Album review: Apple of my Eye’s “The Beast Below”

Such is the power of Apple of my Eye‘s storytelling, that the review that follows takes the form of a story.  Imagine it if you will, collaborately told about a table, its ballads sung to the clatter of falling dice.

Apple of my Eye's "The Beast Below"

“Your troupe sits lazily about a large table in the cider house, lost in fatigue and reverie from your last quest.  The air is thick with a sickly smell of cider and sweet tobacco.  A few of you are tweaking the trollgut strings of your instruments, picking stray strands from the bows.  Jo, you notice a man across the room staring at your cello.”

“What does he look like?”

“In a word, drunk.  Very drunk.”

“I’ll ready the finger positions for Delay Poison.”

“Do I have my harmonica?”

“No Dan, it’s still with the blacksmith.  He’ll have it rid of the curse in the morning.”

“Urgh, I get Break Enchantment next level.  Okay, no worries.”

“The drunk man wanders over to your table.  He places his feet carefully as he crosses the room, looking like he’s trying to avoid invisible patterns on the floor.”

Is a penguin a mammal?
Or is it a kind of fish?
Is it a kind of demon?

“I bloody hate riddles.  Why is it always a man in a tavern with a riddle?”

“Be patient, Arran.  As you listen on, it’s clear that this man is paranoid as well as drunk, but his words are frightfully funny.  At the very least, it’s proved pleasant diversion and amusement on a quiet evening.  Does anyone want to make an Insight check?”

“Yeah, I will.  Uh, add four — that’s eighteen.”

“Excellent.  Kit, you notice that there seems to be a hidden pattern to his drunken ravings.  With some subtle nudging, you’re able to get him to repeat parts of his speech.  You’re able to jot down some directions…”

Run, brother please run
To town please carry the tragedy of what’s become
For, of the four hundred men who went down
Twenty or so they came up from below

“Folks, your bardic lore means you recognise the location the drunk man was directing you to.”

“What’s his name?”

“What?”

“The drunk guy.  Surely he’s got a name.”

“It doesn’t matter.  Oh, I don’t know.  Tomwards.  He’s called Tomwards.”

“All of your drunks are called Tomwards.”

“Shut up.  Anyway, your bardic lore means you know where he’s talking about.  It’s the Barnsley Undermountains.”

“Haven’t we been looking for them for ages?”

“Yeah, but we didn’t know where they were.”

“That’s that dungeon with all the clothwork sprites, yeah?”

“That’s the one.  But to get to it, you’ll have to cross the eastern waterways.  Shall we call the scene here?  How do you want to get across the ocean?”

“I’m not taking a balloon again.  Not since the last balloon owner tried selling me into marriage.”

“We can charter a fishing boat.  I used to work as the compass on the Fruits of the Sea.”

“Cool, so you manage to make a deal with the captain of the Fruits of the Sea.  He makes a point of not asking you why you’re crossing the expanse.  The passage is calm, until … Wait, let me just check this…  Ah.”

“Ah?”

“The boatswain calls out to the rest of the crew to help haul in the net, for it’s picked up the biggest catch yet.  However, the load is so heavy, it takes everyone pitching in and using the mast as a pulley to drag the net even near the surface — the tumultous waters of which are soon broken by the thrashing of gargantuan tentacles.”

“Shit.”

“Uh, I want us to cast Greater Heroism.”

“Okay.  I want you guys to roleplay this one.”

Powder load
Fire the cannon at the Beast Below
We’ll not go down without a fight, my lads!

The album is excellent: a gorgeous collaboration between strings, mouth organs and melancholy.  It goes on sale tomorrow, Monday 19th September.  If you’re free this Weds, you can visit the beautiful St Pancras Old Church for the album release party.

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Album review: Apple of my Eye’s “The Beast Below”

We press on deeper…

When your players insist that they want to delve deeper than the dungeon they have reached the bottom of, there will be one or two passages they can follow.  Here’s what they find when they descend:

Draw a card.  The value represents the nature of the section.  The suit represents the threat and obstacle.

