Lowell Kempf(Gnomekin)United States
I went into Lockwood & Co by having heard of a tv series I never ended up watching and having forgotten reading the Bartimeaus Trilogy also by Jonathan Stroud. (To be fair, I read those books as they came out so it was about twenty years ago)
The series set in an alternate England that has had a twist on the zombie apocalypse. Instead, it’s a ghost dystopia, where ghosts have become so common and dangerous that society barely able to function.
Fortunately, ghosts do have some fundamental vulnerabilities, like iron or silver or fire. And, since this is a young adult series, only children have the psychic ability to detect ghost. Thus setting up a world where child labor laws have been completely thrown out the window.
It’s some nice world building, although it does make you wonder about the world outside England and why hasn't ghost-ridden England collapsed back into the Stone Age.
Lockwood & Co is a tiny, independent agency of ghostbusters (no, they don’t use that term in the books) and every member, particularly the initial three are all extraordinary. Lockwood is a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician. George is so brilliant he’s able to figure out the complex nature of ghost problems despite the obfuscation of the authorities. And Lucy, the narrator, has a once in maybe a generation psychic talent that is so strong she can talk to ghosts.
Which lets us have the skull, a powerful but captive ghost who is a bonus member of the crew. The skull is relentlessly snarky, deflating every situation it’s a part of. Needless to say, the skull is pure comedy gold.
Wish fulfillment can be a big part of young adult literature. (Harry Potter is a wizard. Percy Jackson is a demi-god. Holden Caulfield doesn’t belong on this list) And Lockwood & Co has plenty of it.
Stroud balances that with the nightmarish horror of the ghost plague and a theme that carries over from the Bartimeaus Trilogy, that power, authority and money corrupt. Adults aren’t just useless but actively malicious a lot of the time.
I’m not going to go into the plot but I will say that the series isn’t a Ghost of the Week setup. There is an overarching plot that each book builds on and the fifth book is clearly the last one.
Lockwood & Co is a good read, a fun example of world building and I’m sure it’s already an RPG system without even looking.
I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.
Archive for Non-Gaming Life
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Sometimes I’ll read something just based on the pitch. Particularly when it comes to manga.
Ya Boy Kongming isn’t the weirdest manga I’ve ever read. I have no idea what the strangest manga or anime I’ve read or seen. After I watched an army of rabbit-cats transform into a spaceship in Tenchi Muyo!, I decided that I wouldn’t worry about limits.
Okay. Here’s the pitch for Yo Boy Kongming: legendary Chinese statesman and tactician Zhuhai Liang (courtesy name Kongming) find himself in modern Japan after his death and becomes a music agent.
It isn’t that the idea is absurd, which of course it is. It’s that it sounds banal. Like Charlemagne coming to the present and working at a fast food chain or Benjamin Franklin becoming a real estate agent. (Which he might have actually been. He did a lot of stuff) After you giggle about the idea, is there any story, any tension or drama?
In the case of Ya Boy Kongming, there actually is. Shortly after arriving in modern Japan, Kongming is so moved by the duagonist Eiko’s singing that he basically adopts her and plans on making her a world famous singer who can usher in world peace.
Which he does by becoming Batman with a constant stream of insane schemes that always become together. If a music stand wearing ancient Chinese clothes had flown through the window, Bruce would have become Kongming.
I have to confess to feeling very provincial but I have probably learned more about Romance of the Three Kingdoms from Ya Boy Kongming!
So a lot of what makes the manga fun isn’t the absurd idea but the emphasis on how wonderfully awesome Kongming is. More than that, his cunning ng plans, also trying to benefit Eiko’s rivals. Having lived one life of war, Kongming wants to live a life of peace and that means elevating everyone.
I also understand that Ya Boy Kongming actually didn’t take off until it became an anime. Which makes sense because you can’t listen to music in a manga! I am just reading it but I am also making sure to actually listen to the sings. And, speaking as an old dinosaur, if this is what the kids are listening to these days, the kids are all right.
Ya Boy Kongming has a silly concept but but pulls it off for longer stories by being fun and inventive.
