The Dark Forest

I finished Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest (paid link) today, and it blew me away.

I wasn’t sure he could follow The Three-Body Problem (paid link),and the first 80% of the book was a solid four stars — I thought that was about the best I could hope for, given how amazing and surprising and wonderdul TTBP was.

That last 20% was a complete surprise, a nuclear fireball of pure jaw-hanging-open whoa that kept me reading in the bath for much longer than I’d planned. I couldn’t stop until I’d finished it.

It’s different than the first book, especially in its structure. More straightforward, with less of an undercurrent. But so good. I can’t wait for the final volume, but I’ll have to as it’s not out in translation until April 2016.


Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (paid link) was amazing.

The hook is great. The story it promises puts a twist on a premise I’ve seen before, but it’s solid.

But underneath that story, unfolding throughout the book, is a story that went nowhere I expected it to, in the best way possible.

Reading it reminded me of watching The Wire (paid link). I came for an excellent cop show, but every season I got so much more. The Wire peels back layers as it goes, and The Three-Body Problem is like a delicious motherfucking layer cake of wonders.

Its Hugo is well-deserved.


The Shepherd’s Crown

Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown (paid link), came in the mail today, a bittersweet arrival to say the least.

I almost never buy fiction in print anymore, but I’ve got every Discworld book in print; it felt right that I should read this one in print as well.


Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (paid link):

All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.

I started this about three years ago, the same day I finished inhaling The Road (paid link) in under 24 hours, and it didn’t strike me right. This time, it’s striking me right.

I’ve read the quoted sentence at least 10 times, and I’m still finding new things to like about it.

So far, I’ve looked up an average of a word per page in this book. I love that, too!


Don’t finish shitty books

At 36, I can expect to live another 45 years or so, barring any surprises. Before getting a Kindle I was reading maybe a book a month (in recent years; I used to read more often). Now I’m reading a book every week or so. A book a week for the next 45 years is another 2,340 books before I croak.

On the one hand, 2,340 books sounds like a lot. But on the other hand, it makes it easy to calculate the “cost” of a given bad book in terms of lost opportunities to read good books: 0.043% per book. Every 25 bad books I finish represents roughly 1% of my estimated remaining lifetime reading opportunities. And the older I get, the more each bad book will cost.

In a rather long nutshell, this is why I usually don’t finish shitty books.

Books Reading Appendix N

Reading Appendix N: The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

My high school girlfriend introduced me to the Amber series back in the early 1990s, and shortly thereafter to Amber Diceless Role-Playing (paid link), the RPG based on the books.

Zelazny, like a lot of Appendix N authors, writes with economy and punch. Nine Princes in Amber grabbed me with its opening sentence, “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me,” which hooked me on the whole 10-book series. From there, Zelazny goes on to sketch one of the series’ best characters, Corwin, in just a few pages, establishing him as tough, dirty, quick to heal (very quick, you discover later on), and missing his memory. It’s a great opening chapter, and it sets the tone for a series that’s full of surprises.

My Amber books are a mix of different printings, the sort of mass market paperbacks I devoured growing up:

The core concept of the Amber books is fantastic: Amber is the one true world, and it’s surrounded by an infinity of other worlds whose laws of physics vary from Amber’s. Earth is one such world. The Amberites, the family chronicled in the series, can walk between those worlds in Shadow, and by pursuing specific ends they’ve each become the best at what they do.

If an Amberite wants to learn to play the guitar, she travels to a world where time passes much more slowly than it does back in Amber, where years pass for every minute, and spends a century learning to play. Then she returns to Amber, less time having passed than it takes for a cup of coffee to cool, as the best guitarist in the universe.

Life as an Amberite is a constant political game of one-upsmanship and underhanded scheming. The series is full of backstabbing, skullduggery, politicking, magic, and memorable, larger-than-life characters. My three favorites have always been Corwin, the voice of the whole first series; Benedict, the master of warfare, who is such a skilled warrior that he constantly anticipates every possible threat to his person; and Random, Corwin’s younger brother, an upstart in a family of squabbling gods.

I’ve read the first five books at least twice, but it’s been years since I last read them — probably close to 15 years, I’d guess. Long enough, in any case, that the specifics I recall vividly are spoilers of the first order, and things I don’t want to spoil for you. But it would be a shame to write this post without sharing some of Zelazny’s prose, so here’s a passage from late in Nine Princes of Amber that doesn’t give anything away:

The climate was warm and the colors bewildering, and everyone thought we were gods.

