A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Harrow the Ninth is where things go meta

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier this year, I read Gideon the Ninth and it was the surprise delight of my reading year. So, of course, I had to read the second book in the series, Harrow the Ninth.

… Man, I do not know how to write about this book without spoilers for this first book since everything in Harrow the Ninth is built on how Gideon the Ninth resolved itself. More than that, it’s hard to discuss Harrow the Ninth itself without spoiling it since so much of it is a mystery whose resolution explains not just the mystery’s solution but what was the mystery in the first place.

So, I really enjoyed the book and I’m really glad I read it?

No?

Okay.

As few spoilers as possible

As few spoilers as possible

As few spoilers as possible

The world of The Locked Tomb is one of gothic horror and high science fiction. It is definitely not Warhammer 40K but man, it has some similar vibes. We are talking about a galactic empire that was built on necromancy.

In fact, the undying emperor (who is not stuck in a life support throne) resurrected his entire home solar system, which is clearly our solar system. And now all the planets have death energy instead of life energy (so much that they are only place where necromancers can be born) The heart of the empire is a zombie solar system. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that everyone is functionally undead at the end of the series.

Gideon the Ninth was an adventure story when all is said and done, albeit one that is underpinned by Gideon figuring out her relationships. Harrow the Ninth is a much denser, more complicated read. There are two different stories going on that play with our understanding of what happened in the last book, contradict each other and play with the meta nature of narration.

I will say that many of those questions do get answered and explained by the end of the book. The cosmology of the setting is explored and expanded. And we are left with a whole new set of questions.

Gideon the Ninth was more fun but I think I got a lot more out of Harrow the Ninth. And now I’m annoyed I have to wait at least a year for Tamsyn Muir to write Alecto the Ninth.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 16, 2021 11:07 pm
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Lord Dunsany’s voyage to Mars

Lowell Kempf
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I have been slowly reading The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens by Lord Dunsany, the first of his Jorkens collections. It took me years to find a copy so I am savoring the book. I mean to write about the whole experience when I am done but one story really struck me.

While most of the stories I’ve read so far with Jorkens are slightly grounded travel stories, Our Distant Cousins veers into serious science fiction. Which also actually makes it feel the most dated.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

For a story that was first published in a magazine pretty close to a hundred years ago

It has been said that the Jorkens stories helped codify the pub story (even though example go way back) but this one breaks a lot of the conventions. Eh, it’s Dunsany. He seems to have only followed his own rules.

Our Distant Cousins isn’t actually told by Jorkens but by an associate of his who allegedly made the first voyage to Mars but lost all the proof that he had by the time he made it back to Earth.

The actual plot is honestly an abridged version of the Time Machine by H. G. Wells only with space travel instead of time travel. However, it’s the details that really struck me and stuck with me.

The traveler gets to Mars via a conventional airplane, albeit one with a rocket attached. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually seen that idea used literally.

However, he doesn’t fly through ether or does there turn out to be a breathable atmosphere in space. He actually turns off the engine and uses the momentum of the Earth to to power his trip to Mars. More than that, it takes him thirty days to reach Mars and he describes the silence and boredom of the experience. His head is stuck in a special but faulty oxygen helmet and his body is wrapped in special bandages to deal with no atmospheric pressure.

It’s the last bit that just really stayed with me. Bandages as a space suit. Dunsany actually considered the issues with flying a plan into space. No, they wouldn’t work but they make sense. That part of the story is actually remarkably hard science fiction.

Yeah, landing on a pastoral Mars where grotesque monsters keep humans as livestock sends us straight into fantasy, possible allegorical fantasy. But the space flight part is just neat.

I found out that Dunsany wrote a sequel, the Slugly Beast, where the traveler is lured back to Mars by threatening radio messages. It’s entirely from the viewpoint of Jorkens and the narrator. I think it’s a better, more atmospheric story but it doesn’t have the same science fiction bite.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 2, 2021 3:28 pm
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Jim Starlin and his Infinity Crusade

Lowell Kempf
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When I saw that our local library had just the Infinity Crusade from 1993 as a pair of collected editions, I decided I should actually finish the thing. You see, I did start reading the comic books back in 1993 and quit halfway through.

Okay. Let’s have some background. The Infinity Crusade was the third big crossover event that featured Jim Starlin bringing back Adam Warlock, Thanos and all their related cast after he killed them off in the 70s. Before it was the Infinity Gauntlet and the Infinity War.

And let me get this out of the way right now: The Infinity War and Endgame movies were much better than the comic books. Tighter plots, smaller casts (yes, really!) and better characterization.

