Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My Top Ten Favourite Books (Of All Time) #5 - #1

 This is a continuation of my previous post Top Ten Favourites #10 - #6. I'm going to dive straight into the final five!

5. The Hero of Ages (Mistborn Series Book 3) Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is a relatively new author, who I am convinced must be part machine, to write as many quality books as he does each year. While I've enjoyed every book of his I've read so far, his Mistborn series is still my favourite, and the culmination of the first trilogy occurs in The Hero of Ages. Sanderson's strength comes from his incredible magic systems, which are so different when compared to the usual fare. He also excels at mysteries.

I've never had as many aha! moments reading any other book. Each revelation explains so much. What seemed like a plot hole - why a particular character could use a particular form of magic better than anyone else - turns out to be incredibly important to the story's mysteries, and make perfect sense in context. The Hero of Ages explains everything, and it all seems so obvious that you wonder why you didn't realise it, and has many epic moments besides.

4. Lost in a Good Book (Thursday Next Series Book 2) Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde has a breadth of wit surpassed only by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in the genre world, though his books are typically found in the vaugley titled 'Fiction' section. What Fforde beats them at is his fast and fun crime-fiction style plots, which weave in and out in a delightful fashion. You see, the Thursday Next series takes place in an alternate 1980s, in which George Fornby is the president of Britain, the Crimean War is still being fought, the true identity of William Shakespeare is hotly argued in place of who'll win the next X-factor, and genetically recovered Dodos make a great designer pet. That's barely breaking the surface of the crazy but always interesting world of Thursday Next (which is the name of the main character).

Thursday is a great heroine, and many of her exploits take her jumping into the Book World, which would take several blog posts to explain in full. Suffice to say she butts heads with her mentor Miss Havisham, resists the charms of Heathcliffe, and interacts with many more real and made up literary characters (the latter being made up likely only for copyright reasons). If this all doesn't appeal to you, it's unlikely I'll be able to convince you otherwise. Thursday Next feels real, despite the bizarre nature of her world, and Lost in a Good Book is merely my favourite example in a crazy tapestry of time travel, murderous demons, fictional doppelgangers and nefarious megacorporations.   

3. Guards Guards (Discworld Series) Terry Pratchett  

Terry Pratchett is my absolute favourite author of all time. So why is this book third on the list? Well it's for one reason only - Terry Pratchett has written around 50 books, ranging from good, to great. But I'm not sure if any one book of his has quite captivated me as much as the top two books on the list. For those not familiar, Pratchett deals in fantasy and humour. His books hold a mirror up to our world, albeit with horns and a silly moustache drawn on in red pen. There's something so familiar about Pratchett novels, that doesn't just come from the fact that I've read most of them several times.

Guards Guards is my favourite of his books, my a very minor margin. Some day for my own amusement, I'll rank the Discworld novels from favourite to least favourite. Maybe after reading them all again. But anyway, Guards Guards introduces us to the City Watch, who became my favourite group of characters in Pratchett's stable of interesting and amusing people. Vimes, Carrot, Nobby Nobbs, Colon. All brilliant in their own right. There are so many hilarious character moments in this book, which is probably why it ranks among my favourites. This book is also an excellent jumping on point for new readers of Pratchett.

2. A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 3) George R. R. Martin

This is the only book on the list I'm confident I don't have to explain. I must admit, I hopped on to the series after The Game of Thrones phenomena started taking off. I watched the entire first season in a week, then instantly bought the first four books, reading them all within a month. Then the fifth book came out, and I consumed it in about a week. There's something so compelling about the novels, about the characters and the politics. Very few other books inspire the same level of theorising that people have done for this series. I read entire essays predicting events, seeking to explain characters motivations or accusing others of being involved in secret plots - the sort that Martin clearly likes to work in to the series.

