So I got a new website

Yes, it’s actually completely new. Everything before this was copied over from my old one because I wanted to have all my reviews in one place.

Why a new website? Things are getting increasingly serious with my efforts to write and release Sword & Sorcery stories and I need a place where people would be able to find them and get into contact with me. Spriggan’s Den has always been primarily an RPG site and over the years it got quite messy and contains a lot of junk. There’s worldbuilding material from four different settings that isn’t properly labled in any way. From an author’s website I am expecting more and a higher standard. Tidying up that place would have been a huge amount of work and I am never a fan of removing content from the internet. There might still be someone wanting to read something again years later and I still regret simply deleting my first website about futurisitc stuff without any backups. I got a partial snapshot of the first page at the Wayback Machine and it made me realize it was quite awful, but I’d really have liked to be able to look at some of those really early reviews and read what I’ve been thinking back then. And I might always want to get back into writing about RPGs and then having lost a good portion of my old stuff would be really sad. And I might still write there about other stuff that doesn’t belong here.

So a new, tidy website that is all about the creation of stories in the Kaendor setting, general purpose thoughts about writing and storytelling, and looks and my opinions on related works of fantasy and beyond. Here it is.

(Though it still looks awful and I don’t have a proper title or adress yet.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

Awesome future novel idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds

Unlike previous awesome future novel ideas, this is one I actually plan to give a try very soon. It’s something I am still bouncing around in my head but intend to give a shot as soon as I have more of the basics figured out. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m impulsive and have a very poor track record of completing long term hobby works.

The idea is a synthesis of the conceptual work I did for game settings in the past that also incorporates my love for the great neo-noir and wuxia movies from the mid-90s forward. At the center stands a world that is full of life, but hostile to people. A world in which the spirits of the land rule, with civilization confined to small enclaves along the coasts where priests and sorcerers maintain a tenuous state of stability. It’s a world in which the forces of nature are particularly powerful and unpredictable, as are the spirits who control them. Civilization is in an eternal state of siege and to keep the constantly encroaching wilderness at bay, the priests and sorcerers need to know what is going on beyond the borders of civilization.

Within this context exists a special class of scouts, who are knowledgeable in eldritch lore and accustomed to the ways of the barbarians who inhabit the lands of their wild gods. The scouts are not soldiers, though most of them are mercenaries of a sort, offering their skills and knowledg to the courts and temples for pay. They are a society of their own, at home both in the wilds and civilized lands, but set appart from either population by their delvings into esoteric things. Violence is not their trade, but alone among barbarians and magical beasts, they are highly skilled with spear and bow. Among each other, knowledge is the main currency of their trade and connections worth more than gold. Yet there is also great rivalry and competition and out in the wilds they are beyond the laws of either kings or tribes.

Comic Review: Hellsing

Though review might be stretching it a bit.

A while back I was on a work training course and shared a room with a guy who happened to have brought the first three volumes of Hellsing. I had heard a lot of great things about it over the years and the anime seems to be widely considerd as one of the great classics, like Full Metal Alchemist and Death Note. I had long planned to look it up but never got around to it, so I jumped at the opportunity to give it a try. This review only covers these first three volumes.

For comics, the visual style is obviously a major factor but not as relevant to the narrative, so let’s get this one covered fist. My impression of the drawing is that it’s okay. I’ve seen it praised, but I didn’t feel impressed by it myself. But it looks good and the images are not overcrowded with stuff that makes it difficult to figure out what’s going on. It works, that’s always the most important part.

But now to the story. Hellsing is set in a world that is plagued by vampires. Two main organizations are presented that are fighting against them. The Hellsing Organisation of the Anglican Church in Britain and Section XIII Iscariot of the Catholic Church. Both groups appear to be in a state of cold war but have made agreements to not operate in each others territory so they can focus on the main threat posed by the vampires. Hellsing’s top agent is Alucard, a vampire himself who dresses in a red coat and hat and has two big ass guns. The story begins with the recruitment of Seras Victoria, a police officer who was fatally wounded in a massacre commited by vampires and made immortal by Alucard who happened to have been send to deal with the situation. Shortly after the Hellsing headquarters get attacked and a majority of their staff slaughtered, which leads to Alucard and Seras going to Brazil to track down the people behind the attack.

What I quite liked of what I’ve read so far are the character design. Seras, Integra, Walter, and Bernadotte, as well as the two catholic nuns, all seemed like they could be really interesting or at least entertaining people to follow around in a story. But unfortunately I have to say, not in this story.

Even though it spans across three volumes, I found the plot to be very thin. Very little actually happpens or is explained and I had no real understanding of what’s going on for pretty much the entire time. The plot, or what little there is of it, seemed to me to be little more than an excuse to depict endless piles of slaughter and gore. It’s not that I have any problem with this in general. I like both the anime and manga of Neon Genesis Evangelion and have to say I am quite a fan of Elfen Lied. (Though the anime is awful, it drops almost all of the plot.) I’m still planning to get to Berserk in the near future. Extreme violence in manga can be great. But in Hellsing it felt very different to me. It didn’t seem like the blood and guts where there to make any point but that the comic exists only for the sake of violece and gore.

All in all, I have to say that the first three volumes of Hellsing left me very much unimpressed. Actually rather disappointed. Maybe “it gets better later”, but as it is I really feel no desire to get back to this one.

My Star Wars Headcanon

While writing about the Star Wars games that I played, I noticed that almost all of them are pretty old by now. So I got to work to create some kind of timeline of what I consider the important books, comics, and games of the Expanded Universe and the result I got is this.

You can get the 90s Kid out of the 90s, but you can’t get the 90s out of the 90s Kid. It really seems like the golden age of Star Wars to me, which is not terribly surprising given how old I was then. If I would have been into anything else, I probably would still consider the 90s to be the best period it ever had.

Another thing that surprised me in hindsight that there were six years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 3. Such restraint! It almost seems like they were making those movies one at at time. Which seems incredibly slow by today’s standards. At least I got to be relieved that the time between 3 and 7 was not nearly as long as the time between 6 and 1, which by this point would no longer have surprised me. Still, in trade school I have classmates who were not even born when Episode 1 was out.