Papyrus to Datapad

Genre fiction of all kinds, from historical to science fiction, the past to the future.

The House of the Red Slayer

The House of the Red Slayer - Paul Doherty I decided to give the series a second go after not really enjoying the first, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn't particularly enjoy the second book in this series either. I really wanted to, and tried hard, but in the end, no. I even put it down for several months before deciding to finish the final third of it, in the off-chance it got better. It didn't.

You can read my previous review for a full explanation of what bothers me about this series, despite loving the genre intensely most of the time. I think the short version is simply this. It's not really a historical mystery.

It looks like one, certainly. Has all the trappings, medieval town, smelly streets, religious friar as a protagonist, the occasional historical tidbit thrown in (like a whore shaved bald and marched about the streets with a sign around her neck, or the suicide buried at a crossroad with a stake in his heart). But it's all just a set, like an elaborate costume party where everyone dresses in period costume but are still themselves underneath.

That's what has been niggling at me as I read these books - the author completely fails to adjust his own modern attitude to suit the time he is writing about, and it comes out not just in some of the characters, but nearly all of them.

It's difficult to write a sympathetic protagonist with an alien viewpoint to the reader's, which is one of the reasons so many protagonists in historical fiction are themselves quite exceptional. A perfect example of this is Matthew Bartholomew, from Susanna Gregory's excellent series of the same name. He is a middle ages doctor with a far more modern (though not entirely modern) outlook on medicine and life. He doesn't worry overmuch about astrological charts, he doesn't bleed his patients, performs surgery when requried, and he even washes his hands (shock of shocks).

The reason for all this? He studied and travelled with an Arabic master; the Arabs at that time had forgotten more medicine than the English knew and things like washing and anatomy were not unknown or anathema to them. Matthew pays a massive price for his oddity however, and throughout the series has been attacked (verbally and physically), accused of witchcraft, and often been in danger for his life, simply for his differing views.

Contrast this with Brother Athelstan, a very modern thinking man - who has absolutely no reason to be, at least none given in the first two books. His attitude is very unlike the prevailing at the time, particularly for a man with a religious vocation, a member of a strict order. Likewise, he never suffers for his oddity, but rather most everyone else either doesn't notice, or shares his views. Those close to him, his allies, all have very modern outlooks on the world, and it grates terribly against the suspension of disbelief.

I wont rule out reading book three sometime in the future, to see if it grabs me. It seems a shame since Doherty is very competent, even clever, in his mysteries themselves and the writing. The characters can be quite endearing at times, and I find myself buying into the soap opera when it comes to the struggles of their lives, particularly when it comes to Cranston the coroner. However, I wont be hurrying back, for I find the irritation of the modern characters in historical skin outweighs enjoyment of the plot at this point.

Fate Accelerated

Fate Accelerated - Clark Valentine Fate is something of a polarising system at the moment, evoking strong emotions - some love it, some hate it. After seeing a recommendation online, I decided to look into Fate's little brother, Fate Accelerated, as a possibility for playing with my children who are getting old enough to be introduced to RPGs.

As for fit to purpose, i'm not sure that Fate Accelerated is the one I will be using for the kids. It is certainly aimed, in some ways, at a younger set, with lots of recommendations that you play as your favourite characters - such as a young wizard at a school for wizardry, along with other less-than-subtle-but-not-completely-spelled-out pop culture references. That's why I thought it might be a good choice.

Generic roleplaying systems aren't a new thing; there have been many attempts to create a roleplaying system that allows you to play any setting, any type of game with one set of rules. Generally they haven't been hugely successful, though some have been successful enough to set up in niches of their own. (GURPS springs to mind here, whose simulationist approach and high standards of research have resulted in some amazing material that even people who don't like GURPS itself buy as reference material.)

FATE's approach to this, particularly fate accelerated, is to slim down the rules entirely to a rather intriguing idea of "aspects" and "approaches". Rather than a character sheet full of skills and attributes seeking to simulate the world, a character is made up of statements and properties such as "The fastest draw in the west" and "Captain of the starship excelsior", which can be brought into play to give a bonus to any roll where they might be argued to apply. FATE is a narrative game taken far over to the narrative side of the rpg fence, where the storygamers live, with all the shared worldbuilding, consensus gameplay and improvised stories that are part of that 'style' of roleplaying. To be honest, it is an intriguing system that I will like to put to the test some day.

