The Last Threshold by R.A. Salvatore

The Last Threshold is book four in the Neverwinter Saga by R. A. Salvatore and chronicles the continuing adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden and his new group of rather unusual companions.  Dhalia, the elven warrior with whom Drizzt has been running around with for the last couple of novels is back as well as Artemis Entreri who has consented to stay with Drizzt and Dahlia  at least for the present.  Afafrenfere the human monk and Ambergris the dwarven cleric are more recent additions but are in many ways the most interesting characters within the book.  Both are former members of Cavus Dun, a Shadowfell based group of mercenaries, who are now trying to walk a more noble path.  The book follows the group through a number of cities along the Sword Coast as well as other interesting locations and manages to have almost nothing to do with Neverwinter at all.  This doesn’t necessarily detract from the story, but if you were reading the Neverwinter Saga in hopes of reading about things happening in Neverwinter then this particular book might be a disappointment.

The Good

Fans of Salvatore’s patented fight scenes will find quite a few although fewer perhaps than in any other Drizzt book I have read.  Plenty of beloved characters from the Drizzt pantheon get involved in the story at some point as well as well as a little of the Drow intrigue one expects to find in these books.  There is also some halfway decent character development for the previously mentioned Ambergris and Afafrenfere.  When the book ends I found myself genuinely curious about what these two might get into next and what types of adventures are awaiting them.

The Bad

The relationships.  The interpersonal relationships within the book, including the strange love triangle between Drizzt, Dahlia and Entreri introduced in the last book continues to get more bizarre and unbelievable within the Last Threshold.  Many of the scenes would have felt more at home in a teen vampire show than within a Drizzt novel.  What makes it worse is that there is a point within the book where Dahlia starts to become three-dimensional and comes very close to being an interesting character, only to toss it all aside towards the end of the book and go right back to being the crazy black widow she is introduced as in the very first book of this series.

The Ugly

The Story itself.  There really is nothing driving the story forward throughout the book and as a result it begins to read more like a travel log than a novel.  Interesting things do happen but they seem disjointed with no real purpose, no true antagonist and no quest or adventure to speak of through the whole book.  It almost seems as though the emotional and moral fog that Drizzt has experienced throughout the whole series culminates in this book and causes the story to slow and falter.  The story moves along in fits and jerks until it finally fizzles out.

Conclusion

Obviously any die-hard Drizzt fan is going to read this book, but I feel that with very few exceptions they will be disappointed.  This is the first time I’ve ever been glad to finish on of these books just to be done with it and not because I was interested to see what happened next and how the story ended.  If you have been following the Neverwinter Saga from the beginning then you might as well pick this book up, although it might be worth it to wait and see if there will be any more books after this one.  If not I would consider simply skipping this one and coming up with your own ending.  If another book does come out though and you want to continue the adventure then you will have little choice but to power through this book first.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

Savage Worlds Deluxe EE

This past summer I along with several other members of the Goblin Beat went to DragonCon here in Atlanta.  One of the items I came back with was a copy of the Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer’s Edition rule book.  I had heard of Savage Worlds before but none of us had ever played the game so after attending a panel talking about the future of Savage Worlds and where the brand was as a whole I couldn’t resist picking up the book one evening.  A week or two after DragonCon was all over I finally got around to picking up the SW book and reading through it and wow was I impressed!  I’ve been playing pen and paper RPGs for twenty years and I have never found a rule system as simple, intuitive, fun and fast paced as Savage Worlds.

I quickly setup a campaign for our podcast using Savage Worlds rules and the world of Warhammer 40k as the setting, and I think it is safe to say that everyone loved the rule system as much as I do.  Savage Worlds uses regular playing cards for initiative, where the highest value card goes first, the next highest second and so on.  I bought a dark set of playing cards from Bicycle to go with the feel of our game which helped to set the mood as well.  Combat is fast even when using our dry erase grid map, and everyone learned how to use their characters within the first round of combat, which took less than five minutes with four players!

Bennies were another big hit with the group.  In Savage Worlds each player starts every session with three bennies.  You can use anything to represent these but we bought a few packs of the actual Savage Worlds bennies, which are specially made poker chips.  Any time a player’s character fails a roll they can spend a benny (short for benefit) to roll again.  They can also spend a benny when their character is hurt to make a ‘soak’ roll and ignore the damage.  Bennies also work great as mid-session rewards for players; if they do something amazing or do a great job role playing their character you can reward them immediately with a benny.

