Short Reviews – Assault on a City by Jack Vance

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Assault on a City by Jack Vance appeared in the 1974 collection Universe: 4.519QW9-HHhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m doing something a bit different this week; circumstances have kept me from having time to hit the pulp stack but having seen a few articles on the Sensor Sweep mentioning the rapey nature of some of Vance’s characters and the questioning of rape as a narrative device, it seemed strangely prescient that I just happened to find a collection over the weekend with this particular story in it. Assault on a City looks at what would happen when one of those dirty rotten no-good rapey protagonists tries his shtick on one of those smart, collected and brave pulp sci-fi girls.

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Jack & Gary

“There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a
campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid
down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer
of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long
eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and
then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand,
the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign
environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot
fail but to rise to the occasion.” – Gary Gygax, Jack Vance & the D&D Game 

I’ve been saying for ages now, all you need to run a game is a good short story and some stat blocks.

You’ll find some good stories that qualify in our upcoming issues… subscribe today!


Because I Just Really Want To Hammer This Home About Vance

Voltaire’s Candide:

“Love you not deeply?”
“Oh yes,” answered he; “I deeply love Miss Cunegonde.”
“No,” said one of the gentlemen, “we ask you if you do not deeply love the King of the Bulgars?”
“Not at all,” said he; “for I have never seen him.”
“What! he is the best of kings, and we must drink his health.”
“Oh! very willingly, gentlemen,” and he drank.
“That is enough,” they tell him. “Now you are the help, the support, the defender, the hero of the Bulgars. Your fortune is made, and your glory is assured.”
Instantly they fettered him, and carried him away to the regiment. There he was made to wheel about to the right, and to the left, to draw his rammer, to return his rammer, to present, to fire, to march, and they gave him thirty blows with a cudgel. The next day he did his exercise a little less badly, and he received but twenty blows. The day following they gave him only ten, and he was regarded by his comrades as a prodigy.


“My friend,” said the orator to him, “do you believe the Pope to be Anti-Christ?”
“I have not heard it,” answered Candide; “but whether he be, or whether he be not, I want bread.”
“Thou dost not deserve to eat,” said the other. “Begone, rogue; begone, wretch; do not come near me again.”
The orator’s wife, putting her head out of the window, and spying a man that doubted whether the Pope was Anti-Christ, poured over him a full…. Oh, heavens! to what excess does religious zeal carry the ladies.

Vance’s Cugel’s Saga:

“…may I inquire your opinion of Cuirnif? What reception may I expect? Are the folk notably eccentric?”
“To some extent,” replied Erwig. “They use no whitewash in their hair; and they are slack in their religious observances, making obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand on the abdomen, instead of upon the left buttock, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What is your opinion?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method caries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views, coming as it does from you, an expert traveler!”

In all of his adventures, Cugel strikes as someone who has either actually read Candide and determined he would learn from the kid’s mistakes OR in his younger years Cugel more or less WAS Candide.

A Quick Short Review Round-up

Here’s a quick look a what I’ve been talking about over at Castalia House.  If you haven’t read these, check them out.  Or better yet, find these stories and read them yourself if you can!

Coming of the Gods by Chester Whitehorn – Martian vs Rat-men
Assault on a City by Jack Vance – A pulp dame saves herself from rapists.
Cosmic Yo-yo by Ross Rocklynne – Asteroid Haulers crash the competition and find true love
Mists of Mars by George A. Whittington – A Martian Princess’ revolution succeeds with the help of a space cop
The Spider Men of Gharr by Wilbur Scott Peacock – Cryofrozen action scientist awakes to find Earth conquered by evil aliens
Retro Fandom Friday – 1940s fans celebrate and complain about Sci-fi


Short Reviews – The Overworld, by Jack Vance

The Overworld by Jack Vance first appeared in the December 1965 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.


Real Short Reviews will return at Castalia House next week with George A. Whittington’s Mists of Mars.  Today, check out this interview I did with Joe Stech of Compelling Science Fiction.  No foolin!*

Since I’ve been talking about thieves this week and have finally had a chance to dig back into my Dying Earth Omnibus again for the first time in nearly two months, expect to see some actual Vance stuff in the soontime.

