Sunday, January 12, 2020

Still Learning - a Series Twelve Years in the Making

Hello!
Welcome to 2020. I'm working on something I started earlier in this millennium, the craft of writing a novel.

These days I am revising the fifth book in my first novel series, Journey to Chaos. This is the second rewrite of the fourth draft. If I were to fully disclose, then it would be the second rewrite of the fourth draft of the third version. I started the first version maybe eight years ago, before publishing even book #1 but then I decided to rewrite book #2 which then spilled over all the way to this one, book #5. What I'm working on now has been a long time in coming, and I am still learning.

That is both good and bad. Obviously, it is good to always learn. To always learn is to always improve, and to perpetually expand one's knowledge and skills. However, it is also bad because it is frustrating. After twelve years I feel that I should be beyond the basics. When I learn something new I reflect "duh! that's obvious". Except it wasn't, and isn't, or I would already know it.

The most recent thing I learned is about narrative concentration, and that is why it is frustrating. Like in formal, academic writing, one needs to be focused on what one is writing about. To find a clear subject and write exclusively on that subject so that it can be developed over the course of the work, sounds like something that should be obvious. But I wasn't doing it.  As a result, my most recent book (Transcending Limitations) did not live up to its full potential. Its themes were shallow, its events lacked build-up, and its magical mechanics were confusing (to someone other than me, anyway).

I thought this was because a novel is not formal academic writing. I did not want to follow the rules of formal academic writing because I was not writing an essay. I was writing a novel. There are different rules for writing a novel.

Characters are not rational. They do not make clear and logical arguments. They do not always act based on reasonable premise or a concise thesis statement. They certainly don't talk like an essay (unless, of course, a character's personality is based on being formal and academic). That is why what now appears to be obvious now was most hidden from me indeed.

Now I understand that writing a novel is more similar to writing an essay than I thought (or perhaps wanted to think). One has to write formally for the structure and build up of the story itself, but also informally to catch the emotion and life of characters and for reasons that I likely do not know yet.

  This is the seventh paragraph,but it was the fourth one in my first draft of this article. I added more content during the revision process because I realized a need to concentrate its themes. So now it is no longer the last paragraph before the conclusion in a standard essay.

I realized this when I was wondering where to end this post, or if it was too long. TL;DR, you know? That phrase would never appear in a formal piece, not without a paragraph defining it and its purpose, and within an essay where it would be relevant. As there, and here and in a novel, a writer should only include what is relevant. This aids the quest of subject clarity because there is less clutter.

I'm working on that. It's an on-going process of learning. I want to continue learning and improving as I continue writing for the next twelve years and beyond (ideally, it would be more like ten thousand years, but I'll take what I can get).

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D review)

Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Disclaimer: I read the Monster Manual for 3.5 E but never played it so my basis for comparison is minor at best.

A LOT of monsters are in this manual, 315 pages of them plus a pair of appendixes for creatures and possible foes. Thus there is a variety available for a dungeon master to throw at their players. Be it straight-up and uncomplicated brawlers such as hill giants, the cunning and numerous smaller creatures like kobolds and goblins, the paranoia caused by the classic mimic or spell-casting creatures like hags, this book has it all.

Except for celestial creatures. Demons, devils, dragons and giants all get large sections for their sub-species and society but the upper planes get less attention. There are three varieties of angels listed and some others like the unicorn but those are all high Challenge Rating creatures; mid-game at the earliest, and there is little more lore for them than other creatures. I understand the reasoning for this, at least, I think I do.
Players are encouraged to fight creatures that are generally evil or threatening. These are feral monsters, devious demons, and rampaging orcs. The number of situations where they would fight angels or unicorns is far more limited. Including them as allies runs the risk of making the players irrelevant. So why waste time on them?
Being a guy who likes lore and world building, I find this disappointing. Although, there is enough to homebrew something, and that can be fun too.

That is also something fun with this book. It's not something that I can get from other books, which tell a story. This one gives the actors for such a story. After a certain creature's entry, it is fun to imagine a small little scenario featuring them which makes use of the lore: their habits and diets and such. Also, I like to consider some way to effectively use their stats and features against potential players.

This is another book with gorgeous artwork. Every monster gets their profile picture. The celestials look majestic, the fiends look dangerous and some of the aberrations are just creepy, like the gibbering mouther. This is great for the theater of the imagination.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition" an A+

Click here for my previous book review: Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook for 5th Edition (D&D book review)

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook for 5th Edition (D&D book review)

Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook for 5th Edition

I've been reading this over the course of the year, just after I started playing at a local gameshop. It's been a lot of fun, and a lot to read, which is also a lot of fun.

Disclaimer: While I read the handbook for D&D 3.5E, I never played it so I don't have much of a basis for comparison.

