An Academic in Ruins

“I suppose I don’t really know what I am doing.”

“Sure, but you’ve never denied that. You just always followed it up by saying no one else did, either, and thus success goes to those who act first.”

“Sure, but I feel like that doesn’t really apply in this scenario. There is so very little I know that is directly applicable to the problems at hand, so action isn’t the problem solver I once thought it was.”

“It still solves more problems than it doesn’t.”

“That’s very true.”

“It would have solved our problems, if you had acted.”

The professor smiled as he surveyed the patch of dirt he’d cleared. The smile was a shallow uptick of his mouth that left his eyes as mirthless and barren as the ground around him. This was one of the first things he’d been taught when they started exploring. Find an opening in the brush, clear a circle of plants, use fire to char anything still sticking out of the ground, and then turn the dirt over until every trace of color but black was gone. A safe, semi-permanent campsite that would stay clear of plants until long after you’d left and clear of bugs or animals until the last of the scent of smoke had faded.

“Acting got us here, though, so I’m still not convinced my old philosophy was truly as sound as I made it seem back in Sargava.” The professor looked up from the campsite he’d cleared to the face of his towering companion, the empty smile still on his face. “Acting has led to far more ruin than success, once the gravity of each has been taken into account.”

The tall man standing off to the side folded his arms over his chest, a familiar action accompanied by the familiar creak of stiffened hide trying to stretch as the pensive warrior measured his words. “That’s the way it seems now, but our journey isn’t finished. If you are correct, and the ruins are out here, then it will all have been worth it.”

“Do you really think so, Amgoroth?”

Amgoroth nodded, his beard and long hair spilling over his face. “I do, Alleck.”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“It’s your name. I’ve known you for too long to call you ‘Professor Quiston,’ fancy degree or not.”

The professor dropped to his knees besides his pack and started pulling out his camping gear, smile sliding off his face so smoothly it left no trace it’d ever been there. Amgoroth stayed where he was, watching as he chewed at a bit of his mustache that spilled into his mouth. In the silence, the sounds of distant primates chattering in the trees cut through the ceaseless din of insect and bird calls. The professor had once found them comforting, in a way, but now they reminded him of the frequent silences he endured on a daily basis.

In a desperate bid to chase them away for a while long, he turned back to his companion. “Amg, I really wish you’d call me by my title. I’ve studied long enough to deserve the recognition.”

The big man broke into grin that showed his several missing teeth and pulled at the thin, silver scars covering on side of his face. “But you will always be my friend, Alleck, playing music for us as we romped through the jungles outside our village, looking for monsters to slay.”

“We both moved on from those days.” The professor’s smile came back, but this one was smaller and clearly showed the sadness hiding beneath it. “You became a champion of the wrestling rings and coliseum. I found a benefactor to put me through university. I can literally change the way the world works using my magic and you are an unstoppable juggernaut whose terrifying rages can send even a pack of jaguars running in fear.” He turned back to his bag and finished laying out all the parts of his tent.

“True, but we are still the same where it counts.” Amgoroth walked to the center of the clearing and spread his arms out to soak in the last rays of sunlight coming down through the dense canopy. “I am still looking for dragons to kill and you are still playing music as we go looking for them.”

The professor looked up at his friend and then back down at the disassembled tent, trying to let his hands take over the process of setting it up despite knowing they couldn’t. This was only his second time setting it up, after all. He’d need his full attention for that. Instead, he sat back on his heels and put his hands in his lap. “We’ve a long ways from those children, Amg.”

“We are a long way from where they lived, but we carry them inside us always, so long as we don’t let their dreams go out.” Amgoroth turned his face up to the light and the professor looked over the constellation of scars covering his arms and shoulders, remnants of the one time they’d found a monster as children and the price Amgoroth had paid to save them both from it. After a moment, Amgoroth turned to face his childhood friend and smiled again. “I still want to find dragons and you still want to see what no one else has. That’s why you spent so much time studying ruined cities and digging up old stuff.”

“It’s called Archaeology, Amg.”

“That’s more syllables than I’m willing to say in one word, Alleck.”

“Professor Quiston, please.”

“I may be your guard on this trip for some lost city, Alleck, but I won’t call you “professor” anything.”

“I’ll dock you a month’s pay.”

“You’re not paying me anything. We left as soon as you heard the rumors. Neither of us is getting paid unless we find the city.” Amgoroth turned away from the light and came over to the professor, sitting down beside him. “We’ve been wandering through this jungle for months, now, and we haven’t found anything.”

“Sure, but you know how to live off the land. We can do this indefinitely.”

“No.” Amgoroth shook his head, temporarily clearing the hair from his face. “You packed food, but it will run out soon. I will not always be able to find food. You’ve been eating your supplies a lot lately and there might not be enough to get home again, even if we knew how to find it.”

“I said I was sorry.” The professor looked down at his hands again, trying to focus on them as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “And I meant it. I still mean it.”

