Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Border by Robert McCammon

*There Are Spoilers Below, But You Probably Don't Want To Read This Book Anyway*

This was...not a good book. In a whole lot of ways. It wasn't so bad as to be unreadable, and thankfully fell into the realm of "so bad it's at least entertaining." That's a very narrow window, and McCammon just about nails it.

I bought a Humble Bundle a little while ago, and this was one of the books. From the screen from which I download the books, I can't see the authors, so I picked a book at random. (Literally. Dice were involved.) That got me this book, and it was not one of the ones for which I bought the Bundle, but what the hey. Also, I remembered a book by this author on our physical bookshelves, belonging to my husband. He's a pretty astute reader, so maybe it was going to be good?

It was not.

Some of the things that are wrong with this are on the level of editing - mistakes easy to make in writing, but which should be rubbed out by a basic editing pass. Things like using the same word several times in a row in a couple of sentences, done without intentional effect of creating an echo. Or stacking similes - telling what something is like twice, separated by a comma. Like jelly being spread on jam, like flattening mud with a...I don't know, you get the idea.

The next set of problems are where most of the hilarity came from, as this book included one of the most amusing and terrible sex scenes I've ever read. But I think you may need some context before that.

A couple of years ago (months ago?) the Earth came under attack. Well, not under attack per se, so much as two alien races came to Earth to continue pounding the shit out of each other in an unending war. Humans are the not-specifically-intentional casualties. The number of people left is dwindling, most have either been killed or given into despair and killed themselves. Some have turned into zombies. (We keep piling horror idea on horror idea here, another idea that is perhaps wise.)

A young man, Ethan, shows up without a memory at one of the few human refuges left, and he's got weird earth-and-air-and-energy bending powers. Turns out he's been reanimated by a third alien race, a lone peacekeeper alien sent here by, let's call him God, to protect the humans from the interstellar war they are inadvertently in the middle of. (I'm letting that dangle because it's the least of the grammatical sins this book has spawned.)

One of the alien races, the Gorgons (the others are the Cyphers), has taken a small town hostage and is keeping is safe, mostly because the Gorgon queen is sleeping with the randy Big Man in town, a televangelist who founded it.

And that's when the hilariously bad sex scene comes in. It hits a peak early with lines like this:

"she began to play with that large part of him that she seemed to find as fascinating as any female who had never flown between the stars."

Then, it goes on to detail the sex, which includes the alien queen growing tentacles mid-sex and milking the televangelist. (I shit you not, that is the actual verb used.) And then it finishes off with this howler:

"But it was no matter to him now, for though he feared this creature, and when she called him by that device planted in the back of his neck, he had to go into the bathroom and throw up, he was so afraid…he had to admit in the long-lingering afterglow that she was one great lay."

There's only that one sex scene, but wow, is it a doozy. On top of the hilariously bad prose, there's the uncomfortable truth underneath that this is, without question, a rape of the male character, but it feels like neither the character, or worse, the author, really gets that, or allows that to come into the story. Instead, it's all about his sexual prowess, all the women he's fucked around with, being the kind of alpha male that of course the alien queen would want to have sex with. That it's forced is definitely there, but not engaged with at all.

The televangelist, Jericho Jones (or something alliterative, I think that's it) is sent with a Gorgon sleeper agent to try to capture Ethan to find out what he is. Ethan, meanwhile, goes with a rag-tag crew to find the American president, who has suffered from a nervous breakdown and is being kept in the dark on the true state of the American people, I mean, the human race. (We actually  never hear much about the rest of the world.)

The solution to all the problems lies, of course, in Area 51, and there they find, wait for it, a machine with which the peacekeeper can rewind time to just before the aliens came and wrap his energy around the Earth to protect it in perpetuity.

I shit you not. The denouement is a rewind so none of it ever happened. A few people retain their memories, but there are very damned few ways you could pull an ending like this off and have it not suck. This book does not achieve it.

