Card Queen Is Better At Being Harley Quinn Than Harley Quinn

To immediately qualify the clickbait title: There is a trend in modern Batman to make Harley Quinn into an anti-hero. Generally speaking she leaves the Joker for being an abusive boyfriend and strikes out on her own, often with help from Poison Ivy and/or Catwoman, keeping the general Harley Quinn style but fighting now for the good guys. This comes up in the Suicide Squad movies (particularly the good one, although the bad one did something similar, just without Joker being abusive – and there’s signs that the Joker was originally supposed to betray Harley Quinn but it was cut from the final movie), the Injustice games, and it’s the central premise of the Harley Quinn TV show.

Particularly in the TV show, though, the focus on Harley Quinn in particular highlights problems with the premise. Harley Quinn’s whole aesthetic is derived from an obsessive tailing after the Joker – if she’s leaving her abusive relationship behind, why isn’t she ditching that aesthetic? For that matter, Harley Quinn’s only superpower is being handy with a baseball bat and her primary skill is psychiatry, although plainly she’s not very good at that. You could rewrite her backstory so that she’s successfully rehabilitated some number of supervillains (even if they’re just D-listers like Calendar Man), but then you’re on the hook for writing the Joker such that he plausibly converted a psychiatrist who’s actually good at this, rather than a true crime fan girl with an obsessive streak that made her good at school but bad at medicine.

Fact is, the good ending for Harley Quinn is that she leaves the whole clown crime aesthetic behind to become a criminal psychiatry professor at Gotham University, teaching students without any more direct interaction with the super-criminals she has such a dangerous fascination with.

But while that’s a good ending for the story of Harley Quinn, it’s not going to carry a TV show. And the fact is, sexy female Joker-flavored anti-hero taking over the underworld is a cool premise. I can see why people want to wrench Harley Quinn into that role despite the rough edges. But the perfect character for literally exactly that was created in 1976: Joker’s Daughter, also known as the Card Queen.

Continue reading “Card Queen Is Better At Being Harley Quinn Than Harley Quinn”

Wyrd Sisters: What Happened To Esk?

Wyrd Sisters is the second book in the Witches sub-series of Discworld, and the sixth book in the series overall. I’m not super concerned about the other sub-series in this post, though, so we mainly care about the first book, Equal Rites, and Wyrd Sisters itself. We also care about Sourcery, the fifth book in the series overall and the third book in the Rincewind series, mainly because of the implications it has for several of the characters in Equal Rites.

In Equal Rites, Granny Weatherwax helps Esk, the first female wizard, realize her destiny and learn wizardry. Granny Weatherwax is a witch, not a wizard, and in Discworld witches and wizards are very separate schools of magic, one only for women and one only for men. This is the fundamental premise of Equal Rites, although of course Esk upsets everything by becoming a female wizard. At the end of the book, Archchancellor Cutangle of the wizards’ Unseen University asks Granny Weatherwax to be an extracurricular professor for the university, hoping to encourage more women to enter the profession by employing a female professor. The exact details of the arrangement aren’t clear, but the basic idea seems to be that wizarding students will go to Granny Weatherwax for a summer to learn some witchcraft and round out their magical education a bit. It’s the capstone to a sub-plot of Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle putting their differences aside and recognizing what they have in common, mirroring Esk’s own journey in which she waffles between witchcraft and wizardry, always sticking up for the one when a practitioner of the other is talking shit.

Esk (and, for that matter, her friend Simon) is a student at Unseen University as of the end of Equal Rites, third book in the series overall. Then in the fifth book of the series, Sourcery, Unseen University gets obliterated at the center of a new mage war as a sorcerer (an ungodly powerful super-wizard) dissolves the old order of wizards, leading to a free-for-all that leads to an attempted coup against the gods (thwarted not by the gods but by Rincewind, the Disc’s least capable wizard). There is no mention of what happened to Esk. Now, fair enough, Sourcery is not in the Witches’ sub-series, Rincewind has no idea who Esk or Simon are, so he wouldn’t be checking up on them.

Being a book in the Rincewind series, it involves a lot of traveling to exotic locations, encountering fantastical perils, and running away from them at top speed (or, in one case, hitting them with a half-brick in a sock), so there’s not a ton of time spent in Unseen University itself, and most of what we do see directly concerns the sorcerer’s takeover and the disastrous results of the subsequent reordering of the wizarding hierarchy. There’s a lot of talk about how wizards don’t and shouldn’t marry or especially have children (the eighth son of an eighth son is a wizard – the eighth son of a wizard is a sorcerer, and sorcerers are calamitous) and the upper level wizards are all male, but given the recency of Esk’s acceptance into the University and the relative timidity of the integration of female wizards, it’s not surprising that none of them have cracked the upper ranks yet and that they’re still too few in number to be a noticeable presence in the sorcerer’s power struggle. There’s no sign of Archchancellor Cutangle, but the new Archchancellor is said to have been relatively recently appointed, so we can assume that Cutangle bit it at some point to make way for a new character who could more suitably play the role required in the plot of Sourcery. That’s kind of sad, Cutangle was shaping up to be a pretty good Archchancellor despite his flaws, but the plot of Sourcery kind of demanded that the University have a mediocre Archchancellor instead – so it goes.

All well and good for Sourcery, but that does mean Sourcery left Wyrd Sisters on the hook to resolve the fate of Esk (and, implicitly, Simon), because it stars Granny Weatherwax (along with new faces Nanny Ogg and Magrat, the mother and maiden respectively to Granny Weatherwax’s crone). If nothing particularly terrible had happened in Unseen University or Ankh-Morpork (the city the University is built in) then we could assume that Esk is getting along fine while Granny Weatherwax and the other witches are confronted with other troubles off in the Ramtops, far away from Ankh-Morpork. But at last accounting, Esk was at ground zero for the apocalypse! A line about receiving a letter or something would’ve been appreciated, to establish she’s still alive (or alternatively, a line about a funeral to confirm she was a casualty of the war, although that seems like an especially grim fate for a twelve-year old girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and put in a book’s worth of great effort to be there).

