Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, by Harry Harrison

This week we end Stainless Steel Rat month with what will probably be the last Stainless Steel Rat book, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns. As much as I hate to say it, I felt like this book was really more of a disappointment more than anything else and makes for an unfit final installment to the Rat's adventures. Perhaps I'm being overly critical or not liking something because it's different from the original, but it just didn't feel like any of the other adventures with Jim that I've read.

The basic plot of The Stainless Steel Rat Returns is that an entire ship full of distant relations and their porcuswine from Bit 'o Heaven have interrupted Jim's retirement and have faced him with a rather expensive an smelly problem. This drags Jim and his wife out of their erstwhile retirement on a series of adventures through the galaxy, looking for a good spot to get rid of Jim's tenuously related relatives and their porcine herd.

While the premise is good and the book's cover promises plenty of satirical entertainment, I feel like the book doesn't really deliver on said promises. There's an attempt at satirical humor with a banker, but it's very clearly a bitter "take-that" at banks after the 2008 financial crisis and falls flat. The introduction of religious extremes on the adventure, always good targets for satire, also fails because it boils down to little more than, "Religion can be crazy stuff, am I right?" Which for most audiences who are going to be reading this book I think we're going to already be aware of that and looking for a little bit more. I almost want to say there's an attempt at racism as well but for the life of me I couldn't find anything remotely satirical about it and if anything it supported segregation rather than integration which is definitely a step backwards.

The other big thing I noticed about this book is that I seldom felt as if the characters were in control of the situation. Things just sort of happened to Jim and company and they coped as well as possible, but they were always reacting to events rather than actively trying to make things happen to their benefit. Which I felt was fundamentally against the heart of the Stainless Steel Rat series. Jim is always plotting and scheming and working on making the next move so he can put his foes off-edge and gain an advantage. Certainly they do things unexpected and Jim has to plan in response for that, but Jim is always seeking to gain the advantage and very frequently his plans come to fruition. In this book Jim's almost always reacting and adapting to changing circumstances. When he does actively plan and put his adversaries off edge, the result is always anti-climatic and kind of an, "Oh. Well that certainly wasn't worth the effort."  At best Jim manages to affect a few minor changes but his ability as a person certainly is reduced.

The end result of this book is that the stakes are significantly lower than they have been in previous novels and so there isn't as much danger to his adventures. Worlds or universes aren't at stake, he's simply on an adventure trying to find a good place to dump a bunch of country bumpkins and their pigs. At best it's a Stainless Steel Rat adventure because it happens to have the same characters, not because it's got the same tone. I'd actually recommend avoiding this one if possible.

- Kalpar

Monday, February 24, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: School's Out

When last I wrote we had discovered a noticeable draft in a school library which probably had some undead as its cause. Deciding to hold off on poking that particular monster with a stick we went through the other rooms of the schoolhouse, discovering that someone had recently done an inventory of all the valuables in the town (most of which we had already grabbed) and a list of names, most of which had been crossed off. A continued search turned up little else and we decided to investigate the rest of the school before tackling whatever was hiding in the library. In one classroom we discovered a desk with particularly unusual graffiti, specifically the phrase "Want to get out" carved over and over into the desk. We did not have long to ponder this mystery though, as a gibbering horror the name of which I've forgotten came out of a supply closet and began attacking us. What I do know was it looked like a floating disembodied skull and hands and all attempts to cut it with my sword left me cutting nothing more than empty air. I was left to stand impotently in the corner with Grovetender while everyone else quickly dispatched the monster with magic. It was, by far, one of my saddest moments.

As soon as that gibbering horror was sent back to whatever hell it came from we again noticed the draft and a ghost entered the room demanding to know what was going on in his classroom, and became quite friendly when he discovered we had killed the monster. The ghost explained he was Deris Marlinken and had been headmaster of this school four hundred years ago before the event which had destroyed Absalom. Deris explained that although he had died, it seemed quite a few of the townsfolk had survived before they suffered some ill fate in the aftermath of the fall of Absalom. However, he has only recently become a ghost and does not quite understand why he's here rather than in whatever afterlife the gods have deemed appropriate for him. What he has figured out is that someone has been raising his former students as undead and he's been working to put them all back to rest. (We suspect Corrister may be behind the necromancy, but Deris was unable to confirm the identity of the man responsible.) Between Deris and ourselves all but two of his students have been put back to rest. Deris also mentioned that the two demigods who had burst into No Fun and facilitated our escape to the Isle of Fuck You had never left Absalom before, which implied that something very importantly mysterious had happened. Personally, it doesn't seem terribly important because not even Deris could tell us what would make them leave the island, so it puts us in precisely no position to do anything about it. Whatever the hell it is. 

