Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Black Moon Chronicles: Sign of Darkness

God might not play dice with the universe, but the devils do.
In The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness, written by François Marcela-Froideval and drawn by Olivier Ledroit, Lucifer grows tired of his generals throwing matches in their little games. So he engineers a game in the mortal world where none of the players can deliberately lose. A Chosen One prophecy and the fall of an empire would do nicely. But what man will be chosen?
He might be a nameless lancer out in the woods, little more than a highwayman in armor. Call him Wismerhill after his home town, or Wis for short. It’s as good a name as any. But this half-elf has an unknown past and hints of more sinister gifts, as the rogue Heads-or-Tails discovers in their first meeting. Wis may be sheltered and naive, but he falls into bad company with the mercurial rogue, whose personality shifts based on which of two magical swords, good or evil, he currently wields. The two fast friends embark on a series of petty crimes and capers. But the eye of the half-ogre Gorghor Bey soon settles upon Heads-or-Tails’ swords.
The swords, however, are attached to Heads-or-Tails, and it is only by the whim of Gorghor Bey that the two highwaymen keep their heads. Now fighters for the half-ogre warlord, Wismerhill and Heads-or-Tails join the Gorghor Bey’s invasion of the Empire. Caught up in a whirlwind of fighting, training, and loving, Wis quickly distinguishes himself as a valued aide, able to read the winds and save the horde from multiple ambushes as they raze the hinterlands of the Empire. But such a display of military power cannot go unchecked, so the Empire sends the Army of Light after Gorghor Bey. And other, more sinister forces have taken notice of the chaos for their own ends.
The Sign of Darkness serves as the ever-popular origin story for the twenty-volume Black Moon Chronicles. This French dark fantasy series has given birth to two spin-off series and even a video game. The emphasis here is on dark fantasy, if the slight elven warrior with an evil magical sword was not a clue. Wis is fighting on the side of orcs, ogres, and barbarians against the setting’s version of Gondor, and there is no mistaking these invaders for the side of Good. At best, Wis and his companions act as anti-heroes who are a little too comfortable with the terrible acts they commit. But those acts are in the future. The Sign of Darkness is comics’ answer to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, an extending training montage pushing Wis from a nameless tough to a champion on the run. He has yet to be swept up into the various gambits playing out for control over the Empire.
The setting is familiar, with a gleaming white Empire as the bastion of church and civilization standing against a tide of invading barbarism. This time, we see it from the invaders’ point of view, without the expected propaganda of imperial hypocrisies that a contemporary version of the story would demand. Some people just want to watch the world burn. Those willing to light the match fight for Gorghor Bey. The resulting chaotic, orkish invasion is so familiar, as are Wis’s winds of magic, that it would not be a surprise to discover that Games Workshop plundered the Black Moon Chronicles as they did The Lord of the Rings for their Warhammer Fantasy setting. As of yet, the Black Moon Chronicles does not revel in the destruction and cruelty to the same degree that a grim dark world where there is only war has, or with the exquisite artistry of a Melniboné. Instead, a strong dose of self-deprecating humor keeps the excesses away.
The Black Moon Chronicles uses an interesting design choice. Those characters and objects which are evil, or, in the case of Wis’s powers, chaotic, have rougher, dingier, uglier art. Clean lines and beauty are reserved for the good, whether that be the Army of Light or Feidreiva, Wis’s unlikely lover who spends less time clothed than French fanservice favorite Laureline. And as Gorghor Bey changes from Wis’s captor to mentor, his portrait smooths. But the real star of the artistic show is the big battle set-pieces. Ledroit conveys in his art both the immense scale of massive armies as well as the immense chaos of battle. The only portrayal that comes close is The Return of the King‘s field battles.
I am intrigued by the potential in The Black Moon Chronicles: The Sign of Darkness. It is just the opening act, and the villains and main conflict of the story have yet to be revealed. Fortunately, the full 20 volume series is offered on Kindle Unlimited, making it easy and affordable to follow along Wismerhill’s journey under the Black Moon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Shadow Returns

The Shadow is returning. Per Deadline:
James Patterson and Condé Nast are teaming to revive vintage crime fighter The Shadow in a series of books that will also aim to be adapted for the screen. 
Hachette Book Group imprint Little, Brown will publish the original series, whose first installment is due out in the fall of 2021. Condé Nast has long controlled licensing for the character via its Street & Smith subsidiary. 
The Shadow, a signature New York vigilante, originated in the 1930s as a series of pulp novels by Walter B. Gibson. A popular radio drama based on the books featured the voice of Orson Welles. In 1994, Universal released a feature film adaptation starring Alec Baldwin. 
“Who can forget The Shadow’s historic tagline, ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’”, Patterson said in the official announcement. “Well, The Shadow knows. And soon readers will, too. I’ve long been a fan of The Shadow and am looking forward to bringing his legendary character to life in the modern age.”
Razorfist was right, reading the tea leaves of rights revocations to predict a new push behind the character, conveniently timed when The Shadow starts to enter the public domain. I remain cautious--the history of relaunches lately has been underwhelming at best and disastrous at the worst. Patterson's involvement is not a salve to those concerns either. Perhaps, though, I might be too cynical of the master wordsmith manager.