But this book was so bad it was mostly funny. It was never terrible enough that I had to throw it across the room, though it frequently was bad enough that I had to tell people about the nonsense I'd just read. So really, it's in a rare sweet spot of awful.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Week in Stories - Breakout Con Part II!

Okay, I have yet again let time slip away from me (story of my life when it comes to writing blog posts), and Breakout Con is getting further away in my memory. Time to sit down and see what I can remember of my third and fourth games! (I was so productive yesterday and wrote up a regular gaming session the very next damn day, and why didn't I do that with this? Because I procrastinated, that's why.)

We Used To Be Friends

On the Saturday night of the con, we played a Veronica Mars PbtA game called, of course, We Used to Be Friends. It's a game getting very near to a final version, and can be supported through Jonathan Lavallee's Patreon. It's GM-less PbtA, which was a new experience, with a very robust town creation mechanic that I liked a lot. We ended up with a casino/mining town, with a huge class divide and some less than savory partying spots. The character sheets were fun, with lots of Veronica Mars quotes naming moves.

The whole table was made up of huge VM fans, which of course helped.

In this game, you create a mystery collaboratively, and it separates clues from suspects, which takes a bit of getting used to. Clues can be attached to suspects eventually, but at the beginning they shouldn't be that you discover that "x did y," but more that "video evidence is missing" or "the lock on this locker was changed." It took me a while to wrap my brain around it, but it's an interesting idea, and I think leads well to the kind of twists that the TV show had, where things are not always what they appear.

Although it's obvious it wasn't going to be solved in a one-shot, I really liked the personal mystery mechanic in the game, which gives each person something secret they don't know about themselves that would unfold slowly over longer-term play. Jonathan described it as something to do when perhaps you were in an episode that didn't have as much for your character. So, when we got to my first scene, I didn't see an immediate way to bring myself in, and also really wanted to try it out. So we ended up with a scene where my character overheard her parents (played by Amanda and Jonathan - NPCs are played by people not otherwise in the scene, and not always the same person) arguing about her, with some tantalizing tidbits without context being dropped.

I appreciated the later efforts to get me into the main storyline, but honestly, I was also enjoying the personal storyline so much I wouldn't have been upset if that had been the main part of my evening. But I met one of the suspects out at a campground where she'd lured our Libertine character (Bill doing his best Dick Casablancas impression), and ended up telling her off for being mean without reason. And then hiding from the cops. (Nadeem, Bill's character, was not so lucky.)

What also made this game a lot of fun was that everyone at the table was totally on board for everything a Veronica Mars game might entail. Amanda and I signed up for the game independently. Bill and I had played a game of the Watch with Duan earlier that day, so we knew him at least a bit too, and Jonathan was enthusiastic in cheerleading us through his game.

I'd be interested to see what this game is like in long-term play, because a lot of it seems designed for that, and I think would support it well.

Circles of Power

Sunday morning, after losing an hour to the cursed time change, we hauled ourselves out of bed and checked out before playing our last game of the con. It was also the only time Bill and I played in different games - as it was our first con, I, at least, had wanted the security blanket of someone I knew in most of my games. And Amanda signed up for Circles of Power too, so I didn't have a game without someone from my regular table. Next year, I might be more daring.

The last game was a challenging and rewarding one, by designer Jason Pitre, who runs a game with the same wicked glee as my favourite GMs. Circles of Power is a game about marginalization and oppression, both through microaggression and outright  abuse (although I think generally more the former. I just failed a roll right at the beginning that kind of made all the shit hit the fan right away.)

But before you get to the game proper, you have to create the oppressive society that you live in (you play a member of a marginalized community, but there are tiers even within marginalization. Likewise, you can be part of more than one marginalized group, but only one recognizes you as a member.) This is a painful process, and I mean that in the very best way.