By the time the Infinity Crusade rolled around, it was pretty clear even at the time that Marvel was beating a dead horse. It was another cosmic mad conqueror storyline. The fact that Starlin spent a lot of time on a comic relief character that didn’t add anything to the plot or theme makes me wonder how burnt out he was at that point.

Now, I like a lot of Jim Starlin’s stuff. His original Warlock comics were wacky fun. Thanos Quest,
which led up the the Infinity Gauntlet, was much better than the Infinity Gauntlet. And I really liked his apparently forgotten space opera Dreadstar (well, except for the last arc but there was a lot of good stuff before that)

But either he can’t write endings that live up to the rest of the story or he can’t handle a huge cast or the executive meddling gets too much when he has to add in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and so on.

The Infinity Crusade is further complicated by the villain being Adam Warlock’s feminine side who has been driven insane by being repressed. That is problematic and misogynistic on so many levels.

I am going to put on my arrogant comic-book guy hat and say that the story would have been vastly better if it turned out that the Goddess was actually benevolent. Like her plan was actually to give everyone in the universe a moment of cosmic awareness, knowing that almost everyone would shrug it off but it would make a difference for a tiny percentage of people. Instead, she’s virtually indistinguishable from Adam’s repressed male side. (Adam Warlock is complicated)

After finally finishing the Infity Crusade almost twenty years later, I can say I’m glad I didn’t play for all the issues back in the day.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 26, 2021 10:14 pm
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Gideon the Ninth hides a sweet romance in a Grimdark world

Lowell Kempf
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Charles Stross has famously described Gideon the Ninth as lesbian necromancers in space. Which is pretty meme-worthy and not an unfair description, even if it sets up an expectation of explicit sex scenes when there aren’t even implicit ones. Me, I’d rather describe it as War Hammer 40K reimagined as a young adult romance.

While I want to minimize spoilers, the basic plot of Gideon the Ninth is that the undying emperor of humanity needs super necromancers and requests that the nine great houses each send a trainee. And because there wouldn’t be a plot otherwise, horrible things happen.

The hero of our story is Gideon who is from the ninth house and sent to be the swords woman for her house’s necromancer. Who she grew up with in the death cult that is the ninth house and the two have a tumultuous relationship to put it mildly.

There’s a lot of good stuff to unpack with Gideon the Ninth, even trying to not spoil the plot.

The world building is tasty. Set more than a millennia in the future, humanity has a galactic empire that is ruled by an undying emperor who once resurrected the entire solar system. (I’m hoping later books give us a little nore insight into that, including the possibility that it’s all a lie) And the empire literally run on death magic with necromancers being a key part of how they do business.

The book takes place in this solar system (which, according to the index, is the only place where necromancers can be born) I know that the empire is fighting wars but we don’t know if it’s with aliens or other humans or chaos marines. While the setting has plenty of differences from WH40K, there is still a similar grim dark, gothic horror vibe.

Which is contrasted but not undercut by a lot of snark. Gideon is an incredibly snarky. Which is also obviously a coping mechanism but her childhood makes Harry Potter’s seem like Christopher Robinson’s so any kind of coping is impressive. It also grounds the story, making it clear a galactic empire run by necromancy is her regular old world.

And while the book is all grim dark and full of more undead than the Tomb of Horrors, the heart of the book is Gideon’s relationships, including her realizing that she can have relationships. The book isn’t marketed as a Young Adult book as far I know but it uses the tools of one very well. (This is not a knock)

I went into Gideon the Ninth expecting cheesy gothic horror. Instead, I found sweet and snarky.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 12, 2021 4:35 pm
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How Ambush Bug helped me appreciate Deadpool

Lowell Kempf
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I recently commented ‘So the only difference between Ambush Bug and Deadpool is Deadpool kills people?’

The immediate reply was that Deadpool is also pansexual and cusses.

But the two characters are both remarkably similar and wildly different to the point that actually talking it through made me appreciate Deadpool more

Ambush Bug is a relatively obscure DC character created in the 80s by that wacky Keith Giffin. He’s a guy on a green suit who ignored the fourth wall so much that he wanted Julius Swartz’s job. (He was an editor at DC, just so you know.) Ambush Bug was actually pretty funny and skewered plenty of sacred cows. Giffin has said the character is now officially retired but that enough money could change his mind.

And Deadpool is- well, you already know who Deadpool is. And if you don’t, I don’t believe you. And like Ambush Bug, he’s really funny, is completely meta and started out as bad guy.

