The Game of Clocks

The time has come. I will be running Blades in the Dark soon. This is a game I have loved the sound of for some time, it’s a game I’ve had on my shelf for some time, and it’s a game I’ve looked forward to playing/running for some time.

Famous for the use of clocks, a clever mechanism for tracking extended tasks, background effects, or pretty much anything else your creativity can apply it to (which seem to have originated in Apocalypse World, but really come to life in BitD). Blades in the Dark strikes me as the game of clocks for another reason: it is game system that feels like a set of intricate and interacting cogs and wheels.

Blades is undoubtedly a clever game, it is well designed, and I love the intricacies that seem to flow out of the system (I am yet to run it – this is a view after reading the rules only). It feels like a deeply thematic game, and one where every mechanism feeds into creating a style of play that fits its very evocative setting.


I’ll be the first to admit: I am pretty terrible at reading rules. I rarely read a full rules book, even for games I have run extensively. I too often skim read, skip sections, and don’t bother reading whole sub-systems until I need to know them, and even then, well, see above. I am not a huge fan of crunchy and detailed rules sets. At the same time I absolutely love games that lean into their themes and settings. Blades pulls me in two different directions. On one hand the many many interacting elements have my brain screaming at me to back out while there is still time. On the other I am deeply curious and almost morbidly fascinated to see how all the little wheels look when spinning together.

This is not meant as a criticism of John Harper or Blades in the Dark by any means, Blades reads like a piece of masterful design, and I admire what it sets out to do immensely. It’s just that over the years my tastes in role playing games have leaned further and further toward smaller games and simpler systems.

I fully intend to run the game, my game group is excited to play it, and I am excited to run it. But every time I pick up the rules book a part of my mind cries out in desperation. Why? Because this is not the sort of system I typically like to run. At the same time it is exactly the sort of system I like to run. Go figure.

Blades in the Dark is a clock. All the little cogs and wheels so intricately placed together look like they work as one. Spinning or tweaking one feels like it will affect the whole piece. I am excited to see it in play: to leverage this to alter that, to turn one cog to see what happens to the wheel, but I am fighting myself to get there, my mind telling me to put the book down and find something else to do.

At some point I’ll have to revisit this post and write about how it all goes down. Hopefully well… like a clock ticking down, it’s only a matter of time before I find out!

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

A few days ago I finished reading ‘The One and Only Ivan’, by Katherine Applegate, and it is a wonderful book. Ivan is a gorilla who lives in his domain in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, he is the only gorilla in the mall. For company he has Stella, an elephant; Bob, a stray dog; Mack, his keeper; George, the cleaner; and Julia, George’s daughter, a child and an artist.

Ivan has buried his childhood memories, though he has a stuffed toy called Tag named after his sister, and is generally content to eat, paint, watch TV, and sleep. The mall is on hard times, and Ivan remembers when he had many more visitors. One day a baby elephant arrives, bought from a zoo, her name is Ruby.

With the arrival of Ruby the story shifts in momentum, the melancholy life of Ivan and Stella interrupted. As Stella falls sick, a quiet gnawing worry about the life of Ruby grows within them. In telling Ruby stories Ivan remembers, and with the guidance of Stella he comes to understand that his domain is a cage. They dream of a brighter future for Ruby…

The One and Only Ivan is a beautiful story. Like Ivan’s artworks, it is told in brushstrokes and daubed paint. A glimpse through a window, a moment and a memory.  The relationships between Ivan, Stella, Bob and Julia, and as the book progresses Ruby, are wonderfully sketched. It is a haunting book, and a loving one. A book that is full of emotion, bursting with promise and hope. It is sad, and it is also uplifting.

Winner of the Newbery Medal and a number of other accolades, The One and Only Ivan is a book well worth reading. It will take you down a sad and poignant road, but hope shines throughout like a beacon.

Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a science fiction novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky…

Ok. So, here’s the thing. I have wanted to write this review since I turned the last page and sat back in breathless marvel at the work I had just experienced. In equal measure I have dreaded writing this review too, there is so much I want to say that I’m not confident I’ll be able to articulate.

I loved this book, conceptually it is stunning, it is characterful, it is harrowing, it is all too real, and it makes you ask questions… It is also written in a number of voices that lift the characters from the page. If a book can achieve all those things, and Dogs of War does, it is an exemplary book, a work of art, and I thoroughly suggest you stop reading this and just get hold of a copy.