The way we pretty much agreed on everything was to talk for a while, bat a couple of ideas around, then come up with something that made everyone at the table wince and groan, and then pick that. Complicit in the oppression from the beginning, building the society emphasizes strongly how much we are not blameless or apart from systems of power around us.

This is heavy content for a game! It's potentially explosive, and a game that definitely needs safety mechanics, which it has, and which we used. I don't know if my heart would be up to playing Circles of Power a lot, but I'm very glad I did, and I really appreciate what Jason's trying to do.

At the beginning, there are rolls that let you prep a spell, research, or help your community. I, uh, chose to do the latter, and failed, big-time. This jumpstarted the drama, as instead of exploring small oppressions, we ended up with foreign-born people returning to the city with explosive (and infectious) things inside them, and we very quickly knew it, which got right to the heart of that particular session.

My character, being "foreign" herself, couldn't abide the idea of taking the problem to the authorities, foreseeing a massacre of her people. She didn't trust the authorities to differentiate between those who were infected and those who were merely foreign. One of the other characters pointed out (not wrongly!) that trying to hide it could cause the death of many more people and maybe lead to the fall of the city. We got into a very heated and passionate debate. (And speaking of safety measures, the other player paused mid-way through to check that the drama was on the character level and that I wasn't personally upset by the argument, and that was fantastic.)

Stuck in an untenable and alarming situation, we raced to save some people we had personal connections to, then ended up having to confront one of the creatures that had been inside some of my people, a glowing blue large bug, who turned out to be a refugee as well, fleeing the forces that threatened our city from a distance.

There was some attempted negotiation to get them to inhabit, say, animals instead of humans. The very fact of these negotiations almost split our group as well - this game is really good at getting down to the fracture lines that make solidarity damned difficult. But we couldn't convince this insect-like queen - she thought humans were larval magicians (which we were) and that her people were elevating ours by burning them up and erupting from their chests.

So it came to a fight, but a painful one. And an eventually Pyrrhic victory, with most of the city in flames, even though many fewer dead than might otherwise be expected.

I really enjoyed this game, even the moments that were full of internal turmoil. It's hard to say it's fun, but it was satisfying and challenging and I was up for the pushes Jason used to make the situation more difficult. I'm not sure I'd be up for them every day, but in the right circumstances, I'd want to play this again.

So, that was my Breakout Con. I am already looking forward to Breakout Con, and I'm trying to convince other people I know who didn't come to go next year. And I hope to see some of the same people I met this year there next year, and maybe get to play with them again. I came home from this just vibrating with excitement for more gaming, and with a pleased feeling that I'd started some new friendships.

Monday, 27 March 2017

NW by Zadie Smith

I finished NW last weekend, and I've been trying to get my thoughts in order to sit down and write this review since then. The book continues to stymie me - I liked it, quite a lot, and yet I feel like there are aspects of it that I'm not quite grasping. I think that may be my own fault - reading it was unusually broken up, with a week off while I went away to a convention and then a bunch more days when I was busy coming down from that experience when reading was not on the top of my priority list.

When I got back to it, I flew through the last 140 pages, but it had been long enough between the first and second halves that I'm quite sure Zadie Smith's work was playing to the best audience at that moment.

That being said, let's find out what I do want to mention about the book. I picked it up as one of the last few books I have to read from a 15 book list of "The Best Novels of the 21st Century So Far". It's a good list - I've really enjoyed all the books on it, and when I'm done (I have two or three books left to go) - I'll look to see if the people who put it together have any additions since then.

I don't know if I enjoyed this quite as much as White Teeth or On Beauty, but there are things about it that are very striking. It's an odd connection to make, but there are a few books I can think of recently that link the geography of London, England to narrative in intimate ways that I have quite enjoyed. This is about the northwest corner of the city, where it seems that old council housing is sitting cheek-by-jowl with newly gentrified areas. I don't know enough to know how long it has been that way, but is certainly the case in this book.

