Curious where a writer’s ideas come from? It’s really not all that mysterious. Ideas come from stories—movies, TV shows, and, of course, books. This post meanders through what I read last year, and explores how it impacted my writing. I enjoy looking back at the start of each year as a way for me to reflect on my work over the previous year. While this time I’m looking at what I’ve read, in my next post I plan to review my writing.
Trollpak, pub. Chaosium. December 2020–January 2021.
I picked up a number of Chaosium’s new RuneQuest Classic reprints toward the end of 2020, and chip away at the stack now and again. These publications are heavily praised as innovative, revolutionary, even perfect—they receive so much lauding, that I can’t help but assume some of it is hyperbole. So, I wanted to read these works for myself.
Trollpak is very good. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the detailed fictional history, “styganthropology,” setting, and scenarios in this book. For my RuneQuest work, I feel this book was especially valuable because it’s the first example I’ve really read of multiple “longform” cults for RuneQuest.
One of my basic philosophies about RPG publications is that some books are “armchair” books, and others are “tabletop” books. Trollpak straddles that line admirably, with the adventures well designed for table use, and well-written setting suitable for reading from the armchair. If you’re a modern RuneQuest gamemaster, Trollpak is worth purchasing and reading. I imagine any new troll material from Chaosium remains far in the future, and will be largely derivative of this piece from the 80’s—so why not grab it and read it now?
Mahabharata, retold by Carole Satyamurti. january.
I discovered this rendition of the Indian epic Mahabharata (roughly, “The Great War of the Bharatas”) courtesy of Andrew Logan Montgomery, of Six Seasons in Sartar infamy. Hailed as the “Indian Iliad,” the Mahabharata is one of the longest works of classical literature. Satyamurti’s rendition in English verse is meant to be neither an abridgement nor a translation, but rather a retelling of Mahabharata‘s key themes, stories, and characters.
It is spectacular. This is probably my favorite book I read in 2021. Cut down to “merely” 900 or so pages, Satyamurti’s Mahabharata is a masterpiece of moral sentiment combined with magical action. Written in a glistening, easy-flowing verse, this volume glued itself to my imagination. What really gripped me about the Mahabharata, I think, is the ethical and familial dimensions of the work. The characters are largely related to one another, and these bonds tear them apart emotionally. On another layer, horrific choices are made, with the terrors of war exposed on the page. The internal drama of the Mahabharata‘s characters is reflected in the greater theological drama of the work as a theodicy—a discussion of the Problem of Evil.
The one stumbling block for Western audiences with Satyamurti’s retelling will probably be names. There’s a lot of names, and the vast majority will be unfamiliar to English readers. Despite that, if the work sounds even remotely interesting I’d strongly recommend Satyamurti’s Mahabharata.
Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, by Luka Rejec. January.
I bought this book pretty much on the strength of its cover art, in combination with the basic pitch: tabletop psychedelic Oregon Trail. The book’s a bit odd, because it attempts to present the mechanical elements as systemless D20—and therefore useful for players of D&D 5E—but in practice, I feel Rejec really preferred that Ultraviolet Grasslands utilize his own SEACAT system. I can’t recall the specifics, but SEACAT felt basically like a slimmed down, not-quite-minimalist version of the basic engine behind D&D 5E.
Likewise, this not-quite-minimalist tendency remained throughout the book’s sandbox. I found it worked, because it was intentional. A lot of thought went into keeping story cues, hooks, rumors, and so on fairly terse, but neither bland nor generic. In hindsight I should probably re-read this book and study its prose approach more closely, because I tend to overwrite my work. Rejec does a very good job giving just barely what feels necessary. I feel I could run a fairly-improvised game at the table using his book and occasional reference to the D&D 5E core rules.
One element I really liked about the travelogue structure behind the campaign sandbox is that it measures the Grasslands in time traveled, not distance covered. This felt simultaneously revelatory and obvious when I read it. After all, when we’re playing an RPG we don’t really care about how far the players have traveled—we care about how long it took, and what happened on the road. Ultraviolet Grasslands focuses on telling exactly that story.
Fantasies of Life and Death, by Anna Vaninskaya. january–February.
This work of literary criticism discusses themes of life and death in the works of three fantasy authors in the 20th century: Lord Dunsany (The King of Elfland’s Daughter), E. R. Eddison (The Worm Ouroboros), and J.R.R. Tolkien (surely you know him, yeah?). What really grabbed my attention about this collection was its chapter devoted to Eddison. Eddison is my favorite fantasist, but he’s not that well-known. I’ve not discovered much criticism devoted to his work.
I remember enjoying Vaninskaya’s essays on Dunsany and Tolkien, but her work on Eddison was, for me, a delight. I found her interpretation and exploration of Eddison’s themes in his less-famous Zimiamvia Trilogy (The Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and the unfinished The Mezentian Gate) absolutely fascinating. I also enjoyed them because I felt Vaninskaya avoided navel-gazing. To my reading, she explored themes which really are in Eddison, rather than trying to make up ideas to fill pages.