The mechanics of the game are also simple, every trait and skill that a character has is given a value of d4, d6, d8, d10 or d12.  To use the given trait or skill the player rolls the associated die and on a 4 or higher they succeed.  There are a few cases (such as opposed rolls) where this gets a little more complicated but that is the main mechanic in the game, and it is simple and works great.  It is so simple in fact that I also now run a campaign once per week for my kids, where they are local heroes in a small town in a fantasy setting.  They all picked the game up within the first few minutes as well and are constantly talking about how much fun they have, and the youngest is only four and a half!

Currently I’m preparing another campaign using the Realms of Cthulhu setting for our podcast that we will change out with the Warhammer 40k and our normal D&D podcasts.  If you have read many of the reviews on our site then you know I am a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and I’m extremely excited to get started with those games.  Look for a review of the Realms of Cthulhu setting guide soon.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

False Gods: Book 2 of the Horus Heresy

Written by Graham McNeill and originally released of June 2006 False Gods is the second book in the Horus Heresy series.  The cast of characters is very much the same as within the first book and even with the change in authors these characters still feel like the same ones from the first book.  That is with the one glaring exception of Horus himself.  Please don’t get me wrong, I know that for the Horus Heresy to happen it is necessary for Horus to commit Heresy, I simply didn’t find the sudden way in which it occurs within this book overly gratifying or believable.

Similarly to the first book this story revolves largely around Garviel Loken, Captain of the 10th company of the Sons of Horus Space Marines.  The remembrancers assigned to the expedition that featured in the first novel are also prevalent in this story.  The worship of the Emperor, which was seen in one or two characters in the first book, explodes as the tragedy of Horus’s near death causes the mortal members of the 63rd expedition to turn somewhere for guidance and hope.  The fighting on Davin 3, one of the planet of Davin’s moons, is particularly interesting as we see the forces of Chaos in large numbers for the first time in the series.  Here the entire imperial force that assigned to govern Davin has been converted into forces of Nurgle, mainly plague zombies.  This part of the book is very interesting and overall False Gods does a great job of both keeping the action going and forwarding the over arching story of the Horus Heresy.

I did enjoy this book and will certainly continue to read the Horus Heresy series but I’m still a bit sour about how quickly Horus decided to turn his back on the Emperor and attempt to put himself in charge of the destiny of mankind.  Next up: Galaxy in Flames!

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Angels of Darkness

Angels of Darkness is a Horus Heresy related book from Black Library written by Gav Thorpe and originally published in 2003.  I say Heresy related because the main story of the book takes place in the 41st millennium and not in the time of Horus.  This book tells two stories in parallel much like the other two Warhammer 40,000 books I have recently reviewed.  The story follows Boreas, an Interrogator-Chaplain within the inner circle of the Dark Angles Space Marines.  Being an Interrogator-Chaplain means that Boreas has a secret duty to the Dark Angels to which all but the other members of the inner circle are ignorant: to hunt down and capture the Fallen.  The Fallen are former members of the Dark Angels who sided with Luther against Lion El’Jonson 10,000 years ago.

We follow Boreas first in the past as he interviews a former Chapter Commander, now a captured Fallen, in an attempt to make him repent so that he can be given a quick and painless death.  The story then jumps forward to the present where Boreas is posted on Piscina IV where he soon finds that a group of Fallen are behind all of the trouble in the area.  The story continues to transition between these two story lines as the mystery on Piscina IV unfolds and Boreas gains more information from his captive in the past.

Gav Thorpe does a good job making the Space Marines, obviously far beyond normal humans in so many ways, seem very human and at times almost vulnerable (blasphemy for a Space Marine I know) although these moments normally quickly pass and are followed by blowing things up and killing enemies in profusion.

I enjoyed this book and would like to read others by Mr. Thorpe in the future, the next of which will probably be Deliverance Lost when I get to that point in the Horus Heresy series.  I highly recommend this book to any fan of the Dark Angels and the Warhammer 40,000 setting.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Descent of Angels

Although Descent of Angels is the sixth book in the Horus Heresy series from The Black Library the story itself is really more of a prequel to the Heresy timeline.  Those looking forward to reading about what happens next with Horus and the Imperium of Man will possibly be frustrated by this fact but if you are willing to take this book for what it is, a stand-alone book that tells the origin story of the Dark Angels Space Marines, this is a very enjoyable read.

I decided to read this book directly after reading Horus Rising because I knew it was a prequel and because I wanted to know more about the Dark Angels in preparation for the Savage Worlds Campaign we here at the Goblin

Beat will soon be playing.  As such I went into reading this book with a clear understanding of what I was getting myself into and more than a little excited to read about the origins of one of my favorite Space Marine Chapters.  Like Horus Rising this book is told from the perspective of a relatively minor player in the overall story of the Dark Angels, this time a young man named Zahariel.