There appear to be rules to most situations a player could get into and actions they may take, and for what isn't explicitly covered there is guidance or just encouragement to make it up as the players and DM go. I've read briefly about the "rules vs rulings" debate and this edition seems a fair enough balance to me (as inexperienced as my viewpoint may be).

I've also read that the Charisma stat was often ignored in previous editions for being useless, and derided as "the talking stat". For this edition, it appears that the designers overcompensated. Charisma is now the spell-casting stat for four classes (Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer and Warlock) while also the saving throw of choice for nasty effects like ghostly possession and or a hostile Plane Shift.
On the other hand, this seems to have relegated Intelligence to the throne of uselessness. It's only used by wizards, and lore based abilities, and certain mental effects. So in a game without a wizard that doesn't have much lore, there isn't much reason to use it. That's a shame.

I regularly refer back to this book before, after, and during a session to check on class abilities, spell specifics or some detail about a piece of adventuring gear. I have a set of bookmarks to make to this easier and faster for myself.

The last thing I want to talk about is the art. It is fantastic. Nearly every page has something, big or small, to decorate the text. Some are full page depictions of combat, the working of magic, or some other scene. Sometimes as I'm flipping through, I stop to admire them.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook for 5th Edition" an A+

Click here for my next book review: Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D review)

Click here for my previous book review: Volo's Guide to Monsters

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Volo's Guide to Monsters (D&D book review)

Volo's Guide to Monsters.

This is a supplement for the core 5E books, providing lore within the frame narrative that Loremaster Volothamp Geddarm is the one who collected it and made it available to the reader. The Literary Agent Hypothesis is fun when it is done well, and it is done well here. Volo's comments provide extra insight, humor and a greater degree of immersion into the lore itself.

The lore is for certain monsters, such as mind flayers and orcs. It also has a list of new races for players but that is by far the shortest section. Third it has more monster-manual style monster entries, and finally an appendix for NPC humanoids with class levels, such as an abjuration wizard or an arch-druid, or some other non-class NPCs like apprentice wizard. So this is definitely something that is more useful to the Dungeon Master than the players, but players can also benefit (and not in a meta-gaming way either).

For those that want to play a paladin but don't like the "honor and justice" mold then Tritons provide an excellent template. They are typically lawful good but in a good-is-not-nice sort of way and gain racial bonuses to their STR, CON and CHA (+1 each) in addition to useful abilities, which set them apart from the paladins of other humanoid races.
Additionally, the communication methods and non-combat skills of the kenku sound like they would be fun to role-play. The curiosity of the tabaxi as well; there's a random table to simulate their mercurial curiosity.

For DMs, this is an extremely useful aid. The first chapter provides lore on cultures, history, social structure etc. for monsters, which can help with role-playing them, devising encounters that can lead into future events, and what their lairs can look like. Each section has maps, many of which are a full page, detailing a typical lair.

As a DM myself, these sections have already proven useful for me. I used the section on goblins to describe a war camp that was the centerpiece of a prior campaign, and the section on hags to devise and plan a future campaign.

The artwork looks great too. The focus monsters get several pictures showing them in action, like this one of an orc hunting party chasing down an elf, who is trying to hide, or a dissection of a mind flayer (Volov's own work, maybe? Or some researcher he interviewed?) Each monster and player race has their own depiction (warning: the spider-themed ones are creepy).

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Volvo's Guide to Monsters" an A+

Click here for my next book review (for fun): Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook for 5th Edition

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): My Next Life as a Villainess, All Routes to Doom volume 2

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

My Next Life as a Villainess, All Routes to Doom volume 2 (read for fun)

I've been waiting for this to come out, specifically the manga version because I like the cute art. This one focuses on Katarina meeting the heroine of the game's setting, Maria Campbell.

This volume has five chapters and four of them focus on the newest character, Maria Campbell. In "Fortune's Lover", Maria was the player's character and the one everyone fell in love with.  Naturally, this is different due to Katarina's presence but Katarina herself doesn't realize this, and that is where this volume's humor comes from.

Our self-identified "villainess" has become wrong-genre-savvy, and the dissonance between what she thinks is going on and the reality that is apparent to others is as funny to the reader as it is baffling to her friends. One moment in particular has her thinking that Mary is tsundere to Alan when this could not be farther from the truth. It is a skillful use of Dramatic Irony. The running gag that is Katarina's farming hobby returns and is also good for laughs.
However, not all is humor.

Just because the villainess of "Fortune's Lover" wants to be Maria's friend that doesn't mean Maria isn't subject to bullying. Also, her home-life is implied to be rocky. Being the most special girl in this country has its drawbacks.
The student council president has a scene and a follow-up event which just screams "something wicked this way comes".

