Through the Gate in the Sea: A Review

I was quite thrilled when I heard that Through the Gate in the Sea was available. I’m a fan of Howard Andrew Jones’ work, and while I consider his non-tie-in fiction to be his strongest, I will always buy a book with his name on it. As such, I have all four of his Pathfinder novels. As you might imagine, I’m positively inclined toward his fiction, so that’s the bias I bring to this review.

I have a hard time deciding if I like this or its predecessor, Beyond the Pool of Stars, better. Like Beyond the Pool of Stars, Through the Gate in the Sea reads much more like heroic fantasy with touches of epic fantasy rather than gaming fiction. There are hints throughout that yes, this is rooted in the rules and expectations of a role-playing game, but this does not dominate the flavour of the book. If you cringe at tie-in fiction – which I honestly generally do with a couple of exceptions – you needn’t fear this novel. It is not as strong as the Desert of Souls or the Bones of the Old Ones – Howard Andrew Jones’ two novels with Dabir and Asim, his best works for certain – but it is riveting.

Basically, Through the Gate in the Sea takes off soon after Beyond the Pool of Stars ends, with main character Mirian Raas, a marine salvager, trying to help the lizardfolk with whom she has forged a familial bond, find more of their lost people. This allows for one of the best POV characters in the novel: Jekka, a lizardfolk warrior. Jekka is Mirian’s blood brother, and while he is a cool customer, the chance to find more of his people after losing all of his clan save his cousin, fires him up.

There’s a great villain, a fantastic anti-hero with whom I can definitely sympathize, the playwright-hero Ivrian, and much more. The characters are all excellent and believable, but this – along with brisk, exciting pacing and swashbuckling action – is one of Howard Andrew Jones’ strengths.

The only quibble I have with the novel is that there is a group of adversaries that seem unnecessary. They have a function in the story, but then kind of drift off and don’t have a really impactful exit. I was expecting more given how well Howard Andrew Jones sculpted the main character of this group, and I don’t really want to say more so as not to spoil anyone’s suspense. It’s funny, because I can easily imagine in real-life this exact situation – oh jeez, those guys are pretty tough, this could be a problem . . . wait, what happened to them? In fiction, though, one carries expectations. So maybe I’m talking myself out of the quibble in that it’s actually believable in the way that reality is crazier than any fiction, but for the story I would say I didn’t find it satisfying.

That one quibble apart, Howard Andrew Jones delivered exactly what his name on a cover promises – strong plot, exciting action, and great characters. That’s what I love.

I give Through the Gate in the Sea 4.75 non-submersible, highly mobile, undersea transports out of 5. If you dig fantasy – and especially if you dig heroic fantasy with a hint of high magic and epic threats – you’ll dig this. As with all of his books, I highly recommend this Howard Andrew Jones novel.

You can find Through the Gate in the Sea at Paizo here and Amazon here.

You can learn more about Howard Andrew Jones here.

I reviewed Beyond the Pool of Stars here.

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Logan: A Review

Thanks to the wonders of repertory cinemas, I had a chance to see Logan last week. It seems this was good karma for helping a friend in need, and it was more than an adequate reward.

I’ve been a Wolverine fan for quite some time. It’s likely because he was the first mainstream Canadian superhero teenage me found, but there were also some very significant Wolverine stories back in the day, and the Wolverine mini-series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller cemented Logan as my favourite super. When James Mangold seemed to be bringing aspects of that mini-series to the screen in The Wolverine, I was cautiously excited – cautious because of X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The Wolverine was certainly better than XMOW, but it didn’t do the mini-series justice. Still, it seemed like it would be the best we would get. Then along comes Logan and its obvious borrowings from Old Man Logan.

Let’s be clear: Old Man Logan worked very well as a deconstruction of many comic characters and tropes, but much of what the work referenced would be lost on movie audiences. Many of the story points would be likewise pretty extreme (like the Hulk clan’s origins). However, I thought an older, bitter Logan would be a great character and with the rumours that this would be Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as Wolverine, a story taking aspects from Old Man Logan sounded perfect.

Logan is not perfect, but I think it’s as close to that as we can expect. There were parts of the film that dragged for me, but I recognize their purpose. Jackman and Patrick Stewart deliver, and Dafne Keen as X-23 was also quite good. Sometimes Boyd Holbrook as Donald Pierce or Richard E. Grant as Zander Rice chew some scenery, but it is relatively restrained for what it is and likely an attempt to make the villains more entertaining, given that they are evil guys doing evil things with flimsy justifications – they are 2D villains pretty much.

