Module Review: The Misty Isles of the Eld

Hydra Collective sent me a happy copy of Chris Kutalik’s The Misty Isles of the Eld, and while it was excellent to read through, I did at least promise to run it before writing this review.

The Misty Isles are a strange location, cut off from influencing the wider realm by the eponymous mists: which themselves make straightforward travel in difficult.  The Eld are fascinatingly alien: equal parts biomechanist, bureacrat, and Ziggy Stardust era Bowie.  Beaches of black sand give way to a dull alkali plain split only by enormous immobile grubs, peppered with strange and peculiar locations.  The isles have history, opportunity, and bodyhorror.

Misty Isles

The map itself is self-described as a “pointcrawl”, which makes it straightfoward enough to run.  No need to track players’ precise locations and instead travel sections can be folded into absurd montages.  Dotted about the map are various dungeon locations of sundry size but consistent innovation: these aren’t standard five-room dungeons populated with clichés from a Monster Manual.

But for me, the most interesting aspects are the ways that Kutalik has built in ways to make the Isles and the Eld respond to the players’ incursion: he’s constructed Eld Alert patterns that detail the response of the various NPCs and their structures; he’s constructed an Anti-Chaos Index that details the lessening influence the Eld have on the plain itself.  While we had a long session, we didn’t get to the more extreme ends of these scales, though their use was easy to implement at the table.

The Misty Isles of the Eld was written for Labyrinth Lord, though like most OSR-compatible games, it was simple enough to run this module with another system.  (For this game, I used my own D&D system that’s under development.)

How would I recommend you use it?  The module is full to the brim of interesting elements whose alien natures mean it’s easy to pull parts out of to use alone in your campaign.  Likewise, since the Isles themselves are trapped away behind strange weather, you can drop them off any coast in your game.  But just using parts of it mean you lose out on some of the excellent parts where the location itself responds to the players’ actions.

The Misty Isles of the Eld are a goldmine of strange interaction.

And until the eleventh of June, they are part of DriveThruRPG’s OSR Extravaganza so you can pick it up for 15% cheaper.

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Module Review: The Misty Isles of the Eld

Unquiet Thoughts – Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Quiet Houses”

I first came across Simon’s writing in a copy of Best New Horror 19 and being impressed at the eerieness he was able to create in an otherwise idyllic setting. In fact, the bathroom at my girlfriends’ parents’ house has a picture that really reminds me of that story, which is quite unsettling when I would otherwise be happy cleaning my teeth.

As such, when Simon announced on Twitter that he’d happily send out copies of his newest collection, Quiet Houses to those interested in reviewing them, I jumped at the chance. (And was then terribly delayed in my ability to download and read it, considering my holidaying in the depths of Cornwall and its lack of etherial contact with the elsewheres.)

I had read much of the book in the late hours of the evening, when all else had gone to bed, and found myself suitably displaced by the descriptions and stories within. I haven’t jumped at the sounds of my home settling for a good many years – this was not the case while I read Quiet Houses! As the blurb states, “The houses are quiet. It is their residents who are screaming.” The concept lends a nice counterpoint to the idea of ‘unquiet places,’ which is pleasingly mentioned in some of the narrative too.

Quiet Houses is less of a clear-cut collection than I had first thought, but more of a (well-executed) attempt at a verbal portmanteau format. The stories of the houses (a loose catch-all within the book, but a word that suits the idea of memoried locations well) are unlinked, but connected by the studies of parapsychologist Richard Nakata; they are told in a variety of different manners, from an interview in a greasy spoon to documentation and Nakata’s personal experiences. His scientist’s drive is apparent in his search for “proof” (evident in the first few pages as he whittles down responses to a newspaper advert into a series of leads) and in the clear and open nature of the narrative. Nakata’s insistence on denying none of the occurrences and similarly in maintaining as objective a stance as possible only serves to make the book more terrifying, because in reading through the stories it is impossible to do the same as reader.

The difference in the styles of telling the tales is good, and I have to say that my particular favourite was the letter detailing the evil that lurks in the Merry House. Personally I least enjoyed the section within the hotel; the strength of its story would perhaps stand better alone, for I feel it doesn’t link with Nakata’s narrative as well as the other tales. That being said, none of the stories within are wanting for quality of writing nor scares. Indeed, throughout I was very impressed by the descriptions of the happenings. If these are all ghost stories, I’ve never heard ghosts described in such different ways.