What it lacks, however, is structure. Whilst some games (GURPS springs to mind again, as well as Pathfinder and D&D 3.5) built up so much structure, rules and exceptions that the game could easily topple under the weight of them, with GM's and player's alike lost trying to remember the rules to the game they were playing, Fate accelerated throws most of that out of the window in storygame fashion, giving a simple couple of mechanical rules and challenging the players and particularly the GMs to handle the heavy lifting and exceptions in narrative, with creative use of aspects.

It sounds fun, however for a first game with my little ones, I'm looking for something with a bit more structure to it.

Still, definitely worth a good look if you want something mechanically simple but capable of serving as a base for complex stories, or if you want something that you can use to run a game on very short notice, with little preparation.

Player's Handbook (D&D Core Rulebook)

Player's Handbook (D&D Core Rulebook) - Wizards RPG Team The 5th edition player's handbook gets 3 stars for the rules system and the flavour material in the book itself, and an extra star for being an absolutely beautiful book. For a long time now i've collected Roleplaying books as much as works of readable art as for the games within, and the new edition of the oldest RPG of them all doesn't disappoint in that regard - the binding is tight, the paper is good quality, and the artwork is superb - particularly the full-page art spread throughout the book.

The system - with 5th edition, WOTC have definitely taken a step back and "gone back to the roots" so to speak. The rules have been streamlined significantly, much of the complexity that was a hallmark of 3rd edition, for good or bad, is gone. Even character progression is seriously streamlined, with very little choice to be made level to level. One notable exclusion now is the lack of skill levels - every skill you possess you are equally competent with, and that base competency rises consistently are character levels do.

I'm not sure i'm entirely comfortable with just how streamlined it is, as it does flatten the game out a lot mechanically and lead to it being difficult to differentiate between two characters of the same class in many cases.

On the flavour and narrative side, they have abandoned Greyhawk as the default D&D setting and the game is now set firmly in the Forgotten realms by default. I think this makes sense, as the Forgotten realms is certainly the most well known setting, and the setting of 90% or more of the computer games (now a massive part of the brand) and I suspect, the setting of their most popular novel lines. If they had to pick just a single setting to focus on, the Forgotten Realms is a safe choice, being well known, popular, and consisting of enough diversity to allow games of all different kinds to be run.

It's not difficult to see, after the fairly lacklustre reception 4th edition recieved, why 5th edition has sparked so much excitement and debate. There may be a lot i'm not yet comfortable with, but there's a lot to love about it as well. Time will tell.

The Nightingale Gallery (Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan)

The Nightingale Gallery (Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan) - Paul Doherty This is the probably the most mixed review i've had to give a book in quite a while. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that i'm not overly difficult to please - I simply like to be entertained when I read a story, however right up until the last page I was set to give this one only 2 stars, possibly my first 2-star review for the year.

So first, the bad:

I expected a lot from this book as I'd seen Doherty praised, a lot, in mystery lover circles, and historical crime novels - particularly those set in middle-age England - are among my favourite story indulgence. This was however his first novel, so perhaps I am being overly harsh, but for such a short book it really draaaags.

The central story of Nightingale Gallery is quite a clever little locked-room mystery, with a few Christie-like flourishes and an entertaining cast of characters. However, the key to a good, entertaining historical mystery is to have a complex, well research setting as a background to the story itself. Background being the key word. Whilst you expect the setting, differences in culture and law and the like to play major parts in the story, Doherty indulges himself in this novel, showing off his research in endlessly tedious and pointless scenes.

As an example, one long extended scene over quite a few pages simply has the main character walking from one place to another, and describes the route he takes (street by street) and everything that happens along the way. The story doesn't benefit from this scene at all - nothing that occurs has any relevance to the story itself, it is just an excuse for the author to play with his historical toys for a while, forcing us to watch as he does so.