The weakness of the villains, though, didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie, and enjoy it I did. While there were few surprises – as much as I hoped there’d be a curveball somewhere along the way – it was a fantastic ride. This is the Wolverine movie all others should aspire to be. And I believe there should be other Wolverine movies with a new Logan now that Hugh Jackman has departed. Like Sean Connery’s Bond, whomever follows Jackman is going to have a hard time of it, but I wish them well.

Along with the pathos, there is lots of action, and it is good without being great. There were no action scenes that left me stunned, nothing here that I had not seen before elsewhere, but that’s okay. Again, given this intellectual property’s track record, good translates to great when you are in the theatre watching the movie.

So I’m going to give Logan 4.5 unmentioned spoiler special villains out of 5. Although there were no surprises, the action was good and the acting from the leads was great. The movie could have been improved by taking some chances with the plot or making the villains more believable, but this was a

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Hard West

Since I have put my master’s program on pause, I’ve had some time to play some computer games, and an interesting one that I’ve just started is Hard West.

Now, being a PC player, I don’t have access to Red Dead Redemption. I really liked Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and Gunslinger, but the only other Western-themed computer game I’ve been recommended is Gun, which I started but which never really held my interest. Hard West is something different – a turn-based tactical shooter. That’s cool, because gunfighting is what I was looking for, but the story elements are a bit lacking. Not that there’s not a story, there are multiple stories, but the player’s input into the stories is minimal. This is the same as the Call of Juarez games, which are Western shooters on rails.

Right now, I’m finding the game fun and the mechanics of the fights – with the importance of cover in reducing damage, and the importance of luck in avoiding getting shot – but it’d be nice if there was more customization of the characters and less of a railroaded story. The graphics are quite good, but it takes a while to figure out how to do anything on the map, and I started my second playthrough after a couple of scenarios as I began to realize just what I could do.

I may need to get back to Gun and see if maybe my initial impression was perhaps too quickly formed.

I would give Hard West three and three-quarters rounds from a Volcano pistol out of five (And, yes, Hard West does have a version of hard-hitting hand cannon from Volcanic Repeating Arms). It has a great combat system and graphics, but it is lacking in character customization and player input into the story.

You can find out more about Hard West here.

It is available on Steam here.

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Artist as Protagonist

A recent episode of In Our Time focused on the Japanese artist Hokusai, and the discussion turned to Japan at the time and Hokusai’s place in both the artistic community and the politics of the time – he apparently had a good relationship with the Shogun. It made me think of the artist as a protagonist outside the changes to a nation or culture but who can be a lens to view that.

I’ve had a few false starts with these kinds of stories, originally inspired by the movie Painted Fire (Chi Hwa Sun – not See Uhn as the announcer in the trailer pronounces it). This was a movie by Im Kwon-Taek, who is the finest Korean director bar none in my opinion, and starring one of Korea’s greatest living actors, Choi Min-Sik. The difference was that while the character of Jang Seung-Up was also an entré character for the politics of that period, he did not have the self-awareness or the savvy of Hokusai – at least as the one is portrayed in the movie and the other in the podcast. I think both would be interesting, with Hokusai much more of an insider and Jang much more of a rebel.

Guy Gavriel Kay used this device in his Sarantine Mosaic duology – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors – in which a mosaic artist is plucked out of the settings version of Italy following the fall of its Roman Empire and whisked away to Sarantium – the stand-in for Constantinople. Crispin, the artist-protagonist in this story, is a mixture of the two. He’s not as worldly as Hokusai and not as wild as Jang Seung-Up.

All that to say I think the device would be a lot of fun to play with, but I would need a story in which it could work. Further, I think the character could work really well in a story-centric RPG in which the artistic ability might be useful in some abstract way. Were I to play one, it would definitely be much more Jang Seung-Up, with a large helping of uncertainty and confusion that people actually care about what he’s producing.

By the way, on the day this is published (11 Apr 2017) there are still a few more days on the Sword’s Edge Kickstarter. Head on over an back it if you haven’t already. Thanks!

You can find the “Hokusai” episode of In Our Time here.

You can find information on Painted Fire here and the trailer here.

You can read about the Sarantine Mosaic here.

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Sword’s Edge on Kickstarter

In case you didn’t know, I’ve got a Kickstarter going for a new edition of Sword’s Edge. I think it’s awesome, but then again, I’m biased. Still, you should check it out.

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Marvel’s Iron Fist – the First Seven Episodes

I’m up to episode 7 in the Netflix series Marvel’s Iron Fist and while it’s fine, I find it the weakest of the Marvel series. Without getting into spoilers, the main character is pretty wooden and this is not offset by his martial abilities. Choices made in changing the character and mythos seem poorly considered to me, or at best simply cliched. The dialogue is unimpressive and the plot seems padded.

