Saturday, 12 October 2019

Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord – out 22 October

Yes, kids, two books in one year. Veering dangerously close to looking productive (as an aside, things will be quieter afterwards).

In the latest volume of the eponymous knight’s biography, Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska, takes advantage of opportunity to leave the city and avoid getting murdered for a recent bout of adultery. Aided by his trusty manservant Dog and annoyed by squabbling mages Drusilla and Cecil, Sir Edric heads south to Lake Longsoul. Caught between the undying lord of countless walking corpses and the vengeful attention of an elven prince, Sir Edric will need all his cunning just to survive. And if he fails, the whole world could turn to a twilight of undead…

So, it’s the usual fun and games, but with added dialogue from William Shakespeare, and some old faces making appearances too.

I’ve tried something a bit different with the Smashwords page, where readers can pay what they like. Hoping it encourage more downloads, and if people like that, they have other books to pick up too.

In the long term one thing I’m toying with is a hardback anthology of all Sir Edric’s nonsense, with some pencil sketches (either by proper artists or perhaps drawn by me if I can get to a sufficient level). But that’s very much off in the future, if it happens at all.

For now, buy Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord. The Dread Nine-Horned Goat of Pung-Fek commands it.



Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Review: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, by Michael Psellus

This book, also known by the more pleasing title of The Chronographia, charts the history of the Eastern Roman Empire (or, more accurately, its leaders) from the formidable Basil II to the rather less impressive Michael VII.

The edition I read was from Penguin, with translation and introduction by ERA Sewter.

As an aside, the end dovetails almost perfectly with the start of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad.

I found this to be an engaging read, with Psellus’ little anecdotes helping to bring the distant past alive. Psellus had significant roles in government with many of the emperors of whom he writes, and this does colour his judgement (he apologises repeatedly for writing honestly and pointing out flaws with Constantine IX, to whom about a third or a quarter of the book is dedicated).

The emperors, and a few empresses, are mostly described as flawed creatures, particularly those who squandered the vast treasure amassed by Basil II. Aided by an engaging and easy-to-read translation, Psellus’ thoughts help to paint a picture of the virtues and vices of Byzantium’s rulers. There’s very much a focus on biography rather than wider military or political history. It’s somewhat akin to Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.

Occasionally Psellus meanders into self-regarding waffle (during the reign of Constantine IX, for example) wittering about what he’s said and is going to say, slightly repetitively.

The footnotes (and huzzah for those over endnotes) are extremely useful as they point out when Psellus might have a particular bias (although this can be obvious at times) and when he’s plain wrong. Not overused, they provide very helpful context for the reader.

The book ends suddenly. Not mid-sentence, but it’s abrupt, and Psellus’ fate and what prevented him finishing it is uncertain.

Overall, an interesting and engaging book about the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire from the late 10th to late 11th centuries.


Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Ramble: The Great Immersion Overhaul (Skyrim mod, PS4)

It’s been a while since I tried out mods on Skyrim, but one I already had, but hadn’t tried, was The Great Immersion Overhaul (TGIO). In common with many other PS4 mods, it’s probably lacking things available on Xbox and PC due to the platform’s restrictions. But is it worth having? What’s it like?

Quick Summary

TGIO alters a lot of things substantially. Almost all skills are 1 to start with (I think my Khajiit had two or three that were marginally higher). Races have their own particular pros and cons (Khajiit can use Silent Paws to be extra sneaky). The skill trees for the warrior and rogue sections have been completely rejigged. Combat is radically different, more damage is both received and given, and you can’t alter direction when you’re attacking, making it easier to dodge. The weight of items has been changed and carrying capacity nerfed so unless you fluke a lot of hauling-enchanted gear (I did) it’s really difficult deciding what to take. Similarly, the economy has been drastically altered, with higher prices for most goods and the limiting factor instead being the weight. Last but not least, fast travel is disabled.

It’s worth noting that the mod does not affect DLC. The only time this appeared to be a problem for me is when I had to steal X amount of stuff from Solstheim, but even though I was sure I achieved it (I nicked an emerald, amongst other things) it didn’t register as completed.

