Circle of Hands by Ron Edwards

In this book, Ron created a thoroughly interesting setting. The mechanics seem simple and a bit random (in character generation), but that fits the less scripted times that he’s emulating.

The book covers four undifferentiated nations in a very local dark ages setting, with two sweeping magics running through the area and altering the world in their image. The four regions are very similar; there’s little coinage, a great deal of mistrust for outsiders (who, to be fair, are often raiders), a presumption that everyone you’ll encounter is culturally the same.

It’s a direct, honest culture. As players, you make a pair of Circle Knights who are among the new King(ish) of Rolke’s kitchen cabinet–and who are each familiar with both black and white magic. Most of the time you’re in villages; cities over a thousand people are rare and won’t often be visited by the knights on their ventures.

The magic system is strongly thematic, which is reinforced by the cultural implications of magic being introduced before character creation and spell lists. The culture and Ron’s presentation of it is excellent–if you’re looking for a way to play people who don’t feel like 20th century people in costume, this game gives both a complete setting and strong guidelines for conveying that culture. (As a closest analogue, think 9th century Germany or England.)

Playing it is trickier; I’d be interested, but I’d really want fellow players to have read a bit–or at least be willing to set all of their assumptions aside. Since so much gaming is fantasy gaming, there are a lot of assumptions to peel away.

So… mark me as interested, though probably not interested in running it quite yet. With a similarly invested group, I think it’d be interesting to experience in play. The website for Circle of Hands.

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

An interesting tale of life inside a big brokerage house, where the strangest behaviors are normal… if you’re a big swinging dick. It’s a weird dip into a very different life, as the author acknowledges.

It’s half a memoir; the classes and story are told from his perspective, but he takes long asides to explain the politics and organization charts that drive the activity. It sounds like the whole organization underwent a tremendous transformation shortly before he arrived, changing from a partnership with strong controls into a corporation. The older people, who’d worked in the partnership environment, stay decent for a while–out of habit and intertia–but the new kids aren’t locked in as partners, making it much less costly to defect.

A great part of the story was about the beginnings of the residential market and its CMOs. They are kissing cousins to the CDOs that featured so prominently in the 2008 crash… but I never heard of CMOs before this book.

It also demonstrates 2 decades early exactly why the brokerage firms resisted listing prices on an index. Back in the early 80s, the Solomon Brothers middlemen were able to take a huge bite–like 5%–out of mortgage trades where only they knew the prices. That lack of transparency helped drive mortgages from an ignored remnant to 40% of the profit in less than 5 years. But, as soon as their rivals had access to the prices [mostly via defectors], the margins collapsed quickly.

The relations he describes makes the movies about Wall Street sound like documentaries, instead of the wild exaggeration for the screen that I’d hoped. It’s an amazing tale, with corruption at hand at every turn. It’s amazing that he was able to avoid enough of the snares to escape… with a hefty bonus, but without permanently taking on the trader’s worldview.

What’s scary is how many of the very same things played out in the 2008 crisis–also driven by “financialized” versions of mortgages sliced into tranches. It’s crazy how much is familiar…

Anyway, well written, with terrifying foresight baked in.

Dead Set by Richard Kadrey

A well told story set in the modern bay area. A teen age girl (the novel is soley her POV) is adjusting to a new school, coping with her Dad’s recent death, and enduring a rocky home life.

School passes mostly in a blur and she’s detached and drifting. Until she finds a record shop with a special back room. From there, the story gets supernaturally strange, but never crosses into Urban Fantasy despite its setting. She’s offered great temptations, learns the terrible price that people will pay for love, and more. It’s really well told and jukes just when you think you’ve got the formula.

World Divided Book Two of the Secret World Chronicle

I began reading this, due to the last half of the first book picking up pace and becoming more interesting. I read only about half of the book, typically annoyed at the spaghetti plot and series of actions affecting disconnected characters at discrete times. I decided to set it aside before I started reading it for its flaws–to appreciate the part I’d enjoyed, without continuing out of obligation.

I bet it was a good call.

Elie Mystal: I’m With Her… I Guess

I’m With Her… I Guess is basically where I am. It’s not super exciting, but it makes sense to me.

One good bit:

But I don’t understand liberals who hate Hillary Clinton. She is authentic; she is naturally bad at running for office and that painfully shows through at almost all points. But maybe you would be bad at campaigning too if you had been subjected to over two decades of vicious and often contradictory political attacks.

We’ve forced Hillary Clinton to change her hair, her clothes, and her accent. We’ve criticized her for taking too prominent a role during the Bill Clinton administration, then questioned whether being First “Lady” qualified her to run for office. She’s been the most investigated politician since Richard Nixon, yet has never been found to have committed a crime. People have said she has all of the “Clinton baggage” but none of the “Clinton charisma,” which is odd because the “baggage” is her husband cheating on her and the “charisma” is what allows her philandering husband who perjured himself to be loved, while she’s gets called “untrustworthy.”

Secret World Chronicles 01 – Invasion by Mercedes Lackey Steve Libbey, Cody Martin & Dennis Lee

Before I begin, if you’re wondering whether you should read this book, the answer is probably no. If you like the old MMO City of Heroes, you might enjoy a story set in its universe and appreciate it for that. Otherwise… it’s a very slow starting novel that doesn’t come to a clean conclusion, which is two big strikes.

The book is a collection of stories (but not really contained short stories, like an anthology) told from a rotating POV. The slow start comes from time spent setting up the world before we really meet the characters. The PCs are often solo in chapters well into the book–while they meet people, they’re focused on their own issues–widely separated at first (these read like a character’s backstory as handed to a GM), then with some interaction between their characters.

