Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.

Me — Working On An Outline…

So, a few weeks ago I wrote a story set in Nacre Then, a universe I haven’t written in in over a year. I hated the story, because it was just so… empty. Unfortunately for me, however, it also had the side effect of demanding that I write the story properly. The whole thing, not just one tiny scene.

And that’s how I ended up working on arguably my first “real” project since I put down Spear Gate indefinitely earlier this year. This isn’t without it’s challenges, of course. I’m seemingly inept at writing a full length novel since the first book I wrote nearly six years ago now. I wouldn’t consider this story I’m working on to be a full novel, but so far it’s looking like it’ll be between 10-20,000 words, which is daunting for the current Kollin.

I retired Nacre Then a while ago because it’s too full. I have every rule of magic, every cultural custom, every major event either written down or locked away in my head, because it was my first universe. I thought about it every day for years, and now it’s so full it has no room to grow. I can’t invent new characters because if I put them in a world with the others, the others will inevitably be more important. And I can’t write the stories in this universe because I’ve told myself them so many times I’m bored of them.

But this new story is something of a spin-off. The tragic backstory of a character that toes the line between minor and major. I’ve been exploring her past since I wrote that one little story, and it honestly intrigues me. The only problem is now I have to weave all these snippets into a cohesive story without stepping on my own toes anywhere else.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. I’ve published very little in the Nacre Then universe, so just tossing away what I don’t like would make the most sense, and that way I can work in the space I want to. As I always say, though, creativity is the ability to justify through constraints. If I just threw away everything Nacre Then has been, I’ll be left with nothing and not know where to go. And I can’t just ignore some things because I won’t know what to let go of. In fact, the only reason I can even explore this story is because it takes place in somewhat uncharted territory, so I’m already as free as I could be when working in this universe.

I’ll be honest. I’m scared. I don’t want to get bored of this story like all the others. I’m getting pretty frustrated with my inability to maintain interest. I just write something and then I start seeing plot holes and I ignore them until they get too big to ignore, and then I find something else to work on. It’s the same thing every time.

I know that part of it is just that I’m busy and I don’t have the energy to devote myself to a full story, but I can’t let that be my excuse because that’s just the way life is always going to be. It isn’t like grade school where every trouble and responsibility is gone when school is over.

They say nothing worth doing is easy, and I hate how right that is.

Prompt — Peaceful Songs

The magic of Songs’ performance flowed like gentle currents of winds throughout the Laughing Escape Inn. Unlike many of the taverns in the lower district of Three Rings, people came here to enjoy the performance accompanied by food and drink, not the other way around.

As always, the tabaxi bard kept silent, letting the bow and strings tell the tale. This one was about the Feywild—about dancing faeries zipping around trees and grass as they played with other winged friends without a care in the world. Most of the simple folk here would never have been to such an exotic place, and Songs was happy to share a piece of his experiences. This was what adventuring was all about. Not for the glory or the wealth, but for the stories.

Another peculiarity of the Laughing Escape Inn was the total silence beyond the music. There wasn’t an empty seat in the entire building, and yet each human, elf, and dwarf sat in an enthralled silence as they watched the ethereal faeries dance around them, their tiny forms landing on patrons’ shoulders and kissing them on the cheek before dissipating into nothingness.

As the song neared its conclusion, he nodded his respect to the creatures that accompanied him on his performance. They were mere manifestations of his memories, given life through his magic, but he still felt it important to show respect to those that had given him those memories, for without them there would be no music at all. At least, not any worth listening to.

The magic faded, and the weaves of blue light disintegrated into streaks of dust where they fell, an unintended side effect of Songs’ magic. The people paid it no mind, however, and the tavern erupted into an applause as relaxed and respectful as his performance. This wasn’t the place for cheering or shouting.

Songs stood from his chair and bowed, a self-satisfied grin on his face the whole time. He began putting his things away and pushed his coin purse forward to encourage donations, leaving it on the stage while he approached the bar. It wasn’t that he trusted the customers—they were as apt to steal as anyone else—but the amount of money he’d collect on any one night was a paltry sum. It was nothing compared to the money he had accrued from his travels.

“Another astounding performance, Songs,” Thakros, the half-orc bartender nodded to him as he took a seat on a newly vacated stool. “Though I see you’re still getting your magic sparkle dust everywhere.”

