Review — Welcome to Night Vale (Podcast)

The last few weeks I’ve been listening to the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, knowing very little about it other than what I could conceivably guess based on the title. As it turns out, even there I was mostly wrong. I assumed it was a story about a dark fantasy place, which I was correct about, but I also expected a continuous story along the lines of a typical web comic such as Homestuck. (I have not read Homestuck, but am more or less familiar with the premis.) Instead, Welcome to Night Vale is written in episodes with the intent that one can simply jump in and listen with no context required. So, what is it? Well, it’s a Lovecraftian comedy—a radio news broadcast from the fictional town of Night Vale.

Before I jump in, though, I have one thing I need to say: It should be Nightvale, damnit. One word! I have no logical argument to back that up, it just looks more aesthetically pleasing like that! (Also, it’s annoying to have to write Night Vale, because it’s more work, and I am as a matter of course opinionated against the reason it is more work to write.)

Because my job allows me to listen to podcasts all day, I get through audio content very quickly, so even upon learning I could start wherever, I of course began with Episode 1, and have just finished (with episode 130) today). To summarize, the podcast most frequently takes the form of a (bi)weekly news broadcast in the town of Night Vale. The news is often related to creepy things, such as SCP objects or Lovecraftian horrors. I would liken Night Vale to a “modern day Innsmouth”. The radio host, Cecil Palmer, never really acknowledges the dangerous horrors this town seems to have a very long and deep history with, and thus the combination of the eldritch combined with a lack of logical concern creates a humorous show.

Overall, it’s pretty solid. I’ll admit the punchlines are rarely amazing. I probably laughed out loud about once every 10 hours of content. Not bad, I suppose, given that I’m alone and at work during that time. Nonetheless, the humor is consistently amusing. I’ll say that one thing the podcast does very well is remain consistent with the information it gives you, even if it’s all over the place. A small factoid about a minor character will suddenly become important three years (real time) later, and you’ll find out that it was actually because of X all along! It seems clever, but really I would bet that it’s importance was decided later. It’s done flawlessly, though, and it surprises me how much of a “knowable” ecosystem Night Vale eventually becomes after a time. It transitions from random factoids about a place you’ve never heard of to characters and people with rich histories interacting based on events that did or did not happen long ago in the podcast. And even if you didn’t see that episode, it doesn’t matter because it’ll explain that history when it becomes relevant.

Of course, the podcast isn’t without fault. In my opinion, it has three. The first is that there are characters and events I actively dislike, so whenever they’re given stage time I get frustrated. (I’m also not a fan of it whe  it leans more towards radio play, where other actors are involved. I prefer the episodes of just radio broadcast and host. No guests, no phone calls, no live investigations. In fact, the character I liked the least becomes mayor of the city at some point! That was pretty disheartening.

The second major downfall is that by nature of what this podcast is, the punchlines can get pretty predictable. Even if you don’t know what the exact joke will be, you start to be able to sniff the setup a mile away, which does sort of kill the fun of the experience.

Lastly, for every 25 minute episode, there is probably 6 minutes I skip. The first 2 or so are self-promotion/sponsors, the middle chunk is a 3 minute song that is, almost always, terrible. and the last minute is more self-promotion. It’s annoying because the easiest way for me to skip on Castbox is by 30 second chunks, and I listen on 1.4x speed, so when I was listening to the podcast, I would literally have to pull out my phone every 10ish minutes to press “Skip ahead 30s” a bunch of times. I can’t imagine other people would have major issue with this in particular, but in my specific circumstance, it was quite annoying. Nothing like the hour long podcasts I’m used to that have a single 30 second ad in the middle or at the end.

What I will say, though, is that as time goes on the episodes become two or three-parters, so you eventually get stories that take an hour of content to see the completion of. I do like that, because it gives me something to attach to and it gives the sense that bigger things are afoot.

Prompt — Old Lady Picnic

“So there I was, sitting in one of the trees at Backarrow Park waiting for… I don’t know, something, when this old lady comes along with a picnic basket. It was a normal day, nice and breezy, the trees shielding the park-goers from any harsh sunlight. Not that the sun is harsh, though I suppose sometimes it is, but it wasn’t this day. I just think that if people are going to be out and about, they like to be in daylight, but not blinded by the sun, you know?

“Anyway, this old lady comes towards me with a picnic basket. Well, not towards me, but in my direction. She didn’t see me. Basically nobody sees me because I’m so small, you know? Well, of course you know that. You’re as small as me. Not that that’s a bad thing. Where was I?

“Oh, yeah, Old Lady Picnic. So she sits down under the tree I’m in and takes out a little blanket from her basket. She unfolds it and lays it on the grass. It’s this cute pink and white quilt patterned with baby elephants and rabbits. Stars above it was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. She probably made it herself! I would never sit on something like that. A work of art like that should never be laid on the grass. But she put it there and started taking out food. Bananas, tiny sandwiches, potato salad, and a gorgeous apple cinnamon pie, and in that moment I knew that if that pie was half as good as it looked and smelled, I would die a happy fairy, wings earned or no. Have you ever felt like that? Where you’re so sure of something that hasn’t happened yet? What am I saying, of course you haven’t.

