Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides
I have much more to say about On Stranger Tides over on the Bad Books for Bad People episode we did on it, but suffice to say that this Tim Powers novel gets an enthusiastic recommendation. If you like pirates, this is a must read. It weaves figures from the Golden Age of Piracy in with its magical fancy, which includes voodoo, ghost ships, and spirits, resulting in a really great example of what Powers can do with his "secret history" style of fiction; because he hews so closely to the historical record, On Stranger Tides feels strangely plausible for a tale in which loa-empowered pirates square off against each other over the fate of a woman's immortal soul.
The Lost Citadel
The Lost Citadel is a horror-fantasy themed setting for 5e D&D. The content of this project was quickly overshadowed by controversy when it was revealed that the lead designer on it was a sex pest of some sort. Green Ronin, the publishers of The Lost Citadel, didn't help matters by being insanely combative in their public relations. To be honest, I forgot I even had this thing: I found it, still in the original shipping box, while cleaning out a closet.
The premise of The Lost Citadel is roughly "The Walking Dead-meets-D&D." Hordes of zombies have killed off most of the population; those who survive cower behind the walls of a dwarven citadel. Oh, and things didn't go too well for the dwarves either. Playing into the (somewhat tired) notion that "man is the real monster," human refugees have overthrown the dwarves and now use their erstwhile saviors as slaves. You can see where this is going. It's bleak.
The book cuts down on the various options open to players in most D&D games, whittling the races to a handful and substituting its own bespoke classes in place of the usual suspects. Magic is less prevalent in The Lost Citadel across the board. Most of the book is devoted to setting; I'm not sure I'd ever use this book as is, but I certainly have some ideas for how using it to spice up the new Falkovnia as presented in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.
Nocturna, Daughters of the Night
I come from an era where every other goth night was named "Nocturna," and even the cover of Daughters of the Night reminds me of that time period. (They don't make them like that anymore.) Daughters of the Night showcases a strong mix of Gothic metal, symphonic metal, and power metal; the unique twist is the presence of two singers sharing vocal duties. Admittedly, Nocturna doesn't really innovate in their nexus of genres, but this is a good, solid album overall.
Shaenon K. Garrity and Christopher Baldwin, The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor
The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is pretty firmly rooted in the tradition of "portal fantasy": our protagonist is a teenager girl utterly immersed in the world of classic Gothic fiction who gets pulled into an alternate reality that is build from the archetypes and conventions that define the Gothic novel. What seems like it will be a Northanger Abbey-style parody of the Gothic gets turned on its head; ultimately, it is the heroine's deep knowledge and appreciation of the Gothic that saves the day.
Grim Hollow: The Campaign Guide and The Players Guide
Grim Hollow intrigued me, but the shipping price tag to get the books sent from Australia caused me to balk. Luckily, a few good eBay purchases got me The Campaign Guide, The Players Guide, and a cloth map that I will almost certainly forget to look at. Like The Lost Citadel above, Grim Hollow is decidedly "dark fantasy" in style and tone. The worldbuilding is admittedly not the most startling or memorable, but there are bits and pieces here I could see stealing. I particularly like the bespoke subclasses it offers, though as always I have no idea how "balanced" they are. Still, there's strong raw material here.
Funeral, Praesentialis in Aeternum
Praesentialis in Aeternum begins in an oddly Danny Elfman-esque place--morbid, but upbeat orchestration that make it sound like opening credits are about to roll, and you might just see the words "Tim" and "Burton" on the screen. But from there we immediately crash into the depths of funereal doom. It's been nearly a decade since the last Funeral album, but they haven't lost their touch. It's nice to see the stalwarts of the genre return with a chunky slab of the sound they helped put on the map.
Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray-Man vol. 4-6
Of course my interest in D.Gray-Man's continuing storyline picked up a bit as soon as the manga introduced a vampire tale arc. Although the arc doesn't resolve into the standard Gothic story (it does ultimately involve the D.Gray-Man mythos) it's a pretty fun detournment of the conventions of the vampire tale genre. The art is still sometimes a little inexplicable during action scenes, but the number of noteworthy panels does seem to be on the upswing. The sixth volume gets pretty wild, with a giant torso flying around and shooting energy beams out of where its arms should be.
Old horror comics
My girlfriend found a pile of old horror comics stashed away at the antique market, so now my to-read stack has been replenished! A couple Charltons, a bunch of DCs, and even an issue from Modern Comics--whatever that is. (Apparently it was an imprint of Charlton.) The real question: will I read them now or do I have the will and patience to save them for the Halloween season?
Cult of Luna, The Long Road North
Cult of Luna dwells in the same doomy, crushing post-hardcore niche as Neurosis, but I generally find it easier to hear the hardcore influence in Cult of Luna's records. It sounds especially strong to me on The Long Road North, a disc that reminds of those rare occasions where you'd go to a hardcore show and encounter one band that stood out from the rest by being a bit more abstract, a little brainier, and dare I say leaning toward the epic. The Long Road North is the kind of release that will take time to fully digest, but I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up being one of the best of the year.