Quiet Houses is released on the first of October, at Brighton Fantasy Convention. If you are there, I endeavour that you seek out its release. If you are not, I implore you to read this.

I don’t want to be the only person with these fears in my head.

Unquiet Thoughts – Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Quiet Houses”

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)

Since reading about ebooks in this month’s Writing Magazine, specifically Leather’s article, I’ve wanted to read Dreamer’s Cat. Partially because the publishing houses hadn’t touched it because it contradicted an establishing brand. Mostly because it sounded cool.

Leif Ableman, who writes and creates commercial Dreams and is one away from completing his contact and retiring, must solve some in-house deaths.

Leather’s one sentence pitch was better, but it isn’t here and I’m not fully awake yet.

I really enjoyed the story – it feels like a mix between Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the early Michael Marshall Smith books (One of Us at its opening, Only Forward at its conclusion and some central parts). This is good company indeed, and the (e)book stands up well amongst it. I started reading it yesterday, had to sleep, and finished it in the laundrette where my clothes still dry.* The pacing is good and it builds well, and the Dream pieces are really interesting in their narration. I found myself reacting similarly to Leif’s response to the Dreams in my response to Leather’s writing.**

I found myself guessing the possible perpetrator part-way in (around 40% I believe) but that’s most likely because I have read so many similar books. Nonetheless, the denouement was exciting and enjoyable when it came.

The sci-fi elements were subtle and the only jarring exposition came from the lift’s prattling. If you could be persuaded to enjoy sci-fi, give this a go. It’s a simpler concept than Stephenson or Marshall Smith, and as such a great gateway.

SECRET BONUS REVIEW

This was the first book I’ve read on a Kindle. It’s not mine, but rather my mother’s. I found it odd to hold at first, but that was mostly because of my mother’s leather case, and so I sometimes page-turned by accident. Easily fixable though.

It’s too soon yet to fully judge, but my initial concerns were that the unfamiliar style would serve as a barrier to the story. Never mind that, for at one point I tried to turn the page as if it were a real book!

I like the fact that you can alter the typescript and size to suit. The progress bar is interesting (especially its session marker) but doesn’t quite equal the middle-point-cresting of a traditional book.

The jury is still out for me.

* By the time you read this they will have dried.

** If you’re reading, Steve, nipple?

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)

Jacqueline Howett and The Perilous Seas of Reviewetry

I resist the urge to link you to this song based on the bad pun* of the title. Don’t click it. It will only distract you from my blog.

Yesterday, a little storm erupted on Twitter regarding a lady named Jacqueline Howett. Howett is an author, an indie author no less – blazing a trail in the self-publishing sphere. While the idiom states that there is no such thing as bad publicity, I shall leave you free to come to your own decision. The storm erupted from this blog, Big Al’s Books and Pals, which featured a review of her (e)book. It’s most fun/disturbing if you read the blog (and its subsequent comments) yourself – an opportunity I am denied while writing this since the profanity in the comments have triggered the filter at my school.

Essentially, Howett was unhappy with the two star review she recieved, and called the critic out on his inadequate skills, blamed him for reviewing the “wrong copy” and subsequently accused him of posting anonymously on his own blog to attack her. Her responses soon degenerated into a string of Fuck-Offs at any and all, while all around attempted to defuse the situation. Now, I don’t know the situation particularly well – especially since I wasn’t following it fully. Indeed, the issue has been much better discussed alreday. No need to tread the same ground.

While I can understand that Howett would be hurt by a negative review (and since I’ve yet to publish myself, I’ve yet to feel this keen blade myself), I do not attempt to understand her knee-jerk responses. Then again, it is not my place to try. Indeed, the response has been likened to an immature self-aggrandising belief in the quality of work.

My real misunderstanding comes from a personal viewpoint** as that of an ‘artist’ in that I write words and perform magic. Almost always, I find it impossible to create something that is as good as my mind planned it to be. I imagine that this is the case with a good number of people. Indeed, rather than thinking my creation is perfect, I find myself thinking that really it is terrible, covered with a thin veil of adjectives, and that at some point somebody will discover this.

I believe the term (which spans across several fields of work, and that I first encountered in relation to my monied career of teaching) is Imposter Syndrome – that soon somebody will notice that you are not as good as you pretend to be.

Really though, this veneered shell is the confidence that breeds success.***

And that is why it can so easily be broken.

* Indeed, bad writing entirely.

** As is almost exclusively the case on this blog.

*** God, I should write philosophical self-help manuals.

Jacqueline Howett and The Perilous Seas of Reviewetry