“That does not change the facts, Alleck.”

“What do you want from me, Amg?”

“I just want to keep you safe and alive.” Amgoroth leaned forward and started pointing to the parts of the tent in the order the professor would need them to set it up. After he was done, he gently touched the professor shoulder, so lightly it didn’t even stir his clothing. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To go on adventures and keep you safe. More than dragons.”

The professor nodded, not trusting his voice at that moment. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the first of the tent supports. Without looking back at his friend, he quickly set the tent up, playing the memory of Amgoroth setting his tent up every night for four months in his head as he followed along. By the time he had finished, Amgoroth was gone. The professor stared at the place Amgoroth had occupied and then turned his attention to gathering wood for a fire.

By the time night fell, he’d managed to get a good fire going, set up his tent, and even find a few edible roots Amgoroth had fed them almost every day they’d been trying to find the lost city of Saventh-Yhi. He roasted them over the fire and set a two aside. After he’d eaten his and washed them down with the last of his water, he glanced at the roots as if only then noticing they were there. He turned his head away, back to the place Amgoroth had been, and reached for the harp case leaning against his pack.

He pulled his harp out, tuned it without really noticing what he was doing and, once that routine task was finished, strummed a few chords. He added a couple of words in some ancient tongue and watched Amgoroth shimmer back to life.

“Sorry, Amg. I can’t keep it going if I don’t focus on it.” The professor tucked his hard away and watched his friend, stand up, walk over to the fire, and sit down by the two roots he’d set aside. Amgoroth didn’t say anything as he moved. His leather didn’t creak. He sat without the usual thump of a three hundred pound man hitting the ground, even if the little cloud of charred plants still gusted out. Even as he picked up a root and ate it, he was silent.

After watching for a few moments, the professor sighed and let the magic go. Amgoroth froze in place and, a few seconds later, vanished. The professor stared into the flames and at the campsite Amgoroth had taught him to make. Unable to stand it any longer, he climbed to his feet, harp still in his hands, and started playing a song as he walked out of the clearing. He wandered through the jungle, playing his harp to cut through the noise of the jungle and give him something to think about other than his friend’s death.

The music never really stopped it, but it softened the memories as they washed over him. The morning they’d woken up to find tracks of some large cat around their campsite. Hungry and eager for fresh meat, they’d packed up and chased after it. Right into the den of some kind of plant monster that had snatched Amgoroth off the ground. Amgoroth had been confident he could break free, but there had been so many vines… It pulled him up into the treetops and there was nothing Alleck could do but watch in horror his friend had disappeared.

Half a minute later, as he was looking for a tree to climb, Amgoroth’s shouts fell silent. Alleck had stood there, eyes and ears straining, for any sign of his friend of their attacker. When he’d found nothing, when the noise of the jungle and the silence became too much to bear, he’d pulled out his hard and walked away, playing as loudly as he could.

Once the tide of memory had receded, the professor put away memories of Amgoroth and Alleck. He turned around, retraced his steps, and went back to his camp. He packed up his tent, put out his fire, and wandered off into the jungle again, softly playing his harp as he went in search of the lost civilization he’d lost everything trying to find.

Dysa of the Nothing Reminds me of Mythology in the Best Ways

I don’t know if it’s a common part of most people’s college experiences, but I spent a lot of time reading mythology. I also studied literary criticism, so I’ll admit I’m probably more likely than most to encounter mythology as it was originally written rather than just more recent adaptions. It was one of my favorite things to study because there was a long period were all stories were what we’d now call “fantasy” and we kind of just lump them all into “mythology” because it’s an easy classification. It’s a vast oversimplification of a complex and storied body of literature, but it does make life easier for everyone who doesn’t specialize in pre-modern literature or spend a lot of time reading mythology.

To that end, I think a lot of people would enjoy ancient mythology if we had more complete stories and they were translated into more modern words than most scholars use. I mean, most Norse mythology makes for a great read, but even the translated stuff is a bit dense since almost all ancient mythology we have is from someone writing down a story that had been passed down through a solely oral tradition up to that point. Oral stories tend to have a lot of repetition and they tend to spiral around each plot point for a while to make it easier on the performer. If you could streamline it all, fill in some of the gaps in stuff like The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’m sure more people would get really into it.

