Friday, 13 October 2017

No One Gets Out Alive: Final Character Thoughts and Bonus Backstory!

Character Thoughts - Jo

I think this may be the first time I’ve had a character really and truly die in a game. Sure, I had a monster hunter die at the end of a campaign and be brought back to life. I also had a character who was the only one to survive a Deadlands game, with the mission of telling the tale so her companions wouldn’t be forgotten. But as far as campaigns go, I think this is the first time death was absolutely the end. I tend to be very attached to my characters, and hope for happy endings. I’m okay with this death, though. I mean, given the title of the game, it isn’t like it wasn’t telegraphed.

At the end, it all came down to a couple of dice rolls - I rolled to see if Jo could get everyone out, and only partially succeeded. She went back in anyway, and Bill had Michael’s player roll to see if I survived, and he failed. (He'd already spent all his tokens on resisting Miss Maudie’s ghost ordering him to kill my character.) Michael survived, but that may not be a blessing - he’s badly injured, lost his wife, and guilty of two murders and massive financial fraud.  It’s a sad but fitting end to our ghost story.

Going into the last session, I knew there were two huge reveals on the horizon, and I had no idea how Jo would react to either of them, and I really didn’t want to decide in advance. I thought about them, but figured that we’d see how it felt in the moment. Then, in the same scene, we finally hit the reveal that Michael knew about Jo’s affair, and that Michael had killed his brother earlier that day. I was a little surprised but pleased with the way both went.

For the first, when Michael told Jo he knew about her affair, I had at least half expected that I’d get really defensive and belligerent - it’s how Jo reacted to Lisette trying to make her feel remorse for her actions as a teenager, after all. But with this, a betrayal she knew was a betrayal, and her husband finding out, the reaction was much quieter, with no real defense of her actions offered. She didn’t push back, and she didn’t really ask for forgiveness. She did say she’d fucked up. I liked the quiet reaction more than the defensive one I’d been expecting to have. Of course, it wasn’t the time to sit down and hash out their entire marriage, but I came out of that thinking that things weren’t good, but they weren’t necessarily entirely doomed? At least, you know, until Jo died twenty minutes later.  

As to the second reveal, how Jo would react to finding out her husband was capable of murder, it was a lot less clear-cut than I’d been expecting. When it came right down to it, Michael didn’t say the words explicitly, and the obliqueness was enough that Jo got it, but didn’t have to get it entirely. She knew what he was saying, but she could hear it and yet not process it. I had a feeling that her initial reaction would probably not be entirely condemnatory - it’s hard to switch gears that quickly about someone you love and have been with that long. In the long run, though, if she’d survived and had time to think about it, the horror would have slowly grown.

A large part of why Jo could more or less understand what Michael had done but not deal with it yet was a personality trait that she had through the entire game, but which really took control in the final episode. As a surgeon, and because I thought it would be very useful in a haunted house game, her secondary trait was “Calm Under Pressure.” When faced with everything going to shit, Jo was constantly triaging, putting her emotions aside (and frequently last) in order to do what needed to be done.

In many ways, this was a microcosm of the entire character, and a look at how that ability could serve her well in short term emergency situations, and yet be the same trait that screwed up her life when constantly applied to a very busy life, when it always meant putting the less urgent things (her marriage, time to relax, self-care) last. Her dramatic poles were Bulling Through vs. Taking the Easy Way, and except for that affair, she never took the easy way. In fact, it’s probably what killed her, in the end. She’d saved her kids and her husband, but there was one thing left she could try to do, and she did it. Poor Jo.

While triaging like that is a character trait I share, I’m also a much more emotional person than Jo, and less able to put everything off until an easier day that will never come. It was interesting how, during the finale, I was often tense, but never on the verge of breaking down. Every supernatural thing Jo saw unsettled her, but she would deal with it by refocusing on the matter at hand. It might have scarred her for life, but at the time, she did what she had to do.

Was that the best choice? Lisette and Michael’s players both went to incredible places dealing with the fears and stresses and breaking down, becoming more and more unstable, while I never felt like Jo lost her stability. That makes her good as a foil, but maybe that’s a hint to trying playing someone less stable in a future game. (On the other hand, I might already be doing that in TimeWatch, where I feel like Millie is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown.) Still, it’ll be a challenge, to try another character where triaging is not part of her innate abilities, someone who has more potential to be overwhelmed.

If we’re talking about playing characters who differ from myself in some important way, let’s go back to one of my primary stated goals in playing Jo. I am fairly in touch with my emotions and sometimes far too attuned to the emotions of people around me. So I had wanted to play a character who was not that, someone who was not emotionally intelligent, not nurturing, who might be surprised by what she actually felt, if she ever understood she felt it.

I feel like I succeeded moderately well. Jo as a parent was definitely not nurturing, although I also don’t think she was a terrible mother, either. She made some fairly obvious mistakes that she wouldn’t understand, including her confrontational manner in regards to her daughter acting out. She never understood that Maddie was acting out, in part, because she knew her mother was having an affair, and saw it as a betrayal of her father. (Which, of course, it was.) And when Tyler had been scared by the apparition at his window, she wasn’t as understanding as she could have been, but she didn’t belittle him, either. She tried to direct him to what she thought was the most likely answer, and that was probably not as helpful as a hug would have been.

As a wife, Jo was also certainly not emotionally intelligent - her marriage was crumbling, and she had no idea what to do about it. She even thought her husband wouldn’t realize she was having an affair. When on the island, she was trying to reach out and find a common ground and history, to rekindle a romance. It felt like Jo and Michael were never actually adversaries, but they didn’t remember very well how to be allies anymore. The possibility was there, the past had proven it could be done, but neither had the resources to figure it out in the present.

And as a friend, Jo sucked. She fought like hell to have no space for Lisette, at the cost of hurting Lisette time and time again. Renewing that friendship would have meant examining some painful things about herself, and some unlikeable things she’d done. Given her jealousy over Lisette and Michael’s connection, it was much easier to decide Lisette was the enemy and treat her as such. I was delighted, though, by the small moments of friendship that snuck past her armour. The closeness never lasted long, but these were two people who remembered the patterns of friendship on a cellular level.

Outside of musing over the psychology of my own character, one thing I never realized until after the game was that when the three of us picked the evocative phrases for the haunt, we were also picking mechanical aspects. Each of those phrases (ours were “The Whisper,” “The Mirror,” and “The Door”) meant that the ghosts had a specific power. Bill says he did this so the ghosts weren’t all powerful and there were rules he had to follow. I thought that worked well, and we inadvertently picked some of the most psychological of the powers!