We asked Deris if he could check the house covered in vines as, being a ghost, the whipweed and assassin vine would be unable to harm him. A short while and quite a few explosions later Deris had cleared the house of plant life and confirmed that none of his former students had been inside, which meant they probably weren't inside the town. (Interestingly the house proved to be Deris's house when he was alive and we vehemently denied that we had anything to do with his silver possessions going missing.) Deris suspected that the two remaining students may be at the town graveyard, a short distance away in a forest to the west of town. Deris also believed that his grave may have been disturbed recently, explaining his return to this plane in ghost form, and he would investigate himself but for some reason he was unable to leave the confines of the town. We assented to his request that we would investigate and planned on heading out into the forest the next day, as it had already grown quite late and none of us relished the prospect of prancing around a haunted graveyard in the middle of the night. 

Personally I'm still suspicious of Deris, but much of that seems to be because everyone else we've run into so far has either been entirely unhelpful or actively trying to dick us over. Deris doesn't seem to fall in either category, although part of me suspects that heading into the graveyard might be part of a nefarious plan of Deris's design. Not that we were going to stumble blithely into the graveyard in the first place, of course, but I'm still concerned. Feron tells me that I'm just paranoid and I need to relax, but he's been eating parts of his mushroom hat pretty frequently and seems detached from reality most of the time so I suspect he may be wrong. 

In the morning Deris saw us off from the edge of town  and we headed out into the Blight, along a dirt path leading towards a forest. As we proceeded deeper into the forest the path continued to disappear and the vegetation grew considerably denser. Unfortunately for us it proved to be yet more assassin vine which was so eager to give us a nice, big, bone-crushing hug. I think I certainly got the worst of their attention, Feron said the vines are carnivorous and I guess they just wanted a big, meaty meal. Their decision to hug me proved a fatal mistake, though, as I managed to kill two of the bastards with my bone-blades.* I'd have rather cut them up with my sword, but they didn't really give me the option to maneuver and most of my time was spent trying to keep them from eating me alive. We've manged to clear out this particular patch of forest, but if we stay anywhere too long the vines will be able to come after us. I just hope we won't have to do a lot of heavy bushwhacking to get to this graveyard. 

- Krinsblag

*Editor's note: Krinsblag's outsider bonding means that he has spikes growing out of his body which can be used against creatures (or plants) that decide to grapple him. This has not been mentioned before because it hasn't come up. Krinsblag also can make his armor turn into shrapnel twice a day, but again this hasn't really come up. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, by Harry Harrison

In continuing the Stainless Steel Rat series I have gone to the first book in the series chronologically, although it was actually the sixth book published making it a prequel to the entire series. A Stainless Steel Rat is Born follows the adventures of a young James Bolivar DiGriz on his homeworld of Bit 'o Heaven and his entry into the ranks of professional criminals which shaped his entire life. We also get to meet Jim's mentor, The Bishop, Bit 'o Heaven's greatest criminal mastermind and see Jim grow from a rather naive youth into a competent professional. Overall it's an enjoyable, if somewhat short adventure.

In A Stainless Steel Rat is Born we get to meet Jim as a young man, which is a bit of a refreshing change from his usual adventures. Instead of the calm, confident, intergalactic con man we're familiar with, we get to meet Jim as a wet-behind-the-ears youth who only stays ahead of the authorities because of his wits and a decent amount of luck. As the novel progresses we get to see Jim develop his skills and become the smarmy and charming con man we all have come to know and love in the previous novels.

As a Star Wars fan I am painfully aware of how badly an origin prequel can go and how the main characters that you enjoy become objects of scorn as children. I feel that Harrison actually does a really good job in writing this prequel because Jim is still believable as a character. He may be young an inexperienced, but we can still see the potential for the universe's greatest con man and criminal so it doesn't suffer the same frustrations with other prequel installments. And this prequel certainly serves an important purpose because Jim's backstory was never really explored in previous books and with all of the material reasons for turning to crime eliminated by the peaceful galactic community it actually begs a really good question why someone would turn to crime. Although Jim's reason of sheer boredom with the culture he grows up in may seem a little thin, it's certainly understandable for someone who's clearly much brighter than everyone around him.

The one thing I also noticed, and this may because the book is a little more recent, is the casual sexism of Jim seems to have disappeared. I'm not sure if that's changing cultural viewpoints or if Harrison decided to eliminate it from the book, but it's thankfully gone and no longer a frustrating irritant to an otherwise enjoyable novel.

If you want to read this novel and are debating on whether to tackle the books in chronological order or publication order I'd certainly recommend publication order. I feel like you have to come to know Jim as a character before you can be bothered to care about his past and how he became who he is. Otherwise you're just reading the story of a guy who will eventually go on to do great things but you don't know what those things are yet so you have no reason to care. Definitely worth waiting for.

- Kalpar

Monday, February 17, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag: Payday at Last

Things have finally taken a turn for the better in our party. Not a whole lot better mind you, we're still trapped on an island which is turning to be littered with different forms of undead and I feel it would take very little to make everyone turn on each other, but for the time being we're working together like an actual team. Well, at least we're no longer working at cross-purposes, and I'll settle for that.

