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Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wizards of the CoastMeh.

The primary arc of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is disappointingly linear. Disappointing because the concept is so delightfully ripe for a non-linear approach: The Cult of the Dragon has abandoned its previous plans of turning dragons into dracoliches and has allied itself with a variety of living dragons and their half-breed offspring to free Tiamat from her infernal prison. In order to do this, feuding factions within the cult are seeking out five powerful artifacts which take the form of dragon masks (one for each of Tiamat’s chromatic heads).

Five masks lost in disparate locations? Multiple cult factions simultaneously pursuing semi-compatible goals?! When I first read the background I was absolutely convinced I was about to read the D&D equivalent of Masks of Nyarlathotep and have my brain blown at the prospect of node-based scenario design being used as the introductory campaign for an entire generation of gamers.

Sadly, not to be.

Instead, the campaign is a pretty rigid “go to X, then go to Y, then go to Z” affair. Hoard of the Dragon Queen makes up for this, however, by designing most of the individual scenarios along its path in a delightfully non-linear fashion: Enemy strongholds are set up to reward frontal assaults, physical stealth, and clever infiltration. Fractious factions can be turned against each other using a variety of methods. Alliances can be forged and broken in myriad ways. Enemies surrendering and being questioned (instead of fighting bloodily to the death) is gloriously well-supported. Token guidance is even given for PCs who go wandering off the intended path on wild goose chases. And all of this goes hand-in-hand with a very utilitarian presentation which is starkly at odds with the overwritten-to-useless style which has afflicted a lot of published adventures in the last decade.

Which makes the scenarios where this liberal and refreshing approach is supplanted by a rigid railroad all the more puzzling.

This really only afflicts a couple of the scenarios, but unfortunately one of them is the first scenario and it’s laughably atrocious: There’s a lengthy sequence where the PCs are besieged in a castle (after getting railroaded into it, of course). The PCs are then supposed to go to the local duke (who basically has a yellow exclamation mark over his head) and get a quest to fight their way out of the besieged castle and accomplish some goal in the town. Then they fight their way back through the respawning kobolds on the drawbridge, return to the duke (who the adventure literally says waits for them in the same spot on the castle battlements), get their next quest, and then fight their way out again.

And if they do that two or three times, they’ll unlock a dialogue option where the duke tells them about a secret passage leading out of the castle so that they can bypass the respawning drawbridge encounter going forward.

It’s kind of astonishing that I kept reading the adventure after that.

Can I also take a moment here to point out that the campaign hook for Hoard of the Dragon Queen is absolutely ridiculous? The PCs are approaching a random town, crest a hill, and discover that it is being attacked by a dragon. Okay. That’s fine. But then the campaign assumes that the 1st level PCs are likely, when confronted with that sight, to decide that their best course of action is to walk into the town.

(Did I mention that the dragon is also accompanied by an entire army?)

Maybe I’m just spoiled by having players who aren’t seriously brain damaged, but I literally cannot imagine a scenario in which that hook would work.

But what kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not its inconsistent design. Nor its occasional absurdities. Nor the plentiful continuity errors. Nor the horrific editorial shortcomings. Nor the completely inadequate maps (some of which appear to be missing entirely, some of which don’t match the text, and many of which lack keyed entries they’re supposed to have).

No. What kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is that it’s so incredibly boring.

And I’m not talking about one of those adventures that’s just boring to read on the page. I mean that the contents of this adventure, basically from top to bottom, are generic and dull and trite and uninteresting: There is no kobold that isn’t a generic kobold. There is no bedroom that isn’t a generic bedroom. There is no swamp which isn’t a generic swamp. And there is absolutely nothing fantastical or wonderful or unique or memorable.

(The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.)

To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions to this general dullness. (Flying stolen wyverns to intercept the flying castle of a giant is the most notable one.) But for a campaign which I’m assuming will take at least 40-60 hours of table time to complete, those slim exceptions are wholly inadequate.

Which, ultimately, brings me back to the reaction I had most consistently and finally to Hoard of the Dragon Queen:

Meh.

Outside of a few truly awful sequences in the first scenario, there’s nothing here that’s really terrible. But there’s also nothing to be found between these covers to justify spending $30 on it (let alone another $30 on the essentially mandatory second volume). Most damning, however, is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen also lacks anything which will reward the countless hours of ponderous and forgettable playing time that you would languish upon it.