*:Hopefully our site will be back up soon; we’ve had some ISP issues the last couple of days; apologies to anyone who has clicked through to the short reviews I linked earlier only to land at a 404 page.  Until Castalia House comes back online, the interview with Joe Stech can be found here.


Weekend Megahaul & Other Stuffs

I can’t help myself.  I know I buy books at about a 5 to 1 ratio of how quickly I can read them, but I see stuff and am all “I’m going to read that eventually!”  Well, this weekend was no different, except in that it may be one of my most impressive hauls yet.

I finally found a copy of Nine Princes of Amber; for the longest time, I’d given up on grabbing various Zelazny books I’d find at thrift stores, because I had ended up with a random assortment of mid-to late Amber books that I didn’t want to read until I’d read the first one.  Well, now I’ve got the first one.  Not only did I find NPoA, I got The Visual Guide to Castle Amber which is sort of like a system-agnostic setting supplement module disguised as a handsome hardbound book.  But to take things a step further down the Amber rabbit hole, I found one of those solo RPG Choose Your Own Adventure books that takes place in the Amber setting.  And a similar book from the same line that is a Starship Troopers solo RPG CYOA with a foreword written by Gary GygaxIllustrated Changeling looks like it’ll be pretty awesome, and despite its alleged flaws, I couldn’t pass up a hardback of Jack of Shadows for $3.

It doesn’t stop there: I actually had to pass up a few books that I really wanted, because I was already getting hardbacks of Araminta Station and Ecce & Old Earth by Jack Vance, as well as a floppy 35cent pulp print of The Space Pirate.

Because they’re short and were only $1, I got the 1st and 3rd Dreamlord books to supplement the 2nd (which was never printed with a number in either of its editions apparently).

You’d think that was an impressive haul, but wait, there’s more!  I got an issue of Top in SF with the Bradbury/Brackett collaboration Lorelei.  Sure, it’s a reprint (the PS with Lorelei is one of the Holy Grails of SF pulp), but it’s something!  I also got the Fantastic with Leiber’s “Dr Adam’s Garden of Evil” as the cover story, and the all-star F&SF with Flowers for Algernon.

In fact, the place I went had a TON of issues of F&SF from the 50s.  I’m kind of impressed by how boring the average F&SF cover has always been.

Before I can even think about diving into the new haul, or even whittling down the stacks from previous hauls, I need to finish The Egyptian, which had been sitting on my shelf for far too long.  The Egyptian was probably one of my favorite movies of all time.  It might also be shaping up to be one of my favorite books.

I’ve always got a kick out of the fact that the most well-known lines of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” were plucked and paraphrased from Sinhue’s epic speech at the end of the movie:

“I will wear the clothes of a slave and kick the sandals from my feet and speak to the wives as they fry their fish before their mud huts before the river, to the porters on the docks, to the smiths by the bellows, to the slaves under their yokes, and I will say ‘A man cannot be judged by the color of his skin, by his clothes, his jewels, or his triumphs, but only by his heart. A good man is better than a bad man.  Justice is better than injustice.  He who uses mercy is superior to him who uses violence, though the latter call himself Pharaoh and make himself master of the earth.  We have but one master: the God who made us all.  Only His truth is immortal, and in His truth all men are equal!”

I’m not criticizing King, I’m saying he knew epic when he saw it and had great taste.

Later this week, Fortress Europa, maybe a Short Review, and almost certainly an update/reminder on the zine project.

A Very Long and Rambling Post About Morrowind, the Elder Scrolls and Maybe a Little Jack Vance

I’m a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls games and have talked about them at length both here and on the comments over at Rumors of War when discussing things ranging from quest design to how to handle factions. I haven’t talked about them as much lately, because I felt like I’ve said most of what I’d have to say and I don’t want to retread too often. I also hadn’t been playing them much recently, so I haven’t had any real useful epiphanies about the Elder Scrolls to comment on. Until now…

I got into the Elder Scrolls through Oblivion. I played it on a friend’s box back in 2006 for a little bit. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful games I’d ever seen (c’mon, guys, it was 2006!); I had to get it! Well, I got it and I sunk more hours than I can comprehend. I’ve probably lost literal months of my life to this and other Elder Scrolls games. Eventually I played all 4 of the core Elder Scrolls games, and I could understand fans of Morrowind’s major issues with Oblivion.