The Middle Sea Empire, by Greg Stafford et al. January–February.
This was, I believe, the first of the Stafford Library titles—a collection of background books about Glorantha—which I’ve read cover-to-cover. I tend to be a heretic in my opinions about Stafford’s writing, because I find his work to have interesting ideas, but generally a poor prose quality. I’ve found this to be the case since reading King of Sartar several years ago, and The Middle Sea Empire has not disabused me of that opinion.
The Middle Sea Empire is about the empire created by human-centric wizards, which conquered much of the coastal lands of Glorantha during the fantasy world’s Second Age, about 700 years before the current game is set. I wasn’t reading this strictly for pleasure; while I hoped to enjoy it, I also sought to mine ideas from it for my sequel to Treasures of Glorantha, which will be themed about relics from the Second Age, which have survived into the game’s present day. I also have been using it, in conjunction with The Guide to Glorantha, to chip away at an outline of Second Age events. I hope to include a lore article summarizing that period’s history in the supplement, although it may instead be an article which focuses on important historical figures. I find that when I dig deep enough, I can spin up imagined stories about the briefly described characters which engage me more than “there was a big magical battle, then lots of people died. There was a big magical event, which is mysterious and I won’t explain it.”
As an aside, I find it interesting that the magical war against Zistor, the Machine God, hasn’t been presented as more significant in present “canon,” or in the Guide. Everything I read of the event sounds fascinating, and its heroes feel as though they ought to be genuinely important to the modern cultures of Glorantha. But little seems to have been done to explore how the Steelfall story impacts modern day.
The Organization of Ancient Economies: A Global Perspective, by Kenneth Hirth. February.
Okay, so the title of this book sounds pretty dry, but I actually found it really interesting. What made this book “click” for me is that it’s written by a specialist, using fields outside his specialty. Consequently, Hirth’s arguments and discussion felt comprehensible to me because they didn’t lean as heavily upon academic jargon as some similar works. At its core, Hirth’s book is attempting to compare disparate civilizations not contemporary with one another—such as the Aztecs, the ancient Greeks, and medieval Europeans—in search of similarities about daily life in pre-industrial societies.
This was, of course, in large part a research read for me, because I write about fictional ancient cultures. I found the book’s premise engaging in its own right though, because it covers such a wide scope of experiences. In large part I read this hoping to dig around for some ideas for Sylthi, my Esrolia project on the Jonstown Compendium. One of my goals when worldbuilding for Glorantha is to avoid drawing from only one or two terrestrial cultures. I feel this is lazy, almost sloppy, and increasingly likely to result in chauvinistic fantasy. While I’m not sure I succeed at it, my ambition is to throw large quantities of material into my brain, and then turn on the blender button and see what happens. Works like Hirth’s which cover an ambitious scope are excellent for this.
In particular, short anecdotes or asides in a book like this are great for generating story ideas. Most often, I find the little details are useful, not the big-picture sketching.
The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams. February.
This book introduces several core principles of graphic design, and I feel it has been invaluable. Williams’s work has earned her a well-deserved reputation for easily comprehensible, newbie-friendly advice. I’m in no way, shape, or form a graphic design expert, but I feel that reading Williams’s book really helped improve my publications. She discusses a lot of basic ideas—like font and alignment—which you don’t realize until someone describes them. And then you see them everywhere!
Very much worth reading.
REpublic, by Plato. Trans. Grube & Reeve. February–March.
Every few years, I like to return to Plato. My academic background is in philosophy, and Plato’s works in general are something of a keystone for my mind and heart; a similar place is reserved for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and and a few other works. Usually I turn to the Republic because it’s less unwieldy than my hardcover anthology of Plato’s corpus.
An added benefit is that my now-battered Republic softcover has years of margin notes. Re-reading this specific copy feels like having a conversation with myself. I often find new ways to think about the text, and to think about how I used to think about the text. The book has slowly become, in a sense, a personal relic.
I think what really fascinates me about Plato is that I believe he is a tricky bastard. There’s this tendency to assume everything the character of Socrates says in Plato’s works is Plato’s thoughts, and I’m not convinced that’s true. Plato used real people to have fake conversations, and his readers knew the real persons portrayed. I tend to believe there’s more at play—especially in the “early” Plato—than the surface indicates. These books are a fascinating ethical and metaphysical puzzle to unravel, and I think that’s why Plato’s philosophy is timeless in a way the works of many philosophers, is not.
Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark & Delia Owens. February–March.
The first of three anthologized naturalist memoirs, Cry of the Kalahari caught my interest because Mark and Delia’s story attempts to describe a part of the natural world unfamiliar with humans. Set in, if memory serves, the 1970’s, it captures a picture of the world now pretty much gone. I found the book interesting, but not engaging enough to keep me reading into the other memoirs in the anthology. I think the challenge was that the memoir was structured as though reading a novel, but just sort of… ends. While this is true-to-life, it also made for an unsatisfying reading experience.