If I had to guess, I would suggest that this book is set in the not-too-distant future, maybe 50-80 years from now. It could even be closer. The main protagonists in the story are bioforms, genetically modified hybrid creatures, part human, part animal, part manipulation, and part technology. They are intelligent, enough to serve their function in a warzone, and integrated with a range of technologies. Rex, Honey, Dragon and Bees are wonderful, each an individual fascinating in their own right, and bound together by circumstance.

It is a curious book, staccato, the action begins in a warzone and moves, moves, and moves again. Each time the tempo and pace, the focus and problems, shift significantly. Nonetheless it is one whole story, a Frankenstein’s tale for the modern age that poses some very real and very frightening questions that are relevant now, today.

The first chapter sent me reeling, what was unsaid and implied made what was said that much more powerful and impactful. The space carefully carved out between the words instigated a chain of concepts, themes, and implications that would echo through the book.

Dogs of War begins in a warzone, gonzo action that throws up moral and ethical quandaries like leaves tumbling in an Autumn gale. It moves to the International Criminal Court and questions of identity and person-hood, of rights and obligations come thick and fast. There are questions raised of independence, morality, free-will and concerns for the future all intertwined. It is a world and a story that is within believable reach of where we sit today.

Making choices is the price of being free.

– Rex

Freedom of choice brings with it a shackling to consequence and ownership; the role of actor also brings an acceptance of responsibility. This feels to me the central fulcrum around which the wonderful character of Rex pivots. Each of the characters is artfully set-out, but Rex is the one we share the most time with, who we share point of view with. This realisation grows, as he does, and defines the journey to self-identity, and beyond.

Humanity, just as it is not constrained by skin colour, gender, or nation, is not a condition penned into any one shape.

-Dogs of War

This is a book that asks deep questions, and one where we, as readers, struggle along with the characters trying to resolve them. It is about morality and ethics, technology and the use and misuse of it, person-hood and artificial intelligence. It is a book that takes a stunning look at the coming and inevitable event horizon, and pauses a moment to really think, and to really feel.

I have skirted mapping out the plot and have avoided revealing too much (I hope). I have opted instead to sketch out my thoughts and impressions, and I hope that is enough. There is much more to be said… Honey, beautiful architect of hope that she is. Dragon, as cold as one would expect, yet not. Bees… oh yes Bees. Cloud computing in physical form and masterfully rendered. George, a perfect bastard. So much more…

When I started Dogs of War I met a monster, by the end I was bleeding in sympathy with the same. What a magnificent story, and for Rex, what a beautiful character arc…

I have failed, I think, to capture the intelligence and brilliance of this book, managing instead only the echoes of the thoughts and feelings it caused. All I can say in the end, I suppose, is that Dogs of War really is a wonderful book.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

With the Amazon series swiftly approaching I thought I had better, finally, pull my finger out and read Good Omens, by authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I admire both authors greatly, and I am, in retrospect, somewhat surprised at myself for not having read it earlier.

I picked the book off my ‘unread’ pile (a teetering stack as is only good and natural) somewhere shortly after Christmas, and it didn’t take me long to chew through to the end. My initial thoughts, after the first few pages, were ‘why did this take me so long?’, and for that I’m sorry to say, I have no good answer.

This is a book about the apocalypse, the biblical one, in case anyone was wondering about ancient Mayans and alien invasions (though they are all in there somewhere). It’s also about the apocalyptic bungling of the apocalypse, with the major players all stumbling (and sometimes reeling, staggering, fumbling, and doddering) from one catastrophic and unforeseen muck-up to the next.

As I read the first few pages, the combination of writing style, twists of imaginative force, humour, and humanity, all felt so familiar, I am a great lover of both author’s other works after all. Familiar and not in a tired way, the sort of familiarity that breeds bored disinterest, but the familiarity of relaxing with an old friend. The familiarity of wriggling into a well worn armchair with a favourite drink at hand. It was embracing, comfortable, and absolutely wonderful.

I really don’t want to spoil this book by giving away too much, though I seem to be one of the last people on Earth to have decided it’s finally time to crack the cover. So suffice to say only that Good Omens is a book full of humour (as we would expect), wisdom, and heart. All these are present in abundance.