Maybe i'm not the target audience for this novel, but I am familiar with history in broad strokes, and some parts in detail. I read works of historical non-fiction and find them quite entertaining, and I have read many works of historical crime fiction, because as I said before they are one of my favourite indulgences.

The point is, I already know that in the 14th century, London's streets were paved in shit. That it smelt bad, that people were poor and unhealthy, that the rats were numerous enough to form their own union for better wages and so-on. Had that entire lengthy multi-page love letter to his research notes been entirely omitted and replaced with "Athelstan spent the morning pushing through the crowds to X", the story wouldn't have suffered in the slightest.

In fact, if you remove all of the indulgent padding, what you're left with is closer to a short story than a full novel, and probably would have felt tighter and more satisfying if it had been one. If the setting material had instead been crafted in smaller chunks, with more subtlety, maybe it would have made a nice novella.

Unfortunately, the mystery section fell flat for me as well. Although it was, as I said previously, a clever little mystery - Doherty, at least in this book, doesn't "play fair" as fans of Dame Christie would know it. Instead, he uses the annoying little tricks and smirks at the reader to try and build up tension. Letters get read by the characters that "suddenly explain things", but their contents are not revealed to the reader. The protagonist, while meditating, "suddenly realises what he saw and what it means" but this realisation isn't presented to the reader until later chapters. One of the major telling pieces of evidence that gives away the murderer is a wood carving that is described in quite a lot of detail, however the single most important detail of the carving is withheld from the reader, for the protagonist to dramatically reveal in the final scenes. The details are withheld, of course, because if available to the reader the mystery would be no mystery at all - the answer is obvious. Which then leads to the obvious question; What took them so long to figure it out? There are no real twists in this story, the only surprises come from things that were noticed or told to the sleuths but never to the reader.

The reason I gave this book three stars instead of two, can be narrowed down to a single quote on one of the last pages:

"A moment later Athelstan header him roaring to Cecily the courtesan that he didn't care how pretty her arse was, she was to get out of his saddle!"

For all its faults, there is a certain amount of charm in the book, primarily in some of the colourful characters. They are not always believable - it may be that i'm just coming off "Lamentations" by Sansom, whose portrayal of the real terrors of life in the final years of King Henry VIII are a work of claustrophobic genius, but I find it very difficult to accept characters or relatively low station (or in the case of Athelstan, _very_ low station; a dominican parish priest isn't that much up the social ladder from a mendicant) feeling perfectly nonchalant in close quarters with the Regent of England, and his charge the young king. Doherty, who spends pages describing how ordure builds up in the alleys, doesn't even have his main characters bow to the most powerful men in the land. As Athelstan the dominican friar happily gives his Poirot-like rambling accusation story, he speaks to these lords as equals.

For this reason among others, Athelstan, the main protagonist, is probably one of the least sympathetic characters in the book. It was disappointing, I expected Susanna Gregory's Bartholemew, but I got a cardboard cut-out that doesn't quite fit instead.

And after all that, i've actually talked myself back down to two stars after all. I will try more novels in the series, to see if they improve over time, but I doubt i'll ever be back to re-read Athelstan's first steps.

TLDR; -- Not a terrible book, but when your alternative choices include Susanna Gregory's Bartholomew stories, Candace Robb's Owen Archer stories, Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories and C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series - i'm not sure why you'd bother.

A Murder Is Announced

A Murder Is Announced - Agatha Christie A strange notice in the paper, advertising a murder before it takes place. A woman standing to inherit millions, and the people who would inherit if she were to die prematurely. A small village, with fascinating characters. Once again, classic Christie, class Marple.

I've noted in previous reviews that the Miss Marple mysteries are very different from the Poirot's, and that as well as exploring small village life and humanity through that lens, each often seems to have particular themes in mind. This one certainly does, the theme being the change in village life, post-war. In particular, the change in demographic that led villages that were previously populated by generations of the same family who all knew each other from childhood to the grave, to suddenly become populated by expatriates and relocatees, people whose history was only know as they presented it.