It can’t be that Wyrd Sisters is a prequel, either, because it’s a plot point in Equal Rites that Granny Weatherwax doesn’t like to fly on broomsticks and it is a plot point in Wyrd Sisters that she came late to flying on broomsticks but now does it rather a lot. The exact positioning of Sourcery in the timeline is unclear, but I feel like if you’re going to nuke the last known location of your previous book’s protagonists and have readers not worry about it because the Rincewind plot is all set 50 years before the Witches plot (or whatever), then you’ve got to be pretty ham-handed with establishing the timeline, either with explicit lines in the book putting events relative to one another (i.e. “fifty years before the time of Simon there was another sorcerer, a real sorcerer…”) or else by heading each chapter with an actual date.

Discworld is a pretty loose setting which doesn’t generally truck with that kind of timeline finnickiness in the Tolkien tradition. In the first book, Terry Pratchett jokes that you can’t map a sense of humor, and thus kicked Rincewind and Twoflower around to different locations heedless of how exactly they bordered each other, and this is fine. By Wyrd Sisters, we are dimly aware that Ankh-Morpork, Sto Lat, and Lancre are all city states in some kind of proximity to each other, but we don’t really know the details of their international relations with one another, like, we have no idea about the other two city-states’ opinion on the Lancre coup that sets off the plot of Wyrd Sisters, and that’s fine. The books aren’t about these things.

But one whole book in the series was about Esk and Simon and Cutangle, dammit, and if you’re going to start the end of the world from their last known location, some words as to their ultimate fate would’ve been appreciated.

The Book/Movie Backlog

My video game backlog project has worked out pretty great for its intended purpose: Pushing me to try new games instead of revisiting old favorites over and over again, replaying them about as soon as I stop being completely sick of them. The problem I’d identified long ago is that every time I wanted to play a video game for a while, it almost always meant I was kind of tired and unfocused and needed to recharge, which means I was in no state to scroll through a list of 500+ video games in my Steam library and pick out something new. I’d play a spate of new games about once a year or so when I’d give myself a goal to play through a specific category, like every Star Wars game in my library, or every Metroidvania. This would work for a while, but after a few weeks I’d get sick of that category and drift back to playing whatever.

During my Star Wars kick after this year’s May the Fourth sale, I felt my interest in the project ebbing, noticed the pattern, and decided to solve it by creating a list of every video game I wanted to play. The broader subject matter means that, when I got tired of one category, I would switch to a different one, not replaying old favorites yet again. And it worked: My Star Wars playthrough has been on hiatus for months, but once I’m in the mood again, I’ll pick up where I left off, rather than feeling like the project is abandoned and starting a new one. Anyone following the blog will remember that I’ve mentioned exorcising Ubisoft from my soul, getting closure on their series and then moving away from them, and while that project has successfully carried me through to the end of the Assassin’s Creed series and into Far Cry, I’ve intermixed tons of other games with it. The “make peace with the fact that Ubisoft sucks and maybe always did” project tends to dominate my chunky, 20+ hour playthroughs, but since I’m also playing lots of 5-10 hour games, I’m not getting burnt out on it the way I have in the past.

But also, video games have completely taken over my hobbies. It used to be, when I needed to recharge, I would scroll over Steam and Netflix and my Kindle library until something popped out at me. Video games were always a plurality if not majority, but I’d also watch movies/shows and read books semi-regularly. Now, the process of finding a new game is much easier, which means I gravitate towards that. The solution, plainly, is to create similar backlogs for books and movies. The problem is, that’s going to be much harder.

The creation of my video game backlog has a lot of prerequisites. The backlog was over 180 games long at start and new games are added on a monthly basis. I didn’t just pluck out a half-dozen games that I’d never gotten around to, and that was the point: By being really huge, it’s easy for me to pass over a game that I don’t feel like playing right now and come back to it later. But in order to build that huge list, I needed to have 500+ games sitting in my Steam library, a list that I cut down to less than 200 by going through game by game and asking myself if I really cared if I never played this video game.

The reason why I had 500+ Steam games in my library was because of 10 years of accumulation from Steam wishlist/sales, Humble Bundles, and Humble Choices. Each of these sent new games past me on a more-or-less monthly basis for something like $5. Steam sends me a steady stream of recommendations based on what I’m already playing, and I’ll wishlist anything that looks interesting. During major sales, I’ll grab a few games if they’re heavily discounted enough. Humble Bundles regularly serve up packages of games that usually include one or two headline titles along with a dozen or so others, and while most of the other dozen never make it to my Steam library, some catch my eye and I give them a shot. The Humble Choice works the same way, except that the games aren’t even grouped by publisher or category, which is how games like Yes, Your Grace and Crypt of the Necrodancer find their way into my library.

And this is what books and movies/shows are missing. If I’d embarked on this project five years ago, Netflix probably could’ve served me on the movies/shows angle, if only minimally. Their recommendations and new releases would’ve served a similar role to Steam, and being a one-stop shop for all audio-visual media meant that once I paid my monthly subscription, everything was free. This means I don’t have to decide whether I want to risk money on a show I might like or might not – anything that looks interesting goes on the list (the video game equivalent being a combination of Steam wishlist and games from Humble bundles that I was already buying for other titles in the bundle). Unfortunately, the Balkanization of streaming services means that nobody has access to the data they need to offer me recommendations that are more hit than miss, and nothing like Humble Bundles – a package deal that includes several more obscure titles alongside one or two attention getting big ones – has ever existed.

Books are even worse. While Amazon certainly has an algorithm, it doesn’t seem to be very good at its job, and I still have to pay for every single title I take a chance on. I’ve tried using Amazon/Audible the way I use Steam, and the end result is that I spent a lot of time on books I abandoned halfway through because they were bad. Humble Bundle has book bundles, but they’re usuall either graphic novels or non-fiction, and the rare occasion on which I’ve tried one of their book bundles, I found its quality was abysmal. It has a lot of short story collections, which I have learned tend to be two or three short stories from really good writers to draw people in and fifteen from the publisher’s poker buddies. Instead of Yes, Your Grace, I get Shipwrecks Above. That collection also had the phenomenal Coldest Girl In Coldtown, but the only reason I realized that story was good and read it is because someone told me about it, and I doublechecked the one book of vampire short stories I had lying around to see if it included that one. There’s probably one or two other good stories in there, but I’d have to sift through a bunch of junk to find them. My video game backlog isn’t like that. September had 4 Regrets to 6 Complete, and I considered that a bad month for Regrets, plagued by technical difficulties!