Both Arena and Daggerfall are very much genre games. Arena was a straight-forward affair in which one collected MacGuffins from impressive locations to kill an evil wizard. In some ways, Daggerfall might be considered one of the watersheds of Post-genre fantasy, because it was one of the first games to really begin the shift toward the Orcs as noble savage paradigm that has become so commonplace and it did a lot with its in-game books, but other than that it was still very bog-standard fantasy with all of the typical factions of thieves, fighters, mages, assassins guilds and temples and such. There was a bit of strange that was creeping in by way of the cosmology introduced in Daggerfall and the short fiction included in-game, but for all intents and purposes, it was western style fantasy adventure. Oblivion is also a fairly straight-forward affair of western style castles, knights and heroes; the loudest complaints one heard about Oblivion were the sparseness of locations, the lack of extensive dialogue that was present in Morrowind, and the relatively normal and generic fantasy feel of Oblivion compared to Morrowind.

And yes, I’ve always agreed since I’ve had the chance to play it that Morrowind is one of the best fantasy settings of damn near any game ever made, but I may finally be able to articulate why it stands out the way it does and why Elder Scrolls fans have so much praise for it.

I’ve come back to Morrowind once again, this time because of the Vance I’ve been reading. I’ve yet to get my hands on much of Vance’s fantasy works, but I’ve now read several books in his Gaean Reach setting. They seem to straddle the line of science-fantasy, sometimes leaning a bit towards the fantasy and sometimes leaning away. For instance, the Gray Prince had some magical elements while The Dogtown Tourist Agency did not, though they take place in the same megasetting. Whether there is mystical and magical present or not, Vance’s worlds are all strange and alien places where one can have an exciting adventure through the unfamiliar. For instance, Miro Hetzel, the Galactic Effectuator, has a hard-nosed detective adventure on a desert world whose native populace is a barbarian race of lizard men who reproduce by fighting wars and laying eggs in the dead bodies. The story, outside investment & cheap labor paid for unethically, possibly illegally, being used to undercut manufacturing competitors, is mundane but the setting is uncanny.

Out of all of the Elder Scrolls games, Morrowind is the only one that feels very pre-genre. It could be set on a moon of Alpha Centauri for how bizarre it is. Reading the Gray Prince, The Dragon Masters and Galactic Effectuator had me thinking “My God, the Elder Scrolls could easily be set in the Gaean Reach post collapse!” Especially compared to the games that came before and after it, Morrowind’s elves are strange and incredibly alien, not to mention the Khajiit and Argonians… these races all feel like they’re straight out of sci-fi pulps! I’ve already talked about how the Dunmer Ashlanders of Morrowind bear a striking resemblance to the Uldras in the Gray Prince. And I’ll always think of Anne McCaffrey’s cat people of Doona with their rolling R’s when I hear a Khajiit mumbling about yummy drugs and friendship.

Morrowind is a world of towering mushroom trees, giant insect egg mines, multi-thousand year old fortresses inhabited by squatting wizards and devil worshiping cults, spells and scrolls named after the wizards who wrote them, magic users experimenting with new spells with fatal results, ancient magics beyond the comprehension of even the most powerful contemporary wizards, and cities made from the dead husks of extinct giant desert crabs. And this world is full of petty rivalries, slave trades, smugglers, mundane organized crime, blue collar workers, desert nomads, librarians, farmers, potters, peddlars and petty thieves. It’s wild and crazy anything goes heroic fantasy pulp! And to just make things a little bit meta, there are heroic fantasy pulp stories to be found and read IN GAME. A few in game books are simple flavor and not much to talk about, but some of the multi-part novellas, such as A Dance in Fire (15,487 words), the Wolf Queen (11,944 words), The Real Barenziah(18,188/22,534 words), 2920: The Last Year of the First Era (20,779 words), or even the much shorter Bone (3,158 words) are worthy as stand-alone entries in the genre. They inform and are informed by the game’s strange world which was first informed by influence of several pulp heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery writers; there’s very little of the Tolkienesque tradition found here, and even less of the Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms post-genre influence on the setting.