We have certainly had a history of great drama-heavy games before, and I am so privileged to be playing with this awesome group of people, all of whom I trust so much to do interesting things, be interesting characters, and to explore bravely together in scenes that can get into emotional territory.  This particular game started with a mandate to have drama-centric game, to play hard and with passion, to embrace characters and a situation that would put pressure just about everywhere. It did not disappoint. So this is my personal thank you to my husband, for being an awesome GM, and the other two players for being so astoundingly daring and kickass in what they bring to the table.

The "Official" Backstory, direct from the GM's pen:

In the Prohibition era, Maudie and Galen McBride were smuggling alcohol into northern New York State with the Stewart brothers, Ewan and Neil. They secured their hold on the liquor rackets with acts of horrifying violence, cowing their enemies. Maudie ran the "business" side, managing the money, while the men got their hands dirty. The distillery that supplied the operation was built into the foundations of Strathclyde House, in a secret sub-basement.

Neil was the most dangerous member of the operation, leading brutal attacks on their competitors, often leaving his mark with a curved skinning knife (which gave him his nickname, "Skinner"). The most notorious of these was a raid on a rumrunning operation in New York where he arranged for their competitors to be strung up from a tree outside a country garage they used as a distribution point and skinned alive. The incident loomed large in the news, as a boy in the employ of the Americans hid himself when he saw a car full of masked men approaching. He reported the incident in gruesome detail, including the quote (from Neil) that became a sensational headline: "No one gets out alive."

After the publicity, Maudie told Galen that they would need to get rid of Skinner. He was too dangerous, too unpredictable, and her plan had always been to sink the profits of their illicit enterprises into legitimate business ventures, expanding the McBride family fortunes. Galen killed Skinner, walling him up in a recess of the basement distillery, which would soon be bricked up and forgotten as Prohibition wound down. Without Skinner's muscle, Ewan was no match for Galen, and agreed to a payout that was a small fraction of what he believed he was owed. He took his money and put it into a shipping business, which his son Bruce would build into an international empire.

But Skinner wasn't quite done with the McBrides. Maudie and Neil had been sleeping together for years, under Galen's nose, and Maudie found herself pregnant. She quietly dealt with the inconvenience herself, and hid away the mortal remains of Skinner's child in the walls of Strathclyde House, where no one would ever find it. With that small detail accounted for, she was the sole proprietor of a financial empire... all of it in her name, and under her control, which would leave Galen a bitter and hateful man until his death.

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "Here in the Dark"

Previous Recaps: 
No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation 
Episode 1: "The Drop Off" 
Episode 2: "Another Midnight" 
Episode 3: "The Inevitability of Death"

Episode 4: "Here in the Dark"

And with this, our fourth sitting, we wrapped the whole damn thing up. We knew it was a possibility going in, everyone played hard, the ghosts came out to play, as did the secrets, and, as hinted all along in the name of the game, some of the characters died in the gloriously messy finale. Here's the recap, and I'll put up a second post shortly with all my character thoughts and some bonus backstory written by the GM!

The session opened right where we'd left off, just after Michael had gotten a series of texts and photos on a phone that wasn't supposed to be getting reception, of his son, alone and terrified against a red brick wall, and the word "MORE". He asked Jo, urgently, where Tyler was. Jo said she presumed he was in his room, but Michael said no, there was someone on the island, someone evil, and he'd taken Tyler.

Michael passed Jo his phone, but when she took it, the screen was dead. Worried that witnessing his brother's death had been too much for him, Jo asked Michael to sit down, and for Lisette to go upstairs and check if Tyler and Maddie were there. Michael protested, saying that they had to figure out what to do about the company, but Jo said that they could deal with that tomorrow. Getting his phone back, Michael could clearly see the photos of Tyler, and said he had to go out and find his son. He was somewhere on the island, scared. Jo let him go, worried.

Michael grabbed a flashlight and headed off into the rain that had started to pour down on the island. He convinced himself that the background behind Tyler in the picture was from the foundation of an old ruined house in the woods.

Meanwhile, Lisette found no one in Tyler's room, but could hear Madeleine crying through the door. She knocked tentatively, and Maddie came to the door and threw herself, crying, into Lisette's arms. Lisette held her uncomfortably, and asked what was wrong. Maddie was incredulous as she said, tearfully, that Uncle Matthew was dead, that's what was wrong.

Lisette tried to comfort her as Jo came upstairs. From where she was down the hallway, Jo could see Lisette reach into her pocket and pass something small to Maddie. Jo called out to ask if Tyler had been in his room, and when Lisette replied that he wasn't, she walked down the hallway and briskly held out her hand, palm-up, to Maddie, asking her for whatever Lisette had just given her.

Maddie stared at her mother, confused. Lisette said that she hadn't given Maddie anything, but Jo clearly didn't believe her and continued to ask Maddie to hand it over. Now. As Lisette reached out to try to explain, a pill bottle fell from her pocket on to the floor. Jo's lips thinned as she picked it up, seeing some of Miss Maudie's pills. She looked at Lisette, noting her large pupils, and asked if Lisette were high. Lisette protested, unconvincingly, that she wasn't. Maddie pulled away from her mother and spat something horrible and teenager-ish at her, before running off.

Lisette tried to explain that she hadn't given anything to Maddie, that she didn't remember putting those pills in her pocket. She said she hadn't even wanted to stay on the island, that Michael had convinced her. This did not impress Jo. Lisette said mournfully that she didn't want anything to do with this family anymore.  When Jo stalked off, Lisette looked down and when she looked at it, now the name on the bottle of pills read Jo Ross.

Somewhere around this point, the lights went out, as claps of thunder and lightning lashed the island.

Meanwhile, out in the driving rain and dark, Michael trekked through the woods, yelling for Tyler. When he got to the foundation of the ruined building, he couldn't see anyone, but climbed over the low remaining wall anyway, jumping in, and landing on a ripped tin can, which pierced his foot through.  There was no sign of his son. Bleeding and swearing, Michael tried to make his way back out, but slipped on the mud. His phone lit up again and two more images appeared, of Jo with Adam, her colleague (and the man she was having an affair with), smiling a smile that she used to turn only on Michael. Michael scowled, and resumed his painful struggle out of the foundation. When he got out, he realized he had a knife in his hand, the skinning knife that the man with the burlap sack had carried.