I enjoyed the prose itself, though. It was an enjoyable read, just not a style which made me want to read three books in a row.
Myth and Reality, by Mircea Eliade, Trans Willard R. Trask. March.
I discovered Mircea Eliade through reading and discussing Glorantha with some of the world’s older writers and developers. Eliade’s work was quite influential in the fantasy setting’s development—in a similar way to the more famous Joseph Campbell—giving a basic understanding to how its cultures experience religious reality and physical reality simultaneously.
Myth and Reality is one of Eliade’s shorter works (which is why I started there). As I recall, it’s basically a long essay summarizing how he perceives myths providing social, political, and religious structure for ancient and pre-industrial societies. I found it interesting, and added Eliade’s work to my “ought-to-read” list.
The Art of Love, by Ovid, trans. James Michie. March.
This has been unread on my shelf for a while, because I remembered enjoying Ovid quite a bit in college (in particular, his Metamorphoses). I grabbed the piece in particular because I was looking for something lighthearted. Okay, so a Roman pick-up manual might not exactly be a laugh-out-loud family comedy, but I felt it could be entertaining as well as informative of an ancient culture’s self-perception. In general, that was accurate.
This was short enough that I may be able to return to it for inspiration when writing stories set in ancient cultures. I don’t exactly want to just do “Hey, here’s Roman customs,” but rather to think about how Roman men and women perceived one another. This type of reading helps give me a starting point to bounce off with into fictional culture.
The Mabinogion, trans. Sioned Davies. March–April.
The Mabinogion is a collection of traditional Celtic tales, with loose connections to the Welsh version of the King Arthur stories. As someone who much enjoys King Arthur legendarium, I had looked forward to reading this collection. Ultimately, though, I found it disappointing and murky. I think I struggled because I found events happened to the characters, rather than characters making choices. Honestly I don’t remember much from reading this book, except for a feeling of general disappointment—similar to how I struggled through The Arabian Nights last year.
Beowulf, trans. Edwin Morgan. March–April.
I can’t recall the specific reason I re-read Beowulf this year—there’s usually a reason when I re-read classic literature—but I will note that it’s a piece I find consistently pleasurable. I think what appeals to me about Beowulf, which was lacking in the Mabinogion, is that persistent sense of doom, that same tone which is prominent throughout almost all Tolkien’s work. The story is about life and heroism, but it’s also about death, loss, and sorrow.
As an aside, this is one of the themes which struck me most strongly when I first read the Iliad; the epic ends with a lament for Hector, the nominal antagonist. The great poem praising the forefathers of Classical Greece mourns both sides of the Trojan War. Homer feels torn between war as an opportunity for glory and immortality, and also as a senseless, bloody game played by kings.
Wurm: Roleplaying in the Ice Age, by Emmanuel Roudier, trans. Calmejane & Pieroban. April.
This RPG caught my eye because of its setting in the world of Neolithic Man. Well-researched and well-illustrated, I enjoyed how this book presents itself as viable for a strictly-historical game, or instead one with fantastical elements of spirits, magical creatures, and ancient monsters. A huge bonus is that the book includes multiple adventures to get the gamemaster started.
For me, this was an “armchair book,” but I think Wurm is perfectly useful as a “tabletop book.” As the core rules for any game ought to be!
The Ancient City, by Peter Connolly & Hazel Dodge. April.
This book is really more like two books in one—a book describing Athens, and a book describing Rome. Both sections were informative and interesting, with illustrations recreating the past, as well as photographs of artifacts from the period. One element I especially liked was the focus on daily life, and how each section had a chapter describing a person’s life through birth, infancy, adolescence, and so on, including the social rituals and roles expected of someone living in the city.
This was a research read for my Sylthi project, and a useful one. In particular, I plan to revisit the Athens section when I get to return to Sylthi and really dig my teeth into the work. Books like this are rife with both detail, and also story ideas. It’s an important principle to me, in my game writing, that the nerdy setting detail I find so interesting is explicitly presented so that a gamemaster can turn it into fodder for stories. I really do think that the mundanity of ancient life can be used in fantasy to create lively and interesting adventures for players to explore, and I hope in the future to demonstrate this.
Aeschylus I, trans. Bernardete & Grene. from The Complete Greek Tragedies series, 3rd ed. April.
Aeschylus has been on my read-list, like Ovid, pretty much since college. My curiosity about Aeschylus is tied into my general interest and laymen’s curiosity about ancient Greece generally. This is because Aeschylus was considered the greatest of the Classical playwrights by the immediate generations after him—including Plato and Aristotle—but the plays of his successors, Sophocles and Euripides, were much more beloved by pretty much everyone else, ever since.