In the end, for a series about a living weapon, the action is good but not impressive and the story seems afraid to embrace the idea of warrior-monk.

I’m disappointed in the series but will watch it to its end. It reminds me of living in the pre-Marvel Studios age where comic fans thirsted for any appearance of their favourite characters in any incarnation, and we had to put up with poor interpretations of characters to see them in live action at all. I remember being thrilled with Daredevil and Thor appearing in the Incredible Hulk TV movies in the late 1980s. Those were pretty bad renditions of the characters, but it’s all we had. Iron Fist is of better quality than those, but it’s that same disappointment tinged with appreciation that there is something.

I would give the first seven episodes of Marvel’s Iron Fist 3.5 chi-focused living weapon strikes out of 5. The story was plodding, the action mediocre, and the dialogue weak. It was fine but unimpressive and the changes to Iron Fist didn’t improve the character at all.

Okay, so to delve into that, I need to touch on some aspects of the story. I’m going to try to avoid real spoilers, but the further in I get, the more I’m going to need to refer to events in the series, so you have been warned.

Turn back now if you would like to avoid spoilers.

Last chance, spoilers ahead.


Okay, so right off the bat, we have very few fights for a series about a living weapon who became the Iron First by besting all other warrior-monks in a series of challenges. Until episode 6 (directed by RZA, the man behind the fun but weak Man With the Iron FIsts . . . coincidence?) we get Danny Rand/Iron Fist getting into minor dust-ups, and he is unimpressive in all of them. The fights might be considered good for network TV, but Netflix and Marvel can do better. They should do better. As poor as Sword of Destiny, the Netflix sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was, at least the fights were pretty good. Heck, I was more impressed with the fight scenes in Daredevil than with this, and while Daredevil is also supposed to be a highly capable martial artist, this is Iron Fist. Martial arts is his one and only thing. Daredevil has enhanced senses and his radar as part of his schtick. Iron Fist only has martial arts.

Now, if the actor who played Iron Fist delivered an amazing performance, I might be willing to accept the mediocre martial arts, but Finn Jones is fine but not great – much like his martial arts performance. Either give us a stellar actor or an amazing martial artist. Listen, Keanu Reeves did great in the Matrix and Donnie Yen’s performance in Rogue One was actually quite good, so this is definitely possible. It just takes will and effort, and apparently Scott Buck, the show runner for Iron Fist, did not have these, or simply though it was “good enough.” It isn’t.

So much of the first half of this series is Iron Fist recovering his identify as Danny Rand and the machinations of the Meachum family to keep Danny from his place as head of Rand. The plotting of this wasn’t bad, but other than the situation of the father, the characters were all stereotypical. There’s not much fresh here and it really seemed like padding. What did this bring to the story of Iron Fist? With Daredevil, Matt Murdock working as a lawyer was integral to the story of Daredevil. It always has been. Danny Rand’s links to Rand were sometimes used in Iron Fist stories, but – especially in the recent incarnation written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction – this was background never a focus. I know that Iron Fist’s relations with the Meachums were included in past stories, but that was “bussiness person as villain” comic book stuff, not this focus on boardrooms and lawyers. In the most recent (and I would argue best) incarnation of Iron Fist, Rand was sometimes used to initiate action, but it was never Iron Fist fighting for Rand, it was something happening at Rand that touched on Iron Fist’s story.

Again, if some of this stuff was actually fresh, if it explored something that helped illuminate the character, that would have been fine – though it should have taken a backseat to the story of the living weapon. This series is called Iron Fist, and the opening credits has a great digitally created show of fighting skills – if only the lead could perform as well – but for the first five episodes, it certainly seemed like the show should be called Rand as Iron Fist seemed a B- or C-plot.

And, come on, how could Iron Fist not understand that talking about K’un Lun being in a different dimension would cause problems He lived much of his life in the US and understood things like phones and cars, so how would he not realize talking about other dimensions would make people question the veracity of his story? It was lazy writing creating false obstacles in an effort to create tension that would not have occurred if the protagonist wasn’t an idiot. Yes, it was an idiot plot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that either there was only enough story for half a season and the show runner wanted to stretch it out or this was an attempt to “do something different.” Bringing a different lens to a story is not necessarily a problem, but it bugs me that Iron Fist was the only character they felt needed to have his story changed. The other three Netflix Marvel series hew pretty close to the story of those characters, with some additions and changes but very little fundamental to the character. Iron Fist is the first time that the character and his story has been fundamentally changed.