With this as the key theme of the novel, it's not surprising to find that a large number of the cast aren't what they same. Some are under assumed names, have hidden pasts, and some have stolen the identities of others. A mixed cast where no-one is what they seem, and where even knowing and expecting this, the final identity of the murderer can still come as a surprise.

The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger - Agatha Christie The moving finger is interesting as it is billed as a Miss Marple novel, and indeed Miss Marple does play a significant role in solving the mystery, but more than two thirds of the story is over before she makes her first appearance.

As with all Christie novels, the real star of the novel are the people and the place, living and breathing as real as fiction people can ever be. The core puzzle of the novel involves a series of nasty anonymous letters being sent out to everyone in a village, and the deaths that result. Is it a spiteful writer, taking out their hate on the world at large? Or is something more sinister at work.

There isn't much to say that I haven't already said in earlier Marple books, Similar themes on the evils of village life and human nature abound, and she does what she does with a panache i've never found in another mystery author.

The Body in the Library

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie A particularly clever and twisty, if nasty, mystery involving two deaths and the usual gang of fascinating characters, including several of the village characters from the previous two books, Sir Henry and of course, Miss Marple herself.

A highly entertaining page-turner.

The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen Problems - Agatha Christie From the first Miss Marple book, I loved her. But it was in this one, the second book and a short story collection at that, that I really fell in love with the character. So calm, so humble, and with a gentle smile as she reveals the twists and turns that "she's just sure they have seen as well."

The core conceit of the book revolves around a couple of dinner parties, in which the attendants amuse themselves by telling the unusual situations that have been in or observed, and challenging the others to solve the mystery. The characters telling the stories are themselves as amusing and well-drawn as those in the mysteries they tell - a particular favourite being Miss Marple's nephew, a writer of "particularly clever books" who is very impressed with himself, quite obnoxious, and sure that his aunt, stuck in a village all her life, couldn't possibly know anything about capital-L Life.

It is through these stories that Sir Henry, ex-chief of Scotland Yard, comes to hold great respect for Miss Marple, something that leads to her invitation into other mysteries, and allows her a certain sway above what is usual for a simple elderly village spinster, whose opinions would normally simply be ignored by those who "know better". A clever device for enabling her involvement in future crimes as well, I suspect in the following books to see a fair bit more of Sir Henry.

Likewise, the dinner parties mentioned are quite an entertaining way to present the core short mysteries, and in a way that doesn't necessarily require Miss Marple's attendance at every strange event.

Needless to say, and to the astonishment of the other guests, she unerringly solves every mystery - even the one that has yet to occur! - each time relating the crime back to a parallel event, some village scandal or village resident that just happens to point to the correct solution.

Highly entertaining, Agatha Christie doing exactly what she always did best.

The Murder at the Vicarage

The Murder at the Vicarage - Agatha Christie I am a huge fan of Agatha Christie, in particular the Poirot novels and stories, and it goes without saying that she was, and still is, the grand master of the art of the puzzle mystery. Each story and crime made up of interlocking events, motives and clues, all combining by the end into a finished tapestry with no loose ends or threads of any kind.

Where Christie really excelled however was in building these puzzles out of very real, living, breathing people, each of which a study in character whose story is fascinating and unique, some exotic, some exciting in richness of their very banality.

This was the first Miss Marple mystery I have read, and it was a shining example of exactly the sort of thing she was best at. A small village, teeming with entertaining characters, an interesting and very relatable narrator, an intricate and well written murder at the center - and of course, Marple herself. A marvelous old biddy with an eye for detail as sharp as Poirot or Holmes, a mind like a steel trap and an excellently dry sense of humour.

There is a reason that Christie ranks high even now amongst fan of crime fiction, and that her books, some 80 years or more after publication, remaining best sellers. Plain and simply, she was, and still is, an entirely entertaining storyteller.

Coming Home (An Alex Benedict Novel)

Coming Home (An Alex Benedict Novel) - Jack McDevitt This book, for some reason, didn't seem to catch me as much as the earlier ones did. The book was enjoyable, but the narrative - normally McDevitt's strongest point - seemed a little lacklustre when compared to earlier books in the series.