In that, the book is broken into three sections, even though the inside of the dust cover says it's about four people. The fourth drifts through each of the other three stories and never quite achieves a story of his own, although others tell his regularly, that of school crush and golden boy turned drug addict.

Each of the three who get a section are negotiating upward mobility of one sort or another, while still feeling how they are rooted in spaces outside the ones they now occupy. Two of the three point-of-view characters are Black, while the third is a white woman who married a Black immigrant from the Caribbean. Leah, the white woman, lives in circumstances that her mother seems to regard as a step-down from how she was raised, although she seems content enough there, while her husband engages in day-trading in an effort to make the money materialize that would allow them to move into a more affluent house.

In contrast, her childhood friend Natalie is a lawyer, married to a rich investment banker, and both Natalie and Leah have suspicions about the marriages of the other, although both marriages are more complex and hiding more than even those in them seem to recognize. Natalie lives a wealthy lifestyle, but when her section comes we see how carefully it and every word she says are curated to have the correct effect.

Indeed, her entire section is itemized, and much of it is about the estrangement of Natalie from herself, and the ways that she secretly acts out when the persona isn't enough.

The sections of the two women are separated by that of Felix, a man raised in communal/squatting housing, was long on the shady side of the market, but with a new relationship, is trying to change himself and his surroundings to fit with the woman he is now with.

The ways these stories fit together is both obvious, in the actual happenings in the plot, and much more intricate, in ways that show dissatisfaction and reaching, belonging and being a misfit, never quite leaving behind the stories and families that comprised their early environments. There were times I wanted to shake nearly every character, while still being fond of them all.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Hidden Family by Charles Stross

I picked up the digital copy of this for free from Tor.com's Book Club, and it included the first book in the series as well. As I was feeling lazy and didn't want to figure out where the middle was, exactly, I reread The Family Trade before going on to read The Hidden Family.

And wow, do I think I was far too kind to The Family Trade the first go round. The second time, the stilted dialogue was even more apparent, the efforts to give Miriam virtually every skill and background annoying. It wasn't unreadable, but I was not impressed. I am very glad I'd read later and better Charles Stross books and could recognize this as relatively early and nowhere near as skilled.


It was with a bit of a wince that I went on to the second book in the first series, with The Hidden Family. And maybe I'd think differently if I went back later to read it again, but it's a definite improvement over The Family Trade. I still don't really buy the depth of the relationship between Miriam and old what's-his-name. (Seriously, I can't remember his name, which may contribute to why I don't really believe she'd fall in such passionate love with him, even while not trusting him. There's just not enough character there for me to believe it.)

In the second installment, Miriam survives some assassination attempts only to realize that there is a third world floating around out there, accessible from the medieval-level world, but not our world, and sits at about the technological level of very early industrial Britain. (The numbering bothered me here, since the world from which you could reach either of the other two was not number two, so the numbers didn't connect in the neat way I wanted them to. This is possibly the most nitpicky of nits I have ever picked.)

With the help of female friends from both the world she grew up on (ours) and the one where she was born (medieval-level), Miriam explores the ramifications of three different economies and the implications of world-travelling on each, with the aid of many beta blockers. While trying to avoid both a murderous lost family in the third world and the police there who are on constant lookout for Levellers and French spies.

There's a lot here about both politics and economics, and while this still isn't sparkling prose, it's a definite step forward. Watching Miriam try to mold the economy and political system of a whole new world is entertaining,

The reveal regarding her adoptive mother was one of those where as a reader, it was fairly evident early in the book, yet Miriam, even though getting the same information, doesn't put it together until it's literally in front of her face. I get why, I guess, but it does seem like a level of obtuseness that doesn't fit that well with the character as she's generally presented to us.