It never ceases to amaze me the way these two authors manage to shine a light on, or otherwise highlight, the foibles of our all-too human selves. All our strengths masked as the fumbling and general intention to do right or the dogged stupidity of never giving up. All our weaknesses gently mocked and placed in contexts that reveal them as the absurdities they are. There are messages throughout this book, perhaps more relevant today than when it was first penned (Pollution replacing Pestilence in the Four Horsemen quartet of the end times, being the most obvious).

All in all Good Omens is a wonderful book, one I was glad to read and gently angry with myself for not having read sooner. I am looking forward to the Amazon series greatly. Though I believe they must have had a hell of a job (no joke intended) in getting all the aliens, Atlanteans, Tibetan Monks, Witch Hunters, Bikers of Apocalypse, hell-hounds, demons, and angels lined up for shooting-wrap cast photo.

It will be fun!

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds, is a story about sail ships and pirates, about gauging the wind and mutinous talk, about being stranded, and about islands full of buried treasure. What makes this tale of adventure and danger so interesting however, is that it is science fiction. The ships are space ships and the sails are light sails, capturing momentum from the solar winds. The treasure islands are baubles, habitations and space stations, small worlds built around tiny black-holes which provide them gravity, shielded and dangerous to enter, but holding the remnants of civilisations passed by.




Everything in this book screams the piratical theme, the beats and tropes, the events and character, even the lilt and pattern of speech. There were times when I felt this would be a disharmonious partnership, a mismatch between the spirit and the reality of the book’s internal setting, a fractious pairing that didn’t quite work, but I was wrong. I’m sure that some people will read this book and feel the setting doesn’t quite manage to pull of what it sets out to, but I am not one of them. For me Reynolds leans into the setting’s nautical spirit with such gusto that everything just works.


In many ways Revenger reminded me of the Treasure Island movie that Disney released some years ago – a sort of steam-punk/sci-fi revision of Robert Louie Stevenson’s seminal work. I remember thinking at the time that the movie just didn’t manage to realise the setting, perhaps a product of the visual nature of the medium. Revenger, on the other hand, works.


The characters in Revenger are all larger than life and pulled straight from the pages or screen of every pirate book and movie you will have had chance to read or watch. Despite this they are likable and dislike-able in equal measure, heroes and heroines you care for, villains you despise, and fools you feel sorry for. The main character Fura Ness, and her sister Adrana are the main protagonists, and in full genre style it’s not long before you, as reader, are cheering on their successes and scowling at those who seek to bring them low.


This is the second ‘mash-up’ novel I have read by Alastair Reynolds, in both these novels the settings step beyond the traditional tropes of science-fiction, and mash together two or more sub-genres to create something curious and involving. The first I read was Terminal World, which I reviewed here, and Revenger feels very much in the same sort of vein. Taking the tropes and expectations of one sub-genre (pirate tales), and embedding it in another (science fiction). I’m confident that this is a risky endeavour for any author, assuming the risk that they will have to juggle the weights and expectations of two different audiences (or at least what an audience might expect of a specific genre), but Reynolds has managed magnificently.


Revenger is a story of sailing the high seas and looting treasure, it’s a story about rascals and devils, salt of the earth sailors and tough and ready brawlers, it’s a tale of gentlemen and nobles and a tale of a dread pirate. It is also a tale of science fiction, ancient and full of technological marvels, self-aware robots and the dangers of space-walking. Somehow, against all odds, like a ship hell bent on riding out a deadly storm in a race to claim buried treasure, Revenger manages to brave the choppy waters and triumph.


I enjoyed this book a lot, the setting is engaging and the genre mash-up is two worlds woven together in a way that is fascinating and thrilling. Revenger is engaging, full of adventure and a whole lot of fun.

Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade

Binti, Home, and The Night Masquerade together form the Binti trilogy of novellas written by Nnedi Okorafor. This blog post will focus on Binti: Home and Binti: The Night Masquerade, both of these novellas continue on from the original, Binti. In Binti the eponymous hero suffers and survives through a horrendous assault on the ship taking her to university, and is transformed in the process. I wrote previously about my thoughts on Binti, but needless to say I enjoyed it.


Binti: Home begins a year after the events in the first novella, and sees Binti longing for home and family, finally making the choice to go back with her companion Okwu, a Meduse alien. I don’t plan on getting into the specifics of either Home or The Night Masquerade, but suffice to say that the themes of both struck me as being about change and acceptance of change, racism, and inheritance.

