Read ‘Em And Weep

I’ve just re-read Last Call by Tim Powers. I love this book.

I’m a big fan of all of Tim Powers’s books, but this one is my absolute favourite. It’s been about five years since I last read it, and I love it as much now as I did the first time I read it. Maybe more, because I know a little more about the real-world things he’s talking about. Not that I believe in the occult aspects of the book, but I know now about the traditions he draws from, and I’m better able to appreciate the rich, deep background he’s created with it.

I read a fair amount of modern fantasy, because I like the juxtaposition of the non-rational with the structured, technological milieu that is modern society. Until Last Call, though, most of the stuff I read was drawn from the well of celtic myth and paganism, things like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint’s Moonheart*.

Last Call was the first modern fantasy book that I read that used other themes – in this case, a mix of ceremonial magic in the Western esoteric tradition, Jungian archetypes, and Arthurian myth. It did a fantastic job of making you believe in a real underground network of people who are clued in on some level, in the know about the mystic underbelly that most folks refuse to acknowledge. And it showed the level of obsession that was necessary to take part in it**.

So, what’s the book about? It’s about a man, already behind the eight-ball because of who his father is and what his father wants to do to him, who manages to dig himself in deeper by playing in an ill-advised poker game. Twenty-one years later, the debts are coming due, and it’s not just him who has to pay the price, but his friends and family, as well. Not having anything left to lose, he travels back to the source of the evil reaching out to claim his life – Las Vegas – to try and find a kind of redemption.

Mixed up in there are the powers of the archetypes represented in the Tarot cards, the evil man lurking behind Mandelbrot equations, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, quantum probability, ancient Greek and Egyptian gods, body-swapping, evil Elvis impersonators, the ghost of Bugsy Siegel, and the friendliest hit man you could ever hope to meet.

It’s filled with desperate action, wild speculation, and a twist on history that does a lot to illuminate the reason things are the way they are. It charts a man’s heroic (and not-so-heroic, sometimes) attempts at redemption, seeking the love of a father who once tried to kill him.

It’s also got a couple of explosions and a spear gun battle under the waters of Lake Mead, lest you think it’s all about soul-searching and healing the child within.

One of the things I love most about Tim Powers’s books is the way he weaves historical facts and personalities into them. I read an interview with him about the rules he used when writing the book Declare, all about Kim Philby and Noah’s Ark. I’m paraphrasing, here, but his rule was that he could not contradict an established fact – if there was a report that Philby was in Cairo on a certain day, then Philby would have to be in Cairo on that day in the novel. All the weirdness, conpsiracy, and mysticism had to be woven in and around the gaps, changing not the facts, but the meaning of the facts***.

This is showcased less in Last Call, as the only real historical figure to take a role is Bugsy Siegel, but it shows up a lot more in The Stress of Her Regard, featuring the Romantic poets, and Expiration Date, the sort-of sequel to Last Call that features such notable personages (or at least their ghosts) as Tom Edison and Harry Houdini.

Tim Powers’s novels have a sheer inventive genius about them that really appeals to me. The ideas are creative, solidly built into the background and structure of the novel, and hang together very believably. Beyond that, he has a clear, clean prose style that really appeals to me, avoiding overblown descriptions or purple prose. And his characters are deep, individual, and fascinating.

Having finished Last Call, I’m starting on Expiration Date. This will be followed by Earthquake Weather, which transforms the three books into a trilogy by tying together the first two books. The three books were published some time apart, and I’ve never read them back-to-back like this, having bought each when it was released.

That’s the down side to being a Tim Powers fan: the man does good work, but you never seem to get enough of it****.

Anyway, I see I need one more new book cited to round out the Amazon sidebar, so let’s end with The Drawing of the Dark, a Tim Powers novel about the siege of Vienna, the reborn King Arthur, a bunch of wandering vikings, and beer.

How can you top that for cool?


*Both very excellent books. You should read them. Now.

