Wednesday, March 31, 2021

At the Court of the Crow, Hermitage, Omega, Wild Card, and More

Things that brought me delight in March, 2021:

Tanith Lee, At the Court of the Crow

At the Court of the Crow is an unfinished work consisting of three chapters written for a brief that included the ominous phrase "steampunk ambiance," and that was set aside never to be completed. (It also never got to the "steampunk ambiance" aspect, if it was ever going to.) There is often something ineffably sad about reading an unfinished work whose author died before putting the final words to the page; Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues to haunt me, for example. But thankfully, despite its technically incomplete status, Tanith Lee's At the Court of the Crow is a satisfying volume that reads like a finished manuscript.

At the Court of the Crow centers on a nameless young woman who survived an alluded-to-but-never-described calamity that claimed the lives of her parents. She was then sent to live with her aunt and uncle, their children, and their servants, in a great, grim house that is functionally her prison. Everything changes when a mysterious, shapeshifting man named Olon "saves" the aunt and cousin from death by fire in a carriage, ingratiates himself into the family, and begins the slow process of destroying the household from within.

Although it's possible to see threads that could have been developed further if you begin reading knowing that this is an unfinished work, I suspect that it would feel whole if you didn't know the piece's history. The elements that are described, but never explained, such as why the stars fall from the sky, why the worship of god has been outlawed, and what catastrophe has befallen the world, don't actually require more development. Instead, they add to the unknowable mystery of the text and bring a true sense of unease in their wake.

Moonspell, Hermitage

Over the last thirty years, Moonspell have crafted an insanely diverse back catalog of albums--each with their own hidden pleasures. Hermitage may be the most accessible Moonspell record to date; although the gothic metal and semi-progressive songs that make up this album aren't likely to challenge listeners, there is something undeniably human and inviting about this release. The high level of musicianship is reined in tastefully, the emotions on display strike true, and the gloom is tempered with great, blinding shafts of light. Hermitage should appeal to both fans of the heavier stuff as well as folks into, say, The Cult or Fields of the Nephilim.

Epica, Omega

I expected Omega to be good, but I had no idea that it would be this good. It's very early to call it, of course, but Omega may very well be an album of the year contender. Epica's latest is an exemplary album of gothic symphonic metal that does everything it needs to. When it needs to soar, it soars; when it needs to dig in and get heavy and technical, it digs in and gets technical. This hit me exactly how I needed to be hit. Oh, for the days to come when we can drive someplace with this record blasting from the rolled-down windows of a car!

ReVamp, Wild Card

Following the demise of After Forever and before she joined Nightwish on a permanent basis, ReVamp was Floor Jansen's primary avenue of expression. In many ways, Wild Card feels like the midpoint between the two. ReVamp hits hard like After Forever, but the aggression here strikes a different, more frantic and jagged tone. The album also features symphonic elements reminiscent of what was to come with Nightwish, but without the latter band's trademark bombast.

Leaves' Eyes, The Last Viking

The cover of Leaves' Eyes' The Last Viking depicts singer Elina Siirala as a Valkyrie choosing which slain warriors will ascend to the halls of Asgard. This is a fitting visual for the album because it feels like Siirala is doing her damnedest to give the band a chance to fight again after the contentious loss of their much-beloved former vocalist, Liv Kristine. As such, I think it's best to evaluate The Last Viking on its own merits; without the baggage of Leaves' Eyes' history, I think any listener would have to admit that this is a solid album in the symphonic metal genre. A little overlong perhaps, but let's just call that "epic" and get on with enjoying it.

Vaesen: Nordic Horror Roleplaying and A Wicked Secret and Other Mysteries

Vaesen is a gothic horror roleplaying game set in nineteenth-century Scandinavia, which is obviously a very specific niche, but it becomes even narrower when you consider the scope of Upsala, the same starting location for the game. The book does a good job of giving the setting a gothic feel; the usual dichotomies that structure Victorian gothic novels are all here: Christianity versus pagan remnants, the past versus the industrialized, Enlightened present, and forgotten monster lurking in forlorn locales. 