Binti left her people and her family for a life, offworld, at Oomza University. Her experiences en route, described in ‘Binti’, as well as her time among the eclectic melange of cultures at Oozma University, change her. These changes are emotional, psychological, and most dramatically, physical. Binti: Home spends some time exploring how those changes, forced upon Binti by cruel circumstance, affect her personally. Binti is scarred, angry, and to some extent self-loathing, or at least ashamed of what she has become.

Binti’s return home is fraught with how she, changed, is accepted by her family. In Binti’s mind the image and memory she had of her home was one of love and acceptance, something that was the very core of who she was, but in the intervening year Binti was not the only thing to change. Time, as the saying goes, changes all. Binti and her family now both belong to different contexts, with different shared experiences, different perspectives and different aspirations.

The Binti Trilogy resonated for me with this theme, of change and how that change is denied, rejected and accepted. How the people and places we hold in our hearts do, after some time apart, grow stranger, and the bridge to understanding and accepting can be hard to find.

Racism is a key theme through the trilogy, with the alien Meduse; the arrogant ruling culture of Binti’s homeland, the Khoush; and finally with her own people, the Himba, and their attitude toward the desert people they know so little of. The realisation that dawns on Binti that her own people, repressed and treated as second class citizens by the Khoush, are guilty of classifying and dismissing the desert people in just the same manner. This realisation brings the theme of racism full circle, of how all of us, comfortable in that which is familiar and ‘like-us’ are all too prone to rejecting what isn’t.


Inheritance is another theme, it may not be the right term, but I choose it for a number of reasons. Binti’s cultural inheritance defines her, early on, and as she changes this recedes somewhat, but remains a core component of her being. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is another form of inheritance, something she did not choose, but which was hers to burden nonetheless, and which changed her in ways she had to grow to accept. The inheritance, last of all, of circumstance, like so many reluctant heroes, Binti did not choose to be caught in the mechanisms of culture and politics, of war and peace, but through circumstance it was something she inherited. As the saying goes, it is not what happens to us that defines us, but rather, how we choose to act in response.

The Binti trilogy is imaginative and expressive, alluring and dramatic, it deals with some powerful themes, and does so in a way that demands an emotional response. I thoroughly enjoyed the series, and have Akata Witch, also by Nnedi Okorafor, on my shelf waiting for me.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is a story of soaked in the tropes, language and culture of early-eighteenth century England, intermingled with a sense of the wild nature of magic and faerie. It is an odd setting, on one hand all fussing gentlemen, elegant ladies, and all manner of social niceties, and on the other hand, beneath it all, lies a reminiscence of English legends like those of Merlin or Nimue, or a deeper heritage drawn from Celtic tales such as the Mabinogion, or the myths and legends of Scotland and Ireland.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a book of florid prose, heavy with description and littered with footnotes. I found all of this wonderful, the book was written beautifully, and reading it, I felt throughout, an absolute delight in and love of language. Quips and rejoinders were there aplenty, as were witty observations and carefully concealed snide remarks. If you are a fan of speculative fiction, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. For the main, the characters, setting and interactions would not be out of place in an Austen novel, but what really separates Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from other well written period dramas is the magic.

Magic in this book is the sort of magic you can only see if you look sideways, a magic where mirrors are doors and shadows might be leaning the wrong way, a magic where things are not quite as they seem, where words are slippery, and trickery is only surpassed by mystery. It is, in a nutshell, very faerie. This world that Clarke has envisaged, where the working of magic is as carefully employed by our two main protagonists as the early sciences were by their practitioners, is rich and involving. Norrell, the methodical and well learnèd, jealous of his knowledge and careful in his applications, is neatly counterpointed by Strange. Strange is the wilder of the two, willing to take risks, more naturally gifted but less inclined to care and planning, more willing to chase down the mysteries than allow them to reveal themselves through study.