** This idea of obsession being necessary to transcend the mundane and take part in the mystical is one of the core tenets of the Unknown Armies RPG, which I had the tremendous good fortune to do some writing for. UA owes a considerable and acknowledge debt to the works of Tim Powers. It’s one of the reasons I love the game the way I do.

*** This is related, in a way, to what I said about reading with filters in this post here.

**** Not to sound ungrateful. I’m happy for what I can get. I’m just greedy for more.

Back in the Game – The True Game

Hey, folks. Did you miss me?

I’m going to stop apologizing for long dry spells between posts. I want to shorten them, but sometimes I just don’t have much interesting to say, and why bore you?


Today, I want to talk about a series of books that I just re-read. Specifically, I want to talk about how the experience of reading them was very different this time around, thanks to a comment made by an acquaintance of mine.

The books are Sherri S. Tepper’s True Game books, a trilogy of trilogies. Here’s how it breaks down:

The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped

  • The Song of Mavin Manyshaped
  • The Flight of Mavin Manyshaped
  • The Search for Mavin Manyshaped

 The True Game

  • King’s Blood Four
  • Necromancer Nine
  • Wizard’s Eleven

The End of the Game

  • Jinian Footseer
  • Dervish Daughter
  • Jinian Stareye

From what I can tell, only the middle trilogy is currently in print, and it’s in a collected volume called The True Game. It was actually the first trilogy written, and the first one I read, but The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped comes first chronologically in the story. You don’t have to read all three trilogies to get a good story; each book stands alone, and each trilogy stands alone, but they do build on each other to tell a deeper, broader story together.

The books tell of a world where people have various (for want of a better word) superpowers, that they call Talents. These Talents are rigidly classified and chronicled, with eleven pure Talents, and thousands of combinations between the eleven. The society is a sort of mediaeval feudal culture, with Talented people, called Gamesmen, ruling over unTalented folk, called Pawns. All the actions we think of as wars, plots, schemes, covert action, etc. are rolled up into the idea of the True Game, where the Talented Gamesmen vie against each other to impose their will on their surroundings.

So, you get Kings and Queens (with the Talent of Beguilement), with their ranks of Armigers (Flight), Tragamors (Telekinesis), and Sentinels (Pyrokinesis) running around, getting into battles (Games) and hatching plots (Games… starting to see?), and generally running roughshod over anyone who gets in their way.

That’s the background.

Enter into this a trio of characters over two generations who want things to change. First is Mavin Manyshaped, a Shifter (Shapechanging) who wants to escape her rather abusive family. She does so, and travels the world, getting pulled into situations where she winds up righting wrongs and saving underdogs. Next comes her son, Peter, also a Shifter, but raised not knowing that, or who his parents are. Peter isn’t really as meddlesome as Mavin, but he’s inherited her enemies, and picks up a couple of teachers along the way who are obsessed with an ancient word – “justice.” The last trilogy features Jinian, who becomes Peter’s lover. She has less Talent (well, maybe… you have to read the book to judge), but more of a drive for justice, and she winds up even more in the middle of things, dragging Peter and Mavin along with her.

Throughout the trilogies, you find out some very interesting things about the world, the people, the mysteries they live with, and the origins of the Talents. And, in the end, it comes down to a group of well-meaning, conscientious people making important decisions to try and make the world a better place.

They’re good reads.

Now, when I first read them, I thought they were great adventure stories. There is danger, and action, and quick thinking, and desperate plotting, and wild hope masquerading as a plan. The villains are interesting, and the heroes are likable, the plot twists enough to keep things interesting, and the endings are very satisfying. Good, standard fantasy escapism.

I mentioned them to an acquaintance some years ago, and he said something that has stuck with me. He said, “Sherri Tepper writes stories about people in appalling situations who are so used to them that they don’t even realize how appalling the situations are.”

Now, I sort of dismissed this at the time, because I had a very rosy memory of the books – how much fun they were, how light and entertaining. But it’s stuck in my head for all these years, and it really coloured my re-reading of the series.