Back at the house, Lisette grabbed Jo’s purse, intent on proving that Jo was trying to frame her again. With the lights out, she went into the kitchen and lit a candle. She looked at the knives in the kitchen, feeling like she needed a weapon, but decided that something blunt would be much better. She went into the dining room, intending to pick up a poker that was leaning against the fireplace. Suddenly, the lightning flashed, and Lisette was surrounded by people in the room. She shrunk back, but as the light faded, so did the people. She made a dash for the poker, then back to the kitchen and out into the night to find a lantern in the gardener’s shed.

Jo was in search of Maddie when she heard the distinct sounds of two people having sex in her and Michael’s bedroom. Thinking it might be Michael and Lisette, she opened the door angrily, only to see a very large man having enthusiastic sex with a small woman - Miss Maudie, when she was very much younger. Jo could see clothes strewn over the floor, including a burlap sack with two holes cut out for eyes. After finishing, Miss Maudie cast her eyes towards the door - but clearly didn’t see Jo standing there.

Lisette had made her way to the gardener’s shed and found an oil lantern and lit it. With that in one hand and the poker in the other, she started back to the fence, only to see Skinner, the man with the burlap sack over his head and a skinning knife in his hand, heading towards her. The camera flipped, and we saw from Michael’s perspective that he was heading towards the light, and calling out for Lisette while she saw something quite different and fled for the house. He pursued her, worried that she was going to betray his trust and the family.

Losing sight of Lisette, Michael come up to the kitchen window, seeing Jo standing there with a butcher’s knife in her hand. For her part, Jo saw the figure on the other side of the glass as the man with the burlap sack, complete with knife. She pulled back and yelled at him to go away. Michael, frustrated, called out to Jo to let him in, and she recognized him, but he looked even more dishevelled and crazy than he actually was. She hesitated, then finally unlocked the door.

When Michael stumbled inside, Jo tried to see what shape he was in, physically, but Michael was fixated on the idea of finding Lisette, and needing to determine where her loyalties lay. Jo didn’t understand why this was so important, tonight, when their son was missing, so Michael finally told her about the financial trouble the company was in, the trouble he was in, that he could go to jail. Was she with him? Loyal to the family?

Jo pushed back - how could he not have told her this? How could he have kept this secret? Michael narrowed his eyes. She was one to talk about keeping secrets. Jo demanded to know what he meant by that. He knew about Adam, Michael replied. Did she really think she could keep that secret? That he wouldn’t know?

Jo stilled. She really thought he didn’t, she said softly. Come on, Jo, Michael said. He wasn’t an idiot. So, where did she stand? Was she loyal to the family? Jo looked at him, still confused. What did he mean loyal to the family? Michael said, with difficulty, that they all needed to pull together to survive this. He strongly hinted, but didn’t say outright, that he’d had to kill his brother Matthew to keep the family going, and that he’d do anything to protect Jo and their kids. Jo could guess at what he meant, but the ambiguity let her put it aside for the moment. She continued to triage the situation - they had to find their kids, first. Then they could talk.

Outside, both Jo and Michael could see a figure run across the lawn - it looked like their daughter, Maddie. Jo sighed and picked up the kitchen knife again. She’d go after their daughter, and wanted defence against whatever was stalking them. At the door to outside, she paused, and haltingly, tried to explain. She’d wanted to come to the island to see what she and Michael still had between them, what might be possible. But she’d screwed it all up.

Back with Lisette, as she ran from the figure of Skinner. She ran into the building on the other side. But where she ended up as she went through was not where she intended. She was suddenly in the secret passage, between floors. Lisette started shaking, terrified. Noises echoed around the small staircase, and Lisette started to head up towards the attic, but stopped when a stone fell right past her and landed at her feet. In the brick wall in front of her face, there was a small hole, and inside was a package of small bones, wrapped in paper. The newspaper showed three bodies hung up like in an abattoir. It dated to Prohibition, and heavily implicated Michael’s grandparents and their enforcer in the murders. A headline read “No One Gets Out Alive!”

Lisette recoiled and started moving rapidly down the stairs to the creepy basement. Once there, the lantern-light glinted eerily off the walls.  She shrank down, against the wall, trying to block out the manifestations, utterly lost.

The sound of a phone ringing lured Michael, still bleeding and limping, into the east wing of the house. There he saw Miss Maudie. She praised him for being a good boy, the one she could always count on, but now demanded that he take care of Josephine. She wasn’t really part of the family, after all. Never had been. And now she’d shown her true colors. Michael resisted, swearing to his grandmother that Jo loved this family. Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed in scorn. She demanded more.

Outside, Jo continued toward the dock, looking for Maddie. On the dock itself, she stared out into the water, then noticed something just below the surface of the water. It was a face. It was many faces, glinting just below the surface. They were watching her, and began to break the surface in pursuit of her. Jo stumbled backwards and ran up the hill, back towards the house.

Lisette heard the sound of someone scared in the basement, and found Maddie there, trembling. Maddie was scared, and Tyler was missing, and her parents were upsetting. Lisette hugged her close, trying to comfort her.

Just then Michael heard the noises coming from the basement. Still clutching the skinning knife he’d found in the ruins, he ventured down the slippery stairs, and found Lisette and Maddie. He was bloody and looked crazed. Lisette pushed Maddie behind her as she got to her feet. With a shaking voice, she said she didn’t want to be part of the family any more, she just wanted to leave.

Michael asked how he could know that she wouldn’t betray the family, tell everyone about what had happened with the company. Lisette swore she wouldn’t, clutching the poker tightly. She just wanted to go to her mother, and be done with this entire family forever. Michael got angrier at this, accusing Lisette of never caring about the family, of never really being a part of it. Maddie whimpered behind Lisette’s back. Scared, Lisette told Michael to move so she could leave. He couldn’t do that, they needed to talk.

Lisette lashed out with her poker, catching Michael on the side of the head. Startled, he jabbed out with the knife, stabbing Lisette in the stomach. They both fell to the floor. Lisette crawled her way over to him, painfully, and threw the knife across the room away from them both. Maddie shrieked and ran up the stairs. As Lisette had fallen, she had dropped the lantern, which broke and started a fire.

Maddie ran to the door and almost straight into her mother on the porch. Maddie was nearly incoherent, talking about her father and Lisette and people going crazy. Jo told her to stay on the porch or the lawn, where she could see the door. She’d be right back. As Jo entered the basement, she could see her husband and Lisette on the floor, and assessed that both were in danger of dying if not treated quickly. Just then, though, she heard Tyler yelling.