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It took me five months to finally watch Guardians of the Galaxy vol 3, which for me is actually watching a movie quite close to its release. (I am much more of a reader than a viewer) I managed to be relatively spoiler free so it definitely manages to surprise me at times.
I’ll try to limit the spoilers but I do feel like commenting on the movie.
The Guardians of the Galaxy films manage to both denser and wackier than the rest of the MCU movies but, at the same time, manages to get in possibly the most emotional gut punches in there franchise l. In no small part because the Guardians fully embrace Tolstoy’s ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’
(No, I don’t know what the second sentence in Anne Karenina is)
I think that the second movie has the best balance of comedy and tragedy. The third one leans heavily into the tragic side. Which isn’t inappropriate but definitely makes this the darkest movie in the trilogy. Maybe the the MCU which also had Thanos kill half of all life.
Okay, I want to just jot down some bullet point reactions but first:
*While I knew the movie would feature Rocket, I hadn’t expected it to be centered around him. But I’ve liked the character since the 80s so it’s cool. And, story wise, it works.
*Peter Quill’s arc wasn’t about him getting the girl but growing up. I like that he isn’t wish fulfillment but is used to address the issues of being a man-child.
*I hadn’t been a fan of the MCU Mantis. The comic version can go toe-to-toe with Thor and is always the adult in the room. In this movie, though, she clearly shows herself to be physically tough and very insightful so I was happier.
*Holy cow. The comic High Evolutionary is a borderline hero while this one was incredibly vile and reprehensible. Possibly the pettiest and nastiest villain of the MCU.
*Okay. We still haven’t gotten Moondragon in the MCU. I’ll wait.
I am far from the only person who has felt that the MCU has struggled to find its voice post-Endgame. Which, to be fair, is unique as the culmination of a 23-movie arc.
But Guardians of the Galaxy vol 3 succeeds because it makes part of being its own trilogy more important than being part of the greater MCU. It already had a voice so it could keep on exploring its theme of unhappy families.
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I’m about eight years late to the party but I picked up and read Archie Comics’ Road to Riverdale. It was a sampler for their New Riverdale line, the first issues of five of the books. And it obviously was done to help promote the Riverdale TV show. (Which I have never watched but I understand critics love to savage it)
I had heard of the New Riverdale line, a reimagining of Archie and his world with more realistic artwork and more continuity-based storylines. And, while not inappropriate, aimed at an older audience.
And it wasn’t quite what I expected. As opposed to being Archie as a serious drama (which isn’t actually unknown), it was more of a denser, wackier look but with a heavy emphasis on character development. Honestly, it felt like a post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer Archie, self aware but room for feels.
I find Archie weird. Before I was old enough to not be embarrassed to read it, I thought of Archie as simplistic, repetitive and reactionary. And, frankly, a lot of that is true. Archie has been going since the 1940s and has been almost always aimed at a younger audience.
At the same time, Archie has been constantly reinventing itself. I don’t even know if Archie Comics itself knows how creators have worked on the franchise. And it’s been addressing social issues for decades.
What muddies the water is the fact that they are constantly reprinting stuff from all over their catalog. So you can find different messages, sometimes in the same magazine.
To be fair, you can point to any long running franchise. Batman has been many things. However, Bruce and his merry band of vigilantes have been allowed to change and adjust. The lack of continuity and constant reprints means Archie Comics keeps the values dissonance constantly churning. There is good stuff but they keep burying it.
Which might be part of the point of New Riverdale.
Heck, it got me to read the first volume of Archie. Which I did enjoy but found almost bipolar. We have moments like Archie’s bumbling destroying the entire Lodge mansion contrasted with Betty’s angry tears at Archie freaking out over her makeover.
From what I understand, the New Riverdale has ended. Perhaps that has to happen. When you actually create a story where the characters develop and change, endings make sense.
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Until earlier this year, I hadn’t realized that John Bellairs had written three series of books for kids. I’ve known about the Lewis Barnavelt and Johnjy Dixon books since I was their target demographic age but Anthony Monday was new to me.