Iron Fist is not conflicted about his role as a living weapon. He might have issues with the leader of K’un Lun – Yu-Ti, the August Personage in Jade – but not with being the Iron Fist in general. This was the part that bothered me the most. Luke Cage as a reluctant hero makes sense, as does Jessica Jones, but Iron Fist is more like Daredevil – he chose this. This is what he wants. He revels in being a living weapon and he believes in the mission of the Iron Fist – to stand against the storm when no one else can. He is unabashedly heroic.

And it was really minor, but I hated the idea of him getting stronger by being hit. That worked for Rocky but it’s the antithesis of a good martial artist – and Iron Fist is supposed to be one of the best. It may have been planting the seeds for his escape from the psychiatric ward, but that whole storyline was – frankly – silly. If the idea was that we would question Danny’s story, that wasn’t laid out well, and if not, then what was the point? It was clumsy and it was cliched.

And on a final note, I was thrilled when Iron Fist referred to K’un Lun as one of the seven capital cities of heaven, which led me to hope we might see some of the other Immortal Weapons. When the challenge from the Hand came, I thought for a moment we were going to get the Bride of Nine Spiders, but then the writers created a stereotypical seductress. Don’t tell me they couldn’t find a competent and capable actor for the role, given that Colleen Wing is a much better martial artist on screen than Danny Rand. Nope, instead we had standard casting villains of taunting badguys and sexual femme fatales. Boring. Why not give us a warrior who understands that he or she is facing the Iron Fist and is excited about the prospect of really testing their skills. Give Iron Fist an opponent who is serious and respectful, not necessarily honourable, but something different.

So, yeah, I wasn’t happy with so much of the first five episodes, and was happier with the sixth, but underwhelmed by the action.

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Another Wonderful Weekend at Breakout Con.

I was lucky enough to attend Breakout Con in Toronto last weekend (10-12 March 2017) with a rather large Ottawa contingent that included Todd Crapper (Killshot, Screenplay, High Plains Samurai), Joshua Kitz (Simple Superheroes), Mark Richardson (Headspace), and Jason Pitre (Spark, Posthuman Pathways, Sig, and now Circles of Power). Eric Paquette, a key organizer in the Ottawa gaming community and all around good dude, was part of the BRG-SEP tag team of awesome, and I got to hang out a lot with him during the con.

Not only was this a chance to run some “Lawless Heaven” using the updated Sword’s Edge rules, but it was also a chance to meet a bunch of awesome game luminaries. The RPG industry isn’t huge, but there are still a large number of people whom I don’t really know who attended. I’m not one to go up and introduce myself to people, but the social part of the convention worked out because there’s a lot less than six degrees of separation between most designers, so hanging out with people I knew generally led to hanging out with people I didn’t know.

And, to risk repetition, it was awesome. There was a lot of game talk, theory chat, and just normal conversation. There was both deep philosophical conversations but also a lot of laughs. It was great.

I’ll leave discussion of the games and how they ran for the SEP website. For here, let me just say that Breakout Con is probably my favourite convention. That’s not a dig against Cangames here in Ottawa, which is a great place to run games, but just doesn’t have a venue that allows for the comfortable socializing that Breakout Con had. Gen Con is amazing and all, but it’s far away and way too big so that even with three degrees of separation, the sheer number of people means that someone who is generally quiet around people one doesn’t know well – which, ironically for anyone who knows me well, is me – will likely get lost in the crowd.

Having a bunch of people I knew and then fewer people I did not know meant I was more comfortable to speak up and join conversations. Usually, if I don’t know people, I’m the quiet guy who smiles and nods but generally doesn’t contribute. If I know a lot of people, I generally feel comfortable speaking up. Given how loud I am, it’s kind of funny, but I have enough self-awareness to have identified this particular quirk.

So, for me, Breakout Con is my premier destination. I know the organizers now – all of whom are fantastic, friendly, and organizing superstars – there is generally a good number of people in attendance whom I would call friend and through whom I can meet new people, and there’s a good number of people interested in actually playing the kinds of games I make. There is still D&D and Pathfinder happening, but there’s also a metric $h!t-ton of indie games that run the gamut from pretty traditional to very experimental.

Again, that’s awesome.

All that to say I had a fantastic time, I was really thrilled to hang out with old friends and make new ones, and I got to see people get really jazzed when they got the chance to punch gangsters in the face in the back alleys of Ulsan.

A weekend well spent.

You can find Breakout Con here.

Mark Richardson publishes through Green Hat Designs.

