The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

A great YA book set in a late victorian clockwork and magic world that borrows a lot from real history… then throws in bold changes, making it unique. The borrowing from the real world, in the end, is mostly the names of countries and empires–but not even that, straight.

It’s a boarding school book, where our hero attends a large, exclusive school that trains people for their careers… including the career of Rithmatist. There’s a lot of interesting history about this weird magical practice that comes out over the book. The first thing we learn is that Rithmatic lines are drawn in chalk, often circles and lines. There’s art interspersed between chapters with drawings of the various circles and their points of intersection. That’s a fascinating read, and lends quite a bit to the feel of a complex, discovered magic system.

Joel is an interesting hero; near obsessed with Rithmatists, but unable to wield their powers. As you’d expect from YA, his focus and dedication, despite the evident incongruity, pays off in the end–but not much before that!

Much like Harry Potter, he’s poor in a society of wealthy aristocrats. While his father is also dead, his mother is present, if mostly in the background. Much of the book is about Joel coming to navigate relationships of his choosing, both with Professor Fitch and Melody.

Melody, in contrast to Joel, is a Rithmatist… but not a very good one. She doesn’t draw great circles, she drifts off in class, and “doodles” unicorns. She’s what Joel wishes to be, squandered… but we find that there’s more to her (and her chalklings) too.

In the end, it was well done. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion, but with a large thread left dangling. I’ll keep an eye out for its promised sequel, but writing hasn’t been begun on it yet.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

The author builds an interesting, grungy future. It’s even more extreme on the haves–there’s something even more necessary to future work than skills or machinery operation: magic. The magic is hinted at as maybe advanced science, and the ruins of the old world definitely reflect modern skyscrapers, subway lines, etc.

The society is strange and strained; it turns out that Xhea (our heroine) is the one who is going to push society off the cliff. Though much of that appears to be the result of cross-cutting manipulation from various players…

It’s an interesting world, and the exploration rarely feels like a travelogue. Xhea has a history and is known throughout the city for old deeds, which makes it feel authentic.

The heart of the story is about friendship. It’s nice to see how strongly friendship affects Xhea (and her friend Shai), how committed they both are to doing right… to each other, and the others with a claim on them. The tower intrigues are largely off stage, but there are strong hints that they make sense if you’re in the right circles…

Long story short, the story and friendships worked. The world is altered now, and it looks like Xhea is a player. I’m interested in seeing what the next book brings…

Sweet potato chard casserole

Cook up 4 slices of bacon. While it cooks, wash and slice a large sweet potato on the mandolin. Cut the chard stems out of the chard (about 2 bunches) and cut crosswise to produce 1/4″ thick slices.

Remove the bacon when browned and put the sweet potato slices and chard stems in the hot fat, cook on medium for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the chard leaves into ribbons.

Mix up the white sauce in a bowl. The white sauce is 1 can of cream of mushroom soup, 1 cup of sour cream, and 1 cup of shredded jack cheese.

Butter the bottom and sides of a 13×9 casserole dish. Transfer the sweet potato & stems into the bottom on the 13×9; it creates a sparse layer. Add butter or bacon fat (maybe 3 tbsp.) to the stovetop pan. When it melts, add the chard leaves, stir for about 2 minutes, remove. Layer about 1/2 of the wilted leaves over the sweet potatoes. Add the white sauce, top with the remaining chard and bacon, and cover with one more cup of jack cheese.

Bake @ 350 for 30 minutes; remove and serve.

The Honor of the Queen and The Short Victorious War by David Weber

Books two and three of the Honorverse.

The Honor of the Queen was very good; a manageable number of POV in a tightly focused situation. Honor does well in adapting to a difficult situation, though finding her balance is rough. I enjoyed her development and the demonstration of her bond with the admiral that she escorts.

The difficultly in interacting with the backwards worlds is done well, though not very subtly. Honor’s decision to bail on a bad situation and her concern about self-justification makes the pivot to the second part of the book very strong. The sharp confrontations and bloody battle are very well handled, including appropriately tragic aftermaths on storming the station, and tangling with an under-performing but more powerful ship.

[An aside about the missile warfare: it almost makes me think of the slow plotted wargame, Harpoon.]

The Short Victorious War is an interesting book, but it’s much less a Honor Harrington book. She has her challenges, and we have the most time in her POV… but “everyone else” gets greater screen time than she gets. The universe fleshes out, including the Republic–beyond ship’s captains, we see the political calculations from both sides of the war. It felt a little like the Safehold books, at times veering towards a “book of meetings”. So far, at least, it’s still somewhat balanced between action and scheming.