Because he’s right.

When I went back and re-read the series, I started to see just how horrific the circumstances around the characters were. Never mind the abuse in Mavin’s family home; that was pointed out as a bad thing, and she got out of it. No, it was the little things that didn’t really get commented on, or only slightly in passing. The fact that people sent their children away to schools if they could at all afford it, simply because it kept them out of the way of Games which tended to kill them. The fact that people readily accepted the power of Kings and Queens, knowing it was a psychic imposition of will. The casual acceptance of having your mind read by any passing Demon who cared to.

And the frank admittance that all the Rules of the Game were noted most in their breaking, rather than in their following.

The Gamesmen are portrayed as having a casual sense of entitlement to anything they have the Talent to take, and Pawns are only considered if they are useful, or a hindrance. If they’re a hindrance, they’re dead. Talents feed on ambient heat to power them, so there are a couple of incidents of passing by battlefields where Pawns have frozen to death in the middle of summer because of all the heat being taken by the Gamesmen.

And slowly, slowly, over the course of the books, a handful of people look around, see that things are not right, and say, “Enough.”

I found it very interesting to read this series again, after so many years, through a completely different filter. It makes me think about the other filters I use as I read books: what expectations, assumptions, and beliefs colour my interpretation of the text. And I notice things.

I have, for example, a genre filter: I compare a book I’m currently reading to other books in the same genre. I have an author filter: I expect certain things from certain authors. I have nostalgia filters when I re-read some things (interestingly, not all things – some get trashed on re-reading, and I can’t imagine what I ever saw in them).

And there are certain archetypes of story that I filter for. For example, I like heroes who are clever and outmatched and succeed primarily by outthinking their enemies (Mavin Manyshaped, I’m looking at you). I also like heroes that struggle to do what’s right instead of what they want (FitzChivalry Farseer, for one). And when you combine the two, the results are especially pleasing to me (Miles Vorkosigan, for instance). When I read, I filter for these things, too.

In one interview I read with Guy Gavriel Kay, he talked about how, when he wrote Tigana (a great book, by the way), he tacked a sign up above his desk that said, “I want them to stay up crying with me.” That’s an interesting way to focus a book, and it lends a certain something to the finished product. Tigana is, in many ways, an anguished book, full of characters making difficult choices in impossible situations. And, though it is very satisfying, the ending isn’t one of unalloyed happiness.

I have a friend who loves Charles de Lint books (and rightly so, says I), but he only reads them during the fall. Somehow, they just don’t work for him at other times. Another interesting filter.

This summer at GenCon, I picked up Ken Hite‘s Tour de Lovecraft, a short critical review of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. I’m starting to re-read some of the stories now, and am interested to see how they change based on what Ken has said about them.

So. I’m rambling. To sum up:

  1. Sherri S. Tepper’s True Game books rock.
  2. Despite the fact that this sounds suspiciously postmodernist, the mental filters you bring to a book can greatly change your experience of it.
  3. Everyone has different filters, and they can be interesting to think about.
  4. Understanding your own filters is an intriguing exercise.
  5. Guy Kay, Robin Hobb, and Lois McMaster Bujold rock.
  6. So does Charles de Lint.
  7. Ken Hite and Cthulhu go together like chocolate and peanut butter served up by something formless and cthonic.
  8. I want to try and post more.

And there you have it.

The Name of the Wolfman… or something like that…

I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties. Sorry. Busy time for me, settling into a new job, not much gaming going on.

But I have been catching up on my reading.

I just finished a pair of books that I really liked, and I want to talk about them. I found out about both of them through the news on Randy Milholland’s Something Positive webcomic*, and really, really enjoyed them.

(Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with Something Positive, you should check it out. It is brutally, savagely, often cruelly funny. I’ll warn you though; the language is strong, and some of the themes may offend you. They fill me with mad, vicious glee.)

Anyway, the books.