So it is quite understandable that fans who were awed by the wild and pulpy world of Morrowind would be disappointed by relatively bland world of Oblivion, especially for those who HAD read the various in game books that described the Imperial province as a terrifying jungle filled with Burroughsian white apes. To make matters worse, while fighting relatively mundane enemies in a fairly samey fantasy setting, we get things like the in-game sequel to A Dance In Fire, The Argonian Account (7,039 words), which tells tales of mysterious and festering swamps where inhabitants travel around via the slow-working digestive tracks of fast-burrowing swamp worms… REALLY WEIRD STUFF! And you find yourself wondering “Why am I riding a horse from one generic copy-paste castle ruin or limestone cave to the next when before I was poking around weird haunted steam-punk dwarven ruins and ancient alien elf-fortresses from the 1st Age?” Locations that were referred to and relevant to the in-game fiction often appeared nowhere in game, with two whole cities missing, but that could be more easily overlooked had the game’s tone continued to reflect that which was established by the prior game and the game’s own in-world accounts of itself. The world in the books about the game’s world made you wish that you were playing there instead, even though the world in the books was supposedly the game’s world.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t able to articulate my thesis as well and concisely as I’d hoped to, but I made a try of it, by golly!

Anyway, I said I was going to criticize Morrowind as well as praise it, and I still intend to do so.

Awesome setting aside, Morrowind suffers from a major problem in the form of a lack of urgency, largely due to its game world’s static nature. The Camonna Tong is ALWAYS in the middle of some scheme whose trigger is never pulled, the Great Houses are always just on the verge of some big conflict, the Thieves Guild and Fighters Guild are always on the brink of a big intrigue, and nothing ever happens until the player actively engages those factions’ story-lines. Which isn’t a HUGE problem in itself, but it becomes an issue when nothing happens AFTER the player has engaged those story-lines. Dagoth Ur is scheming and his sleepers are hanging around, but they don’t DO anything, and Dagoth Ur is literally waiting for the player to come visit and kill him. Morrowind lacks a dynamic world, and therefore the player has no impetus to do more than dick around at leisure. This is slightly different from Daggerfall which would have certain quests running in the background, and all known quests, once engaged, became time sensitive. But that Telvanni spy that Ranis Athrys wants you to out is going to be there hanging around not doing anything until you out him, and if you never out him, it’s not like he actually does anything.

Recently Dither of Rumors of War came up with a simple classification system for plots:

Event: Urgent and Important
Quest: Important but Not Urgent
Affair: Urgent but Not Important
Rumor: Neither Urgent nor Important

To be truly engaging, a game world needs to have all of these types of plots. Morrowind’s biggest issue is that it lacks Events, and the Affair types are Rumor’s in disguise, because any sense of urgency is artificial. Telling the lady with Corprus disease to leave Vivec or catching the murderers who have killed the pilgrims and Ordinators in Vivec may seem urgent – you may even be told that dealing with it is urgent -, but you’re left entirely to your own schedule to handle them with no alteration of outcome if you delay or expedite accomplishing them. The effects of lacking Events and Affairs in Morrowind are exacerbated by the fact that you have an in-game calendar, a day and night system, and a track of how many in-game days have passed. The calendar was used to more effect in Daggerfall, wherein holidays and demon summoning days fell on specific dates that had in-game effects, and, as mentioned before, all quests were on time-tables ranging from around a week to a month. As far as I know, Morrowind is the ONLY core Elder Scrolls game in which the day and night system have only cosmetic effects on gameplay (with, perhaps, the exception of the sneak skill).

Oblivion really does not handle this much better, though if anything, certain bugs that lead to non-flagged NPCs accidentally killing themselves or something do give certain things a sense of urgency. For example, getting enough money to buy the best house in the game before the guy you buy it from falls off the castle bridge and dies. But one of the jokes I read once was that never starting the main quest was the responsible thing to do, because, with the exception of Kvatch, Oblivion gates won’t start opening up until you’ve given the Amulet of Kings to Joffre.