  • A – PALLID PAMPAS-GRASS CAVERNS – the head-height grass covers the floor of the cavern; it takes effort to push through and is very difficult to do at speed without passing passive STR checks
  • K – TRYPOPHOBIC SINKHOLES – the surfaces of these caverns are split with holes of various size and depth; sometimes these sinkholes lead to lower caverns, though  often there will be something aggressive hidden within
  • Q – GARGANTUAN BADGER SETT – the walls have definitely been carved out by the claws of an enormous beast; passages turn and jut at strange angles and often end abruptly
  • J – DOLERITE SPUR NETWORK – much of these caverns are open expanses, pierced with thick trunks of igneos rock; the surfaces are smooth but not slippery, however moving between spurs unaided requires passive DEX checks to avoid falling
  • 10 – FOSSILWOOD CLADDING – the surfaces here are paved and the network appears to have been constructed; the walls are clad in wood panelling that has fossilised over time; some of the surfaces depict unknowable things
  • 9 – SKELETAL CATHEDRAL – the earth is held back by the enormous ribs of an animal that has long since rotted away; some of the bones are broken and it seems that you can follow the passage afforded by their being empty of marrow
  • 8 – DEEPWEAVE FABRIC – the walls of this area appear to be a fine weave of a fabric you cannot quite identify; if the walls are cut into, the fabric continues to significant depth
  • 7 – DESSICATED LYMPH – the veins through the rock here seem to retain traces of organic matter, but the lymph has long dried away; the passages bulge and narrow at seeming random
  • 6 – KERATIN CANYON – the sheer surfaces of the canyons here thrust high with the fibrous rigidity of nail and hair; sometimes a successful passive INT check will reveal weak-points in the growth
  • 5 – FOLDS OF LEATHER – observed from a distance, the deep valleys in this section seem to take on the appearance of cracks in leather; up close, the rough surfaces of the valley walls are difficult to classify
  • 4 – STONEPULP HONEYCOMB – the haphazard construction in this section show unmistakable signs of having been chewed and spat out, like the paper of a wasps’ nest
  • 3 – SUBMERGED SPIRALS – the interlocking shells in this section split out from each other at all angles; a third of all areas are flooded with a translucent milky fluid
  • 2 – CARDED ALLOYWOOL – the surfaces in this section are covered in fibers of metal loosely twisted together, giving to pressure but impossible to part; progressing through these floors require passive CON checks to avoid becoming fatigued

The suit of the card drawn will represent the potential threat in this area:

♠️ – hostile native fauna: perhaps of animal intelligence, perhaps monstrous humanoids

♥️ – toxic environment: perhaps poisonous gas, perhaps sharding surfaces

♣️ – physical obstruction: perhaps natural cave-ins, perhaps extreme distances

♦️ – being hunted: perhaps intelligent pursuant, perhaps natural predation

Going yet further underground its been reported that some of these section appearances can become combined.

We press on deeper…

Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

This is something I’ve been doing off & on for a while, but realised it would be worth formalising the concept.

I would like to offer my services consulting on interactive & genre narratives.

“From experience, I can assure you that Sean has both a serious interest and a deep insight into game mechanics.”
Magnus Hedén of Spiritmask RPG

Whether you’ve got an RPG adventure you’re running or a ruleset you’re writing, whether you’re writing a horror novella or a sci-fi play, I could help you eke out the greatest narrative resonance from your story.

Who is this clown?

Well, I’m not actually a clown. But I am a magician.
That means I spend a lot of time thinking about what each audience might expect and how to achieve & manipulate that.
It means I’m used to thinking about objects & the interactions between them in different ways. No-one thinks about cards like a magician does.

I’m a writer: primarily speculative fiction, like cyberpunk or noir. I like building from and subverting genre expectations. I’ve written about the similarities between roleplaying and medieval oral culture.

I’m an interactive narrative & games designer, from building silly games to modules for published systems. I’ve consulted with mindreaders about card games for oracle cards, written specialist GM advice for indie behemoths and spoken on villainy & antagonism at a monthly videogames conference.

What can I do for you?

  • I can solve problems you have with interactive or static narratives.
  • I can help you understand the core conflict within your narrative.
  • I can highlight & clarify the emotions your game mechanics will promote.
  • I can simplify & refine unwieldy systems or stories.

What do I care about?

I like players & characters to have agency – the ability to visualise & enact narrative consequence.

I like brevity & clarity.

I like people to be social & to promote their ability to tell stories.

What is my fee?

I’m taking a leaf out of the book of someone I greatly admire. My standard initial consultation fee is the price of a cup of caffeine. Buy me a coffee & we’ll talk through your needs. If you envisage needing a longer conversation, you can buy me lunch. If you’re in a different country, we can do PayPal & Skype.

From there onwards, we can arrange further services according to your needs. But for many people, that little nugget of insight will be all you’ll need.

Email me today at SEAN at BOOKSEANSMITH dot CO dot UK & we can arrange a coffee.

What are people saying about this?

“Thanks for all of your advice, and your assistance. You’ve been a huge help, and it really helped me re-structure a lot of the rules, explanations, and organization of everything. Your feedback was invaluable.”
David Schirduan on Mythic Mortals

“I think these [ideas] are, no contest, the best feedback I could get from this project. Thanks :D” —Sangjun Park

Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

//downtime

Considering the sheer overwhelming variance in my pressures at the moment, the above title is somewhat ironic!

However, the title itself refers to the writing downtime I’ve accumulated since the completion of NaNoWriMo. Well, the termination at least. I reached half the target, handwritten, for which I’m happy enough. Rather than let it rot away and be forgotten, as it seemed that many people who I met at the Write-Ins* had chosen to do so, I have decided to let the novel lie fallow for a month, while Irgard hangs perilously from the World Tree, to pick up the story again in January. I hope to get the first draft finished by the end of Feb: two months for a further 25k words is perfectly acceptable.

