Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook)
Special Feature Combo post with Player’s Handbook. See that entry for review
Wizards RPG Team
Wizards of the Coast
Sometime in the future, Britain has fallen steadily into anarchy, and lawless gangs battle the remnants of the oppressive Party, who seek to restore order or at least survive a little while longer. Sullivan, sprung from prison to serve The Party in its last hour, is pulled along as a handful of desperate men sets out for a safe house, the one place remaining where they might be safe from the mobs: Bleeker Hill. But every one of the survivors carries old grudges and traumas with them, and the house they are heading to has a dark reputation. Most recently at Bleeker Hill, a psychotic scientist worked to perfect The Wash, erasing men’s memories and humanity, but the house has an even longer, deeper history of evil. The band must fight the mob, each other, their own pasts, and something else, something terrible that lurks in their safe house.
Bleeker Hill is an interesting breed of horror, combining the anarchic, nearly post-apocalyptic world of near-future Britain with the dystopian vision of the fascist Party and a classic sort of haunted-house story. All this almost sounds like too much, but it works surprisingly well, capturing and holding the reader’s attention while the tension builds, playing off past vs. present, hope vs. despair. The careful balance maintained between the different brands of horror starts to fall apart near the end, which starts to feel rushed, but the story holds together through the conclusion. The occasional recurring error in punctuation, spelling, or word choice may distract the reader, but otherwise the book is written well, crafting a world that is both overtly and subtly horrifying. The result is a book to be quietly creeped out by on a cold, rainy day.
The Themis Files
On her 11th birthday, Rose Franklin falls into a hole in the ground and finds herself lying in the palm of a huge metal hand. Years later, now a respected physicist, she finds herself working on the project to study the same hand that she fell into as a child. Research has stagnated in the intervening years on what seems like an isolated curiosity, and further progress seems hopeless, until Warrant Officer Kara Resnik’s army reconnaissance flight is brought down by the emergence of another piece – and it becomes obvious that an entire body is scattered across the globe. Driven by the project’s mysterious overseer, the search strains global diplomacy and the relationships among the team alike to the breaking point. And as more pieces are collected, it becomes clear that what they’ve found is not merely a statue, but some kind of vehicle — and possibly a weapon — the implications of which are nearly unimaginable. And the consequences of activating it may be more than the world can handle.
The Themis Files is told through a series of interview transcripts and journal entries, providing a feel of delving into classified documents. The overall story unfolds easily through this technique, and quickly draws the reader into the developing project to study, assemble, and control the artifacts, but it is a very different experience than a standard third- or first-person narrative. The format of the story causes almost all action to be related at one remove, as the characters present recount their experiences to their mysterious, nameless supervisor rather than letting the reader see them in the moment. For the most part, it is done well; the lack of attribution in interview transcripts makes it sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking, but it usually becomes obvious through mannerisms and context. My only real complaint is that the last third of the story felt a bit too rushed, and I would have liked to see some of the later-introduced characters developed further – indeed, this probably could have been two complete novels. Otherwise, this is worth checking out as a unique experience, and I would be interested to see what the author does next.
A Case for Old Spies
Zach Warren is deputy sheriff on the idyllic Chipley Island, where he lives with his wife Josie. They are both retired spies – he once an expert assassin, she a courier – two of the many cold-war era operatives living out their retirement years on the island after their agency was quietly shut down. On Chipley Island, the circle of old spies enjoy their mundane lives, owning restaurants and writing children’s books, but those lives are thrown into chaos when the body of their old boss, a man known as the Trojan, washes up on shore, very recently dead. Investigating his death pulls Zach and Josie and their friends back into the spy games that they had abandoned many years ago, into a long-dormant plot that once almost got Josie killed and secrets within secrets that leave them unsure who they can trust. Though their skills are out of date in a world where technology has made espionage increasingly impersonal, sometimes an old dog’s tricks prove to be just as good as anything new.
A Case for Old Spies plays with the divide between Cold-War era espionage and that of the modern day – a divide that may not be as great as it seems. The story starts slowly, mainly through the need to introduce and establish the roles of the large cast, but moving forward the plot picks up pace and focuses more tightly on Zach and Josie. The result is interesting, though far from the action-thriller that one might expect from a spy novel. Indeed, what violent action there is happens almost entirely off the page. Instead, the focus of the story is on planning, problem solving, code-breaking, and exchanging information. Overall, it’s a refreshing change of pace, and, though the very end may feel a bit rushed, ultimately, it fits in with the book’s focus on the more cerebral and social aspects of spycraft. A solid four-star read.
Maker (Daughter of Time, Book 3)
Waythrel, alien advisor to Ambra Dawn, the Daughter of Time, has been torn from friends and familiar reality by one of Ambra’s twisted clones. At the mercy of the clone’s unfettered, augmented mind, Waythrel is dragged by this captor through recursive loops of space-time in an effort to test potential vulnerabilities and prevent a future that has already occurred, a future that Waythrel helped to engineer, with consequences that stretch back seemingly to the beginning of time and force the alien to question everything it has ever understood about the workings of the universe.
Maker: Daughter of Time, Book 3 is a properly mind-bending science-fiction novel, one that eagerly, cheerfully strays beyond the bounds of what might be considered a linear narrative. Recurring dialogue, scenes, even seemingly entire chapters instill in the reader the disorienting sense of déjà vu that the characters themselves experience. It might prove difficult to wrap your brain around, but overall it is a fairly approachable read: though time and space may be bent and abused, and the characters themselves barely understand the concepts that they discuss, the language that carries it is quite straightforward. Even though it retreads the some of the same paths repeatedly, the story moves quickly through a plot of suitably grand scope. The alien narrator, Waythrel, is a very human and relatable character, repeated references to eyestalks and other alien anatomy aside.
Overall, the Daughter of Time series is what I’d call darned good science fiction; it’s fast-moving and fun with unexpected substance and depth, pushing the boundaries of description and readers’ expectations. Don’t try to jump into Maker without reading the first two books, though.
Cops in Texas are being murdered. They look like mob hits, but someone has gotten creative and is using a wolf as the murder weapon. When Lieutenant Harrington catches the most recent case, he calls in his old army buddy, Michael Biörn, a park ranger living in Yellowstone, an expert on wolves… and not entirely human, as Harrington had seen one bloody day in Somalia.
Michael’s conclusion: werewolves. But some things don’t add up. When Harrington suffers the same fate as the victim they are investigating, Michael gets drawn into a shadow conflict between the mob, the werewolves, and the local cops who can’t quite prove he’s involved. As the violence escalates and the level of praeternatural involvement increases, Michael will have to unravel the increasingly complex threads of conspiracy and stand alone to protect the few people he’s come to care about, but he has one advantage – he is something far older, stronger, and more savage than any mere werewolf.
Marc Daniel’s Shadow Pack is a fast-moving, no-frills mob thriller/murder mystery with werewolves. The story is bloody and action-packed, and the plot is compelling enough to keep you turning pages. The writing style is straightforward and simple, though a bit heavy on exposition, which, combined with the pace of the plot, made character development feel more artificial than organic. The ending of the book feels somewhat forced, with all the various threads tied up and presented a little too neatly. The result is a book that may be better suited toward targeting a YA audience. A handful of minor typos also appear, but they are not severe enough to distract from the story.
These quibbles aside, Shadow Pack is a healthy beginning to the career of an author who, clearly, enjoyed writing it. I will be interested to see what he produces in the future.