Daggerfall managed to convey urgency at times, particularly in certain stages of the game, because quests would run in the background that would send assassins and monsters after you until you finished or began certain quests, though these were infrequent. With Morrowind, they were virtually non-existent. The adventure hook to entice the player to explore the Tribunal content aimed to create this effect – an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood would interrupt your sleep and try to kill you – but ultimately fails because the moment you mention the attempt on your life to anyone with that as a topic, you’ll never be attacked by them again. On one hand, if the attacks were pressed until you actually dealt with the quest line and confront Helseth’s Lieutenant about it, there would be a greater sense of urgency. On the other hand, I could see how it would be damn annoying to have to go and briefly interact with high-level expansion content at low levels just to stop getting attacked every couple of days.

Without that sense of urgency and change, however, Vvardenfell begins to feel dead, especially after months of in-game playing to the point at which you’re the head of multiple guilds and are the elf-pope. Around that point, you kill the god Vivec and stuff him in a soul gem because why not? No one is going to notice or care. And then you start killing everyone because no one can stop you and you’ve finished most of the interesting quests anyway. Then you realize, walking around an empty Balmora, that nothing really feels that different.

For your game world to feel dynamic and real (tabletop or otherwise), you need to have things going on, stuff that can be potentially missed by your players. I tend to use what I call quantum content; things stay in stasis until players have interacted with them. Once they’ve seen something, it’s set in motion and they need to either deal with it to resolve it or somehow it’ll resolve itself. You can’t put everything in real-time, because then you’ll have to keep track of everything doing stuff and killing each other in a dungeon that your player may never even explore. But once your players know a princess is being held somewhere, they’d better get off their ass to save her, because one way or another, she won’t be there to save for long.

The Gray Prince, Jack Vance

Where do I even start with this?

@jorjolthegrayprince #killallgaeans #safespace #privilege

@jorjolthegrayprince #killalloutkers #safespace #privilege

While I’m certain there are people who disagree with me (especially those who’ve given this book 1 star ratings in various places complaining about the ‘problematic’ themes), The Gray Prince is an amazing piece of science fiction that deserves a place in the High School curriculum somewhere between the Great Gatsby and The Things They Carried.

Anyone who has read my blog for an extended period of time knows that I don’t really talk much about Social Justice Warriors, but there’s really no way to talk about the Gray Prince without bringing them up because this book is literally about Social Justice Warriors. Of course the political ideas and themes explored here are a lot harder to unpack than just saying it’s about SJWs.

The story comes at us from the perspective of the center, first from a moderately conservative character, secondly from the moderately liberal/progressive character. Much of the ‘adventure’ portion of the story is the moderately liberal/progressive character, who is as part of an alphabet soup progressive organization, learning that isolated political classes, demagogues and ideologues tend to have no idea of the practical realities of the situations over which they try to dictate, and such dictations have potentially dire consequences. He also realizes that he’s been kind of a condescending dick of the ‘white mans burden’ variety after spending some time with one of the aliens. Vance cleverly subverts our expectations by making the titular Gray Prince not a hero out to save the world but an agitating grievance monger masquerading as a populist upon whom political agitators and people concerned with feels can project their various hopes and desires.  One of the recurring complaints I’ve seen is that the Gray Prince, a political radical, isn’t the main character.  The other complaint is the book casts an entire race in a single light because of Jorjol’s buffoonery, completely ignoring the character of Kurgech and several Uldra tribes who all have differing political, cultural and social views and are opposed to the Gray Prince.

But what I want to talk about is the Minimum Wage. That’s right, the Minimum Wage. Though it’s only a minor detail mentioned once the Gray Prince, Vance makes an excellent illustrative point for why the Minimum Wage is a useless and harmful notion.

In the Gaean Empire, people have switched to the SLU. The SLU or Standard Labor-value Unit is defined as “the value of an hour of unskilled labor under standard conditions. The unit supersedes all other monetary bases in that it derives from the single invariable commodity of the human universe: toil.”

By raising the minimum wage, what are we doing but breaking our hour into smaller pieces, each less valuable than before? Currently, we could say that $1 would be worth just a little less than .14 SLU. Locally, $1 in Seattle would be worth .06 1/3 SLU, though the common currency shared regionally and nationally might balance it out for goods imported into the area. If we raised fixed minimum wages nationally, any actual benefits netted by a local or region wage raise would be negated; it would be $15 = 1 SLU instead of $7.25 = 1 SLU. So nationally, $15 would be worth what $7.25 had been before the hike.