A Storm of Swords remains my favourite simply because of the wealth of things that happen in the book. I'm keeping it spoiler free for those luddites who have not yet read the books or watched the series, but damn, some crazy things happen. I also think this is when many characters plotlines were at their prime. Things have started to drag down a bit after this book, and I, like many others, are hoping that the next novel is going to bring down the hammer with all the running plotlines, and force things to move forward again. But it still remains that A Storm of Swords is an incredibly tense, fun, heartbreaking, fist pumping and altogether entertaining read, with twists that only the most pessimistic of readers could have predicted.

1. Skin Game (Dresden Files Book 15) Jim Butcher

For those not in the know, Dresden Files is series of fantasy novels set in the modern day, revolving around a private investigator/wizard called Harry Dresden, operating in Chicago. These books cannot really be read by themselves - well, they can, and they come off as pretty good pulpy novels. But read them in order, and you see the grander scheme of things. Mysteries within mysteries. Recurring villains, allies and others in-between. The series is made by the main character. Harry Dresden is an excellent POV character, noble but flawed, wisecracking and continually tempted by his darker impulses. Magic in this world has laws, but is not quite a science, and terrible creatures hide in the dark places, kept in check only by the accords, and the threat of retribution by the Wizards Council.

Skin Game is the latest novel in the series, and has some of the best parts of the previous novels. It has the best villain: Nicodemus, a man who holds a pact with a fallen angel, and who's lived at least a thousand years (so he's been around a bit). Also many of my favourite supporting characters are present: Karen Murphy, Dresden's faithful cop friend; Michael Carpenter, former knight of the cross, frequent foe of the fallen angels and Butters, the medical examiner who's becoming an unlikely hero. Add to that a heist plot where Harry has to assist Nicodemus in retrieving something from the hidden vaults of Hades himself...
Weeelll, let me just say that things get incredibly interesting.

The Dresden Files works best when Dresden is working in an area of murky morality, and this has that in spades. The book manages to make the series feel fresh by playing into new territory. The heist angle is brilliantly entertaining, and getting to see more of Nicodemus is both interesting and disturbing. Plenty of twists abound, and the ending is one of my favourite endings I've read so far. If you do read this series, I recommend trying to speed through the first two books, as the second can drag a fair bit. Also, the audiobook version is excellent - James Marsters (aka Spike from Buffy) turns in a great performance. In particular, his voices for Dresden, Murphy and several other of the main 'good' characters are very well nuanced. 

In short, Skin Game is an awesome book, made more so by the books that came before it.

Want to talk about the books on my list? Got your own list of favourite books? Feel free to share and discuss below.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Top Ten Favourite Books (Of All Time) #10 - #6

Since it's Christmas, or at least the time at which supermarkets and television ads would like us to believe is Christmas, I figured I'd take the time out to look back at some of the books I've read this year as well as all those I've read further back. Sticking to fiction here, and you'll notice they're mostly fantasy novels.

The main rule that I'm enforcing here is one book per author, since otherwise this would just be a list of Pratchett novels...whiiich actually sounds like a fun idea.... I'll leave that for a later list. It may sound like a top ten authors list, but I'm ranking by book quality, so my top ten favourite authors could probably make a different list.

Anyway, let's get on with the list.

10. The Sword in the Storm (Rigante Series Book 1)  David Gemmel

I think The Sword in the Storm was the first adult fantasy book I picked up as a child, bar the less traditional Discworld Series. I must admit, Gemmel's books don't seem to have the same pull to me as they used to, but the ideas and stories in the book still resonate with me till this day. As far as I remember, it's a story about a honourable boy named Connovar, overcoming vast challenges to become leader of the Rigante. It is notable perhaps for it's clear Celtic tones and strong characterisation.

Many of Gemmel's other books are excellent reads, including most of his Drenai series, and the Troy series. He tends to create these noble, yet troubled heroes, often faced with overwhelming loss.

