Friday 10 November 2023

Review: Forged in Blood I (Emperor’s Edge book 6), by Lindsay Buroker

It’s been a little while, but good to get back to the Emperor’s Edge series which is a little outside my standard high/classic/medieval fantasy (I’ve also been binge-reading The Black Company, which I might collectively review once I finish Soldiers Live).

Obviously there are spoilers for previous entries, though I’ll try and keep those and current book spoilers to a minimum.


The story picks up with our band of assorted rapscallions back in the capital, with Emperor Sespian officially deemed out of the picture (although actually still very much alive and well and rescued by Amaranthe and her chaps). Already the contest for the throne is underway, with Maldonado’s brother (a general) backed by his own men and Forge, while other claimants have powerful support as well, and some generals are standing fast and considering their options.

Soldiers in the city are showing support for one faction or another with coloured armbands, and while fighting hasn’t broken out there’s simmering tension in the air. Propaganda has replaced news, and a chance discovery by Sicarius presents a possible means of infiltrating Forge. Amaranthe, keen to do something about their incredible technological edge (sure to guarantee victory should it come to outright war), seeks to exploit the opportunity. At the same time, Sespian is sent to make contact with a neutral general in order to try and build support at reclaiming his throne. Sicarius goes along to shadow his son, while the other members of Amaranthe’s merry men are split between the two.

I did find myself getting sucked into the book a lot, with various tense/action scenes nicely done, and some ambiguity here and there adding to uncertainty in a good way. Slightly less a fan of the ‘ending’ (it’s only part 1 of Forged in Blood, to be fair) for reasons I can’t really explain without massive spoilers, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker or anything like that.


I’ll still be picking up part 2 in the nearish future, and am currently reading The Guardians of Byzantium, book 1, a historical fiction set in 395 AD.



Sunday 5 November 2023

Guest Blog: Spinning A Good Yarn Again, by Damaris Browne

Back in 2019 I was lucky enough to be involved in the publishing of Distaff, which went where no woman had gone before by being not only among the first SF anthology featuring all new stories by women and women alone – indeed, perhaps the very first of this elite band – but which was moreover wholly devised, organised, written, edited and produced by women.  From concept and cover, through editing and formatting, to the launch eats and promotional designs, it was women all the way.

Which was where the title came in, since a distaff is the rod on which raw fibres were traditionally wound prior to spinning, a task invariably carried out by women, and as a result “distaff” came to signify women’s work and their sphere of influence.  And in our view, SF – both the reading and writing of it – was also women’s work as much as it was men’s, and despite decades of female-written SF, it still needed to be further influenced by women and their ideas, concepts and concerns.

But Distaff wasn’t simply trailblazing, it was also award-nominated, with five of its stories, as well as its cover, being longlisted in the British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one story went on to win a coveted place in the 2019 Best of British SF anthology.

Crowned with that success, in early 2020 we decided to spin a few yarns again.  


At any time, putting together an anthology with several participants is frustrating and rewarding in equal measure, but with the myriad complications arising from the Covid Years, the many-skeined frustrations multiplied.  Yet the power of women lies in our endurance, and we’ve threaded our way past all the hitches with our material finished at last.

The stories we’ve woven this time are fantasy, not SF, but Femmes Fae-Tales is again a work wholly devised and created by women and non-binary writers and artists.

As our punning title suggests, the main characters of our stories are also women, but it is we who are the femmes fatales, spinning stories alive with allure and danger.  The warp and weft knitting together the full cloth of the anthology are strands of peril and enchantment – of magic, of power and of the fascinating, bewitching fae themselves.

Entwined among the tales of glamour, charm, temptation and seduction are stories of loss – lost children, lost minds, lost hope, lost integrity, lost pasts – and also of discovery, not least of ancient magicians and ensorcelled amphibians!

But above all we’ve been weaving stories of love and atonement and redemption – of regaining what was lost, of learning from past mistakes, of redemptive sacrifice, of finding one’s true self, of returning to truth and rejecting false promises.  The very fabric of women’s lives throughout the ages.

The Distaff women are spinning tales once again with Femmes Fae-Tales.  But as before, although they’re written by women, they’re not only for women – they’re for anyone who loves a good yarn!

Femmes Fae-Tales – by women, about women, for everyone

Link to buy on Amazon

Friday 13 October 2023

Baldur’s Gate 3 (PS5) review

I spent about 68 hours of playthrough time completing my first game of Baldur’s Gate 3, and at the time of writing I’ve almost completed Act 1 in a new game. And here’s what I made of it. Spoilers will be kept to an absolute bare minimum.



The premise of Baldur’s Gate 3, which is made plain right from the off and isn’t a spoiler, is that the player character has been infected with a horrid mindflayer ‘tadpole’ that will soon turn them into a mindflayer (psionic alien thingydoo with tentacles that eats brains). Luckily, the ship on which the player is captive is attacked and crashes, enabling them to escape and try to get healed, potentially alongside other infected ex-prisoners.