Since that doesn’t seem likely to happen, they should read “Dysa of the Nothing” by Arlynn Lake. While Amazon lists it as a “Suspense” or a Children’s Fantasy and Magic eBook, I honestly thing “mythology” would be a better fit. There’s a certain cadence to storytelling that appears in almost all ancient myths and “Dysa of the Nothing” captures that perfectly. It is an easy book to read, but it is anything but simply written. Something that flows through a story and a strange world with this much ease can’t be anything but the result of strong writing and a lot of work on the author’s part. It has the feel of a finely crafted statue, with all of the rough spots smoothed over and everything seamlessly joined together so that every piece of the story feels like a single, unbroken part of a whole.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the writing in this story and that, alone, would make me willing to recommend it. That being said, there’s plenty more amazing stuff to say about this book and I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on all of the high points, but I also want to stress that this was a really good read. It was engaging, it kept me interested the whole time, and it was short enough that none of it had the time to get boring. In terms of well-craft stories, this is probably one of the best I’ve read this year, right up there with Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” (which I’ll be reviewing next week) and John Scalzi’s “Head On.” It’s very different from most of the stuff I read, but it was good enough to be literally the first eBook I’ve ever fully read in an electronic format. I am so bad with most electronic forms of writing and information collection that I literally forget I have an entire (small) library of Nook and Kindle books that I’ve never even read a tenth of (going by page count since I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve never finished an eBook before). Anyway, back to the stuff most people care about: the story, its characters, and the world.

The world is deceptive in its complexity, with two very different groups of people who might not be that different after all and a long history of conflict with something called “The Nothing.” There’s a sense of long history and traditions maintained over many lifetimes as the story starts and no matter where the story takes us, there’s this sense of so much more just around the corner or hidden over the horizon. The worldbuilding isn’t as heavy or “complete” as it is in most contemporary fantasy, but there’s no need for more. There’s never a moment in the entire story were I was left wondering about some aspect of the world. You’re given exactly as much as you need to enjoy the story and maintain your suspension of disbelief. Arlynn Lake has done an amazing job at one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling (or blog-post writing): taking out what isn’t necessary. I like my fluff as much as the next fantasy fan, but I also really appreciate a good story told succinctly and, as someone who struggles with that, greatly admire an author who can do it well.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. There are not many surprises along the way, but the real point of the story is watching the characters progress through the journey that has been laid out for them. While there is some question of how things will turn out, it mostly hinges on how what the characters’ relationships will be once the story has finished rather than how the journey will end. This works well for the story since it is mostly focused on the growth of the characters and they’re the most interesting part of the story by far. I was all set to dislike the main character, a teenager named Andwith, because he’s pretty much set up as this perfect kid who can do anything, but you gradually start to see the Humanity in him, the flaws and fears he hides behind what everyone calls his Four Virtues (which are explained in the first chapter of the book). Despite his gifts and near-perfection, he still has flaws and he still makes mistakes, even if most of them are small. Plus, the story isn’t really about him, it’s about the people around him and what happens because he appears in the world (much like when Enkidu appears to change the life of Gilgamesh, though the similarity pretty much stops there).

I would definitely recommend buying this book. It’ll take a few hours to read, but they’ll be fun hours from beginning to end and the low price of the eBook on Amazon (especially if you have Kindle Unlimited) makes it a no-brainer to buy. You should check it out and enjoy a quick story about having faith in people, trying to help people become the person they want to be, and giving people a chance to be Human, even if they’re not.

The Edge of Sleep

Half-dreamt thoughts on the edge of sleep. Little things seen out of the corner of your eyes. A double-take revealing nothing extraordinary. A memory of a moment in the future, forgotten until it happens.

“Anxiety” they said, “manifesting as insomnia and psychosis.” Sleep studies, sleeping pills, and sleep aids.

“You brain is just firing neurons. There’s nothing to worry about.” Pills, therapy, and even meditation, all to fix an imbalance that never budged.

“It’s a form of schizophrenia. We can figure it out.” More pills, more therapy, but also a treatment center this time.

Whispered conversations on the edge of hearing. Reports handed to parents with only the occasional word revealed to me. The knowledge they talked about me like I wasn’t there anymore and there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise.

But it was all real. There were cracks in the world, slowly letting the magic and majesty of the old world back in. Atlantis had sunk, but not in water.

Now, after millenia, it was coming back, guided by creatures that looked like the worst nightmares of the woman in the cell next to mine whose wordless screams of pain and fear no words could have described better.

There was one other girl who knew. She showed up after I did but her family never visited. They kept us apart. “It just feeds your psychosis” they would say.

By the time they believed us, it was too late. The wards were sealed and they waited for the Atlanteans to get around to them before taking out the only people who could have stopped them.

It was easy. We were locked in cells and restrained in jackets. A flash of light and it was over.

I have that memory-dream every night, but no one believes me.

If I Had to Pick a Webcomic as a Religion, I Would Pick Erfworld

I’ve been putting off this review for months because this is my favorite story and I don’t want to sell it short. I want to be as charming and witty as this webcomic is and I just don’t have it in me since I’ve been constantly struggling just to keep up with the stuff I need to do, much less the stuff I want to do. I’ve written and deleted this post ten times over at this point because I can never come close to expressing how much I love this comic and how much Rob Balder, the writer and creator, inspires me. I feel like there’s some perfect version of this review inside me and I just keep failing to bring it out. Ultimately, though, a finished review that’s “alright” is better than the “perfect” review that never gets written. Anyway, as the protagonist of Erfworld–a man named Parson Gotti (just rearrange the letters a bit)–said, “We try things. Occasionally they even work.”