The other characters are a bit Out Of Focus due to Maria's introduction but I feel that is only for the introduction and things will even out later. The fifth chapter mitigates this by showing what Katarina does with each of them during summer break.

The art continues to be cute and funny.

Overall, it is a great follow-up to the first volume but it feels a little lesser in content. Everything basically boils down to "Katarina and Maria become friends" instead of the more expansive plot line of the previous.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "My Next Life as a Villainess, All Routes to Doom volume 2" a B+

Click here for my next book review (for fun): Volo's Guide to Monsters

Click here for my previous book review (a request - maybe): The Princess and the Pea - a retelling

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Princess and the Pea - a retelling

The Princess and the Pea - a retelling by K.M. Shea. I think I was asked to review this in the Clean Indie Reads group, but I am not sure. It was something like that. 

 Anyway, this is a retelling of the fairytale "Princess and the Pea". Here, the princess is actually a renowned mercenary who has "warrior princess" as a nickname. She is hired to guard a gem known as "the Pea of Primeorder". I will examine plot, character, and polish and then determine a grade.


PLOT

The first thing I want to say is that this book is lean. It is 99 pages long in total, and even shorter when excluding front matter, back matter and the next-book-preview at the end. This means the narrative is tightly focused on events directly related to story itself. Only set piece event are included: the opening fight, the job offer, the first attempt at the gem's theft, etc. This gives the story a certain drive and energy, as well as preventing clutter that would distract from the two main plot threads, the gem's safety and the romance of the two leads.


This pre-empts any attempt at world building. There are great attempts at flavoring the world, such as tidbits about previous jobs Lisheva has taken, primary traits of nearby countries, and how mages are regulated. In fact, the musical specialty of the country that the story takes place in becomes a plot point. However, these are mostly confined to a single chapter.

The musical specialty is limited to the existence of several fine instruments in the library, and I don't recall a scene where anyone used them. I don't even know what the palace that the entire story takes place in looks like, save for structures that are necessary for the plot, such as the castle's gate and the existence of a garden.

On one hand, the story possesses laconic energy that prevents lulls. On the other hand, the appeal of the story rests entirely in character interaction. Fortunately, this is where it is shines (and the fights are pretty good as well).


One more thing about the plot is that it makes no attempt to hide the obvious. The identity of Apex the legendary/foolish thief is strongly hinted at immediately and shortly thereafter unmasked. Lisheva falling in love with and marrying Prince Channing is implicated by the king himself in the second chapter, before the job offer itself. This is not a story that relies on tension or suspense, which I find refreshing.

This story takes Happily Ever After and merges it with And The Adventure Continues for a delightful ending.



CHARACTERS


Our protagonist is the "princess" in question, Lisheva the Warrior Princess. She is a wandering mercenary who enjoys the challenges presented by her line of work. She is a challenge seeker but she is professional about it; no self-imposed handicaps to make it more interesting or whatever. Her first scene, and the first scene of the story, is her trouncing bandits due to her long honed combat skill. She doesn't kill anyone in this story despite her occupation but I'm not sure if this is a Pragmatic Hero thing or a Thou Shall Not Kill mentality. She has a reason/excuse for the former every time, which becomes suspect by the climax.

Fun fact: despite her profession, her seriousness, and the implication that "warrior" is an unusual job for a woman in her home country, she is not a stereotypical man-hater. That trait actually belongs to her mare.

Vorah is the sidekick, and she is a great sidekick. She serves as comedy relief by making jokes but is an excellent aid to Lis in combat, not a bumbling sort of comedy. The running gag of referring to Lisa as "master", "teacher" or "boss" when Lis doesn't like any of it is funny. She is a foil to underscore Lis's seriousness.

The third major character is Channing, the prince of country that the story takes place in. Shea has fun with his stoic nature and chiseled physique by saying he resembles a statue until he talks, while also expressing his thoughts and emotions without breaking this stoic demeanor. He is wise, including knowing when to seek wisdom from others. He is noble and polite, but also proud of his skills.


The king and queen, Channing's parents, are minor characters but still have distinctive personalities and characteristic scenes. The only character who falls flat is the ultimate villain of the piece. This is not a problem.

Other than providing the initial conflict to the start the story and the climax to end it, this villain doesn't have a role to play. Simply the fact that they exist is enough for the narrative. In fact, Lisheva lampshades how unnecessary a fully developed character is by saying that their motivation for their villainy doesn't matter; regardless of the reason, they did villainy. In fact, the villain's existence does more to illuminate the king's character traits than their own.

POLISH

This is a tight book, and so it reads well and quickly. I didn't see any errors.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Princess and the Pea" a B+


I don't remember if this was a review request or not, but either way it is an honest review.