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The series is named The Kingkiller Chronicle, and the book is touted as Day One. When you read in, you find that it’s probably going to be a trilogy.

Now, I’d seen this book before, and dismissed it. I’m kind of tired with standard, generic fantasy novels. Especially the big thick ones that claim to be something new and groundbreaking, but wind up being Robert Jordan clones**. And I don’t like getting into a series that’s not complete, because of the way some of them, like The Wheel of Time***, just go on and on and on, with no sign of an ending.

So, I avoided it.

Then, I read about it on Something Positive, and went, “Huh.” Then these stunning reviews started showing up everywhere, and I finally gave in a bought a copy.

It is an amazing book.

On the surface, it’s a standard fantasy story, but it pushes all the right buttons for me. Most of the story is a flashback, with the main character telling his story to a scribe. See, he’s a pretty famous hero, or villain, depending on who you ask. And he wants his side of the story recorded, because he thinks it’s coming to an end.

So, the story within the story tells the tale of his life with his parents, who were wandering performers, how he came to be a street beggar and thief, his journey to the University, and his studies on his way to becoming an arcanist.

(Yeah, there’s shades of Harry Potter in it, for those who look, but seeing as J. K. Rowling wasn’t the first to tell that story****, only one of the more well known, it’s not a fair comparison. And in the story itself, you won’t see any real shades of Harry.)

Throughout it all, the main character is tracking down some ancient lore to solve a mystery that has been plaguing him for most of his life. This leads to a few “story within a story within a story” sections.

That’s the story. So, why do I like this book? There are a few reasons.

  • The writing is solid. Except in a few moments, when language surges to the forefront and captures you, the prose is clean and unobtrusive, letting the story come through clear and strong. No overblown attempt at art, but when Rothfuss reproduces poetry or wants to hit you with a scene that has a little extra weight, he can sling words with the best of them.
  • The nested narrative. Rothfuss uses it nicely to play with perception vs. reality, with one person’s view vs. another person’s view, with parceling information, with controlling the flow and pace, and with establishing dramatic irony. He says a lot of very interesting things about the nature of story with it, and he does it without ever once losing his audience. The tension between the present timeline story, the flashback, and the legends and stories in the flashback could have been confusing; instead, they weave together, leading the reader flawlessly and cleanly where the story goes.
  • The hero. He’s everything I love in a hero: cunning, determined, clever, tricky, and human. He’s a trickster-type, an unapologetic liar, a careful planner, and he’s always just about to overextend himself and fall on his face. And he does fall, now and then. He makes bad choices, some of which he recognizes as he tells his story years later, and some that he doesn’t. When he’s a fifteen-year-old boy, he thinks and acts like a fifteen-year-old boy. And when he gets knocked down, he gets back up again.

So. The Name of the Wind. I recommend you read it. And the next book, The Wise Man’s Fear, is coming out later this month. (EDIT – As noted in the comments, I am wrong about this. It won’t be out until next year. Dammit.)

The Wolfman, by Nicholas Pekearo

Okay. I’m gonna tell you the set-up, but don’t just stop reading. Deal?


It’s the story of a werewolf that stalks criminals.

Still with me? Good.

Because that’s not really what the book is about.

Really, it’s the story of what you do when you know you’re a monster, and you can’t stop being a monster. There’s no secret cabal of werewolves, or hidden shadow war where you get to be a hero. You can’t even embrace the wildness, go out to the wilderness and run with the other animals.

Because the wolf has to kill every time it comes out. Kill a person.

This isn’t some strange bloodline, or the result of a bite. This is a curse, and a curse has to hurt. Right in your soul.

And the best you can do is hang on to the one little bit of light: if you focus when you change, you can give the wolf a target.

What sort of accommodation can you make with yourself, to let you go on? That’s what the story is about.

The main character in the book is battered and broken, having held up under the curse for over twenty years. He’s not the nicest guy in the world, but he’s got his own ideas of honour and right. He’s made his accommodation with the beast inside him, and found a way to live with it, and himself.