Unlike the previous stories, this one does introduce a permanent change to the circumstances of the main characters, in the person of Gabe Benedict, but it will remain to be seen in the next novel whether he allows his characters to grow from that, or to remain fairly static as they have done so far.

On the whole, enjoyable, with sections that did keep me reading until long past when I should have put it down, but lacking when compared to the earlier efforts.

Echo

Echo - Jack McDevitt The best Alex Benedict book yet, as pure curiousity leads Chase and Alex into a mystery that some don't want solved - the mystery of what happened on a tour to an unknown solar system 28 years ago, and why are some people willing to kill to keep it quiet.

Chase and Alex continue their now-typical investigative style, shooting around the galaxy trying to find evidence that is in suspiciously short supply. Chase continues to deal with her ambiguous feelings towards Alex and the work they do, resulting this time in their parting ways for a time. In the end however, her conscience wont allow her to walk away without learning the full truth as like Alex, this time she is unable to deal with not knowing.

This book does see some, albeit small, changes in personal circumstances for the characters. If the characters in this series have any real flaw it is that they tend to remain static from book to book. In this one, Chase in particular goes through a personal crisis of faith, but in the end nothing really changes for her.

As always, where McDevitt shines is the quality of his overall narrative. Once again we have an excellent story, well told and well written, with likeable characters and a satisifying epilogue.

Firebird

Firebird - Jack McDevitt This book in the Alex Benedict series marked a bit of a turning point for the series in some ways. I've noted in previous reviews that the characters in the series seemed quite static, not changing or growing a great deal over the course of the books. There were some themes that travel cross-book, such as the nature of their work (looting tombs?), the nature of AI (and the question of its sentience) and the opinions of the characters, sometimes conflicted, of these topics.

In this book we see, with the introduction and fleshing out of the character Gabe, Alex's uncle, an attempt to create a metaplotline that will not only travel across books, but has some chance of causing real growth for the characters. It still seems done somewhat piecemeal, and perhaps a bit awkwardly given it introduces and almost immediately resolves issues that would ideally have been allowed to grow across multiple books, but it is a nod in the right direction.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest issues I have with this series as an ongoing series is the lack of recognition the characters get for their successes. Whilst Alex-as-celebrity has been de jeur for a number of books now, with requisite tv appearances and the like, I am constantly jerked out of the flow of the narrative but the incredible idea that Chase is still relatively unknown all throughout known space. Given the magnitude of achievements credited to her over the books, achievements that not only made headline news across all of human space but directly resulted in the cessation of hostilites long suspected to be about to break into open war, and the mass mobilization of both human and aliens to save an _entire planet_. Not only that, but quite publicly the credit was given almost solely to her. The idea then that in these later books, taking place as early as a year later, she is back to being a complete unknown. Fame is fleeting I know, but it seems unbelievable that it should be quite that fleeting.

Some nod is made to the accomplishments, such as a particularly prestigious award being given to both Alex and Chase for achievements in previous books, but that really just highlights the problem for me.

These quirks aside, this book is once more McDevitt doing exactly what he does best in this series - a fascinating, narrative-driven mystery following up on the disappearance of a physicist renowned for walking the edge of recognised science, and the discovery of a problem that has plagued humanity for many thousands of years, along with the potential of saving tens of thousands of people thought long dead.

For the narrative alone, and the way it propels you forward page after page, this book gets four stars. Highly entertaining.

Dinocalypse Now (Dinocalypse Trilogy #1)

Dinocalypse Now (Dinocalypse Trilogy #1) - Chuck Wendig I haven't yet read the Fate Core rule book so I can't claim to fully understand the rules laid out in the secrets of cats, but the setting and flavour come through very clear. A mix between the moster-of-the-week style stories of shows like the x-files or supernatural, and the stylings of the musical "cats", this book very cleverly combines the behaviours of cats we all recognise with a new set of motivations and powers to provide an engaging and unique setting.

As magical cats, the players must defend their territories and their human charges from threats both natural and supernatural, whilst somehow managing to work together as best they can.

Highly recommended for any rpg fans looking for a new style of fantasy game beyond the usual dungeoneering.