Bleys had found a place where the religion involved brother-gods who looked like us and had their troubles. Invariably, in the terms of this mythos, an evil brother would seize power and seek to oppress the good brothers. And of course there was the legend of an Apocalypse where they themselves would be called upon to stand on the side of the surviving good brothers.

I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.

I thoroughly enjoy Zelazny’s writing, and his talent is on full display in the Amber books.

Post-Appendix N

The second series, five books that comprise the back half of the Chronicles of Amber, begins with 1985’s Trumps of Doom. It’s post-Appendix N, and not quite as good as the original series, but still excellent and enjoyable. It introduces all sorts of cool things to the Amber universe, and it’s worth reading.

The Chronicles of Amber and AD&D

The strongest connection I see between the Amber books and AD&D is the similarity of Shadow, with its infinite panoply of “shadows” of the one true world, Amber, and AD&D’s planar cosmology, with its Material Plane, Limbo, and many other planes of existence. The planes are described, briefly, and diagrammed in Appendix IV of the Monster Manual (paid link).

Nearly a decade later, the Manual of the Planes (paid link) covered the planes in much greater detail.

More generally, there’s plenty of stuff in the Amber Chronicles that D&D characters engage in all the time: fights, magic, backstabbing, politics, artifacts, wars, schemes, and much more. Parts of the Amber books feel like D&D in a way that’s hard to pin down, and I can see how AD&D drew inspiration from them in fuzzy-yet-signficant ways.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

Worth a quick sidebar is a game much more closely tied to the Amber books, Eric Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Role-Playing (paid link), and its lone supplement, Shadow Knight (paid link), which covers the second five books.

Amber Diceless is brilliant both as a game and as a translation of the novels into game form. I’d never played a diceless game before trying Amber, and its mechanics are both sound and perfectly suited to the feel of the series. I’ve also never played a game quite like it since.

You start the game by bidding for attributes against the other players. Whoever bids highest in, say, Warfare, is the best in the group at fighting. If you challenge him at warfare, you simply lose; the trick is to shift the terms of the contest to bring your strengths into play.

That notion — that the best cannot be challenged at what she’s best at — is pure Amber. The same goes for the attribute auction, which pits the players against each other in a way that mirrors how they’ll wind up pitting their characters against one another as the game progresses.

Which edition?

I recommend The Great Book of Amber (paid link), an inexpensive paperback volume that collects all 10 books — Appendix N and post-Appendix N — of the Chronicles of Amber.

If I didn’t already own the whole series in individual paperbacks, this is the version I’d buy. At $25 or less, it’s cheap enough that you could decide not to read the second series and still get more than your money’s worth out of it.

Whatever edition you choose, the Amber books are ripping yarns, fast-paced, consistently inventive and surprising, and highly engaging. You should read them, and I envy you the pleasure of reading them for the first time.

Books Reading Appendix N

Grognard Games’ introduction to Appendix N

Martin Brown from Grognard Games produced a great short video introduction to Appendix N, the influence the works therein in had on D&D — from thieves and paladins to plane-hopping and alignment — and the inspiration those works can provide today.

It’s a bit surreal for me, though: He’s called Martin as well, and is also English, and I recognize an awful lot of the books on his shelves, but he’s handsomer than me and introduces Appendix N much better than I could. I’m also officially jealous of his bookshelves.

All that aside, you should watch this. It’s quite good.

(Thanks to Erik Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern for the link.)

Books Reading Appendix N

Appendix N: 20 down, 80 to go

I finished Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar this morning — my 20th Appendix N book. I’m not a fast reader, or perhaps more accurately I’m not a hurried reader, so tackling all 100 books of Appendix N is going to take me a while.

“Swords” took longer than the other Lankhmar books to date because it’s over-long, slow in places, and was competing with a minor detour: The Annotated Hobbit (paid link). I’ve read The Hobbit before (and posted about it for this project), but never this edition and not for many years.

After that, it’s back to Lankhmar for the last Appendix N Leiber tale, Swords and Ice Magic, and then most likely on to the post-Appendix N volume of the series, The Knight and Knave of Swords. 20% complete might not sound like much, but it’s a fun milestone — and I’m looking forward to the other 80%, too!