Jo ran to the wall, seeing the red brick, and a spot that looked different from the rest. Picking up Lisette’s poker, she started to smash at the wall, getting through it relatively quickly. The fire was spreading, though, starting to fill the basement with smoke. Covering her mouth, Jo went through the hole she had made, to see her son in an alcove, with the hand of a skeleton of a very large man with a burlap sack over his face on Tyler’s shoulder. Jo broke the hand away and she and Tyler climbed out rapidly.

As the fire spread, Jo had Tyler help her lift Michael to get her up the stairs, and looked at where Lisette was lying unconscious, biting her lip. But between her husband and former best friend, she made her choice. She, Tyler, and Michael made it out onto the porch and down the stairs to Maddie, watching as the fire spread through the house.

Jo left Michael alone on the lawn, and ran back up the stairs to the porch. She hesitated and went in, intending to go no further if it was too dangerous. However, Michael watched, horrified, as the house collapsed around his wife.

An emergency boat pulled up at the dock, and Michael could see Perry and others running up the hill. Maddie started to shriek about her father being a murderer, Tyler was huddled in a ball, and the house continued to burn.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Diviners by Libba Bray

This is a curious book. There are so many things about it that should irritate me, that did consistently have me rolling my eyes at the pages. And yet, despite all that, despite all the flaws I'll tell you about, in the end, I kind of enjoyed this. Not on any deep level, oh no. But as a piece of enjoyable YA fluff, I ended up feeling more kindly towards it than it perhaps deserves.

The Diviners is set in the 1920s. Boy howdy, is it set in the 1920s. It is set in the 1920s of overzealous authors eager to show how much research they've done, who never found a piece of slang or stereotype they didn't try to hang on a character. Many of these characters feel like they might buckle under the strain.

A friend of mine got to watch as my husband and I traded back stereotypes of flappers and 1920s Jazz culture, and I could tell him where each one was in this book in the first few bloody chapters. She said it was amazing and hilarious. There wasn't a single thing that Libba Bray hadn't crammed in here, and the overall effect is...well, it made me feel like the author was trying way too hard.

I am not a fan of these kinds of data dumps, and as a historian, trying to stuff every historical detail into the speech patterns of a few main characters makes my skin crawl. For the first third of the book, I have to say, this was all driving me crazy. The flapper doesn't have to be all flapper, all flapper slang, all flapper clothes, all the time. It's okay if she's a bit frivolous and needs to party, but this was flapper turned up to eleven, and it was wearing.

Plus, it's not that fun to be hanging out mostly with someone who's selfish as shit. Thankfully, she (mostly) improved over the book. I don't need her to be a paragon of anything, but damn it, give me something to like!

This is the story of said flapper, whose name escapes me. On looking it up, it's Evie. Her brother died during the war. She's partying as hard as she can, and gets sent away from her small town to New York City when she causes a local scandal by accusing the local rich man's son of knocking up a maid. She's right, of course, and found out because she's also a psychometrist. That is to say, she can find out things about peoples' pasts by touching objects that belong to them.

So, apparently New York City seems safer to her parents? She's got an uncle there, who runs a museum of the supernatural along with his young assistant, Jericho. Shortly after she gets to New York, a serial killer starts preying on the people of New York, taking various parts of their bodies as trophies. Mixed up into this comes a Ziegfeld girl (of course), and young black poet, presumably to signify the Harlem Renaissance, and Mabel, the daughter of Jewish radicals. Or at least, I think Jewish? Radicals of the communist sort, at any rate. We can't possibly miss a chance to get everything about the 1920s in there!

I wish Bray would trust herself and not need to prove how much research she's done and stop with the absurd amount of strained data dump (if Evie said "posi-tutely" one more time, I might have smacked her, and she's fictional.) But weirdly, this book ends up working despite that. Not because of it.

It ends up feeling like Bray's stealing a bit of H.H. Holmes and his murder hotel of Chicago as she develops this story of the occult and serial killers. (There are more powers going around - the young poet can heal, his younger brother has predictive powers, and more.)  The book ends with one menace averted and the promise of more to come.

Let's get one thing straight. I didn't love this. I wouldn't be running out to tell you to read this. But to give the book its due, I enjoyed more than I expected I would.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

I think I was expecting to be more deeply affected by this book. I finished it over the weekend. My overwhelming feeling was polite interest, and then when I sat down to write the review yesterday, nothing came. And nothing good ever comes of pushing myself to write a review when I'm not ready, so I closed the tab and walked away, figuring I'd write about it today.

I spent a good portion of my walk to work pondering the question, and I'm not sure I'm a whole lot closer, although the words are coming out more easily. I feel like maybe this itself is the answer - this just isn't a book that I had a strong reaction to, for good or for ill. There wasn't much I didn't like, but there also wasn't much I loved. It unfortunately falls about directly in the middle of the road, a book that I recognize has value, but which never latched onto my soul and made me care.

Maybe it's that I'm just not really a dog person.

Cats, now, cats would be different - but cats are so fundamentally different from dogs that the issues wouldn't be the same. If you gave cats human capabilities, cat already figured out how to open the refrigerator door, although thankfully she seems to have forgotten in her old age.

This book is about a deal between Apollo and Hermes in present-day Toronto. While sitting at a bar, they decide to give fifteen dogs (hence the title) human capabilities and see if they could be happy. Now, this doesn't seem to be a particular referendum on humanness, or if it is, it's not really a good one. What Apollo and Hermes do does not substitute humanness for dogness, it adds the former to the latter, so that these dogs, who are still dogs with all that entails, suddenly also have human capabilities and must figure out how to reconcile the two.

The other gods get involved - well, Zeus gets involved. There is mention of the other gods becoming interested and making bets, but nothing about them as individuals, which is a bit of a pity. Really, they're there to be a literal deus ex machina - both setting things in motion, and on several occasions, not being able to refrain from interceding further in these dogs' lives.

Some of the dogs don't even leave the pound where they are first given this massive change, staying and falling out of the story immediately. Most leave, but fall quickly prey to pack dynamics and the struggles to integrate human capability into doggish minds. There is a quick split between those who embrace their new abilities and help develop a new language, and those who want to return to being just dogs, with the problem that they do not necessarily entirely remember what that is. It becomes something like Judith Butler's theory of performative gender - these dogs pretend to be dogs, but with a dissonance between when they did so naturally and the artificiality of doing it now.

This causes distress, and eventually fratricide, as the changed dogs turn on each other in various ways, unable to sort out hierarchy in a more complex world. (Although one of the dogs who most embraces his new capabilities does so with humans.)