I’m not saying that an SLU currency is in any way preferable or a good idea, but it works to show that our time is the inflexible variable and any arbitrary increase or decrease in the segmentized monetization of our time spent at labor does nothing to actually increase the wealth of the wage-earner, only the granular liquidity of their time.

Anyway, the moderate conservative girl realizes that she loves and respects the tough land baron for his resourcefulness and thoughtful decisiveness and realizes he’s far more empathetic than she gave him credit for, the moderate progressive boy realizes that ideology doesn’t always jibe with reality and practicality is as worthy as principle, the heroes destroy the progressive alphabet soup organizations and politicians’ agenda with logic backed by evidence, and the SJW villain goes “off to inflict himself upon another world” because no one left on Koryphon has time for his bullshit.

The biggest issue I’d had with The Dragon Masters was not a problem here. While it was odd to have so many foot-notes in a work of fiction, the descriptions and insights they offered never left me wondering what this or that alien word meant, and it allowed Vance to easily expand the vocabulary of his work, conveying ideas and concepts in one alien word when a paragraph would be necessary without it. All of the aliens and monsters were fairly well described, so I was never really left scratching my head.

There are a few things which could be worked into your game, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi. The terrifying morphotes are great if you need a race of questionably intelligent shape-shifting demon monsters. There are primitive air-ships called “sky-sharks”, which are basically a flying plank with a windshield and a gun. The “crazy-box” would make a great “magic” item as a re-usable charm person.

Lastly, I’d note that the Uldras cannot have failed to shape Morrowind’s Dunmer; I’d never believe you if you told me that no one on Bethesda’s creative team had read and loved this book. Blue nomadic people, some of whom are content with their political status in an imperial colony, others of whom violently hold onto traditions and are just as at odds with their fellows as they are the outsiders? Uldras or Dunmer? Slavers who moralize about ancestral land rights? Uldras or Dunmer? The blue nomads who want the outsiders to leave are the ones with slaves and the blue nomads who are okay with the outsiders are not? Uldras or Dunmer? I could go on, but I won’t. At least not today.

So, some lessons from the Gray Prince:
-Distant governing bodies are typically unaware of the consequences of their legislation because they are hopelessly out of touch with those whom they nominally govern.
-Time is an inflexible economic resource.
-Harping on birthright territorial grievance is pointless and dangerous because everything was taken from someone or something at some point; if you follow reparation and restitution as a principle, you’d have to go back to the beginning of time.
-Not having your head up your ass can easily be mistaken for Privilege.
-When shit hits the fan, you’re better off with people like Varg than hipsters who tell you listening to Burzum is problematic.

Short Reviews – Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians

I’m going to do something a little bit differently today. This won’t be a standard Short Review, because I’ll be taking on an entire collection in a single post. Flashing Swords! #4: Barbarians and Black Magicians, edited by Lin Carter, is a collection of short fiction by S.A.G.A. members was published in 1977.

The Bagful of Dreams – Jack Vance

This is the first Cugel the Clever story I’ve read, and will certainly not be the last. I don’t know that I’ll try to summarize it here, because last night I found myself unable to summarize it to my girlfriend in any sensible manner. It may be kind of a cop-out to say that Cugel is a great example of the Trickster character, but he is, and in a way that evokes a very folkish and mythic feel, as though this were one of many stories told about the great fire long ago.

One of my issues with Vance is that he often gives us wild names of various monsters without any concrete descriptions to help form them in my mind. While it was a bit annoying in The Dragon Masters as a work of Science Fantasy, it works in Cugel, because it makes sense for a mythic trickster to face assorted jabberwocks and jubjub birds as he schemes and tricks his way out of one predicament to another.

Jack Vance is the Voltaire of SF/F:

“…may I inquire your opinion of Cuirnif? What reception may I expect? Are the folk notably eccentric?”
“To some extent,” replied Erwig. “They use no whitewash in their hair; and they are slack in their religious observances, making obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand on the abdomen, instead of upon the left buttock, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What is your opinion?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method caries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views, coming as it does from you, an expert traveler!”