Funny enough, I had actually heard of the first book, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, back in those days. But I hadn’t realized it was by Bellairs or that it was the start of a series. (I also hadn’t read it)
Unlike Bellairs’ other series, the Anthony Monday books don’t start out as gothic horror (although apparently they switch over to fantasy and gothic horror by the second book) Instead, Treasure is a straight up mystery, with the characters on a hunt for the eponymous treasure.
Brad Strickland, who has been empowered by either Bellairs’ estate or publisher to continue his work, has said that publishers don’t like Anthony Monday and aren’t interested in having him continue the series. So I went into Treasure with an eye for figuring out why that was the case.
Unlike either Johnny or Lewis, Anthony actually has living parents, plus a brother. Which just reminds me that, in fiction, orphans have more freedom to do whatever they want, the Batman factor.
And Anthony’s relationship with his family is a big part of the book, particularly his relationship with his mother. Who is emotionally damaged and is emotionally abusive, although there is no doubt she loves all her family. Still, it’s understandable that Anthony’s elderly mentor, Miss Eells, openly serves as a surrogate mother figure for him.
The strong focus on Anthony’s emotional life makes him more nuanced and more layered than either Lewis or Johnny. It also makes him more flawed and more immature than either of them. This just helps the reader appreciate his growth and struggles.
Likewise, the villain in Treasure, as opposed to an evil ghost (You know, a _lot_ of evil ghosts show up in Bellairs’ books) Instead, he’s a nasty narcissist whose perfectly willing to hurt Anthony and his family for the treasure. I found him more emotionally striking than the evil ghosts.
I did find the actual mystery plot to be thin. The actual location of the treasure was so glaringly obvious that the protagonists should have checked it out early in the book, just on general principle. But the weight of the book was on Anthony growing so it doesn’t ruin the book.
So, why do publishers shy away from Anthony Monday? Is it because at least the first book is more emotionally challenging and less escapism? Were the mysteries just that meh?
I do want to at least read the second book to see if Gothic Horror changes Anthony’s characterization.
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19 Jul 2023
Bundle of Holding (not to be confused with Humble Bundle lol) recently had a Dork Tower bundle. Which, of course, encourages me to contemplate John Kovalic’s Dork Tower. Because I am nothing if not predictable lol
Man, Dork Tower got started back into 1997. The world of gaming and the world of geek culture and the world in general were a different place back then.
Yes, I feel old.
(When did Knights of the Dinner Table get started? 1990? Now I feel really old)
As you probably know just as well as me, Dork Tower is a comic strip about a group of gamers and their friends. That describes a frightening number of comic strips due to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. That said, between longevity and overall quality, Dork Tower stands out.
In fact, while there was a gap between me falling away from gaming magazines (and gaming magazines even existing) and discovering Dork Tower’s presence as a web comic, I’ve actually been steadily reading it for a big chunk of its existence. Which hasn’t been the case for Knights of the Dinner Table.
And I think the reason I have stuck with Dork Tower, sometimes without even realizing it, is that it is fundamentally sweet and charming. Knights of the Dinner Table reminds me of gamers I have known. I don’t think I’ve met anyone as nice as as the Dork Tower cast, although I have shared some of Igor’s bad habits. (It must be mine!)
That said, I have always found Dork Tower’s earlier portrayal of gamers and such as a marginalized group uncomfortable, even as an obvious satire. There’s too many actually marginalized groups out there for that to work as an ongoing joke. But Dork Tower seems to be moving away from that. In fact, my favorite character has become Stell, whose gaming life is her source of affirmation and acceptance.
While Dork Tower does feature power gaming and players completely detailing campaigns (I think that’s required in gamer comics), I will argue it isn’t as cynical as many gamer comics. I think there is more of a sense of hope and escapism in it. The characters’ angst doesn’t come from not getting what they want but wanting the world to be better.
Kovalic has frequently sited Charles Schulz as an important influence and it shows. Peanuts may a bleak world of suffering but Charlie Brown never stops hoping and striving. Matt is clearly a tribute to Charlie Brown but all of the characters reflect the aesthetic of Peanuts.
Dork Tower isn’t perfect. Not every joke lands and sometimes it can be schmaltzy. But it’s strengths outweighs its flaws.