The question at hand, due to Hermes' agreeing to particular terms, is whether or not any of these dogs will be happy when they die. It's not a smart bet to have made, and how many centuries would Hermes have had to learn the ropes when bargaining with Apollo?  The answer comes, at the end, and on the whole it's not a bad one. I just wish I'd been more moved or engaged by the book as a whole.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Because life falls out the way it falls out sometimes, I ended up putting this book down about a hundred pages from the end, and picking it back up a week or two later. Most of the time, this is not a problem, and I can find the thread fairly easily. This time, though, I was left with a wistful regret that I'd pushed on and kept reading, because I was more lost than I thought I would be when I came back.

I think that's because of what this book is and what it is not. It is an intensely and enjoyably atmospheric experience, where you sink into the prose, and shudder at the turns of phrase, and get the tactile sense of what this very screwed-up (by human standards) place Area X is. It is not a driving plot book. It is sort of a character book. It is not, above all, interested in filling in all the blanks or answering all the questions.

From some authors, the lack would drive me crazy, because I would feel that without answers, there's not enough there. They'd be selling me short by not giving a solution when they're not giving me enough else, either. That is not the case here, and it's hard to put my finger on exactly why. I think the biggest thing is that to read this book for the prose and the characters alone is enough. The plot is a lovely cherry on top, but this is the type of story and manner of storytelling where leaving ellipses and questions fits the feel so well that it enhances rather than detracts from the story.

Unlike the two previous entries in this trilogy, Acceptance is not a single story. Annihilation was the story of the biologist, who went into Area X and came out somewhat changed, and Authority is about Control, the man sent to head up the Southern Reach after the previous director left her job. (It's hard to find the right word for what the previous director did without spoiling things, but we'll go with that.)

Here, though, we have the story of the previous director, both in the past and in the same timeframe, roughly, as Annihilation, as well as the story of Ghost Bird (the biologist-as-emerged-from-Area-X), and more from the perspective of Control. The new character introduced as a viewpoint character is Saul, the lighthouse keeper who was referred to in both of the previous books. His time period takes place, for the most part, before the event that caused Area X to emerge, and during the start of the change. He was a preacher who left his flock and came to this remote area of Florida.

There is faith mixed up in this in a lot of subtle ways. The words written on the wall of the tower, for one, which we now get the origin of, if not the meaning. Saul as a character. Control and whatever he has been and whatever he is becoming, and his crisis of faith as to both. It's not religion that is the theme, it feels more broadly the idea of faith or trust in a world tilted on its axis, and out of alignment with the time.

I know I'm not making a whole lot ore sense. It's hard to summarize this book, particularly that even  starting at the beginning would mean giving away things about the two previous books. You do get some answers about what Area X is, what caused it, and some of what it's trying to do, and whether or not it'll be successful. But if you're thinking of picking this series up, be aware that you won't ever be told exactly what happened and why in precise terms that also lay out all the implications. It is the journey that is the pleasure, and the creepiness, and the questions about faith and identity.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van is a weird book, in that I'm not entirely sure what I want to write about it. And that's not made better by the fact that I've been in a bit of a funk about book reviews - I do enjoy writing them still, and I really like hearing feedback from people who find them helpful or amusing, but I don't feel like I've written a really inventive book review in a while. It feels like I've fallen into more of a pattern of writing a brief synopsis (not in and of itself a bad thing), mentioning a few things that I liked, but not really necessarily engaging in depth with the content.

Maybe it's the books I've been reading - really truly unique and wonderful books like The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin I wanted to write about so much. There have been a lot more that have been fine, but a little "meh."  Why is it that I feel like I'm not connecting with when I sit down to write? How can I find my way back into feeling this writing again?

One, the answer is probably to let it be okay that some of the books I read are just fine and don't provoke me to deep thought or attachment. That is fine. Not every book can be a gem, or a complete pile of horseshit. Two, don't make it an unattainable goal that I am going to feel inspired every time I sit down to write.

Three, let myself take these weird digressions again? I feel like I used to bring bits of my daily life and experience into these reviews more, and sometimes let them meander away from "this is the book, what it is about and whether or not I liked it" format. Sure, that makes it more about me, but this is a completely subjective experience anyway, and I liked letting people in on why I reacted to some parts the way I did.

I think part of the problem has been that I started to think about writing these book reviews for an invisible audience, and somehow that feels like it has standardized the format. Maybe it's as simple as trying to shift my focus to writing the review for me - I was saying to a friend this last week when we were talking about this very book that a year or two down the line, sometimes all I remember about a book is what I wrote in my review and not a lot else. (This was in the context of said friend saying he'd read Wolf in White Van a year or two before and didn't remember it very well.)

I don't know that I've gotten anywhere with this musing, but we'll see. I'm not really down, and I'm nowhere near giving up. I just need to revitalize the format for myself, break out of my rut.

So, imaginary future Megan who may have to talk about this book to someone (as I dream of getting to talk about all books to someone), what do we want to remember?

Well, first of all, let's still do the synopsis. It's helpful, and I may want to remember it.

This is a book about a young (youngish? The book spans quite a while) man whose face is disfigured, and how that came about will be gradually but not entirely revealed over the course of the book. To support himself/to find something in his world he can control after he got out of the hospital, he wrote a play-by-snail-mail roleplaying game that he placed ads for in various magazines, and now, many years later, still has people who mail him their moves and wait to get back what happens next.

I'm an avid roleplayer, which I think is hidden from absolutely no one, and this was interesting. What struck me, and maybe the early play-by-mail games were like this, is how non-reactive the game is. The main character wrote every possible answer at the beginning, and so what he does is parse out which of the options he gave was chosen, pulls out a sheet of paper from a file, maybe adds a note, and sends it back off. This world does not change and evolve with story as the player does, and none of what happened is aimed at the character or their actions or who they are and what they want to become. The players are playing in his sandbox, and it's all already decided.

At the start of the book, he's also being sued by the parents of a young person who, like all the worst urban legends of "Things Roleplaying Could Do To Your Children," got too into the game, and came to personal harm.

But most of this passes him by - he is curiously detached from the world around him, and the world is mostly content to let him alone. Even the world he created exists outside him - there is no more creation in him, no new worlds, nothing to explore beyond it, no way to make it change to complement the players. It seems to be about control, but it's control of the sort that means stasis.