Erfworld is a comic about a man, the aforementioned Parson Gotti–aka Lord Hamster, who gets sucked into a different world by a spell created by people to be named later. The “side” of Gobwin Knob, ruled by Stanley the Tool (formerly Stanley the Plaid), paid a fortune for a spell to summon the perfect warlord, as defined by a handful of people who all had very different ideas of what that meant. Nevertheless, Parson arrives and sets to work with a will, slowly learning everything he doesn’t know he needs to know in order to take on what feels a lot like the whole world from the disadvantageous position of a long losing streak. Joining him is a memorable cast of detailed characters from a resigned necromancer, an illusionist with arguably too few marvels, a conjurer who hates violence, and a telepath whose moral ambiguity isn’t as much of an asset as she wants to think it is. Leading (debatably) them all is a man who just so happens to be incredibly short, incredibly short-tempered, and frustratingly short of common sense. Throw in some magic weapons with godly powers, a war for the very soul of Erfworld, a power dynamic that resists change, and you’re finally scratching the surface of this amazingly complex story.

While most of the world works according to some basic mechanics best compared to a miniatures game (units form “stacks”, move a certain number of terrain “hexes,” and have certain “specials” that modify their unit type such as “Flying” or “Archery”), the magic system is far more complex than most I’ve encountered and my descriptions of the various casters in the above paragraphs are vast over-simplifications for the sake of expediency. The necromancer is actually a “croakamancer,” which is a subset of the “naughtymancy” class of magic. I’d explain the others, but you’re honestly better off just reading the comic for yourself because the time it’d take to explain the magic system in a way I’d find satisfactory is greater than the time it’d take for you to read everything on the website. Not to mention that I’d have to revise it several times while writing it because we’re constantly learning more about magic in Erfworld and old assumptions and “facts” are constantly being set aside as we realized the fallacies of our assumptions. The one thing you do need to know is that the rules of the world are incredibly important, much more concrete than the rules of our world, and potentially exploitable. If you’re a gamer and you look at this story from the perspective of a power gamer looking for an exploit, you’ll find a lot of places for things to be used in a way the rule-writers likely didn’t intend. At the same time, Balder does an amazing job of breaking down what’s happening through text updates, character narration, and the detailed direction he gives the artists so that you don’t need to be a power gamer to understand or see what’s going on. All you really need is either a strong knowledge of pop-culture or strong Googling skills.

The plot itself is both pretty standard but also incredibly open-ended and unpredictable. Parson is summoned to serve his ruler and save the “side” of Gobwin Knob, but then what? The story carries on after plot wraps up and even the characters dealing with the fallout of how that concludes is only setting the stage for the appearance of even larger threats who all seem laser-focused on the fact that Parson is a player on the stage of Erfworld. Is Parson actually in a different universe, or did he have an aneurysm? Who are the bad guys in this story? What’s right and what’s wrong in a world where free will is a basically a special trait belonging only to a few units? What part does Fate play in the outcome of events and can it be circumvented or defeated? What does it mean to be the perfect warlord? All these questions and more are posed as the plot winds it way from one startling turn of events to another and, the further we go, the more we realize we’re not actually sure about the answers to those questions.

No one is the villain in their own story, but how do you tell a story about people who are trying to conquer the world through what seem like some pretty brutal means without making the readers dislike your protagonists? Is it enough to just give them someone worse to fight, and is that other someone actually worse or does it just seem like they are because we automatically sympathize with characters whose perspective we get to see? Only Balder has the answers to these questions, but it’s plain to see that he actually does have the answers to them. The way the story unfolds and the clever way he seeds foreshadowing into every major event is so detailed and complex that I can barely begin to comprehend the scope of his planning and work.

Behind the veneer of cutesy-sounding names and hilarious onomatopoeia is a harsh world full of difficult questions and the undeniable fact that only through death and war can any “side” survive. The often cute art of the comic hides an incredibly dark story of how far is “too far” and what’s justifiable in war, either as a defender or as an aggressor. Easily, the best part of this comic is the number of large and important questions it constantly raises and forces you to answer on your own. The characters in the comic find their own answers frequently, but that aren’t necessarily the answers we want since their answers are generally motivated by the desire for their side to win the war or come out on top. It can be difficult to keep track of what horrors each side has visited on each other because it feels like there’s a clear bad guy, but there are a few good guys who are only good because they’re willing to talk rather than fight. Peace isn’t really a permanent solution in Erfworld, but working for it seems like a better goal than just fighting all the time.