This collection included The Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, and The Persians. I enjoyed these a lot, but in much the same sense that I enjoy Beowulf or The Iliad. I feel that I would struggle with these stories told just as-is on a stage, but that their language and tone was powerful when slowly digested in my head. It makes sense to me that the more lively plays of Euripides—or especially the comedian Aristophanes—have had more traction in both the ancient and modern world.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. April–June.
So, this was definitely the most challenging book I’ve read in the last year. Pretty much tossed my way on a dare from one of my friends, this complex piece interlaces topics of biology, computer science, and formal logic to present the author’s not-a-theory about how human intelligence reduced to material causes may be possible. (I say “not-a-theory” because I feel Hofstadter consciously drifts into the “what if?” category through his multidisciplinary parallels—he’s not really making an argument, but exploring an interesting hypothesis.)
I found this book really interesting. It really helped that I’ve had some education in formal logic during college, and that I discovered I remembered much of my high school biology, especially about DNA and genetics. I won’t claim that I followed the book perfectly, but I found the dexterity with which Hofstadter shifts between topics and carefully describes the analogues between multiple fields entrancing. I never imagined that a book with such a massive scope and detailed exploration could also be so incredibly readable. The book may well be twice the length it needed to be for strictly describing the author’s ideas, but it would be many times more challenging if he were forbidden the space to meander.
Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. gwynne. April–May.
I remember that this book about the Comanche “empire” in modern Texas, and much of southwest America, ultimately disappointed me. I was hoping for something a bit historical, a bit anthropological, and I ended up with a rough biography of the last Comanche chief. The son of a kidnapped white settler, Quanah Parker was a warrior, who later led his people through the early trials of reservation life. His story was interesting, but I don’t feel that I learned much about the way of Comanche life, their oral history, their beliefs and their civilization. Considering that laundry list of the latter was my hope, I didn’t find much pleasure from this book.
The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu. May.
This is the first new (well, new to me) fantasy book I’d read in a while. What caught my attention was the book’s scope, along with the critical praise it received. And I must say, it lived up to my hopes. Set in a mélange of fantasy East Asian and Polynesian cultures, The Grace of Kings tells a broad story inspired by the rise of the Han dynasty. Focusing on two men who transition from friends to enemies, this first volume of the Dandelion Dynasty covers a story which, really, could have easily been a trilogy—or even longer.
This approach has both strengths and weaknesses. The plot moves very quickly, covering decades in a pagecount usually reserved to months or weeks. Liu makes adept use of summarization to avoid getting bogged down in minutia; yet at times I felt myself wanting to slog through the characters’ lives. The great tragedy of this book, the falling-out between two friends struggling for political rule, is weakened because it happens too quickly. As a reader, I felt less tortured by the characters emotions, drama, and anguish because of the story’s pace. But at the same time, that rapid pace is what made the book feel exciting, what kept me turning the page.
It’s an interesting thing, writing fiction. There aren’t really any hard-and-fast rules. If you like fantasy, The Grace of Kings is definitely worth checking out.
Citizens of the Lunar Empire, by Chris Gidlow. May.
The companion volume to A Rough Guide to Glamour, this book feels designed to take the background information of the former, and help gamemasters play actual games of RuneQuest in the city. For me, this is a book which struggles to straddle my line between “armchair” and “tabletop.” Ultimately, I feel it is a fairly good armchair book, but that it really wanted to be a tabletop book.
The book was fun to read, because there’s a lot of detail about daily life in a fantasy Roman empire, and because the characters are generally entertaining. These strengths are, in my opinion, weaknesses for actually opening the book and playing out of it at the table. For that sort of use, the characters and locations are overwritten—I feel the author loves his creation too much (a malady I’m familiar with myself!). In contrast, many of the adventure seeds are underwritten. I still recall that there was one or two along the lines of “A mystery happens!” which doesn’t really help the gamemaster actually devise a mystery.
I’d recommend this to basically anyone who liked the Rough Guide, but I don’t feel Citizens lives up to its potential. There’s still a good bit of work to be done, in my opinion, if a gamemaster wants to play their own game of RuneQuest set in the Lunar Empire.
Menagerie Press Adventures. May.
A call for adventures went out around this time of the year from a D&D 5E publisher I like, Menagerie Press, so I went back and re-read some of their work on my shelves, before submitting the pitch which ultimately became The Tomb of Palu (which is available in Print on Demand now, by the way).
The Black Lotus of Thalarion sends adventurers into the Dreamlands seeking a magical flower for a mystic’s tea. I enjoyed reading through this, and it felt like, for the most part, the story held together pretty well. It’s something I’m interested in running sometime.
The Dream Prison has a cool concept—saving a princess from a prison of nightmares—but I remember feeling less thrilled about this adventure’s execution. I can’t recall the specifics, but I think I remember feeling that the political landscape behind the adventure could have been fleshed out more, to help spark future stories out of a single product.