On the whole, this still isn't great fantasy/science fiction. But it's getting more interesting, and as I like Stross in general, I'm sure I'll go on to read more, eventually.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

It's funny when you read a book and it immediately sends you scurrying to read another book. In this case, finishing Lord of Light made me pause and wonder whether or not I was right that there's a one-line reference to Rild as a personal electronic assistant in Spider Robinson's Starmind. I was pretty sure I was right, and that I knew which character had named their AI Rild, and why that was important in the story, because I've read Starmind only about 20 or 30 times. Of course this meant that I had to pick it up off the shelf and read it again because that's just the way my brain works.

By the way, I was right. I maybe know virtually every word Spider Robinson has written just a little too well.

This has me totally off topic, but indulge me for just one more digression, I promise it is the last. I recently got to start a long-term dream of mine, which was to create a directed reading SF/F group - sort of a book club, but with themes that would carry us through four to six months, reading books that had some common thread, so discussions could gradually build on comparisons between the books.

(My husband will not stop telling me that in some circles, this is called an "English class." As I have no training in English beyond one first-year university course, I ignore him steadfastly.)

It's going really well so far, and I'm having so much fun discussing books and I'm excited to make some proposals for the next theme in a month or two. Why this is relevant to Zelazny's books is because I had a half-done list already called "Old Gods, New Clothes" - books that integrated figures from mythology into their science fiction or fantasy. (Fairy tales are an entirely different list, and that's one is done and ready to go. I am having way too much fun making lists.) I think I tentatively had Lord of Light down as a possibility for this collection of books, and now I'm downright sure it would be included.

Now, can we finally get to the damn book, Megan? ....Fine.

As just alluded to, this is about gods in a science fiction setting, sort of. To be more precise, it's about space-faring settlers with amazing powers, possibly technological, possibly innate/magical, who take on the trappings of godhood and elevate themselves over their descendants. It's also about the responsibilities of the gods to their subjects, with many happy to keep humanity a subservient race, with others arguing that the technologies they enjoy should be available to all.

That was not what I expected, but it's so interesting! The latter is promoted by a man who comes to take on the mantle of the Buddha, offering enlightenment to all. Of course, Sam may be just a conman, or maybe sincere, or maybe actually both. He's killed and dispersed into the ether at least once (or achieves Nirvana, see what they did there?) and brought back for one last showdown.

The book bounces around in time a little disconcertingly, and that feels like it's not always under the author's best control. We start as Sam is reincarnated for the most recent/last time, but then go back for most of the book to another life, and the distinction is perhaps not always as clear as I'd like.

Zelazny also almost, almost gets close to doing something interesting with gender and the idea that people can change gender at will, but unfortunately does not really stick the landing here. It's about this close to being something more than a reaffirmation of gender roles, but falls a little flat.

There are demons - the planet's original inhabitants, and that is almost mostly very interesting, although without a lot of deep thought. For all that this is about the clash of philosophies and religions, it's not one with long passages arguing the relative merits of each.

But for what it is, it's very interesting, and I would love to read it and then compare it with other people to American Gods or Brown Girl in the Ring, or if I wanted to extend it to fictional gods, City of Stairs. (The list is actually over 10 books long and would need to be pared down.) Some day!

In other words, this is a book that made me think of other books, and how it compares to/relates to other books, and that's not at all a bad thing.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Week in Stories: Breakout Con Recap, Part One

Oh goodness. It's been a week now, and last week I was too tired or busy or wrung out to manage to sit down and capture my thoughts on my first gaming con. So I'm going to try now, even a week later, although I can already feel small details slipping away. (Luckily a few people have already done extensive recaps of at least two of the games I played!)

First and foremost, I just want to thank the organizers for doing so much work and emotional labour and putting together what was such a great experience! I was nervous going into my first real con, unsure what I'd find, clinging just slightly to the security blanket of having at least one person in each game I already knew. (Some of that was coincidental, but it's the way it turned out.) I had a fabulous time, and came away feeling like not only had I had some great gaming experiences, but also made some new friends, and started to be part of a larger community.