We were able to finish off Corrister's lackeys quickly enough, which is good because one of them took a pretty big bite out of Meda's face before I cut him in half. Once we'd burned the corpses as a safety precaution we decided to bed down for the rest of the night and assess the situation in the morning. After scaling the coastal cliff again, or more accurately after Meda and I climbed up the cliff and everyone else just hitched a ride on Grovetender, we headed back towards the highway and the watchtower. I had contemplated using it as a secure base while we tried to learn more about Corrister, but its advanced state of disrepair precluded that possibility. Any strategic advantage gained by staying in the tower would have been cancelled by the effect of putting a "Free Adventurers Buffet" sign over our heads. As much as I enjoy fighting, I also enjoy getting an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep every now and then as well.

Deciding that we very clearly could no longer remain where we were, the issue then became deciding where we should try to go. I was in favor of heading directly into the Blight where it got worse to the northwest, my logic being Corrister was probably at the center of the Blight and once he realized his lackeys had failed to kill us he'd probably come back and try to kill us again. And if there's one rule I can stand by it's if someone tries to kill me I'm going to try and kill them right back. Meda and Soma, however, were in favor of following the highway west and trying to get around the Blight entirely, on the hope that if we didn't mess with Corrister's plan's he'd probably leave us alone. Tidingston also pointed out that we don't know for certain that Corrister's at the center of the Blight and something much, much worse than him could be there instead. We ultimately decided on a compromise where we'd follow the western highway and not go directly after Corrister, but if he should cross our path in the future we'll definitely kill him. I'd have much rather made Corrister the hunted party, but since the highway appeared impervious to the Blight I conceded it was probably safer to follow the road than to head straight overland into zombie territory.

As we went further west the Blight, unsurprisingly, continued to get worse and everybody started getting the heeby-jeebies. Everyone except Tidingston and Soma, that is. I can't really explain it but they don't appear bothered in the least while the rest of us are whirling around at every odd sound or things half-seen out of the corner of your eye. I asked Tidingston about it and he said the whole area had been desecrated, and while it was playing with everybody else's nerves he had a way to align his energy and get power from it. Soma I was less surprised about, considering he can capture souls of the recently killed in gems and use them for spells. I may loot, pillage, murder, and occasionally set things on fire out of no desire greater than sheer spite, but using a soul just feels wrong to me. Still, I'll let Soma worry about the ethics of magic while I stick with the ethics of cutting things with my sword. Much simpler that way.

We eventually found a town, or at least what's left of a town. I think this settlement may have been much bigger at one point but there's only six or seven buildings left, and even with those the very stone itself appears to be rotting from the Blight. We decided we'd spend some time here picking over the bones before moving on and started a systematic sweep of the town, building by building. We pretty quickly discovered this was part of Absalom, which seems obvious in hindsight, because one of the buildings proved to be an army barracks and Feron identified Absalom markings on the equipment we uncovered. We found a few longbows and shortswords, as well as a cache of silver-tipped arrows we handed over to Meda, and a couple of battered sets of parade armor. Most of it junk but if we ever get back to civilization we can always sell it as scrap. A few of the other buildings turned up some valuables worth a bit of gold, which we gladly added to our small pile of loot.

I will admit we should have been more careful in a couple of the buildings. One room we breached into had three of these little buggers that cried constantly while they were trying to eat us. It was pretty unnerving to say the least. Fortunately Grovetender and I had flanked the door into the room so the bastards had no choice but go between a very pissed off man with a very big sword and a very pissed off tree, all the while getting arrows and firebombs in their face as well. Unfortunately for us there was something really strange about these critters, well aside from the constant crying bit, because after a couple of them bit me I started feeling so tired I could barely lift my sword. I must have blacked out for a bit too because when I woke up Grovetender had smashed the last of them about six inches into the floor.

Our other mistake was this building completely covered with vines, and we didn't like the look of it but we decided to check it out anyway. The first floor yielded some silver plate which we'll immediately hock once we get to a town, but aside from ubiquitous vines nothing else seemed strange. We headed upstairs and that's when something must have clicked because Feron told us that this entire house was covered in assassin vine and whip weed, two nasty little plants I'd rather not mess with. In hindsight it should have been obvious, considering it was the only plant life we'd seen in the Blight so far, but at least we figured it out before one of those plants decided to make us lunch. Miraculously all of us managed to dive out of the windows on the second floor and land unharmed in the yard. Feron did some mystical druid thing where he talked with the plants to calm them down and right now it seems to be as long as we keep our distance, everything will be fine. We're hoping he can make some sort of arrangement with the plants so we can pull out any more loot that might be hidden in the house, but I'm not hopeful. As of right now we've got one building left, which looks like a school of sorts. We'd only started to clear the building before we noticed a pronounced draft. Whatever's causing it can't be good, but we're going to have to find out anyway.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!, by Harry Harrison

This week we follow the ongoing adventures of James Bolivar DiGriz with the fairly short novel, The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!, which I mentioned briefly in my review last week. In this novel we get to see the entire DiGriz family go to work, dodging not only the tax man but also the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. A massive alien invasion from a distant arm of the galaxy has put human forces on the run and the Special Corps needs someone to gain intelligence on who they're facing and what their strengths are, so they send in Slippery Jim and his family, the very best agents available.