The art is amazing, even though it has changed rather frequently. The current artist team is by-far my favorite and I’m always excited for each new page because I can’t wait to pour over each page for all the hidden details they slip in. The often-changing artists are emblematic of the major struggle that has plagued Erfworld for a long time: an overabundance of tragedy. From the artist’s mother having cancer to the writer’s wife and one of the main employees of the website getting cancer, to stylistic differences with another artist, there’s a lot that has gone wrong for the comic as a whole and for Rob Balder in general. He’s been fairly open about everything since his fans are willing to stick by him throughout it all and have numerous times helped him come up with the money he needs to continue working on our favorite comic, but I still feel like most of those stories are his to tell, so I recommend checking out his news posts once you’ve read the whole thing. Regardless, his persistence and the way he’s always carried on with this story despite the hurdles he’s had to overcome has always inspired me to keep trying, even when I didn’t write for most of a year and considered giving up on it. I set the little statue of Parson I got from one of the Kickstarters next to my monitor and told myself “We try things. Occasionally they even work.” That is my all-time favorite quote from this comic (and that’s saying a lot because there are some real doozies here), and it has helped me not just get through the rough patches but stay focused when things were going well so I never took my good days for granted.

There aren’t a lot of stories I can say had a huge impact on my life and the number of writers I find truly inspiring is small enough that I can list them all on one hand, but Rob Balder and his wonderful story is at the top of both lists. If you want a story that will carry you along, with a cast of impeccable characters and a plot that will never leave you wanting, read Erfworld and bask in the glory that is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Please, do us both a favor and start reading it now.

Spiritual Hard Hat

“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo.’”

“Shut up, John.”

“‘You never know wh-’”

“Goddammit!” I spun to face my friend and slapped the hard hat from his hands. “You think I’m joking? You think this is funny?”

John picked up his hard hat. “I mean, you said this was a spiritual hard hat, Mel, and went on about heeding your every word.” John spun the hat in his hands. “What else am I supposed to think?”

“You’re supposed to take me seriously!” I grabbed the hat out of his hands and stuck it on his head. “This is your first day. I didn’t get you this job so you could get yourself killed.”

“Sure, but this is the part where you tell me to get thirty feet of shoreline or the left-handed screwdriver. There’s always hazing and I’m not falling for it. What kind of desk job requires you to wear a hard hat?”

“This one!” I sighed. “I’m not hazing you, John.”

“Then why is my spiritual hard hat also a physical hard hat that looks like every other hard hat I’ve ever seen?”

“Because it’s been imbued with spiritual protection. Did you not pay attention to the briefing you sat through this morning?”

“Yeah, but the dude was in it, clearly.”

“If you don’t take this seriously, your spirit is going to be crushed.”

“Mel, your attempt at joking is crushing my spirit.”

“Fine.” I gave him a push. “Have it your way. You signed the waivers.”

John took off his hard hat, smirked, and stepped into the office floor. I watched his smirk fade as he noticed every employee was wearing a hard hat. A moment later, he slipped it on and turned back toward me. “Really?”

“Really.” I walked up to him. “I’ll show you your desk.”

Giant Problems

The giant scratched his beard stubble, the sensation and noise helping him keep his temper as he glared down at the Humans.

“I did not eat your sheep. I’m a vegetarian.”

“That’s impossible!” The largest of the Humans waved his torch. “There’s no way a creature your size could find enough nutrients to survive by eating plants alone.”

“First of all, that’s demeaning. I’m not a creature. Second, I would know if my diet supports someone like me seeing as I eat it, am large for a giant, and do not look as scrawny as half the Humans you’ve assembled.”

“Our sheep are missing and your footprints are all over our land.” The man stopped waving his torch and shrugged. “Seems like you did something with them. Sold them, maybe? That’s a nice outfit you’ve got there and I can’t imagine giant clothes come cheap.”

The giant rubbed his face. “I didn’t take your sheep. Those aren’t my footprints. I live in the foothills and just walked over from there. You can see my footprints behind me.”

“And these aren’t yours?” The man waved the crowd out of the way and gestured at a set of footprints.

“No! Those feet are too small to be mine, see?” The giant lined his foot up with the prints. His foot was half again as long as the other ones. “Just because I’m a giant doesn’t mean I made those footprints.”

“Oh.”

“If you’ve got nothing else to say, I’ll be on my way.”

“See that you stay away from our town!”

“I wouldn’t go near it if you paid me.”

The giant walked away from the crowd of Humans and one of the men in the front turned to the one with the torch and shrugged. “You’re a bit racist aren’t you.”

Visiting Grandma

Like any decent grandchild, I loved my grandmother. She made me cookies, I weeded her gardens, and then we’d sit around eating cookies and watching game shows. I liked to visit her as often as I could growing up, but it wasn’t always easy. Every time we crossed the river, the family got smaller.

We had often talked about bringing her over the river to stay permanently. The river was brutal, but it was fast. Like ripping off a bandage or chopping off a limb. You had to be quick if you wanted to survive.

The forest, though, was a nightmare. It wasn’t as lethal, but the amount of work it took to get through would probably be the death of her. She was a lovely, hardy old woman who would probably outlive her kids, but the march through the trees would have been too much for her.