And then it gets taken away.

It’s a short read, and the prose is very bleak and spare. It’s a first-person narrative that jumps around in time a bit, giving you the backstory in little dribs and drabs. And it doesn’t flinch away from the sheer horror of this kind of life; in fact, it throws it into stark relief with the calm, detached way things are described. When you realize that the horror has become an acceptable piece of this man’s life, there’s a special kind of chill that comes over you.

Read it. Trust me.

You may also have seen some of the press about the book: the author was an auxiliary police officer in New York City, and was killed in the line of duty before this book, his first published novel, was released. I don’t want to minimize that sort of sacrifice, but it’s not what makes the book worth the read. The story and writing do that all on their own. What the unfortunate loss of Nicholas Pekearo means to those of us who didn’t have the privilege to know him is that the series envisioned as following The Wolfman will not happen.

And that’s really too bad.

Because that man could write.

* My friend, Chris, will claim that he told me about The Name of the Wind, but I say that he’s a liar and a fraud, unfit for human company. Whaddaya think about THEM apples, Binky?

** He’s the big one to emulate these days, it seems. Ten years ago, it was Mercedes Lackey. Ten years before that, David Eddings. And, of course, every now and then, someone tries to redo Tolkien.

*** Don’t get me wrong; I liked the first few books. But stories need an ending, and the inestimable Mr. Jordan seemed to be wandering around blindly trying to find one.

**** Orson Scott Card wrote a rather sharp article about J. K. Rowling and her lawsuit against the publisher of The Harry Potter Lexicon. Amid the anger, there are some very cogent, interesting points about the originality of ideas.

Gotta Remember This Trick

So, I’ve been listening to the audio book Hyperion, by Dan Simmons on my commute to and from work, and I just finished on the drive home today.

I liked it a lot, but that’s kinda beside the point.

The book is about a pilgrimage to visit a mysterious site, and each of the pilgrims, in a very Chauceresque fashion, tells the tale of how they came to be on this pilgrimage. It’s through these tales that the future world of the book is laid out for the reader, with each character’s story highlighting different aspects of the far-flung World Web and the Hegemony culture.

This is, in itself, a really neat little conceit, and it does a good job of showing the myriad possibilities of that universe and time. And, as a big-time English Lit geek, any shout-out to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales gets a big thumbs-up from me.

But Simmons does a couple of other things that really make the book work.

First, he tells you (and the characters) that one of the pilgrims is, in fact, a spy. This is a nice trope, in that it focuses you on the stories each pilgrim tells, sifting it for hints and clues and inconsistencies, for hidden motives and evasions. You go through each story very critically, with attention to detail, because you want to be able to figure out who the spy is before the big reveal. I found that this meant I got a lot more out of each of the tales than I might otherwise have.

Second, and this is golden, the characters decide to tell their stories in order to find the common thread that brought each of them to the pilgrimage.

This is genius, because it makes you compare the stories to each other, looking for common themes. You begin to analyze what each one is saying about personal transformation, hope, faith, control versus freedom, the power and terror of the unknown… All these things. This little trick lets Simmons spin an entire philosophical argument without explicitly talking philosophy. It’s brilliant.

And it’s eminently  lootable.

I think it might be a fun thing to try in a game, telling players that there’s some common element linking different events, and seeing if I can use it to reveal things about the game world and the themes I want in play without having to tell them explicitly. It might even be a good way to generate the themes, having the players that there’s a linking theme, but really letting their discussion and analysis create that theme. Or use the method as the last stage of a shared world creation exercise: once all the elements are in place, generate the themes based on perceived commonalities.

Something to think about and play with.

Anyway, I’m starting on Fall of Hyperion tomorrow.

What I Found in my Closet

So, I was going through my closet today, and found three books that I had completely forgotten about. I’ve had them for over 15 years, and I’ve read them three or four times each, and it always happens this way: I’m poking around for something else, and I find them. And I read them again. And then I put them away and forget about them.