There are lots of things people get out of roleplaying, lots that they can get out of it, or play for. But this seems so far to one side of the spectrum it kind of baffles me. Our style these days at the table is to have character-centred play, high on the drama, and everything in the world is aimed not at the heads of generic characters, but these specific characters and their foibles, desires, and histories. It sounds awfully lonely to have created the world and then stepped apart, except for photocopying and mailing. It's very theist, if you want to bring theology into it. It says something about this character, though, who he was before the incident and how he reacted to his life after it.

One other moment that I'd like future Megan to remember: Stardance by Spider Robinson is one of my favourite books. If I had to give someone one book to read that would explain who I am as a human being, it would be that one. It looms large in my personal mythology, and there is a quote from the end of it that is as close as I will ever come to having a defined philosophy of life.

And so it was particularly weird for me when the main character makes a reference to Stardance, saying that it was a book he read, and that he remembers almost nothing about it, except this one thing that is not at all what I would put top of my list of things to remember about it. This said more to me about this character and his approach to life than anything else, that he could read Stardance and just take away a part of it, and phrase it in the most pedestrian way possible. The wonder and challenge and pain and humanity appears to have made no impact on him. (Also, his philosophy of life seems to come from Conan, but even the character recognizes he ignored some of the underlying philosophy of those books.)

Oh yeah, and you might want to remember that the title is a reference to the Satanic Panic and the idea of playing records backwards.

You know what? I haven't said anything else about whether or not I liked this book. And because this wasn't a book that inspired particularly strong feelings one way or the other, I'm not going to. Screw that.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Week in Stories: No One Gets Out Alive - "The Inevitability of Death"

Previous Recaps: 
No One Gets Out Alive Character Creation 
Episode 1: "The Drop Off" 
Episode 2: "Another Midnight" 

Episode 3: "The Inevitability of Death"

It had been almost two months since we'd last played No One Gets Out Alive, so I wasn't sure if we'd be rusty or find it hard to find our ways back into these characters. But while it wasn't quite the heady rush of the second session, it was easier than I expected, and some really good stuff hit the table. We're heading into the home stretch - Bill says one or two more sessions.

What Happened With The Haunting

Michael came downstairs the next morning to find Mr. VanKoughnett, the man who had brought them out to the island, having coffee with Michael's brother Matthew and son Tyler. Matthew said that Diana, their sister, had called Mr. Vankoughnett from the land line still in Miss Maudie's quarters for a ride into town for the day. Anybody else who wanted to go, could. Tyler was eager to get off the island, for one, still spooked by his experiences the day before.

Diana stalked into the room, and Michael asked if he could speak to her alone. She tried to fend him off, but Michael quietly asked the others to leave. (I think maybe Tyler stayed and Michael didn't notice?)  Michael asked Diana why she was doing this - she'd never cared about the company before. She'd always been happy to let him do the work. Diana slyly said that she just wanted to be more involved - the company was hers too, after all. Michael shot back that the company was his. And that she'd get money from it, same as always. Just trust him and let him handle it. Diana said that she just wasn't willing to do that anymore, and left.

Michael went out into the entryway of the house, to see Jo getting her things ready to go. Jo said she was going to go in and get a few things, and Michael reminded her about talking to her father. Jo said she'd try, but not to get his hopes up. Michael told her to invite her father for supper on the island, and the two would talk. Jo grimaced, but agreed to try. Maddy went too, glad to get off the island and back to cell signals.

At the boat, Lisette got on board too, saying she wanted to see her mother. The boat pulled away from the dock, leaving Michael and Matthew alone on the island. Lisette offered Jo coffee from a thermos, which Jo reluctantly accepted. Lisette spoke of hoping to see her mother again, and that she was tempted to just stay in town. Maybe that would be a good idea, Jo advised. Maddie, at the bow, stretched out her phone to try to catch the first signals. As they pulled in to the dock, everyone could clearly see that there was a cell tower on top of one of the local buildings - it was weird that it wouldn't cover the island.

Once in town, Maddy took off immediately. Jo asked Tyler if he'd like to come with her to see his grandfather. Tyler was enthusiastic - they almost never got to see him! Driving there in the car they'd left by the docks, Jo cautioned Tyler that sometimes his grandfather was...unreasonable. That he might say nasty things about Tyler's father. Tyler was confused as to why, but Jo told him that it was for reasons that had nothing to do with Michael, just an unreasonable grudge from the previous generation.

They pulled up to the gates for a huge house enclosed by stone walls, by the water with a view of Strathclyde in the distance. Jo pressed the button at the gate, and when her father's assistant answered, she said that it was Jo. He replied, "Ah, Miss Stewart," and Jo gritted her teeth and answered "Mrs. Ross." She was already regretting this particular promise to Michael. They pulled up to the house, and her father, Bruce Stewart, was standing on the porch. He called Tyler up and gave him a big hug, telling him that there was a Playstation in the house that he could go play if he wanted.

Jo and her father awkwardly hugged, and he showed off his new living room furniture, which looked expensive and Scandinavian. Jo complimented it hesitantly, and he said he didn't much like it, but it was what was in these days. Jo suggested maybe he could just decorate for his own comfort, but he treated that suggestion like it was nonsensical.

Jo finally broached why she'd come. She said it was time that her father finally accepted her marriage - a marriage that had been in existence for almost two decades! Michael wanted to talk to Bruce, so come to the island for dinner, Michael would cook, and they could finally put this insane vendetta behind them. (I maybe didn't say insane vendetta.)

Her father's face hardened. He would never trust a McBride. Jo tried in vain to protest that Michael was a Ross, his grandparents were the ones who were McBrides, and they were dead. It didn't make any sense to hold Michael at fault for the actions of his grandparents. And she was a Ross too, she had been for 18 years and that wasn't going to change. She chose Michael, she trusted him.

Bruce kept pushing: Jo thought she could trust her husband, did she? He was a McBride, he'd betray her in the end. Who would she trust, her father or Michael? How was the marriage, anyway? Jo, fighting far harder for Michael's request than she'd intended to, spurred on by anger at her father's disrespect for her entire adult life, said that between the man she'd been married to for 18 years and the father who'd refused to even meet her husband, she'd pick Michael to trust, thanks.

Taking a deep breath, Jo tried again. If he wouldn't go to Strathclyde on the island, then, for her, have Michael here at his house for dinner. Finally acknowledge her marriage, listen to whatever Michael had to say. Bruce turned her down flat, saying all the McBrides were the same, and he could tell her why. Frustrated, Jo said she didn't want to hear old family history, and she was done with her father. If he couldn't respect her choices, her life, then she was finished dealing with this. She collected Tyler and left.