As such, I’ve got a random urge to keep writing (which I suppose is a large point of the challenge), but I mean to (re)turn my hand to other things. Amongst the fold are these:

Sending off Not A Bedtime Story to some more publishers. I mean to try Black Static again with this one; it’s a little shy of one-thousand words, so not quite suitable for Nightjar.Tweak my latest short story, Phage, which is mostly set in St Pancras station and polish it beyond its current second draft.Return to my cyberpunk universe, Slick Thames. It’s set a little into the future in an imagined London, but the current early nightfalls and sleeting rain draw my mind back to the setting. I’ve a couple of pieces of flash grouped as my Short (Circuit) Stories that exist, and a few thousand words of a started novel somewhere.

Precisely what I try to do, I’ve yet to decide. However, I’ve opened a world of possibilities with writing on trains from my NaNoWriMo experiment, and there’s only so long I can control myself. I bought myself a new premium notebook today.

It’s already begun.

* Great sessions where many a writer on the NaNoWriMo would take over a large section of various London cafés and fill them with the sound of clicking keys and my own scribbling pen. There’s a great video here, which documents a session at Starbucks where I finally crested 10k words.

At a later Write-In, I wrote a ten page paragraph. Very pleased with that.

//downtime

Richard Morgan’s “The Steel Remains”

Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke’s much cited Third Law* makes a good starting point for a consideration of Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, let alone my love of the mutability of remains between verb and noun states – referring to the museum references for the former, and several pieces of Kiriath technology for the latter. The Steel Remains is a gritty fantasy world, but unlike the relative realism of worlds like Joe Abercrombie’s it is rife with the fantastical elements of explicit monsters and of magic. It’s an interesting blend, and one that works very well.

The story follows the lives of three veterans of the war with the Scaled Folk and explores the part they play in facing a new threat to the stagnating Yheleth Empire and the unconverted** Leagues. While the characters at first glance may appear to cohere to fantasy stereotypes, you’ll soon realise just how different Morgan makes his heroes. The brilliance of the concept and their execution are fantastic, and I am loath to repeat them here, because a lot of what makes Morgan’s writing so strong is in the pulling away of veils.

image

This is Morgan’s debut fantasy novel and has justly received high praise from well-regarded authors upon its dust-cover. I was first introduced to Morgan through his first Takeshi Kovacs novel, and swore to read further since then. What Morgan did for cyberpunk and future-noir in that book (tearing apart expectations and saying a massive fuck-you to convention), he attempts to do here. Indeed, on his website he says:

“If you had to – really had to – kill someone, which way would you rather they made you do it? With a pistol, or with an axe?

Exactly. So welcome to the brutal world of Ringil Angeleyes, scarred hero of Gallows Gap and death-wish-furious, semi-retired warrior aristocrat. I’ve been talking a good fight about fantasy noir for a while – now I’m putting my money where my mouth is. The Steel Remains is a grubby, blood-spattered trawl through exactly how unpleasant it might be to actually have to live in the average fantasy universe. Can you do noir in a fantasy landscape? You can certainly try…”

I think he manages it.

Which brings up an interesting idea, at least to me, and especially within my frame of mind as a budding writer: if your audience are unaware of the conventions, does circumventing them in such a manner as Morgan does prevent the full impact of the writing? I wouldn’t necessarily like to judge, at least at this point.

Either way, The Steel Remains remains fantastically strong through its sheer power, its fantastic characters and its brutal writing.

* See rule three.

** And the religious overtones of that word are most definitely intentional.

Richard Morgan’s “The Steel Remains”

~icide

I’ve had a look at the long list of words for killing things, but there doesn’t appear to be a word for the killing of childhood. Maybe it’s the killing of an ideal, or perhaps the burying of the past. Maybe there’s no word for it for an even darker reason.*

This post is prompted by this one, entitled “The Final Harry Potter – The Death of my Childhood”, which from my recent Facebook homepage and Twitter stream, seems to be a fairly common opinion.

I understand that people have been growing up with the stories of Harry Potter for a long while, the final publication of The Deathly Hallows bringing the first nail to the coffin housing childhood and the subsequent filming the final one. It’s the end of an era. I understand that.

My gripes with the Harry Potter franchise have existed since the earliest opportunities, and for a number of reason – firstly that Rowling gets her mythology wrong, secondly that the books aren’t particularly well written. I have been able to cope with them by seeing them as a gateway drug, of sorts.

Yes, they’re finished. You might choose to see that as the killing of your childhood. Accept it. People grow old, people grow up.

There’s plenty of good fantasy to suit your current adulthood – George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie to name but two. And if you insist on reading adolescent fantasy, try something decent. I will always recommend Alan Garner.**

And for those still obsessed with the concept of childhoodicide, here is a song by Iron Maiden and here is a song by Marillion.

Cope.

* Readers of this entry should be able to ascertain the veiled reason.

** There’s a video through that link. You should watch it..

~icide