The majority of this book takes place on the world of Caliban, and is more post-apocalyptic fantasy than science fiction.  The book opens with the story of how Zahariel is accepted as an Aspirant to The Order, a knightly organization run by Lion El’Jonson and Luther.  The Lion is already a giant of a man and leads The Order in fighting the Great Beasts, creatures mutated by the Warp or some other power into man-killing beasts of mythical power.

The turning point in the story comes when the Imperium arrives on Caliban and the Lion finds out that he is in fact not a normal man but a Primarch, created by the Emperor of Mankind to lead his Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines) and from who’s very genetic code new Space Marines would be modeled.  Here Zahariel is brought fully into the world of Warhammer 40k and the world of Caliban is forever changed from a world covered in trees and home to knights to the home-world of the Dark Angels.

The author does a good job showing the relationship between Luther and El’Jonson and mirroring that relationship with Zahariel and his cousin Nemiel.  Both relationships are a blend of brotherhood with an undercurrent of jealousy that slowly erodes.

There is a genuine sense of loss at the end of the story as Luther is sent away in what amounts to exile on Caliban where he and a selected group of Dark Angels are to oversee the training of new Space Marines.  This schism sets the stage for the eventual destruction of Caliban and the loss of the Lion.

I truly enjoyed the depictions of Caliban and the humanity given to all of the main characters.  It was interesting to see a Primarch trying to live life as a normal man with no understanding of his true origins or destiny and then to see him lifted up to the purpose for which he was created.

As with the first book I read in this series I found myself excited to read more.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the Space Marines, especially the Dark Angels.  This novel does more to give background and depth to the overall Horus story than it does moving the actual story forward, so for those only interested in the core Horus Heresy story-line it would be okay to skip this novel but I would urge you to at least give it a chance.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Horus Rising

Way back in the golden days of my youth there was a time when I commanded squads of the Emperor’s chosen warriors as they fought their way through various fields of battle, killing Orks, Tyranids, Eldar and the dreaded forces of Chaos.  Then I graduated from college and no longer had the necessary time to spend constructing and painting Warhammer 40k miniatures, much less actually playing the game.  I never lost my love of the game or the setting though, and recently I discovered that not long after I stopped playing a series of books started being published about one of the most pivotal moments in the future/history of 40k: The Horus Heresy.

Horus Rising is the first book in this series and focuses on Horus and his legion of Space Marines soon after the Emperor has declared Horus Warmaster and placed him in charge of finishing the job of bringing the rest of the galaxy into compliance with the Empire’s ideals.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Garviel Loken, Captain of the 10th company of the Luna Wolves Space Marines.  Loken is an up and coming officer at the beginning of the book and finds himself embroiled in the middle of most of the fighting and intrigue as the story progresses.

As the first book in what was going to be a fairly large series by Black Library (the company that publishes all Warhammer 40k books) this book also bears the burden of setting up the state of the universe for the reader.  This is done amazingly well and I am confident any reader coming fresh into the 40k world would be able to follow the story line with little or no difficulty.  Great levels of detail are given about the state of the Imperium of Man, the location of troops, the relationship between Horus and the other Primarchs (the god-like super humans upon whom all space marines are based), and the make-up of Horus’s battle fleet.  What is more, all of this context is given in a way that continues to drive the story forward, keeping the action from stalling while the author gives pages of detail.

Speaking of action this book is full of it, which is exactly what a fan of the Warhammer 40k video games or table-top games would expect.  The Space Marines are every bit as powerful and impressive within Horus Rising as they are in these other settings.  Almost unstoppable, the marines are the supreme fighting force we all know and love.  Lose a hand in the middle of a fight?  Put it in a bag and use the other one!  You can always get it put back on later.  In battle after battle the marines march forward with equal parts indomitable will and awe-inspiring weaponry no matter when or where they must fight.

Horus Rising takes place in on three separate planets as well as the space ships used to transport the fleet from one location to another.  Each planet is a unique and interesting back-drop to the story being told and has unique challenges for Loken and the rest of the Luna Wolves to overcome.  My favorite planet from the book was probably Murder, but with a name like that how could you not like it?

I really enjoyed this book and will most likely be reviewing several more in the series in the coming weeks.  The only real issue I had was that there seemed to be two completely separate stories within this book with no real overarching cohesion between the two other than the main characters.  Both stories were interesting but it felt a bit confusing having the two completely different stories juxtaposed within one novel.  Perhaps this is just a product of being the first book in a larger series and will make more sense as the overall story of the Horus Heresy unfolds.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Five Reasons Why William Gibson is One of the Best Science Fiction Authors in the Universe

I have named every computer I have ever owned “Wintermute” after one of the sentient, artificial intelligences in the novel, Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Currently, my wifi connection bears the “Neuromancer” moniker, and just the other day, I could not help but chuckle when I noticed that one of my neighbors had changed their wifi connection name to Count Zero– another novel by William Gibson. That made me start thinking about why I formed such a strong connection to the writings of Mr. Gibson and what makes him such a great author. For better or worse, I decided to write a little bit about it.