The player can have a party of up to four, with three pre-made NPCs or hired hands (without any special dialogue, quests, or other than wafer-thin personality) making up the numbers. Options in dialogue and action are significant and do not fall into simple good/evil variations (though some choices are obviously nicer than others). DnD fans should be aware there’s also no alignment here, so don’t expect chaos/law to be tagged in dialogue choices or affect anything. Naturally, NPC companions will like or dislike certain things.

There’s often more than two choices to be made that substantially affect an outcome, and these can occur via dialogue or by action. A minor example of this is how I freed someone only to then be confronted by an individual over this. The irate individual then summoned a lot of help and things escalated to a full-blown battle. While I’ve only played through once right now, it’s pretty clear that certain actions affect things down the line and it feels like choices can shape the story significantly (I’m quite tempted to start an evil playthrough to experiment with this, although I’m torn between Electra the drow storm sorceress, and the halfling bard Little Schmidt).

Discussing the story in precise terms is impossible, and I don’t want to spoil it. In general, very vague terms, I liked the way it unfolded and the very clear variety of different approaches that can be taken. In addition to the main quest, companions have their own quest lines which are among the most interesting in the game. It can also often be worth it to have conflicting party members to enjoy the antagonistic banter. The majority of companions are found in the first act, with a small number in act two and one in the third act, potentially.


Character Creation

It’s possible to play as one of the various pre-made NPCs (I think every companion that can be found in the first act). However,  most people prefer to make their own character, and this has a lot of options in most areas. In a shocking turn, there are actually multiple good hairstyles (a rarity in RPGs), although preset faces are only 10 in number. Skin and eye colour (including ocular heterochromia, or different coloured eyes), tattoos, scars, and more can be customised. Larger races also have a quartet of body types (essentially, slim male and female and stronger/bigger variants). No fat body types, though.

Be sure to switch nudity on or off as you like in the settings as this might be OTT for some, or delightful for others.

Aside from the physical side of things, character creation covers races. Each has their own features and sometimes offer unique dialogue options (my second character, a white dragonborn monk, has had quite a lot of class and racial dialogue choices). This is the most minor impact of the class, which determines combat style and, to a lesser extent, social engagement. Classes like sorcerer, warlock, wizard, and bard offer a strong magic focus, while the monk, barbarian, rogue, and fighter are largely about physical conflict. Rangers, paladins, and clerics are more mixed. Be aware the subclass (chosen at different levels, but all, I think, in the first three) can add a big degree of variety and the monk and fighter can take on an arcane aspect with the Way of the Four Elements and Eldritch Knight subclasses respectively. This can be a good way of balancing a party.

Charisma-focused classes such as paladin, sorcerer, warlock, and bard offer the best chance of doing well in social interactions (and if you want to be overpowered in these pick up the cantrip Friends and enjoy advantage, although this has later negative consequences on the hardest game setting, I believe).

Racial variety, incidentally, can vary a bit, as there are 10 different types of dragonborn. This determines not just appearance but breath weapon (with resistance [halving the damage] for the corresponding element). Elves, meanwhile, have just two (wood and high) with drow (dark elf) being considered a separate race.

For the most part, I like character creation a lot, although more facial variety would be good.

Appearance can be altered in camp via the magic mirror, while Withers (also in camp) enables changing class. Note that changing race is not possible.


Gameplay has three main aspects: combat, stealth, and dialogue.

Those familiar with Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition will be right at home, though there have been changes. I also recommend setting reactions (mostly opportunity attacks) to be asked about rather than occurring automatically. Even for opportunity attacks this can matter, but as other reactions can use up class resources (ki points for the monk or battlemaster fighter superiority dice) having them happen automatically can drain said resources unhelpfully. Some spells have changed how they work (polymorph has been massively nerfed) but, broadly speaking, it’s very faithful to the tabletop game.

For those unfamiliar with how this works, it’s similar to either XCOM or Divinity: Original Sin 2 (also by Larian). Physical attacks can be made any number of times, magical attacks, excepting basic cantrips, can only be done if there are available spell slots. These can only be replenished with rare potions or upon a long rest (save the warlock, who has fewer spell slots but gets them all back on a short rest). There are also some individual class resources, such as monk ki points, or channel divinity for clerics.

Summon spells, whether elementals near the top end or the cleric’s early spell Spiritual Weapon, are very useful because they not only add an extra attack or two, they also provide something else for enemies to target.

On standard difficulty, enemies behave in an intelligent way. Cast Grease on a foe and, if they can, they’ll jump out of the area rather than walk across it. It’s easy to be outmatched. Enemies do not scale to the player’s level and if you’re out of your depth this will soon become apparent. Some fights can be avoided entirely, including some major battles (in the second act I evaded/‘won’ a couple of these with good dialogue checks).

