Fun Books To Read: Maplecroft, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, D&D

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When Cherie saw what Liz had done
A Cthulhu mashup tale she spun
You may remember Lizzie Borden from the jumprope rhymes of your youth, but as with most things you heard on the playground, things weren’t that simple.  Turns out that the trial had some evidence that Lizzie might, in fact, have been innocent – certainly her doctor thought she was.
So naturally, you’d think, “Well, clearly Lizzie chopped up her father and stepmother because they were turning into sea monsters, right?”
Well, you would if you were Cherie Priest.
In the Borden Dispatches, Lizzie Borden is a steampunk scientist and monster-hunter, chopping up hideous creatures with her axe.  Her sister, more classically trained, helps.  And their doctor suspects things are going on in the town of Fall River.  Events draw them together, and Bad Shit happens.
The fascinating thing about this book is that it is simultaneously predictable and compelling, which is one of the hardest tricks to pull off.  This is one of those horror books where the first time you think “Uh-oh,” well, yeah, that’s going to turn out exactly as bad as you think it’ll be.  Pretty much every suspicion you have gets borne out.  And yet the characterization is so wonderful that you keep reading, mainly because Lizzie and her shut-in, sick sister are furiously sympathetic characters – trying their best to help their town, loyal to a populace that thinks they’re murderers, brave and bold in all the best ways. It helps that everyone’s smart, acting in their best interests, even as those interests might be skewed by the call of the Old Ones.
Every chapter is a letter to someone, or a diary entry, each from a different character – and each character has their own distinct voice.  I usually get irritated by missive books because I get confused as to whose viewpoint we’re in, but Cherie cues us in with style.
The biggest problem with the book, sadly, is that the ending left me hanging for a sequel.  Which I don’t have a problem with per se, as this is a two-book series, but the ending is a little anticlimactic and it makes me vexed that I now have to wait some time to find out what’s happening with Lizzie and her sister and the sea monsters.  Still, if I think of it as a series and not a standalone book, I can tolerate a little hang-time for something as entertainingly murderous as this.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi
I picked this up as a quick-read, a sort of amuse bouche between heftier courses, and stumbled into a happily goddamned deep book for kids.
The plot of this book is inherently silly: the meat-packing plant accidentally creates cow zombies (and eventually people zombies) in an effort to save cash, and only the local little league baseball team can stop them.  So, you know, not expecting much aside from gloriously stupid zombie shenanigans.
But this is actually a surprisingly deep look at race and corporate greed in America.  One of the character’s families is made up of the illegal immigrants who work at the meat-packing plant, though he was born here, and so there’s some great character-rooted looks at what happens when you work illegally.  And the meat-packing plant itself isn’t cartoonish – Paolo actually uses the lawyer’s tactics that actual meat-packing plants use to cover up outbreaks of e. coli.
I thought the focus would be on zombies, or even baseball, but what I got was a happily cogent window for kids into just how realistically shitty corporations can be.  Not that there’s not a lot of beating the crap out of zombies with baseball bats, because there is, but there’s an *ahem* meaty tale wrapped inside this candy-happy cover. Seriously recommended.  (Thanks to Netmouse for recommending it.)
D&D Players Guide, Fifth Edition
I, like many players, did not like the way D&D Fourth Edition got D&D back to its roots, because D&D’s roots kinda suck.  D&D 4E removed most of the roleplaying, and yoinked us all the way back to wargaming, where there was much emphasis on character placement and grids.
The problem is, in 1970, we didn’t have ready access to computers.  Now we do.  So basically, what they wound up making despite their best intentions was a slower, clunkier videogame.  It didn’t go over well in the long run.
D&D 5E is attempting to bring that happy blush of roleplaying out again by having, you know, spells that don’t affect combat.  And they’ve gone balls-to-the-wall on this one; this is by far the most evocative D&D players’ guide yet, with gorgeous illustrations and lots of emphasis on what kind of character you’re going to play.  Not what class; character.  Because there’s an extensive section comparing two fighters with similar stats, except one is a cold, withdrawn assassin and the other is a family-loving freedom fighter.  And each section is introduced by an excerpt from one of the many D&D novelizations to show you what an elf/dwarf/tiefling looks like in the wild, a slam-dunk bit of cross-marketing that’s so effective I don’t know why anyone didn’t think of it before.
And there’s some nice touches.  I like the new advantage/disadvantage system, where if you have an advantage you roll two d20s and take the better roll, and if you’re at a disadvantage you take the lesser roll.  I like that multi-classing is back.  I like that feats seem to allow for a bit more character customization this time around.  I like that you’re heavily encouraged to ask “Why are these people hanging around together, killing monsters?” and to create reasons for that.
And yet for all of that… I’m just not that excited about running a campaign.  Or playing.  There was a time when I fetishized each D&D release, reading every spell, thinking, “Oh, that’s how I could build a cleric.”  But I’ve played too many clerics in my time, and fighters, and wizards, and so I skimmed a good half of this book as I went, “Okay, big list of character stuff, sure, sure.”
What would excite me, probably, would be an interesting world for me to play in – something a little less time worn than Greyhawk and Waterdeep and all the old standbys – but that’s always been D&D’s strength.  It doesn’t have a setting.  You can bolt one on if you want, but the joy of D&D is that kids all over can just say, “Okay, you meet at the inn, you’re in a dungeon” and get down to what they wanted – namely, kicking a dragon’s ass.
It’s power play.  And I’m a little beyond that right now, and after thirty years of imagining the power of fireball spells, that fantasy is a little threadbare for me.  So it works for what it’s supposed to do, but I’m no longer the target audience.
That’s fine.  It’s like Doctor Who these days.  It’s appealing to somebody, just not me.

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