The plot is very space operatic, humanity facing an alien menace that seeks to wipe them out from the galaxy to the last person, but it seems almost incidental to everything to be perfectly honest. Jim's actions certainly influence the course of the war, but we never really see it happening on the front lines and never really get a true sense of how big it is. I guess what you really get is how one man is able to influence events in small ways well beyond the scope you would normally expect out of one person. The story ultimately is really about Jim and his adventures rather than the war for survival humanity has found themselves involved in.

The other big thing about this book is that it brings back the Gray Men, the main villains from The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge who act largely from behind the scenes and use their limited numbers, much like Jim, to influence events in their favor. This book does a really good job of humanizing an enemy and making you understand why they behave a certain way, albeit in a very short amount of page matter. While I certainly would not condone the Gray Men's methods, I can at least understand why they do what they do. Sadly, I don't think they appear in any later novels and so fall by the wayside as characters after this story.

The one thing I really noticed about this book, and again, I think this is an result of the book being written when it was written, was that Jim repeatedly states during this novel that he takes a little bit of pride in being a male chauvinist pig. What he seems to mean by that is he enjoys being a philanderer and womanizer and doesn't seem to hold women in quite the same regard as he holds men, and he refuses to apologize for it. And yet during the novel he runs into a culture that is the very extreme of male chauvinism where women are really little more than property and do what they're told, which makes him more sympathetic to the women's liberation movement.

Again, this is rather jarring to a twenty-first century audience because no one would declare with pride that they're a male chauvinist. Okay, there are some people who do, but they're very quickly attacked for their ill-informed and hurtful viewpoints as they should be. I feel like a lot of audiences might tolerate some playful philandering but there becomes a point where people are no longer going to tolerate it because we find that behavior creepy and socially unacceptable. I'll accept it as character growth for Jim DiGriz, though, and hopefully in later novels he grows out of that male chauvinist pride.

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! is a pretty short novella that you could probably read in a day off with no trouble. If you've got a lazy day and want something fun to read you could certainly do worse.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Adventures of Krinsblag: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Entry Five:
Well, the situation has gone from bad to worse, and if I'm going to be honest it's pretty much entirely my fault. However, to explain how we've gotten to our current situation I shall have to recount the events of several days, beginning where I last left off.

After putting Palaveen in charge of No Fun and seeing him make definite progress on the wall, we decided to take a few days to rest and see if Tallcrippler would let us just walk out of the place so we wouldn't have to kill him. In one of my more good-natured moments I deigned to assist the gnomes in constructing the wall which turns out to have been the first bad decision in what would become a series of bad decisions, as I have mentioned. As the wall neared completion Palaveen informed us that the contract explicitly stated that the gnomes would be the ones to finish the wall, which had made him concerned. Asmodeus, being the diabolical stickler for technicalities that he is, may interpret our assistance with the wall as a breach of contract and make everyone stay in this gods-forsaken hellhole, and Palaveen asked us to depart so that our presence would not affect the contract.

We quickly pointed out to Palaveen that we'd very gladly depart from No Fun and would have done so much sooner, but all plans to do so peaceably had been thwarted by Tallcrippler the gatekeeper. If Palaveen wished us to force our way past the gatekeeper we welcomed him to assist us in this endeavor, to which he replied if we simply went to the outskirts of town his fears would be satisfied. So with absolutely no regret whatsoever we left No Fun for what we fervently prayed would be the last time and waited in a tunnel for about four hours or so for the gnomes to finish the wall.

To tell the truth, we will never know if the gnomes finished the wall. They may be down there still in No Fun, constantly trying to build a wall to fulfill the obligations of that infernal contract. What we do know is about four hours after we left town there was a tremendous rumble in the direction of the exit which Meda said sounded much like a cave-in or a collapsing building. This was followed by a much louder rumble in the direction of No Fun. Worried that our avenue of escape had been cut off we ran towards Tallcrippler's house to discover it had taken considerable damage, and rubble littered the floor of cavern. Worst of all, the only known tunnel to the surface was completely blocked with slabs of rock not even Grovetender could hope to lift. We interrogated Tallcrippler to find out just what the fuck had happened, but he only answered that everyone would remain here until the wall was finished. In hindsight we probably should have tried killing him and getting the hell out a lot earlier, but it's no use complaining about squandered opportunities.

We decided to head back into No Fun to try and rescue anyone trapped under rubble and find some answers, and at least we made some progress on the latter by finding out what, or rather who had caused the cave-in. When we entered the cavern containing No Fun a portal opened in the ceiling and out of it came a great black devil wielding a sword and axe, followed by an elf woman wielding a mace and a rose. The talked at each other for a while in languages I couldn't even being to hope to understand, knocking each other into buildings and causing a general ruckus before disappearing into another portal. Soma informed us that they were Moloch and Milani, two minor deities who were talking about a cosmic struggle or balance or some such thing, usual nonsense gods are always going on about.