The recommendation for Coldest Girl In Coldtown worked out great, so that presents a potential solution: Get recommendations. The problem is, if you ask a random individual for their favorite books/TV shows, you will mostly get an inventory of things they read when they were fifteen or which remind them of things they read when they were fifteen. If you ask a broad group for their favorites, you will get things that have broad appeal, with nary a trace of any Yes, Your Graces or even Crypts of the Necrodancer. People who can give reliable recommendations do exist (the guy who recommended me Coldest Girl In Coldtown has a really good track record), but they’re rare. I can’t easily find a group of 50 of them, ask them for recommendations, and assemble a 100+ entry list from each of them giving me 2 or 3 recs each.

I’ve begun assembling book and game backlogs in text files. It took ten years to build up my video game backlog, so even if the tools are not ideal, getting started on the book and movie backlogs right away seems prudent. So far they’ve all got a single digit number of entries, though, and I’m not sure how to open myself up to the steady stream of recommendations that would allow them to expand.

Fantastical Combined Arms

I really like it when a story has fantastical combined arms. For the uninitiated, “combined arms” refers to using different weapon systems operated by different soldiers together to cover for each other’s weaknesses and maximize effectiveness. The one that’s been going around the news lately is using infantry and armor (which mostly means tanks) together so that enemy infantry don’t blow up all your tanks with javelin ambushes. Primitive militaries (even when their gear is high-tech, like modern armies with pure armor units with no infantry attached) tend to sort units by weapon type, because that’s simpler and more straightforward for the commander, who is in charge, but advanced militaries (even when their gear is low-tech, like iron age armies with infantry and artillery (i.e. archers and/or slingers) mixed together in a single unit) mix different troop types together, training them to support one another for more tactical effectiveness.

Having fantastical combined arms not only improves verisimilitude, since combined arms is effective across so many technological and geographic landscapes in the real world that it’s hard to imagine a fantasy setting where that wouldn’t also apply, they also make for more interesting gameplay and more varied fight scenes.

As recent posts suggest, I’ve been playing through the Force Awakens recently, and while that game is mostly pretty meh, its unit variety is occasionally really good. They have a decent variety of different stormtroopers and stuff, which is cool but not a big enough deal to justify an entire blog post, but what really caught my attention was the penultimate battle on the first visit to Felucia (right before Shaak Ti). The Felucians have tamed rancors, a bunch of melee warrior mooks, a powerful chieftain in front, and a shaman who provides buffs in back, and they all cover for each other really well.

The rancors are the headliners, of course, with powerful melee and ranged attacks (they can hurl boulders at you) that will deal most of the damage to Starkiller. They’re vulnerable to being kited with Force lightning, though. You can blast them with lightning, during which time they’re stunned and can’t retaliate, and then run away while your force recharges to blast them again. Their hurled boulders aren’t hard to dodge if you’re focused on a rancor alone.

This is where the warriors and especially chieftain come in. The warriors can swarm you while you’re blasting the rancor with lightning, hitting you while your hands are occupied and you can’t defend yourself, and the chieftain has a much faster ranged attack that can interrupt both your Force lightning and your melee combos. The chieftain and warriors can both be defeated by giving them a quick blast with lightning, and then moving in for a full damage lightsaber combo before they recover from the shock, but the Force shaman can give the warriors a shield making them immune to lightsaber attacks. Due to their sheer numbers, blasting them all down with lightning is impractical.

The shaman is extremely vulnerable to any sort of attack, but doesn’t have to be anywhere near the frontlines to boost their allies, so in this fight the shaman hangs back behind the rancors with a couple of warriors around as a last line of defense.

It’s only the mid-point of the game, so the battle still isn’t especially difficult. The extremely agile Starkiller doesn’t have a whole lot of difficulty getting past the rancors without killing them, and taking out the fragile shaman at the back. With the shaman dead, you can thin out the warriors with quick blasts of lightning for stun followed by a combo for damage, dispatching a warrior or two before any of the rancors can catch up and dish out serious damage, and you can use the Force repulse power (which sends out a Force push in all directions, knocking away everyone nearby) if you get surrounded. Once the rancors’ warrior support is too thinned out to interrupt the lightning, you can kite them to wear them down. There’s three of them and they’re too big to be affected by Force repulse (despite the fact that a couple of weeks later at the most, Starkiller literally pulls a star destroyer out of the sky, so you’d think he’d have the whole “size matters not” thing down hard enough to toss a rancor around like a ragdoll, but you’d be wrong), so you have to be careful not to get surrounded, but Starkiller’s agility saves him again, easily able to outmaneuver the lumbering monsters to keep all three on one side.

Then you have to finish them off with a quick time event, which, god, can’t the finishing animation just play automatically? The Force Unleashed usually uses them infrequently enough that they’d be perfectly good as a quick spectacle as a reward for defeating a mini-boss (although this encounter specifically is a bad example, since there’s three rancors at once – probably best to let the first two just die and only use the finishing animation on the last one), but because there’s a quick time event slapped on, I’m distracted from the animation and the sequence feels annoying and anti-climactic instead of rewarding. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect.

I use a video game example here because that’s what prompted the post, but you can see how this could apply to prose or animation or whatever. The enemies don’t just have extended health bars or deal more damage, the way in which Starkiller fights them is different. He might start out trying to blast the rancors with lightning and get swarmed, then try to fight the warriors and find the shaman keeping him at bay and the rancors catching up with him.

After using his Force-empowered agility to leap through the trees past the frontline and catch the shaman, swiftly dispatching them (after a short chase) with his lightsaber, the rancors would catch up, he’d try to blast them with lightning again, and get swarmed by the warriors and chieftain. After using Force repulse to clear away most of the warriors, he’d have a melee fight with the chieftain while dodging stray warriors and rancor swipes, and then, once the chieftain is down, unleash the full power of his Force lightning to fry the rancors.

You might cut two of the rancors if they feel redundant, and you definitely want the ending to be a single sustained burst of Force lightning, long enough that the audience gets how the warrior swarm was able to interrupt it, but not dragging on the way the game’s kiting strategy would, and you’d also want to rely on Force lightning a lot less for fighting the warriors and chieftain so that it can be reserved as the rancor-killing finisher move, but the basic pace of the fight is the same.