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Portable holes, for one. Much of the story revolves around a magically created portable hole to another universe from which a tentacle of an extra-planar monster emerges.

Also, Vancian magic: not as a system, per se, but as flavor of the implied setting of your typical low-level fantasy game. The lord is endlessly fascinated by magic and will fete any wizard who knows one or two spells because magic is so damn cool, in part because there’s so little of it. Magic doesn’t have to be useful, only neat.

The Tupilak – Poul Anderson
Mermaid adventures can be awesome too, if Poul Anderson is writing them. I like to think of this as a distant sequel to Anya Seton’s Avalon wherein things have started going to crap for the descendants of Ketil the Viking in Greenland. By the time the Merfolk show up asking about their displaced seakin, things are looking pretty grim. The Viking lord wants vengeance on the Inuit with whom his daughter is now living; his daughter wants to be left alone and for the vikings to leave Greenland because they’re doomed if they stay there. She does what any Viking daughter in the same situation would do: convince the Inuit shaman to lash together a chimeric sea-beast and magically animate it to wreak havoc on the Vikings.

Though we get teased with the prospect of incest and Mermaid sex (Anya Seton probably would’ve gone into naughty detail before a priest showed up to admonish everyone and preach repentance before the lord), Anderson gives you just enough to consider the implications of the soul, such as when a viking lad is chastised by his father for having pawed at the captive Mermaid, before diving (quite literally!) into action. We get a bloody battle in the icy sea against an undead/construct that eats men, but can’t digest them, so is full of rotting waterlogged corpses of its victims. We get pathos and tragedy of Vikings dying out in Greenland and love so suffocating that has brought death incarnate upon a people. We get sexy forbidden merfolk (“She’s the fairest sight I’ve ever seen, and brazenly clad.” “A vessel of hell.”)!

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The Tupilak itself, obviously. It’s weird monster made of wood, bones and skins all lashed together into a hideous form so that it has something like the body of a small whale, the jaws of a shark and the claws of a bear. It’s animated through magic that causes it to be possessed by the spirits of the ocean. The only way it can be destroyed is if the skins can be cut off so that its stuffings fall out. Naturally, it’s very resistant to the sorts of piercing weapons that boatmen would have, and you can’t get close enough to it to slash it without it capsizing your boat and eating your crew.

We also get a little bit on Fey alignment here. Merfolk are not of the mortal world (though these are half-human), and therefore are regarded as not having souls. So, why are Fey “non-lawful”? Well, they don’t have souls, therefore they cannot swear oaths upon them. Unable to swear by God, the Saints or their soul, they cannot be trusted to be bound by strictures of man’s laws, natch.

Storm in a Bottle – John Jakes
I was ready to hate this one, because Brak seems like such a knockoff of Conan (or at least pop-culture Conan) or any sort of generic Barbarian protagonist. But damnit, it was a fun story! Any story in which a barbarian has to kill an evil wizard has some merit to it, and this was just so well done that by the end, I didn’t mind that a generic Barbarian had done it.

The plot could’ve been pulled from a Sword & Sorcery rollodex: barbarian is captured, evil overlord gives him challenge to end a magical crisis plaguing his land, barbarian solves the crisis by killing the overlord’s court wizard, evil overlord is all “I said I’d let you live, I didn’t say I’d set you free, bwahaha!” But complaining about the unoriginality here feels like complaining about seeing trees, rolling hills, and pastures full of horses on a Sunday drive through the country.

What it brings to the (gaming) table – The wizard in this is pretty powerful, but all of his best stuff comes from the school of illusion. Use of illusion magic to create mass public hysteria and a fighter’s ability to break illusions by breaking things and disbelieving is Fantasy 101, but fun to see in action.

The titular Storm in a Bottle is literally a storm in a bottle; the evil wizard has imprisoned all of the rain in the region in a magic vessel. Great magic item with a lot of fun potential.

Swords Against the Marluk – Katherine Kurtz
From the intro, it’s pretty obvious that Lin Carter is hotted out by Katherine Kurtz. She’s a lady. And a blonde!