Palaveen soon emerged and asked us what the fuck we had done, to which we explained it was very unlikely any of our actions had caused Moloch and Milani to appear and mess with his wall. This only further confused Palaveen who sat down and kept going over the contract as if it'd somehow explain why two demigods had decided to crash his town in a very literal manner. The party contemplated what we should do now that our only route of escape had been cut off, when yet another portal opened near us. Looking through it I recognized the Starstone Cathedral and concluded Absalom would be a much better place to be than this desperate fuck-hole. I told everyone to follow me and jumped through the portal, landing more or less safely in Absalom. Before the portal closed we saw Moloch and Milani continuing to fight in No Fun, unaware of the devastation they caused. I suspect no one survived the collateral damage of their battle and I pray they're in a much better place because it seems we sure as hell aren't.

Here's the funny thing I hadn't been aware of which may have changed my decision to jump through the portal. It turns out that Absalom has been the location of Moloch and Milani's fight for nearly four hundred years. You'd think even demigods would get tired of fighting after four centuries but it can't be said they haven't gone halfway. We found what had once been a vibrant and thriving city abandoned and mostly in ruin. Determined to make the best of a bad situation, we salvaged whatever materials we could find and headed off on the western highway, determined to find even a fishing village that would help us get off this damn island.

The folly of my decision became yet more apparent as our progress was halted by what we've decided to call Blight. The very ground itself appeared decayed and the stench of rot permeated the atmosphere. Unwilling to continue blindly into a very clearly bad thing, we decided to stop at a watchtower and try to determined how far the Blight extended. Based on our observations we concluded that it appeared to actually get worse to the north and west, the general direction of our travel, and no living thing could be seen, but it seemed to stop before the coastline to the south. To the north we espied a recently used campsite and as it wasn't too far from the road we decided it was worth investigating.

The campsite, unfortunately, only confirmed our worst fears about this place. We did find a corpse in the middle of the site, but my adventurer sense told me it was better to be safe than sorry so I poked it with my sword before I let anyone near it. Lo and behold I was proven right and it turned out to be a zombie which we quickly dispatched. Actually, Soma tells me it's technically a Cadaver because it got back up again and started following us, but we cut its arms and legs off and left it moaning impotently in the middle of the field. Deciding that the ocean seemed to be our best bet we headed south towards the coast and away from the Blight.

It was nearly dark by the time we reached the cliffs that separated us from the beach, and Tidingston noticed a small campfire down by the shore. We decided to climb down and investigate, hoping whoever had started the fire could help us or take us to someone who could help us get off this cursed island. By the time we had all reached the beach, however, the campfire had been put out and an investigation of its general location revealed what could generously be called a campsite but really was little more than a bedroll under a rock ledge. We decided to light the campfire to show our peaceful intentions and wait until whoever was staying here decided to come back. Meda and Feron went to try their luck at fishing so we could avoid dipping into our scant reserves of trail rations.

Eventually the owner of the bedroll, a man named Winifred, decided we seemed peaceful and returned, although we gave him quite a few scares and he passed out at least once. Mostly he was babbling and incoherent, but we discerned that he had been part of a previous expedition to the island to try and recover artifacts from Absalom but something had made the expedition turn on each other and they were all now in the Blighted area. Despite our attempts at interrogation he revealed little else and we determined he'd been here for quite some time. As the night continued I developed a certain pity for Winifred and wished I could help him, although considering we seem to have a hard enough time to help ourselves it seemed there was very little we could do for him.

At about midnight a voice began calling for Winifred at the top of the cliff, going back and forth trying to find where he was. Winifred was very clearly disturbed by this voice and only reluctantly admitted it was one of his former crewmates. We decided to see if we could wait him out but the voice soon revealed that he knew at least one other person had come down there as well. A quick conference concluded that if whoever was up on the cliff knew we were down here it was better to challenge him to a fight quickly than die slowly of starvation. Meda dissented, and again I probably should have taken her advice, but my brasher more impulsive nature got the better of me and I decided to go forth and issue a challenge. The owner of the voice revealed himself to be Ado Corrister and after shouting a few insults at him and doing the big tough warblade routine it appeared he had buggered off. Unfortunately for us he had simply come down to the beach so he could carry off Winifred for whatever nefarious purpose he has in mind  and then sic his lackeys on us. I'm beginning to suspect I should just kill anyone who can form a coherent sentence on sight because all of them seem determined to dick me over.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison

Hello everyone and welcome to Stainless Steel Rat month. To provide some backstory for my readers unfamiliar with the writings of Harry Harrison, the Stainless Steel Rat series follows the adventures of galactic supercriminal James Bolivar DiGriz. DiGriz eventually gets recruited by the Special Corps, an interstellar police agency that captures the best criminals in the galaxy and puts them to work to catch other criminals. The name of the series comes from a metaphor by the main character who says that rats have always existed between the walls of society and there were more rats in the olden days but in the modern society of the future there's less and less space between the walls and it takes a rat of stainless steel to survive. DiGriz's adventures were chronicled across a dozen novels that Harrison wrote over half a century and run from serious to silly depending on the situation. This month I'm going to be looking at four books, technically six of the Rat's adventures because the first novel contains the first three stories written by Harrison, although now that I'm aware of the other novels I may look into my friend James DiGriz again in the future.