Conan the Hunter Was Ruined By Its Obsession With Gods

I did a live read of Conan the Hunter in my Discord channel rather than blogging about it regularly, but I’m going to put a summary of my thoughts here so it can be collected with the other Conan posts. Most of the post is gonna be summary, though, just so the series review will be complete by itself.

Conan the Hunter feels a lot like Conan the Bold. It’s deep into the Flanderization of Conan, but still gets pretty close to being a decent popcorn book (is there a more accurate equivalent term for “popcorn movie” as applies to books, seeing as how you don’t eat popcorn with books usually?). Unfortunately, it’s got one particular obsession which grinds hard against the themes of the character as laid down by Robert E. Howard’s originals, the books is bad in direct proportion to how often that obsession shows up, and that obsession dominates the narrative more and more the deeper you get into the book. For Conan the Bold, it was an epic fantasy struggle of good against evil in which Conan was the prophesied champion of the world against an evil space god whose minions sought world domination for the next ten thousand years, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean relativism of Conan. For Conan the Hunter, it’s the obsession with religion and gods providing salvation, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean anti-theism of Conan.

Conan the Hunter begins in Brythunia’s capital city of Pirogia. The Brythunian princess has been killed by an evil sorceress as part of a conspiracy to place a would-be usurper on the throne, and a thief involved in the scheme is looking to pawn the late princesses’ jewelry for cheap off to Conan, who doesn’t know where it came from, then set him up to take the fall for the murder, simultaneously throwing suspicion off of the conspiracy and collecting a reward for catching the princesses’ killer. When the guards arrive, Conan successfully resists arrest and sets out to track down the thief and make him pay for the set up. So far, so good. We’re not exactly embracing Conan’s philosophical depths, but neither did half the Robert E Howard stories.

Then, while Conan is hiding out in the hut of his latest paramour, she fetches a healer for the injuries he sustained while resisting arrest, and that’s where the trouble begins. The healer is a priest of Mitra, which is fine, but he’s also a D&D Cleric who casts Cure Moderate Wounds on Conan using his holy symbol, and who must collect payment for an offering to the local temple of Mitra or else the spell won’t take effect, which is not how regular Cleric spellcasting works but does sound like something an amateur GM might come up with to explain why Cleric services in town charge a fee. It’s a functional (if uncreative) explanation for a D&D game, but Hyboria does not work that way. In Hyboria, this is plainly sorcery, and while you could have a sorcerer who’s a good guy in Conan, you wouldn’t expect Conan himself to just accept it like it isn’t even a big deal. Conan hates sorcery, but here the author seems to be importing the arcane/divine magic divide without even thinking about it, interpreting Conan’s spite for sorcery exclusively as spite for arcane magic (later in the book Conan will muse to himself that he doesn’t like getting entangled with priests and wizards, which might suggest that he does indeed more-or-less equate the two (as he should), but then the problem is that Conan doesn’t raise even the mildest objection to this sorcerer casting a spell directly on him).

This is the seed of the god-obsessed plot tumor that will eventually devour the book, but for now, it’s a pretty minor complaint. Conan’s blase acceptance of sorcery is out of character, but the idea of a sorcerer of Mithra who can heal people with supernatural speed is hardly unimaginable in Hyboria. Conan tries to track down the thief, and he gets chased by guards into a sewer, fights a sewer monster dianoga knock-off, and ends up breaking into the palace in hopes of catching the thief while collecting the reward for identifying the princesses’ alleged murdered to the guards. The action scenes here are all pretty good and if the book had been able to stick to this, it would’ve been a solid B.

While Conan’s closing in on the thief, cutaways introduce us to the king’s supporters on one side and the evil conspirators against him on the other. The king is a pretty standard good ruler for the book’s 1994 release date: He uses trade and diplomacy to bring peace and prosperity to his people, but uses force when necessary to prevent potentially belligerent neighbors from thinking he’s ripe for invasion. He’s a mix between standard Brythunians and some kind of hillfolk ethnicity. Having a biracial good king is kind of a blow struck against the race essentialism of Robert E Howard’s Hyboria, but only kind of, because the setting is ludicrously bio-essentialist but does not have a hierarchy of uber- and untermenschen. Gundermen are naturally adept with wielding pikes and Argosians are natural born sailors and that is racist and weird, but neither of them is especially superior to the other. Racial mixing also explicitly does not weaken races in Hyboria. The book implies that the king’s racial heritage informs how others view him but that his abilities are his own, which is very much a cry of defiance against the bioessentialism of Hyboria, but also it’s only implied, not stated, and it wouldn’t actually be out of place at all if it turned out that race mixing between Brythunian hillmen and the mainstream Brythunian ethnicity happened to produce a race of level-headed diplomats.

The king has three primary allies. The first is a hillman named Kailash, the king’s main bodyguard. It’s not totally clear how long they’ve known each other, but they were clearly friends before the king became king. The second is a captain of the town guard named Salvorus, a hero of the border skirmishes who’s been beating up on raiders from rival nations who’re probing for weaknesses, and got rewarded with a cushy job in the capital. Salvorus is loyal to the king, but spends most of the book as a gullible pawn of the conspiracy. The third major ally is that Cleric imported from D&D, who goes to the palace to report that he’s received a prophecy of an evil sorceress laying a curse upon the king, which indeed she has, slowly killing him.

With his queen (his connection to the Brythunian royal bloodline) and princess dead, the royal line is strictly speaking extinct, so if the king dies, it’s not clear who succeeds him, but the smart money is on a fellow named Valtresca, the general of the Brythunian army (apparently this iron age military has a supreme leader who is not the king, which goes unexplained but is not relevant to the plot so we don’t have to worry about it). Problem is, Valtresca is secretly evil, and the conspiracy against the king is trying to put him on the throne. An evil courtier Lamici (also a eunuch, something which never impacts the plot – the king seems to be monogamous, so why does Brythunia even have eunuchs?) is super racist and wants Veltresca on the throne because Valtresca is ethnically a pure city Brythunian (well, allegedly – racial purity is mostly a myth, but it’s not clear if the author knows that, and it doesn’t come up in any case), the thief Hassem is presumably in it for the money, although the book never really says for sure, and the evil sorceress Azora wants to spread misery and chaos throughout the world, and getting rid of a good king to replace him with some belligerent power-monger will hopefully get the entire region embroiled in war sooner rather than later.