9. The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles Book 2) Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss has an excellent talent for words - specifically how to craft them into uniquely enchanting sentences. He also has a clear love of storytelling in all its forms. Several times, I have been drawn into a story told within the novel, forgetting that it was being told by one of the characters, rather than the narrator - who is also telling his own story within the context of the novel. The main character at first seems a little cliched - the talented, recently orphaned boy who seems to be good at anything he tries his hand at - but it quickly becomes clear that Kvothe is an incredibly interesting individual. Many traditional fantasy elements are included, but approached in unique and nuanced ways.

The reason why this book is so low is that despite Rothfuss' clear talent, I have not yet invested myself into the world - I find the move from the present to the past a little jarring for one thing. The fact that we know fairly well where Kvothe's life is heading by the end of this book makes me almost reticent to read the next one, since in the past he had finally found himself in a place where he was content. I will read the next book though, and you should read these.

8. Mostly Harmless (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Book 5) Douglas Adams

 I'll not bother explaining much about the series, since you likely know enough about it already. (If you don't, I highly advise you leave my blog, buy an ebook edition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, read it, then come back to me to agree how great it is). Mostly Harmless is probably my personal favourite, for reasons difficult to explain. Perhaps it's because Arthur Dent set himself up on a planet as the official sandwich maker for a small simple village. Or maybe it's my favourite because it's the one that I least associate with any tv or film version of the books.

What I do know is that it doesn't contain my favourite part from all the novels, the Cathedral of Hate, in which an unfortunate creature named Agrajag reveals that Arthur Dent had killed him many times, each time Agrajag reincarnating to a new body that Dent kills.

7. The Lone Drow (Hunter's Blades Trilogy Book 2) R. A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore's books have been extremely hit and miss to me, but I managed to read some of his best fare first of all. The Hunter's Blades trilogy has some of Salvatore's best character work to date. Set in the Forgotten Realms, the main setting for Dungeons and Dragons, and starring Drizzt Do'Urden, the dark elf that spawned a thousand online handles, as well as his friends.

The Lone Drow stands out for two reasons. First is it's excellent examination of the pain of loss. At the end of the previous novel, Drizzt thought he witnessed the death of all his friends in one swoop by the hands of an army of orcs and frost giants. They survived, of course, but Drizzt spends much of his time behind enemy lines, trying to find meaning and revenge. The second reason is the epic cliffside battle that Drizzt's friends face. One of my favourite setpieces in any novel I've read.

6. Last Will of Kings (First Law Trilogy Book 3) Joe Abercrombie

If you know me very well at all, you've probably heard me sing the praise of this series at least once before. It contains so many elements of traditional fantasy - the hidden heir to the throne, the wise old wizard, the noble barbarian. And yet, all are subverted before the end, in completely organic ways. Seemingly all the characters are assholes, perhaps more cynically flawed than in reality, but yet when it comes to the POV characters, I can't help but like them. Glokta, the crippled inquisitor is a particular favourite - cynical, darkly witted, almost enjoying torturing others, but still holding a vulnerability about him.

If you're looking for optimistic, happy-go-lucky fantasy, Abercrombie is a bad choice. But other than that, I barely have a bad word to say about this book, which makes my top 5 even more special.

#5-1 will come within a couple of days. Speculate as you will as to what will turn up in the top 5. Here's a list of some books that narrowly missed the top ten:
Conan the Barbarian Series by Robert E. Howard
J-Pod by Douglas Coupland
The Portable Door by Tom Holt
The Warrior-Prophet by R. Scott Bakker
Magician by Raymond E. Feist
Gardens of the Moon by Stephen Erikson
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Friday, 5 December 2014

Numenera RPG: A Review

If you've read my first blog post, you may remember me mentioning a little something called the Numenera RPG. If you don't know what an RPG is, go here. However, I'm going to assume some familiarity with RPGs for the remainder of this post, so if you have any further questions, feel free to pose them in the comments below, or send me a personal message.

This is going to be a review/overview of the Numenera RPG core book, and I'll be taking a look at some of the supplements in a later post.

Numenera Core Book

I like Numenera. A lot. It's not without its flaws, but it's an incredibly charming system.