The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat contain the first three adventures of Slippery Jim DiGriz ever written, although they're not the first three temporally as a few prequels were written at a later date. However, I think it's an excellent position to start from and meet James for the first time. The first story, The Stainless Steel Rat, details how Jim came to be captured by the Special Corps and recruited as one of their agents, as well as his first big assignment and how he eventually met his wife. The second story, The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge introduced the Grey Men, a mysterious enemy that will come back again in The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! which I'll be talking about next week. The final story, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, sends Jim on an adventure across both time and space back to the mythical home planet of humanity in an attempt to save the Special Corps and everyone Jim has ever known from ceasing to exist. Overall they're pretty interesting adventures and it's fun to watch Jim tackle various challenges with his criminal's bag of tricks, but this does not mean the book is not without issues.

One of the biggest things that I noticed was that there was a lot of casual old-timey sexism sort of woven into the stories in this novel. I had to keep reminding myself that these stories had been written forty to fifty years ago so they're going to have very different viewpoints on gender, but it's still jarring to read them. For example, one of the female villain's main motivations for why she turns to crime is because she was born ugly so she committed crimes to get money for plastic surgery so she could become beautiful. Another example is a planet ruled by women where men are almost second-class citizens, being limited to certain job fields and not being able to vote until a much later age. I almost got the impression of the author standing to one side and saying, "See! See how exotic it is! The absurdity of it, I tell you!" Based on Harrison's other views I think he was trying to help support the feminist movement, but it still felt weird to me and hasn't aged as well. Ultimately I would not blame it on malice but rather the prevailing culture of the time period in which these novels were written.

Another issue was inconsistencies in the overall universe between books. For example, the first story casually mentions Earth and it's implied that the home planet of humanity is a matter of fact, however in the third novel the home planet is referred to as Dirt or something like that and only exists as part of the distant past that's only distantly remembered. I feel like this is more a result of the first couple of books being written roughly a decade apart, which gives the author plenty of time to have forgotten some of his lore already. Again, something that you just have to accept as part of the nature of the series.

For whatever reason I greatly enjoy the first two stories in this novel and think they're some pretty fun space adventures that fans of pulp sci-fi could greatly enjoy. I'm more frustrated with the third story because of time travel shenanigans more than anything else, I think, but otherwise it's fairly good. I definitely recommend it for fans of space opera who are looking for something different.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Adventures of Krinsblag: It was like this when we found it, officer, I swear.

Entry Four:
After Tidingston and myself had successfully knocked out and tied up the guards the wizard Soma arrived and informed us that yes, our party members had in fact gotten into trouble. It turns out that sending Meda to assassinate Foechuckle was not the best plan, by which I mean the entire operation had been botched and they had killed three guards and seriously wounded Foechuckle who had taken refuge behind a wall of chains. Normally a wall of chains is not a particularly tough obstacle, especially compared to a stone wall. (Although considering we have a treant in the party walls in general aren't so much obstacles as minor inconveniences, as Grovetender had proven on Foechuckle's house.) However, when it turns out the person you're trying to kill is a chain devil and can manipulate those chains into a fifteen-foot long razor sharp whip of spikey death, then it becomes a bad day for everyone. Especially for the giant frog that Soma summoned, I'm still cleaning bits of blood out of my hair from that one. Anyway, with the wall of chains we were sort of stuck with just chucking things at him hoping they'd hit, and Meda eventually took him down with her longbow.

The entire reason we had decided to assassinate Foechuckle was because we had been lead to believe he had the artifact we'd been sent down here to find. Well, all right, I was in favor of killing him because he was an asshole, but loot is always a bonus. Unfortunately for us all we found were some odds and ends and a locked drawer in Foechuckle's desk. Which I of course broke open and which proved to be filled with paperwork including a note that said the artifact we wanted was with Tallcrippler the gatekeeper. In my frustration and rage I set Foechuckle's chair on fire and left it burning merrily in the middle of his office. Now, keep in mind by this point we have wrecked a good portion of Foechuckle's house, have killed not only him but three other people, have very obviously broken into his desk in search for valuables, and set everything on fire. It seemed we were well and truly boned, but Tidingston, silver tongued genius that he is, decided to try and salvage the situation. Out of a feeling of companionship I decided to go with him in case his words proved inadequate and swords might be more useful. Soma, having decided he'd had enough excitement for one night and was completely out of spells, decided to run away and hide.