But I always read them again, and I never throw them away.

I’m not sure one of them is going to survive the next reading; at some point, it seems to have gotten wet. It’s a paperback, it’s over 15 years old, and I think it’s going to suffer catastrophic spine failure.

I’m still going to read it.

Then, I’ll probably have to start digging around on the Internet to replace it. Probably the other two, as well, just to be safe.

See, they’re out of print.

What are they? Glad you asked.

They’re a trilogy by Mel Gilden, who seems to mainly be famous for his Star Trek novels, young adult novels, and Beverly Hills 90210 novels.

Yeah. I know. WTF?

Now, I cannot, I will not, bad mouth anyone who makes money writing. I don’t care what they write. They are living the dream, and more power to them.

(My friends know that there is one exception to this, but I don’t know you well enough to tell you who that is.)

Anyway. Those other things Mel Gilden has written hold no appeal for me, yet this trilogy brings me back time and again.

Surfing Samurai Robots. Hawaiian UFO Aliens. Tubular Android Superheroes.

They are silly. They are brilliant. They are wonderful.

The writing’s good enough not to chase you away if you get past the ridiculous names. He’s got a good touch for noir, for language, and for behaviour.

Here’s the set-up, from the back of Surfing Samurai Robots:

He was the first alien to invade Earth…

He called himself Zoot Marlowe, said he’d just blown in from Bay City, but even the wacked out surfer dudes could tell that the four-foot detective with the giant schnoz was from somewhere out of their world. Still, he could throw a mean frisbee and he said he was a private eye, and when somebody decided to smash and trash all the surfing robots in Malibu just days before the biggest surfing contest of the year, Zoot was the only being around willing to track the bot beaters down.

But Zoot didn’t know just how widespread a conspiracy he was about to run up against. For this first case of his Earthly career would see him taking on everything from the Malibu cops to Samurai robots; motorcycle madmen to talking gorillas; and a misplaced mistress of genetic manipulation…

So, yes, it’s humourous sf. I know a number of people who will hate it on those grounds, but there you go.

Still, you’ve got to marvel. Mixing humour, sf, and noir, and making it work.

And what makes it work? Mainly, Zoot. He’s obsessed with the noir radio shows that his planet has been receiving from Earth, and decides to make a go of it. He never admits he’s an alien to anyone as far as I remember, playing it as straight and Chandleresque as you could hope. But you can see the reactions in the people around him – the confusion, the wary acceptance of his lame excuses for his appearance, the curiosity about what he’s doing and what he is.

He’s got heart. He’s got grit. He’s a true homage to Phillip Marlowe, even if he is hiding behind silly covers.

Right now, I’m re-reading the Dresden Files books for the playtest. Then, I’m halfway through Purity of Blood by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

But then I’m going back to these little gems.

Oh, did I mention the robot duck sidekick?

The Dresden Obsession

Okay, we know I’ve started this blog primarily to talk about the Dresden Files RPG. But why am I so hot about the game? And the books? And even the TV series?

Being obsessively introspective, as well as fascinated by story in general, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.

On the surface, the series doesn’t seem to do anything really new. Magic in the modern world. C.S. Lewis did that in The Magician’s Nephew. Heinlein did it in Glory Road. Peter Beagle did it in Folk of the Air. But that’s okay. There are no really new ideas anymore; I’m pretty sure the Greeks used them all up by the time Aristotle got around to writing his Poetics. Stories may spring from ideas, but ideas aren’t the real driving force of stories.

Stories run on three engines: plot, character, and theme. Ideas can affect any of those three, and usually do, but it’s the end result that we look for. Pulp stories like Doc Savage are big on plot. Things like Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories are all about character. Theme-driven stories usually get lumped into more literary categories, but Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm are good examples.

Okay. So now I’ve defined my terms. Let’s talk about Harry.