Adul, City of Gold is a big old-school dungeon crawl roaming through a shattered city lost in the elemental planes. What I really liked about this adventure is that it puts the players on a clock, giving them limited time and resources to explore the lost city before they get trapped in its pocket dimension forever.
For me, reading Menagerie Press’s adventures—and ultimately, writing one for them—has been productive because it really forces me to trim down my writing, slim down my work, and give the gamemaster a minimum of what’s necessary on the page. This is not one of my strengths, but it’s definitely a skill I need to practice further. I have a long way to go.
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, by Mircea Eliade, trans. Willard R. Trask. June.
Shamanism is the primary book by Eliade I’ve been recommended from Glorantha circles. In particular, I was interested to read it because I didn’t feel I understand how Glorantha’s fictional perspectives of animism and shamanism are integrated into the rest of the fantasy world. While I still wouldn’t say I have a grasp on the perspective—and, to be entirely honest, I feel that the fiction leans a bit too heavily on terrestrial religion, bordering on cultural appropriation—I felt Eliade’s book was definitely helpful.
This work is long, and detailed. I’ve learned over the years that the best way for me to introduce myself to an unfamiliar topic, like shamanism, is not to tackle it head-on by reading full texts. This is the approach which unlocked Classical Greece for me after college, and I feel it was broadly effective in tackling Eliade. I don’t find I’m trying to learn such a book’s material, but that I’m trying to complete it—and that future returns give me the opportunity to seek broader and more detailed understanding.
I feel this book was helpful to me because it explores the commonalities between a variety of Earth’s ancient religious traditions, with an emphasis on those oral traditions which remained extant to European chroniclers (especially in Siberia and central Asia). Since reading it, I’ve browsed the book as a way of sparking ideas, waiting for sections, paragraphs, or verbal “images” to leap off the page at me. Lots of story ideas emerge from the different traditions. While I wouldn’t recommend this for casual reading, if you find ancient cultures/religions interesting, this book is worth considering.
North Korea Journal, by Michael Palin. June.
I spent a few weeks on vacation in June this last year, and got a lot of reading done at that time. As a big fan of Monty Python, this book about Michael Palin’s trip into North Korea intrigued me. I know Palin primarily as a comedian, but am aware of his post-Python travelogues, histories, and so forth.
Overall, the book was pleasant, but not as “hearty” as I had hoped. Nor, I think, as Palin hoped either. An interesting tension was that Palin wanted to encounter “normal” North Korea. Of course, the North Koreans weren’t interested in letting Palin wander unsupervised. From his account it seemed that the “guides” didn’t merely wish to avoid showing the DPRK’s warts to the Western world. Rather, they didn’t understand his core goal, the key concept of learning about “everyday life.”
While a fairly simple book, I found the North Korea Journal did a good job illuminating points of cultural contrast, without demonizing the people of the DPRK.
The Coming Storm & The Eleven Lights, pub. Chaosium. June.
These two books together form the Red Cow Campaign, an RPG campaign set in Glorantha, and written for Chaosium’s Questworlds (formerly HeroQuest) game system. I was interested in these books for two reasons: first, I wanted to learn more about how the HeroQuest game system had presented Glorantha, and second I had been told that these books did an excellent job describing the world in a small scale, detailed but accessible.
In general, I found the community acclaim for the books held up. This campaign covers a period of several years, following the life and struggles of the Red Cow clan while Sartar is occupied by the Lunar Empire. The first book, The Coming Storm, felt to me very much like an “armchair” book, while its sequel, The Eleven Lights is very much a “tabletop” book. The campaign leans heavily on the game system’s narrative and “rule-lite” approach to RPGs, and I feel this is a strength. Many adventures or scenarios are summarized in outline across a handful of pages, letting the gamemaster have a lot of game-relevant material available when the book is open. Generic episodes are combined with adventures driving an ongoing plot, giving the gamemaster a lot of easy-to-use tools for running the game.
The “main attraction” to this two-book campaign is the title heroquest, “The Eleven Lights.” This major adventure sees the players descend into the Underworld, and then ascend high into the Sky World, to retrieve the souls of Star Gods and help break the Great Winter. I felt that this heroquest was generally handled well. It straddled the armchair/tabletop divide well, being interesting to read through, but I could see myself running the adventure with minimal prep.
As an aside: one of my basic metrics when thinking about adventures, or “tabletop” sourcebooks for RPGs, is if I feel I could play the material in a game after reading it only once. I tend to think the gamemaster should not require further preparation when using published materials.
My only disappointment was that the last few years of the campaign felt, to me, undeveloped. The book presents this as an intentional choice—because the events of the campaign after the Eleven Lights should be much more player-driven than the book can support—but I still couldn’t help wishing there was more support and plot to peruse.