But Ambush Bug is, at the end of the day, a joke. (Which isn’t a dig. That’s the whole point of Ambush Bug) And, somehow, Deadpool actually has become a character with pathos, character arcs and such. They couldn’t have made a movie about him if that wasn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong. Deadpool is no Thing. Ben Grim is in a class all his own when it comes to pathos. But I read the early issues of X-Force and, man, you would not expect Deadpool to be a breakout character in any way. I seem to even remember the original revelation that his face was mutilated and not caring because he was such a jerk.

(Just assume there are ten or twenty paragraphs ranting about how bad Rob Liefeld’s work is)

But somehow, by making him funny and making him still a jerk but one who is trying to better, Deadpool became sympathetic.

Ambush Bug is fun but Deadpool is interesting.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 5, 2021 4:57 pm
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The Gods of Pegana broke rules that didn’t exist

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been rereading Lord Dinsany’s The Gods of Pegana regularly enough over the years that I’m not sure how often I’ve read it. I didn’t even mean to read it this time. I just found out that The Travel Tales of Mr Jorkens was available as an ebook. That made me look at other works of Lord Dunsany and I found myself reading The Gods of Pegana.

Lord Dunsany and The Gods of Pegana are both ridiculously influential. Fantasy as a genre would be completely different if it wasn’t for Lord Dunsany and The Gods of Pegana is a big part of it.

Authors who have listed Dunsany as a major influence include Lovecraft, Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Ashton Smith, LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, and... look, the list just goes on. It’s hard to believe one guy did so much to jumpstart fantasy as we know it.

And he seems so overlooked by modern audiences if not modern authors. It does seem hard to find his non-copywrit works which also makes me wonder if his estate is sitting on his later work.

The Gods of Pegana was his first book and it’s a tiny little thing. A novella at best or a bunch of linked vignettes. And there almost isn’t any plot to speak of. It’s a description of a fantasy pantheon of Gods and their prophets. It really reads like a holy text for a religion that doesn’t exist in a world that doesn’t exist.

But here’s the thing. This is one of the earliest examples of a book that is just about creating a setting and a cosmology. I have read that it was the very first (I’m not convinced of that fact but it does sound good) More than that, it was written in the context of the world, not from the viewpoint of an outsider.

World building is one of the corner stones of speculative fiction. The Gods of Pegana is a template for world building, an ur-example. I know fantasy worlds existed before it but I don’t know if anyone created whole pantheons out of cloth before. It was a game changer but the game didn’t even exist when it was written.

Did Lord Dunsany create a lot of ideas or tools that later creators would use or would someone else have come up with these tropes and concepts?

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Apr 26, 2021 11:31 pm
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Bangsian fantasy had a silly beginning

Lowell Kempf
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Bangsian Fantasy is a genre where the setting is primarily in the afterlife and people from different periods of history interact, usually in a light-hearted way. The term is probably only reason anyone remembers who John Kendrick Bangs was.

While Bangs didn’t create the idea, he popularized it with his Associated Shades books, the first and probably most famous being A House-Boat on the River Styx. The books are about a social club of the elite of the dead. Famous dead people like Samuel Johnson, Socatres, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Confucius, Sir Walter Raleigh, George Washington and Samuel Johnson appear. (Seriously, Bangs apparently loved using Samuel Johnson as a character)

I had read about the books and their influence many years before I’d ever actually found a copy and read it. And the books were not what I had been expecting.

You see, Bangs didn’t use the different historical figures as themselves. Instead, it was a setup for him to satirize contemporary 19th century society. The great figures of history become whiny, sarcastic club members. Which, to be fair, is the point. I don’t think you can hold it against Bangs for not writing a completely different book. And Philip Jose Farmer wrote that book anyway with Riverworld.

The Associated Shade books are light, amusing works to read so I do go back and reread them periodically. And it is really amusing that the later books feature Sherlock Holmes since they were written in between the Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House so Holmes was dead at the time (I have read that Doyle was cool with Bangs use of the character)

The high concept of the Associated Shades is so much bigger than the actual execution. Again, to be fair, that was kind of Bangs’ point. However, it is still odd to see the concept of afterlife society codified by such silliness.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Apr 21, 2021 8:17 pm
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The darkness in Terry Pratchett’s young adult books

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Noted after my last commentary about Young Adult literature was that a lot of Young Adult literature is dark and discusses dark themes.

Which is clearly not a bad thing. A lot of Young Adult literature has an educational component and is talking about serious stuff. And it also has a ‘You are not alone’ effect for kids and others who are going through trauma.

The first work that came to mind when I read that remark was The Amazing Maurice and His Highly Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett, which I admit is a little far afield when you consider how many non-fantastical dark books out there.