Meanwhile, back on the island, Michael was pressing his brother Matthew on what their sister was planning. Matthew kept telling Michael that the easiest thing to do was just to let Diana have what she wanted. Just give her the financial info on the company! She'd back right off, and all this could go away. Michael was less than willing, partly because he'd been the only one to pour his time and energy into the company, but mostly because he'd been committing financial chicanery to hide the problems the company was having.

Matthew wanted a way to get Diana off his back, right? So why not just sign over the voting rights for his shares to Michael, just for now, and then Michael could make her back down. Matthew whined that Diana had made him promise not to, and Michael knew what she was like. Just give her what she wants, he repeated. Michael gave him the papers to sign, urged him to just go ahead, and he could keep on receiving the checks and not worrying about it, like always. Matthew looked tempted, but shook his head, obviously more scared of Diana than Michael.

Oh, Matthew added, I got that file you sent me, I just haven't had time to open it. Michael, who had opened his laptop on this island without wifi just to see his incriminating erased spreadsheet get sent to someone earlier in the morning, blanched. Don't worry about it, he told Matthew. He was going to go up on the roof to see what kind of work it might come. Matthew could come and help.

Back on the mainland, Lisette approached her mother's house, which was nicely maintained, with beautiful flowers. Lisette gathered a few for her mother, an old habit, before approaching the door. Her mother answered and happily gathered Lisette into her arms. Lisette was looking much better than the last time her mother had seen her, she was informed.

Lisette told her mother that she was here on the island because Miss Maudie had left her some money in her will, but she'd been surprised her mother wasn't on the island working. She'd been fired, her mother explained. Miss Maudie had grown increasingly erratic and was taking more medication than she should have been, so Lisette's mother had called her doctor, just once, to express concern. Dr. Skinner? Lisette asked, having seen the name scrawled in the back of Miss Maudie's notebook. No, her mother said, puzzled. But it had been the best day of her life, being fired. Now she was away from the island, which she said was growing increasingly evil.

And she worked for Bruce Stewart, Jo's father, now, and he paid twice what the McBrides ever had. She was doing well. But Lisette should stay in town, and not go back to the island. At all. Lisette's mother's voice grew more urgent as she spoke. Lisette looked around at the cozy little house, and said she wanted to stay, but she'd at least have to go back to get her stuff. Her mother suggested having Mr. Vankoughnett get her things for her, but Lisette demurred. She'd have to talk to Michael briefly, and get her suitcase, and then she'd come right back. She'd stay here after that.

On the island, Michael and Matthew walked on the roof, at the tallest part of the building. Michael bent to pull up a couple of shingles, to see what kind of damage there was. Matthew stood near the edge, looking across the water at the town. What a dump. He'd be glad to get out of here. Why were they looking at the roof anyway? To see if it could be fixed, Michael said with some ire. He asked once again about the papers.

Matthew gave the same answer he had downstairs, walking closer to the edge. Michael stared at him. As Matthew turned back, Michael lunged and hit Matthew across the midriff. Matthew teetered on the edge of the building for a moment, and Michael could have reached out to grab him, but he only watched as Matthew finally lost his balance and fell several stories to the ground.

Michael crept to the edge of the roof and stared down at his brother's body, crookedly lying on the ground. He climbed downstairs and went over to the body, and it was more than apparent that Matthew was quite dead.

He called 911, explaining that he was at Strathclyde, he was Michael Ross, Michael McBride Ross, and there'd been an accident. His brother had fallen off the roof and wasn't moving. The person on the other end asked a few questions, and reassured him that there'd be a boat along shortly with a paramedic. Michael hung up the phone and drank from a whiskey bottle. When he opened his eyes, there was a word scrawled on the wall across from Miss Maudie's chair that he hadn't seen before. It said MORE.

Later, the boat finally pulled up by the dock, and Perry Snider, a paramedic, came on shore. He looked over Matthew, and tried to do what he could, but it was obvious he was dead. He didn't seem to have any suspicions about the death, when Michael explained that they'd been up on the roof looking at the shingles, and he'd turned around, and Matthew was just...gone.

Back in town, Jo had dropped Tyler off in the small downtown before driving out of the ways. She stopped the car by the side of the road and got out of the car, leaning against the hood. She called Adam, the man with whom she'd been sleeping. He answered casually, asking how she was, and she wasn't quite sure how to answer. They talked easily for a while, and he told her to make an excuse and come back to the city. Jo was tempted, but temporized, saying there were a few more things she needed to sort out here.

Adam urged her not to always make things so difficult. She could just walk away, come to the city, the two of them could fly off to Europe or wherever she wanted. Jo paused for a long time, weighing her options. Perhaps it was having just so vehemently defended her husband to her father that made her finally say that she wasn't good at taking the easy way. Adam didn't sound hurt, but he did end the conversation quickly.

Jo headed back to the dock and rounded up her children, joining Lisette on the boat. Diana was nowhere to be seen. Jo was glad to hear that Lisette was planning on just picking up her things and going back to town afterwards. Lisette wasn't surprised. But when they got to the island, the emergency boat was just pulling away. Michael stood on the docks, looking white.

Michael sent the kids up to the house before telling Jo and Lisette about Matthew's death. It was perhaps notable how little grief either woman expressed, but Jo was worried about Michael, who looked haunted. She also thought she heard a whisper in her ear that Michael had killed Matthew, but shook her head, wondering where that thought came from. She told him to come and sit down and they'd talk. Lisette had a breath of air go past her ear, saying "he was pushed." Michael heard a whisper in his ear, telling him "they know."

Lisette offered to get her bags and go, but Michael reacted strongly. She needed to stay and with her part in the will, he'd need her support to stop Diana. He needed her there. Jo glared daggers at Lisette, but Lisette relented and agreed to stay.

Jo told Michael that he could worry about the company tomorrow, or in a couple of days. Tonight, she'd give him something to make him sleep, and he needed to eat - he was obviously in shock. Michael kept fixating on Diana not being there.

Lisette went into Miss Maudie's rooms to call her mother and let her know that she'd be staying. Her mother wasn't happy, but there wasn't much she could do. She started to tell Lisette something, urgently, but the line went dead. Lisette couldn't get back through, then in frustration, went through Miss Maudie's pill bottles, looking for more than what she'd taken the day before. All the bottles were empty.

As evening fell, Michael's phone buzzed, as a bunch of pictures started to come in - pictures of Tyler, looking scared and lost. The word MORE was superimposed on the picture.