Conan is captured while in the palace, an internecine disagreement between Valtresca the general and Hassem the thief leads Valtresca to try and tie him off as a loose end, so he beats Hassem senseless and orders Salvorus (the guard captain) to take him to the dungeon for execution on the morrow. Hassem attempts escape and poisons Salvorus, then goes on an evil villain rant to the imprisoned Conan about how Valtresca is totally going to usurp the throne, before Salvorus turns out to be alive, stabs Hassem in the back, releases Conan, and then collapses. Then the book remembers that it wants to have a Cleric in the party and has Conan meet up with the priest from earlier only to then immediately backtrack to right where they were before, in the dungeons standing over the poisoned body of guard captain Salvorus. There’s a Cleric now, though, who heals the captain just in time for Valtresca to show up with a bunch of guards and try to tie off all these loose ends at once. Conan and Salvorus fight the guards (including another captain, a hulking brute mini-boss), Valtresca and Salvorus both die, and Salvorus asks Conan to protect the king from the conspiracy with his dying breath. Conan, indebted to Salvorus for saving him from Hassem, takes up the quest.

This probably seems like we should be heading towards an immediate climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress now. And indeed, we definitely should be. We are halfway through the book, and most of what stands between us and the climax is stuff that should’ve just been cut.

Kailash, the king’s bodyguard, believes Conan’s and the priest’s story about the conspiracy, and the priest breaks the evil sorceresses’ curse on the king. Conan’s job isn’t done yet, though, because the sorceress can always call up another demon to finish the job so long as she’s still alive. The priest’s healing has bought the king time, but only killing the sorceress will permanently save him, so Conan’s on the hook to do that in order to fulfill his oath to Salvorus. Conan, Kailash, and the priest set out to confront the evil sorceress in her secret lair in the city, a ruined temple to some god named Talgor who never shows up in any other Conan story.

This could’ve been a perfectly good climax, but instead the priestess teleports (literally teleports) halfway across Hyboria all the way to Shem, leaving Conan, Kailash, and the priest Madresus to clear out an empty dungeon, and this is where the trouble really begins. The final boss waiting at the end of this dungeon, having been vacated by the actual main villain, is instead a demon she summoned. When the demon is defeated, the demon’s boss shows up. Conan and Kailash are dominated by the demon and turn on Madresus, and then the actual literal god Talgor shows up to stomp the demon lord because of an unrelated grudge. It’s a literal deus ex machina.

Madresus is able to figure out where the evil sorceress has gone, so the party sets out across Zamora and into the deserts of Shem to chase her down, and if it feels like this post is really starting to drag on that’s because the book really starting to drag on. The evil courtier Lamici shows up to kill Madresus, Conan and Kailash chase him across the desert to the witch fortress out in the deserts of Shem, the evil sorceresses’ role as main villain is usurped by an evil sorcerer from eons ago who’s been revived and then impregnates the evil sorceress with an evil sorcerer baby which magically reaches the third trimester overnight and it’s exactly as jarring and fetishistic as it sounds. The final assault on the witch fortress ends with Kailash and Conan overcoming some traps and some gargoyles, getting split up during the gargoyle fight, and Kailash confronts the evil sorceress while Conan confronts the new sorcerer guy who came out of nowhere. Kailash is seemingly killed by the sorceress, only for the sorceress to be killed by the gargoyles because she wasn’t properly whitelisted as not-an-intruder. Conan kills the sorcerer. There is absolutely no reason why the sorceress couldn’t have (seemingly) killed Kailash, the stupid whitelist mishap couldn’t have been cut, and the sorceress couldn’t have gone on to confront and be killed by Conan afterwards, which means there’s no need for this evil sorcerer to come out of nowhere.

For that matter, the entire trip across the desert and fake-out final dungeon with the demon lord could’ve been cut completely. Instead, the evil sorceress could just have a secret fortress in the Brythunian countryside, evil courtier Lamici could’ve killed the party Cleric in the palace immediately after the Cleric healed the king, and Conan and Kailash could’ve gone to fight the evil sorceress the next day. This also solves the problem where the narrative goes out of its way to insist that the king is still in danger, only to have the party spend the next month tracking down the evil sorceress to the other side of a desert, where the original conspiracy plot is forgotten and instead a totally unrelated plot about hyper-rapidly breeding an army of evil sorcerers to menace the world pops up, complete with a brand new unrelated villain to take over the role of big bad.

Removing the fakeout final dungeon and skipping directly to the fortress assault at the end also gets rid of the bizarre deus ex machina moment where some random god shows up to save Conan – Conan the barbarian – from a demon lord. This being the same Conan who tells anyone who asks him about gods or prayers that Crom does not answer prayers. He gives Cimmerians the strength and wit to fend for themselves and then ignores them.

This isn’t even the worst intervention of a god. Madresus, the Cleric, has an old mentor guy he meets with at one point for an entire chapter’s worth of exposition dumping on exactly what kind of evil sorceress he’s confronting and how he’s the last of an ancient order who wiped out this particular kind of evil sorcerer thousands of years ago but now they have returned. It all has so little impact on the plot I didn’t even bother to mention it in the summary, but this mysterious mentor figure later on shows up to save Kailash from the witch fortress once it starts collapsing, after he’s seemingly been killed along with the two evil sorcerers. And then it turns out that this mysterious mentor figure is Mitra in person. Just showing up to spit on the themes of Conan super directly for a bit, not even in a way that affects the plot at all, Kailash could’ve just been slightly less injured and been able to stagger out of the collapsing fortress under his own power, but instead we’re shoving another deus ex machina in there.

This book has lots of good individual scenes, but its pacing is atrocious (especially in its second half, when it seems like the climax of the original story is yanked away so that an entire second Conan story can be shoved in to meet wordcount requirements) and its obsession with gods and priests drags the book down every time it comes up, which is unfortunately fairly often and at a couple of crucial points in the plot.