At this point, I was the only one who made the effort to visit her. My parents weren’t as hardy as she was and they were getting up in years. My siblings had mostly settled down, refusing to travel beyond our little village for anything. They tried to pretend otherwise, but I knew they were afraid. I could see it in the way they clutched their doors and herded their children away when I visited.

I’d made the trip only once before, and that was with a hired escort. Today, I was going to do it alone, even if I was too broke to hire anyone. She hadn’t written in weeks and someone needed to check, the dangers be damned. I could do it. I knew that, if it was at all possible to do alone, I could make the trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

So, I heard You Like Goblins

If you enjoy Dungeons and Dragons comics but are not reading Goblins by Tarol Hunt, I honestly don’t really know what to say to you other than “you need to go read this amazing webcomic” repeatedly, until you actually go read it. I’m totally willing to make an attempt at figuring out how to explain why, but I what I really wanted was to give you the chance to bail out now so you can experience the entire saga without my interpretations, analysis, and commentary in the way of an unbiased first read-through. I suggest you go do that because people who enjoy stories and/or Dungeons and Dragons will find something to love.

The first thing you’ll see when you start the comic is a disclaimer explaining the art progression. This comic has been decades in the making, from initial conception and first pages to now it has slowly progressed through a complex and layered story with an end I can’t even fathom. Each page in the story is rife with potential and you’ve never sure when something is foreshadowing or just significant in the moment. As time passes and the story progresses, so much of what came before shows up again as a reference or as the comfortable repetition of a story slowly winding its way toward the climax. Where most stories are depicted as line graphs, straight upward movement through the beats of a story until it reaches its apogee, “THunt’s” Goblins is best thought of in three dimensions. while it shares the same upward climb of all good stories, the path is more circular. Each of the plots, the smaller stories taking place involving different characters, in the comic covers similar ground as they wind their way up a mountain, passing by each other as they go, sometimes without even realizing that their journey is overlapping with someone else’s. In the beginning, you’re not even sure they’re climbing the same mountain. Only by piecing together the various elements of the stories or finding the right bits of foreshadowing can you tell that they are. Or, you know, if you’ve already read it. Then it gets pretty clear.

As far the plot goes, it starts simply enough. There is a village of goblins preparing to be attacked by a party of adventurers. The Goblins are the initial focus and we get a peek into their daily lives that does more to humanize them, so to speak, than we get of the adventuring party when we meet them. While both groups are set up somewhat neutrally, the Goblins get the benefit of more jokes and more attention early on, so they wind up as the sympathetic party initially. It doesn’t hurt that they comic is named after them, either. When we see the adventurers finally get to the village who is ready and waiting for them, it becomes clear that the Goblins are just defending themselves. There’s even a moment where the survivors of the battle call it off because they realize just how horrible this fight is.

From there, as both groups deal with loss and the residual anger of their conflict, they go their separate ways and we begin to see the shape of the larger story being told. All we get is a series of paths unfolding in front of us and hints at the detail of the journey ahead of us. The story slowly builds a cast of characters with their own motivations, alliances, and beliefs about the world, sending them all in separate directions to grow and pursue their parts of the narrative. While the pace is rather slow for a story of this size, an unavoidable result of creating it in comic form, the actual beats of the story are incredibly well placed when you go through the archives. Hunt is an incredible storyteller and his comic is a testament to it.

In addition to his storytelling prowess, he’s also one of the most inventive world creator I’ve seen, given the amount of concrete detail and mechanics you can find in the parts of his world that don’t come from Dungeons and Dragons. He has mixed stuff brought straight from Dungeons and Dragons with stuff he’s adapted from various fantasy settings, and it all fits in seamlessly with what he’s created from scratch. The most impressive part of the story in my eyes is how smoothly he’s fitted every piece of his world together. There are no bumps, no cracks in the road that cause you stumble or doubt as you read. You can clearly see how the world works as a result of fourth wall humor and what we’d call “out of character” comments in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. All of the characters seem to know they’re in a world that obeys a bunch of mechanics you can study and manipulate using numbers or simple declarations. While no one talks about the numerical results of their rolls like they do in some D&D comics and they don’t strictly adhere to the basic rules you’d find in a D&D book, you can easily tell that they’re still in what we’d call a game world. Still, it amazes me constantly how well that knowledge fits in with the world, even when they’re arguing about what skill they’d use to cross a river because they’re making different skill checks to get the same result (as a result of their different attribute scores).