I think the trick to telling lies is you have to tell one so big or so unlikely that everyone has no choice but to accept that it's the truth. At least that seems to be Tidingston's school of thought. When we reached the center of town Tidingston gathered a number of workers and a couple of guards to reveal that Foechuckle had been releasing poisons in the cavern that not only caused the bleaching but also weakened the gnomes to make them unable to finish the wall, so that he might lord over them as a petty tyrant for eternity. Somehow the gnomes actually bought it and a few suggested they go confront Foechuckle themselves. Tidingston then interjected that upon our own discovery of this subterfuge we went directly to his house to confront Foechuckle who then attacked us and we were left with no choice but to defend ourselves and ultimately had to kill him. At this point I helpfully added that there was a terrible struggle inside his house which smashed much of the furniture and because Foechuckle was a devil he tried to kill us with fireballs which was responsible for the fire that I had personally left merrily raging. Again, the audacity of the lie somehow added legitimacy and the gnomes accepted that, as well as our recommendation that Palaveen, the cleric, be their new leader.

Now, normally I would not leave Palaveen in charge of anything, much less the town of No Fun as we've begun to call this hellhole. Fortunately for us he seems interested merely in getting the pointless wall finished so the gnomes will be free of the contract and able to go somewhere else. I may disagree with his methods, as he's making everyone work overtime to get the dam thing done, but I can at least understand the sentiment. Palaveen also told us that Tallcrippler the gatekeeper has been around for as long as anyone can remember. Considering the gnomes have been down here for four centuries and they're on at least the fifth generation working on the wall, the fact that Tallcrippler is mysteriously older than everyone else does not bode particularly well. Soma was in favor of sneaking back to the surface past Tallcrippler, letting the Pathfinder Guild know we found their precious artifact, and then let them go through the effort of killing him for it. We concluded this was a rather good plan and wished Soma luck on is journey, fully never expecting to see him again. Imagine our surprise when fifteen minutes later Soma returned to inform us that Tallcrippler had seen through multiple levels of illusions and had turned Soma around back into the settlement. The wall should be finished soon, but I get the feeling if we ever want to get out of here we're going to have to kill Tallcrippler ourselves. Which is a shame because the bodies are really starting to pile up.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Adventures of Krinsblag: Curioser and Curioser

This time I catch up with the rest of Krinsblag's adventures in a gnome town.

Entry Two:
Things have taken a very strange turn in our expedition. We found a small hut that turned out to be occupied by a gnome named Wallhorn Tallcrippler. Apparently the settlement of gnomes has remained alive down here for the past four hundred years, although how I've no earthly clue. Tallcrippler wanted to know what we wanted and I like Tidingston do most of the talking. Tallcrippler wasn't too thrilled to see us, we had to explain we thought everyone down here was dead and we were very surprised to find anyone down here. Eventually Tallcrippler told us to go down to the main settlement and meet their leader, but not before Tidingston picked up a doll on Tallcrippler's shelf which proceeded to bite him. The doll, I mean. It's a little weird but I decided it was better not to probe too deeply into it.

We headed down into the settlement and it just doesn't make any sense. On one side there are a bunch of houses where the gnomes live and on the other there's a giant wall that they're working on. What's worse is that the gnomes are suffering from bleaching as well. Apparently if gnomes don't experience new things it starts slowly killing them and making them age. As far as Tidingston can tell buiding this wall is so mind-crushingly tedious that it's literally killing them to finish it. Overall it doesn't look good.

The town guard escorted us up to meet their mayor or headman, whatever you call it, gnome by the name of Foster Foechuckle. I don't really care for him, bit of an asshole and he wouldn't speak to anyone other than Tidingston. Foechuckle outlined the bleaching problem and Tidingston said we might be able to help if they let us poke around. Foechuckle wasn't too happy about having strangers in his community, but he assented so long as we help build the wall. I'm not looking forward to helping with the wall, but it's an unfortunate necessity. There's also a cleric of Asmodeus in here too, a sort of tiefling, but I don't care for him either.

Foechuckle assigned us quarters in one of their dormitories and we met a couple of the locals. The young ones seem to have some spirit left but most of them are utterly crushed in terms of morale. Whatever this bleaching is it's hitting them pretty bad.  While I was out doing some exercises the cleric showed up and talked with Tidingston, Soma, Feron, and Meda (That's the dwarf). Apparently he wants to meet with us at the worksite at midnight. It's about eight now so we'll just have to see how that goes.

Entry Three:
Everything has taken a turn from the strange to just plain don't make sense. We met the cleric at the worksite and he showed us why the wall's been taking over four hundred years to build. Every night a crew of gnomes disassembles part of the wall and shifts the bricks around so that the gnomes on the day shift have something new to experience to take the edge off of the bleaching. Where it doesn't make sense is that according to the cleric if they didn't tear parts of the wall down every night the wall would be done in a matter of days. Weeks at the outside. Which would mean the gnomes could leave this damn place, contract fulfilled, and be cured of the bleaching. Yet if Foechuckle knows this, why on earth is he making them tear the wall down every night just so it gets built again in the morning? It makes not damn sense and I suspect someone is lying to us.