I also came back to London charged up to get back into our gaming, which has been a bit sporadic the last half year. Seems like everyone was feeling the same itch, either caused by the con, or just being ready to get at it, so I'm looking forward to the next few months!

I'd also like to thank all the designers whose games I got to play in, opening up their worlds and showing me and others around, letting us get our paws all over neat mechanics and interesting ideas. It's cool to get to play games in various stages of development.

Since the con, I've been nudging Bill to think about maybe taking his Twin Peaks-inspired RPG there next year to try with players who haven't been at our table extensively, or finally play the game that made him a Game Chef English language Finalist a couple of years ago. Designing may not be my bag, but I like to encourage it in my husband!

Also, the people I got to play with were fantastic! At every table, I found people of kindred spirit, wanting the same kind of deep character play and exploration that I enjoy. I wish all of them were going back to groups as amazing as the one I'm privileged to belong to, and I hope to see them again next year!

On to the games, and the things that stood out to me about each!

Friday night, we played Fraser Simons' The Veil, cyberpunk PbtA, with the central stats being about emotional states. I decided to try out the religious playbook, as I'm often interested in characters with strong beliefs, religious or otherwise. While I was making my playbook choices, Bill mentioned the documentary The Interrupters as a potential source of inspiration, and I went right for that idea like a hungry wolf. (Also, great documentary.)  I decided her religion was based on the idea of intervention, stepping into emotionally charged or perhaps violent confrontations in an effort to defuse them, and convince others her way of non-violence was right.

So then when I had to pick an emotional state as her primary one, Peaceful seemed obvious, but not necessarily that interesting. Walking calmly into danger and taking the consequences is great for serenity, but not necessarily great drama. So I decided to make her primary stat Scared, loving the idea of being terrified every time she intervened in violent situations, but fervent enough in her belief that she still did it.

(I hope it wasn't disconcerting for Fraser that he had a whole table full of people who knew each other. It wasn't on purpose! But Bill and I had been planning on gaming with our friend Matt from Toronto in a game that was cancelled due to illness, and the game that had open slots and was interesting ended up being the one Amanda and Mike were already in.)

The game itself centered around the mystery surrounding the death of a mystical warrior (Matt was the last of the order), the cyborg who had no memory of killing him, but blood on his hands, and the release of the dead man's essence/concentrated computer data, sought after by Amanda's hacker. Bill was a tiger-guy, dying, who I think had worked for the murdered man at least once.

It was a bit squishy for time trying to get everything in, but it was a very fun evening, and at the end, we discovered that although the cyborg may have killed him, it was for very good reasons! In the meantime, I got to be both scared and brave a whole bunch, as well as nearly run over at least once. Also, Fraser does cliffhanger moments very well. Lots of fun!

Saturday morning and early afternoon, we went to a bunch of panels, which were enjoyable and informative.

Saturday afternoon, we played The Watch by Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros, run by Anna. I try to explain this game to people and am at least half reduced to earnest hand gestures that cannot possibly capture its awesomeness.

This is because of two things - one, it is an amazingly great game, with meaty mechanics that beautifully support what it's trying to do. Two, Anna Kreider is a kickass GM, with a deft touch pushing at the perfect moments, and sitting back and watching at other points.

I just...it's....SO GOOD.

I was playing the Lioness playbook, so, charismatic, beautiful, and arrogant. I liked the pairing of her being the ranking officer with actually having a -1 to Training - playing on the idea of her having been thrown into an authority position on the basis of charisma and talking well, not necessarily on the merits of having been the best choice for the position.

Bill was playing the Bear, an older trans woman named Dralla, who had lost her lover in the first wave of Shadow attacks. The Bear absolutely seemed to me to be the most stable character at the table, so when the connections went around, I chose for Lanec, my character, to be suspicious of the Bear, because I liked the juxtaposition. In my head, that was because Lanec was mistaking bravado and flash for substance and not seeing the substance that was there in the Bear.