However, for those who cannot wait, the Sanctum reprints are still available, and the first two new Shadow novels are as well, Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow and Doc Savage: Empire of Doom. And if the sudden flood of Canadian public domain Doc Savage books are anything to go by, we'll soon see cheap ebook reprints of The Living Shadow.

Monday, July 6, 2020

True Smithing and Star Runner

Master smith Angus Bjornson hates growing old. Age and an accident at the forge have crippled him, leaving Angus unable to make the swords and armor that are his passion. To help ease the pain, his children give him a VRMMO headset and a medieval game where he can continue his craft in a manual creation mode that draws upon and rewards all the skills he developed as a smith–as opposed to the convenience of using a menu.
Angus soon creates swords and armor that are better than anything in the game, even the legendary pieces. His work attracts the attention of the local guild, who enforces a monopoly of mediocrity upon the town’s crafters. But Angus will not be coerced into making junk, so the guild plots to bring Angus into their fold. By any means necessary.
Even cheating.
True Smithing, by Jared Mandani, is the most recent in the Second Life subgenre of litRPGs. These stories take retirees, typically widowers, and introduce them to VRMMO settings where they are no longer limited by their aged bodies as they pursue their passion. While most of these stories end up dangling the hope of reuniting these men with their long-dead wives, True Smithing instead reunites Angus with his life’s work–blacksmithing.
The result is an almost-statless litRPG. Sure, Angus has to pick a class and roll stats, but as soon as he selects manual mode for crafting, the stats never matter again. It all comes down to the strength of his arm and the fire in the furnace. This means that the long stretches devoted to the drudgery of leveling up are replaced by just as long and detailed stretches describing the creation of weapons. These passages resemble text versions of such blacksmithing shows as Men at Arms: Reforged and Forged in Fire, and can be even more technical. This approach works better in text as the process of creation is at least a story, unlike the exposition of checking menus. But True Smithing does not bother to explain the terminology for the casual reader, so much of the nuance of creation is lost. The result is that these sections can be just as skimmable as the stat screens, which is unfortunate, as in these passages Angus forges the readers’ understanding of blacksmithing needed for the climax.
The focus on blacksmithing also creates a more intimate story. Angus does not care for the combat and exploration that consists of the supermajority of MMORPG gameplay. He stays at the forge and hammers steel and other metals. His concerns are merchants and nobles, not monsters and world-rending cataclysms. As such there is more room in the story for character development. Also, this makes True Smithing a rare example of a litRPG that relies on non-combat conflicts for tension and the plot. The story even shows how the game world and real worlds can interact, as Angus’s insistence on crossing the local lord has real-world consequences for him. Likewise, Angus is able to use real-world laws and ownership to carve through the Gordian knots of MMO politics.
True Smithing is an example of how litRPGs can prosper in smaller adventures than commonplace in heroic fantasy. While it is eager to experiment, not all of it’s attempts bear fruit. But the combination of novelty and solid character work have earned True Smithing its current popularity.

“Captain Bill Gorman has mysteriously disappeared. His clone, set aside for a dark day like this, awakens and begins to put together the pieces. What’s gone wrong out on the frontier? Why are our colonies being attacked by aliens while the Conclave worlds dream of better days? And what happened to the original Captain Gorman?” from the Star Runner advertisement.
B. V. Larson is back with a story he does best–alien invasions. Larson follows the fashions for milSF protagonists by choosing a gun smuggler for Star Runner (formerly Gun Runner). More precisely, his clone. Giving the clone the mission to try to find what happened to the original not only humanizes the stakes, it allows Larson to hide the threat of invasion behind another, more personal mystery.
While the plot has grown more complex compared to earlier Larson novels, the characters have grown more refined. Most Larson stories feature a secondary antagonist that is a snarky, arrogant coward wrapped up in his own intelligence and a desire to trip up the protagonist at every steps. Larson’s heroes tend to refrain from spacing him as the intellectual occasionally makes key inventions needed to fend off the alien threat. In Star Runner, this character is replaced by an overbearing and backstabbing cheat of a boss. The comparisons between the clone and the original give Bill Gorman a layer of depth that previous hyper-competent protagonists lacked. It also helps that Gorman is not presented as a savant in all endeavors he sets his mind to. Instead, he’s just really good at running and firing guns.
The highlight, however, of Star Runner is the aliens. Larson introduces symbiotes, humans who are controlled by urchin-like aliens in their guts. What appeared to be a throwaway line of description slowly gets more horrific as Gorman learns what happens to the humans controlled by these alien riders as well as the riders’ plans for humanity. Each in the masterful series of slow reveals is brought to light through a myriad of interactions with clients, customers, and officials. While the riders have designs on the galaxy, they also have plans for Bill Gorman’s clone. As they did for the the original. And it’s through uncovering these personal plans that Gorman’s clone discovers the galaxy-spanning threat.
Star Runner is a return to classic Larson storytelling, where the characters are the equal to the inventive scenarios and settings they fight in. And while the current novel is a stand-alone in the Undying Mercenaries series, there are hooks for sequels.