The trouble with adventuring parties, I will admit, is that when the party reaches a crossroads everyone has to add their opinion and then debate it endlessly. Even Meda got involved. What we concluded was if we disabled enough of the night crew they wouldn't be able to tear down the progress on the wall and it'd actually get finished. I suggested we get some booze from the surface and get them rip-roaring drunk or, failing that, have me start wrestling them, which sounded like a lot of fun. I think Meda suggested we use me as a distraction while everyone else went to kill Foechuckle, although it may have been Soma. Point is someone said if we got rid of the incompetent leadership we'd be able to get the wall finished. We continued to debate about it and Tidingston ultimately decided to start the wrestling distraction with my assistance.

The wrestling actually started out rather well and I managed to tie one of the overseers up but then the guard got involved and it got pretty nasty. The guard had these bladed gauntlets, which is a weapon only amateurs use by the way, but the nasty part was the poison. It stung me pretty good but we managed to knock them all out too. Tidingston pulled out a swarm of spiders which was pretty awesome. I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of one of those. Once we took care of the guards we realized the rest of the party had run off, presumably to kill Foechuckle. Hopefully they haven't gotten themselves into too much trouble.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Adventures of Krinsblag the Mighty: You gotta start somewhere.

In addition to my weekly book reviews I've decided to start posting entries about the Pathfinder campaign which my friends and I have become involved in, so we'll see how long this runs. To give you a brief overview it's set about four hundred years after an event has caused Golarion to shatter and there has been a great deal of contact with other planes. Carvan's hinted that there's more plot to come but we haven't really run into that yet. My character is a human Warblade named Krinsblag the Mighty (Yes, I pulled in Book of Nine Swords) who is focusing in Iron Heart and White Raven disciplines. Backstory wise he was born a slave and was apprenticed as a blacksmith, but he forged a sword in secret and eventually used it to kill his owners and free his family. He then took up wandering and getting into fights, eventually falling in with some hobgoblins and learning the basics of Iron Heart from them. Krinsblag seeks to have his deeds remembered in story and song, have a pile of wealth to make Croesus blush, and all the whores. Just all of them. 

The adventures are going to be recorded from Krinsblag's point of view, as a sort of journal, and I'm sure will be slightly tempered by his...interesting personality. Hopefully you'll enjoy it.

Entry One:
 Went to a Pathfinder Guild site in Cheliax today, hoping to find some work and get a handful of gold in the bargain. Unfortunately the pickings don't look very good. The local captain explained that there used to be a gnome settlement here that was contracted by the Cheliaxian government to build a giant wall to keep out the Andorans out. Anyway, settlement's long gone but they think something might be left underground in these mine shafts and they want us to go down and pick the bones. If we find anything interesting they plan on keeping it, but we're allowed to keep anything they're not interested in. It's not the best deal, but I need the work.

After making us sign contracts, the Pathfinders split us up into groups so we can cover more of the mines. I got put into a group with four other people, five if you count the tree but I personally wouldn't. There's an elf named Feron, a druid, very odd fellow. Has a large mushroom hat, very odd fellow, always gathering organic components from dead animals. He's also got a pet tree. As it's a tree it doesn't really have a personality per se, but it's not the worst tree I've ever met. There's a human wizard named Soma, sort of a shifty fellow who always seems to deny everything. As long as he doesn't stab me in the back I'm not really concerned. Yet. There's a dwarf monk too, whose name I didn't catch. She seems very stoic, like most dwarves, and very detached from everything. So far my favorite is the gnome alchemist, W.D. Tidingston, although he's been using a pseudonym with the Guild, probably to weasel out of the contract. He's a bit of a travelling medicine man, selling elixirs with a bit of panache, very interested in making money but not much else. For whatever reason we seem to get along the best, although I suspect it's because we're the sanest people in this crew. We also met some toff who had the audacity to insult me and my sword. I think I'm going to skin him. Not because I go around skinning people, mind you, just because I hate that guy. 

Anyway, we headed down into the mines, found a hidden passage and of course the damn thing is lined with traps. Nothing fatal mind you, just annoying as fuck. A few critters in there as well, but nothing my sword and the monk's bow couldn't take care of. The last trap was just downright confusing though. It released this rolling boulder and the druid sent his tree to try and stop it and the boulder just...kept coming. Plus it looked wrong, somehow. I couldn't explain it at the time but I had the feeling that it was an illusion, because gnomes love them some illusions. It'd actually be a brilliant trap if there was like a spiked pit at the end that people fell into while they were running away from the boulder, but it seemed to just be there to scare people. We did find a secret door which leads to a settlement of some sort. I'll record more later.