Let's start with the setting. They'll be able to describe it better than I:

There Have Been Eight Previous Worlds
Each world stretched across vast millennia of time. Each played host to a race whose civilizations rose to supremacy but eventually died or scattered, disappeared or transcended. During the time each world flourished, those that ruled it spoke to the stars, reengineered their physical bodies, and mastered form and essence, all in their own unique ways.
Each left behind remnants.
The people of the new world—the Ninth World—sometimes call these remnants magic, and who are we to say they’re wrong? But most give a unique name to the legacies of the nigh-unimaginable past. They call them…


Bio-engineered creatures, dangerous nanotechnology, a pervasive datasphere, and many more wondrous and powerful devices exist within the ninth world, and the people who live in it are affected by these remnants in their daily lives.

It's an excellent way to make a world that actually feels familiar, in the sense of traditional fantasy worlds, and the hierarchies that exist there, but also unfathomably strange.Weird things abound in the ninth world.

This all means that as GM, you have free reign to do as you like in terms of creatures and setting - since everything can be explained as being, well, unexplainable. It's remarkably freeing.

The core book itself has a huge chapter on the background of the ninth world. In fact, and I'll go into more detail later, the core book for Numenera is especially great in that it contains absolutely everything you'd need to run as many adventures and campaigns as you'd like. The background setting gives a picture of a world forever in flux. There's a huge map, to go with it, and each area on the map, from the countries of the relatively safe Steadfast (where you are only mostly likely to get attacked while traveling at night) to the dangerous Beyond and even furthur. Each major location and every city are given just enough detail to be uniquely interesting, but not so much that it stifles your own creativity as a GM. There are also two locations that are incredibly detailed, if you want more structure.

Everything just oozes potential - any kind of adventure could be played in the setting given the right location. Added to this for each section of the map (of which there are about twenty or so) there are several vague ideas for plot hooks and weird happenings - as if I needed any more inspiration! I would recommend this book to people based upon the background chapter alone, if not for the fact that the price tag matches the size of the thing.

It would be prudent to talk about the system next.

It's very simple. I believe that people's preferences for RPGs often depend upon that balance between rules and improvisation. There are many systems that rely almost solely on the rules to create a vast simulation of events. Others are more interested in giving a framework for creativity. I won't discuss that too much here, only to say that I believe that Numenera hits the perfect balance, for my own preference at least, between rules and creativity.

Everything in Numenera has a level - enemies, tasks, artifacts. In order to do something, you must roll a d20, and achieve the target number - that is, 3x the level. So if an enemy is level 5, you must roll a 15 to hit them. If it is a level 2 task to recall a useful piece of information, you need to roll a 6 to remember it. Simple, right? It gets even simpler. Almost any bonus or detriment merely lowers or raises the level of the task respectively. See that level 5 enemy? Maybe his arm is broken. Now it's a level 4 task to hit him (roll a 12). Or maybe you're trying to recall the information while being bombarded with noise. Put it up to a level 3 (roll a 9). If the level gets to 0 or less, you complete the task automatically. Brilliant.

And the players roll all the dice. If that level 5 enemy attacks the player, the player rolls a defence roll with a target number of 15. As a GM I found it rather odd to not roll dice, but it freed me up to think more about what was going to happen next.

I have had one problem with the rules in their basic form. To add more tension to the dice rolls, the players can use something called effort, which decreases the level of the task, but depletes points from the relevant pool (more on that later). Combined with something called edge, the concept can be a tad confusing, and tricky for players to learn. I do like it in practice, but it's one of those things that feels rather unintuitive, and can take you out of the game a little.

Character creation is just plain fun. You build your character up as a sentence: [Name] is an [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]. For example, Baztak is a Graceful Nano who Rides the Lightning. Each forms an element of your character. 