A Spectrum of Magical Hardness

It finally seems to have died down a bit, but for a while there, absolutely everyone was obsessed with Brandon Sanderson style magic systems. I don’t just mean that they liked Brandon Sanderson’s work, but also that naturally there were tons of amateur imitators who were all really, really bad. And magic systems got framed in Sanderson-grade hard magic or Tolkien-style where it was basically just a mood, and no one seemed to be able to conceive of anything in between.

As usual, I’m like three years late to this party, but the different levels of hardness you can have in a magic system has been on my mind lately. People have accepted for a long time now that you can have harder or softer magic systems, but the idea that it’s a spectrum rather than a binary switch between Tolkien and Sanderson still doesn’t seem to have especially taken hold.

For the sake of thoroughness, let’s go ahead and define Sanderson hard magic as a system where magic users have specific powers that interact with the laws of physics in some kind of well-defined way, like being able to alter the direction their gravity is pulled or being able to repulse and/or attract themselves from a certain kind of metal or whatever.

Going one step further down, though, we have Avatar bending, a magic system where there are one or a small handful of magic disciplines each with a flexible but strongly themed powerset. A waterbender can learn to bend ice or plants or blood, but there’s only four kinds of bending and they’re each pretty narrowly focused. It was the lack of any attention paid to this kind of magic system that got me thinking about the spectrum in general. So far as ease of creation versus satisfaction in execution goes, this is the sweet spot for me. It’s not especially hard to come up with a small list of strong themes for your magic system, and then you can extrapolate creative uses from there.

Further down from there is D&D spells, in which magic is an arbitrary list of spells that you can learn how to cast. There is no greater framework the spells have to fit into, and it’s perfectly typical for a wizard to have a totally unrelated Frankenstein of a spellbook. Knowing what one spell does gives you absolutely no information on what any other spell could do, nor on what other spells the wizard who cast it might know or be capable of.

Harry Potter uses this system, too. This system tends towards the dull. Harry Potter made it work by having an incessant stream of new spells and magic items that were all really cool and then asking the audience to quietly ignore the fact that there were a handful of boring-but-practical spells like stupefy and the granddaddy of all boring put practical Harry Potter spells, avada kadavra, which rendered other combat spells obsolete. The audience was generally willing to do this, because watching Dumbledore and Voldemort have a sweet wizard fight with animated statues and stuff was cooler than just watching them shoot the dodge-or-lose spells at each other like they were two dudes with particularly slow handguns. It’s much harder for your characters to use this system creatively, because it has a finite list of specific spells (even if the spell list is theoretically infinite, in practice it is limited to whatever amount of spells you can actually introduce in your setup, otherwise it’s deus ex machina), all of which do exactly one thing. They unlock a door, or let you fly, or blow up a 20′ radius within 120′ of your location. Instead, the creativity has to come purely from the spells that are in the world. This worked out great for Harry Potter, but the star of that series wasn’t the eponymous wizard, but rather the world of magic he inhabited.

Nearing the soft end, we have X-Men powers. Whereas D&D spells represent a library of powers that everyone has more-or-less equal access to, meaning that every spell added to your heroes’ book is potentially available to your villains and vice-versa, X-Men doesn’t even have that limitation. Not only are the powers arbitrary and unbounded by any kind of greater framework, they’re also unique or nearly-unique to their specific users. Not only does Wolverine’s healing factor tell us nothing about what other powers he might have, it also gives us no reason to believe that Mystique or Cyclops might also have a healing factor.

Then at the soft end we have Tolkienian magic, where everything is vague and magic could do almost anything but in practice will do almost nothing. Although Tolkien does have a handful of D&D-style magic items that have specific, arbitrary uses not tied to any greater theme, for the most part magic is a mood, a force of nature. In Tolkienian magic, magic is so poorly understood that knowing about Gandalf’s ability to blow smoke into the shape of a boat not only tells us nothing about what other abilities he might have from that moment, but even by the end of the book we don’t have any reason to believe we’ve seen him exhaust his magical powers. Wolverine’s healing factor, adamantium skeleton, and snikt claws are all totally unrelated powers, but by the end of an X-Men story we know that he has those powers specifically and no more. By the end of Lord of the Rings we still have no idea whether or not Gandalf could’ve hurled a fireball if he really wanted to (he definitely has broadly fire-themed powers in general!), nor whether or not he had steady access to the powers he did demonstrate or if magic had to be in the right mood, or what.

Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates

We go from the shortest story of the collection to the longest. Hopefully quality is inversely correlated. I know that if I tried to write a story in, like, seven pages, it wouldn’t go very well. I need space to develop ideas and let a slow burn get through the wick. Of course, this has led to my decision to just not release any stories under 25,000 words in length, and I usually aim for 50k-100k, because that’s the area where I’m at best, but hey, I had to write a lot of short stories that sprawled into 50k+ novellas before I figured that out, and I could see a timeline where I’d decided I really needed to commit to the short story thing and wound up writing some of those, and that they would be worse the shorter they were.

So that’s an entire paragraph of me procrastinating having to actually start reading, which is definitely not a good sign.

The aromas of rum and sweat wafted about him with blood and black powder just beneath the surface.

There it is, guys, that’s the smell of pirates, case closed. For serious, though, this is a pretty good opening line, especially in tandem with the title.

That balance was subject to change, of course, depending on the ever-changing winds and where they blew him.

But here it’s kind of belaboring the point.

Anyway, this story opens with a pirate leaving a tavern to find some noble girl walking around near the docks after nightfall, whereupon she is accosted by a gang of hoodlums. The pirate decides he would rather be the one raping her instead. This coming right on the heels of a story about the guy who can’t sleep which immediately disregarded its premise to instead be about some mediocre efforts at comforting an assault victim, this collection is coming across as having a very weird prefixation with sexual assault. Come to think of it, the last short story collection I read, from a completely unrelated group of authors with a completely unrelated topic, also had a weird prefixation with sexual assault. Is this just a hot-button issue that everyone wants to write about these days? Is it just a fundamentally compelling idea that people tend to land on when they don’t have any better ideas? It definitely doesn’t crop up in the best works nearly as often.