The Devil's Eye

The Devil's Eye - Jack McDevitt TL;DR:
An extremely fun mystery novel, retracing the steps of a famous author to find out what she discovered, and why it was being kept secret - and why people seemed willing to kill to hide it. Add to this an extension of the alien diplomacy from the previous books, and the narrator finally gets some of the recognition she deserves.

I couldn't put it down.

Full Review:
Whilst Alex remains, as in the previous books, a somewhat mysterious holmsian character, Chase Kolpath, the narrator, really explodes into full relief in this book. She is a narrator with a lot of heart, heart enough to move entire species as it turns out.

In some ways this book goes deeper than the previous ones in its themes, examining the nature of politics through the lens of both a recovering post-dictatorship (the revolution eats its children) and through the lens of an alien species. The previous book did some examination on the ramifications of a telepathic species, but this one defined and explored in far more depth, revealing an alien race that is, in many ways, very human.

Chase shines in this book; like the last one she spends a fair bit of time apart from Alex, however not just running errands this time but running from enemies and eventually saving Alex from those enemies. There is no doubt not that she is the real hero of the "Alex Benedict" series, and finally the rest of the galaxy is starting to appreciate that as well.

The characterisation, pacing and writing are all an improvement on the previous book of the series, and the story is no less intriguing. Even after the reveal of the mystery, the question remains - "What to do about it?", and this second half of the story is no less gripping than the first, though with less haunted forests and taxi theft.

On the whole, highly recommended to fans of the series - and to people who were perhaps disappointed in the previous book.

Seeker

Seeker - Jack McDevitt TL;DR:
A face-paced investigation, sparked by a chance walk-in appraisal of what the owner had thought was a simple little cup, becomes one of the biggest archaeological discoveries in recent history. Throughout it all, Benedict and Chase suffer constant accusations of looting and tomb-robbing as opposition to "artifact acquisitions" push for new laws restricting their trade; whilst in the shadows, someone plots a final end to Benedict's run of success - permanently.

An entertaining page turner.

Full Review
The Alex Benedict series is an interesting one, and I've given it four stars instead of three less for the quality of the writing than the story contained within. Some reviewer's of this book have claimed the writing to be adequate (or worse), the characters two-dimensional and the novel, as a whole, not worth a great deal of time.

There is some truth to this. The characters are established with broad sweeps, and not much detail is given to any of them but the narrator herself. Alex Benedict is portrayed very much as a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe character, capable of leaps of intuitive brilliance that aren't necessarily well explained - something that some lovers of modern mysteries might not appreciate, as you see examples of the character suddenly "have an idea" but not explain his deduction for some time after, which can be frustrating at times. It is a mystery story, certainly, but in the vein of the classic pre-christie mysteries in many ways.

All of that aside, the story by itself would warrant a three star review. The search, connecting the missing pieces and making use of both modern (and future-modern) technologies and good old fashioned foot-work is both plausible and interesting, and if the writing pushes the story forward with fairly simplistic descriptions and a large degree of haste, it is still an entertaining read.

And that is the reason for the final star. Whatever faults there were in the writing, pacing or characterisation, the bottom line is that the book is entertaining and kept me turning the pages without stop from beginning to end, waiting to see the final result of their investigation. The result, when it comes, isn't exactly a twist and not entirely unexpected, but it was immensely satisfying.

A Cook's Tour - In Search of the Perfect Meal

A Cook's Tour - In Search of the Perfect Meal - Anthony Bourdain If you've never heard of Anthony Bourdain, never read any of his books, never watched any of his tv shows, and you are a fan of food, you owe it to yourself to acquaint yourself with him - and this book is an excellent introduction.

The audiobook was narrated by Bourdain himself and is a perfect introduction to the man, his philosophies on food, and a wide range of food of the world. Everything about his philosophy, from his willingness to face where our food comes from despite his own qualms, his willingness to try just about anything, and his deep insight in to what makes the entire experience of food and dining special struck me at a very deep personal level.

It isn't too much to say that in the culinary world, Bourdain is a giant. My culinary hero and a voice of sanity in to a world of extreme opinions.

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