The noun is about as close as you come to the idea of a character class. The three types - Glaive, Nano, Jack - correspond roughly to the classic trio of fighter, wizard, thief. Glaives have a focus on combat, nanos have a lot of spell-like 'estories' and jacks have a mixture of both and some other tricks up their sleeves. There's a lot of room for different playstyles in each type, without resorting to putting players down different tracks like in Dungeons and Dragons (I'll likely reference DnD some more in this review, as it is my most played system).

The adjective, or descriptor, helps with this customisation, giving the player a decent list of different options to choose from, each giving several benefits, and occasionally a drawback or two. For example 'Rugged' gives you skills in most outdoor activities, but gives an inability in social interactions.

In my mind, the most interesting area of character creation is the verb, or foci. There are 29 of these in the core book, and they've clearly put a lot of thought and care into all of them. The foci can be thought of as the one unique thing your character can do and give new benefits at each tier. They can be power based: Rides the Lightning, Employs Magnetism, Talks to Machines - combat oriented: Wields Two Weapons at Once, Carries a Quiver, Fights With Panache - or more RP based; Crafts Unique Objects, Explores Dark Places, Works the Back Alleys.

One particular favourite of mine is Howls at the Moon, which turns your character into a lycanthrope, who has increasingly more control over his powers the higher his tier. Recently I've been of the opinion that the core book of an RPG should let you make your character awesome and interesting. Numenera has that in spades. I should note that there are plenty of other interesting choices you get during character development, including being able to add roleplaying elements for each of the three steps. The foci for example, strengthens your link to other player characters. 

The bulk of the characters are the three pools - Might, Speed and Intellect, which double as health, and the stats you draw from when you use abilites or spend effort. As such all tasks revolve around those three pools. 

So now you're thinking, 'that's cool, plenty of powers for the players to use'. Well think again! Wait, no, keep on thinking that. But be prepared to think it more.

Cyphers. In Numenera, these are not ways to break a code, but instead is a general term for any one use item in the game. Players are encouraged to use pretty much as many as they can carry each game (2 or 3 each). In practice, this means that at any one time, a player could have almost any ability imaginable, from teleportation, to walking through walls, to a really big explosion, to any other even more imaginative effects. One cypher turns the body of the user into a chemical factory, where after a certain amount of time they sweat out a potentially useful drug.

And dear lord, do those players come up with imaginative uses for those cyphers. It means that as the GM, you always need to be able to give an answer. Numenera is not for those who answer no. It rewards the GMs who answer yes. Yes, you can attach that gravity module to the big enemy, so they can no longer move or fight. Yes, you can walk through that wall, even though I haven't quite decided what was there yet. 

Thankfully, the core framework of Numenera makes it ridiculously easy to come up with encounters. So long as your imagination is up to the task. Creatures tend just to be levels with a couple of strengths, a couple of flaws, a couple of tricks and a behaviour. They don't need to make sense. In the core book, there's a race of abhumans who have a tentacle for a head. And a bog monster that has heads on tentacles for that matter. 

So you can probably tell by now what I think of Numenera. It's great. An imaginative, stimulating setting and ruleset, that helped me create great adventures with only a few hours real preparation.  But the core book itself has its flaws. The rules sections are not particularly well laid out - I've spent ten minutes searching for a paragraph I knew existed but could not find. This is fairly frustrating when the rest of the game is so simple.

Certain elements of the game are tricky to understand on the first read through. I've had this problem with a lot of RPGs, but again, it's more obvious in the context. 

The suggested character sheet is good, but a little graphically busy, and there is no where near enough room in the equipment section.

So taking that all into account, do I think the Numenera Core Book is worth your money? For £40, it seems like a hefty investment. But when you compare it to something like DnD, for which realistically you could end up spending £25 per book, where at least two of them are necessary for a GM, it's not all that bad. The sheer wealth of content in the Core Book is insane. Character creation, core rules, a huge background section, creatures, cyphers, artifacts, oddities and loads of gm advice. Added to that are optional rules, and FOUR pre-made adventures in the back of the book (which I have not run, but intend to steal from mercilessly).