The characters in Vaesen are all blessed and cursed with the Sight, the ability to see folkloric creatures and monsters, and they belong to the Society--an organization that seems like a less violent BRPD. The monsters the Society confronts are the vaesen, beings drawn from Scandinavian folklore rather than the usual gothic haunts, vampires, and werewolves you might expect. One of the fascinating aspects of Vaesen is that its monsters all have folkloric ways to banish or defeat them without resorting to combat. Also, the book is exceptionally attractive; the art is fantastic and its pages are weighty.

Penny Dreadful: Days Without Incident and The Obsidian Gate

Both Days Without Incident and The Obsidian Gate are part of the Penny Dreadful range--a series of adventure books for the Through the Breach roleplaying game. One thing I enjoy about these adventures is the way they supplement the setting. Days Without Incident expands on the working-class Union politics of The Corners, while The Obsidian Gate takes the adventurers to Japan and back. Although either adventure could be run as multi-part sessions on their own, they also give you enough of a toolbox to dig in and tinker with the setting for your own scenarios.

Stephen King, The Shining

I recently re-read Stephen King's The Shining because I decided to teach it for the first time this semester. I probably haven't read the novel in twenty or so years, but I have to say that it really hold up. Though most people are likely more familiar with Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation, I think the novel has many charms of its own that didn't make it onto the big screen. The ever-present economic pressures weighing down on the Torrance family are much more palpable and visible on the page, for example. There are some obvious King-isms throughout: many references to that old-time rock 'n' roll, characters who say amazingly banal things, and some dodgy racial caricature; that said, The Shining is prime King--easily one of his best novels.

Candlekeep Mysteries

Candlekeep Mysteries is the new adventure book for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike most of 5e's hardback adventures, this one isn't a necessarily a full campaign; rather, it's a series of adventures based on a simple premise: the adventurers are employed by the library at Candlekeep to go forth on their behalf and engage in book-related quests. My plan is to gently reshape the adventures presented here and fit them to the Creedhall area of Krevborna. Expect updates on how well or how poorly that goes.

Kaori Yuki, Alice in Murderland vol 7-11

In these last volumes of Alice in Murderland, families members continue to fall in the deadly competition to see who will be left standing as the new head of the family/ We learn about the terrible events that shaped Alice into the proficient murderess we know and love, and Alice and Stella come to an understanding about the body they share in common. 

As we enter the end game of the competition between the family's children, all that remain are siblings who like and care for each other, which only heightens the tension. Like most Kaori Yuki manga I've read, Alice in Murderland has many convoluted twists, and the end of this comic is no different. The twists and outlandish explanations come fast and furious. Things are a bit rushed at the end, but these eleven volumes were a wild ride down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass.

Crematory, Inception, Antiserum, Oblivion, Unbroken, and Monument

I did a deeeeep dive into Crematory's back catalog this month. (Usually when people say "deep dive," they don't really mean it; but I listened to fourteen of their records. That feels deep to me.) Getting my hands on Inception helped the adventure get underway; it's a box set of ten of their early albums. I chased that with the most recent four records in their discography. The predominate thread running through their sound is gothic metal, but over the course of their career there are elements of death metal and industrial metal that come and go as well.

From Nightmares

From Nightmares is a long-promised supplement for the Through the Breach roleplaying game that adds the option of playing as Neverborn--the monstrous native inhabitants of Malifaux who push back against the human invaders from Earth. From Nightmares gives you all the tools you'd need to run a game of Through the Breach in either a villainous mode or as freedom fighters looking to take back their land through any means necessary. I'm not sure that Avatar meets Hellraiser is the right turn of the phrase, but it's close enough.

Norihiro Yagi, Claymore vol. 7-10

Sometimes you lose an arm, only to gain a better one. Or at least that's what happens to Clare in these volumes of Claymore. Still on the trail of the awakened monstrosity who killed her friend, Clare parts ways with Raki when they are pursued by one of Clare's fellow claymores who loses control and transforms into a ravenously hungry beast. (Cue the Vicar Amelia music from Bloodborne.) Clare gains a neat new power, attempts to reunite with Raki, but is instead drawn into a confrontation with an awakened who seems to be gathering an army of monsters. And thus, the Claymores travel north to confront a battalion of ravening beasts and fallen comrades; and, of course, the north just happens to be where Raki's gotten to. The story arc is coming into view nicely.