Book Reviews: Night Vale, It Devours and Black Company, Port of Shadows

I’ve got a pair of book reviews for you today. First up…

Welcome to Night Vale: It Devours

Cover art for the Welcome to Night Vale novel It Devours!I won’t lie: As much as I love Night Vale, I found this book pretty disappointing.

It Devours follows one of Carlos’ scientists, Nilanjana Sikdar, as she investigates strange occurrences that may be connected to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. This investigation is complicated by a budding attraction between Nilanjana and Darryl Ramirez, one of of the Congregation’s most devout members.

Seems like it could be an interesting story, but… well, it really isn’t. The writers are clearly trying to make a point about the dangers of blind faith, which is admirable, but it’s extremely ham-fisted and unsubtle. It’s not so much a story with a message as it is a message with a story half-heartedly built around it.

It doesn’t help that the main characters are fairly weak. I don’t find Nilanjana or Darryl to be especially likable or interesting characters individually, and worse still their budding romance feels completely forced. The two characters have nothing in common and no chemistry whatsoever, and I was never really clear on why they even liked each other.

The book isn’t a complete waste. It is written with that trademark Night Vale wit and charm, and many of the background characters are memorable. I particularly enjoyed Nilanjana’s coworker who devoted her entire career to disapproving of potatoes.

Carlos also gets a fairly meaty supporting role, and we learn a lot about what makes him tick. I read in the YouTube comments recently there’s a section of the fanbase that has the head canon Carlos is on the autism spectrum, and having read It Devours, I can definitely see why.

Still, despite highlights like that, this is a book I’d have trouble recommending, even to serious fans of the podcast.

Overall rating: 5.9/10

The Black Company, Port of Shadows:

Cover art for The Black Company, book 1.5: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook.Man, who the hell expected a new Black Company book after all this time?

What makes it even weirder is that this isn’t a continuation of the story. It’s an interquel, dubbed “book 1.5”.

That kind of has “unnecessary money grab” written all over it, so I didn’t exactly expect much from Port of Shadows. But it ended up impressing me as much as It Devours disappointed.

Following the battle at Charm, the Black Company has been given a cushy garrison assignment at the city of Aloe. An investigation into a young woman with a mysterious connection to the Lady threatens to disrupt their peace, and the arrival of a new Taken throws Croaker’s life into disarray.

Of course, it is a bit of an awkward fit into existing continuity, though attempts are made to explain the inconsistency. It’s not perfect, but at the end of the day I believe continuity should serve the story rather than the other way around, so I can let it slide.

Reading this, I reflected on how strange it is that I enjoy the Black Company books as much as I do. In theory they’re everything I profess to hate in the fantasy genre. They’re ugly, bleak, cynical books in a low magic setting with no heroes worth rooting for.

I can only say what I’ve always said: I love the way they’re written. The prose is steeped in dry wit and gallows humour, and it makes what would otherwise be an appallingly unpleasant story into a delightful page-turner.

Though I must admit I do worry what it says about me that I just used the word “delightful” to describe a book that features the phrase “consensual necrophilia” as a major plot point.

Anyway, as with the series as a whole, I struggle to explain precisely what it is I enjoyed so much about Port of Shadows, beyond the clever prose. I suppose there is a good mystery here; wanting to uncover what’s really happening is definitely part of what makes it such a page-turner.

I’ll also say that it feels a bit like the later Black Company books in that it presents a softer side of the Company (I use the term loosely) and shows them as being… well, if not the good guys, then at least the lesser of two evils relative to the forces they’re opposing. It does make the whole thing a bit more palatable compared to those times when the Company is just the bad guys.

Going in, I was afraid Port of Shadows was an unnecessary addition to a completed series, and arguably it is, but I wound up enjoying it thoroughly despite that.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Updates: A New Gig, Stargate, Three Worlds, and More

I’m sorry for not posting more lately. I’ve been very busy. There are a lot of things going on at the moment I would have in the past done deep dive posts on, but I don’t have the time or energy these days. I didn’t want to leave this blog to rot, though, so I’ll do a quick rundown of all that’s new.