Overall, really solid campaign. I honestly think it should set the standard for whatever Chaosium does with forthcoming RuneQuest long adventures/campaigns. Thus far I’ve been impressed by the shorter adventures published for RuneQuest (like “The Pairing Stones”), but I haven’t yet felt especially enthusiastic about those of greater length (like “The Smoking Ruin”).
Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert, trans. John Raffan. June–July.
This was a re-read, for research purposes. As I recall, this was the standard text on Greek religion used by the Classics department at my college (although I never ended up taking that course). It was worth re-reading because the book provides a rather detailed description of religion in the Classical period, with a few speculative notes on the Mycenaean, and on the Hellenistic Greeks as well. I wouldn’t recommend this to the general reader, as it’s fairly dense.
The main idea-spark I seized this time was the notion of polis religion (or city religion); the idea that the religion of a city-state shouldn’t be looked at as individual cults worshiping individual gods, but rather as a coherent polytheistic unity. This notion, as I think about it, isn’t exactly parallel to the idea of a pantheon, because a city might choose not to venerate entities which it still acknowledges as among their culture’s gods and goddesses (more often minor heroes than great Olympians). Searching for ideas to work with in my Sylthi project, I find this notion of “city religion” immensely appealing. It led to some fruitful exploration, which I need to get back into developing further. I’m hoping to spend some time talking about how I imagine Sylthi, and her socio-religious life, in my yearly wrap-up blog.
I’m hoping whatever I end up with will feel familiar to fans of Glorantha, but remain distinct from the “top-down” pictures of the setting presented by Chaosium. I want to riff on the setting, creating and exploring my own variations on its myths and cultures.
The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu. June–July.
The sequel to The Grace of Kings remains very good. I don’t think there’s much I can say about it without spoiling one or both of the books. I admire Liu’s focus on telling the story of a dynasty, not an individual. This book’s strengths, and flaws, are similar to those of the first novel.
The Babylonian World, ed. Gwendolyn Lieck. July–September.
One of the advantages of living in a college town is my community card to its academic library. Once or twice a year, I typically drop by, grab some more detailed or difficult works, and spend some months muddling my way through. Again, I find the best way I absorb new material is by absorption, sort of wallowing in a long complicated text for a while until it seeps in.
This book was a collection of academic essays, about various topics involving ancient Babylon. I think I would have struggled a lot to read specific articles, but that total immersion was a helpful way to process the information. This was, yet again, aimed at researching ideas for Sylthi. It’s important to me that I don’t read material wholly about one culture or another. If I’m not conscious of my habits, Sylthi will end up being basically just another Greek city-state; I want my Esrolians to be more than “pseudo-Minoans.” In general I found this book really interesting, and I think it would be a great addition to my reference shelf. I wouldn’t recommend it to the general reader, but it’s directed at a student audience, not specialists, so the book’s fairly accessible.
Something I really appreciated about this work was the variety of perspectives it attempts. The book explores life inside and outside ancient Mesopotamian cities, wandering from landscape, to how plow technologies impact social reform, to who wrote, and why. Again, this is the type of book which I read, and find myself discovering lots of little story kernels.
Reading and Writing in Babylon, by Dominique Charpin. July–August.
Another library title. What caught my attention about Charpin’s book is that it aims to describe how writing may have been spread beyond a restrictive aristocratic (or theocratic) elite. While I didn’t quite find myself wholly buying into Charpin’s argument for more widespread literacy than commonly assumed of the period, I write fantasy. I don’t need to be historically accurate, so long as my work is internally consistent.
Taken from that first step, the book was a very enjoyable brain-spinner, encouraging me to think about what writing and literature can look like in my own work on a fictional ancient world.
Crypt of the Mellified Mage, pub. Free League. August.
A collection of four short adventures, this book was written for one of those games on my “some day” shelf: Forbidden Lands. Built on Free League’s popular “Year Zero Engine” game system, Forbidden Lands has held my interest since its first Kickstarter because of how the game integrates fairly simple mechanics, survivalist themes, and a campaign all about exploring a big ol’ map.
As an aside, I originally wrote The Throat of Winter for Forbidden Lands, the winter that game came out! That was just a fun side project for me at the time, though it reflects how enthusiastic I felt about trying the game system. I’ve also run a few Forbidden Lands adventure sites in RuneQuest, including “The Spire of Quetzel” and this book’s title track, “Crypt of the Mellified Mage.”
One thing I really like about Free League’s adventure style with this game is its concept of “adventure sites.” Sometimes these are settlements, sometimes they’re dungeons, and sometimes they’re a mixture. In general, though, most adventures they publish feel both playable and flexible. They can be approached in a variety of ways, following a variety of gamemaster styles, but my experience is that I can still read the adventure, and then feel competent to play the adventure. That’s a hard target to achieve.
Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, by Dianne Wolkenstein & Samuel Kramer. August.