“So she takes everything out and starts looking in her basket for something. She doesn’t take anything else out, though. Maybe she forgot something. So she gets up and starts walking back the direction she came, and at first I think ‘Hey, she won’t notice if I steal some of her pie, that’s a lot of pie. She can’t eat it all by herself’, but I didn’t want her to see me and I didn’t know how long she’d be gone, so I decided to wait.

“Well, I waited for like an hour, or however long a really long time is for humans, but she never came back so I started to get worried. And then, disaster struck!

“Flies started coming out of the woodworks. Or, well, I don’t know, the sky. I don’t understand human expressions. Anyways, they were coming for Old Lady Picnic’s food, and I knew then and there that this was it: the valiant effort that would earn this little fairy her wings, and, more importantly, the right to go back to Fae.

“And so, the great knight you know me to be, Petunia Peachthorn, leaped off the branches to the food hoard bellow, landing on the soft, billowy pink and white quilt made from clouds itself. I pulled out my sword and yelled ‘You foul creatures will not desecrate this wonderful picnic! I will protect it with my life!’

“They came at me, all eyes and loud wings buffeting the area. Our battle was one for the storybooks as I fought them off one-by-one, trading blows on the top of the narrow basket handle. They spat their toxic acid on me, rusting my armor and breaking some pieces off entirely. I was careful to keep my sword away from it, though, lest my attacks be rendered useless.

“Needless to say, I won. My foes were forced to retreat, some hobbling away with torn wings or eyes. I held no remorse for the savages, bent on taking advantage of Old Lady Picnic’s absence.

“Just when I thought that victory was within sight, however, the ants came. Legions of them, marching down the tree I had just been sitting in. I suppose they must have been army ants, with their perfect formation. As valiant as a knight as I may be, I knew I couldn’t fight a whole legion.

“So, to make a long story short, I certainly didn’t earn my wings that day. I don’t know where Old Lady Picnic went, but I couldn’t save her food, either. But I’ll tell you what, though—I did save that apple cinnamon pie. And it was delicious.”

 

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sandara/art/Strange-Alice-735878743

Review — Pawn of Prophecy

I first heard about David Eddings’ Belgariad Saga through Matt Colville a highly respected dungeon master in the D&D community and, I assume, a very competent writer as well. Matt is ever the proponent of classical media, and often uses it to inform his own design choices, so when he explained a plot point of one of his favorite books series, I felt obligated to put that book series on my list.

Pawn of Prophecy, published in 1982, is very much the textbook hero’s journey. I joke about how the first installment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is just a ripoff to The Lord of the Rings, which I still think is quite fair, but I’m even more amused to say that Pawn of Prophecy and Eye of the World start almost exactly the same way. The only difference is that the Belgariad focuses on the journey of one boy, whereas The Wheel of Time centralizes around three. It makes me wonder—was the epic fantasy genre so limited and niche decades ago that what few books there were were all exactly the same? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the Sword of Truth series. Okay, well now I have, but I can’t simply be cherry-picking here. There must be some validity to it.

Anyways, enough talking about the similarities, let’s talk about what this book is in a vacuum. Overall, I think it does feel a bit dated compared to the fantasy of today. It does have much less action scenes, not to say that modern books need that or that that fact detracts from the story, just an observation. Pawn of Prophecy is very much the opening to a larger world, where big things are happening but the young hero—and by extension the reader—is ignorant of these events.

What amazes me most about this book is that it’s a great character study for a typical D&D setting. It features some classic archetypes for player characters, but also houses very realistic places and digestible politics. My favorite interaction in the whole book is when guards are interrogating the party as they pass through town. The con-man of the group has a very normal conversation with the guard that is obviously about discussing a bribe price, even though neither person mentions anything outright. To a casual observer, they’d just as soon have been talking about the weather. Clean but meaningful exchanges like that is something that this book excels in, and a writer would do well to learn from these things.

The biggest drawback to this book is its classical nature. Things take quite a bit to happen, and for any avid reader or anyone familiar with the Hero’s Journey, this book can’t surprise you with any event or plot twist it tries to throw at you. Especially if you’ve read the Wheel of Time first. Having admittedly only read the first book of the Belgariad, I would so far summarize it as an “Easy Mode” version of The Wheel of Time. The former is five books long, the latter fourteen. And to be honest, I only got through the first five books of WoT before I realized I still didn’t care about a single character, and thus put it down (forever?)

So while there’s nothing truly innovative about Pawn of Prophecy, it’s a short, relaxing read. Not much suspense, but quite immersive for what it is.

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.