“My apologies,” Songs bowed to him. “I still have much to learn about magic through song. Your patrons don’t seem to mind, though.”

“Well, I do. Who do you think has to clean it up when you’re gone?” he huffed, passing him a stein of Songs’ favorite honeyed whiskey.

“I’d be happy to take my business elsewhere if you wish,” Songs smirked, knowing full well that neither of them had any real desire to end this partnership.

Thakros smirked, his tusks protruding a bit with the expression. “No, no, of course not. I’m just having a hard time finding things to complain about ever since you stumbled onto my stage.”

Songs considered that. “I could set something on fire if you like. Perhaps one of your esteemed guests?” A dwarven guest came to the bar and ordered something, eyeing Songs with a suspicious glare as he said this. Thakros found the dwarf a filled stein before returning his attention to the tabaxi.

“As long as the people keep coming in every night I don’t care what you do.”

Songs glanced about the tavern, taking a swig as he pretended to identify a suitably flammable target. “No, I suppose not. Your clientele is woefully lacking in treants. Perhaps another time.”

“Songs!”

The tabaxi turned to see Olnele, Thakros’ daughter approaching, dressed in the messy apron of a long evening shift coming to a close. He nodded to her. “Evening.”

She rounded the bar and leaned forward across the wood, either finished with her work or too disinterested to continue it. “Lovely song, but I wish you’d play something more dramatic.”

“Well, I do take requests, what did you have in mind?”

“You make music based on your adventures, right?”

“To put it simply, yes.”

“Well, have you ever been to the Nine Hells? Or the elemental planes? Anything more… exciting than faeries dancing in peace?”

Thakros frowned. “You want him to perform songs of pain and death?”

Her eyes lit up just thinking of it. “Yes! Just think of the people we’d attract, playing songs like that!”

Songs frowned at the expression. He knew what she meant, but it was all too easy to hear ‘playing Songs like that’, as if he was just being manipulated. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Olnele deflated a bit in annoyance. “Oh come on, Songs! Why not?”

“I don’t travel to risk life and limb against dragons and demons. I do it to find the beauty in the world, and there is little beauty to behold in such places. Besides, the people here don’t come for heroic tales of combat, they come here to relax and forget their troubles. I am merely a humble servant catering to their wishes.”

Olnele shrugged, but she made her dissatisfaction obvious. “I think a lot of people around here might enjoy hearing some real stories, Songs. Just think about it, okay?”

He did.

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sinlaire/art/Comm-Performance-Check-750752051

Review — Brief Cases

Finally, a new Dresden book! …kind of. I think that I started reading The Dresden Files about five years ago, around the time Cold Days came out. By the time I was just about caught up, Skin Game was published. Up until that point, the books were being churned out practically once a year, and well, that was three years ago now. I picked the wrong time to get caught up!

Thankfully, a new short story anthology was released, and boy was it nice to get some more Dresden. I recently started listening to audiobooks at work, an with me working full time, I’m getting through them pretty fast. So I am simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that I’ve already finished.

But before I get started let me add a qualifier. The thing that sucks about this review is that it’s more pointless than most reviews. The people that know Dresden will buy it automatically and love it, because it’s the Dresden we all know and love, but the people that don’t know Dresden shouldn’t get it, because like his other short story anthology, there are lots of time skips and even more spoilers. (The last two short stories take place after Skin Game). So instead of me framing it into the vein of “is this worth reading”, I’ll speak plainly in terms of what I liked and didn’t like. That said, this review is not spoiler free. I won’t be discussing many spoilers by virtue of the fact that my opinions tend to paint broad strokes, but I don’t see much point in writing a review that’s half spoiler-free and half not. So let’s jump in.


I’ll start with what I didn’t like just to get over it. The first is that a lot of these stories have sexual contexts I don’t much care for. I mean, I’m not surprised, that’s always been a Dresden thing. But after taking a break from the series and reading so many other things, I’ve noticed how just how much Jim Butcher tends to describe women based on how insanely hot they are, and how naked they tend to get because “the world of vampires and the fey are very sexual realms”. Logical, sure, but I think it would be fair for me to say that the story could redistribute the sex into more polarizing zones. Take it out where it isn’t necessary and emphasize it where it is rather than just putting a little bit pretty much everywhere. (Side note: I am willing to concede that maybe I’m just being dramatic and prude, but at the same time I don’t think the Dresden series would lose much of anything if there was less sex-but-not-actual-sex, you know?)