A retelling of the myths of Inanna in English verse, this book sort of straddles the line between strict translation and inspired verses. It’s similar to one of my favorite works, Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, although my experience of Wolkenstein’s Inanna wasn’t quite as profound.
I really liked how the book tried to organize separate stories into a rough “cycle,” despite the sources varied chronological and geographical origins. The false continuity made it stronger as a piece of English-language art. Overall, I felt these poems were an enjoyable and engaging introduction to the ancient goddess’s stories.
Imperial China, pub. DK Publishing. august–September.
I picked up this book on impulse at a local bookstore, because it looked like a useful source of reference images when writing art direction for my Jonstown Compendium books. I ended up reading through it to familiarize myself with the volume. Not a brilliant read, but not bad either. It really needs some quality maps to follow the history. Quite a variety of artifact photography, though. It serves the purpose I purchased it for.
olde School Wizardry, by Jarrett Perdue & Joshua Zusmer. September.
An RPG I backed on Kickstarter, Olde School Wizardry is entirely about playing wizards. The game feels largely comedic—with schools of arcane expertise such as “Hedgehog Wizardry” and “Cheesemancy”—but seems to have some pretty dangerous combat rules. The whole function of the game is to force players to think outside the box, using bad spells to get out of trouble. The game’s setting feels vaguely Discworld-esque, with a useless wizardly bureaucracy, and frequent incompetence. I also liked that the book has a plethora of sample adventures to start with.
If you’re interested in something a bit out-of-the-ordinary, I’d recommend checking this game out. Irritatingly, it’s not available on DriveThruRPG, but you can get it over on Lulu.com.
Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. September–October.
I’ve not read much of the great Russian classical literature, so when a friend offered me a space copy of this book, I added it to my reading stack. I tend to enjoy works from this period (late 1800’s into the early 1900’s), how lush and verbose they grow. I enjoyed this one less, I think because the verbosity is in the characters, the dialogue, the way they ramble endlessly at one another.
I will note that Dostoevsky’s characters really stuck in my mind; I can see why he’s accounted a great novelist. When I was working on To Hunt a God‘s NPCs, I struggled a lot to move away from just riffing on Dostoevsky’s archetypes in Demons.
The Islands of Sina Una, pub. Seersword. September.
This is the only book I started this year, and didn’t finish. Which is a shame, because it’s a work I was anticipating. The Islands of Sina Una is a setting for D&D 5E which builds upon Polynesian and Phillipine mythology, written by creators of Filipino heritage. It is spectacularly illustrated, outdoing pretty much anything I’ve read lately in RPGs (such as Mythic Odysseys of Theros from Wizards of the Coast, or RuneQuest Starter Set from Chaosium). There’s such a vibrancy and life in the artwork, I sincerely wish I could fall in love with the text.
I think, ultimately, the flaw is that the authors love their material too much. To echo a criticism of my own work I received from a friend, the people of the Islands are too nice. I found it hard to believe in them. There needed to be more hardship, more turmoil, more reasons for adventure. The background was well-written, but when it came to describe each island and its culture, the book seemed reluctant to say that life was ever difficult, or that people ever came into conflict with one another.
I’m happy to have Sina Una on my bookshelf, but I’m not sure I’ll ever really find a way to use it in a game. It’s a good artbook, though, and I may be able to nibble at ideas here and there about culture and mythology.
Cups of Clearwine, pub. Beer With Teeth. October.
The follow-up to BWT’s popular Dregs of Clearwine, this book explores the “middle class” of Clearwine Fort. I really loved this book. For me, it straddles that tabletop/armchair line well, with interesting characters to read about—and engaging sidebars providing setting details to integrate in daily life—but the information remains woven tightly together with suggested plot hooks. I especially enjoyed the short adventure at the end. Despite its brevity, the story feels unique and engaging, as well as easy to run at the table.
JOhn Carter of Mars: the First Five Novels, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. October–Ongoing.
I’ve never read Burroughs’s work before, but I generally like early 20th century fantasy and science-fiction, so I’d been looking forward to this anthology for a while. During 2021 I read the first three novels, leaving the fourth and fifth—about John Carter’s children—aside for later.
John Carter’s adventures feel, to me, like a masculine equivalent of “Harlequin romance.” They’re broad swashbuckling stories about a near-invincible hero who fights baddies, tackles despair, and rescues the beautiful princess. One element which consistently pleased me was the moral black-and-white nature of the story; the heroes consistently remain goodhearted and heroic, while the villains are dastardly. His female characters are pretty thoroughly damsels in distress without much character, but the stories are lively and exciting escapism. I won’t pretend these are “high literature,” but I’ve really enjoyed the books. A fun and relaxing diversion from the denser stuff I read.
RuneQuest Starter Set, pub. Chaosium. November.