Aside from the petty arguments about how they crossed a river and why someone has such a huge attack bonus despite being at a lower level,  they also cover a range of difficult topics. Hunt doesn’t shy away from the horrific when he details what some of the less-than-savory (and downright fucking awful, goddamn that was a sadistic bastard of a shitstick) characters, but he draws clear lines between what is good and what is evil that are much clearer to the reader than they seem to be to the people in story. At least, to some of them. One of the big themes of the story is the nature of Good and Evil. Like in our world, most of Hunt’s characters believe themselves to be the good guys. Unfortunately for us, they’re often not actually Good. It takes a long time for Hunt to give us his idea of what makes someone Good or Evil, but it’s worth the wait. We’ve been given enough time to see the true natures of tons of characters across the spectrum and we even get to see some characters change alignment. So, when he finally gives us the definition, we can see how all of the characters fit into it and we won’t have to struggle with how Good people can sometimes come into deadly and often angry conflict. In a truly great moment that’s relatively recent in the comic, Hunt also shows us the struggle to define Good and Evil in a way we can consistently rely on and how difficult it can be to actually live up to that definition without abandoning what we’d all call sensible precaution.

Honestly, I started the comic for fantasy battles and Goblin Adventurers, but I’ve stuck with it through the years because of the complex storytelling and the way it covers difficult issues. I don’t have a problem waiting however long it takes for this comic to finish because I know it’s going to be amazing. I hope you enjoy reading it and I hope you get as much out of it as I have. There’s so much it has to give, I can’t imagine anyone coming away from it without something to think about.

The Dark Lord? He was more a “Shady Lord” Than A Dark One

The Wizard Derk was a simple man who wished for nothing but to putter around his gardens and magically breed interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in The Dark Lord of Derkholm By Diana Wynne Jones, Derk is selected and that year’s Dark Lord for the tours that pass through and has to scramble to perform a job that he is not only ill-suited to perform, but which was purposefully given to him in the hopes that he would be the last Dark Lord. Not only does Derk need to worry about all the “Pilgrim Parties” (vacationers from a different world who have paid to be the heroes in an adventure story) passing through on their vacations, but he has to worry about the leaders of his world who have set him up for every kind of failure they can imagine and a few they never expected.

The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a wonderful fantasy book that does a great job of satirizing fantasy. The story illustrates how silly (and how devastating) some of the typical fantasy tropes can be for the people experiencing them. World leaders complain of destroyed countrysides, ruined crops, obliterated towns, slain citizens, and pillaged homes, all while some man from the same world as the Pilgrim Parties, referred to only as “Mr. Chesney,” reaps profits that put the collected salaries of the people actually doing the work to shame. As a result of the damages, each person hosting a part of the events spends more than they earn and are in the end stages of slow economic decay. If that wasn’t enough, most of the damage comes from large groups of condemned criminals who are brought into their world to act the part of the Dark Lord’s Army, some of whom wind up escaping their prison camps in order to pillage the countryside for real, killing and burning as they go.

Each of the characters who takes part in the story, aside from the one who came up with the idea of ending the Pilgrim Parties instead of just getting more money from Mr Chesney, is a wonderful and complex person who still plays into stereotypes in ways that serve to better accentuate their characters rather than limit it. The one exception, Querida, the head of the Wizards, is an enormously powerful and clever old woman who feels one-dimensional because all she does is come up with a plan. That’s it. Her plan is to ask the oracles how to end the Pilgrim Parties and then throw as many wrenches into the works as possible. She comes up with ideas and then has other people actually figure out how to make it happen, but winds up getting all the credit for things working out. Not only that, but she expresses no concern when Wizard Derk is devastated by the results of the Pilgrim Parties, callously tries to separate him from his wife, Mara (magically, since Derk and Mara love each other and their children too much to separate), and tries to kidnap or trick most of Derk and Mara’s children. She’s awful and seems to be just as callous as Mr. Chesney.

Give the clever ways the other characters are written, how human and real they feel, with personalities distinct from each other and personal goals they pursue in entirely Human ways even as they’re tasked with seeing to the Pilgrim Parties, I can only conclude Diana Wynne Jones wrote Querida that way on purpose. There are a lot of powerful characters in this book, from Elven lords who can just wander into any part of the world they like to ancient dragons who can warp reality with the merest hint of their power, but most of them fall into one of two categories: those who respect people and those who do not. Even in Derk’s world, the ultimate victim of Mr. Chesney’s machinations, people with power but no respect for individuals without it are just as bad as Mr. Chesney and, though it is never confirmed, you get a sense that those sort of people are the ones who agreed to Mr. Chesney’s proposals in the first place. “I’ll get what I want because I have power and screw everyone else.” All of the villains that emerge are like this and so are some of the supposed good guys. The people who respect others, some of whom aren’t even people, wind up being the true heroes of the book because they work to mitigate the damage being done by this last season of Pilgrim Parties as everything goes haywire, eventually bringing the story to its happy conclusion where all the villains get punished, the ‘good guys’ are mostly ignored, and the good guys get to return to the happy lives they knew before they were interrupted by the awful ‘good guys’ and the Pilgrim Parties.