The plots are decent, if not stellar. They’re no better or worse than the plots in the average mystery novel. If I had to pick a mystery author to compare them to, plot-wise, I’d probably pick Robert B. Parker. Nice twists and turns, a decent number of surprises, no cheats, and it often ends in mayhem. Now, nothing else about the books is really similar to Parker’s writing, but the complexity and solid construction of the plots are about equal.

They are well-served by the rich setting of the books. You’ve got the normal people of the world, including cops, gangsters, coroners, geeks, students, bartenders, store clerks, and anything else you might want. You’ve got the wizards, three types of vampire, four or five types of werewolf, faeries by the bucketful, many ghosts, demons, fallen angels, and even three holy knights wielding magic swords. Add the spirit world (the “Nevernever,” in the books’ parlance) to Chicago’s rich real geography, and season the whole thing with many contracts, grudges, secret deals, and death curses, and there’s a real wealth of material for the plots.

Jim makes good use of it, too. Ten books in, and the plots are still new and engrossing, with interesting elements added every book, and established elements developed further. It’s one of those series whose stories really reward being read in sequence – it’ll draw you on, book by book, to the end.

Now, that said, they’re standard mystery plots. You know there’s going to be a bad guy, and that your first couple of guesses as to what’s going on and who’s doing it are going to be wrong. That’s okay, though. The plots are serviceable and enjoyable, but they aren’t what I read them for.


The themes in the Dresden books are good ones. Deep ones. Universal ones.

What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be human? Does power always corrupt? Do the means justify the ends? What is the nature of family? And always, where do you draw your line?

Lots of other books, movies, comics, and other media deal with all these questions, as well. Why? Because they fascinate us. They help us understand choices people make, both in fiction and in real life. They help us decide about ourselves.

Jim handles these in a very smart manner. Harry, the hero of the books, is constantly faced with the questions, and we get to see him struggle with the decision, and the consequences of his choices. That’s good. But the really good part is that the books have other characters facing the same questions and making different choices. We get to see the path not taken, and we can decide whether or not Harry made the right choice. Or if there is a right choice.

See? Smart.

Still, nothing really new here. Just handled well. Sort of like the plots.


The main focus of the books is the wizard Harry Dresden. They’re written in the first person, and he’s our viewpoint character. And he’s pretty great.

Sure, in the beginning of the series, he’s a pretty standard archetype of the smart-mouthed PI, with the mystical ability to level buildings thrown in. But as the series develops, you get to see behind his facade. You begin to understand why he’s a smart-mouth. You understand why he’s working as a PI. You understand why, even though he can level buildings, he tries really hard not to. And the reasons are things we can understand and even, in a way, relate to. You learn that he has a code that he follows, one that even he doesn’t admit to. You know the pain that drives him, and the struggle he endures between what he could be and what he should be.

He also has what is, in my opinion, the single most telling trait of a literary hero: the ability to get back up one more time than he’s knocked down.

In true noire tradition, he regularly gets the crap kicked out of him physically, mentally, and spiritually. And yet, he still finds the strength and the reason to crawl back from the pit and face the bad guy. And win.

In a way, he reminds me of a more powerful, less cynical version of my favourite modern fantasy hero, John Constantine of the Hellblazer comics. He knows what he thinks is right, and he won’t quit until he wins, no matter what they do to him. Because he’s fighting the good fight.

The supporting characters in the book sort of work the same way. When you first meet them, they are typical, if interesting, stereotypes. As their role in the story progresses, they grow and develop, without ever losing what made them interesting in the first place. Murphy, the tough-as-nails female cop shows why she tries so hard, and how hard she works to survive in the world of the Chicago Police Department. Charity Carpenter, who hates Harry, becomes much more real when you understand her love of her husband (he saved her from a dragon, after all) and children, and her fears that Harry is going to get her husband killed. Even Thomas, the whimsical sex vampire, has reasons for his on-again, off-again alliance with Harry that make sense.

In short, Jim did his homework. He fleshed out the characters the way you need them to be fleshed out if you want them to be real to the reader. He starts you off with a quick sketch, then fills in all the backstory you need to make sense of them.