 

Number Five: Saying More by Writing Less

I read Neuromancer for the first time when I was a sophomore in college, and it changed the way I thought about writing fiction (Ironically I read the entire book on a webpage using my laptop. Mmmmm, tasty irony.). I had been engrossed in the uber-detailed worlds of authors like Tolkien and did not realize what an author could do by using less words instead of more. William Gibson showed me that an author could say a lot using just a few words; that is, if they knew the right words to use.

William Gibson can let you know more in a few sentences than many authors can in an entire page. Try this quote on for size: “They were blonde. They were standing beside their car, an aluminum avocado with a central shark-fin rudder jutting up from its spine and smooth black tires like a child’s toy.” Tell me those few sentences don’t evoke a vivid scene in your mind, and I will call you a dirty damn liar. In case you care, that quote is from the short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” in the collection of short stories, Burning Chrome. You should probably go read that now. I will wait until you get back.
Continue reading “Five Reasons Why William Gibson is One of the Best Science Fiction Authors in the Universe”

The Dark Elf Trilogy Revisited

Listening to the R. A. Salvatore interview on this site compelled me to read all of the Drizzt books. At that time, The Dark Elf Trilogy was the only set of Drizzt books I had ever read. I found very quickly that I had forgotten just how good these books really are. Chronologically, this marks the very beginning of the famous ranger’s life, literally introducing Drizzt’s pregnant mother in the very first chapter. But let’s not fool ourselves, “mother” is not really a term suited for Matron Malice, an evil drow high priestess constantly seeking the favor of Lloth, a spider goddess who demands the sacrifice of each family’s third born son (in this case, Drizzt). I’ll not say anything about how Drizzt survives this cruel tradition; although I’ll give it away that he isn’t born with Twinkle and Icingdeath attached to his hands ready to defend himself. No mother deserves that, not even Malice.
Throughout these books, Salvatore describes the environment and events without too much straight exposition, allowing the reader to see the action on his/her own terms. The end result is a very real and personal connection to the Underdark and all of its characters no matter their alignment. The lines between good and evil are rarely blurred. We are left with no question as to the sheer evil of drow culture and its stark contrast to Drizzt’s principles of good. I realize that the current trend in fantasy is toward moral ambiguity, and I suspect you see more of that in later Drizzt books, but it can be very refreshing as a reader to know exactly where your hero stands. Salvatore reinforces the colossal magnitude of Drizzt’s raw talent and superior training through his interactions with Zaknafein. Re-living events like Zaknafein’s coin flipping test and Drizzt’s signature double thrust low are primarily what makes re-reading these books so damn fun.
By the second book, Drizzt escapes into the Underdark with no one but his faithful beast companion Guenhwyvar for company. Drizzt’s staying power as an exciting figure is quickly revealed as the pages continue to turn even as the protagonist is the only humanoid character. Through engaging internal monologue, Salvatore conveys Drizzt’s struggle to hold fast to his principles as his bestial side emerges in the face of total solitude and constant danger. Our favorite hero is not alone for long though. In order to salvage his sanity, he makes a desperate decision resulting in the formation of an unlikely and treasured friendship. Drizzt and his new companion flee a powerful entity whose success Matron Malice is counting on.
To me, the most unexpected and awesomely suspenseful thing about the trilogy is the delay in Drizzt’s decision to seek the surface. I kept wondering, when and how will he decide because after all, it’s common knowledge that the surface is where he ends up. Every step of the way toward making this decision, Drizzt shrugs off overwhelming odds against dangerous and exotic creatures. Salvatore maintains believability through some of the best detailed fight scene writing in all of fantasy literature. Finally, we do get to see Drizzt’s first interactions with the surface world. After initial problems stemming from the assumptions of local farmers along with the presence of a truly evil force from another plane, Drizzt finds a new mentor who sets the young drow on the course toward Ranger-hood.
This was one of the most pleasurable re-reads I’ve ever had and can’t wait to finish my first reading of The Icewind Dale Trilogy. There is one more thing I took away from The Dark Elf Trilogy. Although it is common now in fantasy to see characters that reject their innate racial alignment, at the time Salvatore introduced Drizzt it wasn’t as common. For this type of misaligned character to have genuine depth, there must be substantial and believable backstory for discerning readers to buy-in, and Salvatore proves to be a master at creating such plausibility amidst such contradiction with this trilogy.