Continue reading “Leaves of the World Tree: The Smell of Pirates”

Conan the Indomitable Was An Even Bigger Waste of Even Better Ideas

Part 1: Inauspicious Beginnings
Part 2: The Obligatory Tavern Fight
Part 3: Steve Perry May Actually Be Getting Good At This
Part 4: Twin Wizards
Part 5: Apparently What This Book Really Needed Was To Reintroduce Its Worst Character
Part 6: The Subterranean United Nations
Part 7: Wizards Get Conan’d

Steve Perry has stamped himself all over the gap between the Thing in the Crypt and the thief-era Conan stories in Zamora. Conan the Indomitable is a direct sequel to Conan the Defiant, which took Conan across Brythunia towards Zamora. This one takes Conan into Corinthia as the road wends towards Zamora, although the actual story takes place almost entirely in an Underdark-style massive series of caverns that could be located anywhere in Hyboria. This means that if you’re trying to read through the Conan books in any kind of chronological order and you’re trying to avoid skipping any books outright, you pretty much have to read all four Steve Perry novels almost in a row. No one else is doing much with this time period (there is one other novel in Brythunia and which is thus assumed to take place in this general era, even though it almost has to be incompatible with Conan the Defiant, wherein Conan crosses from one end of Brythunia to the other with no breaks where it would make sense to insert a side quest).

So what I’m getting at is that the ups and downs of Conan the Indomitable are very similar to those of Conan the Defiant, which I expect will be very similar to Conan the Free Lance and Conan the Formidable, and having to read more Steve Perry books right on top of each other has me seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my approach.

Like Defiant, Conan the Indomitable brings fun new ideas to the Conan world. It’s actually way better than just this, for while Conan the Defiant had basically two cool ideas, and one of them was just “a spider cult,” which is definitely a cool idea but also pretty much just taking the bog standard snake cult of Set and saying “but what if spiders instead?” and following a few fairly obvious implications of that. Conan the Indomitable has an entire underworld full of new creatures with their own factional politics. The plotline about Deek and Wikkell convincing their fellow giant worms and cyclopes (respectively) to rise up against their evil wizard overlords is easily the best part of the book. There’s plants that shoot webs and worms that speak by scraping their plates across the stone. There’s fungus that glows, bathing the underworld in a sickly green light. You can find clear antecedents for all of this stuff, sure, but the book doesn’t have to be inventing ideas from whole cloth to be expanding the setting of Conan.

Also like Defiant, it’s constantly marred by two major flaws: First, dumb 80s sitcom tropes being imported thoughtlessly into the narrative, casting Conan’s latest paramour into the role of “naggy wife” and Conan into the role of “dumb husband,” and second, having villains and other obstacles build up one by one only to then be defeated one by one, rather than compounding on each other during a climax. Conan the Indomitable sees villains being defeated within minutes rather than within hours of one another, but still they do not attack Conan simultaneously nor do they actually cause any noticeable harm or fatigue to him, which might put him in more danger in subsequent confrontations. The book also has so many cutaways that it begins to cause real pacing problems, as we start getting cutaways to characters who are doing, but have not yet completed, a task that we last saw them setting out to complete. We need the cutaway where they start doing the thing and we need the cutaway where they’ve finished it (actually, we could probably get away with implying one or even both of those in some cases, but at least in general we need those cutaways). The cutaway to them being partway through doing a thing is gratuitous, especially when it’s not even a particularly interesting thing. Since the premise of the book is that two evil wizards want to hunt down Conan while he’s trapped in their subterranean world, a lot of the time the thing we’re cutting away to watch the wizards do is just walk through some tunnels thinking villainous thoughts about Conan.

There’s also two new issues, although fortunately ones that didn’t end up marring the narrative as much as I had feared: The characters of Lalo and Harskeel. Lalo has a curse requiring him to constantly speak in insults to everyone around him. He’s supposed to be witty and clever about it, but soon after his introduction the narrative stops even trying to make his insults funny, which is probably a wise decision since putting effort in wasn’t really working out, so why bother? Harskeel is one of the side villains, a man and a woman conjoined into a single hermaphroditic being who is trying to separate themselves back into two. As a villain, they’re mostly mediocre. As social commentary, they’re pretty horrible, albeit probably also accidental (I really doubt Steve Perry was writing an intentional commentary on trans people or intersex people or whatever you might want to call Harskeel a metaphor for, writing as he was from 1989 when most people didn’t even know these things existed), though back on the first hand, it should have been obvious from just the hypothetical that someone with a slightly weird configuration of body parts isn’t particularly monstrous (if someone tries to convince you that elves are fundamentally alien because of their pointy ears, odds are excellent you’re about to have a Very Special Episode about racism in the middle of your Tolkien pastiche), and this does not stop characters from treating Harskeel like an inhuman mutant.

These two new problems are thankfully minimized because Harskeel quickly takes a backseat to the two wizards Katamay Rey and Chuntha and Lalo just drops out of the narrative for about two-thirds of the book. Of course, that brings us to a third problem, which is that Katamay Rey and Chuntha are nearly interchangeable as villains except in that Chuntha is a beautiful naked woman obsessed with sleeping with Conan, and whom Conan eventually defeats by sexing longer than she can.

Ultimately, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a Steve Perry Conan story, given how Conan the Defiant shook out: Some new ideas added to the Conan canon but marred by a sloppy execution. Which brings me back to another reason why I really dislike Steve Perry’s clustering of his stories in a very specific and very small time period. Not only does it make it hard to get away from his stories while reading in any kind of chronological order (whether in-universe or out, as he was one of the only people still writing Conan books in the late 80s), it also means that all his fun new ideas are tightly concentrated in one small part of Hyboria. Rather than Conan periodically coming across something really bizarre and yet not out of place, it’s instead just that the whole Brythunia region is, for some reason, full of fish monsters and underground labyrinths.

There is one exception to the Steve Perry parade in the chronological timeline. Sean A. Moore’s Conan the Hunter takes place, according to the William Galen Grey chronology, between Conan the Defiant and Conan the Indomitable. Those two are clearly direct sequels and no story could plausibly take place between or during them unless it included both Conan and Elashi, so I’m guessing we’re actually looking at a point when the timeline either conflicts or else Conan just has an adventure in Brythunia that is assumed to take place around this time, but might actually fit in the timeline better elsewhere, provided Conan is ever in the Brythunia region again. I guess we’ll see when we read Conan the Hunter, and after we do that, I’ll decide whether or not I want to read not one but two additional Steve Perry books before moving on to something else.