To be entirely fair, the plot itself wasn’t anything remarkable. You know from the start that things are going to more or less work out the way they seem to even though there’s not much in terms of foreshadowing, subtle or otherwise. In the end (SPOILERS), things literally only work out because the gods intervene, which apparently only happens because the world rose up to save themselves so the gods finally decided to pitch in. Literal deus ex machina. It hurt a little bit to see everything capped and explained in a few pages by gods who let all these people suffer for so long simply because the leaders hadn’t decided to put a stop to the Pilgrim Parties. Which is another example of powerful people who don’t respect less powerful people. The book is full of them, and they show up in the least likely places. Almost like it’s a theme, or something.

In the end, the only people who are truly happy are those who respect other people and treat everyone with a certain amount of kindness and care, regardless of how much power they have. The theme only becomes visible once you get to the end and can reflect back on the book, but it was a really fun read so I recommend taking the time to get there. If you want a good book that plays with your emotions and reactions to make its point, reads very easily (I cannot stress how wonderful a read this book was), and will show the humanity inherent in everything from Dragons to Griffons to Demons, definitely give Diana Wynne Jones’ The Dark Lord of Derkholm a read.

Not a Young Priest or an Old Priest, but a Middle-Aged Priest

I’m on a bit of a “Matthew Colville” tear this week, so I figured I might as well review the first book in his Ratcatchers series, Priest. As Colville often says in his videos, the best way to support him is to buy his books. Since I’ve gotten so much enjoyment and refreshing information from his videos, I figured I might as well buy his books as a way to contribute to his well-being, despite the fact that I know his recent Kickstarter has helped him build a company that will probably have more to do with his income than his book series will for the next several years. I also figured he’d be a good writer since he does an excellent job with his videos and seems to be a DM people loved to play D&D with.

Priest is a surprisingly complex and nuanced book that stands out from most of the (honestly, pretty awful) D&D-fantasy books I’ve read. To be fair to the genre, I haven’t read most of what people say are the good ones since I get most of mine from used book stores and people seem disinclined to sell the reportedly good ones. I enjoyed it, and I’d say it was a really fun fantasy novel that broke away from a lot of the typical fantasy tropes by relying on the sort of stuff that comes up in a D&D world that is a bigger deal in a typical fantasy novel world.

For instance, the gods are real and have intermediaries who do their bidding, like the titular character, a Priest named Heden who used to be an adventurer. Heden, an ex-ratcatcher–to use the term most people use to talk about adventurers and all the chaos they bring to locals–is a shut-in priest who hates leaving his closed-down inn but is tasked to go investigate The Forest by his immediate superior, the local bishop. Heden not only has to face the dangers of a forest that generally kills everyone who goes into it and brave the mysterious Green Order, an order of knights who protect the locals from the dangers of the forest, but also his own anxieties and PTSD from his past as an adventurer.

There are a lot of mysteries about Heden’s past and Colville does an excellent job of giving the reader just enough information to slowly create a picture without tipping his hand. He lets us know that the past is important because it informs who Heden is and why he’s been chosen to investigate the death of a knight from the Green Order, but he also lets us know that it isn’t a central point of the story. Heden’s PTSD and some of the horrors from his past impact the present, but the important part is him facing them, not exactly what happened years ago. In addition to the glimpses through Heden’s quickly avoided memories, you meet some of the members of his old adventuring group and get a sense that Heden was the reason they’re all retired. Clearly they had all become very powerful by the time they retired, judging from the casual power of the magic items Heden has available to him, but still they all toil away at their own solo endeavors and don’t seem to speak to each other very much.

This cleverly side-steps the problem that arises when you have a large group of very powerful people united towards a single purpose. With all of them together, there would be very little that could stand in their way. Alone, Heden misses important clues in his investigation, can be brought down by sheer numbers, and has a hard time processing what is happening because he’s alone all the time. With the full group, the story would have been over in the first quarter of the book and there would probably be no sequels. Alone, you get to see that Heden still has a lot of growing to do and there is opportunity for mishap when he has to tackle every major task on his own.

The plot was a little frustrating, but that was mostly a personal thing. Heden is supposed to investigate and then redeem or condemn the Green Order, but he struggles with the task because of his own prejudices against knights and because literally everyone seems to put all of the responsibility on him and then do their best to make his job harder. Eventually, you see everyone was acting appropriately, but felt like “there needs to be a problem so everyone is going to be stubborn and difficult” while I was reading it. In hindsight, it was a clever thing to do because it aligned the reader with Heden’s feelings on the matter, but I really dislike stories that have problems because there needs to be a problem, so I almost put it down.

I would definitely recommend this book. It was a lot of fun to read, the characters are all intricate and super interesting, and it deals with something most people don’t consider: what happens to the mental health of adventurers after they retire. Not many stories seem willing to consider they might wind up like a lot of modern combat veterans. I like that Matthew Colville clearly did his research and does an excellent job of bringing PTSD and panic attacks to life in the novel in a way that isn’t so rough that it could easily trigger someone with related issues. I suggest picking up a copy of Priest and giving it a read.