That’s a lot of stuff to consider. I should stress I’ve played for probably a few dozen hours at this point, with a thieving, bloodthirsty, stealthy chap called Murdercat. At the time of writing I’ve completed the first quest or two in the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild lines, and just received the final part of the Fus Ro Dah shout. The weapons I’m using are the bow and the dagger.


Often with stealth builds I don’t have a companion. In TGIO, I do. Not only does this slightly ease the carry weight situation, companions are super valuable in combat, taking the pressure off when facing multiple opponents and pinning enemies down when you’re just facing one (especially handy for an archer/stealthy stabber build). On the downside, combat now rewards skill (I have the combat prowess of a drunk trapped in a cat flap). Because you can’t shift direction when attacking, side-stepping is eminently possible. The swifter dagger attack means you can get in, attack, and get out whilst Brainless McMuscleboy is still swinging his Compensatingforsomething Megahammer. I had a great run for about eight stabs against one guy then buggered it up at the end and had my head smashed in. It’s a good system, provided you have more martial instinct than a baked potato.

I didn’t play much with magic, but a few scrolls proved how useful conjuration in particular could be. A storm atronach’s ranged damage was very handy when I was in a tight spot.

Crime and Stealth

Murdercat, as you might guess, is not a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, his happiest moment was randomly stealing from a house in Whiterun and discovering Nazeem. Murdercat: “Nazeem was asleep when I arrived. When I left, he was dead.” Bounties are rejigged, with murder now carrying a fine of 10,000 gold. That’s a lot. But it does fit the crime.

Stealth has been reworked to operate more along line of sight. Also, if you alert someone a little so they start searching, they won’t just stop six seconds later. This adds to realism, especially when you’ve just shot them in the chest with an arrow (ahem). It’s very easy, and satisfying, to sneak up behind someone and slit their throat, although I had a little Twitter chat with the mod creator and he mentioned he was going to make that a bit more difficult (it probably is overpowered, but I like it).

Backstabbing bonuses come from the weapons trees, not from sneak, I believe. It’ll take a while to earn them (I have one for daggers and none for bows, after 20-30 hours, probably, of playing). However, because damage is generally increased, backstabbing is powerful. With Mehrunes’ Razor and Dark Brotherhood gauntlets, I’m able to one-shot a snow bear by backstabbing.


Crafting in the vanilla game is easy. And overpowered. It’s much trickier with TGIO (tip: get yourself a blacksmith’s hammer. You should be able to buy one from Lucius in Riverwood). Weight of materials is one thing (ingots weigh about 5 each and leather 4), and you won’t be able to smith most things off the bat. If you want to power level, the easiest way is probably to make arrows. As I’m playing an archer (mostly) that dovetailed nicely.

Side note: the armour/weapons stats have been rejigged to make more sense (Orcish gear is pretty good now).

Alchemy ingredients weigh more. Some, like antlers, weigh a lot more. Potions are also worth less money so you can’t just spam potions and get your skill up superfast. One thing that’s a clear improvement on the vanilla version is that rarer ingredients give better results. When I was making poisons a couple of slightly rarer ingredients gave me a boost to either damage per second or longevity. Like smithing, alchemy takes a while to level.

I haven’t done much enchanting, excepting dismantling magical goods to learn the effects.

Crafting also includes cooking bonuses (the original set of recipes has been changed), though I haven’t experimented with this. Also for instruments and tailoring (although tailoring hasn’t been implemented at the time of writing).

Money, Economy, Travel, and Weight

I’ve bracketed these together because they’re all related to one another. The absence of fast travel and altered weight of goods (they make more sense, so antlers might weigh 6) are obviously connected, and the altered weight affects what you can sell. However, prices for most things are higher, and this enables and encourages more trading. For example, you might not have enough for some swanky armour, but if you’ve got some gemstones or old armour, you can likely flog that to make up the difference. Although I think the starting carry capacity is a bit rough (it’s perhaps 100), the system is well-balance and really does make trading more dynamic. Travel is aided by the cart system and by the ferries that link Windhelm, Solitude, and Dawnstar (especially good for the latter as it doesn’t have a cart). Another change which helps travel is the improvement in sprinting from stamina, which now lasts much longer than in the vanilla game (perhaps about five times as long). An important note, given all that, is that money remains weightless.