Click here for my next book review (for fun):  My Next Life as a Villainess, All Routes to Doom volume 2
https://trickstereric.blogspot.com/2019/12/my-next-life-as-villainess-all-routes.html
Click here for my previous book review ( a review request): Crown Of Blood - Bloody Crown Trilogy part 3.html

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Crown of Blood Bloody Crown Trilogy # 3 (Answering Review Request)

This is for the third book of the Blood Crown Trilogy, Crown of Blood. This is where Denland's civil war reaches its conclusion. I will examine plot, character and polish and then assign a grade.
SPOILER!
SPOILER WARNING!
Beware of spoilers for the first two books. Given the wham line that occurred at the end of book #2 and the contents of this book, it is difficult to talk about the final book of the trilogy without spoiling things. So if you don't want to risk spoilers then don't read this review.
SPOILER!
SPOILER WARNING!

I also have reviews for the first and second books in this series. They have spoilers too, especially the second one, which is basically entirely spoilers.
Book 1 - Kingdom Asunder
Book 2 Traitor's Prize

SSSSPPPOOOOIIILLLLEEEERRRR!

PLOT


The narrative thrust here is the invasion of Denland by neighboring Falaria. This would be the second or third invasion during the civil war depending on how you view the Kurtrish that landed to the north and demanded to be hired as mercenaries. I wonder if John Esden anticipated that possibility when he opened this can of worms by opening Queen Anne's diary.

Anyway, the rival factions of Penmere and Esden have a conundrum. They have weakened each other so much that neither has a chance of defeating Falaria on their own but working together has its own mess of problems, the most pressing of which is, of course, what happens immediately after they remove their common enemy? This book charts the reaction to this invasion, the response to it, and then the aftermath to decide the war.

It really is an interesting turn of events, and Mr. White uses a rotating perspective narrative style to show them all. I am typically wary of this style because I have read the work of authors who have used it poorly (in my opinion). The result is an underdeveloped mess lacking development in all its parts. That is not the case here, where the style is used to create a proper kaleidoscope of contrasting and mutually reinforcing perspectives. It also works to provide relevant information that would be difficult to exposit on in any other way.


There is one twist in the latter part of the book that "appears" to come out of nowhere. It confused me. I had to re-read the scene to get a sense of what was happening. It truly turned the tables after a big event. At first I thought this was just that "every chapter has to end in disaster to maintain tension" advice that I saw being touted about as a rule on some blog, and so I was upset at what I thought was a lame diablous ex machina. Then I thought about it, and I reconsidered.

This particular twist was set up as far back as the first act of the first book. It was further hinted at in a line from a relevant character in book 2 and more foreshadowing appeared in this very book. It was not at a plot device simply to maintain tension. On the contrary, it was an integrated plot advancement that makes perfect sense in the framework of the narrative. The initial confusion that the reader might experience is the same that the characters on the receiving end of this twist would experience. The full details of the twist are explained by its engineer in a manner fully consistent with the character and the setting. It is a brilliant twist really, not at all contrived for some stale narrative "rule".

The ending is a satisfying one. The war has been won but the peace may or may not have been lost. Life goes on and it is a bitter-sweet experience for most, with one fortunate exception.

CHARACTERS

I did an interview with Mr.White on my blog when he did the book-release-promotion for this book. One of his responses was that nothing completes a character/character's arc like that character's own death. That is clearly represented here. There are a number of characters, big-name-important-characters, who face their death and it reflects or reveals big things about them.

One character who seemed only ambitious and using a pretext for grabbing power turned out to be more lawful and selfless than I thought they were. Another character who presented as cold and scheming turned out to value their family far more highly than I thought. A third character turned out to be a poisonous friend and a fourth, rather than loyalty to a friend, appeared to value their skill more than friendship.

I would like to name these characters and go into more detail about the skill of the author who wove their insightful and poignant final moments but these events were some of my favorite parts of the book. I do not want to spoil them by doing more than hint.

I would like to comment specifically on two people. The first is Stephen Penmore. He starts as a total scholar who seemed perfectly happy to wait the war out in a library and while he has gained some skill in war it is not a dramatic transformation. He's still not a warrior. It is always his knowledge that is the key point, in contrast to his cousins' brawny confidence and steel-like scheming, respectively.

The second is Stuart Esden, a man ruled by ambition and an utter lack of restraint in all matters. Even his one sympathetic moment in the whole trilogy can be read as his refusal to be mastered by anything or anyone. He is also revealed to be pettier and more spiteful than I thought. I figured him as the type who would do everything on his own terms, and never let anyone decide anything involving him for him. Yet he gives up control of something of lasting importance just to twist a metaphoric knife.


POLISH

I didn't any errors of grammar or spelling, so that's always nice.