Cut to black.

Character Thoughts:

It's interesting to me how apparent it is that the harder people push on Jo's marriage, try to get her to admit that there are problems, the more she digs in her heels and defends it. More than that, while she was just under pressure from life and busyness and responsibility and an absent husband, she was thinking of breaking up her marriage, but when that pressure is put on her marriage itself, she turned around and more or less recommitted to it - even if only in front of other people and in her own head.

She came to the island to try to see if there was anything left of her marriage to salvage, and while there hasn't been a real rekindling of the relationship, it hasn't felt a lot worse. And she's been surrounded by people asking solicitously if her marriage is really okay (Lisette), with all the attendant suggestion that it isn't, or by people straight out telling her her marriage was wrong from the beginning (her father), and in both cases, the reaction has been to shut the other person down and defend her husband and her life with all her might.

Of course, if she actually wanted to see if there's something to salvage of her marriage, she'd have to have an honest talk with her husband about it, and they haven't gotten there yet. Ah, characters who are not good with their emotions.

Also of interest to me is that I really have no idea how she'll react when she finds out her husband killed his own brother. I will be very interested to see. I think I may need to push on that, ask questions that that whisper may have sparked, push Michael on his attraction to Lisette - which may in turn get Jo pushed back on the fact that she's been cheating.

Bill tells us we have only one or two sessions left, depending on how hard we play next time, so we're scheduling the next sitting soon to keep up the momentum. I'm expecting the supernatural to get ramped up, and I look forward to the emotional conversations that will happen surrounded by spookiness and fear.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Amy.

For some reason, this is the second book in this series of reviews by Umberto Eco - apparently my friends are collectively convinced I need to read more of his books. I can't disagree - I've quite enjoyed all of his books that I've read. What's more, I found this one really funny. I mean, it wasn't a barrel-of-laughs-a-minute, but there were frequently bits that made me laugh out loud. Often enough that this will stick in my head as a very funny book.

Which is weird, because I'm not sure it would hit most people that way. It's fairly dense prose, and I think you have to know a certain amount of what he's writing about to get the parts that are amusing. Or maybe they would be funny to everyone, I might be underestimating people. I don't think I am, though.

What I kept telling people about this book when I was midway through it is that it reads like it's one of two possible results of having read a bunch of those Templar/Rosicrucian/Blood of Christ conspiracy theory books (like Holy Blood, Holy Grail) that were all the rage. One way to go would be completely unironically, a la Da Vinci Code, a treasure hunt with a material ending. The second way, the way of Umberto Eco here, would be with an extremely liberal dollop of irony, humour, and literary analysis.

In Foucault's Pendulum, the main character and his two friends work for a dodgy publishing house - one side self-publishes authors and pockets most of the money, the other puts out a few genuine publications, and is moving into the realm of the occult. The main character (whose name I don't remember!) did a very sober, scholarly thesis on The Templars, so as the book begins, he is called into his friend Belbo's office to go over a manuscript someone has submitted to the self-publisher.

It's a mishmash of conspiracy theories, all held together by duct tape and string. This leads to some delightful talk about truth and belief, and how people sometimes convince themselves that "able to be conceived of" is the same as "true."  If they can think of something that might have happened, that assumes the same force as it having happened.

Eventually, the main character and his two friends start to come up with their own Templar conspiracy theory in jest, bringing together disparate bits and pulling them together into something that sounds coherent but is really a big mess. And it was mostly through these sections that I kept finding funny bits - logical leaps that are breathtaking, stated plainly, and then people taking them as givens. Or the fake plan, the creators mimicking that, but almost falling into the fallacy as well.

It's a tour of all the weirdness in historical conspiracy theory, blown up to extreme proportions. I'd tried to read it years ago, but I was certainly much more ready to actually plow through it this time. And I'd read the last few pages before embarking, so I knew the ending, and that certainly helped, giving everything that happened a slightly different feel.

Friday, 22 September 2017

By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear

When I first read All the Windwracked Stars, I liked it quite a lot, but I never felt quite like I entirely understood the world or what was going on. In that book, Elizabeth Bear throws you in at the deep end, and I was always working to try to put together how the world had gotten to the place it was, and what the intense backstory of the characters was.

Reading By the Mountain Bound first would have helped a lot. I know it was written later, but I feel like I have a much stronger footing in the basic assumptions underlying this world, and would be able to see how it had changed between this time and the much later All the Windwracked Stars.

In this much earlier story, the new world created after what was probably our world fell in Ragnarok, humans live brief flickers of lives while the waelcyrge and einherjar live longer ones, avenging wrongful deaths and creating a society in their own holds, mostly apart from the humans around them. They are led by Strifbjorn, an unmarried einherjar who knows he should wed to help maintain the numbers of his people, but has secrets holding him back.

Then a woman washes up on shore, seemingly human, but also more. Not one of them, but perhaps a manifestation of the Lady they were waiting for to lead them. Definitely with some powers at her disposal, different from the arts of the waelcyrge and einherjar. She prepares them for a coming war, and in the process, starts to change who they are and what is permitted them. Some embrace the new license, others are repulsed.

This story is told through three characters, two of them in first person, one in third. Strifbjorn's sections are told in third person, so we get to know him, but not too close, nowhere near as close as we get to the smallest waelcyrge, Muire, a historian and smith, in love with Strifbjorn, but not blindly so. Or to Mingan, the chained wolf, the Suneater, Strifbjorn's lover and love, who is not quite anything entirely, apart and hurting, causing hurt and taking it in.

The smaller scale emotional upheavals take place as these people try to find or maintain their honour, their places, their homes, and their sense of self in a world that increasingly is upending any stable ground under their feet. These three and the waelcyrge and einherjar who surround them fight, plot, collaborate, are suspicious or jubilant, unleashed or are grimly sure they need to keep their powers under control.

The relationship of these mythological figures to humans comes in to the story as well, as the waelcyrge and einherjar live apart from the human settlements, but venture in, as figures of legend, of vengeance, and, once Heythe, the ostensible Lady enters the scene, of fear. When is it permissible to take a life? What is vengeance and what is revenge? When one is hurt, how much hurt can one impose on others? Is it somehow better if it is done dispassionately, or from a lust for power?

Bear is going for as complicated and deep hurting issues as ever, which is one of the main reasons I love her books (although Karen Memory, of late, was a delightful diversion into lighter territory, and I am fond of both modes). Few authors go this deep, think this hard, and create characters to whom these issues are not abstract concerns, but the pressing matter of their lives.