The plot takes us across the English countryside, replete with hidden nooks, secret clearings, barrows and burghs rich in faerie, to Spain for the Peninsula War, Venice, and a number of other locations. We encounter some of the major events of the period, including the Battle of Waterloo. Against this backdrop is the continual struggle between Norrell and Strange, both great admirers of one another and haters too in measure, both opposite faces of the same coin, drawn to each other and yet pulling in different directions. Both also facing the same dire threat, a component of the magic that helped Norrell first rise to prominence, fickle and perilous, careless and uncaring and yet deeply moved by the things that catch its attention. This key foe is childlike with tremendous power, capable of obsessive kindness and also unsettlingly cruel.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a long book, but it by no means felt it. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and the many footnotes that were aptly used to help give flesh and life to the setting. It’s a book that has long intrigued me, and I read it recently on recommendation, and immediately regretting not having read it sooner. All in all Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is excellent reading.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a science fiction novella about a young Himba woman, the eponymous Binti, seeking to travel off-world to study at a prestigious university. First and foremost, this is a cracking story; imaginative and fascinating. The cultures presented, the Himba, Khoush and the alien Meduse, are wonderfully outlined and believably constructed (in the case of the fictional), or artfully related (in the case of the futuristic version of the Himba). I found myself drawn into this story, fascinated by the deep cultures presented throughout, the rich setting, and especially by the character of Binti.

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Being a novella, the story itself is short and easy to read, it is also wonderfully written with every word pushing the story and relating the characters and emotion. Much time is well spent on expanding the cultures represented, often by juxtaposing expectations of those cultures against the consequences of choices; the action/inaction of the characters. It is an engrossing read, well constructed and executed, full of feeling and emotion.

The theme I loved the most, I think (‘I think’ because I am still digesting), is the role of communication in the breakdown and formation of connections between peoples. I won’t say too much more, because I don’t like revealing too much of the story, but the capacity to communicate with reason seems a fundamental theme in the story, that coupled with a willingness to listen.

Binti is strong and vulnerable, emotional and reasonable all at the same time, and makes for a wonderful character that is easy to relate to. Her strong sense of identity and culture, and the significance of having that removed, changed or even just of leaving it, are also key themes explored intelligently in only a small number of words. There is emotion packed in here, thought and feeling that far outweighs the page count.

As seems more and more the norm for me these days, I came across Nnedi Okorafor on twitter, reading through her commentary on her journey and experiences as a writer, I was inspired to get Binti and Akata Witch, and I’m very glad I did. There is just one thing I am furious about: I didn’t order the two sequels to Binti. Now I have to wait on the post before I get to read more.



Artemis, by Andy Weir

Artemis is a science fiction murder mystery by Andy Weir, author of the Martian. I found The Martian to be an exceptional story. A character I liked in a do-or-die situation, using pure intellect and willpower to bully his way through every one of the multitude of problems he faces. I loved the book, and it ranks as one of my all time favourite reads. Needless to say then, when I read that Andy Weir was working on his next book I was very excited.

The story is set in the eponymous city of Artemis, humanity’s first settlement beyond the fragile shores of Earth. The setting of the story is compelling. Highly detailed and lovingly crafted, Artemis is as scientifically accurate a moon-city as can be found anywhere in literature, it is, I would go so far to say, unrivaled. Like The Martian, Andy Weir shows his understanding of science and technology, which, coupled with a keen imagination, makes for a fascinating backdrop to the story.

The story itself I found to be something of a slow-burn, The Martian I read in a flurry over about a day and a bit, it hooked me from the first scene and didn’t let go. Artemis was a more gradual climb. I found the main character’s internal dialog to be a little abrasive at times, and the while the plotting and action was intelligent, I didn’t find the reasons behind the action in the story thoroughly compelling.

All that changes as the book progresses, which is why I describe it as a slow-burn. As Jazz gets tangled in a mess far greater than she ever imagined, and the setting itself hangs in the balance, the stakes are raised to an all-time high and I was finally pulled fully into the book.

Artemis is an excellent novel, the overarching story, the raison-d’etre for the action and plotting is hidden behind a veil, off to the side of the characters and their concerns. The chief architect of this larger plot is a secondary character, and while the events in the story are important to this larger plan, the story itself, the plot of the novel, deals with a portion. The larger question, about creating an economy for Artemis moving forward and the struggles and implications that holds, are fascinating concepts. The novel though deals with a vitally connected but independent story line, which while fascinating in its own right, really shines when connected to the implications of the bigger picture.

Artemis is an intelligently written and unbelievably well conceived novel. The characters are interesting, even if a little abrasive. The writing is solid and the plot progression is good, but it is a slow-burn, in my opinion, only fully grabbing you by the throat around half-way through. Anyone who is a fan of hard science fiction would be well rewarded by reading Artemis, while I personally didn’t enjoy the book as much as I loved The Martian, it is a solid offering, and I look forward to Andy Weir’s next book.