The Order of the Stick

For many of you who listen to podcasts and read web comics, The Order of the Stick or OOTS, as we affectionately call it, is a staple of everything that is right in this genre and medium of web entertainment. It is for this reason that I decided to write a review of the series – though it is currently on #859, perhaps there are some people out there reading this review that have not yet read the comic, and this will help inspire them to do so.

 

 

The Good

OOTS follows an adventuring group of the same name through their various, and almost always humorous quests, all of which revolve around trying to defeat the evil Lich, Xykon, his evil force of Goblin-Fodder (and a creature in the darkness!), and the group’s evil antithesis, the Linear Guild (an almost mirror-image of The Order of the Stick, but evil). The strip pokes fun at the D&D world right from the start, encompassing things such as changes in edition, and conflicts within the alignment system (one of the characters in the group is a Chaotic Neutral-to-Evil Halfling Ranger, who’s two purposes in life are 1. Taking care of Mr. Scruffy (his cat), and 2. Delving out death and destruction to all that oppose him (and some that do not!) though he is companions with a “Good” party).

All in all, this comic is a very easy read, and is quite funny. It is also well drawn, in its own simple stick-figure 2d style. There is no wonder that it has been well received by the online community.

The Bad

There is no consistency in the posting of new strips. When it first came out, a new comic was posted 3 set days per week…this changed to 3 days per week, with no set days, to one or two new comics per week, to now it’s sometimes one new comic per week…sometimes not.

I know that this has been a result of both Rich Burlew’s health, and at times getting burned out on writing the strip, so I don’t complain at all…I just look forward to reading the next one, and continuously check back for it! It does, however, drop my rating from 5 out of 5 to 4.5 out of 5.

Overall

You should definitely give this comic a read! Not only will you find yourself laughing throughout, but the characters are very likeable (even the evil ones!), and mesh well together within the series.

Nice Job, Rich Burlew!

Rating: ★★★★½ 

The Dungeon Survival Handbook

Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook is a D&D 4e supplemental guide that goes along with the most recent season of D&D Encounters.  This guide is divided into sections providing general information about dungeons and has sections that will be interesting to players and others geared more towards dungeon masters.  There has been some grumbling about this because there are large sections of this guide that are useless to you no matter which side of the DM screen you sit.  This is a valid criticism and were I a player that never ran games I wouldn’t be overly happy with the book since only the first few sections give information that is strictly for players.

What’s inside?

For players the first few sections of this book contain all of the juicy bits.  First and foremost for my players were the new races.  There are three new playable races including Goblins, Kobolds and Svirfneblin.  Goblins as player characters got everyone here at Crimson Bastards particularly excited to the point that we will be running a one-shot adventure very soon featuring goblin characters.  There are also a few new character themes and backgrounds which are dungeon and underdark related and give a little extra color to your dungeon oriented characters.

Most of the remainder of the book gives general information about dungeons: who/what creates them, what you might find inside of them, the different types of dungeons etc.  There are also some interesting notes sprinkled throughout the book with tidbits about the history of dungeons throughout all editions of D&D and how they have affected the game going forward.  I found the history of the Far Realms section extremely interesting as my entire current campaign sprouted from the idea of using D&D’s version of the Great Old Ones to kick things off.

There was a time in D&D when the best thing about any book, especially a DM related book, was the back of the book where all of the appendices and tables were kept.  It was possible to spend an entire gaming session making rolls for random treasure and creating unique magical items for party members.  The back of this book therefore took me back to those glorious days when I found the appendix for random dungeon creation.  Here you can roll for the creator and master of the dungeon, the followers and the monsters that dwell within the dungeon itself.  There are even tables of quirks to help you to give the dungeon a more interesting feel.  Where my players have been solely focused on the Goblin entry of this book all of my time and excitement has been here, in the back of the book.  These tables are great even if you don’t want to use random generation as they give you lists to choose from for each part of the dungeon and help to get you thinking of what fun things you can add to make yours unique and exciting.

Verdict

This book is definitely a niche product.  If you are a player then the worth of the volume is fairly limited unless you plan on handing it to  your DM (which is okay, DMs love free books to help them think of ways to kill you…I mean challenge you) to use as a source of inspiration.  If you are a DM planning to create some dungeons for your own campaign then this book might be for you.  The writers obviously spent a great deal of time coming up with some of the most fun and interesting ideas out there and it can only help to have this book at your side as you plan your next adventure.

Rating: ★★★¾☆