The official logo for Dungeons and Dragons, fifth editionFirstly, part of the reason I’m so busy is that I’ve picked up another new writing gig. I’m not sure how much I’m contractually allowed to say in public right now, but I can say that it’s writing Fifth Edition adventures. It’s not for Wizards of the Coast; it’s a third party producing adventures under the Open Gaming License. It’s a fairly well-established company, though. I already knew them before I even applied for the job.

It’s also not clear to me if this is a short-term thing or something that will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. I think it depends on how happy they are with my work.

Professional game design is something I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m glad to have the opportunity, but the workload is more than I’m used to, so it’s taking a lot out of me. Someone without my disabilities would probably be fine, but for me it’s taking a lot of energy. To their credit, my new employers have been pretty patient and even made accommodations to work with my unpredictable schedule.

This has delayed work on my own tabletop game, Wyrd Street. I’m unsure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I do plan to talk about it at some point. For now the short version for those who haven’t already been told about it is that it’s a D20-based RPG about ordinary heroes in a fantastical world. It draws a lot of inspiration from the earlier sections of Dragon Age II.

The idea at the heart of it is that anyone can be the hero, no matter what the rest of the world thinks of you or what struggles you might have in your life. You might not be a hero of legend, but you can be a hero to the people who depend on you. You might not save the world, but you can still save someone’s world.

That’s on the backburner while I focus on the new job, but I hope to get back to it at some point. Early play-tests were going well. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Several people have said they enjoy combat in Wyrd Street more than in 5E.

The Stormfall palace in Wolcen: Lords of MayhemOn the video game front, those who follow my column on Massively Overpowered may have noticed I got sucked into Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem. I just finished the campaign, and I definitely want to play more, but I also have a lot of other stuff in my backlog I want to get to, and while I think Wolcen’s polish issues have been exaggerated, waiting for a few more patches to smooth out some of the rougher edges doesn’t seem like the worst idea. We’ll see how I feel; the combat and the build system in that game are just so addictive.

I did finally break down and pick up Nier: Automata on a Steam flash sale recently, so I hope to get to that soon, as well. Still a lot left to do in Star Trek Online, too.

Speaking of sci-fi, now that I finally have a library card, I discovered they have the entire series of Stargate: SG-1 on DVD, so I’ve been binge watching through that.

Despite the fact I’ve seen every episode of Atlantis and Universe, I’d only seen bits and pieces of SG-1 prior to now. I got interested in it pretty late in the game, and it was never on TV at times that were convenient to me. Then I didn’t have a TV. DVDs are too expensive, and there’s never been a convenient way to stream it.

But now I’m finally getting to watch it all in order. I just started on season four, and the show finally seems to be find its footing.

I won’t lie; if I didn’t know for a fact the series gets better, I might have given up on SG-1 in the first few seasons. It’s not that it’s terrible or anything, but it’s not enormously compelling either, and some aspects of it really haven’t aged well. It does feel like it’s starting to find more of a voice now, though, and I know the best is yet to come.

I’m also binging Welcome to Night Vale pretty hard right now. I got tickets to a live show in my area for later this month, and while I know it isn’t strictly necessary, I want to be fully caught up before I go. I’ve “only” got about twenty episodes left now, though I also want to listen to the recordings of all the previous live shows, and I haven’t touched those yet.

Official art for the audio drama Welcome to Night ValeI also finally tried one of the other shows by that company, Alice Isn’t Dead. Only listened to a few episodes so far, but my first impression is it’s really damn good. A bit Secret World-esque, and I adore Jasika Nicole’s voice. Wish I could get her to narrate my life.

Finally, when it comes to books, I just got done reading a collection of short fiction set in Ian Irvine’s Three Worlds setting, A Wizard’s War and Other Stories. It was fine and all, but I definitely expected more. None of the stories really jumped out as being super memorable. Don’t regret reading it, but it’s definitely not essential, even if you’re a serious Three Worlds fan.