Duan, who played all the Watch games he could get into at the con, and also in the Veronica Mars game I'll get to in a bit, was the Eagle, and in the first round of assigning roles, with the Eagle and the Bear matched for the relevant stat, I chose the less experienced Iomae over Dralla to take point. (We also had a Fox, who was instrumental in everything mystical we needed to get done, and an Owl? (or Spider) who liked to pick away at others.)

Everything went badly, and I suddenly ended up with my Weariness track entirely filled, so we got to see that mechanic in action almost right away, as I had to choose a relationship to attack out of emotional and physical exhaustion. Lanec lashed out at Iomae who hadn't done anything more wrong than be enthusiastically on her side at a time that needed calm consideration. Whoops.

The fight against the Shadow went on, and the pressure rose, culminating in an attack on the camp. Two more (wait, three) moments I want to mention:  Iomae and Lati the Owl sparring, with Lati using verbal jabs and Iomae trying to let off steam, but not, in the end, forgiving Lati's words as mere camaraderie. It was a neat and complex interplay.

The moment that almost brought me to tears involved Treni, our Fox, as she sought to release an elder from the grasp of the Shadow, and the shade of Dralla the Bear's dead lover appeared and sent back one final loving message. (Bill teared up too! My heart!)

And the capper, when Dralla the Bear grabbed Iomae and Lati as the group seemed about to tear itself apart in a bear hug and told them the time for division was past. It was so needed and so perfect at that exact moment.

I can't wait to get my hands on this and run it or play in it for my London group.

Okay, this is getting long, and since I played in four games, there's an obvious break. Check back next Tuesday for Part Two!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Greenglass House by Kate Mitford

This was a rather charming book, definitely for slightly younger than young adult readers, or maybe around early teenage years if they're looking for something cozy. It is pleasantly twisty, without ever really being super tense. I was always pretty sure things would work out, and that is not at all a criticism. Greenglass House is a warm and welcoming book.

Milo, the main character, lives in an inn at the top of a very high hill that is mostly frequented by smugglers. He is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents with no guests at all, until they start showing up, one after another, all with ulterior motives, making his Christmas look very bleak indeed.

The housekeeper and her daughter Meddy show up to help Milo's family accommodate the unexpected guests, and Milo is conscripted by Meddy into investigating what's going on, using the fiction of a roleplaying game. Now, having played a lot of roleplaying games, I both liked this (particularly the idea of intergenerational bonds of playing games together), and was a little...nonplussed.

I'm not sure what roleplaying, specifically, added to what they were doing, that couldn't just be accomplished by having them play Let's Pretend. They were using no mechanics, after all, no real use of a system or virtually anything else, except for labelling certain elements of clothing after artifacts from the game, and certain actions became something Milo would consider doing when he wouldn't before because they were part of his character class.

It's all fine, and I am happy to have my favourite hobby incorporated into a story, and Milo and Meddy create fun characters to inhabit as they explore the house, but is it roleplaying? I mean, more than Let's Pretend? Do kids not play Let's Pretend anymore? Does it have to be dressed up in the guise of a formal game? Because, dude, I organized Let's Pretend games like nobody's business, and I would be very sorry to hear that wasn't a thing anymore.

This is splitting hairs, and again, this is all so warmly done it wasn't a major problem.

Milo finds that what he's discovering has personal resonance, as he starts to find clues about children without families. He had been adopted as a child, and has always wondered about his birth family, a curiosity his loving parents support.

Old stories of smugglers and shootouts and the possibility of hidden treasures in the walls and windows of the house where Milo lives abound, and he and Meddy slowly unravel the puzzle of what brought each person to the house, and closer to the one dangerous truth lurking.

There is never a moment where this is dreadfully tense, but there are still some dramatic scenes as all the pieces fall into place. Definitely a book for older children or young adults in a particular kind of mood, this is charming and worth a read.