Marcus Sedgwick, The Kiss of Death
The Kiss of Death is a sequel of sorts to Marcus Sedgwick's My Swordhand is Singing, a book I read back in 2020. The Kiss of Death doesn't pick up where the previous book left off, nor does it share the same cast of characters. The action shifts from Transylvania to Venice, where two men have gone missing and their children, an apothecary in training and a gothy girl with a sharp tongue, band together to find them. What they discover is a mystery involving the mother of all vampires, a cult that has infiltrated the highest levels of the Church, and a grizzled hunter of the undead granted a terrible immortality by the enchanted sword he wields.
I really enjoyed the way My Swordhand is Singing delved back into the folklore of the vampire and the way it crafted a historical monster-hunting adventure. The Kiss of Death had a bit less of that vibe, though I did appreciate the Venetian setting and the new characters it presented. As an ending, it's a little loose--in this instance I think I would have preferred either a bigger finish or something more concrete--but I liked this one enough to pull the trigger on a few more of Sedgwick's books.Vampire: The Masquerade supplements
The thing about old Vampire, as I discovered high on the rush of nostalgia, is that many of the supplements for it are dirt cheap. There must be so many in circulation; my advice: check Craigslist and eBay to see if someone is trying to unload a big stack of them, like the ones pictured here. Absolute 90s time travel. But...what should I do with them? Get a Vampire game going using the old rules, warts and all? A series of reviews of the Clanbooks in the order they were published? Something has got to give with this fantastic pile.
Sabbat: The Black Hand
It isn't all vintage Vampire rpg supplements up in here in the month of February; the new Sabbat book for fifth-edition Vampire is also getting some love. Hardcore fans seem mad at this release, but being fairly untutored in the former lore I didn't really find anything that rustled my undead jimmies. This version of the Sabbat seems less cartoonishly evil than what I remember, and that seems like a good thing. I don't really mind that the Sabbat are more or less reserved as villains. Sorry, edgelords! Also, it's interesting that the art style relies less on the "fashion mag" aesthetic, and more on traditional illustration.
Vampire Wars: The Antagonists
The vampire action just didn't let up in February! I've been looking for a copy of The Antagonists, a supplement for the Vampire Wars war game for a long time. The company who made it has it for sale, but the shipping price they were asking was absolutely insane for such a thin book. eBay once again pulled through; I bought this from an "estate sale" for under five bucks.
I'll probably never play Vampire Wars, in that it feels like playing anything face-to-face is a distant dream, but I enjoy this line as a curiosity. And honestly, the art has some verve to it, the named characters could be repurposed or serve as inspiration elsewhere, and maybe even the scenarios could be the start of something interesting if transposed to a tabletop rpg.Zeal & Ardor, self-titled
It wouldn't be fair to say that Zeal & Ardor's self-titled album, their third full-length, is a disappointment; rather, it's probably more true that it didn't give me exactly what I want. Their debut, Devil is Fine, sounded like the start of something; it wasn't fully realized but it reeked of promise. The follow up, Stranger Fruit, gave me exactly the combination of gospel, soul, and black metal I had been hoping for--it felt like a culmination of all the best bits finally coming together.
My hope was that the self-titled record would continue in that vein, but it goes off in some new directions I don't love. The electronics are a little too prominent, and a little too peppy and upbeat in places; the post-rock elements feel a little too transcendent, when what I want out of Zeal & Ardor is hell on earth; there's also some bits that sound too much like NIN. That said, this really isn't a bad album: when it's on, it's on, but not every track here wins me over.
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a magic lantern show that lets the many monstrous faces lurking beneath the mask of American ideology flicker into dreadful life. Cora, an escaped slave, makes her way north via a literalized underground railroad (it's a real system of secret train lines cutting through tunnels beneath the nation), but each stop that seems to promise freedom reveals a different shade of disappointment, oppression, untenable dreams, and broken promises.
It's difficult not to compare The Underground Railroad against Toni Morrison's Beloved, in that both are fantastical literary events that engage with race and history in America. Beloved feels more harrowing to me, which is interesting because it's really The Underground Railroad that has the more ambiguous ending.
Malifaux Burns is the latest expansion for the Malifaux miniature war game. It's definitely a "metaplot" expansion: the Burning Man (unfortunate name, makes me think of hippies in the desert) has come to Malifaux, infecting several characters with his fiery madness. Of course, it's all an excuse to update some models, bring some characters back into the game, and offer alternate ways of playing the crews you already own. The art is always a treat and the fiction bits are surprisingly readable, as is usual for the Malifaux line.
Clive Barker, Books of Blood volume 1
It's been a long time since I read the first volume of Clive Barker's Books of Blood, so I was overdue to give it a re-read. Imagine encountering this book when it first came out: you probably wouldn't have known who Clive Barker was, right? The raw ferocity and style coming off these stories would have felt like a crowbar popping open your skull and exposing your skull to fetid, unwholesome air. There are some absolute (and obvious) gems in here: the title story and "In the Hills, the Cities" are just audaciously perfect. And even the stories that didn't grab me with as much force the first time around, such as "Sex, Death and Starshine" or "Pig Blood Blues," now feel like monumental offerings.