Grade: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Go to Part 1

2. Max Gladstone – Three Parts Dead / Two Serpents Rise

Three Parts Dead - Max GladstoneAs I type this, I am once again second-guessing the order of my top two picks for the John W. Campbell Award. But I’m just going to stick with what I put on my ballot while simultaneously encouraging you to check out both of these authors.

The central conceit of Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead is that (a) the performance of magic is a matter of manipulating certain laws; (b) it often involves a contract (or pact) between two parties of power; and (c) therefore the first thing any respectable sorceress is going to learn is contract law.

That feels like half a gimmick, but then Gladstone rapidly develops that simple idea into an infinitely clever universe.

An idea that I’ve heard ascribed to John Campbell, Frederick Pohl, and Connie Willis is that, given the idea of an automobile, pretty much anybody can imagine a highway. But the good science fiction writers will imagine the traffic jam. And that’s what Gladstone does here: Not in the sense of “magic is technology”, but rather building an entire society and culture and all the complex modes of life around the derivative consequences of a single, clever conceit.

And then Gladstone doubles down by hooking a literally epic murder mystery onto the glorious edifice he’s constructed: A god has been murdered.

Gladstone’s herorine — Tara Abernathy — is one part of insurance investigator, one part district attorney, and one part Merlin. She’s also a brilliantly realized and well-rounded character, joining a wide panoply of similar characters who populate the steampunk-infused metropolis of Alt Coulumb.

Frankly, this book is just fabulous. And while it mixes a lot of your favorite things, it also manages to infuse everything with a fresh breath of innovation that’s really exciting to see in a new author. I didn’t hesitate to add Gladstone to my “automatically buy his next book” list and I don’t hesitate to recommend him thoroughly and completely to you.

1. Ramez Naam – Nexus

Nexus - Ramez NaamI had very similar reactions to Nexus, but what pushed it to the top of my ballot is how deeply intrigued I was by Naam’s unique vision of the transhuman cusp: A drug (the titular Nexus) has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It has a nanotech component that, basically, wires up the brain to receive and send wi-fi signals. The early iterations of the drug just produce a weird and unique high, but then computer scientists (i.e., our main characters) realize that they can hack the thing and basically perform a bootstrap installation of a custom-built OS.

And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

(Where did this drug originally come from? Good question. The mystery behind that question is one of the things that really intrigued me about the book.)

This particular instantiation of the transhuman and Naam’s exploration of the different ways in which the technology could be used is definitely interesting and basically worth the price of admission here all by itself. But what elevates Nexus to the next level is Naam’s ability to portray characters with radical different opinions about the implications of both transhumanity in general and this technology specifically: Most authors would just give us “good guy transhumanists vs. evil luddites” or (vice versa) “dangerous transhumanists vs. good guy liberators of humanity”. Naam not only dodges that bullet by making both sides of the argument legitimate, he goes one step further and shows us how each side of the argument is actually a panoply of different opinions that are held for different reasons and pursued in different ways.

(This falls apart somewhat in the last twenty pages or so of the book as a couple of the characters kind of dip their toes into the moustache-twirling-villain pool, but this slight stumble at the finish line isn’t enough to detract from the rest of the accomplishment.)

I know quite a few people who follow this blog are fans of Eclipse Phase: This is going to be right up your alley. Check it out.

A FEW CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I really couldn’t be happier about participating in the Hugo Awards this year. Combing through the nominees introduced me to some truly wonderful authors who I will be making a point of paying very close attention to in the future, particularly:

  • Alietta de Bodard
  • Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew
  • Max Gladstone
  • Ramez Naam

And a number of other delightful and wonderful works (like “Wakulla Springs”, “The Butcher of Khardov”, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, “The Water That Falls on Your From Nowhere”, and “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”) that I would not otherwise have had the pleasure of encountering. I can only hope these reviews will serve to point some of you to exciting and invigorating discoveries of your own.

The 2014 Hugo Awards have been awarded at Loncon, but I wanted to share one last round of reviews for the John W. Campbell Award nominees because there’s some really awesome works among them that I want to share with you.

For those unfamiliar with it, the John W. Campbell Award is given to the Best New Writer whose first work appeared within the last two years. (This means that some of the nominees are in the second year of eligibility, whereas other nominees could be nominated again next year.)

Due to time constraints, I mostly limited myself to the works provided by these authors for the Hugo Voters Packet.

