with caution and at least in my case with pre-planning was definitely reinforced.
Fae Secret Exposed
This ended up not really happening. I left the details open, and then Yoru suggested a fantastic public scene at lunch Saturday that would also do exposition for Arachne’s plot… but the demon summoning and getting into trouble forced that scene to happen earlier in private at the teacher’s lounge instead. In the end he was never publicly outed, and I think there wouldn’t have been a ton of fallout even if he had. There was also another student, Willow, who went fae Saturday afternoon/evening, and my plot might have detracted from hers. Similarly, summoning Loki’s mother to deal with Arachne’s deal ended up being more sparsely attended as planned due to photo schedule overlap. There was some confusion who was supposed to be active in that scene as well. No magic was ever cast that affected him, nobody noticed or cared about him avoiding all the iron door handles, and I also never got a vampire to bite him.
Professor Wraithwood found out from the get go, as some of the other staff players hadn’t understood that his fae nature wasn’t in-game knowledge. Instead of leading the anti-fae charge, she became Loki’s savior. While it didn’t go to plan, the entire relationship and arc with Wraithwood was better than anything planned.
This was completely unexpected. I had heard there was another fae student during the game, but didn’t actually find her until Saturday night when I was asked to come save her. I wish I had a chance to learn her story in more detail, but it was fantastic fun to help with it, and the player did an absolutely amazing job portraying at a fae creature.
Loki’s Your Guy!
Somehow Loki ended becoming the go-to healer for werewolves and fae! Not entirely sure how that happened, but I’d love to repeat it. He also managed to gain the trust of the werewolves, they had been fairly hesitant and stand-offish during pre-game interactions. Both Loki and I were very happy about this.
Friendship with Maddy
Getting along with Maddy was not unexpected, but that she ended up becoming perhaps his closest friend was not planned. Maddy was a fun character that made my play better, and psychologically a great help for Loki.
Playing with Relations
I had set up various relationships pre-game, and ended up playing with very few of them. I definitely bit off more than I could chew there. In particular, repairing my relationship with Jadwiga and helping her get out of trouble with Agatha and Rafalko, being a wing-man for Deidra Witek, tormenting Kameela Hussain, talking research with Georgina Baldini, doing homework with Jolene Rosario to mention just a few. Some players did mention that even the little hallway encounters added to their game, though. All the planned shenanigans with Wolfram Neumann never happened due to lack of time.
Loki the Weird Jerk
I was unable to really play Loki as morally grey, standoffish or easily offended. Instead he became somewhat of a nice guy and people seemed to like him. I’m OK with this; I don’t think it would’ve added a lot, and it certainly is better to play someone you want to play than force things.
A Few Words on Costuming and Props
I am anything but confident about my costuming ability. Compared to people like Eline who change their facial structure with contouring, work magic with wigs and contacts and wardrobe, I feel like I’m a pudgy middle aged guy with hair that sticks up one way and have no clue how to change that.
I envisioned Loki as a goth/metalhead kind of person. Lots of black, straps and zippers and chains and such. Obviously I headed to Hot Topic, only to discover they didn’t carry any of that stuff anymore. I tried to make do with what I had in my closet. I had ordered some bracelets and belt chains off Amazon, and combined those with a black dress shirt and old black combat boots. I also got a Howey-style lab coat (an actual lab coat, instead of the much more impressive and more expensive cosplay mad scientist version), and goggles, with the hope I could use them in a class setting, or when doing significant healing. Finally, by someone’s suggestion, I had bought a cheap stethoscope, trauma shears, and novelty pens that look like syringes with variously colored liquids (I took out the pen parts and glued the rest together).
A few days before my trip I stopped by Burlington Coat factory to see if I can find a cheap jacket that would fit Loki – and I did, a nice black leather one. I also ended up finding a few cheap vests, including a blue one, which I picked up with the hope Loki would end up in Faust, and a pair of fashionable(?) stretchy distressed jeans with a ton of zippers and pockets – the exact kind of thing I had wanted from Hot Topic, but now at outlet prices. Score.
In total I felt like my costume was very hodgepodge but at least better than everyday wear. I was pretty floored when someone approached me after the game praising my costuming. I suppose it wasn’t as half-baked as I felt, but this is one facet of the hobby in which I certainly intend to improve.
To carry all that gear I really wanted an excuse to buy and wear a leg bag, but I wasn’t able to convince myself that any of the ones I could get online would be big enough to fit the potion case. Instead I got a sling bag — the sling part ended up not working well at all, so I just ended up carrying the bag around.
The big prop I had worked on was my potions case; a $.99 wood box from Michael’s, on which I then ended up spending a good $30 of stain and sanding and sealant and decorative corners and whatnot; inside I built a little wooden grid to hold small vials which I had left over from my Magischola character, added an Adafruit Trinket Arduino-clone, some Neopixel strips, a contact switch and a 16850 lithium-ion battery holder. The idea was that when the box opens it lights up revealing a stasis field, and then energizes the potions. Unfortunately something ended up draining the battery much faster than expected, so it stopped working before Saturday, and I hadn’t brought a charger. Some people thought it was cool, I thought it was cool, but overall it didn’t seem to get much attention or add that much to the game, and considering the amount of time spent on the thing, let alone money, it wasn’t worth it. Getting experience in building it, on the other hand, was.
Other items were a wand holster rig and name tag holder I commissioned from Nerdy Niceness, one wand (with a UV) light I built myself, and my main wand (white light) the finishing of which I commissioned from Silver Wing Creations. I got fancy with the cores and electronics, but actually making them look like wands, let alone nice, is still something I haven’t figured out at all. I’ll blog about those and the potion case more in the future. I also brought random odds and ends, including silvery cake decorating powder to make glistening magical potions and drinks, but there ended up never being time or an opportunity to use it either.
These kinds of “blockbuster” larps, or “Nordic” larps aren’t for everyone. They assume a certain level of familiarity with typical wizard school tropes and modern fantasy, and a good dose of willingness to play make-believe. That said, both New World Magischola and College of Wizardry had a lot of first time larpers, and even more people who have never played in a game like this before, and the large majority loved it. It’s hard to not find this kind of thing addictive, and it can be hard to let go of it after the event ends. After all, you just spent a weekend being someone cool, having power over your fate, the ability to take risks without real fear of death or permanent injury, being young and exploring a world of magic and wonder. Coming back to the everyday can be pretty hard. Partly this also explains why so many of the players, who didn’t know each other before, bond and become friends.
If you think you’d like something like this, and there’s any way you can swing the time and money – do it. This kind of event is as far from a local college larp as a corvette is from a bicycle. It’s different, it’s all about emotions and relationships, but it’s unlike anything else you can do, and there’s no way I can begin to convey just how amazing of an experience it can be.
I spent a weekend in a medieval castle being a half-fae wizard, summoning demons, climbing dark towers in the night, being dragged in front of a Guardians, sneaking through secret passages, saving the lives of injured fellow students. This was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.