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Last year, I read The Burrowers Beneath and The Taint and Other Novellas by Brian Lumley. I decided it was time to go back to him and read the second Titus Crow book, The Transition of Titus Crow.
Lumley, like Ramsey Campbell, is one of the authors who helped keep the Cthulhu Mythos alive before it became a pop culture phenomenon. He has a reputation for writing Lovecraft Lite, meaning that humans can win. To be fair, it’s not like Lovecraft himself didn’t write some stories like that. That said, some of what I had read definitely veered away from cosmic horror, embracing the idea that humanity could understand all the eldritch stuff out there.
Then I read The Transition of Titus Crow. Ooooh boy. Not what I expected.
Seriously, I’m going to talk about the entire book here.
At the end of the Burrowers Beneath, Titus and his best buddy Henri de Marigny just barely escape death and worse at the hands of the Great Old Ones via an artifact called the Time Clock, which is a space-time ship that is intelligent and bigger on the inside and Lumley has sworn is in no way based on the TARDIS.
de Marigney falls off and Titus goes off of his own to have his own crazy adventures while de Marigney recovers ten years in his own future.
And those adventures feel like they came out of a Victorian work. Obviously the Time Machine by Wells is a clear influence. In fact, the first chunk of Crow’s part of the narrative feels like a pastiche of the Time Machine.
But the book gets weirder and cozier with less and less of any trace of cosmic horror. While Crow has adventures with dinosaurs and ancient Romans and gets changed into a cyborg by a helpful robot (that’s the transition in the title), he is also dealing with the Hounds of Tindalos (who are far more escapable than in Frank Belknap Long’s story)
This culminates in a confrontation with Yog-Sothoth. Where Crow realizes he can use the power of the Time Clock to terrify Yog-Sothoth into submission and that it can fire energy beams that will will drive the elder god off. Crow then goes to a magical fairy tale paradise ruled by Cthulhu’s friendly older brother to live with a magic girlfriend.
What did I just read?
We’ve gone from ‘humans can win’ to ‘Great Old Ones are wimps’ Instead of cosmic horror, this is twee escapism. Even if you interpret it as Titis Crow actually died and went to Heaven, that’s still a far cry from cosmic horror.
The epilogue, after both Crow and de Marigney have gone to Elysia, brings us full circle though. We learn that Cthulhu has brought down natural disasters on New England and Miskatonic University has been completely destroyed.
So, the adventure continues and there is still the promise of horror to come.
All the same, that was one weird read.
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Last year, I discovered Tamora Pierce and read her Protector of the Small quartet, the third of her series set in Tortall. I really enjoyed it so I made it a lot t to read Song of the Lioness, the first series in that setting.
Not only is Song of the Lioness is the first Tortall series, it is also the first young adult work by Pierce. It was originally written as a single volume for adult readers and ended up being revised into four books for young adults. It is also considered a milestone for young adult fantasy and feminist fantasy.
And, yeah, I liked Protector of the Small better. Which I think is a good thing. An author should get better as they go along. The pacing and the character development were better in the Protector of the Small, although character development in the Song of the Lioness is a strong point.
The Song of the Lioness is about Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight. Along the way, she also becomes a sorceress, a shaman and an all around hero. It’s also so high fantasy that having a room that basically a benign eldritch abomination in the capital castle is considered normal.
I don’t want to spoil the plot of the stories but I went in expecting a coming-of-age story and got much more of straight adventure stories. Three of the four books lead up to her fighting some kind of big bad.
My favorite book was the third one, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man. It’s the Taran Wanderer of the series.
Okay. Some spoilers.
Having earned her knighthood (and had her gender revealed) at the end of the second book, as well as resolved a major ongoing conflict, Alanna now has to figure out what to do with herself after achieving her life’s goal. Honestly, it’s the only book where I didn’t see the plot coming.
Which comes back to my comments about character development. While I don’t think the Song of the Lioness is a coming of age story, it is about Alanna figuring out how she relates to a world that doesn’t have a place for her. She is flawed but determined.
While they aren’t perfect, the books in the Song of Lioness are strong. I can see how they had an impact on young adult fantasy (and a reminder that that existed before Harry Potter) and feminist fantasy. I am sad that, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any plan to adapt them to other media and a wider audience.