I have just one question, what was with the Hykir fort that had that dragon statue? I don't see how it relates to the rest of the story, and so it feels like filler. It was a fun diversion but I don't know why it was included.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Crown of Blood - Bloody Crown Trilogy" an A+

This makes Thaddeus White the second author to be inducted into my blog's Hall of Fame. This means I granted "A"s to four of his books. "Journey to Altmortis", "The Adventures of Sir Edric", "Kingdom Asunder", and now "Crown of Blood" ("Traitor's Prize" was a B+). This means that I see Mr.White as achieving a consistently high level of quality in his novels across all categories.

Congratulations!


This has been a free review request. The author asked for an honest review so I provided one.

Click here for my next book review: The Princess and the Pea (a retelling)

Click here for my previous book review: The Lost Mines Of Phandelver

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration). His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Lost Mines of Phandelver (Read for fun) D&D

The Lost Mines of Phandelver. This is the first published D&D adventure I have ever read, and I must say that I am impressed. The story comes in four segments offering different styles of play.

As this is written for starting characters, the first one is almost like a tutorial, with a few goblin enemies and a small lair with only a couple simple traps. Yet it showcases the many features of the game: travel, exploration, the value of terrain, the influence of one area's actions upon the next, and social interaction. The second segment features an urban environment and encounters, where players can interact with NPCs, collect information, and make stuff happen. The third segment is basically an open sandbox where players can explore the region, follow-up on quests, and push forwards the story-line in many different ways.

Indeed, for a published adventure, and one that is written to happen in a certain order, there are a lot of freedom and possibilities. There are many sideboxes advising the DM on what to do if X happens or if the players do Y . Some events, even major ones like the Red Ruffian hideout, don't need to occur at all. The story can continue. Even the adventure's plot hook need not happen; a different hook can be used.


It is a modular adventure. One can take pieces out and put different pieces in, if the DM is inclined to do so. For instance, I can see an adventure entirely based in Phandelver itself in a sort of gang-war style control of the town, no Wave Echo Cave needed. One could go the other way and decide that Wave Echo Cave is a more known commodity and the party has to defend it from others like the green dragon while Phandelver itself is less important.

 

All the necessary rules and creature statistics are included in the book (front for the former and back for the latter). The maps of the region and the locations look great, and I'm sure would be very useful in smoothly running the campaign and encounters. The adventure's big-bad gets his own artwork.



Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Lost Mines of Phandelver" an A+.


Click here for my next book review (a request): Crown of Blood, book 3 of the Bloody Crown Trilogy

Click here for my previous book review (a request): Nici's Christmas (Troubadors short story)



Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Nici's Christmas - Troubadours series (review request)


"Nici's Christmas" is a short story by one of my favorite authors, Jean Gill. She is the reason I created a Hall of Fame here on my blog. This story meets the high standard she has set with the other four Troubadours books. It is the story of Nici's life up to the point where he meet Estela, which is the starting point of the first Troubadours book, "Song at Dawn".

One of the interesting things about this book is that it is both a sequel to the fourth Troubadours book and a prequel to the first. Despite this, there are few spoilers. Estela's real name is one of them and why she is found sleeping in a ditch at the start of the first book is the second one. A third one is part of the conclusion of the fourth book. It is a mild spoiler but a spoiler it remains so if you want to read the series from the start (and you should; Hall of Fame) without any spoilers then save this one for last.

SPOILER WARNING!

Now that this is out of the way I will begin.

What I like most about this story is the sequel/prequel set up. This way we can read a story of conflict, endurance, triumph, fateful decisions etc. but also enjoy the peaceful present. This present is set after "Song Hereafter" and so Estela and Dragonetz are firmly established as the lord and lady of Breyault, happily (officially) married, and raising their son Musca in the company of friends like Giles and Raoulf.

Even Nici has his own happy circumstances; finding a mate and raising up a litter of puppies. One could say he is the Lord of the Pasture because he protects the sheep with assistance of his mate and two of his older offspring. After reading this story, I have decided that he is basically Dragonetz in dog-form. Both of them are noble knights haunted by past failures and whose reputations have been soured by past masters who find redemption through a bond with Estela, which starts, incidentally, through her music.

It is thus little wonder that they get along so well and why Dragonetz was so quick to come to Nici's defense at the end of "Song Hereafter".

Through the bulk of Nici's story we see two contrasting shepherds who strike me as archetypes of the good shepherd and the bad shepherd (people herding literal sheep). This is Nici's actual history but given that he's telling the story as a bedtime story to his puppies, it makes me wonder if he is using it for instructive purposes. In either case, the life and status of shepherds and the vices of some of them show the historical research that I have come to expect from Miss. Gill.