My second critique is even more whiny than the first: I didn’t really get to see anything I wanted to see. None of my favorite characters, and nothing awesome really happening. Now, obviously he can’t write about important people doing important things in a short story collection—you can’t force your entire reader-base to buy something that’s supposed to be a side adventure—but still. I wanted to see more stuff that had… meaning. “Zoo Day” is probably the best example of this, and it was definitely my favorite story. We see a potentially bad news character introduced, but it was done in a way that doesn’t take away from the main plot when they inevitably return. I also wasn’t a fan of the same plot structure of “retelling a story” used in two of the twelve stories here, though Butcher isn’t much to blame, because a lot of these stories were written at various times over the years and put together, not written for this book.

But the stories in and of themselves are great. I loved everything about the Bigfoot stories, especially the fact that they all dealt with different issues while (unconsciously) foreshadowing future ones. “Zoo Day” is a masterpiece, too. A long scene told in three different perspectives dealing with three different conflicts is great, and Mouse being the narrator to a story was a lot of fun. Top notch.

I love where the series is going, especially considering the scope and the perspective strength of some of the characters, but it’s also nice to take a break and see characters deal with more mundane issues—it puts the huge ones in the main series in a better perspective.

But also I’m mad that Butcher introduced the Lovecraftian mythos in a single short story and we’re probably not going to see much else from the Old Gods for a long time, if at all.

Prompt — The Second Sun

Captain Hadrus adjusted his sunglasses as he looked sunward over the valley. The lenses blocked out a vast majority of the sun’s brilliance, but even so he could make out the dim outlines of the horizon and the reflection of the sun off the lake.

A good day for hunting, he thought. Which means it’s a good day to be hunted, as well.

He put a hand on Engineer Paddock’s shoulder, signaling for her to stop. When she did, he drew a finger along her back in swift, precise motions, telling her to stay close, keep quiet, and have her weapon ready. They were far from the cities, and so silence was key.

With the sudden appearance of this intensely bright new sun, the world had changed. Eyes became almost useless, because the second sun never moved, and so the concept of ‘night’ was a thing long forgotten. And so, the other senses took precedence: hearing and smell became the favorite means for predators to find food. Humans were no longer top of the food chain.

Hadrus watched as the vague outline of Paddock’s form nodded and turned to him, tapping his shoulder to indicate a reply. In similar fashion, she wrote, “One final weapon check before we descend.”

Hadrus rolled his eyes at the request, but acquiesced. After all, part of the reason he had brought her along was because of how careful she was—you could count on things going smoothly around Paddock. He pulled out his crossbow and handed it to her, watching as she examined the bowstring and the limbs, pulling a cloth out and cleaning the polished wood of any dirt. She inspected the weight of the drawback and did a cursory scan of everything else, making sure that the settings were all correct and that the string wouldn’t snap as soon as he fired. When she was satisfied, she handed it back to him with a curt nod.

Once that was settled, the two of them turned sunward once more and made their descent into the forest below. As always, it was quiet, and the two of them were careful not to make their presence known, treading on soft dirt and moving slowly. In centuries past this forest would have been rife with wildlife, with birds chirping and all manner of insects buzzing.

Hadrus had heard stories in a world that went dark half the time—not so dark as wearing the sunglasses, but dark enough to have trouble seeing even without them. He never really understood what that would do to an ecosystem, where predators could track by movement and didn’t need to rely so much on sound or smell.

He wouldn’t have noticed that Paddock had stopped moving if she hadn’t tapped his shoulder again. With the following gestures, she said “Watch out. Something straight ahead. Thirty feet.”

Hadrus strained his eyes, but saw no movement. It must have been big for Paddock to see it that far away, though. Maybe she smelled it, which made sense since they were travelling upwind. He tapped her shoulder and responded with “Ready bows.”

He kept scanning the area ahead as he drew out a bolt with his free hand. Half a step ahead of him, he saw Paddock taking out a bolt of her own, sliding it onto the barrel of her own crossbow. Once their weapons were loaded, he took a pair of pebbles that had been packed neatly at his side so they wouldn’t make sound with his movement. His hands were full now, so he couldn’t talk to Paddock, but his previous command deemed further instruction unnecessary.