I have been told the late but eternally great Mr Pratchett defined his Young Adult books as books that had young adults as protagonists and otherwise didn’t bother pulling any of his punches. And, man, that man could punch hard and he never punched down. He had stuff to say.

(I don’t know if he considered Equal Rites or Morte Young Adult books. They weren’t marketed as such and I don’t know if it was his choice or the publishers choice to market Maurice et al that way)

I’m not going to go into any real details about The Amazing Maurice and His Highly Educated Rodents since people should read Pratchett for themselves so they can laugh and question things they never thought to question.

But the actual young adults border on being minor characters. The real focus and emotional heart of the book are the intelligent, talking animals, a colony of rats plus a cat. Pratchett definitely dwells on how nasty the lives of rats can be, particularly when humans get involved. He clearly comes from the Maurice Sendak school of ‘Don’t sugarcoat things for kids. They live in the real world and they need to understand how it works’

The result is that the first Disc World book that was marketed for kids is one of the darkest and goriest in the series. The book is downright traumatizing, perhaps too much since I remember the nightmares more than the point. It definitely had an impact though! I am choosing to believe that Pratchett made a point of making Maurice et al so dark because he thought it was something that young adults needed.

Some people would say that his later young adult books, the ones about Tiffany Aching, are better than Maurice et al. And I’d be one of those people. Tiffany Aching is a wonderful example of a character who is wise beyond their years but still has some growing up to do. But the journey in Maurice et al of what it means to be sentient and what responsibilities that means still made for powerful reading.


Originally jotted down at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Apr 7, 2021 6:34 pm
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So The Catcher in the Rye helped create a genre?

Lowell Kempf
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I became interested in the idea of Young Adult books as a concept when I was 2.3 books through a series when I realized it was Young Adult. And honestly, the only difference that I could tell was no swearing.

From what I can tell, the technical definition of Young Adult literature is whatever a publisher feels will sell better if they slap the label on it. Honestly, that’s about what I was expecting.

One thing that did stand out to me was that many folks feel that the two books that helped create the genre are The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders, the latter being the first ‘official’ Young Adult book. And The Outsiders made perfect sense to me but the Catcher in the Rye was a surprise.

It shouldn’t be. Young protagonist? Check. Real life problems? Check. Coming of age? Well, some kind of milestone towards adulthood. Frankly, I am just thankful The Sorrows of Young Werther isn’t considered the proto-Young Adult novel.

I don’t know if I’m brave enough to reread The Catcher in the Rye. Every time I have read it, it’s been like reading a different book. Is Holden Caufield a brave, struggling youth or a jerk or sensitive kid who just doesn’t have coping skills? Depends on where you are when you read it.

I do remember in college arguing it was the great American novel but there was partially a rebellion against Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also remember being surprised by how many girls I knew in middle school who loved the book until I realized that they identified with Phoebe, Holden’s sister.

If Wikipedia is anything to go by, a full half of the readers of Young Adult books are adults. Since I’m one of them, I’ll buy that. The Catcher in the Rye being a book that ended up bridging those two audiences (but I’m pretty sure those two audiences get very different things from the book) but apparently it was The Outsiders that made authors and publishers say ‘Hey, there’s something there! There’s product and profit to be made!”

Originally posted over all www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 31, 2021 8:19 pm
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Beverly Cleary. She wrote some good books.

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Beverly Cleary died on Thursday, March 25, 2021. Which, from the perspective of when I’m writing this was yesterday. She was 104 so the sad aspect is really fighting the impressive aspect.

I’m not sure if I’ve read any of her books since the 1980s. However, I did read a nice chunk of her books back in the day. You know, back when I was the primary audience. And since it’s been decades since I actually read Beverly Cleary, I am not in a position to make any analysis or commentary about her body of work.

However, her Ramona books did leave a lasting impression on me. I remember finding impossible to believe that the same author who had created Henry Huggins, who I found terribly bland, also created Ramona Quimbly who I remember being a much more nuanced and believable character. Ramona was basically a good kid but full of all the flaws and anxieties that are a part of being a kid.

In fact, I remember being convinced that Beverly Cleary was setting up having Beezus and Ramona’s parents getting divorced. Which, according to Wikipedia, never happened. The fact that I believed that could have happened, though, speaks of the emotional weight Beverly Cleary could convey

I’m a little scared of rereading any of her books because it might be disillusioning. I’ve had decades to develop rose colored glasses. However, she wrote works that have stayed with me and made it to 104. That’s awesome.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Mar 27, 2021 3:01 am
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