And no more. That’s important, too. He knows when to leave it alone.

So, good, solid characters. Maybe nothing really groundbreaking, but well-realized, likeable or hateable, and understandable.


So, decent plots, decent themes, better-than-average characters. How does that add up to my addiction to the series?

Lemme ask you this: when was the last time you read a book where the author did everything well, and some things superbly?

I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself overlooking certain flaws because of strengths in other areas. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books have decent plots, decent characters, but rehash the same theme of honour and masculinity in every book, usually with long conversations between Spenser and Susan. Still good books. David Eddings’s Belgariad series had a moderately interesting theme, very rich characters, but only enough plot to get you from one character moment to the next. Pretty much all of Heinlein’s stories had grand, expansive themes, rollicking plots, and characters so flat you could slide them under a door. Same thing with Asimov.

So along comes a series with no real weaknesses, and one telling strength. Of course I like it.

And there’s another reason, that has more to do with writing style than story. They’re quick reads. I blast through one of them in a day or so, without stealing time away from work or other responsibilities. Sure, I like the dense stuff, too, but I like it when a book takes me by the hand and says, “Sit down. Relax. No pressure. Here’s a fun story that’ll take no effort. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

And I do.

What’s goin’ on here?

So. I’ve started a blog. I guess.

See, I managed to get my gaming group in on the early alpha playtest of the Dresden Files RPG, by the folks at Evil Hat Productions. They do good games over there; check ’em out if you haven’t. It uses their FATE system, which they also used in Spirit of the Century, which is probably the smoothest, coolest, most true-to-the-source pulp game I have ever seen.

Lemme back up a bit.

The Dresden Files are a series of modern fantasy novels by Jim Butcher. They deal with Harry Dresden, a Chicago wizard who advertises in the yellow pages. Hilarity ensues. They’re fun books; Jim has really struck a balance between an updated noire detective story and an urban fantasy world worthy of Charles de Lint or Emma Bull. There are currently nine books in the series, with a tenth due out in April of this year. If the idea of a modern Phillip Marlowe battling the forces of darkness appeals to you at all, I say pick ’em up.

The novels also spawned a TV series that lasted a season. It wasn’t without its charm, but it wasn’t as well done as the books.

Anyway, I found out that the rpg license for the series had been bought by a little company called Evil Hat Productions. This worried me. Licensed properties are always kind of shaky in the rpg world, and I had never heard of Evil Hat prior to this. But they also advertised this cool pulp game called Spirit of the Century, so I decided to buy it and see what kind of chops they had.


Blew me away. Completely.

After a single reading of the Spirit of the Century rules, I went from worried to ecstatic. These guys knew their stuff. Their thinking about game design, about what made for fun mechanics, about how mechanics fueled story, all of it: rock solid. Much of it even brilliant. Some of it revolutionary.

So, when I ran into Fred Hicks and Leonard Balsera at GenCon this year (Aaah, who am I kidding? I deliberately went looking for them!) and begged them to tell me when Dresden Files would be released, they took pity on me and told me to contact them later about playtesting.

Now, I’ve done playtesting before. I’ve even written and sold a fair amount of game material for D&D and Unknown Armies. So I leaped at the chance, and they decided that they would like input from me and my game group.

There’s a bit of a catch, though: instead of a Non-Disclosure Agreement, I had to sign a Disclosure Pledge, saying that I would talk about the game, and some of the stuff I see, in public, on the web, etc. They want me (and all the other early alpha playtesters) to talk about our experiences with the playtest, so that people start to see the way the game is shaping up and get excited.

And there’s some neat stuff to get excited about, lemme tell you.

So, over the next few weeks and months, I’m going to talk about the playtest here. Keep an eye out for some tidbits that have come out of our experiences, and for some general comments about the game and the process.

I’m not going to post the playtest documents, of course; they don’t belong to me and they’re not finished.

But there’s still some neat stuff I can show you.

Stay tuned.