Jason Pitre publishes through Genesis of Legend Publishing.

Todd Crapper publishes through Broken Ruler Games.

Joshua Kitz publishes through Composed Dream Games.

And I’m at Sword’s Edge Publishing.

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Three Games from Saturday Morning

This weekend, I got a chance to play some games with my two girls (ages 8 and 10). I’ve mentioned these games before, but each of them deserves another shout out because they are so great. These are games that my entire family enjoys and that we have played together many times and enjoyed them every time.

Dominion is a deck-building game from Rio Grande. Basically, you buy cards to build your hand, some of which are action cards that allow you to do things, treasure cards that allow you to buy things, and victory cards that do nothing but clutter up your hand until the end, in which only they will bring you victory. There is a lot of strategy involved, but both of my girls love it. They are lucky that their daddy lacks any real strategic sense, so they can beat him. The flavour of the game is medieval – with things like villages, chamberlains, and moats – but this flavour really means nothing. A moat protects you from attack cards (very moat-like) but also allows you to draw to extra cards (not seeing the moatiness there) and a village lets you draw and extra card and take two extra actions.

Camel Up is a game in which five camels race around a track and the players bet on which one will win each leg (or round) of the game and then on which one will win the entire race. There are some actions players can take to attempt to influence the race as well. It’s a little more complex than it sounds, but is generally a lot of fun and you can run a game in about 30 minutes once its set up.

Finally, in King of New York, the players are monsters trying to stomp New York. This is the follow-on to King of Tokyo, and is very tongue in cheek, with great powers for the monsters, and lots of building stompings and puny human attacks. There are lots of fiddly bits in the game, but it’s pretty easy to learn and lots of fun to play. The girls really dig the silliness that is inherent to it.

You can find out more about Dominion here.

You can find out more about Camel Up here.

You can find out more about King of New York here.

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My Week That Was, 3 Mar 2017

My course is done, but in its last week I had to do some reading on Soviet and American denial and deception practices in the Cold War. The articles are all behind a paywall, but let’s just say the USSR was pretty much the king of Cold War deception, at least in the 1960s.

I’ve been reading Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which was a preview of D&D 5e, which was known at that time as D&D Next. I’m prepping for getting back into regular RPGing with my daughters, and want to try D&D 5e with them again. Rather than create something myself, going with a published adventure. I’m interested to see how it plays out, since they really did enjoy the adventure that came with the 5e Starter Set.

Also in RPGs, I’m doing final preparations for Lawless Heaven, my love letter to current Korean action cinema in the form of a one-shot adventure using my updated Sword’s Edge rules. I’m running it at Breakout Con in Toronto, 10-12 March, and the Saturday afternoon game is sold out. Right now, there are still seats available Friday evening and Sunday morning.

I cleaned up a couple of short stories and got them out into the wild to see if they’ll survive, and I need to get back to finishing off a short fiction commission on which some extra work was requested. Sounds like a Saturday night job!

My favourite podcast this week was Bombshell with its “Rage Against Alcibiades” episode. Not so much for their Kim Jong Nam piece, but for the rest of the podcast, including answering listener questions. If you dig national security wonkiness, you’ll dig this podcast.

I hope your week was cool.

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My Week That Was, 13 Jan 2017

Due to a SNAFU at the graduate book store, I’m still waiting for my books for this course. We’re already in the third week and I don’t have my books. There have been workarounds for other books, but I really need Breaking Al-Qaeda: Psychological and Operational Techniques, which is also a book I’m very interested to read. It’s supposed to arrive Monday, and then I need to read ten chapters and make comments by Thursday. It’s going to be a busy week.

I’m still reading The Shield of the Great Leader: the Armed Forces of North Korea, but I’m also working my way through Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy. So far, I’m quite enjoying it, but I haven’t encountered anything yet that is surprising or new – and I probably shouldn’t expect anything. Still, it’s a good read and a good review.

Another session of Nor’Westers (Western tropes set in the Canadian fur trade in 1810) is happening on Tuesday, so I have reviewed what has gone before and prepped for the next session. I’m also struggling to decide if I want to Kickstart Sword’s Edge RPG in order to afford editing and indexing. It would have to be very hands-off and probably electronic rewards only, but it would be nice to get both professionally done.

I’m almost done my fiction commission. I need about 500-750 good words to wrap it up and time is running out.

My favourite podcast this week was Empire’s Rogue One spoiler special which included an interview with Gareth Edwards. There was a wide range of opinions about how the movie could have been better, but all the critics agreed that they enjoyed the movie, which aligns with my thoughts.

I hope you had an enjoyable week!

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