Captain Hadrus made one last scan of the area and tossed the pebbles into the forest ahead of them, trying his best to land near whatever creature Paddock had spotted so that he could get its attention. They would track its movement as it investigated and…

The pebbles hit something soft, and it was followed by the sound of a low, huffing grunt.

They had directly hit their target, which had alerted it to their presence.

The creature huffed again, its huge claws scraping the ground as it paced. Towards them presumably, and a bear by the sound of it.

Hadrus exhaled slowly and quietly. Since the bear didn’t move to investigate the pebbles, there was no reference to get a clear shot at it, and the dark outlines of the forest made it all but invisible.

A soft click and a snap, and the bear roared in pain. Paddock had fired, and the bolt hit its mark.

The bear charged, and Hadrus clearly saw its outline as the hulking shape suddenly grew enormous.

The element of surprise was gone.

Hadrus fired, but it didn’t seem to hit. Paddock screamed in terror as the thing crashed into her, their dark outlines blurring into one.

The grunts of the bear collided with Paddock’s hushed gasps of panic. Hadrus fumbled for another bolt as he heard a sickening slash.

“Oh God,” Paddock cried. “My glasses! I can’t see!” The sound of her voice here sent a chill down Hadrus’ spine.

Hadrus fired again, aiming high to minimize the chances of hitting his ally. In the sound of the scuffle, it was impossible to tell if he had actually hit. The only thing to do was load again.

Paddock’s cries continued, and Hadrus kept firing. The chaos of the scuffle lessened, and soon the bear started to lumber off, evidently too wounded to want to stay.

This went to Hell really fast, Hadrus cursed. No deer or foxes, but a bear? There was no hope of bringing back food now. Little hope of bringing back Paddock alive, at that.

“How bad?” he asked aloud. There was no use for silence now.

“I… don’t think I can walk on my own,” she grunted. “And it tore off my glasses. I can’t see.”

He nodded. They had to get back to the city fast. “Here,” he said, taking off his glasses off. He shut his eyes immediately, but even through his eye lids the intensity of the second sun was uncomfortable.

“What? No, you have to leave me. Get home safe.”

“To Hell with that. Here,” he took her arms and helped her up, draping her over his shoulder so that she could half-stand. Sure, it would be better if he had his glasses, but he had no way of knowing if her injuries were life-threatening, and if they were, he wanted her to feel as safe as possible. “You be my eyes and guide us home, okay?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Enough talking, you need to conserve your strength and we both need to be quiet.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/aenami/art/Solar-714444421

D&D — Dungeons & Dragons as Escapism

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now. Technically, at least eight years, but I’ve only been serious about the hobby for the last two or so. I would attribute two things to this. The first is Critical Role, which I think is self-explanatory. If you play D&D you probably know what that is. The second was a surprising amount of interest when I offhandedly commented the possibility of running a campaign with my improv friends. Those two things put together suddenly made D&D a much bigger part of my life, and it wasn’t until then that I realized the untapped potential the game had for me.

Before I got serious, D&D was a hobby; an incredibly complex board game in which you made your character and then cast the spells you picked out on the monsters the DM picked out. But then I realized that it didn’t have to be simply a video game. It could be a stage. It isn’t just about numbers and statistics and jokes. It could be a place to become somebody new and then behave as they do. You work in a headspace not your own in a world so different from the one you live. It isn’t the natural 1s or 20s that interest me anymore, it’s the choices the players make at the table because of a world we all created together.

I had a dream recently where I ran down a steep hill and turned into a bird, gaining speed as I swooped down and feeling the air press against my wings as I soared upwards and over everything else. I have never flown in any of my dreams. The closest I’ve gotten was jumping like The Hulk or being thrown from point A to B. But the feeling of flying was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I am under no illusions: it is because my current D&D character is a druid that can shapeshift.

I don’t play to win anymore. In fact, the concept of “winning” D&D seems silly to me. Even if you and your friends are playing through a story that has a definitive beginning and ending, you can’t really “win” in the same way you don’t “win” when watching your favorite movie. It’s just an experience.

So nowadays, when I make decisions in this imaginary world, I don’t think “what is the optimal play”. I don’t even think “what is the optimal play given the information my character has”. Instead, I think “what would Taldarrin do in this circumstance?” For me, I get the most out of the experience by making the situation as believable as possible.