5. Wesley Chu – The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao is a perfectly nice piece of pulp fiction.

The central conceit is that an alien spacecraft crash landed on Earth several million years ago. These immortal aliens are wraith-like and find the harsh conditions of Earth’s environment debilitating and deadly. Fortunately, they’re able to merge themselves with higher lifeforms, like humans. While merged they can’t necessarily control their host (without great difficulty), but they can communicate with the host, providing them with superhuman insight, knowledge, and experience.

What makes the book effective pulp fiction is the emotionally satisfying life-transformation experienced by the geek-insert protagonist when he’s possessed by one of these aliens: From an unmotivated blob of nerd fat, he ends up becoming a fairly competent secret agent. Feel-good moments of engaging character development are intermixed effectively with a sequence of well-paced action sequences which slowly reveal more and more of the mythos which Chu has created.

The Lives of Tao - Wesley ChuWhat makes the book fairly forgettable, however, is the general lack of craft displayed in its execution. (As seen, for example, in the sloppy and repetitive prose.) What hurts the book particularly is the lack of real thought given to the world being built: I’m generally skeptical of “every important person in history was actually an alien/vampire/telepath” SF stories, but Chu actually carries off the broad strokes of that conceit better than most. Where he falls down is failing to really appreciate scale and impact: You’ve got a bunch of aliens who can’t talk to each other for millions of years until humans evolve because only humans have vocal cords. (Apparently the aliens forgot how writing works.) Then they all sit around not creating technological societies for several million years because… Umm… Well, actually, I don’t know. Historically that didn’t happen because it took human culture a long time to figure out that sort of thing was possible. But when you’ve got super-intelligent aliens guiding our actions who already know how technological societies work, it feels like it should have happened a lot sooner. It also feels like the holy books in this universe (all written by alien-possessed humans) should be filled with useful advice like “boil your water” and “wash your hands”, instead of random bullshit like “the flesh of a woman during her menstrual cycle is unclean”.

If the aliens had crash-landed in, say, 1453 AD (or even 157 BC) it would have all made a lot more sense. But it feels like Chu really liked the idea of his aliens remembering the time that they inhabited dinosaurs and he just kind of latched onto that image without really thinking through any of the consequences.

In any case, I don’t want to be too hard on The Lives of Tao. I’m actually being very sincere when I say that it’s enjoyable pulp fiction. In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I’ve got the sequel (The Deaths of Tao) tucked away on my reading list. If you’re looking for some entertaining fiction, this is definitely something you should consider. It’s just that Chu is so clearly outclassed by every other nominee for this award that his placement at the bottom of the list is fairly self-evident.

Grade: D

4. Sofia Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria

I’ll be honest in saying that Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria faced an uphill slog for me because the particular type of fiction she’s aiming to create is not one that I generally find palatable. (It’s not really a specific sub-genre; it’s just the quasi-literary feel of the story.) If your mileage varies, I suspect you could easily love this book. (And clearly the mileage varied for a lot of people because Samatar won the award this year.)

I suspect this book also fared poorly with me because I had so recently read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun: A Strange in Olondria is trying to accomplish a lot of the same things that Wolfe did (albeit in a classic fantasy setting instead of a science fantasy setting), but Wolfe just clearly does it better in every single possible way, whether you’re talking about quality of prose; depth of character; pacing; creativity; impact; etc.

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia SamatarMore generally, I knew that A Stranger in Olondria had problems when I saw that I was 20% of the way through the book and nothing had happened: The author had guided us through a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story of a young boy who really loves books (yawn!), but nothing had actually happened in the course of that story.  It was just generic events being reported generically. I decided that I would give the book until 25% completion to actually do something (a luxury I almost certainly would not have given it if not for the award nomination), and it just barely managed to accomplish that by launching the actual plot of the book just before hitting that mark: The character is possessed by a ghost and has to figure out how to get rid of it.

At this point there’s a short flurry of activity and then… nothing happens again. For a very long time. There’s another lengthy gap (this time to the 50% mark) and then there’s another flurry of activity and then… Yeah. The gaps between points of interest shorten and eventually the last tenth or so of the book manages to get some momentum going. But up until that point reading the book felt like watching a drunk lurch somewhat haphazardly down the street.

Grade: C+

3. Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Stories of the Hegemony

Ranking the top 3 positions on my ballot for the John W. Campbell Award was actually quite difficult for me. Sriduangkaew dropped to the third position primarily because she’s in her first year of eligibility, whereas the other two authors were in their final year of eligibility. I suspect she’s likely to get nominated again next year with a more robust body of work.

Benjanan Sriduangkaew in Clarkesworld MagazineSriduangkaew’s work to date has primarily orbited a sequence of stories set in or around the Hegemony, a future society in which humanity’s mind has become so wired up and interconnected that the government is able to retroactively edit not only the records of society but also the memories of society. (If that sounds dystopic to you, that’s because it is.) What makes these stories particularly compelling is that Sriduangkaew uses the wide canopy of the Hegemony to tell a vast variety of stories: A souped up secret agent who can edit memories to insert herself into deep cover situations. A common person struggling to survive. A scientist enmeshed in the maintenance of the system. A resistance fighter trying to turn the empire’s system against itself. Interesting characters and fascinating ideas mix freely with beautiful imagery to create captivating stories.

As some small indication of her quality, I will note that Sriduangkaew was the only Hugo-nominated author I read whose other work I immediately sought out and read. I heartily suggest you do the same. Conveniently, many of her stories can be found on (or linked from) her website. For her Hegemony stories specifically, you can check out (in the order I recommend reading them):

Also available are:

Go to Part 2

Sertorius: Beneath the Banshee Tree - Bedrock GamesBrendan Davis sent me review copies of the Sertorius roleplaying game and the Beneath the Banshee Tree scenario for the game because my Three Clue Rule was name-dropped and used in the latter.

To be perfectly honest, when Brendan sent me the PDF for Sertorius I gave it a quick glance, saw it was yet another 500 page fantasy roleplaying game, and threw the PDF metaphorically onto the stack of Things I Will Probably Never Get the Time to Look At(TM). But I’m always interested in good mystery scenarios and when I cracked open Beneath the Banshee Tree, it did exactly what good adventure scenarios are supposed to do: It got me really intrigued about this setting and this game.

I still haven’t really delved into Sertorius, but I have taken a slightly closer look: It’s a game where everyone plays a powerful sorcerer in a land where sorcerers are god-kings and potentates. As your power grows, you attract followers and slowly shift from a mortal to a divine existence. So, basically, Ars Magica if your characters were powerful Sumerian demigods instead of scholars hiding in the dark woods of the Europe.

Whether Sertorius sounds interesting to you or not, I recommend checking out Beneath the Banshee Tree: First, it’s free. Second, it could easily be adapted to a lot of different fantasy settings (while likely bringing with it a few unique stamps that will only serve to enhance the experience). Third, it’s really good.

Davis uses a very clever, randomized structure to drive a serial killer-esque investigative scenario in which even the PCs can become targets. Structurally, the adventure is clever because each additional crime scene brings additional clues that, generally, point towards the villain’s accomplices (providing a second layer of redundant investigation that makes sure the scenario remains robust and interesting no matter how it plays out).

Conceptually, however, Beneath the Banshee Tree is captivating: The “serial killer” isn’t actually a killer. (Most of the time, anyways.) Instead, Davis has created a fiendishly clever crime that’s uniquely fantastical and only possible in a land of wonder and magic. I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil it: Check it out.

(Remember, it’s free. It also contains an entire fantasy city that you can easily grab and use in any number of nifty ways. Seriously, why are you still reading this when you should be reading that?)

Go to Part 1

Today I’m making the leap from the literary categories, starting with what is essentially the television category. It’s interesting to me the way in which this category is systematically dominated by a particular geek show: Twenty years ago it was Babylon 5. Ten years ago it was Buffy. The Retro 1939 Hugo nominations are dominated by Mercury Theater broadcasts. And today it’s basically a loud huzzah for all things Doctor Who.

7. Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffatt, directed by Saul Metzstein.

I honestly don’t understand how this absolutely dreadful hour of television got nominated. Beyond the fan service, there’s absolutely nothing to like about this episode. Moffat rips himself off to create the Whisper Men. When faced with the fact that the entire hook of the episode was complete and utter nonsense, Moffat responded by making a Blu-Ray special in an effort to explain it (but actually just ended up contradicting the episode itself). The bulk of the episode serves mainly to remind us that the Great Intelligence was never actually established as a coherent villain during series 7 (and does nothing to grant him coherency now).

The Name of the DoctorThe end of the episode, of course, culminates in yet another “alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatens to destroy the universe, but is averted because… deus ex machina”. Which marks the third straight season finale in a row that Moffat used that plot. (Although, to be fair, the season 5 finale’s alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatened to destroy the universe did not require a deus ex machina in order to be averted.)

Bonus points to this episode, however, for hinging the deus ex machina on the stakes of Clara being totally dead if she jumps into the scar… and then just saying “fuck it” 30 seconds later and using another deus ex machina in order to save her. Extra bonus points for the deus ex machina used to save her having been established as being impossible, but then simply ignoring that with another deus ex machina. Moffat apparently can’t be satisfied until he’s got deus ex mahcina in his deus ex machina in his deus ex machina.

(The fact that it took two whole episodes before Moffat retconned this entire episode out of existence — with another deus ex machina, ‘natch — really makes the whole package extra impressive.)

To be fair, I suppose it can be said that “Name of the Doctor” is an admirable representation of just how utterly terrible the seventh series of Doctor Who was.

6. NO AWARD

5. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written & directed by Peter Davison.

The Five(ish) Doctors RebootThis is a remarkable tribute of love for Doctor Who and I was ecstatic to see its release as part of the 50th Anniversary festivities. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and you haven’t seen it yet, please seek it out with the greatest possible alacrity.

With that being said, this is not a piece which, IMO, transcends its immediate fandom. I’m not even sure it significantly transcends this particular moment in time. So while I’ve watched it multiple times myself and giggled with glee each time, I still think ranking it here is the right place for it.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space, written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Terry McDonough.

An Adventure in Time and SpaceQuite possibly the best thing Mark Gatiss has ever written: An Adventure in Time and Space dramatizes the creation of Doctor Who and focuses a particularly fascinating lens on the life of William Hartness (as portrayed impeccably by David Bradley).

Its only real flaw, IMO, is the moment of gratuitous fan service which mars its finale. I’ve seen several historical dramas lately which have provided “happy” endings for their protagonists by suggesting that they had some sort of non-historical catharsis often featuring some sort of prescience that their legacy would endure. I find it vaguely cheap and rather disrespectful to the actual person.

I would be placing this 1-2 ranks higher if the ending was stronger, but don’t get me wrong: This is a nice little film. And if you’re a fan of Doctor Who then it’s a must-watch title.

3. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter.

I’m actually not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

I don’t hate it or anything (and the books are quite wonderful); I just haven’t gotten into it.

The Red Wedding, however, is such a memetically powerful event that the importance and effectiveness of this episode really can’t be questioned.

It is very award worthy.

2. Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication”, written by Will Pascoe, directed by John Fawcett.

Orphan BlackI really wish that Orphan Black was just a little bit more intelligent. The main characters all seem to have been hit over the head a few too many times with the idiot ball. (If you want to protect your daughter at all costs, why the fuck are you needlessly carrying her address with you when you decide to break into the bad guys’ home base? And what the fuck? You just got done saying that your apartment isn’t safe, why the fuck are you sending her there as if it were a safe house? … to cite just a couple of the show’s many, many examples.)

With that being said, Tatiana Maslany’s ability to just completely transform herself into different characters is simply unbelievable. (And it becomes even more unbelievable when she plays one of her characters pretending to be another of her character’s and somehow both characters simultaneously shine through.) And the series as a whole is totally addictive while just being one notch away from achieving true mind-blowing proportions (which is why I so desperately want it to be a little smarter). “Variations Under Domestication” is a particularly clever example of what the show is capable of achieving: Farcical techniques of mistaken identity are escalated in a beautiful spiral of comedy and drama.

1. Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Nick Hurran.

Doctor Who: The Day of the DoctorAs absolutely dreadful as “The Name of the Doctor” and the rest Doctor Who‘s seventh series was, “The Day of the Doctor” was simply magnificent: Clever and compelling and endlessly fun, with healthy doses of fan service expertly deployed in order to improve the story rather than distract from it. It was a completely joyous reminder of the greatness that Moffat is capable of achieving as a writer. (Even if that only leaves you scratching your head when you consider the absolutely dreadful dreck it was surrounded by in “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”.)

My only quibble with “The Day of the Doctor” is Moffat’s rather anemic understanding and portrayal of the Time War, but that’s not enough to detract from everything else that makes this my #1 pick for science fiction drama in the last year.

 

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