This was the only story in this collection I just couldn’t get into. Apparently it was written as a prequel to her (then) trilogy about the Deryni, a fictional race of, I don’t know, Welsh Elves or something? It was obviously one of those stories where it would’ve helped to have some context from having read the other books, but it was, to me, just a parade of names while the king and elf-liege prepared for a big fight against some guy. They do a ritual thing, everyone is all “Oh, golly, gosh, the king!”, and they fight the guy. The guy’s daughter gets away to become the main badguy of the previous books or something?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – For me, nothing. If you’re into stuff like Pendragon, or other quasi-Arthurian stuff, you might get more out of it than I did.

The Lands Beyond the World – Michael Moorcock
Like Storm in a Bottle, I was prepared to hate this. This was part of the collection of novelettes that made up Sailor on the Seas of Fate. While it was The Vanishing Tower where I finally burned out and said “no more”, it had been The Sailor on the Seas of Fate that crushed any enthusiasm that had carried over from Elric of Melnibone. In fact, out of the four Elric collections I read, the only story I remembered after the first book, apparently, was the first one from SotSoF, and only that because of how much I hated it. It was some latter day eternal champion nonesuch which I may have enjoyed more if I had been a fan of more of Moorcock’s franchises, but did not make a good impression as the second Elric story I read. Regarding that tale, I agree with Elric’s sentiments: “I’ll be glad, Captain, if you would cease such vapid mystification. I’m weary of it.”

I was expecting the worst, because the first chapter was there to wrap up the Gagak and Agak story before dumping Elric off on his next adventure. But it was a pretty solid adventure. Elric’s stranded on a magic island and kills a bunch of pirates with a new companion who happened to be in the right place at the right time and also hated pirates. Evil wizard wants a girl who is the reincarnation of the love he foresook, who happened to be a passenger on the new Elric-buddy’s ship. Elric eventually puts together the legend of the girl’s betrothed with the mystery of ghost horse and summons the horse’s rider from limbo to get its revenge on the evil wizard. The story was decent enough to remind me that I told myself I’d give Elric another go one of these days.

Still, during the fights where Elric is going up against over a dozen guys, I’m reminded of Fafhrd remembering tales of great swordsmen able to fight against 4 men at once and how those tales were all lies. Oh, well. Magic sword, right?

What it brings to the (gaming) table – Well, the Planar Sea, for one thing. Given this sort of stuff, it’s not surprising that the Brits stuffed the Fiend Folio with Planar Pirates.

I’ve got my reading and work on Short Reviews cut out for me.  Over the weekend, I grabbed another handful of pulps and some old paperbacks.  I now have a lot of Vance, a lot of Leiber and a lot of Brackett on my list, plus an impressive growing collection of vintage pulp mags from the 40s and 50s.  I don’t know how many novels I’ll do posts on, but I’ll try to cover anything out of pulp or collection of short stories.  And after finishing The Falling Torch, I can say that Algis Budrys writes Sci-Fi as well as he writes about it.

Minor addendum: A thought occurs…  Or maybe just an observation.  I keep seeing bits about how Kurtz wrote sword and sorcery as though it were historical fiction.  On the other hand, Anya Seton wrote historical fiction as though it were sword and sorcery.

Dragons, Dragons and Publishing

I want to see a highly insensitive turn-based economic-military strategy game based on The Dragon Masters.

Vance provides us with a handy value conversion via an exchange between one of the villains and a Jabba the Hutt-like* character upon which we can base the military economy of Happy Valley: 25 choice children are worth 3 dragons. It’s a little wobbly, as the trader doesn’t seem to take the evil lord of Happy Valley up on the offer, but it’s enough to give us an idea of how resources and commodities might work on Aerlith.

You’d need warrens & tunnels to crowd your people in, farms to feed your people and your dragons, breeders and trainers to fill your dragon army ranks and make them effective, and a surplus of women and children to trade for additional dragons and sundry magic items. Or something.

Speaking of dragons, I’m one big dragon-fight and a conclusion away from finishing the first draft of the short story I’ve been working on.

As for my other stuff, having the Cirsova book up on DriveThru was a bust, so I’ve gone back to Amazon exclusivity. At least there I could give my stuff away for free and it would get some downloads.

*The one from the original script and comics, not the slug muppet from the 3rd movie.