But first I need to wait for Conan the Hunter to show up from Amazon, so we’ll be reading some more Leaves of the World Tree first.

Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d

Chapter Nineteen

One of the gems taken from Chuntha has some kind of clearly magical hum to it. Conan’s usual magic-sensing powers have apparently failed to alert him, though. Maybe he lost his Barbarian class features when he used the Warp in the last book, and now he can’t rage or repel magic until he has an atonement spell cast on him.

Chuntha has a cloak that can turn her into a quetzalcoatlus (that’s the dinosaur – the Aztec god is just quetzalcoatl without the -us), and also knows feather fall. Like, seriously, it’s a “complex conjuration that would lighten her body to featherweight,” so in terms of casting time and effect it is basically exactly the same as the D&D spell. She plans on using her quetzalcoatlus form to fly home, and since the length of the transportation is extremely swingy, on attempting to use the feather fall spell to save herself if the transformation gives out mid-air. You might think that attempting to fly home in the ‘Neath is going to be difficult, seeing as how everything past the Sunless Sea (and even large portions of the Sunless Sea) seems to be pretty tight tunnels with maybe a dozen yards of head room at most, but apparently this is so little a concern that it doesn’t even need to be addressed. Maybe she’s just using this form to cross the Sea? Either way, the chapter also says that quetzalcoatlus is only nearly extinct, so there’s still dinosaurs stomping around somewhere in the far south of Hyboria. I feel like there’s other Conan stories that have had dinosaurs in them, but I can’t put my finger on an actual name or plot or anything, so maybe it’s just that they go together so well that my mind has associated them without any actual source material to draw on. Certainly I liked the idea enough to write up about half an RPG about it the one time.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: Wizards Get Conan’d”

Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations

We’re all just gonna pretend it’s Saturday.

Chapter Fifteen

Conan and company flee the wizard they’ve just escaped, and learn that Lalo wasn’t, like, planning on saving them or anything, and it was pure stupid luck that the floor happened to cave in underneath him while he was wandering through the wilderness after finally getting kicked out of the inn. The four decide that now is the best time to rob Chuntha and/or Katamay Rey blind, since they’re both out hunting Conan (it’s still not clear why Katamay cares, nor if Chuntha has any motivation besides lust). There was definitely some kind of divination from Katamay Rey, but it’s not really clear to me what Conan is actually prophesied to do. Katamay and Chuntha must have a pretty solid idea that Conan is a threat, though, to go to such lengths chasing him.

Wikkell and Deek are making their way back to their respective homelands in hopes of stirring up revolution while the rulers are away. They discuss both the difficulty in convincing them to act and the potential for the future if the wizards can be deposed.

“We must convince our brothers and sisters to take the long view, Deek. Why, we might even create some kind of joint council, your folk and mine, with input from the plants and perhaps even the bats and Whites. Bring prosperity to the caves, instead of the boots of Rey and Chuntha upon our throats.”

Vote Wikkell 2020.

Chapter Sixteen

It’s not really clear how Conan and company get back across the Sunless Sea, but they do, arriving back in Tull’s hideout. Chuntha and Katamay Rey’s domains are both reasonably close, but in different directions, so they have to pick one or the other to raid. Katamay prefers gold, while Chuntha prefers gems, specifically rubies, emeralds, and firestones are named, and apparently we’re meant to take these as equally tempting treasures, but the real answer here is clearly Chuntha, because rubies and emeralds are worth more pound for pound than gold. If Chuntha has similar volume as Katamay, hers is the more valuable hoard. If she has similar value to Chuntha, hers is the more portable hoard. But I guess rubies and gold are supposed to be equally valuable, or else a lot more of Chuntha’s treasure is made up of less valuable gemstones than Tull implied.

Conan says the witch, but not for economic reasons.

Elashi raised one eyebrow at Conan. “Why so?”

It lay upon the top of Conan’s tongue to answer that he thought dealing with a witch – a woman – would be easier than dealing with a wizard – a man – should anything go wrong. Recalling his travels with Elashi so far, however, he realized that to speak such reasoning aloud would only irritate her and bring forth an undammed flow of invective. For some reason, Elashi seemed convinced that women were the equal of men in practically all things, and Conan had no desire to listen to another of her tirades. Perhaps, he thought, he was learning to deal with women after all.

I can’t tell if Steve Perry is trying to paint Conan as dumb and conceited or if the audience is meant to agree that Elashi is unreasonable. Certainly Elashi is unreasonable, not in this particular case but just in general, which suggests probably the latter.

But then it turns out that Steve Perry does know the value of rubies:

“Well?” she said.

Conan thought quickly. “Well-cut jewels are more valuable than gold, and much lighter. We can carry more gems than coin.”

Well, you can carry more value in gems. Individual gems will probably be bigger and harder to transport than individual coins. I’m nitpicking, but seeing as how 1) Conan was the only one smart enough to realize this very obvious fact and 2) even Conan only got here because announcing “because sexism!” is a faux pas and Conan cares about social propriety now for some reason.

Also, the general trend of both wizards having effectively identical solutions to all problems is only getting stronger. They’re both scouting the Sunless Sea for Conan, and the magical bird-size hornets they’re using are seriously just palette swaps of one another. There’s a backstory for how these near-identical magic items wound up in their possession, but while that might’ve been kinda funny on its own, being as it is the third or fourth time two nominally distinct wizards have turned out to be palette swaps of one another, it’s mostly just dull. Anyway, they’re still searching the Sunless Sea, so no chance of finding Conan any time soon. On the other hand, we’ve only got about eighty pages to burn before the climax, when the wizards are scheduled to be killed by Conan, their own rebellious minions, or both, so presumably they’re getting back home sooner rather than later.

That rebellion isn’t going so great, though. Deek and Wikkell are unable to prompt a rebellion just by asking for one, so they resolve to try and find some crack in their respective evil overlords’ armor with which to inspire their fellows.

Continue reading “Conan the Indomitable: The Subterranean United Nations”