Musca is adorable. He's like the puppies that he goes to the sheep pen to cuddle because he's scared and lonely. I think he's going to be a good big brother.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Nici's Christmas an A+


This has been a free review request. The author requested an honest review so I provided one.

Click here for my next book review: The Lost Mines of Phandelver

Click here for my previous book review: When Champagne Became French

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback

Saturday, October 19, 2019

When Champagne Became French (read for fun)


This is the last of the books from my academic backlog. It took me perhaps seven years to read them all. That's how much reading is assigned in the college I attended. Anyway, this book is about the production and marketing of the sparkling wine known as "Champagne" that is produced in the region of France known as "Champagne" by the people living there known as "Champenois". Making it more confusing (for them and me), none of these three categories were fixed and/or rigid at the time, depending on who you asked. That's the point of the book.  

It is a mix of economic, national, regional, social, geographical, and nutritional themes. No wonder the laws about the beverage grew so complicated. It is divided into five primary chapters sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. These sections can be summarized as:
2. Marketing champagne
3. Producing champagne
4. Protecting champagne
5. Defining champagne
6. Fighting over champagne
 
The book describes in the first chapter how champagne became a big deal even though its characteristic bubbles were originally considered a trick to cover the taste of bad wine. I found that to be a fun little fact.
 
The rest of the book goes into a conflict between vine-growers and sparkling-wine-produces, the vignerons and negociants and the two of them together (or not) against those from outside their region. So the bulk of the book is about this conflict. As a novelist, it appeared to me as a Decoy-Protagonist thing because it starts with the negociants but shifts in focus and sympathy to the vignerons.
 
Apparently, it is really difficult to grow grapes in the Marne because of the thin, chalky soil and more so when the weather is bad. Even if you get a big harvest and good wine the market for ordinary wine from the region at the time did not fetch a good price. Then there was one problem after another; a shifting market, phylloxera, competition with grapes and wine from other regions (even after a national demarcation made this illegal) and then World War I. Indeed, the vignerons of the region known as "Champagne" had a raw deal in this time period according to this book.
 
Despite this, the author, Kolleen M. Guy, makes the argument that this is not a struggle originated in class conflict. Labor vs capital is not what's going on (at least, not the primary thing). It is about a sense of regional identity within a national identity and defending what they see as both a regional treasure and a national legacy. Ms. Guy states that the average vigneron was more likely to get along with a negociant who was their neighbor then a vigneron who was not (this is such a gross oversimplification that I fear it is misleading but I'm trying to keep this review short).
 
It's clear that Miss. Guy did a lot of research. References are made to police reports, peasant petitions, political posters, records of the minutes from many meetings of many organizations, quotes from various people of various standings, and also comparisons with the scholarly works of historians and others who have written on this subject. The appendix and notes section could be their own chapter by length. The newspaper parody "War of the Two Beans" was particular poignant.
 
The history of the various "champagnes" is weaved into a story. It is an engaging story. I didn't want to look up "champagne" the beverage on Wikipedia or something like that because I didn't want to spoil the ending for myself.
 
I have two hang-ups about this book, and the first is the gratuitous French. There are a lot of French words used here that are not defined. Sometimes a quote will be only 90% translated into English.  While Ms. Guy does define terms like "terroir", "vigneron" and "negociant" these are the exception rather than the norm. I had to look up what "mevente" meant, a drop in sales.

The second hang up is the lack of section subtitles. The chapters themselves are labelled but sub sections are not. They are demarcated by a space and a special symbol to detonate a shift in subject but without a label it impossible to see at a glance the nature of the shift. This limits the book's utility as a reference. Which is a shame considering the great information here.
 
Trickster Eric Novels gives "When Champagne Became French" a B+


Click here for my next book review (a request): Nici's Christmas (Troubadours)


Click here to read my previous book review (for fun): Who Sang the First Song



Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Who Sang the First Song (read for fun)

I found this book in the Children's Christianity section of a bookstore while looking for a baptism gift for my niece. I'm glad I did.

It has beautiful artwork. A starry night, the top layer of the ocean, a field around a cottage, a log across a river and more are lovingly depicted. It is bright and cheerful for a young reader but has a certain poignancy and elegance that can appeal to the adult reading to them. This is the beauty of the natural world, God's creation.

It has a great message for children; affirmation of their worth as individuals and encouragement to lead lives of joy and discovery, and also friendship. The art depicts children having fun with each other in nature.

I've read this through twice so far. Being a picture book it is a quick read, and thus perfect as a bedtime story.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Who Sang the First Song" an A+


Click here for my next book review: When Champagne Became French


Click here to read my previous book review (for fun):
American Heritage Picture History of the American Civil War

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Picture History of the American Civil War (read for fun)

Believe it or not this is not another book that I kept from a college class. It's actually a gift from my mom because she knows I am a history buff. Anyway, it is a general history of the American Civil War from its background to Lincoln's assassination. As the title indicates it is composed predominantly pictures instead of text.