Bugs and Other Problems

I have had a couple of crashes whilst playing, but I also have crashes whilst playing the base game, so I don’t think that can be chalked up to the mod. The stealing problem in DLC-land outlined at the start is the only real problem I’ve encountered, and I just cancelled the quest (which can be done simply by telling Delvin). Not ideal but certainly not a game-breaker.

On compatibility, the mod’s description has links indicating load order (essentially, have the mod and four sub-mods, with the main mod itself at the bottom) and what kind of other mods work or clash with TGIO. Stuff that alter combat and economics are likely to clash. Weather and lighting mods are likely to be fine. The mod doesn’t work with survival mode, but another modder made one that apparently fixes that (I haven’t checked as I think having survival mode as well, with all the other restrictions, might be overdoing things).

All in all, I’ve had fun with this mod.


Sunday, 11 August 2019

Guest Blog: Anthologising – Not Just Spinning A Line, by Damaris Browne

I’m getting excited. On 15th August the SF anthology Distaff is released – which makes it sound like a long-term prisoner finally getting out of jail, but I’m pretty sure that’s just coincidence. (Though do insert here your own puns about both being penned, and the price of the anthology making it a complete steal.) Then on 23rd August there’s the formal launch. And that makes it sound like an ocean-going liner which needs to be sped on its way with a magnum of champagne, though since the launch is taking place at Titancon in Belfast, it’s perhaps more likely to be floated on a sea of Bushmills and Guinness.

Why the excitement? It’s not simply because my story The Colour of Silence is included, though if you want to read about a ship being launched – albeit without champagne or Guinness – there it is. It’s because the anthology is something of a rarity. An all-new (no reprints) all-SF (no fantasy) all-female (yep, no stories from men) anthology, and – which surely makes it unique – wholly devised, organised, written, edited and produced by women. From concept to cover, through beta-reading, formatting, and beyond to the launch eats and promotional give-aways, it’s women all the way.

Which is where the title comes in. For a distaff is the rod on which raw fibres are wound prior to spinning, a task which was invariably carried out by women, and women were often buried with their distaffs in the same way a man might be buried with the tools of his trade or his sword. As a result “distaff” also came to signify women’s work and their sphere of influence. And if in the past it also carried the weight of male condescension and a whiff of insult – when the church was drumming up support for the Third Crusade, those men who didn’t take up the cross were given distaffs and wool, the implication being they might as well be women and sit at home spinning – well, SF hasn’t exactly been free of that scorn for women, their worth and their writing, so we’re taking back control of that narrative, too.

With our Distaff, we’re spinning tales rather than wool or flax. And those tales cover the full cloth of Science Fiction, for we might be women but we haven’t written just for women – the stories are for everyone who likes a good yarn. (See what I did there?)

Past mistakes, present concerns, future prospects – these are the threads which wind through the anthology, making one whole from nine very different tales. Stories set on Earth, on spaceships, on orbitals and on alien planets. And if you want alien creatures we have friendly aliens, curious aliens, rocky aliens and mutant-humans more alien than all the others.

In this nine-ply skein there are twists of all kinds, with aspects of comedy, horror, romance, tragedy and everything in between. We have Nordic police and Nordic myth, environmental messages and examinations of grief, icy inventors, lovelorn ships, planet-saving AIs, rainbow ponies, staring chickens, plagues and immortality, guilt and nowhere-near-enough guilt, clever children and dead children, art and actors, a degraded Earth and an Earth being reborn.

Above all we’ve spun stories full of hope, determination, resilience and love. What more could any SF lover – male, female, both, neither, Earthling or otherwise – want?

Come on. Pick up a Distaff and take a spin with us!