Books Reading Appendix N

Other Appendices N

Since I first posted about Reading Appendix N, I’ve been pointed to several similar reading lists that are either contemporary with Appendix N or related to it in some other way. None of them are additions to Appendix N — to date, Gary’s 2007 additions are the only ones I’ve found — but they’re all interesting for their own reasons.

The first two were written by Gary, one predating Appendix N and one written much later; the second two were written by Tom Moldvay and Steve Winter, respectively. Let’s start with Gary’s two lists.

Dragon Magazine, Issue 4

Published in 1976, this issue of Dragon came out three years before Appendix N, and it’s essentially a proto-Appendix N. Squished into one corner of a page showing recent fantasy miniature releases, it lists 22 authors and roughly 30 specific titles, all of which appear in Appendix N — with one exception: Algernon Blackwood. I’m not at all familiar with his work, but he was apparently a writer of supernatural tales; he’s on my mental list to check out (in 2014 or so, when I finish reading Appendix N…).

In all other respects, this list is a subset of Appendix N. There’s no similar list in the original edition of D&D, nor in the Holmes edition, so I believe this list in Dragon #4 may be the first D&D reading list. As the foundation of Appendix N, it’s a neat little piece of D&D history.

Mythus Magick

Mythus Magick (paid link) came out in 1992, 13 years after the DMG and Appendix N, and it offers up considerably more author recommendations but no specific title recommendations. Instead, Gary emphasizes particular authors as his favorites. There’s a huge amount of overlap with Appendix N authors on this list, as this excellent Grognardia post breaks down. (That post also includes the full list.)

About half of the authors are new (not included in Appendix N), and many of them are folks I don’t associate with sword and sorcery, sword and planet, weird tales, or the other kinds of books represented in Appendix N — Margaret Weis and Anne McCaffrey, for example. Gary also lists himself, which makes me smile.

The Moldvay Basic Set

The 1981 D&D Basic Set (paid link) — the “B” in the edition often called B/X — came out in 1981, just two years after Appendix N, and it includes one hell of a reading list. While this one is by Tom Moldvay, not Gary, it is in a D&D core book and it’s roughly contemporary with Appendix N.

What I like most about Moldvay’s list is that it’s broken down into categories: young adult fantasy, young adult non-fiction, adult fantasy, short story collections, and non-fiction. Given that B/X D&D makes a great gateway product for young adults and teens, devoting about 40% of this list to books aimed at them is an excellent idea. Of the four reading lists in this post, Moldvay’s is my favorite — and it’s huge, with roughly twice as many authors as Appendix N.

Star Frontiers

Star Frontiers (paid link) came out in 1982, three years after Appendix N was published. It focuses on science fiction, of course, and it’s a neat list in its own right.

It includes non-fiction as well as fiction, which I like, but I mention it here largely because there’s some overlap with Appendix N in terms of authors: Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown, L. Sprague de Camp, Philip José Farmer, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny all appear on the Star Frontiers reading list.

Other Reading Lists

Lots of other gaming books include reading lists — GURPS books, for example, are justly famous for their killer bibliographies — but these four lists stood out to me because they have some connection, be it strong or weak, to Appendix N. They all look like they’re worth exploring, assuming the 100-book Appendix N reading list isn’t keeping you busy enough!

Books Reading Appendix N

Raven Crowking’s posts on reading Appendix N

Yesterday I stumbled onto an excellent blog, Raven Crowking’s Nest, which is also home to a project to read and write about the books in Appendix N. The author, Daniel Bishop, is an old-school gamer with a lot of insight into the hobby, and his posts on Appendix N books are great.

He kicked off with a post full of amazing photos of his Appendix N collection, which vastly outstrips mine both in terms of books owned and books read. Just like when I saw Joseph Goodman’s shot of his Appendix N books, this kind of thing is a huge motivator for me.

He’s also written two posts about specific books so far: a long look at Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton, and a post about Hiero’s Journey, by Sterling Lanier, which makes me really glad I’m going to get to read this book.

Daniel includes notes about how to use these books as inspiration for gaming, which is a really good idea (and one that I may steal for future Reading Appendix N posts here on Yore), and his analyses of their connections to AD&D sound spot-on to me.

I don’t see an easy way to track just his Appendix N posts, although the search bar is an acceptable alternative, but I’ve now read at least 50% of his archive and not been disappointed once — Raven Crowking’s Nest is a blog to add to your reading list.