Many of the characters are well drawn–cool characters. The plot has some tie to the characters, but it’s more a sense of the characters being created to tie into a standing plot, than the plot emerging from the characters’ experiences. It feels a little like early Dragonlance novels.

It looks like the podcasts that the books are based on went to 8 seasons (novel equivalents), so that’s interesting. I bet they get better if you stick with them.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces is a good overview of the changes to policing, particularly as it intersects the Castle Doctrine. I’ve learned a lot and found a few congress people who took surprising stands–I want to learn more about them. (Though not enough to actually read a biography about them.)

It does a good job of establishing what the norms used to be–I’ve only lived and paid attention to politics in the era where the parties compete to be “tough” on crime by sending money to police departments and undermining traditional constitutional protections against search, etc.

One of the great strengths of the book is consolidating what’s often a background issue and documenting the changes that have propagated over time. By looking in a focused way, we can see the original predictions (this will be rare, oversight will keep this contained) break down in practice, particularly along the lines of his focus, the castle doctrine. Similarly, some good ideas (encourage community policing via COPS grants) should have worked… but when the money was misappropriated, they caved to militarization instead of risking confrontation with police departments and unions.

The heart of the book, particularly from the 90s on, is about how the drug war justified increasing militarization (drug dealers can afford assault riffles, so police need to be able to engage at even longer ranges; when they wear kevlar, police needs rounds to penetrate kevlar) and increased urgency encouraged no-knock warrants to be served ever more aggressively.

It’s a disturbing world, particularly because swimming against the current works–real community policing, in the examples provided–shows how engagement gets the support needed to solve crime. Unfortunately, the book ends with a note about the shift in recruiting tactics for the last generation. Instead of targeting conciliators and people skilled at managing the tedium of paperwork and bureaucracy, we’ve been recruiting people who want to kick butt to be our police. Reestablishing the traditional “serve the public” instead of “public as enemy” ideas throughout departments is going to be a critical test in the next few years. Once SWAT runs everything, returning to a trust and engagement model may be almost impossible. Several interviews throughout make it clear that as the break doors for the adrenaline rush forces entrench themselves, returning to traditional norms may be difficult. Difficult, but critically important.

Hunter by Mercedes Lackey

An interesting book with a very strong, positive, interesting protagonist: Joyeaux Charmand. She’s a Hunter–someone with magical powers in a post-almost the Apocalypse, the Diseray.

Some of the interesting threads that felt reminiscent of other books were the high peaks setting for the Monestary and home. Much like a few recent books about a plague (disease or zombie) restricting people to mountaintops, with the lands below being wasteland, the flatlands are a shattered world. In fact, the backstory of the Diseray feels a lot like the RIFTS backstory–a bunch of bad decisions collided and brought back magic in a wrenching disaster. The disaster was near total–society collapsed and creatures from myth ate just about everything–except for a few enclaves, particularly where the snow remains year round–or where the remaining scraps of humanity rallied behind the Psimonds and early Hunters.

Joyeaux is a teenage girl who is a Hunter, trained in a (to the Capital, Apex) remote and hidden fortress. Very quickly, she’s summoned from the mountain to her Uncle in Apex. There are interesting fish-out-of-water elements (a bit like Katniss going to the Capitol).

What made the book stand apart was the strong internal consistency to Joy’s decision making and experiences. You don’t get flashes of her doing things because it’d be convenient to the plot. The world building also hangs together plausibly–there are a lot of asides about decisions that were quickly made that reflect well on the people who made them.

The magic system hangs together, though it does take the back seat to the Hunter’s Hounds. The hounds are the core of the magic–in fact, we really don’t hear about non-Hunters using magic, and Hunters are defined by their hounds. Hmm… that’ll be something to look forward to; are there magicians who don’t have hounds?

The story is familiar; outsider with strange gifts comes to town, trains alongside her peers, fights outsiders and wins allies and enemies for doing so. There’s an interesting overlay of reality TV; in Apex, each Hunter is filmed and has a personal channel, has to keep their ratings up, etc. It adds an interesting twist, as our poor turnip has to adjust to a thriving city and Hunters by the dozen, navigating a reality star’s life in the camera, plus skullduggery. She does well and we root for her the whole way.

(It looks like Elite: A Hunter novel is the sequel; Amazon has it coming out in September.)

H. G. Wells – Three Novels

The three novels are: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

The Time Machine was well written and fast paced–like a good Leguin novel, it’s over before you expect. Language was no barrier at all. The story was familiar–I’ve seen it or read it before–but there were a lot of bits that were really engaging.

The War of the Worlds was good but not great–it’s a great idea with good visuals. The everyday of late 19th century Britain was unexpectedly intriguing–it’s interesting to see how it’s written when it’s just background, not the focus of a modern writer looking back. Again, the writing was clear and no barrier.

I’m interested in the radio drama version of this book; it’s a little meandering, and I suspect that the brother chapters could have been better integrated–as it is, they feel tacked on. It was enjoyable as a novel,though less so than The Time Machine.

The Island of Doctor Moreau was a first read, and the first time I encountered it in any real detail. It’s a good book–great for its age–though it feels a bit like a morality play (as Narnia sometimes does). I liked it, but didn’t love it. The book includes deliberate jumps in time, the main character is sympathetic, but mostly a victim of circumstances, rather than a self-directed hero.