The first official RuneQuest release in nearly a year—the previous, The Red Book of Magic, came out in December 2020—is a starter set aimed at both new and established RuneQuest players. I’ve been wanting to write a full “First Impressions” blog about it—as well as December’s Arms & Equipment book from Chaosium—but I haven’t gotten around to playing the “soloquest” in the boxed set.
In general, the Starter Set has made a strong impression on me. I think book two’s introduction to Glorantha is probably the strongest summary essay I’ve yet read about the world, and the three adventures provide a variety of gameplay. I feel that the second part of book two, describing the city of Jonstown, was a bit dusty and stodgy; too focused on what is described in archaeology as “material culture,” and without enough focus on cool things for players to do in town. The adventures are generally good, worth the price tag alone for established players.
The third adventure, “The Rainbow Mounds,” is a rehash of an adventure from the 80’s. I think I would have preferred a third new adventure (although the dungeon-crawl was a good choice). Sort of like the use of Apple Lane in the Gamemaster Screen Pack, I feel that for younger players like myself, there’s an over-reliance upon nostalgia for past characters and locations. “The Rainbow Mounds” is still solid, but I would have enjoyed something more fresh.
I’ll take a paragraph here to note that I haven’t thoroughly read Arms & Equipment, but my long-ish skim was really, really impressed. The book touts itself as a “rules expansion,” and with crafting rules, estate management, and more detailed descriptions of training or other services for adventurers, I think the book succeeds. Better art and more useful content than The Red Book of Magic makes A&E really useful for me as a gamemaster. I’m looking forward to getting a hardcover in a few months.
Griffin Mountain, pub. Chaosium. November–December.
I read Griffin Mountain for similar reasons to reading Trollpak at the start of the year. It’s a classic, widely praised by the community, and I wanted to see how it held up.
I don’t think the book is bad, but for me it didn’t have the “special” feeling which Trollpak had. Acknowledging that Griffin Mountain was a landmark campaign when it was released, I don’t feel that it aged in the same way as Trollpak. I think this is because we have lots of campaigns, nowadays, but there aren’t many works which attempt to explore nonhuman species in a really thorough way.
Griffin Mountain isn’t bad by any means, but it didn’t make me feel hyped up or excited to prefer this to any modern sandbox campaigns.
The Age of napoleon, J. Christopher Hereford. December.
Napoleon is a historical figure—and his era, a historical epoch—I didn’t know much about. This book was an impulse purchase at a local bookstore, because I figured at some point I should learn a little about him. I don’t know how The Age of Napoleon compares with similar works, but I enjoyed reading this. It sort of skirts the line between history and biography. Focused mostly on the life of Napoleon Buonaparte, it also took longer asides to discuss the social and political climate of his time, exploring what caused the French Revolution, what enabled Napoleon to take power, and so on.
We, the Navigators, by David Lewis. December.
We, the Navigators records oral traditions about Polynesian sailing using the stars, waves, and other natural phenomena to navigate the Pacific Ocean. This book wasn’t directly related to a writing project—I just thought the topic sounded fascinating. I knew journeys were taken by indigenous peoples from island to island, but I didn’t know much about how.
If you’d like to learn about that topic, I’d certainly recommend this book. I would have enjoyed learning more about the culture and history of Polynesian seafaring but, as the author pointed out, that lay beyond his scope.
The Armies & Enemies of Dragon Pass, Martin Helsdon. december–Ongoing.
When Armies & Enemies was released as Print on Demand from the Jonstown Compendium, I knew I wanted a copy right away. I’ve been working through this book—the longest, I believe, on the JC—for the last few months, and I’m deeply impressed at the text’s detail, fidelity, and readability. Intended as a reference source, the book remains quite interesting and engaging even as I work my way through from cover-to-cover. (By the by, this is why I’ve been looking forward to the POD edition; I find PDF useful for reference, but POD vital for how I learn and remember material on physical pages.)
One highlight is the fiction sections at the start of each chapter, some of the better descriptions of magical action in Glorantha I’ve read. It makes me regret not reading the author’s Periplus fiction serial as he released it on Facebook toward the end of last year. I’ve also found the wealth of information about Dara Happa and the Lunar Empire—the traditional enemies of most RuneQuest players—interesting to read, especially the military history. I would love a “military history” from this author of the Hero Wars period, as the basis for inspiring a RuneQuest campaign. The general prose quality really is a step above what I expect not just from professional RPG publications, but also from most of the history I enjoy reading.
Wow, this has gone on way longer than I anticipated. While I did read a good bit more in 2021 in comparison to my 2020 post, I didn’t expect this blog to trail on so far. In my next post, I’ll talk about what I’ve written in the last year, reflect on it a bit, and hopefully figure out a good trajectory for 2022. I’d like to have this done by the end of January, but honestly… that’s probably not realistic. Oh well!
Until next time, then.
Want to keep up-to-date on what Austin’s working on through Akhelas? Go ahead and sign up to the email list below. You’ll get a notification whenever a new post goes online.