For example, at level 2, Circle of the Moon druids are basically the most powerful class in the game. Among other things, they can turn into a brown bear, which could probably fight off 3 other level 2 characters at the same time. Taldarrin has only ever turned into a brown bear once, and this was for intimidation, not power. He used to turn into a giant spider a lot, but every time he has, he’s rolled very poorly. So canonically, Taldarrin simply does not understand how to accommodate for all those eyes and legs, and thus doesn’t turn into that anymore. I think that makes for much better story telling than “when we fight I always turn into a bear, and if I roll badly it’s just a bad day. I’ll turn into a bear tomorrow”.

I don’t begrudge other playstyles. D&D is amazingly versatile, and any way anyone likes to play is certainly valid. I’m merely stating that I got a lot more out of it when I moved it from “video game” to “acting” in my head. I think all of us like being somebody else every once in a while, and Dungeons & Dragons is a great way to do that.

Prompt — The Return of the Silence

“I’m not paying two odes for this,” I said. These merchants were getting bolder and bolder by the day.

“Two odes or you put it all back,” he shrugged, not batting an eye.

“Two months ago I could buy all this for half that!”

“Two months ago there was no tariff on raftheads. You want your damn Kitsuyan vegetables you can get on the next boat headed there.”

Ruder by the day, too. I forked over the two gold coins and stalked off, groceries in one hand and staff in the other.

The causeway through the main streets of Kalisport was as busy as it always was this time of day, and even with the oceanic breeze it was still hot out. People were amply coated in sweat as they heaved carts and goods through the market, going about their day with a smile on their face.

I never understood how people could be so… happy.

Feeling the warmth on my pale skin, I remembered why I was in such a hurry. Being in the sun too long always gave me horrendous burns. I learned very quickly why Kitsuyans don’t often leave the isles: we melt.

I stepped into a shady alleyway to catch my breath and cool off a bit. I set my things down to examine the damage. “By the Mist and Tides,” I cursed. “I’m already burnt. I’ve barely been out twenty minutes!”

Glancing down the alley, I was hit with a sudden sense of…

Quiet.

All the commotion of the thoroughfare nearby was suddenly gone. It was just me. Here. Alone.

An impossible gale of wind flooded through the narrow path, tossing up papers and refuse and anything else. As it rushed towards me, I thrust my hand out to combat it, but no magic came. What could I do against wind? Against the Silence, my old enemy?

It crashed into me, pushing me against the wall with the force of a freight golem. Before I knew it, the Silence had passed, the sound of the nearby street was back, and I was huddled right where I had stopped, weeping speechless tears.

It had been years since I had had one of these attacks. I still lived with my aunt back then. I thought it was gone for good. This one, as minor as it had been, was an ill omen.

Well, I wasn’t the powerless little girl anymore.

With a huff to gather my composure, I stood and grabbed my staff. I wasn’t about to let the Silence once again wreak havoc over my life.

 

After a conspicuous but determined jog back to my little apartment, I threw all the windows and doors open and stepped out onto the balcony. Heat and burning be damned, I couldn’t risk another attack, I needed noise.

I was met with the full view of Kalisport, rows upon rows of buildings, the floating spires in the distance one direction, the tranquil Xal Deer Sea the other. I focused on the sound of the people below as I watched, picking out as many strings of words as I could.

Then, two quick knocks on my front door, and my heart skipped a beat. Had I been followed? I recalled every footstep I made between going to buy groceries and coming home. I hadn’t noticed anyone tailing me, but then, I hadn’t been in the most stable of mindsets. I didn’t have any friends here, and the people I worked with wouldn’t knock. I clenched my staff tighter. Whoever it was, they knew I was here.

I thought about the soft thumps of my boots as I walked across the floor to the door. The Silence could still come back if I wasn’t careful. I had to focus on the sound.

“Who is it?” I called through.

“An old friend,” a male voice responded. I recognized it, but the memory was faint. Old.

“How old?”

“Older than I’d like to admit.”

I opened the door to see Khuros. The imaginary friend that saved me from the Silence.

“You left these in the alleyway,” he said, holding up my basket of groceries.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Everyone has imaginary friends when they’re kids, don’t they? I struggled to come up with a greeting but instead…

“You’re not real,” I muttered, out loud I realized too late.

He shrugged. “Neither is the Silence, and yet here we are. We need to talk.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/totorrl/art/Loc-Ppj-V50-Fin-582309207