A good tip for ranged attacks is to dual-wield hand crossbows for two attacks rather than one (although I think this uses up the bonus action). In each turn, a character gets a main action, usually a spell or physical attack but this can also be ‘helping’ a downed character return from KO with 1 hp rather than risking them dying. They also get a bonus action, usually something like jumping (movement permitting), taking a potion, applying a poison to a weapon, or ‘dipping’ which is most commonly putting your weapon in a nearby flame to add fire damage on your next attack. Movement is as it sounds and is halved if you’re prone and stand up.


Stealth can be used to evade combat, steal from people, eavesdrop, or get an advantage in initiating combat. One fight I struggled with (I was slightly underlevelled and it was a tough fight) was eventually won by sneaking to start the fight in a more advantageous position. Note that the party can be easily split at any time so it can be worthwhile to send a rogue or monk ahead to scout things out and leave the clunking, heavy armour-clad fighter a little further back.


Dialogue is often just a matter of choice but there are three specific skills related to it: persuasion, deception, and intimidation. The former is the nicest, the middle is being a talented liar, and the third is a mix of charismatic power and threat level. However, as noted, there are also unique class and race options, and sometimes other skills (such as arcana or history) may offer alternatives.

When not out in the world, the player and party retire to their camp, which includes NPCs not currently in the party and reminded me a bit of Dragon Age: Origins.

All attack rolls, checks, and saving throws are made using a d20 (20-sided dice).



The extra time and money Larian had means they were able to flesh out the Divinity: Original Sin 2 approach with much better character models allowing for closer shot conversations and cutscenes. For the PS5, there can often be a moment or two before textures decide they want to show up, with hair and armour looking rather potatoey until that happens.

Overall, the graphics are rather good, especially for the genre, but also not the main selling point.



Voice-acting is very well done, with a mostly British range of accents (although there’s at least one villainous American). This extends beyond the companions to the minor characters, from earnest tieflings to delightfully arrogant goblins. Also, the spell Speak with Animals will offer a large array of new interactions with friendly (and less amicable) beasts.

The music and sound effects are both good as well.


Bugs and Other Problems

Bugs were few, but I did have at least one crash. Over more than 70 hours that’s not horrendous but can obviously be improved. The texture loading I’ve already mentioned.

Occasionally it can be tricky targeting enemies on different levels in combat, or indicating which level a character should move to during battles with various elevations. For the latter, it’s easiest to find a ladder/rope etc and click ‘use’ on that, then move from there. For the former, enemies can be targeted with the left and right on the D-pad, which is a little clunky but can resolve the matter. Targeting can also be awkward either when characters are in close proximity.



With a very large range of class and racial options, numerous party compositions, and varying major and minor decisions to make, there’s a super-abundance of replayability in Baldur’s Gate 3. If you have the time.

Be aware that while you can also re-spec NPC companions into new classes this may alter their available dialogue interactions.



Baldur’s Gate 3 is a great RPG, and well worth your time.




Tuesday 25 July 2023

Review: Chronicles of the Black Company, by Glen Cook


Chronicles of the Black Company is an anthology of the first three books in the series (The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose).

While Croaker, the Annalist and physician of the Company, is the first person POV we also have a handful of other significant POV characters that work well to flesh out the world and creative narrative intrigue (in one book the main POVs are separate but then converge, for example).

The Black Company is a notorious/renowned group of mercenaries who find themselves in a contract with the Lady, a resurrected tyrant aided by powerful sorcerers known as the Taken. While there are rebels, seeking the reborn White Rose (who first put down the Lady and her still slumbering husband), there’s a clear sense they’re not especially virtuous. More a case of two dark grey factions rather than black and white.

Although it took me a while to finally get around to the third book (I own the first two as individual copies too) I’m glad I did. The first book is grim without being explicit, and the second has one of the finest characters arcs I’ve ever read with Marrow Shed. The third is full of a looming sense of dread, heightened by the fact I had no idea if the ‘good guys’ would win, and whether the later books followed the Black Company in the past.

Lots of fantasy focuses on magic, and while this is present in the world it takes a back seat to the importance of pragmatism and the sometimes unpleasant truth that the smartest move can also be the bloodiest. Plenty of factional infighting adds an extra layer to the battle between the Lady and the rebels, and an extra threat to the Company as they get caught in the middle of squabbling Taken.

I’m being deliberately vague on plot matters due to the three-book nature of this review, but suffice to say each book rises to a fitting crescendo. The writing style is concise and doesn’t bother with excess embellishment, flim-flam, or falling into the trap of endlessly describing a fantasy world instead of getting on with the plot and character development. I’m already 74 pages into the next book.