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When I saw that Humble Bundle was offering a Hiro Mashima bundle, my first thought was that it would be a way to get the rest of Fairy Tail (a manga I quite like, in no small part because of the ways it gently subverts some of the tropes of Shonen) Then I saw it also had the complete Rave Master. Which whole heartedly embraces all of those tropes lol
Many years ago, I picked up the first few volumes of Rave Master at a flea market. My first reactions: One, that it was fun. And, two, it felt like it was Hiro Mashima was trying to distill the essence of what was going on in Shonen manga at the time into one cliche storm.
Haru is a spiky-haired badass with a heart as big as the world and whose brain is slightly less rational than Pinkie Pie. He’s prone to finding or coming up with new techniques and powers and his determination has no limits. He’s also much nicer than Son Goku. (Seriously, Goku is a sociopath)
The fact that the manga begins with Haru fishing as snowman/dog hybrid out of the ocean on his home of Garage Island announces that we don’t have to take things too serious. Yes, there will be life-and-death battles and the fate of the world will be at stake and angsty revelations will happen. But Rave Master assured us it will be goofier than One Piece.
Rave Master isn’t the best Shonen manga I’ve ever read. Nor is it my favorite. However, it has the joy of a ten-year-old who gets to create their own manga but with the art and writing skills of a twenty one-year old. It’s clear that Mashima had a blast making it.
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When looking for a demo of Alexander Shen’s Crumbling Dungeon, I found out that there was a Memorial Day sale on their games and puzzles. Which was a way of getting Crumbling Dungeon and a bunch of other stuff for a darn fine price. I had a couple items already but it was still a real bargain.
While I initially tried out Crumbling Dungeon, I decided that I wanted to next try out three different puzzle collections: Circuit Board Square, Galactic Diplomacy Corps, and ‘I Have to Retrieve 5 Gems from a Dungeon That is Falling Apart and I Have Leas Than 30 Seconds to Do It’ The last makes me want to reread Chip Delany’s science fiction (We In Some Strange Power’s Enploy Move On a Rigorous Line and Time Considered As A Helix of Seni-Precious Stones arw great works as well as insane tities) and I will call it 5Gems from here on out.
Circuit Board Square is a flat-out puzzle with no random elements or theme. You have to fill out a three by three grid with the numbers one to nine. The edges and the corners have sums and you have to fill out the grid to make all the sums work. (And, yea, that means the center square isn’t part of any of the sums)
I described it as Sudoko for people with very short attention spans to my wife. She said ‘So, children?’ I said ‘No, me’ There are some simple strategies to filling out a grid and I find, once I do one, I end up doing a couple. And, if I end up in a classroom again, I’d think of using Circuit Board Square.
Galactic Diplomacy Corps is a grid where each square has a number and symbol. You draw a line that connects like number or symbol to like symbol or number. The twists are you can’t land on a square that the line has passed through or stopped at and you start to lose points if you get too many of the same symbol.
Honestly, GDC is the least engaging Shen puzzle/game I’ve tried. It doesn’t have the quirky charm that permeates a lot of their games. Nor does it razor-sharp simplicity of Circuit Board Square. Honestly, if it was broken or bad, I’d honestly find it more memorable.
Speaking of quirky charm, 5Gems has got it. You navigate a maze to collect five gems in a limited number of turns. Traps randomly block spaces, switches let you knock down walls and you have three one-time special powers.
Honestly, it makes me think of a game you’d have programmed in basic on an Apple ][e in the early 80s. And I mean that in a compliment. I can’t say 5Gems is a good puzzle but it’s got character. I have had fun with it.
Since I started exploring PnP and indie games, I’ve found a world that’s both unpolished and flavorful. You aren’t going to find designers who are undiscovered Reiner Knizias or Richard Garfields. But you will find neat little things you’d never find anywhere else.
And while a lot of Shen’s work feels like it could use some more workshopping (I’ll cover Quests Over Coffee at some point and it’s an exception. It rocks) but they definitely show persistence. And, when I think about other indie designers I’ve looked through, their charming and solid body of work stands out. It’s not perfect but it’s good stuff.
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