Each chapter has five or so pages that give an overview of the chapter itself, and the rest of the chapter is filled with relevant pictures alongside a couple paragraphs going into a little more detail on the subjects from the overview. For instance, the chapter relating to the Battle of Gettysburg will have pictures taken from early cameras of the battlefield and the military camps, more modern pictures of the area as it is now, maps showing the routes taken by the armies, and one more thing.

It is a drawing of the battles and how they progressed. Just one image for the major moments in a given battle that lasts two days or more. One is supposed to follow the numbers to follow the events. It is an interesting concept, but I found it confusing. Maybe I wasn't reading it right.

It is a mostly chronological account focusing on the land armies and their leaders but a few chapters divert from this. There is a chapter focusing on the naval battles and there is one for the political battles fought by diplomats at home and abroad. There is one for the common soldier on both sides and the kind of live he lived.

It is a fun book that does more than list dry facts. There is such a force of personality in the prose that one can imagine Bruce Catton lecturing on the subjects.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "American Heritage Picture History of the American Civil War" a A+

Click here to read my next book review (for fun): Who Sang the First Song

Click here to read my previous book review (for fun): My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom - volume 1

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Paladin as Party Healer (D&D Stories)

I've been playing Paladin recently in my regular D&D group. It's quite a change from my previous (and current, it's complicated) character of Fighter - Eldritch Knight. Both of them are primarily melee classes with limited magical ability but my experience with the former has been the opposite of a melee class. Due to the lack of a cleric, my paladin has become the party's heal bot.

In our first major battle, my paladin spent more time keeping our wizard alive then fighting. Likewise, his biggest contribution in the second (due to poor attack rolls) was again healing the wizard. In the third battle he was again on healing duty but this time it was the monk who fell unconscious because the wizard was elsewhere. It was initially frustrating but then I realized how perfectly it fell in line with my character's backstory.

See, he is a dwarf with the guild artisan background and a serious competitive drive. It drove him to sabotage the works of his fellow guild members in order to make his own wares appear superior. This mean-spirited cheating eventually got him into serious trouble with the guild and he became a paladin to atone for it, vowing to channel this competitiveness into doing good as a team player. Thus, a supporting role is perfect for him.

He started the first and third battles by casting Bless on himself and two other party members and then moved around performing Lay on Hands and Cure Wounds as needed. On one occasion, he helped the monk flank an enemy. On another he helped the druid use the Pack Tactics of her direwolf Wild-Shape. At fourth level, I'm planning on him taking the Menacing feat to boost his spell modifier and frighten foes out of attacking the party in the first place.

I've rolled terribly for attacks in all three sessions of this campaign so far. It got to the point where I changed dice. I still didn't hit anything but it doesn't matter. The party needs a dedicated healer more.


Update:
Several sessions later, my dwarf paladin is STILL rolling poorly for attacks; just attacks. He is level 4 now and he has landed fewer attacks than his level.


Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

How real life can influence the campaign (D&D stories)

What I like about Dungeons and Dragons is that it is communal story-telling. Everyone contributes to the story and how the campaign's narrative plays out. Usually this is through their characters, but the players themselves can also work interesting changes by just their presence or absence.

See, I'm one of those players that isn't satisfied with ignoring a character whose player didn't show up for the session. I want to know what happened to them; where did they go, what are they doing, etc. So the DM at the time provided good reason such as eating bad mushrooms or getting drunk after a victory. That sort of thing provided fun flavor. However, the truly interesting thing happened after I became the campaign's DM.

To set the stage, the party had been trying to free a large group of people who had been enslaved by a hobgoblin army. They were toiling away in a gold mine near the hobgoblin war camp. In the course of gathering allies for a raid on the camp, the party exited a Lost-World style plane through an arcane portal (long story) and decided to use this magical device to spirit the slaves away.

Two players dropped out at this time so we decided that their characters would stay on the other side and prepare a camp for the slaves to rest after their flight: preparing simple spears, gathering food, etc.

As it happened, the main army had departed the camp and the camp itself had fallen into decay, disorganized and lacking in discipline. This allowed the party to sneak into the mine because the goblin guards were sleeping. The bard decided to cast Leomond's Tiny Hut to block the entrance. We would use the portal device to free the slaves.

This is it. The Free-the-Slaves arc took five weeks and over each of those weeks a new player came by for that week only (with one exception). So each week the session would start with the party running into another adventurer who was trying to free the slaves by themselves. It started to get ridiculous at how poor the security for the mine was when so many people could independently sneak in. One character gave the impression that he had wandered in and had no idea where he was.