I wholeheartedly recommend Numenera, and the Numenera Core Book. The positives far outweigh the negatives, and I've had so much fun running adventures in the setting.

Please comment below if you agree or disagree with my review. Watch out for my post detailing the first adventure in my Numenera campaign, coming soon. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Talent Trilogy

The Talent trilogy has played a major part in my life for some time now. 

I like to think of it as my first mature attempt at writing a novel. And indeed it includes the first novel I ever finished. First draft, anyway.

The truth is I've developed somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the series. 
On the one hand, I love writing many of the characters, and the city of Daragoth. 
On the other, I've been wrestling with other elements, trying to make them work.

The series involves the titular character, a street juggler named Talent, being caught up in a war between the thieves gangs in a city called Daragoth. And soon after, learning of a conspiracy that threatens the stability of the realm. Nothing groundbreaking, I realise, but I feel I inject elements of fun and intrigue that overshadow the more traditional plot.

I love the book, but every time I try to continue writing, I'm brought down by my inability to craft it into something I feel truly proud to show to others.

But I think with more feedback, and some brutal editing, I can bring the series back on track. 

My real concern here are the characters and the plotting. Motivation is something I've been struggling with, and bringing extra dimensions to some of the side characters has also been tricky. So any ideas on how I can improve the characters, plot and setting will be well appreciated.

Since my final intention with this series is to self publish at least the first book for free online, I have no qualms with linking you to the book here in several formats:


The RTF is probably best for reading on the computer or printing out.
The MOBI file should work on kindle, and I believe EPUB works on kindle and other devices too. Just copy them onto your devices in the relevant folder and they should come up.
The PDF version has a tad large font, so I'd recommend using it only if the others don't work. It should also work on any e-reader.

Feel free to send it to your friends, pass it round, so long as you send them back to this blog, or get them to e-mail me at: ade625@hotmail.com 

My biggest concern right now is building a group of intelligent, discerning beta readers who can give me some good quality feedback on my book - or any feedback at all! I hope that might be you.

You can also catch my early redrafted chapters right here.

My first attempts were focused around trying to make the character of Arterus less irritating, improving the magic system (i.e. actually create a magic system, rather than just making it up as I went along) and making the various side characters less one dimensional.

So that's it for today - remember to check out the links above to read my novel!

Monday, 1 December 2014

This is a Blog

Welcome to my blog!

If you didn't already know, my name is Adam Houten, and I'm a fantasy writer.

Not by trade, unfortunately, but it's something more of a hobby by this point, as you might agree if you knew me very well.

So what is this blog going to be about then?

I suppose several things, but I'll list them in pre-emptive order that may vastly change by the time most of you end up reading this:
- My writing process - I hope to let you marvel at how I ever get things done with such a cluttered brain, and open interesting discussions about how I write
-Reports on the Numenera RPG campaign that I'm currently game mastering
-Board game playthroughs and reviews (I'm a big board game fan)
-Computer game and movie reviews (this will be more sporadic)

It's not really going to be a source for up to date news on anything, but I hope to make it an enjoyable read. And hopefully get people interested in my books too.

Currently I'm planning a rewrite of the first draft of the first book in my Talent trilogy, the first book being 'Of Darkness and Thieves'. I plan to put this book available for download for free once it is finished, though I may upload some teaser chapters in the coming weeks. It's about a young juggler who finds himself embroiled in the machinations of the thieves in his city, and stumbles upon a deeper conspiracy. 

I'm also in the middle of writing the first draft of a novel currently titled A Sword, a Song and a Dream. It follows the exploits of three outcasts of society - a mercenary, a grey bard, and a young thief who can enter people's dreams. It explores the idea of how we try to escape from our pasts, and how the pasts define us. It's also an epic tale of battle, earning the hearts of the common people, and the theft of a magical hammer.

I'll try and put the full blurbs and info for both those novels on my site somewhere.

The next post from me will probably be detailing session 1 of my Numenera campaign, as well as explaining what the heck Numenera is.

Watch this space!