I’ve asked Jennifer to loan me book 4. I don’t know that I want to delve into all 12 (before you branch off into other series), but these were still quick, rewarding reads.

Honor’s Knight and Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach

These two books completed the Paradox trilogy, begun in Fortune’s Pawn. Unfortunately, while Devi’s first book was great and I had trouble setting it down, Honor’s Knight was much less compelling.

Why? I loved Devi’s competence, and it was stripped from her at the end of Book 1. She didn’t lose her personality, but she lost a lot of knowledge and the corresponding sense of forward motion in resolving the mysteries of the universe. Fortunately, the memory blockage doesn’t last even half the novel, but it was a disappointing start.

From there, Devi has to make a few bad deals. We get to meet some more aliens, and the mysterious opposition to Captain Caldswell’s organization. The opposition makes sense, and Devi’s able to understand both sides from an outsider’s perspective. In the final quarter of the book, she demands agency and makes things happen.

The third book, Heaven’s Queen, starts off idyllic, but action comes in before you can get bored with homey life. The rebalancing of her relationship with Rupert is interesting–no, high melodrama–but it works. Together, they bump into some of the mysteries of the universe, get captured, imprisoned, there’s a jailbreak, and a dangerous confrontation with the Legilis.

This book has Devi back to competence, and her moral courage and refusal to back down are great. The last couple of chapters are a nice wind down; the universe is changed and we get to experience the first taste of the new era.

D&D Season 3: Rage of Demons

A good summary post for character creation this upcoming season: Creating a Rage of Demons character.

The AL Player’s Guide
Pregen PCs
Madness is a big risk this season
The State of Hillsfar
Hillsfar Bonds and Backgrounds
The gods and temples near Hillsfar
Handling Hillsfar (and its Xenophobia) A good article that gestures at ways to incorporate Hillsfar’s racist xenophobia without letting it overwhelm your game or ruin players’ experiences.

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

This is the first Honor Harrington book, and though it had some formatting issues, I got sucked into it and look forward to continuing to follow Honor for several books more.

Honor is a compelling main character; honest in a world that’s not, and she pays the price for it. I like the world building in the background; it give a feeling of figuring out in detail, but only awkwardly info dumps near the end.

Some of the POV transitions aren’t well marked, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find that you’re now looking from the opposing bridge’s point of view. Despite adopting POVs easily, the extra characters feel like they’re grounded in the setting, not just reflections of Honor’s actions necessary for the plot.

Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna

The story was okay, but I must be more burned out on zombies than I thought. There’s good character development, an interesting situation and recent developments to propel the story… and I still didn’t get very excited.

The hero’s identification with his past is strong and should be moving, and the final declarations of interest should have won me over completely, but I just didn’t engage deeply enough. I’ll keep an eye out for more by the author in another setting.

California by Edan Lepucki

Another strong book. This one’s set in a near to very near future, a very slouching apocalypse. In the background terrible things are happening (hinted at or alluded to throughout the book), and terrible things happened before. The heart of the book, though, is about small communities and withdrawal.

The two POV characters begin in the wilderness of a largely depopulated future. They begin well aligned, two against the world, struggling in primitive conditions and savoring the small victories. The world of the beginning is no Eden… except against the corrupted world revealed in flashbacks and (especially) going forward as they explore.

The ambiguity of the decline (which, especially at first, is presented as mostly a people give up and opt out future) keeps you invested in figuring out how the world went wrong. The obvious pieces, which show up in the politics of both the past and future, is a grasping withdrawal from the commons of the wealthy. A lot of the book pivots about memories of movements to fight back against that withdrawal and the complexities underlying even small villages.

I keep dancing around revealing the plot threads, though these are almost entirely just to keep track of what I’ve read. Long story short, this is a slow built complex feeling world. For such small communities, there’s a lot of tricky relations and histories to work through…

Frieda and Calvin really work as authentic characters in a world that feels realistic–a future like “another couple of years down the wrong path…” The ebb and flow of the couple’s relationship and trust also rung true. Honestly well done, though bleak.

Organizing some links

An interesting modular board manufacturer: Game Night Life.

Le Joueur’s No Myth game style and examples, saved from the Forge.

A custom 5e screen with interesting info: post, direct link (pdf). Great for GMs new to 5e.

(5e) Special resources for Elemental Evil —
The State of Mulmaster
Mulmaster Backgrounds & Bonds
Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (new character race and spell options)
Elemental Evil themed trinkets
Elemental Evil Player’s Guide (Organized play rules)
Elemental Evil Quickstart Guide