We all had a good laugh about this. One player even joked that the party had done a better job securing the mine than its hobgoblin owners. That was true.

The story was written so that security would be lax at this point in time. However, nothing I could have done would have underscored this plot point as thoroughly and hilariously as this string of new one-time players. Adding them as NPCs would have been pointless and lame. It was the real-life consequence that made it memorable.


Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback

Saturday, August 31, 2019

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom" volume 1 (read for fun)

This is a series that I discovered on Tvtropes. I find a lot of fun stuff over there. We tropers like documenting things and this one is new (to me at least). I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish before assigning a grade. Also, I should mention that this review is specifically for the manga adaptation of the light novel.

PLOT

While the premise is simple enough, someone from contemporary real-life Japan inhabiting a role in another world, it becomes more complicated. Several twists are quickly introduced. One of these is that our protagonist finds herself in the role of a game's villain, Katarina Claes, and she realizes this seven years before the game's story begins. As a result, she resolves to avoid the "doom" that awaits her (character), and in doing so, she sends the entire game's plot "off the rails" before it even starts.

I like this development. Not only does it have a clear and focused goal for the prime story and its heroine but it quickly moves away from this origin. Katarina is no longer following the game's script so any advantage she has of such knowledge is increasingly moot. It also provides a fitting and reasonable excuse for being Oblivious-To-Love as is common for leading characters in this genre. She truly believes, with sound justification, that no one is going to fall in love with her because she's not the game's heroine but an obstacle for said heroine.

There is no preamble to get this plot going. The manga devotes one page and four panels to Katarina's past life, and only to introduce the founding idea of this past life playing the dating game, Fortune's Lover. Then Katarina quickly realizes how much trouble she could be in and takes appropriate measures. No time is wasted making her appear "ordinary" or "relatable", aside, of course, from her desire to avoid death or exile, which is very relatable.

This volume is structured as encounters with the game's love interests/capture targets and the other two rivals. They may look like loosely connected short stories but they are linked by Katarina's desire to avoid doom. Besides, they take place over years so it doesn't feel rushed or contrived. It's basically slice-of-life otherwise.

This story is a lot of fun. Katarina's doom counter-measures make perfect sense to her and are fully explained to the reader but her family and noble peers are baffled by them. Thus, hilarity ensues when she starts farming as a hobby or throws a toy snake at people. The "Council of Katarinas" is my favorite running gag. Beyond comedy, there are sincerely touching moments such as Katarina's attempts at bonding with her adoptive younger brother, Keith, and finding a romance novel buddy in Sophia.

CHARACTERS

Our heroine and the in-universe game's villain is Katarina Claes. She is a delightful character. The mixing of her memories has made her a friendly and done-to-earth sort of person, considering social debuts to be a hassle and would rather make friends than climb the social ladder.
Her sense of self and identity is interestingly crafted. We don't get any picture or idea of what her past self (henceforth referred as "the monkey girl") is like except from Katarina herself (other than the video game thing, naturally). She thinks of herself as "Katarina Claes" with eight years of memories as such. Her previous memories function like a USB data drive in that they are extra memory but otherwise don't interact with the main computer, so to speak. She doesn't mourn her death or try to return to her life as "monkey girl"; this doesn't even occur to her. Why would it? She is Katarina Claes and that is not her life (anymore).
Another part of her that is fun and interesting is the balance between opposite traits. She is quite the tomboy, enjoying tree-climbing and farming as hobbies, but knows how to act lady-like when necessary, due to her mother's diligence in teaching her decorum. She has rational and pragmatic reasons for the things she does but she also has strange behaviors such as consulting a Council of Katarinas where one of them has a mustache.

 

I could write as much about the other characters but that would take too long. I will select Alan Stuart, the fourth prince of the setting as an example.

He has numerous traits but is not defined by any one of them, thus making him more than a two dimensional character. He suffers from an inferiority complex due to comparisons with his twin brother, Jerod, which makes him weepy when they share a conversation, but is boastful and confident in situations that exclude him. He shows determination in his tree-climbing duels with Katarina but not so much stubbornness that he cannot become her friend in the process. His piano skills are magnificent (even if his brother is better).

POLISH

As this review is for the manga adaptation, I can only speak of the art work in this section. It is cute. It is soft and warm and perfectly suited for the light-hearted comedy of the story. Being as the cast are all nobles, they get some fancy clothes which the artist does a splendid job with as well.

Trickster Eric Novels gives ""My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom" volume 1 an A+


Click here for my next book review: Picture History of the American Civil War

Click here for my previous book review: Mahou Sensei Negima! Omnibus #9


Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).
His fantasy series, Journey to Chaos, is currently available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback