Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

I just finished reading the book, which is a fantasy novel set in a Middle Eastern culture in a locale that sounds very similar to Egypt.  It isn't a long or deep novel, but I enjoyed reading it.  But I couldn't help all the way through feeling a bit like I was reading a roleplaying campaign.  That is not a flaw.

The story follows a small group of characters living in the vast and crowded city of Dhamsawat.  The primary protagonist is Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an aged ghul hunter who has been at it for decades and is beginning to feel that it is time for him to retire.  He is ably aided in his calling by his assistant Raseed bas Rassed, a Dervish of the Lodge of God.  It wasn't difficult for me to think of D&D character classes that would suit Adoulla and Raseed; Adoulla might be a cleric, or perhaps a wizard, and Raseed could best be described as a lawful good monk with paladin tendencies.  The other characters are a little more difficult to define in D&D-ish terms, but I would probably label Dawoud a sorcerer, Zamia a druid, and Litaz an alchemist (not a stretch, since she's described as such in the story).

Aside from entertaining the gamer in me by evoking such thoughts, the story also entertained by not being set in a medieval Europe analog.  I've read plenty of stories set in places that sound much like Europe or Britain, or occasionally the Roman Empire.  It was nice to read something with a different cultural spin.  Ahmed's writing is full of flavorful phrases that evoke a city of domes and minarets with marketplaces full of exotic spices, silks, gems, and magic talismans that actually work.  Interestingly, there is much reference to religion, a feature often lacking in fantasy unless a character is a priestess or avatar of some deity.  Every character makes reference to the deity of this world on a regular basis.  But despite the clear Arabian Nights feel, this world isn't Islamic, or at least not rigidly Islamic.  There are idols and representational artworks everywhere.

Another feature I enjoyed was the variety of viewpoints used.  Each of the characters I named above serves as viewpoint character at some point in the tale, so the reader gets to know a little about them all.  That style of writing can be frustrating to read if there are too many characters to follow, but here with only five it works nicely. The characters are from two different age groups and several cultural backgrounds, so they provide the reader a window into the world in which Dhamsawat exists, as well as giving different views on the action.

I won't spoil the story by giving any details of the plot.  Suffice to say that Adoulla and his friends must try to save the city from a terrible threat.  They also get embroiled in some political intrigue involving a rebellion against the Khalif, but that is kept to a minimum, which was all right with me as I'm not fond of political intrigue in my fiction reading choices.

On the whole I enjoyed the story a good deal and wouldn't mind if Ahmed decides to write a sequel or another story in the same setting.  If you enjoy fantasy and would like to read something with a different cultural feel, give Throne of the Crescent Moon a read.

A Word on Behalf of Adverbs

I feel compelled to say a few words on behalf of the much-maligned adverb.

I'm currently reading Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  Like a number of other writers (including the inimitable Strunk & White), Mr. King abhors the use of adverbs in writing, especially in dialogue attribution.

If you don't remember your grade school grammar lessons (or Schoolhouse Rock), an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adverb, clause or phrase.  They are usually the words ending in -ly: swiftly, softly, quickly, slowly, angrily, sadly, unflinchingly. Dialogue attribution in writing means the phrases where the writer identifies which character has spoken a line a dialogue: he said, she said.  Many writers like King believe that adverbial dialogue attribution is a Very Bad Thing: "He said angrily", "Joan shouted furiously".  

I am a believer in moderation in all things, and I can see where too much use of adverbs in dialogue attribution can be undesirable.  It's possible to show that he said it angrily by using other descriptive vocabulary instead of stating it as part of the dialogue attribution.  But I also believe that adverbs are part of our language and we should use them sometimes.  They can be the ground black pepper sprinkled judiciously (see what I did there?) on top of our vocabulary salad.

William F. Nolan once commented that if you want to reduce your word count, remove all the adverbs.  But I feel that excising the adverbs will leave your text a bit bland.  I find it rather dull to read a story in which all the characters only say their dialogue and never say it with any kind of flavor.  I intend to keep using adverbs in my writing, now and then, when they seem most effective.

This has been a public service announcement on behalf of adverbs.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Adventures in Adventureland - Catching Up

So last year I had great intentions of documenting our Pathfinder Kingmaker Adventure Path campaign here, but I have fallen woefully behind.  At the time I last posted about it we had taken a break, and now we're taking another one. My intent here is to get this caught up, but because there are 6 months worth of game sessions to catch up on, I'm going to have to make it an abridged update.  Some of the information may not be presented in the correct chronological order.

In the intervening months since the campaign picked up again last August, our party came into possession of a fort that had been taken over by our enemy the Stag Lord, but we wrested it away from him with extreme prejudice - he was actually present and we slaughtered him.  We had also learned that he was really just a figurehead, a puppet being manipulated by Nerissa the necromancer.  Although the fort had an unfortunate field of undead surrounding it, a piece of ground sacred to the goddess of undeath Garona (sp?), we took over the fort and made it ours.  In a hidden room below the semi-ruined fort, we discovered a hill giant named Munguk locked away in a cage.  After he was freed we befriended him.  We found that he wasn't able to stray far from the fort - whatever curse Nerissa had placed on him held him there.  We took advantage of that to give Munguk the task of guarding the fort in our absence.

We also took a chance on using an amulet we had acquired to contact Nerissa herself and let her know we'd slain the Stag Lord and taken the fort.  She warned that she was sending some forces to punish us, but her "punishment' didn't pose a great threat to our party.  We found some new settlers and craftsmen in the area to start rebuilding the fort, which we renamed New Hope and designated our stronghold.

Along with gaining a fort, our party found some worgs that were likely were-worgs, and discovered that a deadly vampire lich who had been imprisoned by the dwarves centuries ago had been released from imprisonment.  This was bad news, but at that point our characters weren't sufficiently powerful to try tracking down the lich.  All we could do was fight against Nerissa's plots and schemes to control the Stolen Lands.

We befriended the lizardfolk living on an island in a large lake in the southern part of the territory we were trying to reclaim, and they in turn gave us access to some extensive dwarven archives they had salvaged from dwarven ruins in the region.  We also aided a local dryad druidess by destroying an evil plant creature that had invaded her territory.  .We recruited all sorts of farmers, loggers, boatbuilders, and carpenters to settle the territory around New Hope and help build its economy.  We also recruited a band of gnome explorers to map the territory and document any threats we should take care of to keep the settlers safe.

One such threat was a group of trolls and cyclopes serving Nerissa, who had occupied an ancient elven ruin.  Our group was able to eliminate the trolls and clear the ruins, which of course was very satisfying for my elf cleric.  Later we had some more trouble with trolls, as well as facing off with an image of Nerissa.

While we were out and about dealing with monsters and menaces, a cleric of Garona settled at Oleg's Fort, the town where our adventures began.  There were reports of people joining the cult, and also of children disappearing.  Investigations revealed that some women had babies that were never seen again.  When a full moon approached that would give this priestess greater power, our party decided to make our move.  But when we tried to destroy the shrine of Garona that had been created outside the town, we were transported to another plane of existence.  It took us a while to get out.  While there we fought against this priestess and her minions, most of whom were under some kind of mental control.  We rescued some children they had kidnapped to use as future cultists.  We also managed to interrupt what we thought was a ceremony to free a lich, though eventually what we learned indicated that the priestess had actually been trying to siphon power from the lich for unknown reasons.

We were met there by a celestial being, who gave us information about a special weapon we would need to reassemble to fight the vampire lich.  After the celestial returned us to Oleg's, we continued our task of clearing dangers from our territory.  In an old mine we fought a huge spider that had a message about the lich in its stomach.  Later we returned to a cave where we had seen what was possibly another necromancer, and realized that the lich had probably been imprisoned in that cave at one point.  My cleric consecrated the cave and established a shrine there.

After all this, our territory and economy had increased enough that Garrick the inquisitor/monk could be declared a duke.  My cleric is now the magister of the dukedom.  A new town has been established, Thorn's End, and both New Hope and Oleg's Fort - now Olegton - have grown.  Olegton includes a bunkhouse especially for our characters where we can relax when we visit there.

But all was not well in the dukedom.  A rival group of adventurers had settled in a nearby existing town, Varnhold, but contact with Varnhold had been lost.  We decided to investigate and explore the possibility of incorporating Varnhold and its surroundings into the dukedom.  In the mountains near Varnhold we found a dragon living in a cave.  We made a deal with the dragon that we wouldn't bother him as long as he didn't take any cattle from the ducal subjects.  We also learned that the dragon had a deal with the vampire lich.  After parting from the dragon we went to Varnhold, where we found all the buildings empty except for spriggans.  The spriggans told us that the lich had taken away all the residents.  A swarm of storm crows swooped over the town daily, apparently looking for more townsfolk or visitors.  Using some personal items we found in the town, we were able to do a 'sending' to some of the missing townsfolk and learned they were being held as slaves at the lich's tower.  All of them were forced to wear slave collars, for which the only key was held by the lich.

As I mentioned above, the game is on hiatus again.  Our GM has had a lot of health issues recently and feels he isn't able to give his best to the game, although he's still with us as a player.  In the meantime another player has offered to GM a new Pathfinder campaign.  Should I decide to document that game here, I'll try to be more regular about it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Remembering Things We Would Prefer to Forget

Recently a friend drew my attention to this article about the treatment of slavery by Southern plantation tourist attractions and museums.  It brought to mind some thoughts I've had about this and related topics, and I decided to transcribe those thoughts here.

First, while I find slavery abhorrent, believe it has no place in modern society, and am saddened that it still exists in the 21st century, I do not believe we can apologize for or make amends for the slavery white Americans inflicted on black people in the past.  We are not responsible for what our ancestors did.  In the past, slavery was acceptable.  Apologizing for that belief held by people we never knew seems insincere to me.  We can feel regret for what they did, but we cannot feel true remorse or apologize sincerely because we ourselves are not the people who committed the offense.  Resentment over things that happened before any of us were born hinders us from moving forward.  Apologizing, or trying to make amends by setting up memorials, or making films like 12 Years A Slave, just give people an opportunity to think, "It's all right now, I don't have to feel badly about slavery anymore," and then stop thinking about it.

What we should do is remember.  We should remember what slave owners did to slaves.  We should remember so we can avoid doing that again.  We should also remember, as the article points out, that slaves did not simply live in misery all the time.  They had full lives just like everyone else.  Even when they faced being permanently separated from their families, they still had happiness sometimes.  If we assume that their lives were nothing but pain and sorrow we diminish them as people.

We also need to remember that America was not the only country where slavery was practiced.  It has been practiced by almost every major culture in history.  The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Celts, Chinese - all had slaves.  Many African and Native American tribes practiced slavery.  Slavery has been a common example throughout history of how humans treat the "other", people who are different from themselves.  Different tribes, different cultures, different languages all have given us an excuse to say, "Those people aren't us, they aren't really people.  It's all right to take everything from them and force them to live where we tell them and do what we want them to do, without any compensation." 

Even when it wasn't called slavery, there were still many practices of oppressing and marginalizing other people.  Thralls, serfs, bondsmen, indentured servants - all are forms of slavery, situations where one person gives up freedom, sometimes willingly, most of the time not.  Medieval serfs couldn't decide to move or work for a different lord.  Indentured servants had an opportunity to pay off their debts, but until they were able to earn enough to do that they had no freedom.  Shanghaied sailors were subjected to a form of slavery, kidnapped and forced to work on a ship they had not chosen for little or no wage. Servants in the households of Victorian England might have earned wages, but the restrictions set on them by their employers weren't much better than slavery, and the wages weren't enough to live on.  Factory workers during the 19th century didn't have much better lives than slaves, either.  They didn't have to fear their children or spouses would be sold and sent away, but they had few options for improving their lives.  Even in the 20th century here in the US, mining companies virtually enslaved their miners, forcing them to live in company-owned housing for which they became indebted to the company, and paying them in company currency called 'scrip' that was only good at company-owned stores.  The miners couldn't leave because they were in debt to the company, and they couldn't strike for fear they would be evicted from their homes.  And many women are still enslaved for sexual purposes, deprived of any means of support and blackmailed into cooperation by threats of violence against themselves or their children.  Slavery hasn't gone away, we've just changed its name.

Let's stop wringing our hands over what our ancestors did, and instead remember it and vow to ourselves that we will not allow this to happen again.  Let us not look on those who are different from us as less than ourselves, or unworthy of the same freedom we have.  Let us treat everyone with respect.  Let us fight to prevent others from being enslaved or oppressed.  That is the best response to slavery we can give.